It is one of my earliest memories, certainly the first one I learned on purpose.
I say it now like I did back then, without a breath in between each word. That’s how I could remember it all from the time I was four.
The hilled entrance was smaller than I remember. Shorter, too. In my little girl mind it was a mountain that took all day to climb, but in reality a hop, skip and jump will take you from top to bottom.
Funny how perspective changes when you grow up.
I wasn’t prepared for how I’d feel going back. It’s not like I haven’t driven there before. But for some reason, Tuesday was different.
We pulled up the hill and I recognized it immediately, mistakenly going too far to the right at first. I’m sure I thought it was farther because I was remembering it the way I imagined it over 40 years ago. I backed up our car and pulled right in front.
“…and that window…”
The lump in my throat stopped me from completing my narration of what I was seeing–
That was the window I’d stand at looking out, waiting for Mama to get home.
When she hurt so bad she couldn’t stand it, she’d drive to the hospital for a shot; thank God it was right up the street. Maybe that’s why we lived where we lived. I’ll never know.
They didn’t have pain management like they do now, and I can only imagine how badly she must have hurt all the time. Five surgeries in barely five years, chemo and radiation, too, but the greatest ache knowing she was not going to see her babies grow up.
I can barely stand to think about what she endured. Pure barbarism. Bastard cancer.
I’d stand at our living room window, the same living room where I once caught my hair on fire playing with matches and candles – nobody ever found out, but I don’t see how you can miss the smell of burned hair…that faint scent still lingers. I’d stand at that window and wait for Mama to come back, hating to be left alone but understanding I didn’t have a choice. I knew our neighbors were just across the hall and my older sister and baby brother were there, but I still felt all alone.
I wonder if anyone ever saw me from the street and wondered what that little girl was looking at. What she was looking for.
So I take my husband and my youngest to see all the places I lived growing up, and seeing them all in a row like that, my husband said, “I don’t think I knew you lived so many places,” but I’m sure I took him decades ago. At least when we passed the entrance, I had to have mentioned it.
I got out of the car and walked up to the door; there’s an outside entrance to four apartments inside – two ground floor, two above. I don’t necessarily recognize the inside, it’s a nondescript apartment door with a tacky scarecrow hanging on it, but the number is tattooed on my heart: J7.
I look up the stairs to where Mr. and Mrs. Butts lived, they were kinda famous but they’re long gone now. To the left, no faces come to mind, but I remember eating spaghetti over there once. The mom asked me if I wanted sauce and I said no because I didn’t realize the whole dish – pasta and marina – wasn’t automatically called spaghetti (I had never had one without the other). In that little girl head, I thought she meant she was putting sauce on top of the sauce, so when I declined the woman gave me a plate of plain noodles. I was too embarrassed to explain my mistake so I choked down a plate of dry pasta. I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight.
Because Mama died when I was nine and I don’t think we ever lived in that apartment again.