When his mom is hospitalized, the author forges a new and deeper relationship with his grandmother.
My forehead pressed against the speaker grill on my grandmother’s kitchen radio. Ruby & the Romantics’ sensuous voices vibrated all over my face.
Sally go round the roses, Sally goes round those roses.
It was easy drowning out adult conversation listening to music. My Dad and his mother, Nan to me, were in the next room. They spoke low. I barely heard a word, but right after the song ended the disk jockey announced a test for the Emergency Broadcast System. A short whistle signal blew, then the radio went silent and whispering voices drifted in from the next room.
“It’s cervical.” Dad said.
“Did she get a second opinion?” Nan said.
“Yes. Same results.”
“How’s Patty holding up?”
Dad started crying. Nan shushed him. I hugged myself tight, imagining Nan wrapping her arms around him. The radio station’s emergency test ended. I turned the volume up.
Hello, Dolly, this is Louis, Dolly.
Nan and Dad came into the kitchen two songs later. It was the first of July 1965. I was 11 years old.
“Tommy, Mom is going into the hospital tomorrow and you’re going to stay with Nan while she’s there.” Dad said.
I shook my head ok. I didn’t know what cervical was, and I didn’t want to know.
“How long will she be in the hospital?” I asked.
“Not sure, it depends on her recovery speed after surgery.” Dad answered.
He said recovery speed. He didn’t pause. I hung on to those two words repeating them in my head.
“What’s wrong with Mom, Dad?”
Dad hesitated. I tried to swallow, but my throat was dry.
“She’s having a hysterectomy.”
Dad licked his lips and scratched his nose before answering, “Sometimes a woman’s childbirth organs don’t work right. To protect Mom, they’re taking out the parts that aren’t working.”
In my head, I kept repeating recovery speed, recovery speed, trying to build up my courage. Dad waited for more questions. I stared at Nan’s Cuckoo Clock. His face relaxed when I didn’t pursue it. We exchanged a grateful nervous look that said, “Let’s leave this one alone, and see how it goes.”
Mom entered the hospital the next day and I went to Nan’s apartment. My grandfather, Pop, died the year before, so it was just Nan and me. Over the next two days, when the phone rang, Nan always answered it, even if she was three rooms away. When Dad called, his news was always short.
“Mom’s doing ok.” Nan told me, but there was no confidence in her voice.
On the third day after the surgery, the phone rang. Nan jumped out of the toilet barely getting her broad white underwear in place and answered it.
“Hello,” then she yelled, “Thank God!” Nan started crying and handed me the phone.
“Tommy, Mom is doing much better.” Dad said.
His voice was shaky, but I knew he meant it. I took several big breaths. I felt my heart throbbing. I missed Mom.
“You ok?” Dad asked me.
“Can I see her?”
“Not for a few days. She has gas and is very uncomfortable.”
That was good enough for me. Dad was giving me orders again.
I saw Mom a week later. I kissed her wet on the nose. She hated that. When she was out of pain, we laughed about the never-heard-before sounds coming out of her body.
I cheered her up imitating each burp and fart. As we laughed, I felt my heart calming down.
After seeing Mom, Nan and I settled into a routine. A local public school had a daily day camp program from nine to five. Nan worked, I went to camp. She was home by five-thirty. I goofed around stretching my walk home each night, so I’d hit the front of her building as she got out of the car. She worked for a Supreme Court judge and he drove her home each day.
During the second week of our arrangement, I broke my hand punching a parked taxi’s side view mirror in front of P.S. 158. My intended target was Teddy Yurisit’s head. He ducked. I walked over to Lenox Hill Hospital’s Emergency Room. The nurse asked me who she should call. I said my father, then took it back. “No, please call my grandmother.”
I figured Dad had enough on his hands with Mom. Plus, the emergency room was a regular meeting place for him and me, and I was in no mood for his “What did I tell you last time?”
Nan was a wild card. She’d never been first on the scene for any of my accidents. It was time to mix it up a bit, and have a different adult yell at me.
A half hour later, Nan swept through the double doors and marched to the corner of the emergency room where I sat on a gurney. I was flipping a bedpan with my good hand. When I saw Nan, I stopped and tensed for the speech.
“How are you?” she said.
A little confused by the opening, I said, “OK, I guess.”
The doctor came over to have Nan sign a paper.
“I’m positive his thumb is broken at the base. I’ll X-ray the hand, confirm the break and put him in a cast. He should be ok in five to six weeks.” said the doctor.
I started doing the math in my head. I’d be throwing a football by Labor Day.
“A guy punched me. I punched back. He moved and I hit a car.”
“Next time use your head, it’s harder.”
That was the entire speech. No, poor baby. No, how many times have I told you, blah, blah, blah. Use your head? My grandmother was talking to me like a football coach. This was a beautiful thing.
Later that night, Dad called.
“Oh, by the way, Tommy broke his hand today. He’s fine.” Nan said.
I heard Dad yelling in the background. Nan let him go on for a minute, while gesturing to me, shaking her head up and down and spinning her tongue around the outside of her mouth. Finally, she cut him off.
“Cut the crap. It’s no big deal. He’s okay and I’m taking care of him.”
Dad made a feeble attempt to continue the argument.
“Look, you have a short memory. He’s a boy. This stuff happens. You fix it and move on. Have a good night and send Patty my love.”
During that conversation, my heart decorated its largest room and put Nan there in a comfy chair.
Mom’s hospital stay stretched nine weeks. I was Nan’s star boarder all summer long. Rather than buy wool downtown or shop for three hours along York Avenue, Nan and I did non-Nan things for the first time, like go to the movies. She took me to a James Bond film after a hospital visit. While the opening credits rolled, there was a silhouette of a naked lady with a gun practicing her marksmanship. This pleased me. When Nan noticed the nice lady on the screen, she faked a colossal yawn throwing her arms out wide. She kept her arms at full mast throughout the rest of the credits, completely covering my view, till the good part was over. I’d crane my head up, her arm would follow it. I leaned all the way to the side, Nan stretched her arm out, like she was trying to hitch hike from behind a large bush. Disappointed, I shrugged. This is what adult women do to little boys. I knew it.
I’d be sitting on the couch watching TV, and Mom would stand in front of me holding up my blanket.
“What the hell are you doing to your blanket?” She’d say.
This humiliated me. She knew and I knew, I’d never answer that question. I’d stand there mortified saying nothing. Then I’d go away shaking for a few hours. I dreaded unanswerable questions.
As the summer progressed, Nan and I rearranged our relationship. We were pals and talked more than I spoke to either of my parents or my other grandparents. Sex was the only area left off the table. After the James Bond incident, I was extremely cautious in Nan’s space. The next few years produced no further incidents. I was a master sneak.
By fifteen, I was staying with Nan four nights a week. My high school was in Manhattan, all my friends were in Manhattan and my parents had moved to Queens. They didn’t like it, but they knew I hated their fighting. Staying at Nan’s gave me a break from the yelling.
One Friday night, I was watching an Italian film on cable TV. It was late, Nan was in bed, and I was two rooms away. The film had sub-titles and was chock full of sex. Even the music made me horny. I assumed Nan was asleep. I was trying to see if it was possible to jerk off non-stop, straight through the entire film. A rough assignment, but I had faith in myself. Two thirds in, there was a scene where the actors are making love, and in Italian, the woman begs the man to, “Sodomize me, please sodomize me.” This sent me right back to the launching pad. Midway through the countdown, I heard giggling and it wasn’t the TV. I lowered the sound, and I heard it again.
“Hee, Hee, Hee.”
Oh no, She’s awake. Holy shit, she’s awake. My pup tent collapsed. I forgot, my grandmother knew Italian. She was listening to the film. She knew every word. Then I got this strong rush through me. She’s listening to an extremely sexy film, she knows I’m out here doing whatever, and she doesn’t care.
I thought back to the James Bond movie and the blocked view and it didn’t figure at first. Then the fog cleared and I got it. When I was eleven, I was eleven. What was appropriate then, no longer made sense. I expected our relationship to stay frozen. I was slow at picking up Nan’s transition allowing me gradual increases in freedom and personal expression. After the movie, I bought lace curtains for Nan’s room in my heart.
Unlike Mom, who could spy me looking at a bra ad through a brick wall, Nan left my stuff alone. I had a few Playboy, Penthouse, Club & Oui magazines under my underwear in her apartment. The clothing got moved around, but the arsenal never stirred.
That same year, 1970, I started seeing my first girlfriend, Ginny. We loved movies and hanging out with Nan. In our first four months together, we each gained 15 pounds eating New York Turf cheesecake. Nan knew how to lure company to her roost. Ginny and I did every thing but do it for a few months, before agreeing to do it. It was time for protection.
I worked in Corner Pharmacy and had access to a wide variety of condoms. Of course, I couldn’t buy them, so I reluctantly stole. My choice was Four-Xs. The brand item came in a large blue egg-shaped plastic capsule filled with lubricant. I thought I’d look sophisticated pulling one of those out. Nan was a local Democratic district leader & neighborhood big wheel. The Honorable Ann Pryor Rode spent three nights a week at the Cherokee Clubhouse on 79th Street. Ginny and I picked a night and made a plan. We went into Nan’s bedroom. Ginny loved the capsule. She felt shy and asked me to turn off the light. Everything worked. When we finished, we spooned for a long time.
“I’m hungry. Want to eat?” Ginny said.
We made grilled sandwiches, ate cheese cake, then I walked Ginny home.
When I got back, Nan was there, sitting in the kitchen drumming her fingers on the table – no TV, no radio, no phone. Without a word, she stood up, and nudged me towards her bedroom.
When we got there, rather than turning on the overhead light, she walked to the small built-in reading lamp on the head of her bed. She pulled the metal chain and harsh brightness lit up her pillow. Centered perfectly on the pillow was the condom‘s plastic shell. Under the unforgiving light, it resembled a suspect under interrogation. Nan motioned me to pick up the capsule. We silently walked back to the kitchen.
Along the way, I held my head in my hands and mumbled, “Unbelievable, first time ever, I’m a shit-for-brains.”
She offered me a seat, then she sat down. She spoke slowly.
“First thing, I like the girl. I’m glad you’re using something. Second, don’t do it in my bed.”
Through my eyes, I delivered red roses to my grandmother. I was blessed.