My family. It seems as hard to write as it has been to say over the years. I really don’t even know where to begin. It’s ironic that the one thing that I wanted most in life (a great big happy family) is the thing that has eluded me the most. Since my family is part of what makes me who I am, I would do a disservice to myself and the reader if I did not paint a complete picture as much as I can. So, here goes…
I can only trace my family history back to one great-grandparent, and I am not 100% sure about the info. According to my sister, my maternal great-grandfather owned a plantation in either West Virginia or South Carolina. I have never bothered to try to confirm this – considering the source. My sister has been known to greatly embellish and completely fabricate stories, so, without verification, I would have to consider this info false.
To tell you how completely in the dark I was/am as far as my family history, I didn’t even find out until I was about 39 years old that my maternal grandmother was caucasian. I just recall as a child that she was very light with fine silky silver hair. I wish I could trace my history; sadly, all parents and grandparents have passed on both sides of the family. Other than my sister, all that is left of my family is three cousins and their children from my mother’s side of the family, most of whom I have either never met, or haven’t seen in many, many years. My paternal grandmother was an only child and my father was, as well. Since they have both passed, I have no relatives at all on my father’s side of the family. I never knew my biological paternal grandfather, just my dad’s step-father who died when I was very, very young. I didn’t find out until many years after his death that he wasn’t my father’s real dad. So, as of this writing, the only family member that’s around – that I talk to on a regular basis – is my son.
My maternal grandmother looked a lot like Agnes Moorehead (most noted for her character Endora, on the old Bewitched series) and the main thing I remember about her from our infrequent visits is that she woke up at the crack of dawn every morning and would clean the entire apartment….every morning! I also recall her ‘fussing’ all of the time. Not an angry ‘fussing’, it was more-so the pitch of her voice. For example, she could be saying, “Thank you for this lovely gift” and genuinely mean it, but, it would sound like at any minute she would be hurling it at you. I enjoyed visiting her though, and her fussing made me giggle.
She had three daughters, my mother and a set of twin girls. One of my aunts married and had children. The other became a heavy drinker, smoker and party girl. She had no children and lived with my grandmother until my grandma passed away many, many years later. She dyed her hair jet black and most of it fell out after years of using a hot comb on it. When we visited, I would hear my grandmother always ‘fussing’ at her about “burning her hair ” and say that she was going to end up bald if she kept it up. By my mother’s account, in their younger years, my aunt had been the prettiest of the girls; however, by the time she was in her late thirties, she had lost her looks and her figure. Her hair was extremely thin and she wore it just below her ears with a very tight curl on the end. She also wore a lot of makeup. She used heavy white pancake makeup on her face, wore ruby-red lipstick, and really went to town with the black eyebrow pencil. The gruff voice from years of chain-smoking added to her overall evolved appearance. My aunt had become very rough around the edges – but, she had a gentle core and it showed when she communicated with me and my cousin. I recall one incident in particular when she searched the apartment up and down looking for change so that she could buy me a bag of potato chips.
My aunt and my grandmother used to battle all of the time. Their main arguments were over money and men. My grandmother and my aunt truly loved one another and as aggravated as she might have been over her lifestyle, I know my grandmother would have done anything in the world for her. They needed each other. Except for our infrequent visits, basically all they had were each other on a daily basis. After my grandmother passed away, my aunt moved into senior housing. I heard that shortly before her death (a year or two perhaps), she had to have both legs amputated – but, I don’t know the reason why.
My other aunt was the so-called ‘good girl’ of the three sisters. If she had at some point been a wild child, I know nothing about it. Whenever I was around, she always had a friendly smile and she would always go out of her way to do for others. She was a nurturer and she reminded me so much of the mothers I had watched on television. I looked up to her so much and wanted to be just like her.
My aunt, her husband and my cousins lived in New Jersey. I rarely got to see them until we moved there from New York – but, there was one very memorable visit. My mother invited them all to our apartment in New York for Thanksgiving dinner. I was the one that answered the door when they arrived. Naturally, I was extremely happy to see them – but, I knew none of them were going to be happy when mom made her way out from the back of the apartment. Mouths dropped open when my mother made her entrance into the vestibule wearing a bathrobe. A fancy one, of course – but, a bathrobe, nonetheless. Mom was just as shocked to see them. You can just imagine the reaction when my mother told them that she forgot she invited them for Thanksgiving and that the turkey was still in the freezer. It seems funny now, but at the time, I don’t think anyone was laughing.
I don’t remember what we had for Thanksgiving dinner that year but, I know one thing – my mom certainly didn’t cook it. When she was in the mood, she made some of the best fried chicken and baked macaroni & cheese that I have ever tasted but, otherwise she wasn’t much of a cook. I don’t think it was because she couldn’t cook. It was more-so that she never wanted to. The majority of my meals as a child were Swanson TV dinners and chicken pot pies. The freezer was always packed with them. Whenever she did venture into the kitchen to cook it felt like a special night. I always wanted to watch, but she hated anyone in the kitchen while she cooked. I would leave my bedroom door cracked so that the aroma could seep in. What some people took for granted – a home cooked meal – was a cause for celebration for me. Mom also hated vegetables so she never cooked them except for perhaps heating up a can of peas, string beans or corn. When I would eat at anyone elses home, I always questioned what the side item was on my plate, because the majority of the time, I had never seen or eaten it before. If I could, I would put the unfamiliar item in a napkin and throw it in the garbage when no one was looking.
My stepfather would cook occasionally but, most of the time it was things I did not like. For instance – liver. Ugh! I actually preferred a pot pie. There is one thing that he used to cook that I actually didn’t mind – Scrapple. At the time, I had no clue how appropriate that name was. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I learned what was in it. Oh, goodness!!! I don’t think I knew what real home cookin’ was until the summer I stayed with my aunt.
My mother and Ronald wanted to move from the projects in New York to the suburbs of New Jersey. It could be that the decent neighborhood was starting to change, or it might have had something to do with the mysterious fire that was set in our apartment. I was a latch-key kid, but when I did need a babysitter, they were either my mother’s best friend, Doris; the couple across the hall, Shirley and Ruth; or her alcoholic friend, Claude. Initially, I loved going over to Miss Doris’ house because I got to play with her children. Also, her husband had a job which provided him access to feature films. We would all gather in the living room as he threaded the projector. I just loved to hear the sound of the film moving and watch for the countdown until the film began. However, once I saw a creature (my code word for roach) crawl across her dining room table, while I was eating, I never wanted to go back. It put me in shock because I had never seen one before. I screamed, cried and told my mother I was scared to go back to her home. I rarely did. The times I had to stay there, I would never eat anything until my mother picked me up at around 10pm at night. I could be starving, but I was too paranoid that a creature would end up in my food. That incident was so traumatic for me, that to this day, I can’t even say ‘that’ word.
As a child, Shirley and Ruth confused me because they were a couple. I remember asking my mother why they lived together, how come they weren’t married (to men) and why they talked to each other as if they were married. I’m sure it was explained away somehow. But, I loved going to their apartment when my mom would visit them or when I would stay there, while she was at work. They both had a great sense of humor and would keep me in stitches. I hated leaving sometimes. I remember when the Beatles came on the Ed Sullivan show I ran across the hall banging on their door so that I could share the experience with them. They were just fun to be around. I was acting just like those teeny-boppers (although I was only about 6 or so) that you see in the old black and white clips. I couldn’t make up my mind which Beatle I was going to marry – John, Paul or George. I missed Shirley and Ruth the most when we moved.
I would never have known that Claude was an alcoholic unless I didn’t keep hearing it all the time from the adults around me – not that I knew what it meant. I assumed he fell asleep all the time because he just didn’t get enough rest. I guess my mom thought he was just as good a babysitter as anyone. One night, as Claude was doing his usual babysitting duties by placing his head across his folded arms on the dining room table, I did my usual. I played with him as if he was a human baby doll. I would put his hat on his head; check his pockets; try to put my moms shoes on his feet. He always snored right through all of my poking and prodding. I headed off to my bedroom at the appropriate time leaving Claude to finish snoring a hole into the table. I awoke to loud voices and smoke. Everything happened so fast. Someone (I learned later it was a fireman ) wrapped me in a blanket and I was passed through the flames to another fireman. I couldn’t see faces but I did see the flames. That image is still so vivid to me. It was scary but, it was over in a flash. The fire never reached the back rooms. It was all contained in the vestibule a few feet from the front door. Both side walls were burned and the telephone stand and telephone were partially melted. In the following days, home life was very awkward. My stepfather accused my biological father of setting the fire. He kept telling my mother that my dad tried to kill them but that he almost killed me by mistake. As far as I know, no evidence was ever found confirming my father did it; but, it just made their dislike of one another deeper. Needless to say, Claude would never babysit for me again.
After I finished the 4th grade, I went to stay at my aunts for the Summer until my mother and Ronald made all necessary arrangements for the move to New Jersey. My aunt was the complete opposite of my mom as far as her love of the kitchen. She could whip up anything. That was some very good eating. Every night, I enjoyed a different homemade meal. I finally felt like I had a family – a real family.
Living with my cousins for the entire Summer was great. My eldest male cousin was already grown and out of the house. My female cousin was four years younger than me but, we were joined at the hip. It was my favorite childhood summer. Well, that is until one of my male cousins tried to teach me how to ride a bike.
Although Ronald had given me an English Racer one Christmas, my feet never reached the pedals. I was a teeny little thing for the longest time – so, I didn’t know how to ride a bike. My cousins got the bright idea one afternoon to teach me how. I couldn’t get the hang of it for anything. I kept falling over every few feet, much to the amusement to all three of them. After what seemed like all afternoon, everyone agreed that I was finally catching on. One of my cousins asked me if I was ready and I said I was. I firmly gripped the handlebars and I was ready to fly! And that’s exactly what I did. He pushed the back of the bike and I took off down the incline of the 60 foot driveway. I think I lost control 10 feet down. First, my feet came off of the pedals. They started spinning wildly. Next, for some reason, I let go of the handlebars. There I was riding down the driveway or actually, the bike was riding me – my arms and legs flapping in the wind. How it didn’t just fall over, I don’t know. I started to panic because I saw that I was nearing the street. There were bushes on the gates at the end of the driveway, on both sides, so I could not see if any cars were coming in either direction. The bike kept going – on its own – out of the driveway, across the street, onto the next street and down into another driveway into a garage door. THUD! I hit that thing like a ton of bricks. I was bloodied up pretty bad from my head to my knees. I had scratches and cuts all over but, I was a tomboy so, I just picked up the bike and walked it back up the driveway, across the street and into my Aunts backyard where I was greeted by hoots and hollers as my cousins pointed at my battered body. I walked in the house and my Aunt took me upstairs and doused me with iodine. By the next day, my mouth was twice its normal size; so, naturally, my cousins continued their taunts.
This is one of the highlights of my childhood and I will always have wonderful memories of that Summer with my cousins – scars and all. 🙂
This is a photo of the actual driveway where my ‘bicycle riding’ incident began.
This is a photo of the actual street where my ‘bicycle riding’ incident continued.
This is a photo of the actual driveway door where my ‘bicycle riding’ incident ended.
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