June 20, 2009

Before the Incident

In 1959, my parents bought a pre-fabricated ranch house before the birth of their second child. While I was not yet 3 when we moved to Walnut Street from an upstairs apartment across from the funeral home. I have the clearest memories of the house and neighborhood of my early childhood.

The house was painted a cheery yellow and had a rose arbor which bloomed with huge red blossoms, beginning around Mother’s Day. Adjacent to the house was a carport, where my dad kept a succession of GM cars, including our favorite, a beige Biscayne station wagon with a rear-facing jump seat.

The backyard had a well-used clothes line, a sandbox, and a swing set from K-Mart, assembled by my father. The neighborhood was full of children – you could throw a rock in any direction and hit a family of five or more – the Shoeffs, the Saffers, the Rudds, the Austins, and the Ulshafers. Children played outside from dawn to dusk – I rode my bike 5 blocks to the downtown area for a cherry Coke at an old-fashioned Rexall soda fountain or Baxter’s Dime Store for penny candy. On really warm days, we went to Lancaster’s Swimming Pool, just a block away. The rule was “be home by dinner.”

We had milk delivered in glass bottles several times a week in a large, white diary truck. My mother put a square sign in the window on those mornings to tell Mr. Miller what she needed. Groceries came from the G and G, and on occasion, we slipped out the back door to Gruwell’s Bakery for buttery frosted sugar cookies. My grandparents gave us vegetables from their huge garden, or Mr. Lee who lives a few houses away shared tomatoes and cucumbers and sweet corn from his.

Into this neighborhood, my baby brother arrived several weeks before mother’s due date. Before hospital sibling glasses, there was no preparation for this 30-month old who was regularly the local Princess. Awakening early in the little yellow house on the morning of January 12, 1960, I discovered my parents missing and my grandparents in their bed. Grandparents had been summoned from the farm at 3 a.m. and my parents rushed off to the hospital.

Such a rush that the scrawny baby boy came quickly and my father arrived on time for his teaching job that day. Now, lest one judge him, remember that things were very different in 1960. For the most part, fathers did what fathers did and mothers did what mothers did and never the twain shall meet. (Thirty years later, as a first-time grandpa he would pace and wait with my mother for nearly 12 hours outside the delivery room where his grandson was born.)

I was not allowed to visit my mother in the hospital, though for some inexplicable reason my father took me to the hospital parking lot and Mom came to the second floor window and waved at me, and I reportedly said, “There’s Mommy, way up high.” (These reported stories are published in the books, “Bright Sayings of the Princess,” volumes one through nine,)

The time soon came to bring the beloved bundle home from the hospital. But the family’s washer was on the fritz, and the repairman --a Mr. Vanderripe -- arrived just at the very same moment we arrived home from the hospital with the blessed baby.

Now you can judge my father, for he was so excited to see Mr. Vanderripe that he and I immediately jumped out of the car and ran inside on this cold winter day to discuss the state of the washing machine and left Mother and new baby behind. There were no infant seats then. There was only one angry tiny woman holding one angry tiny baby and both needed help getting out of the car. Dad will never live that one down.

I was not very excited about the interloper in my little world. A week Mom was home alone with the terrible two-year-old and the new baby. I locked myself with him in his bedroom and began whacking him on the head with what we then called a “popcorn popper,” a wooden push toy with wooden balls inside that moved up and down when you pushed the toy.

My mother could not get me to open the door, so she had to call my dad at the school who came home and took the door off its hinges. This has long been referred to as “the incident.” There I sat in my little red chair, arms folded, defiantly starring ahead, intently, as the baby screamed beside me in his crib. That baby wasn’t that soft-headed because I did not do any apparent damage. My father took the popcorn popper back to the school and jammed it behind his filing cabinet where it remained for 12 years. He found it when packing up to move to the new school. Quoth the raven.