I was four when I went to Uncle Stephen’s wedding on the train across the country to California. We had no fresh milk because of a hurricane through New Orleans, and I was bitten in the mouth by a Scotty dog on the way out west. Plus I wasn’t permitted to sleep with Grampa in the top bunk which in the end was fortunate because he got sick on the sheets up there from drinking.
I was used to grownups barfing from drinking by the time I could walk. It was just a thing that happened. Same with the crying. They got drunk, and they passed out or got sick or cried or raged or sobered up or went to work or got so mad at you when you missed the bus that all you got for Christmas one year was a wind-up all-metal alarm clock with an extra-loud bell, kind of like they must use in the army, I thought. That was fun. I tried to have fun everywhere I went. I’d have fun with almost anything.
Except other children. I didn’t really understand them. Nana protected me so hard from the world that she forgot I’d need to learn to protect myself. Yes, you can be too sheltered. Especially by a woman who lost her daughter & then got her back because you came along. You brought your mom & your grandmother back together after years of estrangement. The mother remembered it one way, the grandmother another. The mother, in the end, proved to be a good observer of the grownup shenanigans around her. My poor, bumbling, beautiful mother. Sandra Dee ideals but a Marilyn Monroe sensibility. Sparkly as a movie star. In any room, she was the brightest candle.
I was four when I went to New York City with Nana to visit Mom & Bob. They got drunk on ouzo & ate peanut butter & crackers on the sofa bed while I slept in it. I had the giant box of crayons & a huge Alice in Wonderland coloring book from FAO Schwartz. I got a doll in a giant flowered egg there, too. Was I being paid off to keep quiet while the grownups recovered from their hangovers? Yes. Mom & Nana & Bob in a New York apartment with a great view & a bottle of ouzo. For decades, just the word ouzo made Mom & Nana groan. With actual nausea. Licorice hangover, was all I could think. It smells like licorice. I liked licorice, but not groaning. I wasn’t even tempted.
Maraschino cherries were my drug of choice. And ginger ale. And a handful of coins for the jukebox across the dance floor. Enzo was the bartender. I liked to play with Aunt Marion in the package store, full of sun & sparkling bottles, like witch’s poison, all around the walls. The counter with the register. The traffic going by. So light compared to the other side. But Enzo was there behind the bar, and so was I, making myself Shirley Temples with cherries halfway down. The pistachios were dyed bright red, too, but I preferred the cherries.
There was a girl with peeling knuckles who had a special disease that made her stiff. She loved pistachios, and ate them until her fingers were red. The peeling & the dye was spectacular & gruesome. She herself had straight blonde hair that hid most of her face in shadows. She made the best of it like all of us kids in bars.