Most Satisfying Childhood Activity
Sometimes when I was a kid I would be going out of my mind with boredom. There were too many of us in a too-small row house and my father was strict about any of his children ranging too far, so in a way we were trapped. There was a low table in the dining room, and I remember folding myself up and hiding under it, just for something to do. I suppose I was seeing whether or not I’d be missed. I don’t know that I was ever missed. Sometimes I’d chuck my Brownie beanie behind the little table and pretend it was lost just when it was time to go to a Brownie meeting, perhaps to draw interest my way. Then I would pretend I had found the beanie, holding it up in my fist with an air of victory. The repetitions and lack of options in that house would drive the most patient person crazy. One day I discovered a tiny vial of something called Oil of Cloves in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. It was very small, very old. I could not imagine what kind of use something called Oil of Cloves could have. I opened it up and poured a small amount onto the bathroom floor. It had a pungent odor. I held the tiny vial in my hand for a while, and then I put it back in the medicine cabinet. In time someone asked, “What is that smell?” My father noticed it too. “What is that smell?” I pretended not to know. In general I lied quickly, if feebly and transparently, at that age because I was terrified of my father. Finally by ruling out the other siblings it was clear that the cause of the smell could be traced only to me. I showed my father the vial of Oil of Cloves in the medicine cabinet, and where I’d poured some out next to the sink. My father wiped it up with an air of extreme gravity and gave me a lecture about dangerous substances. Oh, I realized, he thinks I’m the kind of idiot who would eat rat poison. He had no idea about my level of sophistication, though of course I didn’t know that word at that age. My perpetually angry father was being uncharacteristically tolerant and kind, and I knew he wasn’t going to hit me. He asked if I’d poured out Oil of Cloves anywhere else in the house. This sort of calm attention was unprecedented, so I quickly invented several other areas in the house where I’d poured out some Oil of Cloves, including the bottom of the stairs and the space behind the television set. I watched with a show of trembling remorse, while actually feeling great satisfaction, as my father stooped down to clean up these wholly fictitious puddles.
Most Inexplicable Religious Moment
Attendance at weekly mass at the hated St. E’s was non-negotiable. If we went as a family, my father sat us toward the back on the right, but if it was just my mother and the four of us kids, she sat us on the left and toward the front. My mother was deeply Catholic, and I would say that she wanted to have a front-row seat for God, but a certain discretion kept her in the third row. Later, when I was the only kid still at home, there was an event where a Catholic priest renowned for his faith healing would be coming to the Salesian boys’ school. This was the school that my poor nerdy brother had gone to, and that the boy I would later almost but not marry had been expelled from, purportedly for setting the bathroom on fire. My mother was tremendously excited about the Catholic faith healer and begged me to go with her. Certainly my mother was someone who had a lot to pray for, beginning with her terminally furious husband. To a lot of Catholics of her generation a faith healer would probably seem borderline heretical, but my mother loved it. Mostly I was embarrassed because in my disaffected, alternative teenager way I didn’t want to be seen with my mother at something religious, especially something that seemed to me of the credulous-bumpkin variety. I should also mention that I had an awful cold at the time, no doubt exacerbated by all the ladyfingers and strawberry jam I was eating and all the cigarettes I was smoking, and I was very congested. The event was held in the school’s big gymnasium. I remember a small sort of dais in the middle of the floor, with a Persian carpet on it. A rug in a gym seemed incongruous, and the fact that it was a Persian carpet, which summoned up ideas of magic flying carpets, only added to the strangeness. But the gym was packed. There was such a will to believe in that room. It was hugely emotional, barely Catholic at all. As the faith healer spoke I could feel my mother beside me getting whipped up into a state of extreme fervor. I was feeling really strange, very uncomfortable. The healer prayed and prayed until he built up to a crescendo of “BE HEALED! BE HEALED! BE HEALED!” And the world’s biggest wad of snot leapt into my mouth.
It’s not fair to blame her, since she had a difficult life. Depression- era poverty, violent drunk for a father, one girl among five boys. She was some sort of nurse and, in the way of a small, third-tier city, was the person who gave my eldest sister, who I’ll call Mal, her weekly asthma shot. Mal always came home with her arm red and stinging, often bruised. She was convinced that since this relative thought she was a troublemaker and didn’t like her, she always made the shot as painful as possible. I never doubted my eldest sister. The mean relative was perpetually brusque and dismissive, with the tut-tut manner that a certain kind of chubby, bossy woman can have. She was especially awful to my mother, full of a kind of I’ve-had-it-harder-than-you condescension. I was nothing at all to this relative, barely alive. Really like a little gnat to swat away. Know what I hate most in the world? Fascists and bullies. At my father’s funeral, this woman screamed at my sisters and brother and me: “YOU KIDS KILLED YOUR FATHER!” She softened considerably when she got older, but by then it was just too late. Writing this, it occurs to me that this woman might not actually be my meanest relative.
Best Slumber Party Ever
Slumber parties were tricky because they could suddenly turn into huge festivals of cruelty, where the nerdiest or weakest girl would be violently and probably traumatically picked on. I think I have blocked the worst instances of this, whether I was the target or just silent and cowardly complicit with the bullying girls when they picked on some sad little weakling. Such complicity after all meant that the cup would temporarily pass away from me. This particular slumber party was at the house of a girl called Nancy, who had a Polish last name. She was a sporty girl, someone who could kick a ball while running at top speed, and she was more or less in my extended circle of friends, although “friends” would technically not be the right word. She lived in a neighborhood that was a definite step up the ladder from mine, even though not much more than a four-lane highway separated them. Later, when I fell in love with architecture, I would realize that her neighborhood had been patterned on the model of the “garden city,” with one of its main roads named for a famous Scottish urbanist, but this suggests a level of refinement never seen in those parts. Nancy’s backyard ran right up against the cemetery, as did the backyards of all the other houses on her side of the street, with a tall iron fence separating the yards from the cemetery. This forbidding iron fence had a series of gates in it, one corresponding to each backyard, which could be opened to provide access to the cemetery, except that these gates were always locked. Because of special circumstances, however, Nancy’s family had been given a key to their backyard gate. Her mother, who was hugely pregnant either with Nancy or her brother at the time, had been in her backyard one hot summer day when the boy who cut the lawn in the cemetery ran over his own foot. He began screaming in pain, blood gushing everywhere. Nancy’s hugely pregnant mother climbed over the tall iron fence, grabbed the boy, stanched his blood with her hands, and saved the boy’s life. So the key to the gate became her family’s reward. Nancy produced the key, a large and medieval- looking thing, and we crowded around to gaze at it. We’d been up all night feeding our faces with pizza and Italian subs and assorted junk but, just as the sun was coming up, we decided to go into the cemetery. With great solemnity Nancy unlocked the gate, and we all flooded inside, down through the cemetery in our nightgowns and bare feet and into the mausoleum at its sloping end. There had been a funeral the day before, and heaps of flowers, mostly bent carnations, lay all over the floor. Wordlessly we picked up armloads of these flowers and walked back up through the cemetery to the part, beside the tree line, where the child gravestones were. These were old and small and had little lambs on them, their features eaten away by air pollutants. We were very somber as we placed flowers on the graves of these little neglected children. If we missed any, one of us would call out so we could be sure each child got at least one flower. Some of these girls were the very same ones who would later pluck my glasses off my face and energetically throw them down the school steps during eighth- grade cheerleading practice. I realize I have outlived any rancor in my heart over this, so in a way it’s a shame I didn’t write about this when I was younger and still pissed off. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that in adult life Nancy’s brother became a mortician. In fact he was the mortician who would eventually bury my mother in that same cemetery, down by the sloping end, beside the remains of my father, in the part where the drainage is bad.
There was a very nerdy boy called Wayne, with a Polish last name, who had a crush on me in my mid-high school years. In fact Wayne lived in the same development in the north part of the city as the boy I would later not marry, the one who allegedly set the Salesian school’s bathroom on fire, except Wayne’s part of the development was seen as the ill-favored end for whatever reason. There were not a lot of us in Delaware into alternative music back in those days, so you all tended to know one another. You also got used to walking with your eyes trained on the pavement so you could avoid all the people gawking at your “crazy” hair, or yelling things like, “Hey, you fucking freak!” Wayne put out a sort of aspirational ’zine called Skate for the Church of England and made excellent mix tapes for me, and I liked him but not “in that way.” I was myself shy and awkward, and covered this by treating most everything with extreme sarcasm, so the only way to deal with Wayne was by pretending he didn’t have a crush on me. And so when he asked me to go to his prom with him “as friends,” I accepted. He didn’t go to a Catholic school like my sisters and brother and I did, but to the vo-tech school in the City of Wilmington, Howard, which was named for the same Union general that Howard University is named for. Wayne was one of a small handful of white kids at this predominantly Black school. I remember thinking how much shit Wayne and I were going to catch from his Black classmates, since we were dressed in our alternative gear for the prom, me with some sort of drapey black dress with a huge shaggy keffiyeh type of scarf-thing and ankle boots with a chain around one of them and mismatched earrings and asymmetrical hair with peroxide patches in it, etc., Wayne with his little tufted Mohawk. But you know what? The Black kids at Howard were beautiful to us. Just beautiful. Also, they dressed with a flair that any white kid I knew couldn’t hope to achieve. I remember tailored suits, color-coordinated ties and gowns, long gloves, fantastic sculptural hair. It was the same city but it was much larger than the small Catholic circuit I knew. They seemed to understand so much more than Wayne and I did. In fact, they cut us all the slack in the world, and seemed even to give us a sort of blessing. Not like a “magical Negro” kind of thing, more like they were so used to catching shit from most white people that the last thing they wanted to do was pay us back in kind. In my memory, the night grows uncommonly sweet. Actually, in the eighteen years I spent growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, this might be the only unadulterated sweetness I can remember.
Biggest Failure of Imagination
This was when I was home from college on summer break, back when I was first trying to figure out how to write about Wilmington, its particular deadening quality, its separation into haves and have-nots, its aggressive and systemic hatred of the Other, the feeling of its being a puny fiefdom of the DuPont Company. My father had recently died and my mother was working as what they now call a “permalancer.” She worked at a place called the Experimental Station, an “R&D facility, as a technical illustrator, and she made less than half of what she had made in a similar job twenty-five years earlier. One day when she came home from work she seemed particularly sad. She told me and my eldest sister Mal, who was over at the house for some reason, that she’d found out, through accidental means, that she made the lowest wage of everyone in her group. In fact, she made significantly less than the next-lowest paid person, the only other woman there. That she was the oldest among them and had the most experience only added insult to injury. She tendered the idea that she might ask her boss for a raise. She said she’d be happy for an extra dollar an hour, which would be roughly 20% more than the pittance, not her word, that she was making. Mal and I said of course she should ask her boss for a raise. I had met her boss, an affable jerk who lived in a vast house in the north part of the city, and I supposed that to such a person her request would seem well within her rights. The next day our mother came home holding a cardboard box. She set it on the dining room table. “How did it go?” we asked her. “Well,” she said, “he said he couldn’t give me a raise, but he did give us some vegetables from his garden.” Mal and I looked at each other. Mal’s face was starting to explode, but my little mother seemed like she was about to cry, and I didn’t want to make things worse for her. So I was silent. Mal, who never had any such compunctions, said, “Fuckin’ zucchini? Fuckin’ zucchini? He gave you fuckin’ zucchini? Where’s he live? I’m gonna go turf his fuckin’ lawn!” Quite uncharacteristically, my mother burst into a huge smile. Of note here is the fact that there was a long, skinny bridge that you had to drive across to get to the R&D facility. In a way it had a feeling of a moat to protect the castle from the commoners. When I was talking those years ago about how I was trying to write about Wilmington to the boy that I would later not marry, he said something about how maybe the whole thing needed more imagination. He was a good talker, this boy, who also had a wounded heart and a father inclined to violence, even if the house he grew up in was in the north part of the city and much bigger than the one I grew up in. Come to think of it, I believe his father was a chemist at DuPont. And in fact he also had a Polish last name. Anyway, this boy of mine asked me if I remembered how there’d been a terrible accident at the Experimental Station some years back. That whole long bridge had been choked with people, faces blackened, walking like zombies, after a massive explosion at the facility. I was astonished. How had I missed all that? He said of course I hadn’t missed it; he’d just made the story up. I marveled at his ability to play so fast and loose with reality. It suggested a mind of boundless freedom, real imagination. And so it was a surprise when sometime later I broke my own heart when I left this boy, because he was stuck in Wilmington, had become an alcoholic like his father, and didn’t have the wherewithal to escape.
Most Normal Sister
In a family of outcasts, my middle sister, whose nickname is Poogy, was by far the most normal one. In a way she was like the blond niece on The Munsters. She smiled and was full of pep and was on the cheerleading squad. In fact, my deeply unsuccessful foray into eighth- grade cheerleading was taken in the hope of achieving my sister Poogy’s level of normalcy. Fat chance! Poogy was also the homecoming queen. I admired her glittering, friendly way, and had no idea until much later that Poogy had, in fact, precociously read the writing on the wall— lessons learned through the harsh treatment of our brother and our sister Mal by the world at large as well as by our father, he of the fist and the baseball bat—and very fluidly evolved herself to achieve maximum agreeability. She’d been as shy as I was as a child, inclined really to melancholy. She was nearly two years older but small and underweight, so really we were about the same size for a while, and my mother sometimes dressed us alike, in things like sunhats with elephants on them or butter-yellow acrylic ponchos. In fact my fairly inexplicable nickname “B.G.” held on for those early years, only to be carried into adulthood, because it was a kind of echo of “Poogy,” and people liked saying “Poogy and B.G.” as if we were two of a set. Sometimes I thought my dad’s mother actually found us interchangeable, one as good as the other, or that we were in reality a single entity called “Piji.” As a child Poogy had severe skin rashes on her hands and feet, which I would say was a condition directly related to internalizing the stress of living in a house where you knew violence could erupt at any moment. In high school, Poogy threw herself into community service. She did things like help distribute turkeys to poor people at Thanksgiving, some of whom lived in the very same development that we lived in. I wondered back then if this caused her embarrassment. Her best friend, who had a Polish last name, lived in a development that was on a rough par with the one we lived in; it consisted of a group of grim box-like brick row houses. One day when they were in high school but I was still in grammar school I burst into “the girls’ room,” the bedroom my two sisters and I shared. Poogy and her best friend were sitting beside each other on the one non-bunk bed, their backs to the wall. Their eyes were closed and they were listening to “Free Bird.” I think I had burst in to get the Frisbee, which makes no sense since I really wasn’t a sporty kid, but at any rate I froze in my tracks. I was shocked. I just couldn’t imagine sitting anywhere with my best friend Vicki with our eyes closed. We would have found such a thing ludicrous. Poogy and her best friend opened their eyes at my disturbance, and Poogy’s friend turned to her and said with cold, authoritative disdain: “The mood is totally ruined now.” Poogy agreed with her: “Totally ruined.” I realize only now that what shocked me most of all was something else. It was as if I had caught them in the act of practicing normalcy together. Was “Free Bird” in fact, for that time and that place, the coin of the realm, the gateway to acceptance? What’s strange is that, among my siblings and me, Poogy is by far the least interested in music. Today she lives in a house that isn’t contingent on any other houses at all, and in general she prefers silence.
Longest National Guard Occupation of Any U.S. City
It would take me years to understand why there were photographs of tanks rolling down the streets of Wilmington in my family’s photo albums. My father had indiscriminate tastes, so any photo ever taken at all would be saved, if putting photos into those sticky-back photo albums popular at that time could be called “saved.” It happened after Dr. King was assassinated. There were riots all over the country. There were riots in what people called the City of Wilmington. They called it “the City of Wilmington” to distinguish it from the rich suburbs, the part north of the city. Dr. King was killed exactly one month before I was born: April 4th, 1968. I wonder now if this was actually the thing that broke my father’s heart. He had helped start something called Community Law Service. The idea was to provide pro bono legal advice to people who didn’t have the means to pay. I have a photo of my father in his skinny tie and sharkskin suit, posing with his colleagues in a publicity shot for when Community Law Service first opened. There is a lawyer who is Black, a lawyer who might be Jewish, and my father, who is the Italian-American from Central Casting. The only woman, a secretary, I would think, sits writing something. My father has a beautiful look on his face. I cannot ever remember seeing a look like this on my father’s face in the nineteen years that I knew him. There is so much hope in this photo. They are all coming together to support the community. This is the path to the future. This photo was taken in 1965, 1966, or 1967. I know this because the stamp on the back of it reads “The DEFENDER 1701 N. Locust Street Wilmington, Del. 19802,” and a newspaper by this name, the newspaper of Wilmington’s Black community, was published between 1965 and 1967. So this photo could have been taken as late as 1967. Close to the end. I find myself wondering now if it was hard to get my mother to the hospital for my birth, since we lived on the fringe of the City of Wilmington, and St. Francis Hospital was near the scenes of the riots. Probably things had died down by then. It was one month on, after all. But the National Guard stayed for nine months, which I was to read years later was the longest occupation of any U.S. city since the Civil War. I remember after I had escaped to New York City hearing a man on the radio ask the question: What would the world look like if cops were here to protect children instead of property? I wonder what happened to Community Law Service. My father never did talk about it and, anyway, he is long gone now.
B.G. Firmani is the author of a novel, Time’s a Thief, published by Doubleday in 2017. She has published short fiction in the Bellevue Literary Review, BOMB, the Michigan Quarterly Review, the Kenyon Review, and Philadelphia Stories. She has been a resident at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, and was a 2012 Fellow in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She writes a very occasional blog about Italian-American literature and folkways called Forte e Gentile, and has a day job in the building trades as a proposal writer.