Things got pretty normal once I was living with Grandma. I went to nursery school (which was what they used to call pre-K when I was that age) with afterschool hours at the settlement house across the street from where we lived. There were three meals a day on weekends, breakfast and dinner during the week with the nursery school feeding me lunch; very normal. Calm. Comfortable and comforting.
Grandma would read to me all comfy on her generous lap. I told her she had the most comfortable lap in the world. She laughed and asked if I was trying to say she was fat. I was horrified! I said noooooo … that she just had the most comfortable lap in the world. (I don’t know where I got my lap judging credentials really; all I really knew was that it was the best, most comfortable place I had ever been.) We read Curious George and Eloise and Where the Wild Things Are together. I memorized them and could “read along,” so I thought I knew how to read even before I could. I could by the time kindergarten started.
One day when I was in the afterschool program after a day of kindergarten, my mother came to pick me up. She had a man with her. I asked if he was my father and she told me he wasn’t. I always liked to check just in case some day my father turned up. Once we were on our way to Grandma’s apartment, my mother said that we were going to California! I danced up Cherry Street singing “California here we come, right back where we started from”; I have no idea when or where I’d heard that song, but I was singing it at the top of my lungs. I had no sense of fear or worry; no wondering how my mother came to be there; no sense of impending doom. My mother was taking me to California; what could be wrong with that?
We were in my bedroom, packing my suitcase (the same pale yellow leatherette veteran from my time in the foster home) when Grandma came home. Words were exchanged (on the order of “What are you doing? Where do you think you’re going, and where do you think you are taking her? Who is this man and what is he doing in my apartment?”). The next thing I knew, my mother was locked into Grandma’s bedroom (to this day I do not know how my grandmother did that as doors here lock from the inside, not the outside …), and the man was locked out in the hallway. My mother made a phone call. When she was done, she yelled through the door to the man that the police were coming and he had better leave fast.
My mother was screaming back in the bedroom; the police were coming; Grandma looked like some sort of furious avenging force. She was very angry and upset; she told me not to worry and that everything would be all right. I still didn’t understand what was so bad about California.
There was knocking at the door, and two police officers entered the apartment. Now I was really scared. Grandma let my mother out of the bedroom, and my mother was fighting like some sort of wild animal. She was screaming and so furious and so scary! But the scariest thing of all was watching the policemen putting my mother in handcuffs. I broke down; I started crying and screaming at them: “Don’t put my mommy in jail! Please, please don’t put my mommy in jail!” And my mother was saying stuff like “That’s right, you tell them honey, tell them not to take me back to that place, that prison!” and I just kept crying and screaming, and they took her away, and I was curled up in a little ball crying my heart out. Grandma said not to worry, not to be upset; that they were not taking my mother to jail, but back to the hospital where she belonged. But that didn’t make sense. What did the police and handcuffs have to do with a hospital? The police put people in jail, not hospitals.
Well, of course, both my grandmother and I were right. My mother was a hospital patient, but in the state hospital on Ward’s Island. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood what kind of hospital it was, and that my mother was mentally ill. She had managed to escape that day, and somehow picked up the guy on her way to get me. I have no idea how she thought we were going to get to California, or if she actually really planned to go there. The reason Grandma was there to stop her was a combination: She got a call that my mother had escaped from the hospital, and left work early. She went to the afterschool program and found out my mother had picked me up. Then the above scenario was enacted.
Life went on; I came to feel as though maybe I was at home at Grandma’s to stay. I had occasional temper tantrums. I drove my uncle crazy on his few attempts to take me out places people took little kids. I was very neurotic for a four- and five-year-old. I still cried at the drop of a pin. I still cry pretty easily, which is probably strange. I gather a lot of people who have been through the mill lose their ability to cry. I am grateful for my tears.