• The Pitching Summer

    This is a repost from 2009. I probably won’t be posting here for a while, and I wanted my last post to be one of my favourites.



    In memory of my mother



    “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.”

    -Warren Spahn



    June. School was done for the year. On weekdays, the shop across the street let out at 4:30. At 4:35 in the afternoon, the parking lot adjacent to our yard emptied out.


    By 5:00, we were all there, most of the neighbourhood kids, two or three of my brothers, and usually, a bunch of their friends. Bases were put out (my older brothers had made those bases years ago). Mitts were distributed. Teams were chosen.


    In 1978, the summer before I turned eleven (My birthday is in September), I had been trying everything I could think of to win my mother’s good opinion. I had been at it for about three years. Home life had not been great before my father’s suicide in 1976; afterward, it was sheer hell.


    But earlier in 1978, I was inspired, watching my mother as she watched a Mets’ preseason game on channel 9 (WOR). Of course! Baseball!


    How did I never think of it before?


    My mother loved baseball. She had played stickball and softball as a kid in her old neighbourhood in Black Rock. When my older brothers played in school and Little League, my mother spent hours with them, pitching, throwing, catching, and batting… practicing.


    My mom never missed a Mets game (later in her life, she became a Yankees fan, something to do with Mike Piazza and The Mets’ new management… It was weird… But for years and years, she was a hardcore Mets girl). When she was in labour with my younger brother, Tadpole, back in 1969, she disappeared from her room in the hospital. They found her in the TV room, watching the pennant race. When “The Miracle Mets” won the World Series that year, my mother called Tadpole her (and The Mets’) good luck charm.


    My mother knew the game better than anyone I’ve ever known. She was knowledgeable when it came to the history of the sport, and she could spit out stats on almost any player that ever lived.


    If I played really well, maybe she’d see me? Notice me? Like me (I knew she loved me, and I loved her; we just didn’t like one another much)? I wanted to be good; I wanted her to think I was good.


    As soon as it started getting warm out, I approached Brother #3, The Professor.


    “I want to be a pitcher,” I told him when we were alone.


    I thought he would laugh at me. I was relieved when he nodded and said, “All right. I’ll teach you.”


    I am left-handed. Everyone else in my family (and in the old neighbourhood) is right-handed. The years before 1978, I had played outfield and then first base; I was used to holding the glove in my left hand, catching the ball, dropping the mitt, and throwing the ball with my left hand; there were no lefty mitts.


    The Professor suggested that I try to pitch right-handed. The first ball I threw with my right hand just missed my oldest brother, Tallboy’s head. He had been sitting on a bench at the picnic table (far, far away from my target), smoking cigarettes and watching.


    “Sorry,” I called.


    He picked up the ball and walked it back to me. “Why are you pitching right-handed?”


    I nodded toward The Professor. “He says it’s easier.”


    Tallboy laughed. He turned to The Professor. “Easier for who? She’s gonna kill somebody!”


    Brother #3 shrugged. “She said she wanted to be good. There are no good left-handed pitchers.”


    “Is that so?” Tallboy said, his arms crossing his chest, cigarette resting in a corner of his mouth (I call that his Billy Badass Pose). He squinted and said, “Warren Spahn.”


    I had no idea who that was. Neither did The Professor.


    Tallboy looked at me and said (cigarette dangling), “He’s a lefty pitcher. Won a lot of games. One of your top pitchers of all time.“


    He lifted his chin toward The Professor and squinted. “Lefties make great pitchers, asshole. Everybody knows that.”


    Every sunny afternoon after school, Tallboy, The Professor and I would go out into the back yard. There, they taught me how to pitch. I held a mitt in my right hand and pitched the ball with my left.


    I was determined to be good. I went to the library on Saturdays and read any book I could get my hands on: anything to do with baseball and pitching.


    I learned through reading and practicing that being a southpaw pitcher in a world of right-handed batters was cool beans.


    When the neighbourhood “season” began in June, I was ready.


    My mother sat in the window that faced the parking lot, as she usually did during the neighbourhood softball games. She had a comfy chair, a bag of Ruffles potato chips and a cold bottle of Dr Pepper. She was ready… until she saw me approach “the pitcher’s mound”. 


    “Hey! What’s going on?” She called out.


    I smiled up at her. “I’m pitching this year, Mom!”


    “Hm.” She seemed surprised, but she did not seem impressed.


    Once the game began, she yelled out advice to me.


    She had done that with a lot of the kids over the years, but she had never said a word to me. I smiled at her, thanked her, and took her advice.


    My first time up at bat, I hit a good one and made it to second. When I looked across toward home base, where my mother sat in the window, she was leaning forward, eyes wide. She smiled and waved at me.


    I glowed and waved back.


    I barely noticed Tallboy (my captain that day) and The Professor (captain of the opposing team that day) both cheering me on, commenting on how well all of the practice was paying off. 


    The next time I was up at bat, close to the window, my mother called down pointers and encouragement to me. Again, I smiled up at her, thanked her, and took her advice.


    I got tagged out and awaited some kind of… I don’t know, something negative from the window. Instead, as I made my way to the bench behind and to the left of home base, my mother called out, “It’s okay, Van! You’ll get ‘em next time!”


    We barely spoke civilly to one another, but that summer, while baseball was “on”, she noticed me. I felt like she even liked me a little.


    In August of 2008, my mother passed away (She had dementia; then, she broke her hip on June 28th and developed pneumonia while at the rehabilitation center.).


    Cleaning out her apartment, I found her journal: the black binder no one was ever allowed to peek into. I later found out that the black binder kept only her latest diary; I now have seven boxes of my mother’s journals. I put them into chronological order.


    Near the bottom of one box, I found a single sheet of yellowed paper. At the top, she’d written: VAN’S STATS 1978


    My mother kept track of every strike. Every ball. Every home run (not that there were that many!). Every run batted in. She wrote “highlights” from a couple of games.


    I smiled, reading it. Then, I cried a little.


    Written at the very bottom of the page, in the left-hand corner, circled and underlined at least a half dozen times: SO PROUD!


    I never pitched a no-hitter. Whatever team I was on did not always win. My “career” was cut short by an injury; I never pitched again after 1978.


    Who cares? My mom was proud of me.

  • Mister The Sam

    It was a beautiful day, so I opened all of the windows.


    As soon as it was open, The Sam went to “his” window; it is the largest window in our apartment, and it faces the side yard. We usually have his cuddler-bed set up on the cabinet in front of the window, but that day it was in the wash. He sat, front paws on the windowsill, the rest of him on top of the cabinet.


    I patted him on the head. “Enjoy the fresh air, my little bubbug-nug (It is a Hungarian word, kind of a cute way of saying “baby”.)”


    My cat lifted his face to a breeze, eyes closed, and I swear it looked like he was grinning. Okay. He is happy. I can write now.


    I came into the kitchen, turned on the MacBook, and then sat staring at the blinking cursor. It’s just because I haven’t been writing on the computer steadily; I’m a little rusty. It will come to me.


    I heard, “meow, meowwwwwww!” It was not The Sam. It was not a cat. As I got up to see what was going on, I heard giggling: Two little-girl giggles and two little-girl meow-meows.


    I stood in the kitchen doorway to observe my cat, sitting up on the cabinet, gently pawing at the window screen. Little-girl cooing followed.


    I stepped closer. I have to see this.


    Two little girls had their faces pressed to the screen. Well, until they saw me. They jumped back a little. I laughed.


    “Hi,” I said, and introduced myself. The girls told me they were visiting their grandma (our neighbor across the side yard).


    “I like your cat,” the light-haired girl said.


    “Ladies, this is The Sam.” I paused. “He doesn’t scratch or bite or anything,” I added. (My cat is a big guy. Sometimes that intimidates people; letting folks know up front that he is a friendly, gentle giant has become automatic for me.)


    More giggling. Totally not intimidated.


    “Hi, Mister The Sam,” the dark-haired one said. He purred. He likes the sound of her voice.


    “His fur is so soft,” Light-haired Girl said. She put a hand to the screen, and a giant paw, spread out so one could see the white tufts between his claws (those bits are even softer than the rest of him!), gently tapped at the screen.


    More giggling. “It tickles!”


    Dark-haired Girl stepped up and pressed her face to the screen. He head-butted her, purring even louder.  


    “Can Mister The Sam come to a tea party?” she asked.


    Light-haired Girl said, “No! He has to come to my tea party!”


    “No. Your tea parties are stupid!”






    This back and forth was not going to end anytime soon, and I really wanted to get back to that blinking cursor.


    I patted my bubbug-nug’s head. Gave it a little kiss. “Good luck, Mister The Sam,” I said as I walked away.


    Little sh*t.





  • Through the Picture Window Part Three of Three

    A blend of truth and fiction in three parts

    Part Two is here.

    Part One is here.





    I sat on the sofa in the parlour, staring at the picture window. I held a pencil just above my pad of paper. I was not sure if I wanted to draw the window, or write a story about it. Maybe both. Cousin Steve was spending the week; whenever he stayed at Grandma’s house, there was art, so I was leaning toward drawing the big window. (He was an artist who liked painting, drawing, sculpting and photography… mostly painting.). My grandmother was his favorite aunt, and almost always had at least one dinner party in his honor; many of the guests were also artists.


    The dinner party was in full swing in the dining room behind me (I was too young to attend; Grandma and I ate hours before any of the guests arrived.). I heard the door open and close, but I didn’t really pay attention; I figured it was probably Grandma (She never sat during a dinner party.).


    It was my mother’s Cousin Steve, the party’s guest of honor. We smiled at one another.


    “You drawing something there, sweetheart?”


    I shrugged. “I don’t know if I want to draw it, or tell a story about it.”


    Cousin Steve sat next to me and looked over my shoulder at the blank page.


    “Hm. What is ‘it’?”


    I pointed with my chin. “The big window.”


    “Oh,” he said. “Why do you want to draw the picture window?”


    “I don’t know,” I said. It was true. I had no idea why I was fixed on it. I think it was because I thought of it as “fancy” with its nine little panes.


    “I think it would be easy to draw,” Steve said, taking my pad and pencil. “Too easy for you, maybe.”


    I smiled. Only Cousin Steve would think so. To this day, I can barely draw stick figures. But him? He was a real artist.


    In seconds, he drew the picture window, with the little table in front of it (My father had designed and built that table, with the sides that could be pulled up to make it larger. It was where Grandma served dessert.).


    “See?” Steve returned the pencil and pad. “Just squares.” He paused. “Now, you draw it.”


    “Nah,” I said, still not convinced that I could do it. “Maybe I will write a story, instead.”


    “Want to walk with me first?”


    I flung the pad aside. “Yeah!”


    Cousin Steve liked to take a walk and smoke a cigarette after dinner. I loved walking with him. I could talk all I wanted, and I could ask anything I wanted when we walked.


    We had been walking for about ten seconds when I asked him, “How come you can draw so good?”


    He smiled. “Draw so well,” he corrected.


    “How come you can draw so well?”


    “Well, Sweetheart, I am glad you think I do. I like to think I draw well because I work on it. Practice.”


    “Practice makes perfect?” I skipped in a circle around him.


    Steve nodded. “And I love to draw. It makes me happy. I think that helps.”


    I thought about it for a minute. “Making up stories makes me happy… But I want to do art.”


    He chuckled. “That is art, sweetheart!”


    I stopped. “It is?”


    He stopped, too. “Of course it is. Whenever we make something, it is art.”


    “But that’s a painting or a statue, or when you draw something,” I said.


    “Or make a story,” he added. “You express yourself artistically.”


    “Oh,” I said, hooking my arm through one of his. “I never thought of it that way.”


    “Well!” He said, doing his Jack Benny impression.


    I laughed and hugged his arm a little. “I make art,” I said.


    We resumed walking. “I make art,” I repeated. I still wasn’t sure I believed it, but Steve had never lied to me.


    “Yes, you do,” Cousin Steve said.


    “And if I practice, I could be good at it? Like you?”


    “Absolutely!” he said as we turned into the driveway.


    We headed toward the utility room door, but Steve stopped. He turned to me. “Let’s look in your window, there, and see what’s cookin’.”


    I didn’t really know what he was talking about, but I let Cousin Steve lead me by the hand to the picture window.


    “Now what we do is, we step up on these bricks here,” he showed me. “This way we can’t get into trouble for stepping on the flowers!”


    I climbed up and let go of his hand. Like Steve, I leaned forward, hands on the bottom of the window, forehead pressed to the glass.


    People were coming out of the dining room in back and filling the parlour. Little cakes were arranged on the table before us. I spied a tray of porhanos and nearly fell off of the bricks in my excitement – it was (and still is) my favorite treat!


    We went inside. (Okay. Basically, I dragged Cousin Steve in for some dessert.)


    “Oh! Who is this?” one of the ladies asked, pointing at me.


    After that, I became part of the party, and the story about the picture window was forgotten.





  • Through the Picture Window Part Two of Three

    A blend of truth and fiction in three parts

    Part One is here.



    I was in the back seat with a big smile on my face, watching the familiar buildings go by. We passed the Dairy Queen and Rawley’s up on The Post Road, then took the left turn in between the gas stations. We drove past the church, and then, the beautiful houses: mostly Colonials and Cape Cods, but I imagined a couple of the old Saltboxes in there, too.


    I did not know who was driving. I’m used to that; I don’t even ask anymore.


    I love these dreams.


    The windows would not roll down. It bothered me because I wanted to smell… something. I didn’t know what in the dream, but my guess would be Long Island Sound. I had stopped watching the road while I tried to open the window. Did we pass the 4-way stop yet? There’s only the one stop, and it marks the halfway point to the beach. Just as I thought of it, we came to the stop sign at Oldfield Road.


    “Grandma’s house is just three blocks down, on the right,” I said to the driver’s back. I called out the little roads’ names as we went: “Rita Avenue… Bonney Terrace… South Street!” The car stopped, backed up a bit, and pulled into my grandmother’s driveway. I stepped out onto the pavement and ran my hand over the tiger lilies that lined the drive, making my way to the utility room door. I looked down, beneath the mailbox, and saw the Borden’s milk container. I used to think this was made out of silver.


    I took a deep breath, and I could smell everything at once: The Lilies of the Valley, the Lilacs that grew at the edge of the garden to the right. The swamp somewhere behind me. The beach down the road.


    I put my hand on the doorknob, but changed my mind. I went left, toward the front walkway, where the snowballs were just starting to bud. I avoid the snowballs in these dreams, just like I always did in my childhood; the bees were always there.


    The picture window was there, nine little panes (before it was switched out with a more modern sliding glass model). Tulips and daffodils reached up toward the glass like any spring day since I’ve been alive. I stood on the row of bricks that sheltered the flowers from the rest of the yard so that I could lean forward, forehead to the glass, without killing any of them. Avoiding Grandma’s wrath.


    In the parlour, there was music. Food. People, laughing and dancing.


    It was blurry at first, but as it came into focus, I realized: These were not just any people. Folks I love. People I have lost, alive, and happy.


    The first person that became clear to me was my Uncle Kid. He was in the corner, near the smaller window (they must have moved the television set to another room), playing his violin.


    My father sat near him, smoking a cigarette and talking to Aunt Bertha. Daddy! I waved, just like every other time I dream; Daddy never sees me. I still wave, anyway. Just in case.


    Grandma walked through with a tray of porhanos in one hand and a coffee pot in the other. I waved to her, but she didn’t notice me, either. I would love some porhanos, Grandma.


    Uncle Andy and Cousin Steve sat in two dining room chairs, set against the wall on the right. Steve was drawing something quickly on his pad; Andy was setting up his easel to paint. Steve stopped as Grandma approached. He rose, grabbed her hands (the tray and the coffee pot disappeared) and danced her in a circle, both of them laughing. Is Grandma blushing? I giggled to myself.


    I saw Mom enter the parlour from the back hall and I gasped. She is beautiful. Her dark brown hair (If you say “black” she will get all upset) was up in a ponytail. She wore pedal pushers and an oversized shirt, probably borrowed from her father, who walked behind her. I don’t know how I could know (it was something in her smile), but I did know that she had been horseback riding.


    My mother saw me. She kissed Grandpa on the cheek, then walked up to the picture window and gently tapped one of the glass squares.


    “Hi, Honey.”


    Hearing her voice made my throat tighten. None of the people in these picture window dreams ever notice me. I can’t even get them to wave, but Mom is talking to me.


    I touched the glass where her fingers remained. “Hi, Mom.”


    She smiled. “This is a grown-up party. You stay outside and play.”


    I wanted to stay. I wanted to come in. I wanted to hug her, tell her things, ask her things… and I wanted to see everyone else, too.


    She became a little stern: “Vanessa. I said, stay outside and play. Now, go!”


    “Okay,” I whispered. I began to turn away but stopped. “Are you sure?” I asked.


    Mom nodded. “You go play, now. I’ll save you some porhanos.”


    I tried again: “Or I could just come in and eat some now…”


    She crossed her arms over her chest. She means business. “No. You can’t. Not now.”


    “When?” I felt tears roll over my cheeks, but I didn’t really feel like I was crying.


    My mother touched the glass again. “Someday. Don’t worry about it. You go on, have fun.”


    I came back and touched the pane where her fingers were. “I love you,” I croaked.


    She wiggled her fingers and they came through the glass to touch mine. “You’re the best daughter I ever had,” she said.


    We both giggled at the old joke (I am her only daughter). My feet began to wobble on the bricks. I looked down at them. The bricks were gone.


    I looked up, and the parlour was empty. No people. No furniture. Different window.


    I took a step back. I was standing on Grandma’s old property, where the ugly duplex now stands.


    It was nothing.

                They made it into something.

                Now, it is nothing again.


    I woke up with the thought: I am trespassing here.

  • Through the Picture Window Part One of Three

     A blend of truth and fiction in three parts





    Her eyes caught on the marigold. Really, it was a fraction of a flower; between truck tires and heavy feet, there wasn’t much front yard left. Now, looking out where the small patches of orange and yellow used to line the flagstones, this one tiny piece of a flower slumped.


    This is the house that Pop and Mom built, she thought.


                It was nothing.

                They made it into something.

                Now, it is nothing again.


    She felt her forehead pressing against the glass. “I am a marigold,” she whispered.


    To stay, to re-make what once was… That was a dream. No money. No time. No strength.


    “But I have my memories,” she told the marigold on the other side of the window. It wasn’t a lie yet; her short-term memory was going, she knew, but she still had the old days. For now. She could see it in the panes of the picture window if she concentrated; there were times she’d spent a whole day doing just that, watching those she loved – not dead, not to her, they never would be – doing what they had once done.


    “One more time,” she said to the picture window. Took a step back. Watched.


    In a few minutes, her daughter would take her away to the new place. She prayed.


                I will go, Lord…

                But once more, let me wander

               Through the Picture Window.


  • Dad In the Kitchen

    My father liked to cook. There were a few things that he made really well: Chili, Clam Chowder, Potato Pancakes, and anything grilled.


    Every now and then, Dad would cook up “experiments”… Most of which were inedible. Giant stockpots of inedible… that we would have to eat until it was all gone (“We’re not Rockefellers!”). I don’t know why these horrible creations always showed up in such large amounts; my theory now is that some ingredient was cheap in bulk.


    The black-eyed peas lasted a month. By week four, a Sunday barbecue, I couldn’t eat anymore. Our dog, Bullet, had stopped accepting them; he’d sniff our plates, whimper, and back away.


    My brothers all groaned when they saw the stockpot being placed on the picnic table that Sunday. My mother didn’t make a sound, but I could tell by the look on her face that she wasn’t happy, either.


    As I watched my father mound them onto my paper plate, I burst into tears.


    Black-eyed peas. Again. At a cookout!


    My father turned to Mom and pointed at me. “What’s the matter with her?”


    My mother handed me a napkin. “Dry your eyes.”


    Then she turned to Dad. “What? I feel like crying, too,” she said. “Those… things… are disgusting.”


    I began crying harder. I could see my father’s feelings were hurt. Then his face went angry as he turned back to me.


    “If you don’t eat them, you won’t eat anything else.”


    My younger brother, Tadpole, started crying, too. “No more!” he wailed.


    “Other little kids don’t get anything to eat for dinner,” my father said.


    I looked to my mother, pleading. She took her plate and sat next to me, but spoke to Dad: “This is the last time we will eat them.”


    To this day, no one in my family will eat a black-eyed pea. In fact, when I see them at the market, I feel sick to my stomach.  



    The black-eyed peas had barely been gone when my dad decided to make a three-bean dish. In the stockpot.


    I don’t know what my father put in that dish, but it tasted awful.


    At the table that night, Mom distracted Dad here and there, so that we could feed the beans to Bullet. He seemed to like them. (Poor Bullet. He spent most of the evening in the backyard. Whenever he came back inside, Mom had to let him out again; poor guy had the worst gas in the world!)


    Later, alone in the kitchen with Mom, I whispered, “I hope the beans don’t last as long as the black-eyed peas!”


    “Oh, they won’t,” she said.


    That night, Mom “accidentally” tipped the stockpot over. No more beans.


    About forty years later, whenever I am at a party and someone offers me three-bean salad, my appetite disappears.



    Our family was experiment-free for a while (I think it was an entire year, but I am not sure.). Then came the mackerel… A giant stockpot full of it.


    My mother named it “Unholy Mackerel,” and that seemed about right.


    I do not remember what else was in that dish. I only remember having to open about a case of canned mackerel. Until then, I thought that tuna was the only fish that could be purchased in a tin (and I didn’t even like that!). The smell! Just thinking of it now makes me want to gag!


    We all sat at the table and tried to eat some of this fish that my father had spent hours preparing.


    Bullet wouldn’t take any from me. Our cat, Familiar, sniffed it and ran away.


    That was the last straw for Mom. She slammed her fork down.


    “The fish is bad! Don’t eat any more of it!” She yelled.


    My father started to argue, but Mom won: “The damned cat won’t eat the fish! There is definitely something wrong with it!”


    My mother dumped it all in the trash, and then made hamburgers and French fries for dinner.


    After we all ate, I went into the parlour and sat on the sofa by my father. He looked so hurt.


    “Daddy, don’t feel bad,” I said, hugging his arm.


    “I should just stay out of the kitchen,” he mumbled.


    “Yeah,” I said. “Or… I bet Grandma could teach you how to cook!”


    “You think so?” he asked.


    “I bet if you call her up and ask her, she will teach you how to cook anything!”


    She did, too.



  • Surprise For Mom

    It was the last day of school. My younger brother, Tadpole and I ran to Dad’s car, out front, where he always picked us up.


    We were excited, of course. Summer was the best! It meant no school, lots of cookouts, longer visits to Grandma’s house, the beach, camping, and of course, going out on the boat.


    My father and my oldest brother, Tallboy, had gotten an early start. They had spent that morning out on the boat, fishing.


    As we pulled out onto the street, my father said, “Wait until you see what we brought home today!”


    “Fish” I said.


    Dad and Tallboy laughed.


    “Well, yeah,” Dad said. “But this is something else. Another animal.”


    “Another dog?” I asked.


    “Nope,” Dad said.


    “Another cat?” Tadpole guessed. That was fair. My father was always rescuing strays. We would keep them in our basement until we could find them good homes.


    “Nope. Not a cat.”


    I thought for a minute. “You didn’t bring home an elephant this time, did you?”


    We all laughed. My mother always said that some day, Dad was going to bring home an elephant… and then, she’d kill him (My father rescued the strays, but it seemed like Mom always did all of the actual work that went into looking after them until their adoption.).


    As soon as we were in our driveway, Tadpole checked the backyard from the side of the house. “I don’t see an elephant.”


    There was more giggling as my father opened the front door. “It’s inside. Smart alecs.”


    Our dog, Bullet, and our cat, Familiar gave away the new animal’s location. They sat staring at the closed bathroom door, tails wagging. Bullet gave an excited whimper.


    I screwed up my face. “It’s in the bathroom?” Stray animals were always brought directly to the basement, until Doctor Dave (a veterinarian, and a friend of the family) checked them out.


    Dad and Tallboy nodded. While my big brother picked up the cat and ushered the dog out to the backyard, my father opened the bathroom door.


    There, in a tub full of water from The Sound, swam a baby shark.


    Tadpole and I immediately hushed and knelt by the tub. Dad grabbed our hands as we went to pet our new friend.


    “Don’t touch him! He bites!”


    The shark didn’t seem to notice us. He just swam back and forth.


    “Are you sure he bites?” I asked. “He looks soft.”


    Behind us, my father spoke. “All sharks bite, Little One.”


    I looked at Dad over my shoulder. “Even cute ones?” I really wanted to pet the shark. I had it in my head that he would feel velvety. Maybe even a little squishy.


    “Yep. Even cute little baby ones,” Dad said.


    “Oh.” My younger brother and I exchanged disappointed looks.


    “Come on out, now. Your mother will be home any minute. Want to surprise her, so don’t say anything.”


    Tadpole shook his head. “Mom’s gonna kill you!”


    Minutes later, we were all on the living room floor, looking over Last Day of School Stuff, when Mom came home from the market. After our hellos, we followed her into the kitchen.


    My father offered to put the bag of groceries away. “Go take a bath or something, Babe. I’ll take care of dinner.”


    “Oh, that would be great,” she said, kissing Dad’s cheek.


    My mother saw Familiar, sitting outside of the closed bathroom door, staring up. “What’s with you?” Mom said, gently nudging the cat aside with the side of her foot.


    We all stood outside the bathroom as she walked in and closed the door.


    From inside, we heard: “What the…?” Then, quietly (probably through clenched teeth), “I am going to kill you.”


    We all laughed.


    Tadpole looked up at Dad and shrugged. “Told you.”


    The next day, the baby shark was returned to The Sound, and my father was no longer allowed to bring home strays.


  • Best Friends

    We adopted Bullet in the summer of 1975. I do not know if my mother had seen an ad in the newspaper, or if she and Dad had heard about available puppies through a friend. What I really remember is my younger brother, Tadpole and I, in the grass on a beautiful day, a dozen tiny puppies crawling all over us. It was wonderful.


    I also remember my mother choosing the puppy. She took her time, petting them all. We could tell by the way Mom picked Bullet up and whispered into his ear that he was probably going to be our new dog.


    Bullet’s parents lived there at the farm. His mother was a Collie who looked just like Lassie, and his father was a German Shepherd, who looked like my mother’s former dog, Fitz. Bullet looked a lot like his dad. Because he was still so small (none of the puppies were old enough to be separated from their mommy yet), with his shape and coloring, he resembled a bullet.


    In a few weeks, Bullet came home. He was a good boy, and he learned fast: Bullet was housebroken in days. He’d lie down, sit, and shake paws when asked, in less than a month. He was never on a leash; we had a large, fenced-in yard, and he was free to run around all he wanted.


    Over the next few months, Bullet grew, and while he kept his father’s German Shepherd coloring, his fur was long and soft, like his Collie-mother’s. He was a beautiful dog.


    On my eighth birthday (that September), my father came home late for dinner. I had started thinking he was going to miss my birthday (even though he wasn’t that late) when he came through the front door, singing, “Happy Birthday to you!”


    Then, his shirt moved. Curious, I stepped forward. “Daddy… what happened to your shirt?”


    “It’s your present,” he said, with that I’m Up to Something smile of his. “Couldn’t wrap it.”


    Out poked a little black kitten’s head.


    I squealed and hopped up and down. “For me? Really?”


    Dad unbuttoned his shirt a little more and held the kitten out to me. With each little “mew”, I was deeper in love.


    “Is it a boy or a girl?”


    He frowned at my mother. “It’s a little girl.”


    I heard my mother: “Oh, great.” (I did not know that females were somehow more “trouble”. I now think Mom was a little upset because spaying a female is more expensive than neutering a male, and we weren’t Rockefellers.)


    I held the little girl in my palms, a scrap of velvet, really. She meowed and purred and gave me head-butts.


    I frowned, worried. “But what if Bullet doesn’t like her?”


    My mother said, “Bullet? Not like someone? Tch! You should be worried that she won’t like him!”


    Mom walked with me into the kitchen (Bullet’s favorite room in the house). Bullet sat, but his ears were up and his tail was going ninety miles an hour. He whimpered and put his front paws up. The kitten made no sound, but sat perfectly still in my hands.


    “Just put her on the floor gently,” Mom said. I did.


    The kitten walked straight up to Bullet, who had stooped so that his chin rested on his front paws (and his tail never stopped wagging). I think we all held our breath, waiting for a growl, a hiss, a bite, a scratch…


    Instead, the little bit of velvet began licking Bullet’s nose and the side of his mouth. She purred.


    My mother and I exchanged surprised looks. My father, standing behind us, laughing, said, “Look at that poor sumbitch’s face! What is that thing, Boy? Huh?”


    We all laughed. Bullet was one bewildered dog!


    Once his face was clean to her standards, the tiny kitten nudged Bullet’s front paws apart and fell asleep between them.


    We named her Familiar (My brothers were into witches back then; a witch’s pet is a familiar, and in all the old stories, witches had black cats.).


    Her favourite family member was Bullet. There was never a cross word between them. They ate together, played together, napped together (even when she became a full-grown cat, her favourite sleeping spot was between Bullet’s front paws, his chin resting on the top of her head), and they cleaned one another.  


    When Bullet was let loose from the yard one day (I think a neighbor-friend had left the gate open.), he was struck by a car. He was lucky (and so were we!) that it wasn’t very serious; only his tail had gotten hit. He ran straight into the kitchen, a nervous wreck. Familiar was the only one he permitted near him at first. She inspected him, rubbed up against him, and cleaned him up until he was calm enough for my mother to get a better look.


    Familiar, an indoor cat, got out one night. She came back the next day. Soon, we realized she was pregnant. The night she went into labor, Bullet stayed in the kitchen, pacing nervously.


    My dad, hands on his hips, said, “Is there something you wanna tell me, Boy?”


    I had no idea why everyone thought that was funny at the time. Now, I giggle, thinking about it.


    Familiar gave birth on February 21, 1976, in the wee hours. She had three kittens, the first being Charlie (I’ve written about him before). Next came Tiger, and then Loretta (who looked just like her mommy).


    My mother had set up a box with old towels for Familiar and her kittens. It was in the kitchen, not far from our pets’ food bowls.


    One morning, eating breakfast in the dining room (adjacent to the kitchen), I watched Familiar place Charlie into Bullet’s mouth!


    “Mom!” I screamed! “Familiar’s feeding her babies to Bullet!”


    I ran into the kitchen. There was Bullet, again with that “I have no idea what’s going on right now” look on his face, his mouth hanging open. Inside, Charlie sat like a king on his throne. Bullet deposited the kitten across the room. Then he walked back to the box, where Familiar placed the second kitten, Tiger, on his tongue. She then picked up Loretta and followed Bullet across the room.


    My mother, who had just come up from the basement (she had not heard my scream), nearly dropped the laundry basket. “What the…?”


    The dog crossed the room another time, and began nudging the box-home across the floor.


    “Oh,” my mother said, understanding. “Mama cats move their kittens, honey. It’s an instinct, to keep the babies safe.”


    Then she started laughing. “Bullet’s helping her.”


    “I thought he was going to eat the babies!”


    Mom laughed even harder. “Bullet? Never. He loves them!”


    It was true. Whenever Familiar was eating, or taking a trip to the litter box, Bullet sat by the cardboard box and watched over the trio of kittens until their mommy returned. As they grew, he was their mattress, and their pretend prey. He never seemed annoyed, even when they chased one another ON him.


    Familiar had another litter, not too long after those three were weaned, and Tiger and Loretta were placed in good homes (We kept Charlie. Mom said we kind of had to; he was the first animal my father loved that loved him back!). This time, she had five kittens.


    One, a little tiger-striped kitty, was born kind of bald on top. Immediately, I named him “Kojak”. He was very tiny, smaller than the other four. My father tried to prepare us; he told us that Kojak was not well, and may not make it.


    Kojak died in the night. We were all sad, but Familiar… She was devastated. I never want to hear that kind of crying again.


    At Familiar’s side, crying as hard as she cried, and kissing her over and over again: Bullet.


    I don’t think they were “ours” as much as they belonged to one another. They were best friends, sharing everything they had, and consoling one another when needed.


    I like to think that I learned something about friendship from Bullet and Familiar.




  • Taffy

    When I was a little Vanessa, I loved the Raggedy Ann and Andy books. I was always borrowing them from the public library, and I owned a few. They were stories that I read over and over again.


    One that I especially loved was about a taffy pull. I don’t remember much about the story, but I remember that it made me want to make candy.


    Mom said, “No way, Jose. You’ll just make a big mess.”


    Usually, my mother let us kids do whatever we wanted in the kitchen. She was cool like that. I was surprised she had said no. I guessed that making candy must be especially messy.


    She called Grandma. “Mom? How are you with making candy with your granddaughter?”


    I laughed to myself. Let the mess be made in someone else’s kitchen.


    That weekend, I went to Grandma’s. I brought my Raggedy Ann book to show her. I read the story aloud while she fixed dinner.


    “Can we have a taffy pull, Grandma?”


    She shrugged. Why not?


    I had never had taffy, and my grandmother had never made taffy before.


    “I call your cousin Irene. She knows how to make taffy, I think.” She called that evening and got a recipe from Cousin Irene (Steve’s sister).


    The next morning, Grandma and I made the biggest mess in history. It didn’t seem to matter how much we had buttered our hands; everything was sticky. We had it on our clothes, on our faces, in our hair, and all over the little kitchen.


    And the taffy tasted yucky.


    When we started to clean up, my grandmother started laughing. I was surprised; I thought for sure she’d been angry about the disaster area her beloved kitchen had become.


    “I have sugar rocks… in my eyebrows!” She howled, and I saw that she had tears streaming down her face. Sugary tears.


    “And YOU!” She pointed, still laughing and crying. “You have it on your NOSE!”


    I rubbed the tip of my nose. It was hardened there. I started laughing, too.


    “If I hug you, Vuh’-Ness-Uh, I’m afraid we need firemen to come and take us apart!”


    I was crying with laughter now, too, picturing the firemen trying to yank us apart. I reached for a tissue.


    Grandma shouted, “No!” but it was too late.  I now had tissue stuck to my face and fingers.


    This brought on even more laughter.


    Once the kitchen was back to normal, and we’d each had a shower, we sat in the parlour to watch television.


    “I’m sorry,” I said.


    “Why you sorry?” Grandma asked.


    I shrugged. “It was a bad idea, the taffy.”


    “No,” she said. “I had fun. I just wish the candy tasted good.”


    I scrunched up my face a little. “Yeah. It sounded good in the book. But I don’t like it at all.”


    “And there is so much of it! What do you think we should do with it all?” Grandma asked.


    “Let’s give it to Daddy. He’ll eat anything!”


    I didn’t understand why that brought on another laugh attack, but I didn’t ask.


    I brought the paper grocery bag full of taffy home and gave it to my father. He thanked me and said, “Mm! Taffy!” Like it was the best present I could have ever given him.


    Mom told me, years later, that my father hated taffy. But he accepted the gift anyway.


    And he ate it all.


  • Hallowed Ground

    I have a few very early memories. The earliest is of a man’s face: blue eyes and a gentle smile, very short grey hair. He was no one that I knew, and this memory always seemed to come to me when I was scared (usually, when I tried to sleep – I was afraid of the dark). I did not know much about angels as a little girl, but I believed that he was mine. I loved that face that looked down at me; whenever the short clip of memory would flash behind my eyes, I would smile, feeling safe.


    One day when I was about four or five years old, I sat next to my mother on the sofa. She was going through a large box of photographs, pulling some out and stacking them on the coffee table. I snuggled up against her arm, and looked on. Every now and then, I would ask about the people in the pictures; Mom would tell me who everyone was, and where the photo was taken.


    When she fished out a black and white picture of him, I snatched it from her hand and held it against my heart. “My angel!”


    My mother pulled back from me a bit and gave me a frown. “What are you talking about?”


    I smiled, and nearly cried. I could not have expressed the feeling in words, but I think it made him more real to me.


    Mom gently retrieved the photograph and smiled at it.


    “That’s my daddy,” she said.


    “That’s my angel!” I argued. I went on to tell her how I had seen him from time to time, mostly when I was scared to sleep. How he would look down at me and smile, and I would feel better. I described him again and again, mostly talking about his blue eyes.


    She was silent at first, and then my mother whispered, “Honey… you remember him. He was your grandpa.”


    “Where is he now?” I asked.


    “He’s in heaven,” Mom replied. “He went there a little while after you were born.”


    “He’s my angel,” I said quietly. “He loves me.”


    She put an arm around me and kissed the top of my head. “Yes. He loves you.”


    “What was he like?” I asked.


    “He was a very nice man.”


    “Was he funny?” I had always had the feeling that he was.


    My mother chuckled. “Oh yeah! He knew a lot of jokes.”


    Little by little, over the years, I learned a lot about my angel, my grandfather. His father had been an alcoholic and abusive, so Grandpa ran away from home when he was a teenager. He was big and strong, and became a catcher in the trapeze act for a little circus.


    He travelled all over The States, but that ended when he went into the little Hungarian restaurant in Brooklyn and met the cook. He knew my grandmother for about five minutes when he told her, “You are going to marry me.”


    Grandma laughed him off, but he proved he was serious. He got a job in Connecticut, driving the trolley. He spoke to Grandma’s family and got their permission. They married a few months later.


    Grandma & Grandpa, at their 50th anniversary party.


    They did not have an easy life (Really, who does?). Grandma and Grandpa both worked hard to get their house up the road from the beach. They lost their first two children to the influenza within a year of one another. My grandfather later developed serious health problems that left him bedridden much of the time. My grandmother worked and took care of him. He was never bitter, and never complained about his sickness.


    Despite his lack of a formal education, Grandpa was a bright man, well read, and he loved mathematics and science. When he was bedridden, he spent time figuring out the tides and things like that.


    I remember one day, I noticed that my mother was writing notes in the margin of a book she was reading. I laughed and said, “So THAT’S where I get it from!”


    She laughed, too. “Nope. We get it from my father.” She then showed me a few of his books. There was his writing, sometimes neat and sometimes not so much, in nearly every margin.


    A few months before my mother moved up to live in the apartment next to ours (I believe it was 2005), I visited her. I told her that while I was there, I’d like to walk down to the beach.


    Mom chuckled. “You know how you used to ‘sneak’ out to walk down there?”


    I did not know she knew about that. I did not remember telling her, anyway.


    If she saw my surprised look, she didn’t show it. “Before he got really sick, Grandpa did that. Just about every morning. In the summer, anyway. He liked to climb that old rock wall and watch the sun come up.”


    I was speechless.


    She grinned. “I used to go with him, sometimes. You know that flat rock on top?”


    I nodded.


    “We would sit there. Quiet. Peaceful. Just watching.”


    I couldn’t say anything, and didn’t know what to say, anyway.


    I watched my mother’s eyes. She was far away for a minute. She returned with a smile. “It was so beautiful.”


    I nodded again.


    She gave my shoulder a playful shove. “You know what I mean.”


    I swallowed. “I do.”


    That beach would never be the same for me. Whenever I went again, I would go over to where the rock wall used to be, where I used to go to watch the sunrise, and I would think, an angel was here.