Except for arithmetic, I enjoyed second-grade at Oliver Street School—especially art class. One day, in the spring of 1952, I cheerfully skipped most of the way home, eager for everyone’s reaction to the drawing I made of the family—me and Jimmy, mom and dad, and Baby Susan.
But when I turned on to Jefferson Street, my happiness gradually drained away as I walked past two women sitting on their front stoop.
One pointed at me with her chin and said, “There goes Eddie’s daughter.”
I smiled to myself. Everybody liked my dad.
The other woman said, “Look how skinny she is.”
The kids in the neighborhood teasingly called me Joanie Baloney Stick of Macaroni. That didn’t bother me. We all had silly names for each other.
The first woman piped up again. “She looks so sickly with those dark circles under her eyes.”
Sickly? I walked right in front of them, merely a few feet away on the sidewalk. Didn’t they realize I could hear them?
“It’s no wonder she’s sickly, with a mother like that.”
“I heard they found her drunk in an alley.”
“Not just drunk. She was laying in her own vomit.”
I stared straight ahead, pretended I hadn’t heard them, and quickened my pace. I knew my mother drank because every Saturday she would pick me up in a taxi and take me to a tavern where I’d spin around on the bar stools and swizzle pretzels in my orange soda. I never gave much thought to where I spent Saturdays with my mother. After all, I grew up living upstairs from Grandpa’s tavern, a place that felt like home to me. As a young child, I pushed my doll carriage around the barroom tables. But now, what those women said sickened me.
My house, a three-story red brick building, stood on a corner a half block away. Grandpa’s tavern took up most of the first floor. He and Grandma lived in the back rooms, where they shared a kitchen and bedroom. When Grandma needed the bathroom, she had to use the tavern’s Ladies room, and all television viewing had to be done in the bar as well. My family lived on the second-floor in a three-bedroom apartment, and my Aunt Ann and her two sons lived on the third floor.
On this day, after hearing what the women said, I stomped into the tavern and hurried through to the back kitchen. Grandma stood at the stove wearing an apron over a loose-fitting printed dress. She lowered the flame under a large pot, the contents of which smelled awful.
“What stinks?” I wrinkled my nose.
“I’m soaking beef kidneys for stew.”
I grimaced. “I don’t want any.”
“It’s not for you.” Grandma was a large woman, tall and fat—the opposite of my thin grandfather. Together, they reminded me of the nursery rhyme about skinny Jack Sprat and his fat wife.
She turned from the stove and peered at me. “What’s the matter? Did something happen?”
I nodded my head. “I need to ask you something.” I took the chance that Grandma would tell me what Dad always said I was too young to hear.
Grandma pulled a chair away from the kitchen table and sat down heavily. “What’s that in your hand?”
“It’s a picture I drew in school.”
“Let me see.” She pointed to the drawing of my father. “What’s that blue thing on his head?”
“Our parakeet, Nipper.”
Grandma smiled and placed the drawing on the table. “Tell me what’s bothering you.”
I told Grandma everything the women said. “Did they tell the truth?”
Grandma pulled the chair out next to her. “Sit down, Joanie.” She drummed her fingers on the huge wooden table. I stared at them, crooked from arthritis, not knowing that my father’s fingers would eventually look the same way, and ultimately so would my own.
I sat on the edge of the chair, rested my chin on my hands, and listened to how I came to live with my father, not my mother. Before Grandma was halfway through, I hoped the story was a fairytale about some other child, not me.
“When you were just a baby,” she began, “your mother put you in a boarding home and ran off with a man to California. We had no idea where to look for you, and when we did find you it was almost too late.”
“What do you mean?” My eyes teared up. Grandma rummaged in her apron pocket and handed me a handkerchief.
“You were so dehydrated you nearly died. Thank God, we found you when we did.”
The thought of almost dying scared me, and I wished I hadn’t questioned my grandmother after all.
All these years later, I appreciate why my father refused to tell me anything about my mother. He tried to protect me from knowing the truth so young—a seven-year-old’s self-esteem is fragile. Looking back on that talk with Grandma, I wonder why she was so forthcoming with the details—why she didn’t lie and tell me my mother was sick, not drunk, and that those women made it all up. I wish I had stopped her, said, never mind, but I couldn’t. I hated what she told me, yet I had to know.
“Your father tried to take you out of the boarding home,” she continued, “but he didn’t have legal custody, so the police had to bring your mother back from California.”
Grandma explained that the laws at the time did not allow fathers to have custody of their children unless or until the father remarried. “So, because the judge determined your mother unfit to raise you, they placed you in my care until your father married Jay.”
“I lived down here? In back of the tavern?”
“Between here and upstairs with your Aunt Ann.”
“What about Daddy?”
“He stopped in every night after work to see you.”
By the time Gram finished the telling, something inside me broke. “I should go home now,” I said, gathering the drawing I had been so proud to show. I climbed the hall stairs to the second floor and locked myself in the bathroom. I inspected my face in the mirror over the sink. Am I sickly? I frowned at the circles under my eyes and the pale complexion I had never noticed before. I looked at my arms and legs, observed for the first time how thin and angular they were.
I suddenly felt ugly. Not just outside, but inside as well. Damaged. Something unlovable and easily discarded.
In the blink of an eye, I realized how different I was from the rest of my family. My cousins, my stepbrother and half-sister, lived with their mothers. Their mothers who weren’t drunks. For the first time, I felt different from everyone else, a feeling I never had before.
I looked into the mirror again and at that moment, my mother’s shame spread over me, and I realized I never really belonged to this family—I was an outsider. I picked my drawing up from the vanity, tore it into tiny pieces, and flushed the pieces down the toilet. From that day forward, I wore my mother’s shame like a cloak.