Two months after my mother died I suggested to my big sister Gail that we throw my father a retirement party at our house in Hillsdale, the house we grew up and had come back to after college, the house that I still love for being so full in my mind even now, as I remember how insidiously empty it felt then without her.
It felt so empty that my father's retirement as an officer with the New York Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, the place that passed as home for the past 27 years of his life, went pretty much unnoticed. Unnoticed is not the right word exactly. It went noticed. By him. But in a way that first became uneasily apparent to me the last day in the hospital room.
He called to tell me at my first publishing job in New York -- an established children's book company that, like many publishing firms, was in the deathly process of commercializing the long time quality out of itself.
I thought I heard right. So I wandered, by rote, as if going to lunch again to yet another new, upbeat little place, towards the ladies room. Wandered past other people's cubicles and filing cabinets, past the waning hardback division that once won prizes for taking children seriously. Eventually into porcelain and mirrors where I stood smearing Revlon's Dark Chocolate lip gloss-- the kind that came in a white little pot -- rambling to the glass about which subway line to take for I don't know how long. That's what she asked me when she came in. How long did I plan to keep that up?, followed by, What's the matter? Then she, Liz, and editor for something in the magazine division, took me to the street and put me in a cab headed uptown.
My mother had been transferred from a hospital in Jersey to Columbia Presbyterian for high doses of futile treatments she said would not work and like always, my mother was right. She had told my father in hushed tones at night that she would rather stay at home and read her Bible. She believed in Jesus and, unlike many believers I've run into since who spout the words, she simply lived it. In a way that still haunts me. Simply is not the right word exactly. Still, I think I helped talk her into the transfer. In the name of actual hope.
It was a cloudy day, the kind obnoxiously edged in grey, not raining or really likely to but full of a translucent anxiety because of it. Bombing up Broadway toward the Bronx, reminded me of the day we moved from White Plains Road to Jersey when I was five. Away from the the bricks and pavements where women talked in lawn chairs they faced at the building in rows -- the same way they faced their beach chairs toward the ocean at Jones Beach -- screaming after their children running after Mr. Softee's bells. Then the whispers came. I hid under the first floor stairwell and cried when the moving vans came. They found me.
That day I found myself transplanted. There were lawns and clouds in open space and an eventual sunset that stretched beyond the greyness of the day, over and beyond the tracks where serious looking men in suits bobbed up and down and away in trains behind our new beige bi-level house. My mother's sister bought another bi-level, the color of the shamrock in Lucky Charms, directly behind us.
There was no fence or hedges dividing the backyard. Sisters who cared enough to move, who bought houses on purpose on adjacent streets that share the same big backyard, who have children who grew up with one another down the hallway, wouldn't do a stupid thing like that. My grandfather, a retired gardener with the Bronx Parks system, stopped watching his friends play bocce in the park for a while to come over to plant grass seed and fat round shrubs and fruit trees, bringing with him all the piles of cow manure in the world. But the piles went eventually. And there was no traffic, no winding stairwells lined with bright red doors, no people walking around.
So he left and took my grandmother back with him. My sister and I cried together in the bathtub when my mother nervously broke the news to us that they were moving back, our tears splashing into Mr. Bubbles, not that his reasons weren't understandable to us. There were no kids, either, at first. They appeared by the dozens later on, by themselves, and kept our minds of the seemingly endless miles of new found quiet and space.
The day in the cab was different. I tried hard with the deliberate concentration learned with age, despite the messages found in good children's books, to ignore the blocks of clouds pushing their way next to me in the back seat, squeezing in at my head, and, in this suspended state told the cabbie what had happened. He had jet black eyes and bushy eyebrows the size and shape of medium-sized sparrows, eyes that stared suspiciously back at me now and then through his mirror in between running red lights, but I don't think he believed me. I wasn't crying. After that, I don't remember much, except standing outside her door and what I saw
It was like this.
His back was toward me. And those same clouds squeezing me in on the ride up had literally come through the window of the white room, collided with the white walls and window sills and shades that faced her bed and the white sheets against her, whiter still, me at the door, his shoulders shaking before her. Everything directly before him, a fogged white-grey.
Then from his back where his shoulders shook over her body, where his head was lowered below his shoulder line, the white stopped. All you could see of him was blue. He was wearing the uniform I thought as a child was somehow pasted on to him. All you could see of him and behind him-- from where I stood by the door staring in at the two-toned fog wondering hard at what it was exactly that I was seeing and still not knowing -- was absolutely blue. Things stayed that way for a long time.
The party went very well, even if things didn't turn out exactly as planned. My father's retirement -- marking an end to the years of over-time and double shifts in the name of a future of planned relaxation with my mother -- was official the week she died. To put it mildly, he correlated the two heavily for months if not years to come, with a glance or indirect comment. Not so much with words at all, though he took to writing poetry. He showed it to me. Or left it around for me to read. Or he left it around and I just read it.
My father never wrote much before that, that I knew of. He wrote two things to the community newspaper which were published, after we moved from the house near the tracks, because of the noise, to another house in Hillsdale across from woods, because of the magnolia trees. One piece was about how neighbors help other neighbors by keeping their property up, how the example spreads a spirit. The other one was about how a blue jay attacked his head across the street while he was rescuing its baby from the heavy pursuit of a hungry tomcat.
But the most memorable and sustained blocks of time I spent with my father growing up weren't talking about reading or writing but, rather, spent watching movies on the small black-and-white television on his bedroom dresser. He would sleep only a few hours between shifts. The television would be on. A television that flickered grey-blue light in the darkness,with words like "I wish you were a wishing well so I could throw you in," belting out from it. Still, I felt safe in the darkness.
"Junie, this was a good one, 1942, Bogart's a bad guy in it," he would call out to my room across from his, half asleep. I would stop reading and come and sit in the gold arm chair near their bed. Movies, he would mumble to me in the dark, that he would shine shoes for in the Bronx, run to the theatre as soon as he'd get a dime. My father would mumble trivia to me, dates, "Al Jenkins...he was also in...," always during the important parts, it seemed.
Now he was retired, with waking hours to be spent doing things outside of working and sleeping. They had done what they said they would do. Delivered us from evil, safe from the crime of the Bronx neighborhood where they spent their lives poor, but until the whispers grew fierce, not in fear. They had once been able to keep our red door open on hot summer nights. Something better for us.
So they came out on a bus together on a bus looking for homes. They got off one day in Hillsdale because it was as far as he could see traveling back and forth to New York seven days a week to work. My mother had not gone to LaGuardia School of the Arts, like teachers highly recommended. My father left school and joined the Navy at 17. After high school, my sister and I went to good universities in New York City and studied the arts. We were to be given the opportunity to go into professions we could care about. And they were to enjoy themselves now.
But he could not forgive himself. The fogs were able to thrive and loom around the house, around her kitchen, around her trees, even around the television, and for what? Malls. A house they had to stop living for to get. A lily white community under beautiful magnolias he had rarely seen in daylight. We should give a party, Gail, I told her, I screamed from the kitchen window to her in the backyard one day where she was talking to a Born Again who had wandered into her life one day to talk about himself. Normally she may have noticed the intensity behind the tone of my suggestion as not being totally normal. As possessing complications. But there was nothing normal about this situation to me, to her. She agreed.
We knew nothing of his friends at the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. We heard of strange occurrences, a man's jaw falling off in a car accident and my father holding it there until help came. People almost jumping off the bridge and being talked down. People just jumping off the bridge. Of weird and cruel customers who thought his arm was an extension of the toll both. "There's a sick society behind those wheels," he would say to my my mother, he still says to us at times. We knew he played poker on what he called blows. We'd know he won by the way he snickered stacking quarters on the kitchen counter before he would go upstairs to sleep. We knew one of the names of the men on the bridge he played cards with, only one, a man, a friend he spoke of by name. Ned.
Turned out to be Nedd when I called asking for him. His last name. Nedd had a calm voice. He told me he would take care of everything there, that he would tell all the guys, that they would car pool it out , that they would bring some steaks for the barbecue if we would get the beer.
The day came. My sister was to keep my father at my aunt's house. My mother's sister, my Aunt Anna, who never stopped missing the Bronx, who now lived down the block and not across the yard -- kept him in the house while we were getting ready. "Rick you can't go!," she screamed when he tried to leave, the story goes. "The girls are cleaning the house." Normally he may have noticed the intensity behind the tone of her suggestion, at our dire need to clean, but there was nothing normal about this time. So he stayed, without suspicion, the story goes.
I was putting beers in the refrigerator when the cars drove up. I had one when I saw them.
With a few exceptions -- like my aunt and her family and some friends from the old neighborhood in the Bronx, like the Connachio's -- everyone was black out there. In fact, it is safe to say that there were more black men in our backyard that day then there had been in Hillsdale since.
So I couldn't think straight. I had wondered so long what he was trying to rescue us from, unconsciously accepting the answers offered by "leftists" pompous enough to think they could know his intentions, fending off the racist reasons presented as justifiable by those on the right -- and so just came to hate the town and the open space and magnolia trees, spaces I had secretly come to love. Hate justified by what it had done to our family as of late. Now this.
But as the day passed under the summer sun and the steaks were barbecued, the fogs died a bit. Particularly the blue one. There were no uniforms to be found on the men in our backyard that day.
It was sunny under the trees. They played a little cards. There was laughter. My father laughed in our backyard that day.
Essay published in Italian American Writers on New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ. November 2003, edited by Jennifer Gillan and Maria Mazzioti Gillan
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