June 12
by Vivian Sheperis

Christmas at Nana’s in the South Bronx was no Currier and Ives holiday print. Driving a drafty Ford over the Triborough Bridge was not a jingle bell experience. Mother tried to warm up Dad and me, singing her rendition of Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandmother’s House We Go. It was 1951. I was seven and old enough to know the song was meant for a sleigh ride. Below us, the East River raced through the narrows to dump its load into the mouth of the Hudson.

“What’s the name of that Bridge over there?” Mother asked, pointing to the right. I was supposed to show how smart I was.
“Hell’s Gate.” Named for the watery channel below.
“Right! And what is it used for?”

We had gone through this ritual for five years since I was three, and every year I pictured trains chugging to their doom through the Gates of Hell, despite the “Grandma’s House” song.

The stairs and landings of my grandparents’ tenement were covered with grimy white tiles, little hexagons lined with dirty black grout. It always smelled like a stale cleaning mop. Three flights up, loaded with Christmas gifts, Dad pushed the doorbell and you could hear the raspy buzzer inside. Grandpa Harry opened the door. They made me call him Grandpa Harry because he wasn’t my real Grandpa. My real Grandpa died when Dad was two-years-old. Mother told me he had been ‘wild.’

“Nana said he rode a fast motorcycle, way back in 1915, and had a racing motorboat. Got the flu and died in the epidemic.” Somehow, her tone implied one probably caused the other. I pictured him speeding along when something “flew” into him and he dropped dead. Mother always spoke of Dad’s family with more than a little disdain.

Shortly after my real Grandpa’s death, Nana married Henry, called Harry, and had four more children. That was another mystery. Mother said they were only “half” brothers and sisters to Dad. I wondered where their other half was, whatever that was.

Grandpa Harry had a booming laugh. They all did, in fact. The jokes flew around the dining room table nonstop. They were sarcastically witty, playing the “one-upsmanship” game with each other, and actually quite brilliant with it. No one got away with anything. Mother would purse her lips, squint her eyes and raise her cheeks in a forced smile. She didn’t get it. I loved it. It was a lot better than the decorum around the dinner table at home.

The hallway ran the length of the apartment from the end of the front parlor to the beginning of the dining room and kitchen at the back of the building. It was forty feet long, bedrooms and a bathroom on the left in a line. Wall on the right. Someone had split the original gigantic third floor apartment into two halves for a double profit. A rope clothesline drooped along the length of the hallway wall. Nana used it on rainy days when she couldn’t string the wash from the kitchen window across the alley to the other building in the back.

Uncle George, my ‘half’ of an uncle, was a single guy and had the first bedroom on the left of the hall. When very young, I took naps on Uncle George’s bed after dinner in the late afternoon. As I got older and didn’t want to nap anymore, I poked around the magazines next to his dresser. I discovered that Esquire magazine had pictures of naked ladies posing and decided that’s what you do when you get breasts. In those days, there wasn’t any hair on naked women in magazines, except for the head. That was another mystery because I knew what my mother looked like.

Next in line was Ralph’s room. He and Dad had grown up as friends in the neighborhood. Ralph’s only living relative was a spinster sister, and Ralph had never married so he and my grandparents sort of adopted each other. He paid room and board to Nana and Grandpa Harry and worked for an interior design company. His room was “au couture.” Every Christmas the room had a new look: new draperies, new bedspread, and new wallpaper. No one talked about gayness then. If they had made me nap in his room, I wonder what I would have found, poking around. Ralph had a booming laugh, too. You just had to when you were around there. You’d acquire it eventually, to keep up.

Ralph’s room used to be Ethel’s room when she was alive. Ethel died during the night on Christmas Eve when she was only twenty-one. Mother says she was a drunk. She came home from a Christmas party and complained of stomach pains. “If you knew how I feel, you’d want to die.” Well, she did. They found her dead on Christmas morning. I was only six months old so I don’t remember it. Mother says a couple weeks before Ethel died, a bird flew in through our living room window, which was a sign of someone about to die.

I never heard them talk about it. That was another thing that made Mother purse her lips and wrinkle her nose like she was smelling something bad. Dad’s family was “cold.” We had an 8×10 photograph of Ethel, and I used to stare at it, wishing she were still alive because she was so pretty and soft looking, like a movie star.

I looked like Dad’s other half sister, Helen. She was pretty, too, except for the nose. We had the same noses, ending in a little round ball of cartilage. Emmet Kelly noses, someone once said. Helen never came to Christmas dinner, for she spent that day with her husband’s family. Helen’s husband John was a handsome blonde, blue-eyed Irishman who was a ‘legend in his own mind’, as they say, investing in big plans and schemes, none of which ever came to fruition. But when Helen was around the family, she was just like her brothers, laughing with the deep-throated joy which filled the apartment. Mother always admired Helen for putting up with Johnny, “the bum.”

The last-born child, Freddy, came along the gene trail when it was thinning out. Wiry and nervous, his laugh was a little frenetic and vibrato, but still hearty and loud like the rest. I liked him a lot. He wasn’t much older than I, maybe eleven or twelve years. He had a bold tattoo on his forearm in blue and red. It weaved across the muscle in a fancy wave of designs proclaiming his love, “LEONA.” He was the only man I knew who had a tattoo and I thought it was beautiful. Before too long, Leona became Aunt Lee, and I had a new cousin named Ricky about four months after the wedding. When the time came for Mother to talk to me about “the birds and the bees,” she didn’t let the opportunity go without warning me against pre-marital sex because “look what happened to Uncle Freddy,” etc, etc.

The bathroom was the best. All the ceilings were really high, twelve feet, and way up near the top of this one, directly over the toilet, was a wooden box attached to the wall and connected to the toilet by a pipe painted white. The box had a metal chain dangling with a porcelain pull at the bottom. It was long enough even for a kid to reach. When you pulled it, water gushed from the box through the pipe into the back of the toilet bowl and loudly flushed away. I know what it means when an old person tells a kid, “Don’t forget to pull the chain when you’re done.”

Nana and Grandpa Harry’s bedroom was off the large parlor in the front of the building. You entered it through glass paned French doors, draped with soft white lace curtains on the bedroom side. It was magical. The sun never shone directly into the back windows of their room and it always had a soft dusky glow, quiet and warm. Nana kept a baby doll in dress and bonnet sitting on her bed. It was a curiosity to me that an old lady would play with dolls. I sensed she had some kind of dementia, so I never mentioned it.

As Nana carried the dishes to the dining room table and Grandpa Harry stroked the carving knife over the sharpener, I lingered in the front room and looked out the tall windows. They had wide sills to lean my elbows on, giving me a good view of the street below. To the left, the tenements stretched in an unbroken line of windows and massive doors. A wide cement staircase with ornate black iron railings fronted each. To the right it was the same. I couldn’t see far enough to the end of the block in either direction. Since we were on the third floor, the kids playing in the streets and sidewalks looked littler to me than they were, and the spaces wider. The longer I looked up and down the street and watched the children, the more I imagined myself living there and never being able to find my own house. The doors all looked the same in buildings cemented together. Fear would take hold of me as I saw myself wandering for hours up and down the street, hoping I’d pick the right door before it got dark.

Coming to fetch me to the table and peering over my shoulder, mother sensed my fear and bewilderment. “Aren’t you glad you don’t have to live here and play in the streets?” One more trait of Dad’s family that grated her.

Nana was a peasant woman at heart, living in a tenement cubicle. She stayed close to the ‘farm’ and only ventured into town to go to the corner butcher, grocer, and baker. They were her sole social contacts outside the home. On rare occasions, she consulted the pharmacist. Most ailments were treated with homemade remedies.

Mother had told me that my Dad almost died as a baby, but was brought back to health when Nana followed a midwife’s advice and fed him oatmeal ‘gruel’. As a result, I got the same treatment growing up. At the sign of sniffles, Mother boiled some oatmeal with plenty of water and siphoned off the thick creamy liquid, leaving the chunks behind. I was supposed to sip it and let it slide down my throat. It always worked.

Once in the spring and once in the fall, Nana would spend two weeks cleaning. Up the ladder she would go to the top shelves flush with the ceiling. Everything would be washed down and polished, in and out, as well as all the dishes, pots, pans and any other culinary equipment in drawers or cupboards. Same for the bedroom closets, all the windows, beautiful heavy oak furniture, and on and on.

“See when you don’t have any outside interests or friends, how you spend your time?” Mother prided herself on her liberated social life. Never mind that she was a terrible cook and would never get any better, it was a point of pride with her that she had more cultured pursuits. “When you don’t get out in the world and seek new horizons, you become dull.”

It’s true. Nana was dull. She silently bustled around the kitchen, basting the roasted turkey and stirring the creamy mashed potatoes, test tasting the thick gravy I remember so well, and dishing out the zesty German treats like red cabbage and dumplings. Mother picked around her dish to find something bland.

Nana had an uninhibited laugh just like the men. She squinted her eyes and opened her mouth and let it out. There were a couple of empty spaces where teeth had been once. I just took it for granted that Nana simply had missing teeth. In that house there was no attention paid to decorum or vanity, and it was apparent that Henry was still in love with his wife. You just knew it when he called her by name and laughed with her. Her charm for me was not in her looks or smartness, but in her embrace. She comforted me, our sitting next to each other on the sofa. Her heavy peasant arm molded itself around my shoulders. She would laugh at my snuggling into the side of her ample breast, saying, “You like those big pillows?” and then give me a bigger hug. Overt humorous reference to breasts wasn’t something I was used to.

After dinner, the men would retire to the parlor to watch television. It was the days of the early black and white twelve-inch screen with no remote. I’d wander in to catch the show, and I don’t mean TV. The exuberant laughter of my Grandfather and his sons increased its pitch as men on the screen pounced on each other, pummeled and bounced and flung their opponents into ropes of the arena and onto the floor where their bodies crashed with a thud. The referee would kneel and sometimes lie right next to them, screaming and pounding the countdown with the palm of his hand. It was the heyday of professional wrestling. Grandpa Harry would jump out of his chair, run to the screen, point and shout, “Break his arm! Break his arm!” Somehow I knew no one was really going to have his arm broken. Uncle George and Freddy and Dad would guffaw at their old man having such a good time. “Get in there, Pop! Help him out. Help him out!” The hilarity in the room was catching. Having been told more than once that children should be seen and not heard, I stayed in the background, but my heart was racing with the excitement. Mother stayed in the dining room at the other end of the apartment.

One of the monster wrestlers was a man who had let his hair grow to shoulder length like a woman. You could tell it was blond even in black and white. They called him Gorgeous George. When he came out to show off, everyone went wild. “Hey, Lee!” Uncle Freddy called in to his fiancee. “How come your hair doesn’t look as good as this guy’s?” In those early days of mass media entertainment, Gorgeous George had discovered the key to marketing himself. Never mind that all men of the Fifties would mock a man with long hair (Prince Valiant notwithstanding), he threw it back at them with his name! The irony! The fun! The breaking of the never-ending rules! It warmed the cockles of my little heart even at that young age, for I sensed there was another road to be traveled where I didn’t have to think like Mother

Then there was the dog. Lady. Well, Lady didn’t look like her name at all. She was a scruffy old English bulldog with two lower incisors rising over her upper lip with black floppy jowls on either side, their moist inner sides folding open. Her spindly legs were old and bent. She had a patchwork coat in non-ladylike colors of worn-out browns and black, flecked with grey. I kept my distance, noting her staring eyes, round, and bulging, serious and challenging. When Grandpa Harry took her out to pee and poop, I felt sorry for her, thinking of how she had to walk down three flights of stairs and find a public spot along the concrete sidewalk or tarred street to relieve herself. A Lady shouldn’t have to endure that. In those days there was no sign warning owners to scoop up after their dogs, and you would have to watch out for droppings here and there along the edges waiting for the street cleaners. I never went with Grandpa Harry on this mission, never was asked, and never volunteered.

During all my childhood I never had a dog. When I was born, Mother got rid of the dog named Skippy she and Dad had adopted. It was too much work for her, taking care of a baby and a dog, too. But if I had been allowed to have one, at least it would have had a grass yard to play in with a shaded corner for pooping.

As the Christmas day waned, before it was time to pack up and ride back over the Triborough Bridge, Nana fixed everyone a light supper with German cold cuts, homemade coleslaw, fresh pumpernickel bread, various spicy condiments and plenty of beer. There was something called “Bloodwurst” on the meat platter. It had congealed globs of blood (I guess) dotted throughout the slices. Pickled pig’s knuckles covered with a gelatinous sauce were ladled out of their jars. I tried everything, hungry for new tastes and as a bonus, to disgust my mother.

Riding home, I stretched out along the back seat of the Ford. There was always a blanket handy in those days when the heater’s blast favored the front. Lying there, I was lulled by the drone of the engine and by the rhythmic passing of the streetlights as they illuminated the backs of the front seats, one after another in a hypnotic repetition. In this post-holiday dream world, I allowed the images of the day to pass through my mind, sorting out all I had seen and heard.

We didn’t go but once a year to the Bronx. The only other time I saw Nana and Grandpa Harry was when Uncle George drove them out to Long Island to our house on Mother’s Day. It was always sunny and warm, and I would sit outside next to Nana on the glider under the dogwoods, enjoying the bursts of male laughter coming from the screened-in porch.

-Vivian Sheperis
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