Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I Can Go Home Again, Part I

I was my parent’s first and much-wanted child. They married in June 1960, and my mother thought something was wrong with her when she hadn’t conceived by the following year. I recently did the calculations, and realize that I was conceived on St. Patrick’s Day 1962, so it was the luck of the Irish! However, my mother wasn’t all that fortunate after all because she was ten days past her due date.

On Saturday night December 15th my father Danny, a CPA, was obligated to host a dinner for accountants at The Elks’ Lodge in Elmhurst, Queens. My mother was at home in their white brick house in Bayside Hills with her younger sister. Elizabeth, then 22, single and still living with my grandparents George and Kathleen (who were two streets down and two avenues over us) went home around 10:00 pm. My mother’s water broke around midnight, the first hour of Sunday, December 16th. Since my mother couldn’t reach my father at The Elks Lodge, she phoned her sister. Elizabeth rushed back over to make the drive St. Alban’s Naval Hospital. Since my mother was not having any contractions and I was in a frank breech position nearly every doctor on the maternity ward examined her, and they debated about how to proceed with this difficult delivery. My father finally had been contacted, and he rushed to the hospital. Elizabeth said he broke down in the waiting room and cried over the possibility of losing both his wife and child. Mommy suffered for over 24 hours before I was delivered by C-section at 12:32 a.m. on Monday, December 17th..

After her delivery ordeal and surgery, my mother was supposed to stay in the hospital for ten days. However, she was determined to make sure I would be home before Christmas. There was a blizzard that December 24th and so my father parked our ‘56 Chevy in the next-door neighbors' driveway to gain easy access to the side entrance of our house. Helen and Margarite were sisters, two maiden ladies born in the late 19th century.  Once inside, with my mother settled in bed, Daddy held me up to our kitchen window so the ladies could catch a glimpse of me from their own kitchen.  Mommy had been very thin to begin with and looked emaciated after her difficult delivery and surgery. Helen cooked up and then brought over a vat of rice pudding with the intention of fattening up my mother.  Mommy didn’t have the heart to tell Helen that she hated rice pudding. It didn’t matter as Daddy ate the entire pot himself. 

The weather improved over the next three weeks, and I was baptized at our parish church St. Robert Bellarmine where my parents were married, and my mother also had been baptized. My christening was on January 6, 1963, “Little Christmas,” the Feast of the Epiphany. My parents chose Aunt Elizabeth as my godmother and Uncle Jimmy, Daddy’s only and younger brother, as my godfather. I officially became part of the community, free of the guilt and punishment of original sin, and not a moment too soon.

My childhood in Bayside was exceedingly happy. Mommy enjoyed being a mother more than anything she ever could have imagined. She was fully engaged in raising her child, and documented every first with photos and entries in my baby book. During my first two years, Mommy bought me a new toy on the 17th of the month. I inherited her passion for reading, which I learned to do by 2-½. I was the apple of Daddy’s eye, and I relished his teasing me with nicknames like “Sarah Bernhardt“ and “Miss Know-it-All.” Like many father’s of Baby Boomer daughters, Daddy’s choice of lullaby to me was “Daddy’s Little Girl.” I came to love being awake at night because Daddy had insomnia, and I would get up to be with him, watching old movies on The Late Late Show.

When Grandpa retired from Con-Ed, he used to drop by our house every day using the ruse that he merely wanted to drop off The Daily News. My earliest memory is being ten-months-old and out for a walk in my baby carriage with Grandpa pushing me along. I still can see his blue eyes, which actually did twinkle, and the Fedora which he wore any time he left the house. This wasn’t merely for fashion’s sake but because he lost all of his hair after a bout of pleurisy as a young man. We frequently went to their home to see Grandma since, due to having multiple sclerosis, she mostly was housebound. Grandma had emigrated to New York from County Meath, Ireland in October 1929. She and Grandpa married in 1931, and they had five children, four girls and a boy (although their first child Agnes lived but one day, January 1, 1933). Grandma was an incredible cook and homemaker, and I spent many happy hours with her. I perched on a small stool next to the stove and watched her make meals. She had one drawer in the kitchen filled with jam jar lids and the white cardboard paper separating the teabags in the Tetley box. These were my treasures! We would go out to the back stoop, and I would hand Grandma the clothespins as she hung up the laundry to dry on the line. My Aunt Elizabeth didn’t marry until July 1965, and we mutually adored one another. She always got a kick out of my precociousness. There were so many things I loved about her--the easy way she laughed, her ladylike manners, the way her purse was organized and contained just the right stuff, like tissues, gum, and a comb. My fixation on the purse began quite early as I preferred to sleep in my crib with Mommy’s old black leather handbag instead of dolls or stuffed animals.

My parents’ closest friends were the Caulfields and the McKennas. Bill and Eileen Caulfield moved to 215th Street in November 1964 with their daughters Kari (one month older than me) and newborn Frani.  Soonafter Bill and Eileen were in a terrible car wreck, and so Nana, Eileen’s mother, came down from the Bronx to take care of the babies and their injured parents. Eileen’s sister Frances also came down to help. She liked the neighborhood so much that she and her husband Dick, their children Dick, Susan and Kett (who is 7 weeks older than me) moved in to the house diagonally across the street from ours. We were like one big extended Irish-Catholic clan. For seven years we were entwined intricately in one another’s lives. There were legendary all-night summer parties held in each of our different backyards. While I preferred to listen to the grown-ups tell stories and sing songs like "The Irish Soldier Boy," Kari and Kett liked mischief.  They would get their hands on cherry bombs any chance they could. Sometimes they dug holes in the front lawn and then chased me around, hoping I would trip. I did, and broke my coccyx (tailbone) at least three times. They always were sorry--they truly couldn’t help themselves--and we three were great pals. We attended one another’s First Communion parties, and the christenings of our younger siblings. All of us went on several family vacations in The Catskills, “The Irish Alps” as we called it. I felt loved, safe, and connected to my family, my parish, my neighbors and my friends.

The Sixties came to an end, and my father was hired away from the IRS by Exxon in 1971 after he frightened their Tax Department with his brilliance during an audit. By August 1972 he and my mother had saved enough money to purchase a home in Munsey Park, an incorporated village in Manhasset on the North Shore of Long Island. According to Wikipedia, Manhasset is a
hamlet (a census-designated place) and neighborhood in Nassau County, New York, on the North Shore of Long Island. As of the United States 2000 Census, the population was 8,362. Manhasset is a Native American term that translates to "the island neighborhood." In 2005, a Wall Street Journal article ranked Manhasset as the best town for raising a family in the New York metropolitan area. While we only moved 4.6 miles east of Bayside, Manhasset was a completely different hometown. {End Part I}

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