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Child of my Heart
By Alice McDermott
Picador Copyright © 2002 Alice McDermott
All rights reserved.
I had in my care that summer four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight-year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist. There was also, for a while, a litter of wild rabbits, three of them, that had been left under our back steps. They were wet and blind, curled up like grubs and wrapped in a kind of gray caul—so small it was difficult to know if their bodies moved with the beating of their hearts or the rise of their breaths. Not meant to live, as my parents had told me, being wild things, although I tried for nearly a week to feed them a watery mixture of milk and torn clover. But that was late August.
Late in June, Daisy arrived, the middle child of my father's only sister. She came out by herself on the Long Island Railroad, her name and address written on a piece of torn brown paper and attached to her dress with a safety pin. In my bedroom, which she was to share, I opened her suitcase, and a dozen slick packages slid out—tennis sets and pedal-pusher sets, Bermuda shorts and baby doll pajamas and underwear, all brand-new and still wrapped in cellophane. There was a brand-new pair of sneakers as well, the cheap, pulled-from-a-bin kind, bound together with the same plastic thread that held their price tag, and another, even cheaper pair of brittle pale pink slip-ons studded with blue and turquoise jewels. Princess shoes. Daisy was vain about them, I could tell. She asked me immediately—she was the shy child of strict parents so most of what she said involved asking for permission—if she could take off the worn saddle shoes she had traveled in and put them on. "I won't wear them outside till Sunday," she promised. She had the pale blue, nearly translucent skin of true redheads, a plain wisp of a child under the thick hair and the large head. It made no difference to me what kind of shoes she wore, and I told her so. I was pretty sure they were meant to be bedroom slippers anyway. "Why wait for Sunday?" I said.
Kneeling among the packages that made up her wardrobe, I asked, "Didn't you bring any old clothes, Daisy Mae?" She said her mother had told her that whatever else she needed to wear she could borrow from me. I was fifteen that summer and already as tall as my father, but my entire life's wardrobe was stored in the attic, so I knew what she meant. Daisy herself had six brothers and a sister, and even at fifteen I knew that my aunt and uncle resented what they saw as the lavish time and money my parents spent on me, an only child. I knew, in the way fifteen-year-old girls know things—intuitively, in some sense; in some sense based purely on the precise and indifferent observation of a creature very much in the world but not yet of it—that Daisy's parents resented any number of things, not the least of which, of course, was Daisy. She was only one of what must have been to them a long series of unexpected children. Eight over the course of ten years, when apparently what they had been aiming for was something more like two or three.
Just the winter before I had spent a weekend with them in their tidy house in Queens Village. I had come up from East Hampton precisely to take poor Daisy (to us, she was always "poor Daisy") into Manhattan to see the Christmas show at Radio City. My Aunt Peg, my father's sister, picked me up at the Jamaica station and immediately dropped the hint that it was impolite and unfair of me not to have invited Bernadette, her twelve-year-old, to come along, too. Aunt Peg was a thin and wiry woman, only, it seemed, a good night's sleep away from being pretty. Under her freckles, her dry skin was pale, and her thick, brittle hair was a weary, sun-faded shade of auburn. Even as she drove, she had a way of constantly leaning forward, as if into a wind, which of course added to her air of determined efficiency. (I could well imagine her pushing a shopping cart through the Great Eastern Mills in Elmont, pulling shorts sets and tennis sets from the crowded bins—one, two, three, four, underwear, pajamas, shoes—dumping all of them directly from shopping bag to suitcase, toss in a hairbrush and a toothbrush, slam the case, done.) "Bernadette will have to find her own fun tomorrow" was the way she put it to me, leaning into the steering wheel as if we were all headed downhill.
Their house was at the bottom of a dead-end street: narrow, painted brick, with a long driveway and a shingled garage and a square little back yard big enough for only an umbrella clothesline and a long-disused sandbox. Upstairs there were three bedrooms, and then up another flight of stairs, hidden behind a door, a finished attic that served as a kind of dormitory for the three older boys. There was the odor of children about the place—endemic to any house I have ever visited with more than three kids living in it—a distillation of the domestic scents of milk and wet socks combined with the paper and paste and industrial-strength disinfectant of elementary-school hallways. Despite the number of people living in the small house, there was a remarkable sense of order about the rooms, most especially in my aunt and uncle's bedroom, which was at the head of the stairs. It was a small, square room with one large window that looked out into the street. It held a high four-poster bed, a tall dresser (his) and a low bureau (hers) with a mirror, two night tables, and a straight-backed chair with a tapestry seat. The curtains that crisscrossed the window were white lace. There was a crucifix above the bed, a large oil painting of the Sacred Heart on the far wall—the first thing you saw when you looked into the room from the hallway—a mostly blood-red Oriental carpet on the floor. There was only one photograph in the room: my aunt and uncle's wedding picture. No sign, in other words, of the eight children that had been conceived on the double mattress, under the eternally smooth bedspread. Explanation enough, it seemed to me, for the apparent forgetfulness on their part that had yielded all those unexpected pregnancies. With the bedroom door pulled closed, they couldn't have found it difficult to make themselves believe that they were perfectly free to begin again.
Uncle Jack was a transit cop. He had a pitted, handsome face, dark eyes, thin lips, and a thousand and one inscrutable but insurmountable rules regarding his home and his children. No one, for instance, was to walk on the front lawn. Or sit on the bumper of his car when it was parked in the driveway. No one was to call out from an upstairs window when someone was at the front door. No one was to play handball against the garage, or stoop ball against the stoop. There was no going barefoot around the house. No getting up from the dinner table without a precise answer to the precise question "May I please be excused?" No sitting on the curb or standing under the streetlight. No dishes left in the dish drainer. No phone calls from friends after 6 p.m. No playing down in the basement after eight. No sleeping on the couch—day or night, in sickness or in health—which put me in the smallest of the three bedrooms with Daisy and Bernadette, Daisy on the rickety army cot because I was the guest and because Bernadette was not going to have the wonderful day in the city that Daisy was getting the next morning, so she might as well, said Aunt Peg, at least have a good night's sleep.
I didn't much care for Bernadette—she was plain and chubby, but, more to the point, she was also extremely smart, which made her mean. It was as if she had already weighed the value of her intelligence against the value the world would assign it and knew instinctively that she would be gypped. Although I always attempted to feel sorry for her, I was more successful at feeling a smug satisfaction as I placed my overnight bag on Daisy's bed and realized that all of Bernadette's Honor Roll certificates plastering the walls could not earn her my affection, or my company. Because whatever sympathy her forlorn expression might have elicited as she watched me from her frilly, dancing-ballerinas bedspread (a bedspread meant for another kind of child altogether) was dissipated by her questions about how I tolerated living "way out at the end of Long Island" after all the interesting summer people had gone.
She refused to come along on a walk. It was too cold for walking, she said. There was nothing worth walking to, anyway, not around here—as if she alone had some experience of a better place, a place filled with worthy destinations. I understood even then that this cool disdain of hers was the last refuge of the homely (generosity and sweetness—which was what she saved for adult company—being the next to last), and was glad enough to leave her to it. There is no misanthrope like a chubby misanthrope. Daisy and I were free, then, to slip through the slight jog of space between the tall hurricane fence that ran along my cousins' property and the chain-link that ran along their neighbors', into an alleyway that no doubt had some part in Uncle Jack's listed prohibitions. It ran behind the series of dead ends that made up the neighborhood, and was broken here and there by even smaller paths that led between other narrow yards and other houses and out into other streets. We followed these smaller passageways randomly, emerging from between fenced winter gardens and storage sheds, or battered garbage cans and tangles of abandoned bicycles, onto streets neither one of us had ever seen before. I was, of course, within half an hour, totally lost, but Daisy held my hand with complete confidence, marveling, I could tell, at just how I knew where to turn.
When we came out onto a broad boulevard divided by a series of lacy, winter-bare willows, I heard her catch her breath. All the little houses here had front sunrooms, and by some wonderful neighborhood consensus every windowpane of every one of them had been decorated with a sprayed-on parabola of snow. "We're in Bavaria," I said, and Daisy whispered, "We are?" as if this were a surprise, and a destination, I had planned for her. And then real snow began to fall. If you had seen the way she glanced up at the sky, you'd have thought I'd planned this, too. It accumulated first on the grass, and then, more rapidly, on the street and sidewalk. Our footprints were the first to mark it. We walked down the narrow divide, under the thin willow branches as they gathered snow, unable to tell if it was the yellow sky that was darkening above us or only the thickening canopy of coated trees. We threw back our heads and opened our mouths and stuck out our tongues and felt the snowflakes in our eyes and on our bare throats. When other children started to come out of the houses behind us, shouting, optimistically scraping sleds over sidewalks, we ran to get away from them, up to Jamaica Avenue, where the streetlights were already on. It was that odd light of early winter, afternoon turning prematurely to steel-blue night. We went into a candy store on a corner, its entrance already slick with wet footprints and its smell of newsprint and candy bars and the cold overcoats of men just up from the subway making us feel we had indeed traveled a long way.
At the counter, I bought us each a hot chocolate with the extra money I always put in my shoe when I took the Long Island Railroad. It was lovely stuff, made with hot water, not milk, and topped with whipped cream from a cold silver can. It was served in chipped and yellowing cups and saucers that smelled faintly of coffee—the warm rims of the cups delightfully dry and thick against our lips. Drinking it, we pretended to speak French—tossing the word chocolat back and forth between us—and hugging the cups like Europeans, our elbowson the counter. (Cup-hugging and elbows on the table being, of course, Daisy said, two more of her father's taboos.) After I paid, I asked for directions home from the man at the register, pretending I was only out to confirm what I already knew, although I'm not sure Daisy would have noticed anyway. There was a barrel of lollipops beside the newspaper rack, a handwritten sign, TWO FOR A NICKEL. Her parents had made her too polite to ask for one, so I casually bought a hundred of them, refusing a paper bag and stuffing them instead into our pockets, pant pockets and coat pockets, and then lifting the hem of her sweater to form another pocket and filling it as well.
When we got back to the house, we dumped all of them over her brothers and Bernadette, who were lying on the living-room floor watching their allotted hour of television before dinner. The lollipops in their wrappers were wet with snow, some were muddy from where we had dropped them on the walk home. "Where did you get these?" Bernadette asked, and before Daisy could answer, I said, "We found a lollipop tree. You should have come." The boys said, "Yeah, sure," but Bernadette couldn't resist grilling us on the particulars, her eyes narrowed, her thin mouth opened skeptically, showing the little blowfish teeth.
A house on the boulevard, I said. A willow tree. A huge willow tree filled with lollipops for the taking. The tree belongs to an old couple, I said, whose only child, a little boy, had dreamed of a lollipop tree in his front yard on the night he died, fifty years ago this very day. Once a year and only on this day, I said, they make his dream come true by filling their willow tree with lollipops. (And the odd thing is, I said, it was snowing in his dream, too, and it snows every year on this date the minute the old couple hangs the last lollipop on the tree.) They invite children from miles around. I'm surprised you guys have never heard about it before. The old couple serves hot chocolate out on their lawn while the children collect the lollipops from the tree. They hire tall men to help lift the smaller children high into the branches. The single rule is that you can pick only as many lollipops as you can carry home—no paper bags or suitcases, oh, and that the picking lasts for just one hour, from dusk to nightfall, to the second the first star appears. Corresponding to their son's last hour on earth, since the evening star in the dark blue winter sky was the first thing the old couple had noticed when they went to the bedroom window only a minute after the doctor had pulled a blanket up over his peaceful little face.
Although Bernadette squinted skeptically through it all, the boys had their backs to the TV set by the time I'd finished. "We'll have to go next year," Jack Jr. said softly. But Bernadette turned on Daisy. "Is this true?" she demanded. Daisy shrugged her thin shoulders. There was a remnant of hot chocolate on her upper lip and the top of her wiry hair was darkened by a little skullcap of melted snow. "You should have come," she said matter-of-factly, skirting the lie. Child of my heart.
At eight o'clock my parents called to say that in order to keep the peace, I would have to ask Bernadette to join us tomorrow, which I did, much to my aunt's grudging satisfaction. Bernadette, of course, was not the walker Daisy was and found the huge, winking tree in Rockefeller Center a meager distraction from her cold toes. She found no enchantment in the silver knobs and glass pockets of the Automat. She refused to follow a woman in pancake makeup and fur coat, clearly a Rockette, through the crowds in order to discover the Music Hall's secret stage door. She complained so vehemently about the taste of the roasted chestnuts I had bought from a stand in the park that Daisy and I could no longer pretend to enjoy them. She couldn't believe Radio City Music Hall didn't sell popcorn. She couldn't be convinced to hop on a downtown bus just to "see" Greenwich Village. She complained of a stomachache the whole train ride home and then sabotaged the day completely by asking her mother that evening to go and tell me that sometime during the course of the afternoon she had been visited by her "friend." I suppose it was an apology of sorts, for what a whiner she had been. Or maybe it was just an excuse. A plea for sympathy from a being as discouraged by herself, by the humorless personality, the unshakable intelligence, the heavy face and limbs—none of which she would have chosen had the choice been hers—as was everyone else.
I told my aunt that I understood, and smiled warmly at Bernadette in her pajamas, but when I invited Daisy into my bed that night, or back into her own bed, I curled around her little body and, while her sister slept and bled, promised a summer visit, all by herself, a week or two, or three or four—as many as her father would allow. Just the two of us, I whispered. Would she be brave enough to take the train out by herself? In the darkness she nodded. She would.
My own parents had moved out to Long Island when I was two years old. They had done so because they knew by then that I was the only child they would ever have—they were already in their mid-forties—and that I would be good-looking. Unusually so. A young Elizabeth Taylor was the immediate word. (Later, among the East End crowd, it was a young Jackie Kennedy.) Blue eyes and dark hair and full lips and pale skin. A somewhat startling change from the red-haired or red-faced relatives who leaned over my crib, speculating, as they would continue to do until I was in my thirties, if I wasn't evidence of some French blood in the family. But my mother claimed that my looks were due only to the intercession of St. Theresa of the Little Flower, my Gallic patron saint—which was her homely and pious way of deflecting both their vanity-provoking praise and the notion that somewhere in our Irish heritage there had been dropped a tincture of impious blood.
Being who they were—children of immigrants, well-read but undereducated—my parents saw my future only in terms of how I would marry, and they saw my opportunities narrowed by the Jewish/Irish/Polish/Italian kids who swarmed the city and the close-in neighborhoods where they could afford to buy a home. They moved way out on Long Island because they knew rich people lived way out on Long Island, even if only for the summer months, and putting me in a place where I might be spotted by some of them was their equivalent of offering me every opportunity.
Excerpted from Child of my Heart by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 2002 Alice McDermott. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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