Category Archives: Memoir Pieces

Mocking Masks

Glazed figurines
of marblesque perfection
in skilled arrangements
cold and impersonal
(number please)

Nodding heads at
wrong moments.
minds spinning –
a hundred questions
flooded with fear.

Speaking at one
while eyes flick
upon each new member
a few pennies worth
of measuring up,
a dime store delight
of tasteless fantasies.

Masks carefully applied
to stunning perfection
concealing humanness,
replacing warmth
with mock conviviality.

Love is . . .

Love isn’t the brassy blare of a band, marching down the avenue on July 4th’s celebration. Oh, to be sure – that is part of it – loud jangles, crash of cymbals, heartbeat of drums. But love has many faces, some apparent, some quite deceptive.

Love is the gentle stirrings evoked by a walk after a thunderstorm’s power, smelling the earth, watching lightening flitter over the New York skyline, curled up on a rock, and telling each other of your pasts, and peoples – speaking in reverence and caring tones.

Love is the sharp pain of betrayal and the shooting stabs of hurt inflicted upon sensitive, fragile egos that make one near in anger and rage – defending yourself at risk of rejection – yet believing, nonetheless, first in your own sense of worth.  Being able to say “fuck you” to the one you love.

Love is the despair and confusion and insecurity brought forth in opening yourself up to another person.  Of being aware of his frailties and still wanting him more than ever – because of those faults not in spite of them. Of seeing the flaws yet not running away.  Of opening yourself , baring your soul when trust is just a mirage, still to become real from knowing your love, facing it and not walking away, and of having to tell that other person that love is there – whether or not he chooses to respond in kind.  Of wanting so much to hear the words “I Love You”, yet not pressing but allowing them to come of their on accord at a time of his choosing – if at all.

Love is passion and the exploration of a body found wildly exciting – seeking those hidden sources of pleasure, being sexually vulnerable.  And love is those quiet ripples that float through your body as you see the one you love or think of him during the course of your day.  Love is giving and taking- together or apart – the stillness of soul touching – the fire of lust, the knowledge that this is something different than any before or any after, but that a part of you, larger than ever before, rests in the hands of another, and you are content, or largely so, to have it that way.  Love is a gift from God to be savored, enjoyed revered, for each moment it is a part of you.

Love is encouraging the strengths in the other, urging him to grow and explore facets of himself.  Being a source of strength rather than drowning him in your need.  Love is knowing the relationship may end yet moving forward in self-determination, with trust and belief gathering your courage about you, a mantle of strength in the storm of emotion.  Love is knowing that love may change in form and substance, devolving into a well of despair, fragmenting, feathering away into a manifestation of a different making – yet Love still.  Love is holding still the trembling of the soul.

Love is the bringing into the world two children to bless this union. Children precious, deserving of all that is good.  Physical manifestations of love and passion.  Children who bear witness of good and ill. Who bear the scars of devastation.

Love is the torture of knowing your love was always far greater than his. Of sustaining emotional scars, physical bondage, inquisitions, blasphemies, of running and hiding to escape his wrath. Of finally, running away, knowing not to do so would mean your death, be it emotional or physical.

Love is the PTSD moments after the Fall. Twenty years later.  The choosing aloneness rather than taking the risk of opening yourself up again.  Of the nightmares that continue, again and again, of what it turned out to be.  Of the ending, cruel, painful, devastating in consequences not just for the two of you, but for the children brought forth from the union of those souls.  Of the never ending trauma that follows in your wake, curling in sadness and despair deep within.

New Neighbors

I stood at the window, gazing down as the cops “escorted” another drug addict from the building.  “Isn’t the first, won’t be the last”, I mumbled as I watched the three of them talking.  “Damn Bryson” I mouthed as I thought how one more time he had found “good guys” to be renters. They were always problems one way or the other, generally met at the local bar.

When I pulled into the driveway just minutes before I could see two police cars in between the drug dealer’s place and this apartment building.  I figured they had come here when I saw one of the guys’ car at a slant, blocking the two other cars in the parking lot. As this was a supreme no,no, I figured the cops were here, at the apartment that had been moved into just a few weeks ago.

Now it was just a matter of getting the story from one of the other tenants. Dee is always the go-to gal.  She knows everything that has gone on in the building for the last twenty years, because she has lived here that long and has a nose for trouble.  Years ago, she had a relationship with Byron so their’s is a complicated story.  She’s the “Building Manager” and handles what emergencies come up unless they require Byron’s hand.  All of her children have lived in the building, at one time or another, with their families.

Dee reported Matt, one of the guys upstairs, had called the police because a guy who had spent a couple of nights was being disruptive and needed to be removed, and not going on his own. Matt is trying hard to maintain some control in an apartment with 2 other guys, both addicts of one kind or another.  Matt has his own issues.  He is the only one working but he is on the slow side. Dee said the police were being real jerks, treating Matt as if he were the issue, frisking him and jeering at his lack of ability to control the situation on his own.

I told Dee about Matt’s car blocking her car and another tenant’s.  She grumpily went up to tell Matt he had to move the car.  She watched out the window as Matt went outside, looked perplexed, scratched his head, and moved the car forward a couple of feet.  Turns out, as Dee and I had been talking, Matt had moved is car to its accustomed place. Dee and I laughed our butts off.

For Better or Worse

His memory lingers
long after the last door slam,
to unsettle emotions
and distort newly held beliefs
His legacy bequeathed
in the divorce settlement
are ripples on a mirror surface. . .
the crinkles of eyes laughing
arms meant for holding,
thoughtful insight of a kind
rarely seen in the eyes of men.
And yet,
the papers speak
of a different reality,
of dreams gone awry,
and a world spinning of balance.
No regrets –
but sometimes, in quiet moments,
when I forget to raise my shields,
the memory of his eyes
as he made love to me
tears at my heart,
that I remember
there won’t be another
such as he . . .
for better or worse.

In times of greatest anger
I find myself wondering
where did that great love go?
It is here, pocketed within secret places,
to emerge in the peace of the night
and remind me
how great the loss was
to walk away in anger
and carry the love.

Sifting through the Ashes

So many years since my parents have died and yet they walk through my life day by day, hour by hour.  Is this so for everyone? Sifting through our ashes, seeing the truths or remolding childhood witnessing into more truthful adult understandings. . . or should they be upended?  Aren’t my life experiences as a child as equal, or more so, than their adult counterparts?

Isn’t the fact my father and I played a game where he blew his pipe smoke in my face because it  made me exclaim for him to stop but we both laughed just as valid as my understanding that it was the underpinnings of my attraction and addiction to tobacco, and later COPD and asthma?  Or my coming in drunk from some beer bash and sitting up with him for hours talking about the world, the universe, my present, later to realize he had been drinking too and it was a tactic acknowledgement of drinking as acceptable, even essential?  Just as Christmas brings misgivings driven both my the year we snuck downstairs to see an entire kitchen and bikes our size as well as the one when Dad knocked over the Tree in a fit of alcohol fumes?

As an adult, I moved back to Connecticut, staying in my mother’s room while looking for a home of my own. Within those walls, Mom and I made peace with each other.  I finally felt her life, what made her, why she was such an angry person much of the time, overwhelmingly generous at others.  I understood why she was angry with me, frustrated at my weaknesses, as she co-dependently made right my many, many mistakes. I forgave her transgressions. And felt her presence at the foot of the bed and with the Shirley Temple collection, the first dolls she ever owned.

Yet these two people gave us such treasures.  As a Minister’s family, we moved frequently, as my Mom did, from one Brooklyn apartment to another when the rent ran out.  So when Mom saw a tiny ad for a 250 year cabin on 50 acres a 17 hour trip away, she bought it sight unseen  so we would, no matter how many times we had to move.

Every summer she would take off work, bringing us up to our spiritual center for 2 months, Father joining us under his vacation. Now I look back to see how hard she worked on the cabin, making it safe and livable for us.  Understand, as a mother myself, the frustration she would sometimes feel as a single mom for such a long time.  Laugh at when she sent my wayward brother to the garden to remove rocks when he did, frequently, something outrageous.

Memories fill the furniture in my apartment.  A teacart given from a barn in exchange for a loaf of bread, now well over 150 years old. The carved, wooden screen behind it, a much beloved piece from my grandmother.  My “distressed” childhood dresser and toddler rocker. The cut glass pieces my mother so dearly collected in a beautiful collection. The painting of “Uncle Willie”, an old hermit who closed off his beautifully furnished  home, save the kitchen, when his wife died; we picked cherries from his trees, mom making pies, jams, and bringing them to him.

My adult eyes stare into the inward memories of my brain to remember. In some places there are causes for anger displaced.  In order, wry comprehension.  In others humble gratitude.  They were not perfect people but they were good ones, who moved beyond the strictures of their memories and life experiences to give us so many precious ones.

Heartbreaker

Heartbreaker – that’s the name,
and some have told me
I’m playing the game.
I don’t seek to bruise
poor puppy egos – but wish only
to live a life of carefree
pleasure and frolicking.

Others are welcome to
join in my dance
or I might choose
to enter theirs but –
if you seek to know me –
watch my dancing
on the floor . . .

Some make mocking derisions
while in others romance seeps
through my pores – yet
all change with a suddenness
overpowering the naked eye.

All I ask is to be me  –
free, single, young and pretty,
uninhibited, running through life
on the tailwinds of a tornado –
my long hair blowing in the breeze.

 

 

 

Musings

The past few days have been hard. We buried my uncle yesterday – a man I deeply loved. Then today, a woman I was fond of died. She had been in a concentration camp, lost most everyone, and was caught in a loop of her terrors most of the time. Her daughter came most everyday to be with her. I know almost anyplace is better than where her mind took her but I’ll miss her nonetheless.

On the other hand, my daughter is getting married in a few weeks. While overjoyed for her, there is a sadness she will be leaving me to go on to a new life that much further away. It is selfish I know, but I gave birth to her and tried to support her as she grew.

The. Changes of Life sometimes spin out of control, leaving dreams of running races, feeling breathless, with my joints reflecting my age.

Life………

Housesitting at Diane’s

HOUSESITTING AT DIANE’S

While living in Northern California I tried a number of jobs, one of which was House/Pet sitter. The nights were Dark where Diane lived. There weren’t any street lights and house lights were shut off early in the evening around their place. One of Diane’s dogs slipped out of her collar when I took them for last call late in the evening. She went out from the yard and went awandering. So here am I trying to catch her and the yard across their dirt road had a 6 foot deep draining and being not used to the area, chasing the dog, I fell into that ditch. Both dogs were staring down at me and it took some doing to crawl out, especially as I was scraping at loose gravel. In fact, I kept falling back and was while her dogs are sitting on top laughing their asses off. I swear the dogs were laughing. And while saying “FUCK” alternately with a little prayer sent up this little, little voice –help me please god somebody help me?? It took what seemed like, and probably was, 20 minutes to get out of there. Other times I fell down their porch stairs at least twice. One night they removed the cushions from the couch and chewed thhuge holes and chunks of stirofoam! By the end of the week I could hardly walk and was rethinking this plan to be a house-sitter.

The Ravages of a Man

Not for the first time, Susan wished she was a shadow disappearing into the walls. Edging further back into the dark corner, she hushed her sister Jane and held her ever closer. There was no place that guaranteed safety, she knew that only too well. She spent too much time crammed behind this furnace in the musty darkness of the basement in the Brooklyn tenement her parents’ currently called home. She smelled the odors of too many different meals, garlic, cardamom, curry, basil, a little sausage and the scent of cabbage wafting over it all, her stomach an ever constant reminder that it had been some time since she had last eaten.  Grease, mold, mouse urine and coal overlay the rest of the smells.

The floor was littered with the relics of past tenants’ castoffs. . . broken chairs, an outgrown highchair missing a leg, rusty bed springs, even an old dresser missing the faces of two of its three drawers.  Spider webs gathered in the corners, threatening to overtake the rest of the area. A few strands of web had found their way into the hair of both girls. Soot smudged the walls, growing in intensity nearer the furnace; their little hands and clothes attested to it.

Gently Susan held Jane, crooning  lullabies over and over, the only proven way to keep the child quiet. The toddler may have stilled her voice but her fingers danced around the crawl space, collecting spider webs and coal dust, dead bugs and paper wrappers. Her little legs drummed a beat only she could hear. When Jane fell asleep,Susan passed her time counting cracks in the cement walls. The damp basement was drafty, aided by a couple of broken windows facing the back alley, jagged glass still hanging in the frames. Their threadbare pajamas were no match for the room’s cold, but still, it was better than being upstairs in their apartment, at the mercy of their father’s rage, watching their mother be smashed from wall to floor and back again.

Susan knew it was up to her to keep she and her sister safe in this life . . . her parents were not going to do it. The vivid effects of their combined alcoholism affected  each member of the family.  She had been in that musty, coal dust filled, cold floored space for the last four or five hours but she could see, from the dirty, cracked window across the room there were still too many feet to be seen on the street of this September evening; Gerard would not pass out for a while yet.

This evening her father had been out at the local bar, nothing unusual, and the three females, mother and two sisters, had a quiet evening. Their mother, Astrid, had made them eggs and boiled potatoes for dinner and watched as Susan labored over her school work at the kitchen table, especially math, while Astrid rocked Jane to sleep in the corner of the kitchen, cooing the Norwegian lullabies of her childhood in her younger daughter’s ear. The family’s only common room was stark, with a scarred and battered table and wobbly chairs along with a creaking rocker. The walls were free of ornamentation; the floor boards rough to the touch.

Once Susan had tackled her math and washed up in the grimy, filthy community bathroom, Astrid sat by the children’s iron bedstead (left over from a previous tenant), the two of them talked about Susan’s school day.  “Mama”, she asked, “Isn’t there any way to stop Daddy from hurting you and yelling all the time?” Astrid shook her head, her features mirroring despair. What Susan didn’t know until much later was he mother was an illegal immigrant who had assumed the identity of Gerard’s first wife. It was the machete hanging over her head whenever Gerard attacked her. One word from him and she would be sent back to Norway, without the children she loved.

When both children fell asleep, Astrid made Gerard’s dinner with food she couldn’t spare for the rest of them and placed it at the table, sitting across from the plate she drifted off to sleep, her head in her arms even though she knew better than to go to bed before Gerard came home.

Gerard could be a funny, persuasive man, but when he was drinking, he was vicious and took it out on his family, his anger erupting in manifold ways. With spindly legs, a barrel shaped chest, a sneer across his face and large, hard hands, he was built for brutality.

Tonight was one such evening. He roared through the door, throwing it back so it caught in the hole previously made in the wall from past slams. He charged in, grabbed Astrid, by the hair, jerking her to her feet, hurling accusations and obscenities into her face. “What do you mean falling asleep? I work all day long and I come home to find you lying about asleep? You expect me to eat this shit? Heat it if this is all there is. Get to work, bitch, justify your miserable life.” Astrid never replied. His accusations could be true or not; Susan suspected Gerard didn’t believe them himself half the time; he just needed to vent his rage.

Gerard immediately started into a tirade about (well, did it really matter what it was about?) . . . The subject was always something about Astrid and how he couldn’t trust her, his work or lack thereof, what someone had said at the bar.  If it wasn’t Astrid’s turn under the axe, it was Susan who came under his scrutiny.

Susan knew in her heart it wouldn’t do any good to rail against the beast, but she was not one to simply bow down and take his hurtful ministrations. She was innately a fighter, just like her father, and she would seek ways to best him at his own game. She hated seeing his brutality upon her mother, the injustice rankled her young mind and she had yet to learn to balance anger with discretion. “Daddy Stop!!”  She would flail her fists against his back, trying to stop his attack on her mother until a backhand would send Susan sprawling, bouncing her off the walls like a rag doll.

Still, Susan could never say a word of truth that could sink through the mists of his drunken fog. Most of the time, the best she could hope for was to grab Jane and escape to the dark, silent furnace corner until he wound himself down and collapsed on the bed. She had to keep Jane quiet – no small feat for a toddler – until she could slip back upstairs and put her to bed. If Susan was caught down there, her neighbors might feel compelled to bring her back to the apartment – at least that was what Susan most feared.

Many nights Gerard focused his rage on Susan rather than her mother . . . he would wait until she was absorbed in some task and come from behind to clip her unawares. He would start pinching and shaking her around until Astrid diverted his attention onto herself while Susan would run out the apartment door, her father shouting for her to come back and storming after her.  “Get back here you little monster!”

Quicker, and sober, these were the times she would race to her friend’s home, four blocks away, in her pajamas, or, more likely than not, in her underwear, and sought refuge. Mrs. Fayette always welcomed her to safety, putting her into her best friend Anne’s old clothes and tucking her into bed. Susan did what she could to cover any bruises rising to the surface and Gerard had sense to leave no marks within easy sight. When her school teacher began remarking that Susan was wearing the same clothes every day, embarrassing her and raising questions, the Fayette’s church found a woman who donated clothes to be kept at the Fayette’s.

Susan was no easy child but she found sources of strength outside the home in her minister and her best friend’s mother. She was pig-headed, driven, obstinate, and once she had decided on a course of action, there was no dissuading her. Inside the apartment she would be helpful and compliant. But she had a strength of purpose that drove her toward good actions. When outside the apartment, Susan lived life full of mischief and daring. She had an irrepressible sense of humor her home life dampened but never completely extinguished.

Through the Fayette’s, Susan found a second home – a place away from all the madness she normally had to deal with. Their comfortable living room was filled with furniture made for curling up in. Lace curtains covered the windows. A phonograph stood in one corner, a large radio with short wave, FM, and AM channels was in another. Anne had her own bedroom with a matching furniture set. Everything was clean and well maintained.  The two girls would curl up in the bed together and whisper for hours.

Susan went to the Fayette’s church, joining youth groups and going to special functions. She and Anne loved to buy extra sour pickles and sit in front of the choir. As the choir would start to sing, Susan and Anne would bite into the pickles, making sour faces and spitting out juice to throw choir singers off their notes. After church, Susan and Anne would strap on beat up old roller skates, grab the back of the trolley, and catch a free ride, saving the money for a movie. Or they would grab garbage cans after the collectors had gone by and roll them down the steep hills, cheering and whooping as the cans clattered and clanged, banging into cars and curbs alike.

One Christmas Eve, Susan was at church service when her father staggered into the building and up the aisle shouting, “Where is she? No child of mine is coming to this church! Let me have her! I want her now!” As the men nearby grabbed him to take him outside, Susan, shameful but afraid he would be hurt, tears running down her face, called out, “Stop! That’s my father. Don’t hurt him.laundry strung across streets BoweryI’ll go with him.” The old ladies stared in shocked disapproval, whispering behind their programs to each other; as mothers gathered their children closer to their sides. In front of a completely still congregation, she walked down the aisle, took her father’s shaking hand, and left as he muttered low curses, her borrowed patent leather shoes clacking down the length of the church aisle.

They moved often to escape the landlord’s knock for the rent. As such, everything but clothes would be left behind. One would think, in the Bowery of New York, word would get around those few miserable blocks. But landlords were slum lords and there were many apartments crammed into those tenements. Their swift get-a-ways meant nothing was ever purchased that wasn’t a distinct necessity. Susan never had a doll, or any other toy, no books, just her imagination and her times with the Fayette’s. As an adult, she bought herself a Shirley Temple doll and all the videos of Shirley’s career to try to make restitution for the memories.

 

As ten year old Susan lay sleeping one night, with Astrid passed out at the kitchen table, herself having consumed too much to drink, her father came quietly into the bedroom. Susan woke as the bed creaked and Gerard pressed himself against her, naked and stinking from cabbage and cheap gin. She froze, shaken to the core, unable to think of a way out of this, deeply knowing it was wrong. She couldn’t question him, not knowing what the repercussions might be . She squeezed her eyes shut, willing the time to pass until he would leave or her mother would appear (which never happened). He never said a word, just lay there, spooned against her back, silently stealing grains of his daughter’s innocence and soul. From then on he would periodically make his nightly visits when Astrid was passed out, never staying more than an hour or so, never doing more than he had the first night, but it was enough to shatter a young girl’s image of what a man should be and forever irrevocably break her trust in men.

Gerard’s crimes were legion, certainly when it came to Astrid and Susan. He never bothered with Jane, didn’t hit or hurt her. When his abuse finally focused on Jane, Susan  realized she needed to act. It was one thing to tolerate and excuse abuse to herself; it was a far different thing to see it done to another, especially a baby. Once, one year old Jane, sitting in her high chair, was fussing at the scarred, cigarette burned dinner table, where Gerard was hunched, nursing a banger of a hangover. He grabbed the oatmeal bubbling on the stove and threw it at Jane, where it slid down her leg. She had third degree burns the length of her thigh, horrific scars she bore the rest of her life.

However, when the world went according to Gerard’s way, the family gave a collective sigh of relief. Astrid unfolded before Susan’s eyes. Her spine straightened, her shoulders drew back, the furrow lining her face smoothed, and her gentle laughter could be heard throughout the apartment. Gerard would sing songs as he and Astrid danced about the kitchen. As he threw her into the air, Gerard would elicit Jane’s giggles. And Susan, the ever present witness and protector, would, for just a while, become a young girl – one who loved her parents and lived for those brief moments in time.

All too soon, Gerard would head out the door for the neighborhood tavern and shadows would pull down over the females’ souls as they accepted the night would likely end in just as much violence as virtually any other.

Susan couldn’t help loving her father and wanting to please him. When he smiled, his demeanor completely changed. No more the bully, a lightness of being would descend on him for a short while. The truth was Gerard was the person in the family who smiled the most – he was the one with the least to loose. When he was smiling, the rest of them could breathe easier. But they always knew the dark side of him was just out of reach, waiting for a flame to ignite his temper into a fiery blaze.

To that end, Susan would search the sidewalks for cigarette butts that still had tobacco and bring them back to him to re-roll into fresh cigarettes. She collected bottles and recycled them as most Americans did during the war years, bringing the money home, and she was always coming up with ways to earn a little money, most of which she gave to her father.

Astrid did everything she could to ensure Gerard’s needs were met and he was pleased. Susan had his way with words, his persuasive manner, and his sales ability. She often said he could have sold the Brooklyn Bridge if he only stayed sober long enough. He would bring his friends home for a night of cards and beer, and while they were there, laughter filled the apartment. He made friends easily and lost them just as fast. He would break the furniture in a drunken rage and replace it the next day from trash bins and gutters once he sobered up.

Jobs came and went with the cycles of drinking . . . when things became too desperate, Gerard would sober up just enough to earn some money to get by. But gainful employment was not a concept he understood very well. He was filled with self-important dreams that had no basis in reality. A salesman by trade and nature, he had a natural aptitude for convincing people they absolutely needed some product or another but not the ability to work hard to provide for his family.

The problem was he couldn’t stay sober long enough to make any real money. He conned employers into believing he would be the best, apartment owners that the rent would be paid next week, and the bar the tab would be cleaned up with the next check. (Actually, that was the one he held to most – he didn’t want to stop access to that.) He saw himself as wronged quickly and often, finding faults and resentments to fuel his rage and cost him countless jobs.

And then there was Astrid . . . an immigrant from Norway, she had never acclimated into American society well. Plain, slender, and blonde, she spoke with a heavy accent and often relied on Susan to bridge the gap between what she needed to say and what the shopkeepers understood. Even though she had come through Ellis Island like so many immigrants, she was an illegal alien ad lived under threat of deportment.

In the early 1940’s women still had few rights and too few knew how to pursue what little they had, certainly not a barely literate one from another culture. As they never stayed in any apartment long, quiet, and quietly alcoholic Astrid didn’t have time or ability to reach out and make friends, especially as they changed locations frequently.

The few family members she had in America hated Gerard and Astrid felt she couldn’t lean on them or look to them for any support without making a bad situation worse. It was a time when women did not leave their husbands or report them for abuse. There was no money for divorce. Men held all power. Astrid fell into the trap so many women had before, thinking she had somehow caused Gerard’s behavior, somehow she deserved it.

There was little chance the neighbors would report the abuse. People in Brooklyn tenements tended to keep to themselves where strangers were concerned, and Susan’s family was never in one place long enough to become known. There were too many people living in cramped quarters, trying to pretend they didn’t hear the noises coming from the apartments near them, needing to think they themselves were not so easily heard. Strangers seemed to feel that Astrid had brought this anguish on herself; no one could be that merciless to another without a good reason. Occasionally, a kindly woman or man sitting on the front stoop might give Susan a treat, but that was where charity ended.

In the still of the night Astrid would wake from dreams of freedom to the smell of sweat and gin rolling off Gerard in waves, the threadbare blanket barely warding off the chill, the mattress creaking beneath them as his snores filled the air. In her dreams, she had never met Gerard, never left Norway, never endured the event that led to her banishment from the land she loved. Waking, she would force her thoughts back into her reality, not daring to seek redemption, safety, a new start in life.

When she left Norway, it was in disgrace, pregnant with the child of a man who raped her. She gave birth a the boy while crossing the Atlantic in a cargo ship. When she arrived in America, she had no one, nothing, and no recourse except to leave the child at an orphanage. She never saw him or spoke of him again save once. To her it was a deed nothing would ever make right. To Susan it was one whispered drunken confession of a woman crying for the child she had never known, always to be wondered about but not pursued. Gerard knew though – he held it as a threat over her continually. Should she not please him . . .

Astrid’s life in Norway was of pure air on the fjord, her family fishermen for generations. Here, trapped by circumstances beyond her control, she turned to alcohol to numb the pain. Prematurely hunched over like an old woman, as if always warding off blows, she was a lost soul, in a land she wasn’t comfortable in, living in an area where many cultures blended, making their differences stand out, with a man who relished raising his fists in her direction far too frequently. She rarely left the apartment; her time spent caring for Susan and Jane and fulfilling all the household responsibilities aggravated by not enough money. If errands needed to be run to the market or elsewhere, Susan was likely to run them, and she almost always went with her mother if she didn’t run them herself.

Astrid’s life was spiritually, morally, and physically cruel. The new life she was supposed to have found in America had proven to be a bitter disappointment. She longed for those simpler days in Arendal, tending to the garden, going to the market to sell the fish her father and brothers had caught at sea, going to church on Sundays, seeing the same people she had seen every day of her life. Her hands had never lost the calluses she had gained pulling in and mending nets because she had so much work to do now. She ached for the crisp cold, piney scent of Norway’s coastal ocean air, instead of the soot and squalor she saw in Brooklyn.

Susan called Astrid an angel on Earth, always discounting the fact that Astrid liked her drink, too. She couldn’t reconcile the fact that Astrid had abandoned her children in her own way by relying on alcohol to get by. In that hazy never, never land of alcoholic fumes, the cries of children had little meaning. What Gerard did to Susan had no meaning.  if she even knew of them.  However, Astrid was a quiet, passive woman who did what she could to make their days a bit brighter without incurring Gerard’s wrath.

The Bowery, and their life in it, was a disorienting world where a day could start off looking one way, and by the end of night they would be adjusting to new furniture, new smells, new sounds, new people, new lies to tell. Only the run-down, beaten up appearance of the apartments stayed the same – that didn’t change, no matter how many times they moved. Susan always counted the cracks in the ceiling to see if the number matched the same as their last apartment. The burden of the frequent moves affected Susan’s schoolwork; she was always playing catch-up and her grades tended to suffer, particularly in those subjects that didn’t come naturally.

But Susan had a strong sense of justice and righteousness. The actions of her father, no matter how much she loved him, created a deep chasm of rage in her. Her own wellspring of violence would seep out throughout her life, tainting and corrupting what she held sacred. She was a survivor. The childhood verse “When she was good she was very, very good and when she was bad she was horrid” seemed expressly made for her. Had she not been such a fighter, she herself might not have survived. Jane certainly wouldn’t have without Susan’s protection.

Susan could never justify the reality of who her parents were with who she wanted to believe they were. She would sometimes paint a picture of them that had little to do with reality, but fed a need deep within her for normalcy, to be a little girl protected and cared for by attentive, loving parents.

The day inevitably came when the dam broke and the violence became too much for even June to bear. Late one November night, after the bars had closed, Gerard came home, so drunk he could barely stand up, but with murderous intent in his eyes. Astrid had let his dinner grow cold once it was six hours after the rest of them had eaten. He went at her with fists flying. It didn’t take much to have her down on the floor where he proceeded to kick and hit her senseless. Susan jumped out of bed and tried to stop him but he just threw her off. Jane woke up and started to cry but Susan couldn’t take her out of the apartment because Gerard was blocking the front door. His daughters’ cries didn’t stop him. He grabbed Astrid’s ear and bit it off, feeling the tendons pop between his teeth, wrenching it until the skin ripped from her head, yelling that she better listen to him from now on. Astrid was whimpering as blood rushed down the side of her face, spreading out on the floor beneath her, but even those cries ended as she lost consciousness.

Gerard slowly looked at his hands and the blood on them. He methodically dropped the ear on the table, its sticky blood smacking against the surface, and went down the hall to the community bathroom to wash. Susan quickly took Jane and the ear. She had reached the end of her endurance. She knew she could never fully protect either Jane or herself after 1what she just saw. Susan grabbed some clothes and wrapped Jane up in the blanket and headed out into the chilly night.

The nearest police station was five blocks away. Streetlights created pools of light in the dark, scraps of papers danced across the streets. There were few cars to be seen – in the Bowery most people couldn’t afford cars. A can skipped across the street, pushed by the wind, rats skittered into allies, bricks lay tumbled in a heap beneath the crumpling façade of a tenement front, garbage spilled from tipped garbage cans.

When she reached the station, she went inside to the front desk. The institutional grey walls were lined with benches and posters referring to bail bondsmen. Desks were crammed behind the long counter. Tired officers rattled typewriters while their nights’ booty, the scummy, corrupt cast-offs of the Bowery, hunkered in chairs, handcuffs clinking to chair arms. The room was a haze of cigarette smoke.

An overly large officer, with his belly riding over his pants, and his eyes bulging from his sockets, looked askance at her. A cigarette dangled from his mouth. It was unusual, to say the least, for an eleven year old girl, holding a screaming baby, to be out on a night like this, without a coat but composed. Her manner was that of an adult, expectant of results. She opened her hand, put the ear down on the counter, and told the policeman where her parents were, what had happened, and what condition her mother was in.

She then said she was taking her sister to relatives to be out of harms way, saying it like that, self-possessed, calm to outward appearances. The officer’s eyes moved back and forth between her mouth and the ear, his mouth hung open in shock. Susan turned around, walked across the cracked linoleum and through the door before he regained his wits enough to try to stop her but she disappeared into the darkness of the night.

The winds of change swept Susan along the streets of Brooklyn, with leaves and garbage rustling in her wake as she left the police station and made her way from one side of the Bowery to the other, leaving the area. Those blocks in Brooklyn were long, but she kept to her mission. Shortly after two in the morning, carrying a toddler for close to two hours straight, the eleven year old reached the doorstep of her aunt, a stoic, forbidding woman who had never shown her a warm emotion but was the closest relative Susan could reach.

Her aunt was willing to keep her, in exchange for chores at her boarding house, but Jane would have to go to an orphanage. There was no place, and no one, who was willing and able to keep her. Jane would never have a memory of her mother. The orphanage was often a nightmare itself. Doctors tested electric shock treatments on children who had no voice for themselves, including Jane. It wasn’t until Susan married, years later, that she could remove Jane from the orphanage and raise her herself.

For years, Susan’s days began early, helping with breakfast for the guests and changing sheets and towels before school. After school her hours would be spent cleaning, waxing furniture, banisters and stairs to a gleaming, burnished gold, washing floors and linens, only to leave the doing of her homework late into the night and Susan considered herself lucky.  She wore her cousin’s hand-me-downs which were often better than what she had in her previous home but her relationship with her cousin was difficult at best.

When she was sixteen, a friend’s family informally adopted Susan. She wouldn’t make it formal because then she would lose her rights pertaining to Jane. Even though her new mother was cold, never welcoming her into her heart, her new father did. He was a wonderful, gentle man and Susan was grateful. It was an entirely different world from the Bowery. Here, she had license to be her age – to laugh and flirt and have fun.

When Susan left the police station, she assumed her mother would be safe, but in the 1940’s authorities rarely, if ever, interfered with household matters. Even with something of this severity, it was assumed Astrid had provoked Gerard. The police went to stop this “current problem” but left the rest to chance.

In the end, on yet another drunken night, Gerard would kill her, and was never tried in court for the crime, making his violence appear to be accidental. He knew enough of the right words to charm his way out of arrest.

He never stopped drinking, never faced the consequences of his actions, and managed to drink away the remorse and guilt that consumed him. He only contacted Susan when he wanted money; the visits didn’t last more than a handful of minutes. He would play the doting father on rare visits to the orphanage, and leave Jane to be both motherless and fatherless once again. He destroyed a family, the cost irreparable to each member.

In the end he was no more than a pitiful wretch – someone who stole from his family members and drank to ensure the guilt wouldn’t rise to the surface. Occasionally he would end up in jail for petty larceny or drunken fights. He was bitter, true, but only so because of the injustices he believed life had dealt him. There was no real remorse, no true desperation. He failed to believe in his own culpability, his own evil intent, the innate truth of his inner being. Other than any psychic pain he had, he finished his days alone and free from the encumbrances of family and law. His death was unattended; in a beggar’s grave. No one honored him or cared enough to go. Potter’s field was good enough and all he deserved.