Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bachelor Days With Daddy

My mother became pregnant again when I was a few months shy of four years old, if I've done my math right. I remember her telling me about it in the bedroom in our apartment on East 86th street. It was early evening--or maybe it was after dinner, but it was dark already because it had to have been winter--and I was on the left side of my parents' bed, my dad's side. It was his side because his right leg was decimated by polio, so when he got up in the morning, he could sit up and lead off out of bed with his left. He got around just fine in those days though, my dad. He had a pronounced limp, but he was young and dark-haired and handsome and could do chin-ups on the bar he'd installed in the bathroom doorway, and he was a great swimmer; he was even a lifeguard in college.

The only thing he couldn't do was run, which meant if you ran ahead of him, you'd be left with nothing to do but to wait for him to catch up to you with his slow, methodical walk. Oh, he could hustle a little bit in an emergency, but due to his gait, I was taught very early on not to run too far ahead, and to always, always, stop at the end of the curb and wait. I didn't always run ahead, either. Sometimes I liked to walk alongside him and limp with him in perfect tandem.

Sometimes he would whistle a tune to our beat on the street.

Dad would change out of his shirt and tie after he came home from work, and Mom would come into the bedroom to ask how the day went, and I would bounce in behind her. Mom had been in the same biz--the ad biz--as Dad. It was how they'd met and fallen in love and gotten married, as a matter of fact. Though once they'd gotten married and she'd gotten pregnant with me in short order she'd "retired" to a more domestic life. She'd lived the hot shot life for a few years, as not too many women did at that time, but she was no glass ceiling-breaker, my mother.

She smoked her way through her pregnancy with me. I have the photographs to prove it. Who knew better in those days? Then she quit.

But there was news this night. Mom had something to tell me. Dad changed his shirt on the other side of the bedroom. He usually went with the white short-sleeved undershirts with a "V" neck in those days (he switched to sleeveless in later years.) I don't remember the words she used. I just remember that one minute I was lolling around on their bed, glad to have Daddy home and wondering what Mom had on the stove for dinner and hoping it would be on the table soon. I was enjoying my household role as center of the universe, when all of a sudden I learned...

...I wasn't going to be that anymore.

Not that this was news I couldn't take. I was a pretty level-headed kid. These things happened, after all. New babies. Siblings.

"When?" I suppose I asked, though I don't really remember. But I think that's the first thing most anyone of any age asks when you tell them you are pregnant. "In a few months," Mom must have said. "In the spring, around the end of April," she could have said.

I do remember her asking her what is was going to be, a boy or a girl, which was a question no one had an answer to back in those days. So Mom answered with a question, which she must have thought was the next best thing, "Well, what do you hope for?"

I gave this some thought, as if what I hoped for might actually come to be.

"A big brother."

Mom and Dad certainly must have exchanged a furtive glance after that response.

"Well, honey, that's not possible," they said after some hemming and some hawing.

"Well, why not??"

The birds and the bees, if you have not by now figured it out, had clearly not been presented to me at this stage of my life. That came along later, and in the form of a book Mom gave me, and way after I had it more or less figured out anyway through secretive, giggling conversations with peers, and through my parents' copy of Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex that I used to sneak off the bookshelf and page through when they weren't paying attention. It was a lot better book than the one Mom gave me.

"So, why can't I have a big brother?" I wanted to know.

Well, because I just couldn't, was the best answer I got at the time, and when I asked if perhaps I could have a baby brother, then, I was told that the chances of that were much, much better.

And so we waited. And Mom got bigger and bigger, as pregnant ladies do, though she dressed really well, and still looked very, very pretty.

When it "was time," they called my babysitter, Merchie, who was an older lady in the neighborhood. I don't know where they came to know Merchie, but she was very nice, and she wore her steel gray hair in a big bun smack on the top of her head. She'd sit on the couch and play whatever board game I would bring out to torment her with, and she'd always let me stay up a little later--but not too much later--than my parents directed.

And sometime the next day I woke up, and Dad was home, and Merchie was gone, and Dad told me I had...

...a baby sister.

Which was the polar opposite of the big brother I had asked for, and had still secretly hoped for, even though I had been told that wasn't going to happen. You just never knew....if you hoped hard enough....God, or Mom and Dad, or whoever was in charge of these things....

Nor was it the baby brother that in my more rational and realistic moments I knew it was more reasonable to hope for.

"So where's Mommy?" I wanted to know. I needed Mommy home. Needed to have a couple of words with her about this baby sister thing. And just needed her.

"Mommy will be home in a few days," Daddy said. Back in the day, moms of newborns were allowed to languish and luxuriate in the hospital for three or four days, not for the twenty-four to forty-eight hours insurance lets you stay now (if you're lucky) before they kick you and the baby out the revolving front door.

"A few days??" I asked. "Well...what will we eat?" I was little, but I had come to like and expect at least a couple of square meals a day, and I had never in my life seen Dad put together anything that required preparation more complex than pouring a bag of pork rinds into a big bowl or spooning Haagen-Daaz chocolate ice cream straight out of the container and into his mouth.

"We'll eat just fine, don't you worry, ha ha ha," he said. He found time to visit the hospital every day, to visit Mom and the mystery sister, and I spent a couple of hours each day with a neighbor or with the indefatigable Merchie. But most of the time, it was me and Dad. Dad had quite the talent, kept secret until then, of frying up Spam and serving it with a side of B&M baked beans. Who knew? And it was good! And Vienna sausages aren't bad either, if you don't worry too much over those little white bits floating in the juice in the can.

"Can I have chocolate milk on my Rice Krispies?"

"Why not??"

And it was a nice few days and a nice few nights. Dad and I ate our bachelor meals and he let me stay up a little later--though not too much later--than Mom would have wanted.

"We're picking up Mom and Kris at the hospital tomorrow," Dad said the last evening. "We are?" I asked. "Me too?"

"Yes, indeed," Dad said. "You're going, and I'm going, and June Hayward is going."

June Hayward?

When did June Hayward enter the picture? June Hayward was a friend of Mom's, and our families were friends in the way that families are when the moms are friends. That is to say, not really. June Hayward was a nice-enough lady--and a minor soap opera actress, so she was kind of glamorous--but why was June Hayward going?

"June Hayward is coming with us," Dad explained, "because children are not allowed upstairs into the hospital, so she will stay with you in the hospital lobby while I go up to collect your mother and Kris."

I can't go up.


I can't go up with Daddy to see Mommy for the first time in four or five days to meet the new baby for the first time? I have to stay in the lobby with June Hayward, who is nice enough and pretty enough and will tell me funny stories while we wait, but who is really nobody much to me? I don't get to have the big family moment up in the room up there with Mommy and Daddy and Kris?

No. Hospital regulations.

So I marked the end of my bachelor days with Daddy and climbed in the yellow cab. He directed the driver to June Hayward's building and we picked her up and drove to the hospital and it all went as he had said. June Hayward and I sat down in the lobby and I watched his back as he went in the elevator and the doors shut behind him and in what seemed like a long, long time--the doors of the elevator opening dozens of times spilling out people I didn't know and had no interest in--they finally came out. Daddy again, along with a beaming Mommy in a wheelchair pushed by a nurse in a starched white uniform. Mommy held a bundle, wrapped in the pink-and-blue striped hospital blankets.


I don't remember Mom or Dad introducing us, saying unnecessarily, "Meet your new sister," or "This is Kris." They knew I knew who she was.

She had really big eyes. Blue. Bigger than mine. I knew, because I had dragged out the photo album when no one was looking and had a look at my newborn picture. Mine were squinty, and I had fuzzy black hair. Kris' head was crowned in a golden-blonde swirl of fine hair. It wouldn't last long, that feathery baby hair. That kind of baby hair falls out, and then it grows back into whatever it is going to be, which can be something totally different. But I didn't know that. All I knew at that time, at that moment, was that I was no longer the queen of the universe, and had been usurped by a beautiful tiny baby who looked like an angel.