Friday, May 27, 2011

To Luby Small's Delight

         I could not wish for Luby Small to rest in peace, because he never, ever gave anything to The World That We Share other than peace, among many other gifts that we folks may often only fantasize of giving.
         My father met Luby’s dad, Mr. Small, back when our family lived in Augusta, Maine, and Mr. Small was some manner of co-worker with my dad, as well as a pal. The two guys kept up a relationship after our family moved down to Portland. Mr. Small probably needed help with a CPA-related thing, and my dad, always with the eye for service work for a friend, put my mom, baby Charles, and me into the VW, and we rode the fifty-odd miles north to Waterville, where resided the Small family.
         We got there, parked the VW, rang a bell, and walked up a couple short flights of stairs. On the second floor, there were the accustomed pleasantries between the adults. I tried to scope it all out. At my age of about eight years, I had mostly seen house-type homes. A walk-up apartment, within which a whole family dwelled, was new to me. Surely, any new environment is something which is to mentally process and quickly adapt. I felt an immediate warmth and comfort. It smelled nice there.
For me to assimilate next, of course, were the New People. We were met by Mr. and Mrs. Small, and by their daughter, Jean, in their kitchen. Jean was in her early teens, to me, a lot like another adult. She introduced herself, and she gave me a warm, confident smile that put me at ease. She and her parents used little effort to make we four Chandlers feel welcome. I happily accepted a glass of ginger ale out of the Smalls’ refrigerator and homespun kindness ...and with ice cubes in it.
         After the pleasantries and my ginger ale, Mrs. Small and my mom left the kitchen to bond as women and to change Charlie’s diaper. My dad and Mr. Small plonked out their paperwork on the kitchen table. Jean took my hand and radiated, “Let’s go play with Luby.”
         On the ride up to Waterville, my folks had told me that there was a kid  around my age named, Luby, at the Smalls’ house and that I’d have a playmate. My thoughts danced. Throughout my young life, I had experienced, other than with cousins, only short, transient relationships with boys and girls my own age. Circumstance, not my adults, was responsible for this, but over my eight years, person to person, place to place, time to time, lives and deaths, I hadn’t gotten a much of a grasp of permanence. New friendships, to my young mind, were always welcome, yet I figured them as fleeting to me as I thought my new friendships were to them. I was excited to meet this Luby. Jean, I could see, was far more sophisticated than I, yet, from what I knew of girls, I was sure she’d rather play with dolls than to go in for my car, gun, action style of play.
         Jean and I turned from the apartment’s short hallway into the family room, and the floor was somehow, neatly, cleanly, strewn with lots of basic toys and lots of books for kids to read and books of puzzles and crayons and pencils and pads of paper and boxes of jigsaw puzzles. And it wasn’t a mess. It looked like it all belonged right where it was.
         “Luby!” Jean called, “Michael is here!”
         Luby bounded awkwardly out of his bedroom toward me in his pajamas. He was pie-eyed with excitement to meet me, as I had been to meet him.
“Hi, Michael!” and he wrapped his arms around my far shorter shoulders.
         I was surprised, taken quite aback, and, I must admit, somewhat revolted. Luby was severely mentally challenged, and that, due to hydrocephalus; he had what used to be called, “water on the brain.” His head was huge, his body, developed to hold his head up, was gangly. His smile sprang from his face in an unabashed way that I had never experienced. He was, as stated, taller than me, and he expressed far more immediate affection toward me than any of my grandmothers, great-aunts, or kissy, elderly neighbor ladies could ever muster. I cast a nervous glance at Jean. She beamed, saintly. Luby released me.
         “Do you wanna play?” he asked, indicating the piles of stuff on the floor.
         “Yeah, let’s play,” Jean answered for us all.
         What a cruel trick my parents had played on me, setting me up in my child’s imagination for a new playmate. I was their rube. They had brought me up on this damn car ride to shunt me off while they did their adult things, onto a type of person that I wondered if they’d have invited over to their house. What a rip-off!
         “Okay,” I answered.
         Play we three did, and challenging, mentally stimulating play. Jean was intelligent, patient with us boys, gentle, encouraging, engaging, and that made her all the more, to my eight-year-old sensibilities, pretty.
         Luby was fascinating. For all the toys and puzzles and books, which I knew for a fact he had played with again and again, each one seemed brand new to him. He showed and shared each one to me with openness and originality. Did we play!
Jean and I read aloud, to Luby Small’s delight. We all three played with cars and trains and the jigsaw puzzles. We built blocks, and until that afternoon, wooden blocks as a childhood recreation were beneath me. I learned. I didn’t learn about the complexities of reading words or those of toy cars and trains and building blocks, but I learned of simplicity. Between us three, there was no disparity. We were equals. What one lacked was shared for all by another.
         I kept looking into Luby’s face and eyes and comportment to see or to perceive something; I knew not then, what. It was obvious that Jean had some of whatever that “what” was. She radiated it, and I somehow knew it was gotten from Luby. It was a purity, an innocence, a transmitted, transmittable comfort. It was a unifying, underlying ease. It was contagious. It filled the room, the heart, the mind, the soul. For goodness’ sake, it was in the toys and the puzzles and the books.
         The adults said it was time for lunch, so we all had sandwiches and some more ginger ale together, and Jean played a few LP record sides that straddled everyone’s generational difference. Music. It seemed natural that Luby had even influenced the musical choices. Harmony was among us all, polarized, I have to say, by Luby. Nobody among all eight of us was the center of attention.
After lunch, it was time for the Chandlers to depart the Smalls’ home and Waterville, Maine, but not for good. We visited their place a few more times, and I hope we all experienced the same human magic that was present the first time. I know I did.
         I have been of the mindset to try, in childhood and adulthood, to replicate a formative experience, but nobody in my life could do it like Luby. It was always like the first time we met. The Small family got us up to some lakeside cottage that they had rented for a long weekend one summer, and Mr. and Mrs. Small taught me how to eat and enjoy a lobster. Luby’s and my wading around among the minnows and the reeds was as original, as fun, and as memorable to me as any of our times together. We played and played and laughed and laughed and talked and talked.
         A few years later, having not seen the Smalls during that time, and things being what they are in our societal lack of true observance of our friends and neighbors, we got a telephone call.
         Luby had been riding in the school bus reserved for very special people. There weren’t too many convenient roads linking towns in the Great State of Maine, so the bus was making a short, daily trip on the interstate highway. Sitting across the aisle from the driver was Luby, being his gregarious, innocent, chatty self. The chain broke on a lumber truck in front of the school bus, and a long two-by-four smashed through the windshield and lanced Luby into his delicate, oversized, dear, dear cranium. It did not pierce either his heart or his soul. Luby lingered, comatose for several weeks, and I do believe that this was his penultimate gift to his loving family.
         His final gift was given, at least to me, and I hope, several others.
We drove back up to Waterville, just me, mom, and dad, for Luby’s wake. I had been to several such ceremonies, so I walked immediately to his open casket, not out of curiosity, or anger, or grief, or a notion of loss, not to see, but only to be. Just like Luby.
         I knelt, and I looked into his face and his being, searching for what he had, just like I did when we met. Just like what I had stopped doing during our times together and had simply accepted. That which I had begun to learn.
         The top of his head was swathed in gauze. The make-up person at the funeral home must have had the easiest job of his or her career. Luby’s beatific face was what was very probably shone upon his proud new parents on the day he was born. The purity, innocence, emanation of care for others, then still alive in Luby’s countenance, could not have been augmented by a human hand. I glowed then, as he would have unknowingly prompted me in his living innocence. At peace was he, and so was I. He filled the room.
         Thank you, Luby Small, for showing me and those around you a fragment of true peace, for which I still look to you so curiously, to vaguely understand, and thank you for your artless example of goodness, rarely duplicated, that you carried with impossibly unselfish ease.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Rosemary's Virginity

            Of course, there were babysitters.
The first one I remember was Penny, a secretary who worked with my dad at Peat, Marwick & Mitchell when we lived in Holden, Massachusetts. She was called into our household after my adoptive mom had died. I’m sure Penny was, in a manner, pressed into child-minding service; although, the time being the early 1960’s, and she being a young, single woman, might have been thinking about children of her own someday and might have been modestly considering that taking care of me could get her closer to my dad, a fairly successful, intriguing recent widower. That is speculation, but what is for sure is that my memory of Penny is of her being nothing but enthusiastic, tender, and loving toward three-year-old me. This was at a time in her young womanhood when she could have been enjoying a steak dinner with a suitor who could stay up late, didn’t need help going to the bathroom, and probably wouldn’t have asked to be read a bedtime story before turning out the lights. To my childhood memory she was really pretty. I sure liked her, and she sure liked me. Heck, I’d take her out for a steak dinner today.
The next string of babysitters began several years later, after my dad had remarried and we moved to Portland, Maine with my new little brother. In the interim, there had been caretakers and aunts and uncles for days and weeks at a time, but when we finally settled in Portland, and the newest of their three babies was no longer an infant in a bassinette who needed to be changed, my mom and dad found some time to get out of the house for dinner, or for my mom to clear her mind of us millstones of an afternoon with either errands, or one of her many sisters. For the babysitting duties, we mined the Asali family, two doors down, whose oldest daughter, Rosie, went to Deering High School. Rosie, mercifully, was tapped to mind the Chandler siblings when I was at the most obedient time in my life and when my younger brothers and sister were sleepy enough at 7 p.m. to rarely stir. At about age ten, I was known in the neighborhood as a fair artist, and Rosie would bring over magic markers and poster paper for me to draw renditions of Charlie Brown and Blondie cartoons to use as publicity for Deering High’s dances. I would challenge her initial ideas, and we’d have a final mission statement before I began the pencil sketches. Doing art for high school kids, I felt really big. She thought the posters were better than I did.
After Rosie graduated from Deering, Kathy Asali was the sitter next in line. Then about age twelve, I was rambunctious, and Kathy, roughly four years my senior, was game. She was wiry, wily, and wise. I was wiry, wily and not so wise. I was about two-thirds Kathy’s size, and she was a good wrestling partner, which I do believe falls into a babysitter’s job description. One afternoon during a wrestling fall, I inadvertently plunked my hand down onto one of her breasts. Her eyes widened, as they might, to see if I had done that for a purposeful pre-adolescent feel, and, locking my gaze, I am sure she saw nothing but my desire to win the match. I gave her a left knee to the buttocks, and, if memory serves, she pinned me on my back, un-aroused, at least two more times. I have to admit, she smelled nice. As skinny as we two were, we had voracious appetites, and our guilty pleasures were copious salads and ice cream sundaes. We loaded each up with everything that was available in the refrigerator and the cupboards. Each dish would be disgustingly decadent, three types of salad dressing and any cheese we could pilfer, tomatoes, carrots, olives, pickles, Bac-O-Bits, piled high over a quarter-head of iceberg lettuce (the only type known in the 1970’s); the sundaes were more and more and more so and involved anything that contained sugar, probably equivalent to a quarter pound in each dish. Marshmallow, strawberry preserves, jimmies, fudge, any kind of nuts, peanut butter, maraschino cherries, Cool Whip, and... oh yeah, Sealtest ice cream--it didn’t matter whether or not they all tasted good together. The sugar combination only made our wrestling matches tougher, our TV watching more intense, my bedtime later, and Kathy to forget about her homework. With all that food raiding, it is no wonder she only got seventy-five cents an hour. I think that because of the hardscrabble wrestling and my folks’ absolute acknowledgment that I was nearly too wild to be handled, they gave Kathy Asali and most other babysitters a fair nightly tip.
            After a couple of years at the Chandler household, Kathy got a steady boyfriend and was unavailable for most corralling duties. I do have a chuckle today, knowing that I had touched her breast before her boyfriend did. After Kathy’s tenure, my folks would have mined the large Roy family from across the street for more babysitters had it not been for what continues to be referred to as “the spaghetti fight.”
My mom had a dear, elderly aunt who was dying in Boston. She was a spinster and a poor, lonely woman, and my mom cherished her like a furless Teddy bear from one’s childhood; although, in our years as a new family, I had met her only once. As she, my great-aunt, lay at the point of death in Boston General Hospital, my dad and mom had to scurry down for the weekend, and they, in a bind, called up Joyce Roy to do a couple overnighters with me - the crazy kid - and my crew of malleable, willingly-participating younger brothers and sister. Joyce showed up in the morning, and we waved my parents off. It all looked so innocent and open.
I don’t know how or when I discovered the spaghetti fight process. It must have been of an idle moment, absently poking at my hand or forearm with a stick of raw spaghetti. It snapped, and it snapped again. The synapse happened that if I pushed that pasta with steady pressure, it goes, “brraap, bbbrraaap,” several times like the rhythm of a machine gun. It has an odd and distinct feel on the skin, like six or eight rapid pinches, which mildly sting but don’t hurt for long. Mueller or Prince spaghetti work the best; use #8 spaghetti, as I’ve tried, in my recent babysitting years, both angel hair pasta and linguini, and they don’t work. That afternoon, I opened up a box of #8 spaghetti (of which there were a few) and started freely stabbing the arms, legs, fronts and backs of Joyce and my siblings. As in any war, the side with the most advanced weapons is at the early advantage until the losing side develops the same weapon or something better. I knew that they all knew the cupboard where there was more ammo to be found, and, hell, it ain’t a game until everyone is playing. We ran chaotically through the house, “bbbrrraap”-ing one another with delight. The youngest, my sister Julie, about four, excitedly bewildered, scuttled about in the mix, screeching and chasing us with a piece of uncooked rotini. We all took that skirmish onto the porch, the driveway, into the yard, back into and out of the house. Couch cushions were thrown, chairs and tables upended, magazines and newspapers heaved in self-defense. I think, at one point, my brother Charlie had been so clever as to use the ironing board as a shield.
The problem with a spaghetti war is that it leaves its participants worn out, while there are several pieces of spent “ammunition” at the site of every hand-to-body attack. Thousands of half-inch shards of spaghetti littered the house and yard. The sun had gone down, and we all, worn and satisfied, had a little supper, and I agreed with Joyce Roy that we would clean up that spaghettified mess in the morning. I even changed the vacuum cleaner bag so that we would have a fresh start. We got the kids to bed and settled down to television.
True to many parents’ form, mine did not stay overnight at their destination, as they and we at home had planned. No, they returned late that night to a floor-riddled mosaic of dried #8 spaghetti fragments and a houseful of at least disrupted, if not overturned, furniture and appliances. Livid, my mom and dad paid and dispatched Joyce back across the street to her far more peaceful family in shame. I stood in my Nuremburg and took all of the blame. I was too much for Joyce Roy to handle, and without a doubt in everyone’s minds (and mine), I had created and executed the entire debacle.
“Ma,” I decried, “We were gonna clean it up, and look, I put in a new vacuum bag.” I was told to put that new vacuum bag to good use immediately, and I was sweeping up the back porch and driveway until about 2 a.m.
By age thirteen, I was certainly old enough to mind our home and the kids when the folks went out, but given my track record with babysitters, broken furniture, windows, garden tools and sundry items, and my instigative, inventive, and mischievous hold over my siblings, hiring an outside babysitter was worth the nominal amount of money and inconvenience, my parents, enjoying a restaurant’s Muzak of a pleasant evening, partially safe in the knowledge that there would be someone to at least call the fire department or run screaming to the neighbors. Somehow we got a hold of Rosemary.
She was a student at McAuley, the Catholic girls’ high school. She was stout and tall; I think she played field hockey. She didn’t put up with too much crap from any of us, but she was intelligent and fun to be around when she found, after a night here and there, that I was not the prescribed Holy Terror of whom she’d been warned. I washed and dried the dinner dishes, did my homework, and, after the kids were put to bed, she and I would have our television time.
It must have been a Thursday night, because we were watching “The Waltons” together. As stated, I was quite sexually naive. In conversation, my immediate and extended Catholic family never alluded to anything of even a romantic nature in other than hushed tones. What I knew of sexual relations came from youthful, sandlot myth and speculation and from dirty magazines that the big kids would leave behind after their beer parties in the woods.
As Rosemary and I watched “The Waltons” that night, there was a scene in which John Boy was taking a bath in a steel laundry tub. If I remember correctly, he was singing loudly.
Rosemary squealed, “Ohhh! I just lost my virginity!”
Catholic upbringing had brought me to where I figured that word meant not much more than something along the lines of “purity,” “goodness,” and being “faithfully forthright.” Think of hearing the term, “The Virgin Mary,” by, at my age, tens of thousands of times, and I was not thinking of fornication. I laughed along with Rosemary’s comment, and I then believed that we had shared quite a hearty moment together. We went back to the show.
My parents arrived a short time later, and pretending not to, nosed around to see that their home was still intact. Pleased, they, Rosemary and I gathered in the kitchen. I was standing in about the middle of the group, the easiest spot to be whacked had the household inspection not come up clean, Rosemary behind my dad’s shoulder, where she would be less likely drawn into a fray.
“So,” my mom chirped, “How did it go tonight?”
We were in the clear, and now I could be witty and free and – oops! – pure, good, and faithfully forthright.
Grinning, looking straight into Rosemary’s eye over my father’s shoulder, I spilled what was our evening’s bit of conspiratorial humor, “Rosemary lost her virginity.”
Like a tarantula, Rosemary’s hand clasped over her jaw-dropped mouth, and her eyes sprang wide-open in such a way that even a midnight strangler could not evoke.
As my mom and dad looked across me at one another, it quickly dawned on at least my mom that I didn’t know what I had just said. She blushed, and I’m sure she was trying not to laugh.
“I think you’d better have a talk with your son.”
Poor Rosemary did not look up from the floor as she went to collect her schoolbooks, put on her peacoat, and wait for my father to open the kitchen door to give her a ride home. My dad still had to pay her, but I don’t think Rosemary was, at that moment, concerned about her earnings. I believe that was her last venture into the Chandler household. I wonder if my dad had any kind of reassuring words driving Rosemary home that night, because he never did have “that talk” with me.