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It was a long time ago.
Though it seems, sometimes, that most things that matter happened a long time ago, that is not really true. What is true is this: by the time you realize how much something mattered, time has passed; by the time it stops hurting enough that you can tell about it, first to yourself, and finally to someone else, more time has passed; then, when you sit down to begin the telling, you have to begin this way:
It was a long time ago.
If, instead of a pencil, I held a brush in my hand, I would paint the scene: the scene of Autumn Street. Perspective wouldn’t matter; it would be distorted and askew, as it was through my own eyes when I was six, and Grandfather’s house would loom huge, out of proportion, awesome and austere, with the clipped lawn as smooth and green as patchwork pockets on a velvet skirt. The rough pink brick of the sidewalk, bordered by elms, would wind the length of the street, past the Hoffmans’ house, past the bright forsythia bushes that grew around the great-aunts’ front porch, past the homes of strangers and friends and forgotten people, finally disappearing where the woods began.
Even today, with a brush, I would blur the woods. I would blur them with a murky mixture of brown and green and black, the hueless shade that I know from my dreams to be the color of pain.
But the sky above Autumn Street would be resplendent blue. In the sky, the painted ghosts would flutter, hovering like Chagall angels, benevolently smiling down on the strip of Pennsylvania where they had peopled a year of my life. Grandfather would be there in the sky, sailing past, holding his cane, wearing his most elegant suit, his tie in place and his hair impeccably brushed. Grandmother wouldn’t sail; she would hover primly in the most tasteful and protected corner of the heaven, buttoned to her chin and holding her ankles neatly crossed. The great-aunts would soar grandly by, holding hands and tittering, a trio of good manners and barely contained laughter, wearing gauzy dresses that billowed.
Poor little Noah—though I would never have called him that, then—he is among the ghosts, and I would have to paint him lurking somewhere, perhaps behind a cloud, sullen, the only one in my sky who would not be smiling.
Charles. How I would love painting Charles in the bright blue over Autumn Street: feisty and streetwise still, Charles would be shoving and pushing his way across the canvas sky, kicking pebbles, stepping on ants, thrusting the clouds aside and heading for the farthest corner, to explore.
Above them all, majestic, would be Tatie. Tatie would be wearing the reddest, the shiniest of satin dresses, the bright red dress that I promised, when I was six, I would one day give to her. She would be bulky and brown and beautiful, and she would be holding out her arms the way she held them out so often, to me, when I needed a place to hide, a place to cry, a person to hold.
Tatie wouldn’t like that. She’d push away my brush, even though it held the red dress she had dreamed of. “Not me,” she’d say, brusquely. “Not Tatie. I don’t want no place in no sky. You paint in your grandma bigger, Elizabeth. And you paint in that hat just right on her head, the way she likes it. Don’t you try to be funny with your grandma’s best hat.”
I wouldn’t be funny with my grandmother’s hat. I’d paint it in carefully, with the tiny black elastic down behind her ears, holding it neatly to her head, not a hair out of place.
But for once, for the first time, I’d have my way with Tatie. With my best brush, with a generous daub of golden paint, I would paint on Tatie’s proud head a crown that would beat the hell out of Grandmother’s black Sunday Episcopal hat.
And then, finally, not yet hovering, but with her bare feet firmly planted on the lawn of her grandfather’s backyard, I would paint a little girl. She would be looking up. She still lives, and her hair is still often uncombed; and she still needs, often, a place to hide, or to cry, or someone to hold. She finds those things, now, in places far from Autumn Street. But in the painting she would be back there again. She would stand there, watching, and would find in the sky the disparate angels of her childhood. With one small hand she would wave goodbye.
It was such a long time ago.
“I don’t want to go to Pennsylvania. I want to stay in New York. Why do we have to live at Grandfather’s? Why can’t we live at home anymore?”
“Because of the war.”
It had been Mama’s answer to everything for so long now, that I had learned to accept it as an answer even though I didn’t know what “the war” meant. The war had begun when I was four, and when I was four, everything was new, everything was unexpected, so that nothing came, really, as a surprise.
Chicken pox was unexpected, and it itched.
So was poison ivy, and it itched, too.
Kindergarten was new, too, that year, and scary, but Jess, my sister, sat beside me on the bus. She retied both my shoes and my hair ribbons when they came undone. Jessica was a lot like Mama, even though she was only seven.
Then, a surprise called Pearl Harbor. It sounded like a lady’s name. At the grocery store on the corner of our New York street, a woman named Pearl sat behind the counter and crocheted.
Daddy had been in the living room that day, reading the paper; Mama was in the kitchen, and the radio was on in the kitchen. I watched her face. Then, frightened, I ran to find Daddy.
“Pearl Harbor is on the radio, Daddy,” I told him, “and Mama is crying.”
After that, the answer to everything was “Because of the war.”
After that, there were air-raid drills at kindergarten. We had to run, holding hands, to the subway station and hide there. Because of the war.
“What’re those?” I asked, when my mother began to stitch together huge lengths of thick black cloth. I wanted her to make a ruffled dress for my doll.
“Because of the war?”
“I don’t like them.”
“No ones does,” she said, matter-of-factly, putting blackout curtains into the same category as cod liver oil: unappealing, necessary, for your own good, and you don’t have to like it, but you have to put up with it, preferably without making a face.
There were other things then that I didn’t like, and some of them were more clearly defined than the dark enveloping folds that covered our windows because of the war. I didn’t like soft-boiled eggs. I didn’t like the lady who lived in the upstairs apartment. Sometimes I didn’t like Jessica, who said I was too little to play Monopoly with her friends.
When my father explained that maybe he would have to go away to the war, it was just one more thing that I didn’t like much. But there were compensations. There was his uniform: deep khaki and glamorously foreign. Sometimes he let me wear the hat while he took my picture. I would march around the New York apartment, wearing pink-flowered pajamas and his major’s cap, and he would laugh and tell me I was the best floor show in town. My sister, too sophisticated at seven to provide a floor show, glowered.
Uniforms were nice: my father’s especially so, because it was there, available to me, and I could try on the Eisenhower jacket that came to my knees, and people would laugh. But there were other uniforms: the Eagle Scout uniform of my cousin, David, in Michigan, whose parents sent snapshots of him grinning proudly. Then the snapshots changed, and David was in Navy attire, an official photograph, his grin transformed from boyish arrogance to a stranger’s smile; and he was no longer the boy I had known summers, who had tickled me gently, buckled my sandals, and allowed me to fall exuberantly in love, for the first time, at the age of three.
Then there were no pictures, only whispers, of David. Whispers between adults. I crept behind chairs, listened, and didn’t understand.
“Where’s David?” I asked, finally.
They looked at me, startled. It was a question I shouldn’t have asked, a question they couldn’t answer for someone who was only five. My father was still there, then. I had always thought that Daddy would tell me everything. But when I asked simply, “Where’s David?,” my father looked away and raised his glass to his mouth, then swallowed deeply, holding the ice there against his lips for a long time.
“In San Diego,” someone said at last. “In a hospital in San Diego.”
I couldn’t understand why the answer they gave me seemed to frighten them. It didn’t frighten me. Hospitals didn’t frighten me; Jessica had gone to a hospital to have her tonsils taken out and they gave her ice cream and toys. Wherever San Diego was, wherever David was, he would be laughing, telling his silly jokes in his slow, soft voice, smoothing someone’s hair the way he had once smoothed mine.
But San Diego and the hospital and David all had to do with the war, and so I sighed and left them there, sitting with their drinks and their silence and their fear. I didn’t understand the war. It was new, and they all said it would be there for a long time, but where it was, exactly, was one of the things I didn’t understand. It seemed to be out-of-doors, and that was why we had the blackout curtains, so that we didn’t have to look at it at night—or it didn’t have to look at us, perhaps. Yet on some nights we sat on the balcony and watched searchlights play across the dark sky, and that had to do with the war, too. So the war was in the sky, somehow.
And it was there in the daytime, though I was not sure where. It was why sometimes, during school, whistles blew, and we had to run to the subway station. We had to wear dog tags, as my father did; and most children’s were made of embossed tin, as my father’s were. But mine were gold. Daddy had them made at Tiffany’s for me and Jessica, and we wore them on thin gold chains around our necks.
So I had my uniform too. It was not much, a tiny gold tag with my name and address, but it was what I was given to wear as a way of acknowledging the war. It was better than nothing, and it was something to suck on unobtrusively while we sat in the subway station for air raid drills.
Nothing else that I wore changed when the war came: the polished brown shoes, the knee socks, the plaid skirts that buttoned onto starched white blouses, the hair ribbons that my mother tied each morning into my blond hair, the dark blue coat with brass buttons, the blue beret that I stuffed into my canvas schoolbag each morning as soon as I was out of my mother’s sight. No other child in my kindergarten wore a French beret. There were ways in which I didn’t want to be like other children, but wearing a beret was not one of them.
“She refuses to drink her milk at snack time,” they wrote home to my parents.
“Why won’t you drink your milk at school? You always drink it at home,” my mother said.
“It tastes different. I don’t like it.”
She sighed and wrote a note back requesting that I not have to drink school milk. It was true that it tasted different. The paper container, the straw that collapsed and grew soggy, and the wax that peeled in flakes from the carton all conspired to give a strange papery taste to the warmish milk they placed in front of us at the little kindergarten tables. Even listening to the gurgling sounds that the other children made through their straws as they emptied the containers brought a feeling of gagging to the back of my throat. It was the milk at the very bottom that tasted the worst. By then it was mixed with spit.
At painting, too, I was different. I loved painting, loved the sturdy wooden easels, the thick jars that held the colors, the wide brushes, and the cotton smocks that we wore buttoned down the back. But I could see that my paintings were not the same as the others’. Mine were of landscapes that I had mostly only dreamed of or imagined: broad expanses of sky, hills, and mountains, in shades of blue, green, and purple.
I waited carefully for each color to dry before I added the next. The other children didn’t wait; they swished their paintbrushes boldly, running the paints together with long drip marks, creating areas that turned brown as the colors flowed into one another. I envied them their boldness, but I loved my beautifully defined hills, my lone trees in their yellow-green meadows. I loved, most of all, the place where the sky and the distant hills met; it was the only part of the paintings where I would allow the colors to run gently together.
It was true, I knew, that in the faraway part of the countryside where the sky and hills met, the colors were unclear. I had seen it, sometimes, summers in Pennsylvania, had seen how the horizon blurred. I blended those colors carefully with clear water on my thick brush.
“Can you tell me why you paint the sky that way?” a woman asked me in a kind, quiet voice. She was visiting my school.
“What way?” Her question frightened me. I was afraid that I had done it wrong.
“Look how you’ve painted the sky all the way down to the hills,” she pointed out, as if I had done it by chance, as if I had not known. “Now look how the other children have painted the sky.”
I looked. The other skies were all blue strips across the top of their papers. I lifted my gold dog tag to my mouth and sucked.
“Yours isn’t wrong,” she said, aware of my anguish. “But it’s so different from theirs. Do you know why you do it that way?”
“Because that’s the way sky is,” I whispered to her. “Sky is all over, not just at the top.” But my voice trailed and made it more a question than a conviction.
“Do you have other paintings that you can show me?” she asked.
I took the rolled paintings from my cubbyhole and gave them to her. I watched, terrified, embarrassed, while she spread them out one by one on a table. There were all my skies, all my hills and mountains and fields. I loved those paintings more than anything else at school, more than the cherry-and-whipped-cream dessert that was sometimes served at lunch. But at the same time I had two thoughts that didn’t fit together very well: that they were the most beautiful paintings in the world, and that they were, for reasons that I didn’t understand, not good enough.
“May I keep some of these? Would you mind?” she asked.
I shook my head shyly. “You can have them all.”
She took my paintings away, and I went back to my easel. But the feelings I had about the sky and hills were gone, at least for that day. In a corner of the classroom I could see the visiting woman talk to the teachers; they were glancing at me as they talked. She was pointing to things in my paintings. She was saying something about “Elizabeth’s perceptions.” Elizabeth was me; but what were perceptions: kinds of mountains or trees? I didn’t know, and was humiliated.
I watched as she rolled my perceptions neatly, secured them with rubber bands, and placed them in a briefcase. Her eyes found me, across the room, and she smiled and waved, as if we had a secret together. Then she went away.
“She is a professor of education,” said our teacher proudly, when the woman was gone. I nodded solemnly, as if I understood.
Finally I picked up my brush again, looked around at the paintings that the other children were making, and tried to do it the way they did. I tried to make a firm, bright blue, bold strip of sky across the top of the paper. But I put too much water on my brush, perhaps on purpose, and the edges of the sky wept slowly down the center of the page.
At home that evening, when my parents told me that now my father, too, would be going away to the war, I asked them to tell me where that meant, and they answered the Pacific. Daddy showed me on a map where the Pacific was. And I could see, even looking at the flat map on the page of a book, that the Pacific must be the place where, even though there were no hills, no mountains, no trees, the sky would be everywhere—not just a thin and hateful strip, but a deep and endless blue that came all the way down, that touched the sea. In that sky the colors would blur, as if you were looking at them through a haze of tears.