Home Sweet Home
The 3 room Henry Street basement apartment consisted of my mother’s bedroom, a bedroom I shared with my brother, and the kitchen with a bathroom off to the side.
You entered my mother’s front bedroom from the front door of the hallway. It had 2 floor to ceiling windows from which hung plastic textured curtains, which were stained from all the cigarettes she smoked. The curtain motif was plants and leaves. In front of one window was a desk with an old black rotary telephone with the ringer bell inside. A blonde laminated double bed covered with a white chenille bedspread, lay against the opposite wall. Next to that was her matching dresser with mirror. A white plastic doily was placed across the dresser displaying her Coty Emeraude perfume, her White Tower comb/barrett and her box of bobby pins. A place for everything and everything in its place.
No doors separated these 3 rooms. It was one room right after the other- railroad rooms they were called, reminiscent of railroad cars.
No doors, no privacy.
At the back of the apartment was the kitchen, which looked out over the back yard, containing the same 2 floor to ceiling windows with the same nubby, cigarette stained plastic curtains, only this time the motif was strawberries.
A deep double porcelain sink sat by the back door leading out to the hallway which ran from the front of the house to the backyard. I spent many nights being punished in this hallway. I would be forced to sit in the dark, by myself in a chair crying for hours, for some alleged act of defiance. My mother’s words would ring out through the walls, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” She stood fast on her promise.
A red Formica table stood between the 2 kitchen windows with 3 matching plastic covered chairs. Dinner time would find the 3 of us sitting there in our appointed seats.
My mother at one end of the table eating, smoking and reading a romance comic book, not speaking a word. No conversation was allowed at the table, the only sound was the turning of the comic book pages.
My brother’s choice of literature was the X Men Comic books while eating. Mine was Archie and Jughead and Richie Rich the Poor Little Rich Boy.
A huge stove sat on the other side of the room, a stove that was used like a carrot on a stick.
On my afternoon lunch hour from grammar school, I would get home, quietly tiptoe into the house, careful not to wake up my mother, who had worked all night.
There on the table sat a can of Campbell’s Soup- mostly chicken noodle.
Next to it was the can opener- a church key opener it was called. This was the kind of opener that was sharp on one end, so you would stick it in the can, press forward to make a v-shaped hole in the can. You would continue doing this around the perimeter of the can until the very last push. Then you would pry it back, being oh so careful not to get cut from all the jagged edges and presto, you had an open can of soup.
Only problem was, I wasn’t allowed to turn on the stove.
You needed matches for it.
It had to be eaten cold, with the grease floating on top.
The bathroom was off the kitchen, just a toilet and a bathtub, no sink. It was longer than wider, but perfect for another ritual of my mother’s- washing the yellowed Venetian blinds in the tub, and cutting her hands on the sharp aluminum ends.
The small bedroom I shared with my brother, was in the middle- between the kitchen and my mother’s room. On one side of the room was Frankie’s bureau of goodies, trophies, his dime banks, baseballs, glove, and baseball hats. The only closet in the apartment was in this room, housing clothes, the few toys we had, and of course, my mother’s White Tower uniforms. On the other side of the room were our bunk beds with Frankie's perch on top (of course) and me on the bottom.
The bunk beds provided shelter from my mother’s rages. I would throw myself under the bed, trying to escape from her beatings. My brother would jump on the top bunk and roll over as close as he could to the wall where she couldn’t reach with her perfect back hand wallop. I learned pretty quickly on to just lay on the floor and take the beatings. It was worse if she couldn’t get to you.
My brother always seemed to out maneuver her. I was either too small or too scared.
I honestly don’t know which was worse, getting yelled at, getting beaten or just not being spoken to for days and weeks on end. Total indifference or total hate?
There was one ray of light in this room, one bright shining light. My savior,my best friend, TV.
As my brother’s first foray into sexual abuse began, I learned to “disassociate.”
I would lay on the floor, propping my head on my hands, like any other kid watching TV, while he would lay on top on me, humping, humping, humping, until it hurt.
I would ask him to stop and in the bizarre guise of being kind, he would get me a pillow to lie on so my elbows didn’t hurt on the hard floor. Sweet boy. I watched TV as this scene repeated itself one too many times. I will always remember the shows, Superman, Howdy Doody, Roy Rogers. The gyrations would continue until I just couldn't stand it anymore.
He would then get up, go to his tin cup dime bank, and with a butter knife, tip the bank upside down until he could leverage out a dime. He would then hand it to me and say, “Don’t tell Mommy, she’ll think you stole my money.”
Some things don’t change. I still love Superman and I won’t to this day, eat soup.