Wilmington, Delaware, in Eight Superlatives


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.

Meanest Relative