Many years ago when I was just a boy, my heart was always filled with delight. My mother and her sisters along with my grandmother showered me with love and kindnesses. I can remember the house on Delude Avenue where all the Christmases and Thanksgivings were held. I can picture the living room that was converted into a dining room. It may have been that I was so small, but looking back, how on earth did she manage sit down dinners for twelve uncles and aunts and their children.
I was the oldest grandchild. Wow! what a rush. Everyone wanted a piece of me. And all I needed to do to be as loved as anyone can ever be loved, was to smile, or cry for that matter. We were not a rich family by any stretch. When I was born most of my uncles were away at war. It was as if my world was entirely comprised of women. These women, all in their twenties showered attention on me–even before I needed it. They took turns anticipating my needs.
I must have thought that everyone had an Aunt Bea. What a little sweetheart she was. All of five feet tall with the northern features of Canadian women, Aunt Bea would swoop me up and dance me until she had no breath left, except enough breath to laugh while continuing to sing The Beer Barrel Polka. The living room that was a dining room was also a dance hall fit for a prince.
My grandfather had died suddenly of a heart attack just before the U.S. entered the Great War. That left my grandmother and her six children to run the neighborhood corner market. In those days the neighborhood market was center of peoples world, between the market and the large basilica like church of Saint Ann, a person could be born, live a life, fine a husband or a wife and be buried from the church where he or she was baptized.
I was born at a time when my heritage had a unique culture of its own. Between the franco-american club, the French speaking radio station, the Canadian Priest & the French Press newspaper, my life lived itself without my having to give much thought to how I was living it. It was as if my culture was so dominant, so ever present that there was no time for my mind to question the hows and wheres and whys of existence.
I have a memory of being happy and all my anticipations were of happiness. Among my earliest memories were the sights and smells of the “triple-decker” where I was born. From the kerosene burner that glowed, unvented in the middle of the living room, that was closed off by two glass french doors, to the smell of coal that was delivered by the ton through a window to the basement, to the horrible putrid odor of the garbage truck that came by once a week to empty the pail of swill that sat covered and buried in the back yard; from these smells to the wonderful comforting smell of the powder that the women applied to their faces with a finger size flesh colored pad that sat in pretty little mirrored-compact case & of course the smell of food.
On Sunday mornings before church, Mom would braise a roast. She would use a cast iron pad, lather the bottom in butter and onions and turn the heat up until the pad itself looked red hot. Then she would pick up the hunk of meat and drop it into the hot pan. It would sizzle and crackle and create so much smoke that even in the dead of winter the doors and windows had to be opened to let out the smoke and smell. Once she was satisfied that it was as braised as it could possibly be, I mean burnt to a crisp on all edges of the roast, she would pour water over the meat and let it cook for hours. The feature that made this meal so tantalizing was the browned carrots and potatoes that emerged from this Canadian stew.
There were wonderful smells and horrible smells and there were sights that were equally arousing. I think the most fearful sight, not counting the lightning storms, was the sight of the rag man who came by in his horse and buggy–bellowing out the single word, RAGS, Raaggss, Rags. I would sit in the window and watch my father go bravely to this man’s wagon and negotiate some deal having to do with an exchange of dirty rags for clean ones. Actually, at the time I had no idea what my father was doing. I was only relieved when the rag man, snapped the reins and the horse would begin to trot away at the pace of a crawl as the rag mans cries of, Rags, Raaggss, would fade into the distance that was our neighbors yard. I think it was a “passover” of sorts each time we emerged from the visit unscathed….
The sounds of life still hold a vitality for me. Family gatherings, of which we have not moved away from, were a blend of voices and hollers and laughter. Uncles would boast and aunts would fret and the sound of porcelain and stainless utensils merged into a cacophony of pure joy. There was no silver and china. But most of all, the sounds fade into a distant past except for the sound of music that Dad made happen with his accordion from Germany and his Marine Band harmonica. It was magic, pure mystifying magic this happy noise that filled the room as Dad played sunday after sunday — Lily Marlene.
“Un – der neath the lan – tern, by the bar -rack gate, dar – ling I re – mem – ber the way you use to wait. ‘Twas there that you wis – pered, ten – der- ly, that you loved me, you’d al – ways be—my Li – ly of the lamp – light, my own Li – ly Mar – lene.”
My mother cooking Sunday dinner, my father playing music, the priest and the messages of hope that he pounded into the pulpit, all converged into my soul giving me forever a melancholy and a nostalgia for that which was and that that is.
When we moved one town over and into another state, life became a bit more complicated. I could not bare to leave my grandmother behind. I was only four years old–the exact age that my granddaughter is now when I had the presence of mind to manifest my grandmother move with us. The attic of the small cape cod house was transformed into a two room efficiency apartment and for the next ten years, Memere, as I called her in French lived with us and we were the family hub. Aunts and uncles had to pass through our house to get to Memere and all the cousins would stay and visit with me, while the aunts and uncles visited with the grown-up. Every event was an event to be anticipated. Joy was about the moment and about the immediate next that was going to be at least as good as the last if not, perhaps, better.
When my grandmother died some ten years after we had all moved together to the suburbs, a piece of my soul was carried away to heaven that cold and snowy January morning. I was 99% assured that I would meet her again some day in heaven. The anticipation was 99% happiness, but the moment was no longer about joy. I remember reading the verse in my daily missal, “…and who for us will intercede when even saints shall comfort need.”
Not too long ago, my cousin who lives in Texas read one of my Saturday morning blogs and she commented to me that, “memere died much too soon for you.” I think she had picked up on a feeling that I have that life is about scripting for the future.
I felt somewhat defensive when I first heard the comment, because i felt mis understood. “I am not unhappy,” I thought, I am just waiting for happiness to once again invade my life the way it did when I was just a boy.
My Granddaughter just turned four this week. I am going to wrap up my father’s harmonica and give it to her. I still have small mementos that were given to me when I was that age, and I love having them — not only for what they are, but mostly from where they came.
In this age when the worshiping of the “Now” has become the vogue, every once in a while, I am filled with delight when I can recall a moment so filled with joy that some 50 years later the remnants of that joy are still alive, or that I can still feel that some anticipated event is filled with the joy of anticipation……the kind one use to feel when we knew the the circus was coming to town.