Excerpt: 'Anyone Can Grow Up'

I wish I'd tuned in and turned on a little more, and had explained to my friends how my parents had some Sixties values before it was cool. As Dorothy Day Catholics, my parents were part of a parish that took care of one another. We had a phone tree and when bad things happened to anybody, my parents were the first ones there with a casserole, a pan of brownies, and an open wallet. My father didn't know much about house repairs, but thanks to my mother's harassment, he knew more than most and was on call from Father Simpson to fix up the falling-down apartments he found for poor parishioners. It doesn't seem like much in the retelling but the year right after he retired, my father became a surrogate father to a child traumatized by the sudden death of his own father by simply showing up every morning to drive him to school.

The two years after graduation were my own experiment in living. I tried out a few things, including a federal government management program where I spent three months at four different cabinet departments learning how government works (or doesn't).

The best part of that year was living with my grandmother, not Gertie on my father's side but Nellie McCreary on my mother's side. Since my great grandmother O'Connor had died, my grandmother was living alone in Anacostia, a neighborhood in Washington that had once been a beautiful, leafy haven but had slipped so badly that her block on Yuma Street was notorious as the site of the slaughter of two FBI agents who'd been trying to bust a band of drug dealers.

Like most grandmothers, mine went easy on me when compared to my mother. When we came to Washington to visit, which was nearly every weekend when I was a youngster, we stayed with my mother's mother when we went for Saturday night dinner across town to Gertie's. I was told to be quiet when I pleaded with Grandma McCreary to come with us. My parents didn't acknowledge that the two grandmothers were cordial to each other but only came together on the largest occasions. Grandma McCreary explained to me that she got her fill of people who drank, swore, and gambled during the week as a nurse's aide at St. Elizabeth's, the mental hospital in southeast Washington. She could do without craziness on the weekends. She didn't smoke and objected to secondhand smoke before we knew there was such a thing.

At her house, it was lights out by nine P.M. (she was up at six) and martial order: all beds were made by eight A.M., after which we appeared dressed and scrubbed for a full breakfast of eggs, bacon, ham, home fries, and biscuits. Like my mother, she kept us busy: her frame house with a big porch always needed something, as did the big garden with a large stand of trees that dropped an extraordinary number of branches, limbs, and leaves. My favorite part of the weekend was the bonfire. Because she was too impatient to wait for the trash to be picked up, she threw all the debris from the yard and the alley (a minor dumping ground) into a wire basket and set it on fire with such satisfaction I worried she harbored the heart of an arsonist. We smelled like soot all the way back to Pennsylvania.

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