Starting Over, Again
After her father’s death, what happened to little Lorna’s little family?
Had it been me, I would have moved closer to my mother to get all the help and support I needed. But I wasn’t my mother. Not by a long shot.
She moved us to Glenbrook, CT–eight hours from her only real support system. My dad’s twin sister and her family lived there and offered to help us. Mom was so ashamed of being a widow by suicide and wanted to live where few people knew the circumstances of her delicate situation. Being a single mother in the early 1960s raised enough eyebrows. If she was going to be judged, at least it would be mostly by strangers.
Another factor influenced her decision. Tina was ill with a mysterious stomach ailment. She grew thinner by the day, not wanting to eat and suffering when she did. Food was my bosom-buddy, so I just couldn’t imagine at fate worse than that. When Daddy was alive, they took her to the local hospital and one in Montreal. The doctors weren’t sure, but they thought either she was a little kid with a grown-up ulcer or she was faking it. It’s hard to fake skin that resembles Elmer’s glue, so I believed she had a bona fide deadly disease.
From what little money she had from selling the trailer and whatever other money she had, she bought herself a brand new Ford Fairlane 500. Black. We drove away from our old home toward a new home during the summer of 1962. She enrolled us in the same school as our cousins, a Catholic school–St. Francis of the Perpetually Tortured, or something like that.
Mom never discussed the move or asked my opinion about it. Children didn’t have opinions back then; at least none that mattered to adults. All I know is I was living in a trailer in the woods and then, poof! I was living in the bottom half of a house on a city block where you could reach out the window and just about touch the neighbor’s house. We had one small patch of grass in the back, but we weren’t allowed to play on it because we might ruin it.
We lived in an Italian neighborhood, not that I knew it at the time. The ancient Italian couple who lived upstairs owned the house. I could smell spaghetti sauce and meatballs every week. It was agony and ecstasy at the same time because they only shared the smell of their cooking. Except once. Lisa and I tasted what we’d been smelling when Mom was away at the hospital with Tina. She left me to look after Lisa (she was 4 and I was 6), with Signore e la Signora Upstairs listening for any sounds of trouble. Signora Upstairs, who never came downstairs, shouted down an invitation for dinner since Mom was late coming home. I was in charge and I immediately accepted. Never having been up there, I was curious and, of course, I wanted to taste what my nose had smelt for so long. I decided Italians make the best Italian food. Ever.
Mom left Lisa and me alone a lot. The trip to the hospital treating Tina was about an hour away. My aunt’s promise of help petered out not long after we arrived. Her husband, also Italian, seemed a bit too interested in his widowed and beautiful sister-in-law. My aunt was jealous and told my mom that we girls were a bad influence on her boys. So Mom had to trust her two young daughters to stay out of trouble while she was away with oldest and sickest daughter. I tried to be good and responsible while on duty, but common sense wasn’t my forte. Knowing this, she made up some pretty strict rules for when she was away:
- Be quiet.
- Never use the phone unless it was the prearranged time when she would call to check on us.
- Stay on the property.
- Don’t let anyone, even friends, inside the apartment.
- Only eat the food Mom prepared for us.
- If we were in desperate trouble, go to Signore e la Signora Upstairs. But it had to be desperate: lonely didn’t count. Blood did.
Lisa and I became inseparable. I was her idol, which went a long way toward satisfying my Middle-Child need for attention. Everything I did, she did; everything I liked she liked. It drove everyone nuts but us. But we had lots of time to bond, just the two of us. We would sit on the stoop outside of our apartment in the late afternoon just waiting to see Mom’s car drive up the street, having been alone most of the day.
“I bet the 10th car will be her,” I said to Lisa.
“Okay, but you count better. You do it.”
It was never the tenth car, so I’d say, “I bet it’s the 5th black car. You keep track of the colors.”
“Sure! We’re a great team, Lorn!”
When we’d get sick of that game, I would engage Lisa in some weighty philosophical discussion such as the pros and cons of the red-skinned hot dogs versus the brown-skinned ones. This was an important topic to 7 and 5 years olds.
All these mental gyrations were an attempt not to think about the unthinkable, which I managed to think about anyway: what if Mommy never comes home? I only knew how to take pre-packaged lunches from the refrigerator and serve them. Could I fend for Lisa and me on my own? Who would I call if I wasn’t supposed to use the phone?
By the time I’d worked myself into worrying that Lisa and I would have to hop a railroad car hoping it would lead us to Mémé and Pépé, Mom’s car would invariably appear. All was right with the world.
Or so I thought…