This short memoir was written by my wife, Tara McCarthy, about 1989. It’s a beautiful example of her creativity.
During a Wartime summer, my father made the mistake of moving us from our real home–a small green village of New York–to the gunmetal-gray city of Akron, where he went to work for a giant rubber-tire factory.
The Akron street was not a proper street at all: it was enormously wide and marked off this side from that side as definitively as a state border drawn on a map. The stern brick houses opposite us looked miles away. To find someone to play with, I could no longer dash across a little road or sit humming on the lawn, my jacks in a drawstring bag, bouncing a rubber ball nonchalantly to tempt a passing friend into a game. No, Akron was different: your mother had to call up the neighbor to find out whether it was convenient for the children to play, and then your mother had to talk you across the street and then you had to call your mother when you were ready to come home so that she could come over and walk you back again. My mother could not do any of this walking, because her left leg was in a cast, so I could not even get across the street to check out likely-looking jacks aficionados.
Photographs of our time in Akron show me with as tragic a face as a well-fed six-year-old can muster. I was, I felt, in a prison, with only my invalid parent and my little sister and my great-aunt Inez and a maid named Jello for company. My dog had deserted me, dying on the sofa of the Pullman roomette as we crossed some dismal farmland on the way West.
My mother had broken her leg back in New York, slipping on the ice while walking my dog at dawn. “I was walking Honeybunch’s sweet little Mickey,” my mother said to my father’s new friends as she looked at me wistfully. “I almost lost my leg, didn’t I, Dan?”
“Yes, she almost lost her leg,” my father agreed. “She was very brave to make this trip.”
“I did it for Dan,” my mother said. “This was such an opportunity for him. I couldn’t let something like almost losing my leg stand in the way of his work, or of the War Ever.”
It was in almost losing her leg that my mother had acquired Jello and conjured up Aunt Inez from remote towns hear her childhood home in North Carolina. They were to be our helpers, allied forces moved in to succor the wounded and take over the battle of running the house. And tattered troops they were! Jello was sixteen years old and so terrified by the city that she had to be cajoled into leaving the house even to empty the garbage. She wept constantly over a soldier named Francis who was fighting in Europe. Jello wept as she washed the stairs, wept as she made lunch, and wept as she showed me photos of Francis. Aunt Inez was in her eighties. She wore live birds in her hair–her parakeets Sweetie and Sillabub. She had, my mother explained, very kindly agreed to act as our housekeeper, a job which consisted mainly of ordering groceries over the phone.
“Yankees are so rude!” Aunt Inez always said when she hung up. When the groceries arrived, she would once again tell Jello how to make what became the culinary staples of our brief stay in Ohio–salmon casserole, apple Brown Betty, and pineapple upside-down cake.
“We had this last night, I think,” my father would say, arriving for dinner nattily attired in his office clothes and looking handsome as usual, giving me a wink as he used to in the old days and looking pained as I pouted at him and turned away. I hated him then. He got out during the day, as he always had, and as I never did anymore. How could he move me to this dreadful place?
“I hate it here!” I usually managed to say at dinner. “There’s no one to play with!”
“Maybe your Aunt Inez could walk you across the street to meet the neighbors,” my father suggested.
“Mercy, I can’t do that!” my Aunt Inez answered. “Yankees are too abrupt! Besides, this child has her little sister to play with.”
“I hate her!” I said, watching clinically as my sister’s face turned sad.
Sweetie and Sillabub fluttered in Aunt Inez’s hair. She would say “Blood is thicker than water,” or “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” then ring the little crystal bell she had brought from Down South, summoning the sobbing Jello in to clear the plates.
“Oh, my land! I don’t know what to do! I just don’t know what to do,” my mother exclaimed. “Why can’t everyone just be happy?” Little tears would well up in her eyes, perfect little tears the sight of which made even Jello pause in her weeping.
After dinner, we would all move to our special places, moving in our special ways–my mother hobbling and grimacing into the living room to listen to “Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons,” and resisting my father’s offers of assistance, saying “No, I don’t want to be a burden. Painful as this is, I’ll do it on my own, thank you1″; Jello sludging tearfully out to the kitchen; Aunt Inez fluttering after saying “Waste not, want not”; my sister running merrily upstairs, her enviable yellow ringlets bobbing, to play “Elevator” with the sliding doors in the hall or “Goodbye, Pants” with the laundry chute, so that she would inevitably get a finger smashed or a leg scraped and require the attention of the entire family before the evening was over; me stomping up to my bedroom with a volume of Uncle Wiggily held importantly under my arm; my father coming up slowly after me, in another attempt to tuck me in.
“What’s wrong with my little Zaza?” he pleaded one night. “I haven’t seen one single smile on your face since we got here.”
“I told you,” I said. “I hate it here. I want to go home. I want to go to your office, like I used to, like I used to in New York, where we live. I never get to anymore!”
“Zaza, I can’t take you to my office here,” he said. “I’d like to, but I can’t.”
“Yes, I know, it’s about the War Ever,” I said cynically. As usual, I opened Uncle Wiggily to a picture that I recognized and pretended to read. Reading was a matter of moving your eyes back and forth and making understanding faces now and then.
“It’s the war effort,” my father said. “The war effort, like in trying. Because of the War Effort, I can’t have guests in my office, not even little girls, because everything is secret. For example, Firestone makes tires for the Army.”
I pictured giant tires dropping out of planes onto Hitler’s head. “I already know about tires, Daddy,” I said indignantly.
From out in the hall there came the shriek of my sister with her thumb conveniently caught in the sliding door, and from downstairs the plaint of my mother. “Now nobody should interrupt themselves, but I am in considerable pain,” and the sound of Jello snuffling and Aunt Inez, her birds twittering, singing “Look for the Silver Lining.”
My father said, “Sometimes it is very important to the War Effort to help out at home.” He stood up and tried to look very firm. He said, “You are my best and my brightest, Zaza, and I definitely think you can help out at home a lot more than you have been doing. You could be a big help to me. Just a little smile now and then would help me.”
“I know, Daddy,” I said.
“Then why don’t you help me?” he asked.
“I don’t want to,” I said. “I just want to go home.”
“This is a very important job to me,” said my father. “It is an opportunity. Do you know what an opportunity is?”
“Yes, Daddy,” I said. I didn’t, of course. “But I don’t care.” with his big words and funny problems, he sounded just like that hapless fellow Uncle Wiggily.
We glared at one another across the shiny picture of Uncle Wiggily where Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy is helping him across something called a stile. My father left, and I listened contentedly to my sister wailing as Mercurochrome was applied to her arm. A feeling of power was washing over me as I fell asleep, a feeling that I could somehow now move my family back East to the town where I belonged, with my jacks.
How I was to accomplish this began dimly to emerge a few days later, when Aunt Inez suddenly turned off a radio program featuring Great Organ Hymns. Aunt Inez said, “Why, this is so depressing! All these songs about death! I simply cannot abide thoughts of death, can you, Jello?”
Jello stopped crying and looked at Aunt Inez quizzically. “Yes, ma’am,” said Jello. “I like hymns. I was raised with hymns. I like hymns very much.”
So at this point I enlisted Jello and the piano as my allies. I had always circled the piano warily in New York, but my parents had hauled it to Ohio anyway, perhaps in the hope that I would somehow attack music with miraculous gusto in the smoky air of Akron.
This I did do now, conscripting Jello to help me learn to play “Nearer, My God, to Thee” and “The Old Wooden Cross.” Her eyes brightened up considerably during our piano sessions.
Since Jello was about as inept as I was, the hymns took endless practice. Aunt Inez cowered in the kitchen, her birds drooping. “Why is the child always playing hymns?” she asked my father as soon as he came home from work. “I am so depressed. That child is always playing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.’ I can’t abide that piece. It’s about dying, and I am getting on in years, Lord knows!”
My father confronted me. “Why are you depressing your aunt with hymns about dying?” he asked.
“You wanted me to learn the piano,” I said, “and I’m learning the piano and these are the only songs Jello and I know.”
“Is that so, Jello?” said my father.
“Yes, sir,” said Jello, clear-eyed.
“Well, there it is!” said Aunt Inez. “Catering to the whims of a child and a servant! Times have changed surely!”
“Now, Aunt,” said my mother, jiggling her cast impatiently. “Now, Aunt, the child is showing some gift for music, and we have every right to be happy about that.” She fell sighing back into the chaise which my father had found for her at the same store where he had found a gas stove. An actual modern stove was hard to find during the War Ever.
The stove was supposed to be delivered on the same day that Aunt Inez and the birds were huffily scheduled to leave because of the hymns. My father was driving Auntie and the birds in their cages to the railroad depot, with Jello along just to help with Sweetie and Sillabub, after she was assured that she would not have to get out of the car until it came back to the house. “Now, Zaza,” my father said to me warily, “I am leaving it to you to look out for the delivery men. Just look out the window for them, and direct them around to the back door. Don’t have them come up the front steps, because they’re too high. This is probably the last gas stove in Ohio, because of the War Ever.”
“A stove, a real stove,” exclaimed my mother, stomping about on her cast with unusual vigor and clapping her hands as I used to do back home after a superb jacks play. “A stove just like I had back East! Thank the Lord I won’t have to feel like a pioneer lady anymore. I’m so tired of that ol’ coal stove, aren’t you, Jello?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” said Jello happily as she toted the birds out the door. I settled down to my ally, the piano, and attempted to pick out the cheery “Country Gardens.” my sister screamed from the basement that her hand was caught in the laundry chute, but my mother was too absorbed in her delight about the stove to hear her. Would my plan have a bonus? Would my sister be silenced forever in a mass of soiled linen? But her piping Shirley Temple voice yelled very soon from an upstairs window. “Men are here with something!”
I dashed to the front door. “Bring it right up here,” I hollered. “Bring it right up these front steps!”
I leaned out the window and watched with satisfied anticipation as two men edged a gigantic stove up the first of several cement steps. By step five they had, of course, lost it. The Last Gas Stove in Ohio crashed definitively down the stairs and landed with a crumped bash on its side.
“Oh, my land!” said my mother, maneuvering out onto the stoop. “That stove’ll never work now. Now you just take it back and get me a new one!”
“Can’t do it, Lady,” said one man sadly. “This was the very last stove.”
“ Oh, my Lord,” said my mother. She was literally hopping mad when my father got home from the depot. “I am up to my neck!” she told him. “I am up to my neck in this part of the world!” She tugged Jello into the kitchen, where the two of them somehow managed to construct a meat loaf and baked potatoes for dinner.
“I cannot abide Ohio,” said my mother later, vigorously slicing meat loaf. “It was bad enough I had to give up my New York frigidaire for an icebox, but now I am fated to that awful coal stove for the duration of the War. And,” she added, “it may have escaped your attention, because I have been very silent about my pain, but I have been very unhappy here.”
“Is that so?” said my father. “And how about my little Curly Top?” he said, turning to my odious little sister, with her bright smile and her millions of bandaids. Do you like it here?”
“No,” she said.
He never asked me. I don’t think he said one word to me until long after we got back home to New York. I can’t remember that he ever even told me about what my mother said was the marvelous new opportunity he had discovered back East. But I remember being sadly and smugly patient, as Nurse Jane always was until Uncle Wiggily came round.
When Jello and I were sitting in the roomette on the east-bound train, I asked her, “Is the War Ever over yet?” And she said, “I don’t know, but Francis came home. He’s down at Fort Bragg.” She smiled as she hugged me.
This essay was first published in “Woodstock Originals” in 1990, an anthology of writing by people in the Byrdcliffe Writers group. I was in the group too, although not at the same time as Tara, and I had a story in the anthology. Tara also had two poems, the only ones she ever published. I’m reviving the essay because I admire it so much and because I thought others would enjoy it, friends and strangers alike. The uncanny recall of childhood demonstrated in this essay was genuine. She often told me stories from her childhood going back as early as when she was 2 or 3.
If there are any typos, please forgive me. I had to copy it from the book.–Leslie Gerber