My first conscious memory is of being three years old and looking down at my new baby brother with a mixture of curiosity and distress. His crib had not been delivered on time, and he was sleeping in my doll carriage, thereby displacing my favorite doll, who was ready for her nap.
Luke and Nora, my father and mother, had kept company for seven years, a typical Irish courtship. He was forty-two and she pushing forty when they finally tied the knot. They had Joseph within the year; me, Mary, nineteen months later; and Mother celebrated her forty-fifth birthday by giving birth to Johnny. The story is that when the doctor went into her room, saw the newborn in her arms and the rosary entwined in her fingers, he observed, "I assume this one is Jesus."
Since we weren't Hispanic, in which culture Jesus is a common name, John, the first cousin of the Holy Family, was the closest Mother could get. Later when we were all in St. Francis Xavier School and instructed to write J.M.J., which stood for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, on the top of our test papers, I thought it was a tribute to Joe and me and Johnny.
The year 1931, when Johnny made his appearance, was a good one in our modest world. My father's Irish pub was flourishing. In anticipation of the new arrival, my parents had purchased a home in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx. At that time more rural than suburban, it was only two streets away from Angelina's farm. Angelina, a wizened elderly lady, would show up every afternoon on the street outside our house, pushing a cart with fresh fruit and vegetables.
"God blessa your momma, your poppa, tella them I gotta lotsa nicea stringabeans today," she would say.
Our house, 1913 Tenbroeck Avenue, was a semidetached six-room brick-and-stucco structure with a second half bath in a particularly chilly section of the basement. My mother's joy in having her own home was only slightly lessened by the fact that she and my father had paid ten thousand five for it, while Anne and Charlie Potters, who bought the other side, had only paid ten thousand dollars for the identical space.
"It's because your father has his own business, and we were driving an expensive new car," she lamented.
But the expensive new car, a Nash, had sprung an oil leak as they drove it out of the showroom. "It was the beginning of our luck going sour," she would later reminisce.
The Depression had set in with grim reality. I remember as a small child regularly watching Mother answering the door to find a man standing there, his clothes clean but frayed, his manner courteous. He was looking for work, any kind of work. Did anything need repairing or painting? And if not, could we possibly help him out with a cup of coffee, and maybe something to eat.
Mother never turned away anyone. She left a card table in the foyer and would willingly fix a meal for the unexpected guest. Juice, coffee, a soft-boiled egg and toast in the morning, sandwiches and tea for lunch. I don't remember anyone ringing the bell after midafternoon. By then, God help them, they were probably on their way home, if they had a home to go to, with the disheartening news that there was no work to be had.
I loved our house and our neighborhood. Mine was the little room, its window over the front door. I would wake in the morning to the clipclop of the horses pulling the milk and bread wagons. Borden's milk. Dugan's bread and cake. Sights that have passed into oblivion as surely as the patient horses and creaking wagons that teased me awake and comforted me with their familiarity all those years ago. A box was in permanent residence on the front steps of our house to hold the milk bottles. In the winter, I used to gauge the temperature by checking to see if the cream at the top of the bottles had frozen, forcing the cardboard lids to rise.
During the summer, in midafternoon, we'd all be alert for the sound of jingling bells that meant that Eddy, the Good Humor Man, was wheeling his heavy bicycle around the corner. Looking back, I realize he couldn't have been more than in his early thirties. With a genuine smile and the patience of Job, he waited while the kids gathered around him, agonizing over their choice of flavor.
All of us had the same routine: a nickle on weekdays for a Dixie cup; a dime on Sunday for a Good Humor on a stick. That was the hardest day for making up my mind. I loved burnt almond over vanilla ice cream. On the other hand, I also loved chocolate over chocolate.
Once the choice had been made, the trick for Joe and John and me was to see who could make the ice cream last the longest so that the other guys' tongues would be hanging out as they watched the winner enjoy those final licks. The problem was that on hot Sundays the ice cream melted faster, and it wasn't unusual for the one who made it last the longest to see half the Good Humor slide off the stick and land on the ground. Then the howls of anguish from the afflicted delighted the other two, who now had the satisfaction of chanting, "Ha, ha. Thought you were so smart."
Eddy the Good Humor Man had lost the thumb and index finger of his left hand up to the knuckle. He explained that there had been something wrong with the spring of the heavy refrigerator lid, and it had smashed down on those fingers. "But it was a good accident," he explained. "The company gave me forty-two dollars, and I was able to buy a winter coat for my wife. She really needed one."
The Depression didn't really hit our family until I was in the third or fourth grade. We had a cleaning woman, German Mary, whom we called "Lally" because she would come up the block singing, "Lalalalaaaaa." Years later, she became the model for Lally in my second book, A Stranger Is Watching. Back then, she was the first perk to go.
We always had two copies of the Times delivered each day. One copy was saved, and I delivered it to the convent on my way to school the next morning. In those days the nuns were not allowed to read the current day's paper. But as times got increasingly tough, they were out of luck. Mother had to cancel the delivery of both papers. I guess when you think about it, the delivery guy was out of luck, too.
I wrote my first poem when I was six. I still have it because Mother saved everything I wrote. She also insisted that I recite everything I wrote for the benefit of anyone who happened to be visiting. Since she had four sisters and many cousins, all of whom visited frequently, I am sure there must have been regular if silent groans when she would announce, "Mary has written a lovely new poem today. She has promised to recite it for us. Mary, stand on the landing and recite your lovely new poem."
When I was finished thrilling everyone with my latest gem, my mother led the applause. "Mary is very gifted," she would announce. "Mary is going to be a successful writer when she grows up."
Looking back, I am sure that the captive audience was ready to strangle me, but I am intensely grateful for that early vote of absolute confidence I received. When I started sending out short stories and getting them back by return mail, I never got discouraged. Mother's voice always rang in my subconscious. Someday I was going to be a successful writer. I was going to make it.
That's why, if I may, I'd like to direct a few words to parents and teachers: When a child comes to you wanting to share something he or she has written or sketched, be generous with your praise. If it's a written piece, don't talk about the spelling or the penmanship; look for the creativity and applaud it. The flame of inspiration needs to be encouraged. Put a glass around that small candle and protect it from discouragement or ridicule.
I also started writing skits, which I bullied Joe and John into performing with me. I served as writer, director, producer, and star. I remember Johnny's plaintive request, "Can't I ever be the star?"
"No, I wrote it," I explained. "When you write it, you get to be the star."
Mother's unmarried sisters, May and Agnes, were our most frequent visitors and therefore the longest suffering witnesses to my developing talent. May was eleven months older than Mother and, like her, had been a buyer in a Fifth Avenue department store. Ag, the second youngest in the family, fell in love at twenty-four with Bill Barrett, a good-looking, affable detective, fourteen years her senior. There was one fly in the ointment: old Mrs. Barrett, Bill's mother, who spent most of her life with her feet on the couch, had begged Bill not to marry until God called her. She was sure her death was imminent and wanted him under her roof when her time came.
Months became years. Everyone loved Bill, but from time to time I could hear Mother urging Agnes to ask him about his intentions. They had been keeping company for twenty-four years when God finally beckoned a Barrett, but it was Bill, not his mother, who died. At ninety-five she was still going strong. Her other son, who'd been smart enough to marry young, shipped her to a nursing home. Guess who visited her regularly? Agnes.
At seven I was given a five-year diary, one of those leather-bound jobs with four lines allotted for each day and a tiny gold key which, of course, locks nothing. The first entry didn't show much promise. Here it is, in its entirety:
"Nothing much happened today."
But then the pages began to fill, crammed with the day-to-day happenings on Tenbroeck Avenue among friends and family.
When Mother's sisters and cousins and courtesy cousins came to visit, the stories would begin around the dining room table, over the teacups.
Nora, remember Cousin Fred showing up at your wedding?...
Mother had sent an invitation to some remote cousins in Pennsylvania, forgetting that Cousin Fred had a lifetime railroad pass. He and his wife showed up on her doorstep the morning of the wedding, their nine-year-old grandson in tow. The lifetime pass included the family. Mother ended up cooking breakfast for them and having the kid running around the house while she and May dressed.
Nora, remember how that fellow you were seeing invited Agnes to the formal dance and Poppa was in a rage? "No man comes into my house and chooses between my daughters," he said.
I loved the old stories. The boys had no patience for them, but I drank them in with the tea. As long as I didn't fidget, I was always welcome to stay.
Our next door neighbor, Annie Potters, often joined the group. Charlie, a chubby policeman, was Annie's second husband. She'd been widowed during the flu epidemic of 1917, when she was twenty years old. That husband, Bill O'Keefe, rested in her memory as "my Bill." Charlie was "my Charlie." They married when both were in their late thirties.
"I was so lonesome," Annie would reminisce. "Every night I'd cry in my bed for my Bill. But nobody wants to hear your troubles, so I always kept a smile on my face. They called me the Merry Widow. Then I met my Charlie."
Charlie died many years later, at the age of seventy, and two years after that Annie married "my Joe." When God called him to join his predecessors, Annie began looking around but hadn't connected by the time she was reunited with her spouses.
A woman with a jutting jaw and dyed red hair, Annie had one of the first permanent waves ever given in the Bronx.
Unfortunately, when the heavy metal coils were removed, 60 percent of her hair permanently disappeared with them. Nevertheless, when she looked in the mirror, she saw Helen of Troy and conducted herself accordingly. Annie was the model for my continuing character, Alvirah, the Lottery Winner.
At home, the money situation grew tighter, and my father was looking more and more exhausted. His routine had been to sleep until eleven, have brunch, go to "the place," as he called the pub, come home at five o'clock for a family dinner, then go back to the place until three in the morning.
As he had to let one bartender go, then a waiter, and finally the extra bartender, he began to get up earlier and earlier to take over the ordering of supplies and the other details that his employees had formerly handled.
The problem was that in those days people ran tabs. They charged drinks, they charged their dinners, and then they couldn't pay their bills. If credit was refused, they simply went somewhere else where new credit was easily granted in the hope that payment eventually would be made.
Mother said that the people who were lucky were the ones who worked for the government -- teachers, firemen, policemen. Maybe that was the reason that when I reached dating age, her prayer for me was that I'd marry an Irish Catholic with a city job, so I'd always have a pension.
But things were tight even in the city government. Mayor LaGuardia disbanded the Policemen's Glee Club, of which Charlie Potters was a charter member. That meant that Charlie was back directing traffic and could be heard muttering about how "the fat little midget bastard in City Hall was destroying the city's culture."
Annie's father, Mr. Fitzgerald, lived with his daughter and her husband. Known on the block as Old Man Fitz, he'd sit by the hour on the divider between our stoops, puffing on a pipe, his skinny behind protected by a thick pillow. Every so often he'd moan, "Oh, my God," which if you happened to be passing by was a touch unnerving.
Mother decided that if she rented the little room, my room, it would bring in extra money, and so we took in a boarder. We could not know then that our first roomer was but a preview of coming attractions. She was a slender lady of uncertain age, with pale skin, limpid eyes, and wispy hair that she wrapped in a loose chignon.
Her wardrobe was sufficient to clothe a convention of similarly sized women. Her effects began to arrive the week before she joined us: a steamer trunk, suitcases, hat boxes. I wondered if she thought she had rented the whole house.
Then she arrived, and a problem soon became evident. She began her morning toilette at 5:30 A.M. Back and forth from the little room to the bathroom she flip-flopped on backless high-heeled sandals. The tub roared. The sink gushed.
She flushed the toilet at two minute intervals. It was Joe's theory that she was giving individual pieces of Kleenex a ride through the sewer system.
The bathroom shared a common wall with my father's bedroom. Daddy was already sleep-deprived, so the last thing he needed was our new tenant. She lasted only one week, so I got my little room back again, at least temporarily.
Saturdays we went to the movies. Ten cents bought an afternoon's entertainment consisting of a double feature, previews of coming attractions, a cartoon, Movietone News ("The eyes and ears of the world") and a Lone Ranger serial.
On the way home, we went to confession, hoping to avoid Father Campbell, who could have headed the Spanish Inquisition. I remember trembling as I confessed that I had looked up a bad word in the dictionary.
The word was "damn," and my curiosity had been aroused by the difference between the damned who were going to hell, and Mother telling Daddy to "give up the damn place before it kills you."
Father Campbell didn't ask what word I'd looked up. He lectured me on using my eyes for sinful purposes.
Johnny fared a lot better. When he was mad at me and sprinkled sugar over my baked potato, Mother told him to confess because it was a sin to waste food.
He was smart. He went to Father Breen, who was a doll.
"What did Father say when you told him what you had done?" Mother demanded.
There were three girls on the block who were my constant companions: Mary Catherine, Caroline, and Jackie. One day we decided to start a club. Mary Catherine was elected president, Caroline vice-president, and I became secretary. That meant that by default Jackie was the only nonofficer.
Seeing the disappointment on her face, I suggested we hold a new election. Unfortunately I didn't present my full plan, which was that we elect Jackie treasurer and then recruit two younger girls, Joan Murphy and Cookie Hilmer, as dues-paying members.
We had the new election, and I became the only member without a title. At the age of ten, I learned that sometimes we can be too altruistic.
In the meantime, the money situation worsened. The generous household allowance my father gave my mother had to be tightened, and then tightened again.I don't remember a single night of my childhood that my father was home for an entire evening, except for the Friday evening in May when he didn't go back to work. He said he wasn't feeling well.
The month of May was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The nuns suggested that it would be nice if good Catholic children, especially the girls, made the sacrifice of going to Mass on Saturday morning. That was why on Saturday, May 6, 1939, I was returning from the seven o'clock Mass when I turned the corner on Tenbroeck Avenue and saw a police car outside our house. My father had died in his sleep.
He was scheduled to go into court on Monday. A judgment had been issued against him for an overdue liquor bill. My mother had begged him to call the supplier, ask for more time, explain that no one was paying him. His answer had been, "Nora, a gentleman pays his bills." He was fifty-four years old.
I'd always been a "Daddy's girl." On Cape Cod, the early settlers called it the "tortience," that special bond which often exists between a father and daughter. My father had been born in Roscommon, Ireland, and came to the United States in 1905 when he was twenty-one. I have the record of his arrival at Ellis Island that states he had five pounds in his pocket. Ten years later he became an American citizen. In those days he had to swear that he was neither an anarchist nor a polygamist and that he renounced his loyalty to George V, king of England.
The time I had with him was all too limited. Looking back, I'm glad that I had severe childhood asthma and frequently missed school. When the attacks came, I'd spend a good part of the night wheezing and gasping for breath, but in the morning the asthma would ease off, and I'd go downstairs to share brunch with him.
A certain scent still reminds me of his shaving lotion. Phrases of songs he sang to me, off-key if my aunt Agnes was to be believed, still run through my mind. "Sunday night is my delight..." That's all I can remember. The rest of the words are gone.
My memory of his physical appearance remains vivid, as I see a man just under six feet tall with thinning hair and a strong face. He had a quiet voice. " 'Tis, dear," was the way he would answer my questions in the affirmative. Like the brother and sister who came to the United States within a year or two of him, he did not have a brogue, just a few expressions and a lilt in his voice that was the gift of his Irish ancestry. Years ago I met an elderly cousin in London who had been raised in Ireland. He was the son of my father's oldest sister. "I looked like Luke when I was growing up," he explained. "And as your granddad got older, he would call me Luke. Your dad was his favorite."
My father always intended to go back to Ireland, but he never made it. There was never that much time to get away from the bar and grill.
On Sunday afternoons, he would come home to take us for a drive, and, further proof of our relative early prosperity, we had a summer cottage in Silver Beach Gardens, a small enclave on Long Island Sound at the tip of the east Bronx.
The way to Silver Beach passed St. Raymond's Cemetery. He would point out the flower shop adjacent to the cemetery. It had a small porch with an outdoor table. "And there, my dear," he would remind me, "is the place where the ransom note for the baby was left."
The Crime of the Century. The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. The first tangible clue, the ransom note had been placed beneath that table.
We did have one memorable outing when I was five years old. My cousin Veronica had decided to become a nun, and we went to visit her in Tarrytown at the convent where she was a postulant.
It was a snowy day, and the convent was at the top of a steep hill. The road was slick with ice, and the car started to slide backwards, weaving from side to side as it meandered with increasing speed down toward the busy road. Joseph and I were in the back seat, my mother in front. As my father frantically tried to regain control of the automobile, Mother cried, "Luke. Luke. Stop the car. Think of the children!"
"God almighty, Nora," he barked. "Do you think this is my idea of driving?"
I remember standing in the backyard with him, shortly before he died, as he pointed to a dirigible floating overhead. It was the Hindenberg, and my father explained that it was the new way people would travel long distances. It exploded minutes later in one of the most famous disasters of the twentieth century, and I always claimed that I heard the explosion. But probably it was the sound of it on the radio report that became seared in my mind.
"Sunday night is my delight..." The rest of the song is gone. Just as I knew in those first moments as I raced up the stairs, ran down the hall into the bedroom, sank to my knees, and reached for his hand that Daddy was gone. Three days later, Eddy came down the block, the Good Humor bells jingling. He asked me why I was dressed up. I explained that we had been at my father's funeral.
He was shocked. "If I had known, I wouldn't have rung my bells on this block," he said apologetically.
Ask not for whom the bells toll -- or don't toll.
My father had paid Social Security for his employees, but it was six months after his death that the law was changed to include employers. Mother tried to get a job, but she was sent home by the employment agencies.
"We can't get work for college graduates," they told her. "You're fifty-two and haven't held a job in fourteen years. Go home and save your carfare."
That was when she put on her "thinking cap," as she called it, and decided that the solution would be to rent rooms. Once more, I gave up my little room, and we all moved downstairs. The dining room was turned into a bedroom, and a divan was put in the living room.
Mother reasoned that by renting the two big bedrooms for five dollars a week each, and my room for three dollars, we'd make enough to cover the interest on the mortgage and taxes on the house. At that time so many people could no longer afford to amortize their mortgages that the banks had suspended their demand for payments. They didn't want all the houses dumped on them.
Mother didn't drive, and since the car had been sold, she figured that we might be able to rent the garage for five dollars a month. In the meantime she would stretch the two thousand dollars in insurance money as far as possible.
Joe turned thirteen the week after my father died. He took a newspaper route. Mother began baby-sitting, and so did I. There was a neighbor whose infant I happily minded as I tried to puzzle out the gossip I had heard that the neighbor had been "caught during the change."
Johnny volunteered to help clean out the garage to get it ready for a potential renter and ended up setting fire to it.
It turned out to be a good fire. We got insurance money for the screens that were stored on the shelves in the back of the garage, along with several carpets and other odds and ends.
Mother never would take a penny that wasn't hers, but she believed passionately in the beauty and value of everything she owned. The results of the fire were shiny new screen doors and windows and some much-appreciated cash, which compensated her for her "good rugs."
She put a discreet sign next to the front door: FURNISHED ROOMS. KITCHEN PRIVILEGES.
The neighbors didn't mind "Furnished Rooms." But "Kitchen Privileges," they hinted, brought down the tone of the neighborhood. Ever obliging, Mother cut the bottom half off the sign, thankful that she hadn't wasted money on a metal sign that would have proved unalterable.
She also put an ad in the Bronx Home News.The next day we waited for the phone to ring.
Copyright © 2002 by Mary Higgins Clark
Kitchen Privileges : A Memoir