Wednesday, December 1, 1999


Assignment: " Writer's Audience"


Perhaps I should dedicate this sketch to Ray Gripp, in apology for having so rudely asked him what was so damn funny that day long ago, but I choose instead to dedicate it to Linda, who last Thanksgiving weekend sat and laughed with me over family stories from our past, as we invariably do when we get together, my four kids and I.  Each oft-told episode is so familiar that any one of us can repeat it by rote.  We seem to never tire, neither of the telling nor of the laughing.  It was a hectic time, their rearing, yet a fun time, and sometimes on a dreary Pittsburgh day, sunless and chilly, when their father and I seem to rattle around in a lonely house, I miss it terribly.

The following is one such episode from those dear days of some thirty years past.



What demon could have possessed me that Good Friday afternoon?  What dementia could have taken hold of me and made me think I could get away with taking all four of my lively little ones to the service? -- especially since the church bulletin of the Sunday previous had, in ominous bold type, warned us: 

"....once the "Passion of Our Lord" gets underway 

this coming Friday at noon, no one is to talk... 

nor leave... nor distract the devotion in any way

whatsoever.  Except for the prayers of the priest 

and the responses of the faithful, until the service

is concluded, reverent silence is to be strictly


By eleven-thirty that morning, I had all four children scrubbed and nicely dressed and ready to be herded into my blue Oldsmobile station wagon.  It sported front and middle rows which faced forward and a third row that faced the back, and was so long that we referred to it as the Blue Monster.  The dents on rear and front bumpers showed that it was indeed a monster to park. 

"Why do we have to go?"  Tommy, the five-year-old, asked.  His play had been 

interrupted, and he was not happy.

Linda, seven years old and undisputed leader (then and now) of her siblings, said, "because we're supposed to suffer on Good Friday."  Was she being devout, or sassy?  To this day I can't decide, but the year was 1962 -- too soon for her to have been infected with the irreverence of the Sixties and Seventies.  

Stevie offered no protest.  He probably was unaware of our destination, nor did he seem to care.  He was a few months shy of  four, and in those days blithely inhabited a world all his own.  Annie, at two, was content to be carted along as usual.  The five of us were a package deal; daytime baby-sitters were not on my agenda.

Good Friday used to belie separation of Church and State.  It seems to me that most of the world such as I knew it catered to Christianity in those long-ago times.  Many businesses, including the local bank if I remember rightly, were closed from noon to three, and the churches were full.  This particular Good Friday was no exception, and by the time I had found a parking place large enough to contain the Blue Monster, St. Scholastica Church was already packed.  I had hoped to slip quietly into a back pew, where my brood would be as unobtrusive as possible, but Ray Gripp, who happened to be one of the ushers that day, was inside the entrance, and he insisted on finding the five of us seats together up front.  Grandly he led us to a spot four-pews-removed from the altar, and made its occupants scrunch over to make room for us.  So much for being unobtrusive!

The priest had no more than made his way to the altar when Annie began to fuss about not having enough space, so I took her onto my lap.  Tommy poked Stevie and hissed for him to move over.  Stevie opened his mouth in preparation of delivering his trademark, "Mommy, Tommy hit me!", but a look from me stopped him in mid-wail.  The organist, from the loft, filled the church with soft, lamenting music.

"Why are the statues all covered with purple rags?"  Tommy asked.  Even at five, his voice was man-size.

"Shhh!" Linda said.

Tommy persisted in a loud whisper, "Why are they, Mommy?"

"Tell you later," I said.

Annie wanted to play with my necklace.  I moved her hand away.  She turned her attention then to my large silver clip-on earrings and pulled one off.  It ricocheted on the kneeler before clattering to the floor tiles, and rolled under the pew in front of us.

"I'll get it!" helpful Tommy boomed, but I shook my head.

People were frowning at us.  I feared the priest, hearing us, would turn and scold us from the altar.  I perspired under my coat.  Stevie, looking up at the tiny lights that twinkled on the high ceiling, said, "Is that God looking down at us?"

Linda giggled.  

Annie reached for my other earring, and I deflected her hand away.  She started to whimper.  I rocked her gently in my lap.  Her whimper became a cry....then a howl.  Now people were shushing us.  I stopped perspiring and commenced to sweat, and tucking the now screaming Annie under my arm, rose and stepped out into the aisle, motioning the other three to follow me.  They stumbled over each other and we started our exit with what seemed to me to be thousands of angry eyes upon us.  In retrospect, the looks I was receiving were likely not angry, but sympathetic ones.  Some may have been looks of gratitude -- that it was I and not they disturbing the sanctity of the Lord's Passion.

The church door seemed miles away, but doggedly, I led my children ever toward it.

"But Mommy," Linda said as she trailed behind me, "we're not allowed to leave."

"Come on!" I said.

"But Mommy....."


"Well, okay," she said, "but you told us no one was supposed to leave once it started."  

Stevie stopped to smile up at the lights one last time.  Tommy gave him a shove, and Stevie's howl was added to Annie's, which all the while had never seemed to stop long enough to allow her to breathe.

At last we reached the end of the aisle, and there, like a sentinal, was Ray.  He grinned broadly, and as he reached to open the door for us, I heard him chortle.  Suddenly rage gripped me, that having set out to do a holy deed, I was made to suffer such humiliation.  

"And just what do you think is so damn funny, Ray Gripp?" I asked, but it came out much louder than I had intended, and in horror I heard my words echo and echo again in the cavernous church.  For a split second I dared hope that I had only imagined the enormity of my voice's volume, but the many faces turned my way banished that hope.  I felt a good cry coming on.

At the sight of my tears, Annie stopped her bellowing.  Tommy took my hand and Linda put her arm around my waist.  Stevie, having slipped back into his private sphere again, turned his chubby little face up to Ray and smiled.  Ray, apparently unscathed by my rude remark, smiled in return.  "'Bye, young man," he said, and patted him on the head.

"Mommy!" Stevie shouted, "Mr. Gripp hit me for no reason!"

"I...." Ray started to say, but I held up my hand.

"It's all right, it's all right," I said weakly.  "I've got to get out of here!"  With that I hurried us outside.  Forlorn and spent, with three cherubs around me and one little one in my arms, 

I turned and watched as the great door of St. Scholastica's closed behind us.

Two nights later, all night long, it snowed.  As we rode down Delafield Road on our way to Mass that Sunday, we saw that someone had built a snowman in their yard and had placed an Easter bonnet on its head and had hung a purse on one of the sticks that served as arms.  My children were in snowsuits.  My new pink jacket and hat remained in the closet at home and  I wore the same old warm black coat I had worn all winter.  But Easter came all the same, and although at first I entered the church sheepishly, I soon was caught up in the joy and fervor of the day, and before long, I could laugh at what we came to call our "Good Friday Performance."    

Friday, September 10, 1999

Stranger in a Strange Land

The tang of open sea
That for days has cleansed my nostrils,
Gives way to rancid smells of decay.
Harbor sounds invade.

Swarthy dock workers
Shout as they fling ropes upward
For deck hands to catch and knot fast
To great iron hooks.

The ship is still now,
But for a gentle swaying to and fro
In the dirty water that lap-laps
Against her flanks.

From the street,
Voices fill my ears with meaningless gibber.
Suddenly foreign shores crowd my soul,
And I long for home.

Wednesday, August 4, 1999

Mind Games

Fondly I caress my little bent-leg Betsy Ross by Madame Alexander.  Unlike lesser, straight-leg, modern Madame Alexander dolls, Betsy’s legs can bend, which makes her worth a pretty penny, but she’s old, and her inner elastic band has lost its stretch.

“You need a new spinal cord, my sweet,” I tell her, “and I’m going to see that you get one.  I must keep you in good condition.  Now that my Kaiser Wilhelm has been untimely ripped from my collection, you are the only doll of value I have left.”  

I sigh and ponder the problem of Betsy’s repair.  I certainly can’t take her to Lucille Chapner, that unscrupulous thief in Greensboro to whom I brought my Kaiser doll for mending.  That horrible woman substituted a cheap copy, but I can’t prove it, so have to accept my loss.  No, Lucille Chapner is out of the question.  Who then?  Well, there’s Gardner’s Doll Hospital in Bridgeport.  That’s certainly closer than Greensboro anyway, and it is true that Abigail Gardner knows a good deal about dolls and their care.  Oh, but I dread taking my Betsy to her.  She has intimidated me ever since she and I served together on the board of the International Doll Collectors Club years ago.  She positively hates me, and I don’t even know why.

The procedure Betsy needs isn’t complicated.  Perhaps I can wait right in the doll hospital for it to be done, as an outpatient, so to speak.  Then I won’t be running the risk of leaving her unattended in Abigail’s hands.  Yes, that’s the course I’ll take.

I find myself now inside the Doll Hospital.  Abigail is nowhere to be seen.  Instead, behind the counter is a lovely young woman, about twenty-five or so.  In her hand is an undressed doll, which she cleans tenderly with a soft cloth.

“May I help you?” she asks.  I like her smile.

“Is Mrs. Gardner in?” I say, hoping she isn’t.

“She’s on an errand and won’t be back until later,” she says.  “I’m her daughter Gail.  May I take care of something for you?”

I show Betsy to her.  “Oh!” she says.  “A bent-leg!  We don’t often run across a treasure like her.  She’s a beauty!”

Pride, as though Betsy were my own offspring, makes me blush.  “She needs a new band,” I say.  “As you can see, her head flops a bit to the side, poor dear.”

Laying the other doll aside, Gail reaches for Betsy.  “Oh, I think I can do that for you,” she says.  “It won’t take long.  You can just wait if you like.”  She reaches up into the head and tries to remove the band, but seems to have difficulty.  She tugs and pulls and I begin to regret having come.  Suppose Betsy, delicate with age, cannot stand the rough treatment?  

“Darn!” the girl says at last.  “These antique dolls are attached differently than what I’m familiar with.  Perhaps Mother should do this after all.  Could you leave your doll here and pick her up tomorrow?”


She senses my reluctance, and I am embarrassed.  “Really,” she says, “she will be perfectly safe in our care.  You see, it’s just that I would hate to do something wrong, and my mother, of course, is an expert at this kind of repair.  Such a lovely doll!  We could have her ready for you by ten a.m.”  She gives me her nice smile.

“Oh, I guess that will be all right,” I say.  “I’ll be back in the morning.”

All the way home I worry that I have made the wrong decision.  The next day I’m at the Gardner Doll Hospital before ten.  Abigail is behind the counter, and acknowledges me with all her arrogance of old.  Gail, on the other hand, standing on the customer-side of the counter tallying statements on a calculator, greets me warmly, and in my emotional state, I’m close to weeping in gratitude, but instead I ask, “Is my doll ready?”

Abigail, her face a study in disdain, pushes an open box toward me and points to the doll in it.  I gasp.  It looks like Betsy...but it isn’t Betsy!  The doll in the box is a straight-leg!

“Something wrong?” Abigail asks.  It’s more a challenge than a question, and when I look up, I see her glaring at me, arms crossed across her chest.  I feel the old familiar intimidation she subjected me to in the past.  To my horror, I also see that Gail has somehow managed to go around to her mother’s side, and she, too, stands with arms crossed, staring.  A united front!  I’m doomed!  I want to accuse them of their chicanery, but my throat, dry, constricted, opens only enough for me to croak, “How much do I owe?”

Abigail puts a lid on the box.  “Fifteen dollars.”

Trembling, not able to say more, I pay, pick up the box, and leave.

Once in the car, free of her presence, I come to my senses.  “Coward!” I scold myself.  “No way will I let myself be swindled twice!  I will march right back in there and demand my...”   But by this time I have the lid off to examine Abigail’s fraud, and lo! There in the box lies my own Betsy bent-leg.  “Oh, my sweet!” I cry.  “You’re back!”

I pick her up and press her to my chest, then lay her across the seat and check her knee joints to be sure.  Yes, she’s back, all right!  My joy dissipates and fear grips me.  Was she really ever gone?

Wednesday, July 14, 1999

Dream Vendor

There was an eeriness about the old woman that Anna was unable to define.  She didn't know the woman's name, only that she was called  la vecchia,  the old one, by the tenants in the Little Italy section where Anna and her mother shared a third-floor apartment.   La vecchia's apartment was on the ground floor of the same building, near the entrance way -- a perfect  vantage point for knowing everyone and everything that went in or out.  Perhaps it was the piercing look she gave Anna whenever they happened to run into each other at the bottom of the narrow, creaking stairs...perhaps the unearthly smile. Whatever it was made her uneasy.

She stood at the bus stop after a long day at her stenographer desk, and thought about la vecchia now and hoped she would not be there in the entrance way when Anna got home.  She shuddered inside her thin woolen coat and wrapped her scarf more securely around her neck.

Glancing across the street, she saw a young woman, shapely and beautiful in silver fox fur, step from a taxi and smile at the cabbie who was holding the door for her.  Anna tried to imagine how it would feel to be so lovely.   The lady paid her fare and then slowly, sensuously, pulled her long black leather glove back onto her right hand and up under the sleeve of her luxurious coat.  

Anna suppressed the sob that nagged at her throat. I could be attractive if  Momma would let me, she thought.   I hate her for it!   But what can I do?  I'm thirty-seven, and the pattern is set, not likely to change.  

Face paint is for harlots!"  Anna could almost hear her mother's words echoing in her head.  "Fancy clothes are the devil's tools of temptation!"

I wish she would die, Anna thought, then I 'd be free!   Immediately guilt seared inside her.  "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" she whispered.  "I didn't mean it!"   

A gentlemen waiting beside her looked up.  "Something wrong, Miss?" he asked. 

Anna, embarrassed, stared at the sidewalk.  "No, no," she mumbled, and was relieved to see her bus, #40, pull to the curb.  She stepped aboard, planting one oxford-clad foot heavily ahead of the other.

As she climbed the three steps to their building, Anna, through the etched glass of the front door, could see la vecchia standing in the vestibule.....waiting.  Oh no! Anna thought.  She opened the door and averted her eyes, but this time...this first and only vecchia opened her mouth and spoke.

"You want to buy a dream?" 

Anna thought she had misunderstood.  "What?"

"You want to buy a dream?"

"What do you mean?"

"I sell you a dream," la vecchia said.  Her smile filled Anna with anxiety.  

"I don't understand," she said and tried to pass, but la vecchia barred her way.

  "I have nice boyfriend dreams for sale," she said.  "Husband dreams, too.... money dreams....all kinds.  Money dream is nice....two apartments....two lives....very, very nice.  I also have beauty dreams...make you beautiful.  Murder dreams.......  Many, many dreams.   Which dream you want to buy?"

"Murder dreams?"


Anna wiped perspiration from her brow, yet shivered and was cold.  "Oh," said la vecchia, "I see.  Yes, yes, I see.  I think I know what you want."

""No!" Anna said.  "Please!  Momma has dinner waiting.  I have to get up there!" 

"I ask one more time," la vecchia said.  "I sell you nice dream.  You want to buy nice dream?"

"Well...."  Anna hesitated; then, "No! No!" she said.  "Stop it!"  She put her hands over her ears.

La vecchia's smile changed to sneer.  "Fool!" she said.  "You have to make dream, not buy it! want to make a dream?"  

"Leave me alone!"  Anna, pushing her out of the way, stumbled up the stairs. 

"Coward!" la vecchia screamed after her.

Anna reached the third landing, rounded the corner, and fumbled in her purse for the apartment key.  "Fool!" she heard la vecchia shout again.  Then there was silence.

Momma must have been listening for her, because she was right inside the door.  How much had she heard?  "Momma...." Anna started to say, but her mother spoke first.

"What was all that screeching about?  And you're late again!  Dinner is cold.  What do you think I run here -- a twenty-four-hour restaurant?  You selfish young girls are all alike!"

Anna brushed past her, and shrugging off her coat, threw it on the sofa.  "I'm NOT young!" she cried.  "Momma, I'm thirty-seven, for God's sake!  Thirty-seven, Momma, and plain and tired and home every single night right after work!"

"Don't you DARE talk to me in that tone of voice!" her mother said.

Anna's sigh was barely audible.  "I'm sorry, Momma," she said, and the pattern remained set, not likely to change.