During my mother’s week-long hospital stay in late summer 1973, my father distracted us kids by easing the household embargo on what we called “good cereal”: the brightly packaged, sugary stuff that all my friends seemed to eat, but was strictly forbidden in our health-conscious home. That itself should have been a clue of something extraordinary taking place, but I don’t remember being sad or worried about my mother’s hospital stay. Her absence from home felt like an adventure, an exciting break from routine, like the time we had slept over our cousins’ house for a few days between the sale of our old house and the closing on our new one. My sister Ellen remembers that during the week my mother was away, all of us kids kept house and made meals. She remembers baking a lemon meringue pie that came out perfectly, a feat she has never repeated. Continue reading “The Black Box”
Each August my family would drive 270 miles from northern New Jersey to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for a glorious two-week vacation. The trip was an annual highlight, rivaled only by Christmas. For weeks prior to departure we kids rode a rising crest of anticipation, comparing detailed packing lists and discussing all the ways to blow our meager allowances. On the day of travel time slowed further, as my mother chased after us with the milk container to finish every last drop, and my father condensed the clothing of five children—packed in paper grocery bags—into two duffle bags, a holdover practice from his army days. He carefully fit the bags and all of our beach paraphernalia into the foredeck of our small sailboat, the Wahoo; the rest went into our grey Dodge station wagon. Forever-and-a-day later, my mother would give the go-ahead for us to pile into the Dodge. After one last check of the brake and indicator lights on the boat trailer, my father would proclaim, “We’re off, in a cloud of steam!” Continue reading “Facts on Cape Cod”
One sunny morning when I was eight or nine, my sister Ellen found a hamster in a cellar window well off the back steps of our house. We never knew how he got there (in hindsight, he had probably escaped from a neighbor), but his miraculous heaven-sent entrance into our life was eclipsed only by the fact that my mother agreed to let us keep him. He was white with a tan hourglass-shaped patch on his back that wrapped around to his pink velveteen forepaws. We named him Muffin. His house was an old fish tank furnished with an exercise wheel and cedar shavings for nesting, where he kept my younger siblings and me spellbound for hours. We wrapped him in fabric scraps from my mother’s ragbag and lulled him to sleep in our cupped hands. We fed him whole peanuts in the shell and watched in fascination as he gripped each one and deftly maneuvered his sharp incisors to reveal the nutmeats hidden within, not to be eaten but instead hoarded within expanding cheeks.
My mother was expert at identifying illness through visual cues. A trained nurse, she had once correctly diagnosed a case of tonsillitis in me by spotting a tentative swallow. This skill became particularly useful during a stretch of hot summer weather when I was seven or eight years old. It was the late 1960s, and my family attended weekly Catholic mass in our suburban New Jersey town. After a string of stifling Sundays in the church — an upgrade to air conditioning was still a few years away — it became apparent that I was prone to fainting spells. Each week, about halfway through mass, I would begin to feel lightheaded. The full standing-to-kneeling repertoire of the Catholic service didn’t help matters. When my countenance crossed a certain threshold of paleness — recognizable only to my mother — she would skillfully steer me through the narrow pew, past my siblings and other parishioners toward a side exit, sparing me the embarrassment of public collapse.