It was the perfect childhood if I'd wanted to grow up to be a contractor, an interior decorator, or a survivalist. And I was mostly happy in it, although the only place I could read in peace was the bathtub, where, to trick my mother, I would make occasional swishing sounds in water turned icy cold so I could finish the latest Nancy Drew mystery. My friend Joanne coveted Nancy Drew's roadster. I coveted her calm household.
It felt as though we went out a lot, but we had quite a few restrictions. My father flew for his job, but my mother was phobic about flying — loudly so — and made Jimmy phobic, too. (When he saw the Pan Am crash in Lockerbie, Scotland, on CNN he said, "Mom was right.") We never went anywhere my brother couldn't go — not to a movie, a museum, or a play. We went to the beaches or mountains we could reach by car (or in the RV we briefly owned). My first trip by air was to Paris for a junior year abroad. I was in college before I set foot in a museum.
Most Saturday nights we went to dinner at my dad's parents'. My stern grandfather was a butcher, and back when a steak was a steak, he brought sirloins home. What a feast! We ate well at our house, but the menu ran to stews and pot roasts, not your very own cut of meat. My father's mother, Gertie, had a braid of red hair down her back, smoked butts during Lent when she gave up cigarettes, drank Pabst Blue Ribbon, and let us kids stand on a stool to put nickels in the slot machine at the Rod 'n Reel down the street from our cottage at Chesapeake Beach.
While the rest of us had mashed potatoes and wedges of iceberg with Thousand Island dressing, my grandfather was served boiled potatoes and peas in a separate dish by my doting grandmother. This seemed an exotic form of married love to me, and I wondered if it was that tender gesture to Granddad, not my grandmother's swearing and drinking, that made her such an annoyance to my mother. After we tired of watching the adults play cards, the cousins would head down to the basement to run around like maniacs until we collapsed in a sweaty heap of sleep on the coats piled on the sofa. I slept on the lining side, my brother on the wool.
When I was little, I didn't resist my mother's urgings to "go out and play and take your brother with you." I chose Jimmy for my side ("If you want me, you have to take him"), and I tried to guide the games toward large motor skills that he could manage (hide-and-seek) and away from small ones he couldn't (marbles, pogo sticks). Because Jimmy was never to be left alone, I urged the neighborhood kids to come over to my house. They loved coming. It wasn't just the scrumptious food or the home-churned ice cream that they had never thought of coming from anywhere but the freezer section of the A&P that pulled them in. It was the messy, kid-centered chaos of it.
Although my mother always seemed to be cleaning like a madwoman, our house wasn't orderly, so if you found yourself in the middle of Parcheesi, you could put the board in the corner under the card table with the jigsaw puzzle on top and be sure it would be there when you came back — as would the jigsaw, for years at a time. Jimmy loved jamming straight-edged pieces into the middle. Once when we at last finished a harbor scene without losing any pieces, my mother shellacked it and hung it above the piano.