I was brought home to my mother’s one-bedroom apartment after she and I stayed in the hospital for a while. Back in 1959, they believed in letting new mothers spend some time there before sending them out with their babies to figure everything out. My grandmother and her fiance (who would die tragically, hit by a truck, before they were married) had run around a bit frantically getting the things necessary for a baby once my mother had decided she wasn’t going to give me up for adoption.
The first year or so of my life, apparently it took a real village to raise me. When I had a fever of 106, a neighbor saved my life by putting me in a tub full of ice. Ouch. I look healthy and happy in my infant photos. Things deteriorated rather quickly, though, as my mother’s illnesses progressed.
I remember being in the crib (which means I was less than two years old; I think I was already verbal as a survival tool) when it was extremely dark outside; black. There was a strip of light from the hallway running across the room past the foot of my crib all the way to a closet door on the far wall. I don’t recall if I was hungry or wet or just awake and a bit nervous, but I started calling for Mommy. I got more and more frantic as I called and called and called for her; she didn’t come though. I screamed for her; I cried for her, my face was wet, my clothing was wet with my tears; and I screamed and screamed and cried out. I have no idea how many times I called out for her: “Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommy …” She never came. I don’t know if she was even in the apartment, as she had taken to wandering around Manhattan late at night; not lucid, no connection to anything of her reality … just wandering, possibly meeting men … I don’t know. I’m guessing someone heard me that night as after that I don’t recall another time when that happened.
I was often watched after by my favorite babysitter, Michael, an effeminate and sweet young man who lived on our floor. He was gentle and kind, and played games with me. I always felt very safe and happy when Michael looked after me. Apparently my mother also sometimes left me with the guys who hung out in the local liquor store; I don’t recall this, but one of those guys told me this happened. It was probably when I was pre-verbal and tiny.
And there was Grandma; Grandma who when I was two and a half years old began taking me to daycare every single morning, usually before the sun had made its appearance. Grandma, checking in on us, luckily living just two buildings away, walking in on us fighting. (Apparently I could curse like a sailor by then, arguing and fighting with my mother.) I was fighting for survival; I couldn’t accept the treatment or the neglect; the crazy slapping around and beatings she doled out whenever I wouldn’t do what she wanted me to do.
I remember parties Mommy would have too, parties with everyone drinking and smoking cigarettes, large groups crowding our little apartment. I remember some guy lighting cigarettes and sticking two of them in his ears while smoking the other one; I wasn’t very impressed. He informed me that I had thought it hysterical the last time he’d done it. At three I thought it was just sort of odd.
I loved going to Grandma’s home. Her apartment was in good order, and she was firm but fair and sane. If I was naughty or threw a temper tantrum, I had to stand in the corner for a few minutes. It seemed so sensible and so much kinder than the blows and screaming I got at home. Grandma was my hero; I adored her with everything in me. She didn’t hate me like my mother did; she didn’t hurt me like my mother did. I would climb into her lap and she would read to me, and I would swear I could read because I memorized Curious George and Eloise.
Life with Mommy got worse and worse, though. At three years of age my nerves were so bad that I threw up nearly every day. My hair thinned out from malnourishment; there were patches of baldness on my head. I cried a lot; when I was beaten, when I was forced to sit at the table for hours in front of food that got cold and gray because I didn’t like it and couldn’t bring myself to eat it, being nauseous as I usually was. More beatings for not eating, for throwing up (even though I got good at making it to the toilet in time, as I recall).
I remember playing hide and seek with her and laughing; and I remember staying at a hotel in Washington, DC when we all went there to bury my grandfather, who’d been divorced out of the family 20 years earlier because of his alcoholism. We explored the hotel, especially the walls of our room, to see if there were special hidden recesses. It might have been her paranoia, but she made a game of it, and it was fun. I liked those moments when she was fun and good. They were few and far between, but I remember them still.
When I was four, Grandma went to family court and had her daughter deemed incompetent to raise a child. I wasn’t there at the time. I was being a wreck in some daycare center while all that went on. The morning my Grandma came to get me was pretty horrible and yet wonderful. My mother was cursing a blue streak at Grandma, but Grandma had my little leatherette suitcase in one hand, and my hand in the other, and retained her calm as she walked with me out of my mother’s apartment and across the courtyard to her own. Grandma was my hero again; I loved her so much.
Which made what happened the next day so hard; so hard it would define much of my life for many years to come.