By Ed Staskus
Everything happened when I was 12 years-old, although most of it happened before that. My mom, who grew up one of four Lithuanian girls in the family in a two-bedroom house, married a Romanian German man when she was 18 and he was 29. They had to elope, crossing the state line, finding a justice of the peace in a used-up Indiana farm town.
Afterwards, after the fire, and pop almost throwing mom out of the car, and the potato masher that broke the bedroom wall, we had ice cream and I made sure I ate all of mine while it was still cold on my plate.
Two years later on Christmas Eve, while Matty and I stood on the lip of the front walk, below the light in the window of pop’s upstairs bedroom, I remembered the night when the Surprise House burned down, and how Matty and mom and I looked over the tops of the trees sloping away to Euclid Avenue, watching the fire on the far lakeshore.
We didn’t know what was going up in oily clouds of orange-gray smoke, finding out only the next morning when mom showed us a front-page photograph about it in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
I snuck a peek at mom getting out of her car across the street where she had parked and let us out, walking flatfooted on the icy driveway, and knocking on Anna MacAulay’s side door. She glanced back over her shoulder, waving us towards the house with black shutters and red front door where I grew up. Mom wanted us to talk pop into giving her a divorce, even after he had said no more than a hundred times. She wanted to marry another man, an ex-army policeman from Rochester who was our father now, more-or-less.
My grandparents from the old country didn’t approve of mom’s boyfriend. That’s why mom and pop had to elope. They were stern and unforgiving. They had made tracks out of Lithuania during the war, not dying of bombs bullets exhaustion. When they came here, they both worked like dogs. We weren’t allowed to see them for a long time. Even when we were finally allowed, we hardly saw them because they didn’t want to see us. It didn’t look like Rick from Rochester was in the running, either.
“Come on, bub,” I said.
“Don’t call me bub,” he said, slouching behind me with a long face.
“I told you I don’t like you doing that,” I said, tugging him up hard by the back of the collar.
“You’re a stick,” he grunted, pulling away.
“What does that mean?”
I felt funny when I thought of the Surprise House burning down, the signal flags on top of the roof on fire, and sick to my stomach when I remembered not knowing Euclid Beach Park hadn’t closed for the season when I was ten-years-old, but closed for good. I found out the next summer, the summer before the fire, when school let out and mom told us, and later said we would all go to Williamsburg for a family vacation, instead.
But we didn’t go to Williamsburg, so we never saw all the reenactments I heard about from Sandy next door, who had gone there three times, just like we never went back to Euclid Beach Park. We went to Fredericksburg, instead, where pop played golf at the country club and Matty and I dragged after mom sightseeing sunburned Civil War battlefields and staring up at the fancy plaster ceilings of the Kenmore Plantation.
When Matty complained for the hundredth time that long four-day weekend that his head was hot and his neck hurt, mom pointed to the plank floor in a dusty corner of the plantation house beneath a high narrow window.
“Lay down for a few minutes,” she said.
When we got back from the foursquare garden behind the house, he was curled up on his side asleep.
“Did you know this was George Washington’s older sister’s house?” I said as we walked to the car.
“She wasn’t older,” he said.
Matty ran after mom, reaching for her hand.
The winter before Matty was born my mom told me she was making a little friend for me to play with. By the time summer came I told her he wasn’t really what I wanted.
“I can’t play with him. Can you take him back?”
But she never did.
“I’m hungry. Can’t we go to Williamsburg? I don’t like it here, eating dried strawberries all the time,” Matty said.
“Your father already told you it’s too far,” mom said.
I remember thinking, why are we in Fredericksburg? Everybody goes to Williamsburg, not Fredericksburg. Why didn’t we go there?
Before we ever went to Euclid Beach Park and the Surprise House, we went to Holiday Sands. It was the most fun I ever had in my life. We went from the time I was small, right after Matty was potty-trained and I was five years old. We car-pooled with the MacAulay’s, since they had a summer pass and a Vista Cruiser that fit all of us. Mom made most of the food for the day the night before and the rest of it early in the morning. She baked Texas sheet cake with buttermilk in the chocolate batter and cream cheese frosting. Anna brought puffed Cheez Doodles. Sometimes we’d have barbecue chicken and other times hamburgers on the grill, and grapes, watermelon, lemonade, and mom’s new drink, Diet Pepsi.
She kept cases of it in the pantry, even though it made pop mad. “You’re flushing all my money down the toilet,” he complained. She popped a can open as soon as he went to work.
Anna was mom’s best friend on the hill. They saw each other every day and talked on the telephone the rest of the time. We lived across the street from the MacAulay’s on Hillcrest Drive in the Euclid Villas.
Pop called our telephone the blower. “All that talk is just blowing hot air through the wires,” he said. Mom didn’t like that.
In the morning when the coolers and picnic baskets were full and we were ready to go we raced to the car, begging my mom to hurry up. Holiday Sands was in Ravenna, a place she called the armpit of Cleveland, even though it was where she got her blue and white china with snow scenes on it. It was a long drive and Marcia and I sometimes lost track of where we were because we sat in the rear-facing third seat playing category abc’s.
Anna and mom sat in the front talking non-stop, mom’s arm stuck out the window, Anna steering with one hand and smoking Pall Malls. Matty wriggled to get next to one of the windows so he wouldn’t have to sit between Diane and Michelle. They were the other MacAulay girls. Marcia and I watched the road going backwards. When we heard gravel crunching, we knew we were finally there and twisted around in delight towards the wormy green wood walls, the signs saying, ‘Stop, Pay Ahead’ and ‘Positively No Cameras’, and the creepy guardhouse leaning sideways.
Once we got there none of us could remember getting out of the car or into our bathing suits, only the next thing we knew we were in front of the mirrors outside the bathhouse. We drank water at the frog fountain and ran to the cement edge of the lake, walking around to the beach side and the sand playground, while Anna and mom spread out blankets and folding chairs and a plastic tablecloth on a picnic table.
Our day camp was in a grove of sweet gum trees where we were always cleaning up the space bug seedpods that killed when you stepped on them barefoot. Black squirrels rummaged in the high grass, eating handouts and hiding out, jumpy and curious at the same time.
We ate lunch and dinner like whales at Holiday Sands and lay down afterwards in the shade, looking up at the sky or the giant slide. We were never allowed back in the lake for sixty minutes. Otherwise we might get cramps and drown. Sometimes we would take a nap on the shady side of a hill, but most of the time we never slept until the end of the day riding home on the dark road.
Marcia was my best friend and barrel champion of Holiday Sands, mean as an old man on the rings, daring and brave on the slide that scared the crap out of me. She was a swashbuckler in a swimsuit on the barrels, taking on all comers until her feet blistered. The two barrels were striped red, white, and blue, and swiveled on rods attached to a laddered platform in the middle of the lake. They were dangerous to even try get on top of from the platform, wet and slimy, rotating in the water.
Nobody could logroll Marcia off the barrels once it was her turn, not the local runty boys with their fast feet nor the stuck-up east side girls from the gymnastic classes. She was like a squid on a skateboard.
Almost a year older than me, she was strong and fast, too, on the big rings that crossed the lake. She was famous for fights with anyone who tried crossing at the same time from the other side, kicking at them and wrapping her legs around them and shaking them off into the water.
“When am I going to catch up to Marcia, so we are the same?” I asked mom.
“You never will,” she said. “You’ll always be a year apart.”
“How can that be?”
The giant slide was on the grassy side of the lake. It was a hundred feet up a corkscrew staircase to a deck that swayed and creaked if you even let a breath out. Whenever I climbed up the twisting steps I held on grimly to the handrail, never looking down, and when it was my turn to go Marcia had to give me a shove, even though I knew I could never go back down on the stairs, anyway, because with every step I would have to stare through the slats to the deadly cement slab below. I slid down the ramp slower than anybody ever, chafing and burning my legs as I pressed them against the gunwales all the way to the pitch, finally heaving myself after a dead stop at the bottom into the water with a plop.
Marcia put her arm around my shoulders. “If I wasn’t so scared on that slide I’d be scared to death,” she told me secretly when everybody laughed about my lowdown ride. But she always raced it, scared or not.
Most kids started by sitting at the top and tilting over the brink, but Marcia liked to get air, shooting out over the slide at the top and landing on the drop side of the lip with momentum. Sometimes she landed with her legs splayed halfway off the slide but throwing her head up and back, she would straighten out and cracker down like a rocket.
Whenever she felt more daring than scared, she would start on her stomach, belly-slam over the hump halfway down the slide, and flip in mid-air at the bottom finishing feet first. One windy day a boy drift-paddled to the base of the slide and looking up saw Marcia suddenly double-flipping over his gaping face. Lots of kids got wedgies coming down on the hot slide, but not Marcia, who came down slick like clean underwear.
Every hour a recording played on the staticky loudspeakers and everyone had to get out of the water for fifteen minutes.
“Water safety check, water safety check, please return to the shore.” After the safety check the loudspeakers crackled again. “Remember the buddy system, remember the buddy system, never swim alone.”
Mom took me to the Dainava summer camp once, but I didn’t get to go in their big pond. She drove her Mercedes, the top down, my bags in the trunk. It is in Michigan, farmland all around, outside a small town, Manchester. Camps have been there since the early 1960’s when the American Lithuanian Roman Catholic Federation bought 200-some acres for it. They wouldn’t let me stay because I didn’t speak Lithuanian. It was the most alone I ever felt. We had to turn around and go home. Mom was so mad she got two speeding tickets, one in Michigan and one in Ohio.
Only after the safety check did we get to go back on the barrels and slides and diving boards. Once a boy wasn’t counted and everyone thought he had drowned. The lifeguards swam back and forth, and we circled the lake, craning to see underwater, our mothers hovering over us. Finally, the boy came walking down from the concession stand with a can of Welch’s Grape Juice. He had ridden to the park like the local boys from Kent did on the back of his older brother’s banana bike, so no one blamed about causing so much trouble, but one of the lifeguards was peeved, and told them they both had to sit the next hour out.
“Let’s go stand in back of a window,” the bigger boy said with a wink.
I liked the rides in the playground best, the springy mushrooms, lopsided pirate ship, and alligator swing. The round-headed mushrooms were on coiled springs, spotted with colored dots, greasy from baby oil and shed skid. They were stinkhorns, they smelled horrible, and crossing them without falling on the twisting trail was nearly impossible. A ramp led to the deck of the pirate ship where tree trunk cannons stuck out the side toward the lake. We flew down pipe slides jutting off the poop deck and rode the rope swings hanging from the spars. Red and purple Jolly Roger flags flew from the mast, dark gap-toothed skulls grinning in the bright light.
“Look at that one, see the white skeleton, and see that dart in his hand, blow the man down, he’s poking the bloody heart with it. There’s an hourglass in his other hand. Time’s running out, let’s go play.”
A yellow submarine made of drainage tiles lay in the ditch alongside the pirate ship, and the alligator swing was behind both of them, separated by low cypress hedges. We rode the swing at dusk in the shadows. It had five toboggan style seats, and when whoever was pushing got it going, all scrunched together my friends and I arced up, leaning into the forward and backward swings, taking it to the moon. A boy climbed out onto the nose of the gator and when it reached its highest point, he jumped twenty feet up into the air and flew out over the sand like an upside-down crab. He broke his arm when he landed with a hard thud on a bare spot.
“Oh, my God, damn, damn, damn, that really, really hurts,” he cried and cried, rolling off his cracked-up arm and cradling it.
My favorite was the peanut butter maker. Some kids called it the mean green machine and other kids called it the wheel of death. My friends and I always called it the peanut butter maker, although I couldn’t say why. It was a carousel with horizontal rings made into a circular wheel attached to a maypole by chains stretching from the middle spokes to the top of the pole. The smallest kids would get on first and the rest of us turned the wheel, walking alongside it, the chains shortening and wrapping themselves up the pole, until we jumped on, and then the bigger kids kept winding the wheel as far as they could until only the tallest kid was left stretching up on his toes, finally jumping on and grabbing hold.
The wheel would start spinning back in the direction it had come, slowly then faster and faster, the chains grinding and clanging on the maypole. Some kids crouched inside the frame, while the rest dangled from the outside rails like octopi. Hanging onto the rattle we were pulled parallel to the ground as it spun downwards, and then one by one lost our grips and were sprayed out in all directions onto the white sand, crying and screaming. We were small and the sand was soft enough, but grown-ups walking by had to watch out for us flying at them like missiles.
“Somebody ought to shut that thing down,” a man lying under a tree said, his lips like pink goo, watching us, smoking a dirty, dark cigar, his shirt open, ash floating like charred mercury on his belly.
At the end of the day we trudged up to the concession stand on the hill, worn-out and exhausted. We had ice cream cones and played our favorite songs on the Rock-Ola jukebox in the back, drowning out the bug zapper with a pile of dead bugs beneath it, dance shuffling together on the damp concrete.
“When I first met you girl you didn’t have no shoes, now you’re walking ‘round like you’re front page news, not your stepping stone, not your stepping stone…”
We bought pink wintergreen disc candy for the ride home and at sunset ran to the guardhouse to watch a lifeguard play taps on his bugle into a microphone that piped out to all the loudspeakers. As the park lights blinked on, we cozied into the warm vinyl seats of the station wagon, wrapped in beach towels, sad that our day was over, but glad since we had been in the sunshine. Sometimes we were quiet or slept on the ride home, but other times we stayed up and sang songs.
Our favorite songs were tunes from TV and the movies.
“Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can,” Matty whooped, thinking he could sing, and pretended to squirt webbing at us from his wrists through the haze of Anna’s cigarette smoke.
We loved movies like “Ghost in the Invisible Bikini” and “Dr. Doolittle.” We sang ‘Kissin’ Cousins’ and ‘Talk to the Animals’ and all the “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” songs since we had seen it a thousand times.
“You’re the answer to my wishes, Truly Scrumptious,” Michelle and Diane sang in the dark, drowning out Matty while Marcia and I finished the stanzas from the back.
“And I shan’t forget this lovely day, my heart beats so unruly, I also love you Truly, honest truly, I do.”
“Can’t you girls keep it down for a minute, just a minute,” Anna barked at us.
Pop never went to Holiday Sands, except for the time mom got sun poisoning. The MacAulay’s Vista Cruiser had broken down so pop took us in his Buick Riviera, piling us in on top of one another, and leaving a beach carryall and food cooler behind because his golf bag needed room in the trunk. He dropped us off at the guardhouse with half rations and missing mom’s Coppertone and drove away to the Sunny Hill Golf Course.
He was crazy about golf. He had heard about the South 9 at Sunny Hill, that it was sparkling new and pockmarked with sand traps, and he just had to play it.
“It’s not fair,” I complained when he picked us up after his golf game and we had to leave early, before sunset. “I always ride the alligator, it’s my ride.”
“Pop had a bad game and he wants to go home and have dinner,” mom said in the car, her arms wrapped around me while I sat on her lap. She felt cold, even though she had been in the sun all day. Pop drove fast that night, complaining about Sunny Hill, and we got home in record time.
Mom had pale skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair she kept in a loose flip. At the park she always wore a wide brim hat and blobs of suntan lotion, but that day she only had her hat, shading her face. She got sun poisoning and had to lie in bed for two days. Her legs were swollen like sausages. We sliced up cucumbers and spread them out on her thighs, but she was nauseous and couldn’t lie still, and they just ended up littering the bed. We soaked towels in water and apple cider vinegar, chilled them in the fridge, and wrapped them around her legs until she got better.
She was born in Noorkoping, south of Stockholm, in 1942, after my grandparents made a getaway from Lithuania in 1941. The Germans were invading and since there was Jewish blood in the family, and since everybody knew what the Nazis were doing to Jews, they stepped on the gas. My grandfather was an import export up-and-comer and had a car. My grandmother was a high school teacher. They left everything behind, drove to Estonia and from there found a boat to Sweden.
When they made it to America after the war, they first lived in Pittsburgh, but it was too dirty. They had to keep all the windows in the house closed all the time. They moved to Cleveland the next year. He got a job in the Collinwood Rail Yards and worked there the rest of his life. She got a job at Stouffers making frozen food and worked there the rest of her life.
Pop worked for Palmer Bearings, downtown on Prospect Avenue, on the backside of the angle where it met Prospect Street before E. 46th St. He was the vice-president of sales, meaning he went to all the steel factories in the Flats and to lunch on Short Vincent. When he wasn’t working, he was on golf courses on the three sides of town. He played afternoons with clients and weekends with clubhouse men and his private friends, but not with our neighbors.
He said they were different, our neighbors. I didn’t understand what he meant. He never invited them over for dinner, either.
Mom’s older sister was getting to be a big wig around town, but she never invited us over. They had four kids, all around our own age. We barely ever saw them. One day mom went to their house to pick something up and she took Matty and me. My aunt made us wait in the garage, standing in the half-light, while she found whatever she was looking for. It turned out to be some kind of Lithuanian relic she wanted mom to deliver to an old lady who lived near us.
When I saw her at the door, my mom giving her the box, I thought, “She’s like a relic herself.”
Whenever pop wasn’t working or at home eating or reading or sleeping, he was playing golf. He loved it more than I loved Holiday Sands. Sometimes mom said he loved golf more than us. I hoped that wasn’t true.
“Golf is a thinking man’s game. It’s all up here,” he would say, tapping the space between his eyebrows. “It’s simple, just a ball and a club, but it’s complicated, remember that. No two lies are ever the same, that’s when the ball is on the grass, but when it’s pitch and putt it’s the best thing in the world.”
Mom liked to tell everybody pop had great legs, and he did, too, because of the thousands of miles on all the links he walked up and down on.
“I don’t play cart golf,” he said.
He always had a tan, except in the dead of winter, and except for his left hand, which was his glove hand. Pop wasn’t a big man, but he wasn’t small, either, standing trim and compact like a boxer. He still fit into the Korean War uniform he kept in the attic. He had fought Golden Gloves when he was young and even made it as far as the main event at the Cleveland Arena. There wasn’t anything mashed up or broken down left over from the fighting, either. He had Chiclets teeth, green eyes, and brown wavy hair. When he finger-rolled Royal Crown into it and combed it back his hair got flat, slicker and darker, like a street man’s.
“How do you like your old man now?” he asked me, watching him in the bathroom mirror, his suspenders floppy and collar open.
Mom hardly ever called pop by his given name, which was Stephan. She always called him pop, or sometimes Steve, or “That man makes me so mad!” when she was madder than a hornet. To us she always said he was our pop, and that was what I called him. When Matty was a baby he called him poppy, but after he started walking, he called him pop just like we did. Pop nicknamed mom, me, and Matty the Three Musketeers because we did everything together, which we did since he worked all day and played golf the rest of the time. He never was and never became the Fourth Musketeer.
Mom and pop got married when she was eighteen years-old, the year after she was Miss Boat Show of 1959, and he was twenty-nine. They met on the main stage of the Karamu House, auditioning for an amateur production of a play called “The Glass Menagerie.” They didn’t get the parts, but got each other, instead. After they eloped and got married mom didn’t see her parents for a long time because they disowned her over what she did.
They didn’t approve of pop because he was an older man and his family were Romanian Germans, not Lithuanian. Mom said she had to get married to get away from everything. She meant her mom and dad and her no bedroom and the old neighborhood, the church, and the community where she wasn’t happy anymore. I hardly knew my grandparents, although I knew a little, about how grandma’s sense of humor was a secret and grandpa was missing in action because he worked nights for the New York Central.
Pop’s parents weren’t alive anymore. His dad was shot dead by robbers and his mom died after mom put her foot down and she had to move out of our house to an old folk’s home.. They were buried in Woodland Cemetery where we left plastic flowers every spring.
We lived on a bluff above the factories on Euclid Avenue, on the western edge of the North Chagrin parkland, just a few miles from the new Lithuanian neighborhood. In the summer we went picnicking in the reservation at Squires Castle and hiked through the forest at Strawberry Lane. The park butted up to our backyard so that we were almost a part of it. Ours was the end road in the neighborhood and there were deer that rubbed on our tree bark, raccoons that snuck into our attic, and low-down possums in the woods where we played the knocking game at night.
When I was a girl everyone said mom was the best-looking woman on the hill. Her hair was soft, not stiff, and she colored it champagne blond instead of the brassy yellow and bleached white that was popular. She was shapely with long legs, not skinny or fleshy, or too tall, but taller than pop. When she walked, even when she was doing her housework, she moved like a ballerina, but with hips.
Mom always had to be doing something. Whether she was dancing or not she moved like she had never heard there isn’t anything that isn’t set to music. She sang all the time, even though she was tone deaf. At house parties all the husbands except pop wanted to be her partner.
“There’s no beginning or end to it,” he grumbled.
Mom knew all the moves, like the rumba, her favorite, and even honky-tonk twisting. She was tireless and never had to catch her breath, although she wouldn’t dance with just anyone, only with some of the men. “Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance,” she said winking and gliding away with whoever knew how to lead.
When they went to weddings, she was on the ballroom floor all night, waltzing and fox trotting, but Anna MacAulay said she never got in the middle of anyone being married like other women because that’s not what she wanted. She wanted to talk and dance the room down and have a good time. Mom knew how to forget everything, even herself, but never the life inside her.
She did all the shopping and housework. Before she had a car, she took buses to the grocery store. She made breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the three of us, and sometimes for pop, too. He didn’t work around the house or even go outside and do yard work. He hired kids to mow the lawn in the summer, rake leaves in the fall, and shovel snow in the winter. They were the only neighbors he knew or liked on our street, and they liked him because he always paid them on the spot with Lincolns.
Whenever anything had to be repaired, he called Sears, and the next day a van would pull up in our driveway and the Sears man would ring the doorbell. Even though he had a Craftsman toolbox in the basement, the only thing I ever saw pop do tool-wise was change a light switch pull chain once, although he didn’t need a Craftsman to do it.
After Matty got the first of his two-wheelers and they started breaking falling apart because of all his Evel Knievel smash-ups he lugged them to Mr. Newman for repairs. He was a big man with a big radish-looking nose and worked in a factory. He knew how to fix everything.
“What did you kids do today? And you better have done something,” Mr. Newman always said, waving and rubbing his hairy hands together, pulling open the garage door, flipping the bike upside down on a workbench and taking care of whatever was wrong with it. Pop couldn’t pump our bike tires when they were low because he didn’t know where the inflator was in the mystery that the garage was to him.
He was hardly ever home for dinner, even on weekends. But he was always in his sofa chair for the “Ed Sullivan Show” at eight o’clock Sunday night, right after we finished watching the “Wonderful World of Disney.” He looked forward to the comedians like Charlie Callas, Senor Wences, and Jackie Mason, but not the singers, especially not the Supremes, or any of the other Negro groups. He would go to the kitchen or the bathroom whenever they were announced and only come back when he heard Ed Sullivan’s slow voice again.
The most unfunny man I ever saw on television was Ed Sullivan. He stood in the middle of the screen like a cigar-store Indian, arms folded across his gray suit lapels, and his no personality eyes sunk into their late-night bags.
“And now introducing on the shoe…” he would say after the commercials were over, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, while pop relaxed back into his sofa.
Mom made dinner for us at 5:30 sharp every day, just as though pop was at the head of the table like the other fathers on the street. From the steps of our front porch I could see, if I wanted to, Mr. MacAulay, Mr. Holloway, and Mr. Newman coming home from work. My friends would run slapping feet out of their houses as their dads came up the walk from their garages.
That almost never happened at our house.
Whenever we knew pop was on time on his way home, we walked to the far end of Hillcrest then to Grand Boulevard and to the blue collection mailbox on the corner. We lay on the sloping lawn of the Robinson house and looked for his car to come up the hill. Mom always said good things come to those who wait, but I wanted him to come home so bad I couldn’t sit still, running back-and-forth.
“Waiting wears out my patience,” I said when mom called me back to her, telling me to be patient. “I just don’t have a lot of it, and it runs out fast the more I have to wait.”
The nights pop was at dinner, instead of spaghetti and meatballs or the Dutch Oven chicken we liked best, mom made beef brisket. She busted the family food budget, taking a taxi to Fazio’s, the big grocery store. Pop munched on crudités and dip before dinner and afterwards his favorite dessert was apple pie with cheddar cheese on it. Matty and I weren’t big fans, but we nibbled on hard-boiled eggs floating in mayonnaise, and mom made sure there was Neapolitan ice cream for us after dinner.
Celery was pop’s all-time favorite food, which caused a commotion one summer. Mom wanted a new dress fabric she had seen in a McCall’s sewing pattern and started skimming from the grocery money pop gave her on paydays. He didn’t notice until the week she didn’t buy celery. Pop’s brother was living with us that summer, painting our house for more than two months, and sleeping on a foam mattress in the laundry room.
Uncle Willie and pop both made lists of what they liked to eat and gave the lists to mom so she would know what they wanted. Before Willie came, she always made barbecue chicken for us on Friday nights, in Kraft’s Original Sauce, but didn’t that summer after Willie told pop BBQ was out. Mom knew celery was pop’s special food, but she thought he wouldn’t miss it for a week. What she didn’t know was that celery was Willie’s favorite, too, because she always threw his list away without looking at it.
“How could you forget the celery? What were you thinking?” was all she heard from pop and his brother day after day until Willie finally moved out the Labor Day weekend before school started.
“I didn’t stop to think,” she told him, smiling and shuffling, “and then I forgot.” She didn’t tell him about the dress fabric she bought, especially after she sewed the dress and he never noticed how she looked in it.
Pop ate part of an ice-cold Hershey bar every day. He kept it in the freezer and always knew how much was left. If he suspected any was missing his eyes got small and fixed and he complained to mom about it. We hardly ever ate any of it because we knew he would be grumpy, and besides, we knew what it was like to come home looking forward to something that wasn’t there.
He loved coffee, too, but not the drinking kind. He kept gobs of coffee ice cream in the freezer, coffee yogurt in the fridge, and coffee nibs in the kitchen cupboard, and we weren’t supposed to touch any of those, either.
We usually had breakfast all together, not like our pop-less dinners. But before we were allowed to eat pop passed out piles of vitamins. We would push the pills into order and then sit looking at them while he drank apple cider vinegar from one glass and black strap molasses from another.
The first one down the gullet was vitamin A, then vitamin E, while the worst ones we saved for last. Lecithin was a big horse pill. I hated it. The yeast, kelp, and liver I swallowed fast, the narky flavors sliding over my tongue. Zinc and garlic were bad later in the day because I couldn’t help burping them up. The desiccated liver was not the worst. The worst thing before mom brought food to the table was the huge tablespoon of pale-yellow cod liver oil we had to swallow. She slipped drops of lemon into it so we wouldn’t throw up.
Mom had to get on pop’s bandwagon, too, but she got a Wheateena Juicer for the wheels. She told him she couldn’t get the pills down, and needed smoothies and vegetable potions, instead. She told us the machine digested everything ahead of time and all we had to do was drink it. She squeezed oranges, and added apples, beets, wheatgrass, and even ice cubes in the summer. Sometimes she would halve carrots on the long side and slide them down the chute into the auger, but then I drank the juice holding my nose since I hated carrots.
One of the last times I ever ate cooked carrots was when I had a mess of them in my mouth at dinner, but I couldn’t swallow them. I had had enough. I felt like I was going to gag and choke. Mom got mad when she saw my mouth at a standstill and made me stand in the corner. I still wouldn’t swallow, until she finally let me spit the watery orange paste into my hands, and then clean up at the kitchen sink.
The only thing worse was koseliena, which my grandmother seemed to serve every time the few times we went to their house. It was chopped organ meat set in cold gelatin with horse radish on the side. It was like a kind of meat Jello. I always said, “I don’t want to try it.” I always had to try it. I always thought I was going to throw up.
“You should eat your vegetables,” mom said. “They’re good for you, for your eyes.” My eyes were going bad. They were going out of focus, like a screwed-up telescope. I needed glasses.
“Carrots aren’t vegetables, stupid roots,” I said. “I don’t care about seeing in the dark, why should I care, it’s still dark, there’s nothing to see, and I just really, really hate them.”
Mom gave me the belt after that. Pop never hit us. It was always mom. She never said wait until your father gets home because we would have said, “Who?”
Mom got married because her three sisters slept in the second bedroom while she slept on a daybed, because her mother was always telling her what to do, and because she was a free spirit. She said she loved pop the minute they met and only waited until the day she was one day older than eighteen to get married and loved sleeping in her own bed in her own room.
Pop was always selling so many ball bearings and hitting so many golf balls we only ever went on two family vacations. Before we went to Fredericksburg, we went to Niagara Falls with Bob Bliss, pop’s golf buddy whom we had never seen before, and his wife and their little girl. Mom asked pop to put us up on the Canadian side so we could walk in Queen Victoria Park and at Table Rock Point on top of the waterfall. But he wanted to play golf on the American side, so we stayed in New York at a roadside motel with a pool out front.
I had gotten a new bathing suit for the vacation, a blue cotton gingham pinafore with elasticized puffy bottoms. Friday morning after breakfast Mr. Bliss and pop went golfing and we went to the pool. She sat on the lip of the pool with her legs scissoring while I paddled back and forth.
The bottom of the pool was robin egg blue and the sun felt like a fuzzy electric blanket. By the time I saw the shiny black bug floating on the water in front of me it was too late. I skimmed over it and felt it get under my bib and bite me on the stomach. It stung like crushed red peppers. Mom helped me out of the water and laid me down on the scratchy concrete and we watched a red welt rise up on my stomach.
“I don’t like looking at sores,” the little Bliss girl said looking down at me.
Matty and I were dying to go to the arcades and Ripley’s Believe It or Not across the bridge. We begged pop to take us to the odditorium. In the travel brochure it looked like a fallen over Empire State Building with King Kong on the side of it. But he went golfing again the next day and we went bowling. I was only seven, but mom found little black bowling shoes for me, and a blue marbleized ball I could push at the pins. After twenty minutes I felt like my arm was going to fall off.
“One thing about bowling that’s better than golf is you never lose a bowling ball,” Bob Bliss guffawed.
We had dinner that night at Michael’s Italian Restaurant. Mom and pop had liver and onions and we ate all the American cheese and salami from the antipasto plate, and the chicken fingers, hot dogs, and French fries, except for the slices of them Matty tested for floatability in his glass of Sprite. I didn’t drink soda, but mom let him have his because he liked the lime flavor.
“Taste its tingling tartness,” he said, slurping it up his straw.
“Our bub is starting to tingle. Is there really no pick-me-up in that?” I asked mom.
The next morning mom put out a bread pan of congealed scrapple she had brought with her, slicing it into squares, and frying it on the hot plate in our room. She made it from pork scraps, everything but the oink, she said, with cornmeal, and mixed in spices.
Pop called mom’s scrapple pon haus. It was a salty meat cracker. “Shoofly pie and apple pandowdy,” he sang, standing beside mom as she mixed in scrambled eggs and ketchup. “Makes your eyes light up, your tummy says howdy, makes the sun come out, when heavens are cloudy.”
Perched on the top deck of the Maid of the Mist later that afternoon we set sail for the Horseshoe Falls. We hung on the rail at the front of the boat, our faces wet in the swell and noise. I thought about Moe singing his Niagara Falls song in the Three Stooges movies Matty and I watched Saturday mornings.
“Slowly I turn, step by step, inch by inch,” Moe purred, leaning away from Larry, looking sideways at Curly, his eyes slits of mischief and mayhem.
Everybody on the boat was wearing a blue rain poncho just like everybody else. Even though it was a sunny day we were being rained on. When the boat ricocheted turning in the turmoil at the edge of the falls, I mixed up Mrs. Bliss and mom, grabbing the wrong hand, mom snatching at my other hand. I was pulled up on my toes between them.
Mom said she learned to swim when her mother took her out on Lake Erie and threw her off their rowboat. We didn’t have a boat, so I didn’t know how to swim, only paddle like a dog. Mom never taught me how and pop was too busy to take me to the city pool.
Afterwards, pop picked us up at the dock, we stopped at HoJo’s for a dinner of beans and sweet brown bread, and drove straight home, the sun sinking into the night ahead of us.
While Matty napped with his head rolling in my lap I looked at my leather moccasin change purse. The Shoshone Indians had sewed it. It was studded with green, red, and pink glass seed beads. Marcia always brought back souvenirs from her family vacations, my change purse from Yellowstone, a gold-trimmed Ghost Town cowboy hat from Lake George, and a “Don’t Mess with Texas” t-shirt from the Alamo.
Five years later coming home from Fredericksburg from our second family vacation I kept my eyes down while Matty stared at his reflection in the back-door window. Mom and pop cut and slashed each other up all the way home while Matty and I fidgeted in the back seat, for once in our lives both of us quiet not meaning to be quiet at the same time.
“I give you cash, so when I say don’t use the credit card, I mean don’t use the credit card,” pop insisted over and over again.
“But you don’t give me enough cash,” mom told him.
“That’s what I give you the credit card for,” he told her.
“But you’re telling me not to use the credit card, to wait until you give me cash, which you never do,” she said.
They argued and fought about money from Hagerstown to Youngstown, loud and mean, until they finally ran out of steam. Later, after nightfall and a gas station stop, pop started up again. He laid down his boss-man law and demanded she never use the credit card. He said she was ruining us by spending all our family money, and our nest egg, too. I didn’t know what that was and I didn’t ask.
“I’ll just charge it,” was one of mom’s favorite things to say as she slid her Diner’s Club card out of her purse.
“Doesn’t that sound weird to you?” Mom asked, twisting across the car seat towards me. “He wants me to put food on the table, clothes on your back, and fill up the rainy-day piggybank with the money he never gives us. What do you think about that?”
Pop said people were putting things into mom’s head, and mom said her head would be empty as a daydream if it wasn’t for her friends and professors at school.
I stared at the change purse I had filled with pebbles from the Fredericksburg battlefields. The closer we got to home the more they argued. He said he brought home the bacon. She said he had bacon for brains. Every thirty miles pop threatened he was going to throw her out of the car.
“Get out of the car or I’ll throw you out” he yelled, mashing down on the gas pedal, even though we were already going faster than all the other cars. But he didn’t throw her out. When we got home, he slept on the sofa downstairs for a week until he made up with mom, but they were never the same again
Mom started taking classes at the college downtown when I was eight years old. Pop didn’t want her going to Cleveland State University, and he didn’t want her going downtown, where the school was, even though he worked downtown.
“I don’t like you going downtown,” he said.
We went downtown every week, anyway, Tuesdays and Thursdays for my ballet lessons, and Wednesdays for white gloves and party manners classes at Higbee’s. Sometimes we stopped at the Hippodrome, where there was a movie house, and said hello to Vince. He had an office next to the poolroom in the basement. Mom said he was the man in charge. He wore a brown suit and always gave us something to drink, ice water for me, and something like the same in a fancy glass for mom.
Afterwards we stayed and saw a movie with the free tickets Vince gave us. We saw “Jaws” and “The Sting” and “Live and Let Die.” I loved Roger Moore.
Mom started taking us to Euclid Beach Park only two summers before we found out it wasn’t going to open for the season anymore. It was the same summer the two neighborhood hippie boys parked their VW bus in our backyard the whole summer before leaving for California. By then she was working at the Firehouse, a new restaurant in the Park Center downtown, and she was taking more classes at college when she wasn’t working.
“What are they putting into your head,” pop asked, adding he didn’t like her working, either “We don’t need the money,” he said.
That summer my grandparents went on vacation, and when no one else could watch their dog, mom volunteered. She fed watered walked the dog every day before work. One day her older sister stopped by and when she opened the side door, the dog, surprised, ran out. My mom chased him down the street to Lakeshore Boulevard, but it was too late. A car hit the dog and he died. My grandparents didn’t speak to us even more than they hadn’t before that for even longer.
Whenever we went to Euclid Beach Park, down the same boulevard, mom drove us, in the Mercedes convertible pop bought her, the top down, dropped us off, and told us exactly when she was going to be back. We were supposed to wait for her just outside the main entrance gate arch, which looked like a gigantic letter H, so she could pick us up without having to stop in the parking lot.
The arch was underneath an old dusty pin oak tree. We knew it was an oak because there were acorns littering the grass, and we knew it was a pin oak because it had pointy leaves. Matty said it was a hundred years old, but what did he know?
Admission into the park was free. We just walked in, like magic. Mom always gave us enough money for fizzy drinks, popcorn balls, and two-dozen rides. She gave us bananas, too.
“A banana is the best snack,” she said, pushing them down into our pockets.
The first thing we did was walk to the Rocket Ships. From the parking lot we could see the tops of the cranes above the shade trees and hear the band organ that was underneath the second-floor platform.
“Just in case we lose all our money, or something bad happens, this way at least I’ll know I was on my favorite ride,” Matty explained.
The Rocket Ships were three shiny aluminum spaceships that flew fifty feet up in the air over Lake Erie as they whirled around a twice high tower. Matty said it was a great view and cooled you off on hot days, but I wouldn’t ride the ships because I heard one of them had broken its support chains once and been hurled into the lake. None of the riders was ever seen again.
After Matty was done flying through space we rode the coasters together, starting with the Thriller. At first, I was afraid of them, of the sickening hills and valleys, until the VW hippie boys went to the amusement park with us one afternoon.
“It’s not the giant slide, no,” they said. “On the slide you can see everything ahead, everything that might happen, that’s scary. On a roller coaster you never know what’s going to happen next. You can’t see that far ahead. It’s like Zen. It’s the best ride because it’s always right now.”
The Thriller was an out-and-back coaster with part of it running along Lake Shore Boulevard. We could see the tiny roofs of the cars on the road from the top of the first rise, just before we tipped plunging and screaming downwards. The last hill was so steep you couldn’t help not standing up as you careened down, pressing against the lap bar.
It was hair-raising because it might crash anytime. Coming into the station the train behind came in too soon once and rear-ended the other, and the cargo of people got banged up. The next day the platform was fixed, and it looked like nothing had happened. I found out they stored different shades of secret paint so that when they repaired the coasters and tracks, they could paint them so they all looked worn the same way, and no one could tell that anything bad had ever happened.
The more I rode the coasters the more I liked riding them. They were like the peanut butter maker, twisting in the sky but bigger. I loved the sound of the wheels on the track and the wood trestles groaning and heaving on the turns. Even though I thought the riding might take me somewhere, it only took me back to where I started.
The Racing Coasters were next to the Thriller. They were a double out-and-back, running beside the first leg of the Thriller, and it was two separate continuous tracks, the blue cars racing against the red cars. The ride always ended on the other side of the station, everybody screaming their last go-go-go’s as we slowed down.
The Flying Turns were the highest of the rides. The trains were freewheeling. They were the loose best. “It’s a coaster without tracks!” Matty liked to tell anyone who would listen, even though he had to sneak on, since he was smaller than the yardstick beside the gate.
The cars weren’t attached to the track. The train careened in a bobsled trough, threatening to overturn at any second. There were only three toboggan-like cars for every train and only two of us rode in a car, one directly in front of the other, white-knuckling the snap-of-the-whip turns.
On “Nickel Days” we rode the Tea Cups between turns on the coasters, which were a four-table cup ride, like a Crazy Daisy. They spun in circles and looked like they would slam into each other at any moment, but they always missed by a sliver. Getting into a teacup one day we found a plastic baggie tucked into the curved bench seat. A man with a ponytail came back to the Tea Cups before the ride started and asked if we had found anything.
“It’s my happy weed,” he said when we handed it to him.
Walking around the park we munched on Humphrey’s Candy Kiss salt-water taffy and bought pictures of our favorite stars at the movie star photo booth. We yukked it up riding the black-light Laff-in-the-Dark and got soaked to the bone on Over the Falls.
We steered clear of the Surprise House until the end of the day, not because it was totally scary, which it was, but because of Laffing Sal, right outside the entrance, cackling her face off inside a glass case. Her hips gyrated like a hula hoop and she never stopped her nutty squeaky helter-skelter laugh talking
She had freaky red hair and shiny dead eyes in a head that jerked side-to-side back-and-forth. We tried to not look at her bloated painted face. It was too much.
The front of the Surprise House was painted lime green and purple. It blazed in the sun. The sign above the arch framing the doors was yellow with black letters. We had to give seven tickets to the bow-tied chopper operator at the booth. He put the tickets on a conveyor belt that carried them to a chopper that shredded them
Once we walked inside, through a fog cloud, right away around the corner was a screen door puzzle. Only one of all the doors was really a door and while we looked for it, doors banged open and shut so loud all around us it was confusing.
When we found the right one, we walked into a narrow room full of rock formations and wild animals running up-and-down the rocks. The floor suddenly became a moving floor, zooming up and down and sliding side to side. The wall beside the moving floor was glass and people outside the Surprise House watched and laughed as you struggled to not fall down, much less walk.
At the far end of the floor was a giant Grandfather Clock. When you got to it a spotted snake sprang at you from cuckoo doors beneath the clock face. Jumping away sideways from the ugly thing we had to run through a rolling barrel to get away.
Most of the Surprise House was a maze of moving floors and stairways leading to elevated platforms, creaking doors, and dead ends. One room was so crazy slanted sideways that just standing was defying gravity.
Pitch-black hallways led from one room to the next. Excruciating screams filled the air and loud knocking on the floors and ceiling overhead drummed in the darkness. There were siren whoops and unexpected clangs near and far. Blasts of air from secret holes hit you in the face coming around corners, and you never knew when a wind gust would blow up your shorts from the floor.
At the end of one passageway were three porky sailor boys with tin whistles in their mouths. When you stepped up to them, they blew their whistles in your face. When we stopped at a window to see a fireman with a hose, he whirled around and sprayed, except the spray hit the window, not us, jumping back. At a wishing well when you looked down into the water you could see yourself as though you were looking at yourself from behind.
At the far end was a distortion mirror maze we had to find our way through to get out of the Surprise House. The curved mirrors stretched and squeezed us like screwball bubble gum.
After all the weird moving floors and dark and noise it was a shock to step through the exit on the quiet side of Laffing Sal and suddenly stand blinking in the sunlight with people strolling by not knowing anything about what we had just been through. We were sad and excited at the same time, not sure what to do next.
When the park announced closing time and everyone was on their way out an army of skunks came waddling up from the backside beach palisades, hard on our heels, eating the litter and leftover discarded goodies. We threw banana peels at them and watched them drag the peels away. They meowed like cats with sore throats.
We didn’t know the last time we stumbled out of the Surprise House and tossed away our banana peels as we walked to the arch and mom’s waiting Mercedes that it was the last closing time at Euclid Beach Park. We didn’t know that mom was going to leave soon and not come back, either
Mom and pop started arguing when she started going to college. When she got a job, it got even worse. After that it never got better.
“Why do you need to work?” he asked her. “We have enough money. You don’t need to work. Stay home and take care of the family.”
But she was sick of asking him for money all the time, not just for groceries, but also for everything, for her clothes, for us, and just everything. I think she got sick of him, too, of him always telling her what and what not to do.
They argued more and more that winter, even in the morning at breakfast and late at night when we were supposed to be asleep. One night they had an argument at the dining room table because mom had stayed out the day before until four in the morning.
“We were at Reuben’s house,” she explained. “Nothing happened. I just lost track of time.”
She meant Reuben Silver, who was the showman at Karamu House, where mom and pop had first met. He was a friendly man with a black beard and slicked-back shiny thinning black hair. His wife wore purple turtlenecks and always took my hand when I saw her backstage.
“Nothing went on,” mom said. “We went to the Playhouse and saw “Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” that’s all, and then we were at his house afterwards, talking.”
“Gamma Rays? What are you talking about?” Pop went to the movies sometimes, but he didn’t go to theaters anymore. That was all over.
He thought mom had done something bad. He didn’t say what, although we could tell from his face it must have been bad. When mom went into the kitchen pop followed her.
She stepped into the hall and then went up the stairs. We could hear them in their bedroom, screaming at each other. Suddenly there was a loud crash. Mom came running down the stairs and ran to Anna MacAulay’s house. Pop came downstairs after she was gone and told us everything was all right. He sat by the back window the rest of the night and stared into the ravine. He looked unhappy, like he had lost his golf clubs.
When we went upstairs, we looked into their bedroom and saw a big hole in the wall. A potato masher was lying on the floor. We found out later he had thrown it at her but missed. It lay on the floor until the next day when mom came home. She cleaned up the dinner table, did the dishes, and put the potato masher away. Mom kept the cleanest house anyone ever saw. She vacuumed twice a day and you could eat off the floor.
Pop said he was going to call Sears about fixing their bedroom wall, but he never did. Maybe it was like their marriage by then, not worth fixing.
Anna came over the next day when pop was at work. She always walked into our house without knocking, which made pop mad. She was loud, but she was mom’s best friend, and that made pop mad, too. Mom packed a suitcase and told us she would be gone for a few days. She took us into the kitchen and showed us all the food she had prepared in casserole dishes and explained how to heat it up. I had a hollow leg in those days and could eat as much as I wanted and never gain weight.
“I’ll be back Monday,” she said.
But she didn’t come back Monday, or the rest of the next week. She finally came back two weeks later, on a Tuesday, just after I had gotten home from school.
“Mom, we’re almost out of food,” I said.
We found out she wasn’t coming back when she took us to Helen Hutchleys for ice cream. We sat in a booth in the back. I had strawberry cheesecake on a plate, Matt had tin roof in a cone, and mom had two scoops of butterscotch in a cup. She told us things weren’t going good at home, which we knew, and then she said she was leaving pop for good and moving downtown.
“How can you do that to him?” I said, even though I didn’t like pop as much as I did my mom, who I loved more than anything. Matty put his cone of tin roof carefully down on a napkin and wrapped his short arms partway around her.
“Whatever you want to do, mom, whatever you think is best,” he said.
But I was mad and started to cry. “Finish your ice cream, peanut,” mom said, so I did, before it melted.
We lived with pop for a year after she left, but afterwards we moved downtown with her. I never had to do anything at home when I was a kid, so it was a rough time. Mom had done everything, so it was burden for me to do anything. I couldn’t keep up at school. Sometimes I sat inside my closet in the middle of the day, hiding. Pop never helped me, either. He was always gone, no matter what happened.
After we left, I only had to help mom with the dishes. It was my mom and me and Matty, the Three Musketeers again. I didn’t sit in closets anymore. I did better in school. I made new friends.
Looking up over the sidewalk at pop’s house on Christmas Eve, I thought I had probably known all along that mom was going to leave him, but back then surprises still upset me. She was going to marry the new man from Rochester. There was no surprise about that. I was going to do my best to help out.
“If I can get my divorce,” she said, “we’ll have enough money to send you to Germany when you’re done with junior high.” One of my aunts had gone to Vasario 16-osios gimnazia, a Lithuanian high school in Huttenfeld, Germany. “You can stay summers with your grandfather’s sister in Diepholz,” my aunt Banga, my mom’s youngest sister, said. “She loves bringing you food. You can go to Italy with your friends. You’ll love it. When you come back, I’ll take you to Dainava.”
I could go back to camp the talk of the homeland on my lips. Banga means “Little Wave.” She was my favorite aunt. I knew she would keep her word. Going to school in Europe would be the kind of surprise I could handle.
“Come on, bub,” I said, taking Matty’s hand when he reached for mine, and started up the icy chancy slippery sidewalk.
Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.