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One Nurse's Life
By Mary Jane Nealon
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2011 Mary Jane Nealon
All rights reserved.
Where It Began
AS FAR BACK AS I CAN REMEMBER I WANTED TO BE A NURSE or a saint. I wanted to be heroic.
In Jersey City, our backyard was a small square that met the backyards of our neighbors. The yards were as close as the houses. Our yard faced the backs of the houses on Fifth Street, and to our right, the backs of the houses on Erie Street. Everyone's clotheslines crisscrossed. Mr. Cleary's roses were big white and yellow bombs on the fence. Pearl Manupelli's potted plants and rusted rocking chair with the rooster cushion pressed in on the right. Alice lived to our left with her children and her wild barking dog, Lady. Three doors down from Alice lived the Polish man with the dog who looked just like Lassie. We called to the dog through the fence, "Lassie, come home!" In the center of our backyard, there was a dogwood tree, planted by my great-grandfather, Bartley Kelly. Once a year it rained velvety white petals in the yard.
One day my brother and I were playing catch in the backyard. My father was home, so it must have been a weekend. He had just come out to see what we were doing, or maybe to toss the ball around, but as he stepped from the back door we heard Lassie bark and then a scream that slit the leaves quivering in the tree. My father leapt the fences between us and the scream. My brother and I followed, but we were slow and afraid of Lady. By the time we got to the Polish man's yard, my father had cut him down from the shed where his wife had found him hanging. My father was trying to bring the man around, the wife was calling an ambulance, and Lassie was sitting back on her haunches, whining. Every few seconds the whines would escalate into a one-word bark. My brother held my hand, which he rarely did anymore, he was getting too big for that, but I was happy, because really I was holding his hand. I remember more people gathering at their fences and someone pulling us back over. I remember watching the superhero back of my father bent over the man. And the man's dark green janitorial pants. I noticed the bag of clothespins on the ground and the empty pulleys where the clothesline had been.
I remember wishing I was my father, jumping over the fence, saving the man. The man lived but his voice box was crushed and he would glare at my brother and me as we passed his front gate. We didn't think we could pet Lassie anymore because of the looks he gave us. He never forgave my father for saving him. It didn't matter. I didn't want to talk to him or pet his dog. I wanted to remember my father leaping in the air, the scream in front of him, and his quick flight over the wire fences.
The idea that I could be as heroic as my father grew in church, in the stories of my family, in our neighborhood full of immigrants. Our neighborhood was a kind of refugee camp: the Italians had mysterious basements they emerged from with homemade wine. Rotgut, my father called it, as Mr. Capezolli staggered across the street once a year with a gallon in each fist. The Polish women stood in clusters like birds around crumbled bread, colorful babushkas on bobbing heads. Juan, from Puerto Rico, opened a grocery store and refused to call it either a bodega or a groceria, a statement about his commitment to the new world. The lime-green sign read "John's Family Store." He stood outside in a long green apron, a sort of superhero cape, guarding the store from petty thefts. I would watch him from my bedroom window filling wood crates with plantains and mangoes and oranges each morning. In the apartments above the store there were first-generation Irish, like us, and Hungarians and Chinese. There were Russians in heavy coats. Our houses were tall brick tenements touching at the seams and in each one, a story of escape or poverty or hunger. All the old women knew the stories and they filtered down to us, playing in the street.
Our house was large and excessively decorated with ornaments from before the Great Depression. We had plush Persian carpets and gold-embossed wallpaper, but we also had inadequate coal heat that struggled to rise in rusted radiators. In the winter, frozen clothes from the clothesline stood in all the rooms. Pajamas going this way and that, a bra on the radiator, socks on the banister. We hovered near the radiators in winter, the clanking and knocking reassuring us that soon a little spurt of steam would come from the pressure gauge into the room. When I think about the house I think about turning a glass doorknob or dipping my finger into one of the holy water fonts. I think of the chaotic bird wallpaper in my bedroom and the heavy carved roses on dark furniture from the Roaring Twenties.
Jersey City was once the fifth-largest city in the United States, but our world was the twenty-two city blocks surrounding our Catholic house, and among the twenty-two blocks, nine Catholic schools or churches, and one synagogue. I was afraid of the rabbi and his wide black coat. When he would swoop down in greeting, I would run into our vestibule. He'd laugh and raise his hand in a wave. My mother was patient with my hysterics.
"I was afraid of Gypsies when I was growing up," she said.
"Is he a Gypsy?"
"No, he's a rabbi," she said.
In the early sixties, when I was six or seven, there was a Jewish man on Grove Street who was a tailor. I had yet to learn anything about the Holocaust or World War II; he was just another character in a neighborhood of characters. He made feather pillows. My brother and I would fling open his door sometimes and he would look up from his worktable and the feathers would go flying and he would curse in some language that we didn't know but we understood because he used the same bad gestures as the Italians. A few years later, after I had learned about the Holocaust in school, when I watched him bend over his table, his black vest and skullcap on a tilt, I would feel a spicy sadness in my throat, a burning up of shame.
I tried to eavesdrop on all the languages in our neighborhood: Polish, Italian, Spanish, and within the new words, English words buried in the accents, a brogue, a lilt. If you closed your eyes and sat on my front steps and listened to people talk, it could make your head spin. Each house had its own window coverings: white lace in the windows, thick brocade drapes, venetian blinds, bamboo shades, or curtains of multicolored beads. Each window was the country it came from, and behind each window, an old person sat, inspecting the new country.
We were also a neighborhood of sad stories. My grandmother sat on the stoop and gathered all the tragedies into her lap, repeated them as stories. By the time my mother repeated the stories to us my grandmother was dead, and most of the people in the stories were dead, so no one could correct my mother as she spun the tales (complete with moral lessons now) all around us on Fourth Street.
Somewhere in this childhood, which was not so different from anyone else's, I started to imagine that I was uniquely qualified to save the world. It started in the stories from the neighbors and moved into the stories in books. I made my plan for heroism in the whispers about the Irish Republican Army, in the closed fists of the old people dreaming of freedom. When I had crackers in Mary Donnelly's house or dropped a raffle ticket off at McLaughlin's, I would trace my fingers over their maps of a divided Ireland and imagine myself with a rifle and a loden coat capturing farms for the exiled neighbors. My wallpaper was a kind of metaphor for my secret thoughts, which were always about catastrophe and rescue. The paper was a faded blue with birds that were atrociously intertwined. No one could even tell if there were two or three birds in the picture that was repeated in a pattern the size of an adult fist. I would lie on my bed with my face in the picture and try to separate the wings and bird bodies, and it was an impossible torment.
My sister, Cathy, took on the burden of being good as the first child. She was darkly beautiful with reddish brown irises and a classic split between her front teeth. She had other marks of beauty: a widow's peak, a cleft chin. My sister was five years older than I was and my memory of her is that she was always somewhere else: at school, at my grandmother's house, at church. Our house was so big, sometimes she was only upstairs or downstairs but it seemed that she was very far away. In pictures of us from that time she stands quietly alongside me, her hands folded in front of her. I am hopping, or trying to pinch her leg, or in one, reaching out for her hand. She told me when we were older that she remembers being overwhelmed by sadness as a child. Being inexplicably sad.
I was pale with brittle teeth and lips that went bluish whenever I was scared, which I was, all the time. I tried to imagine my fear was what made me special; I was ripe for a visitation from Jesus or the Blessed Virgin. The miracle of my transformation would happen because I was delicate. I was supplicant, like the peasant children at Fátima, visited by Mary.
My mother said when my brother was born I was simply happy. He was as dark and beautiful as my sister. I tried to possess him. I held his hand and threw the ball to him. I wrapped him in a blanket and buried him in the sand. My sister floated above us, good as gold, getting high grades and causing no one a lick of trouble. I was distracted by schemes and little bits of trouble that I found around every corner. My mother was frustrated by my complaints and high screams, knots in my hair, notes home from the Sisters of Charity. She was frustrated by my glands, which were persistently swollen all around my neck through the winter for no reason that anyone could figure out, and she was tired of the blood tests that kept turning out OK.
My brother meanwhile was a good runner and a good reader as well. He had a laugh that was like smooth hay blowing this way and that way around the house. My father walked in and out in his policeman uniform except on Sunday, when he'd take us to church in his good suit. Some nights he worked an extra shift in the radio room, from 4:00 p.m. until midnight, and we'd get to call the police station to say good night. "Be careful what you say," my mother warned us. "We're being recorded." I would picture my father at the precinct on Seventh Street with the map of Jersey City lit up behind him and the tangible evidence of our call, a blinking red light on his phone.
The morning I found out Bobby Kennedy had been shot I stayed in bed, crying, and stared at the birds, then started picking at the paper with my colored pencil, then shoved the pencil into the wall until white plaster spilled out. Over the years, every time I was worried I would work the hole wider and wider until I started to fear a mouse would make its way through it while I was sleeping and land on my pillow. My father refused to fix it, as a lesson that one must live with mistakes. I tried to move my big wooden bed myself, away from the hole, then I stuffed things into it, socks and hair from my brush. It started to look like the tree hole in To Kill a Mockingbird, and from time to time I wished Boo Radley would appear behind my door.
Some days, my mother would pretend to be dead. If all attempts to get our attention had failed and we were being rowdy or pulling at one another she would just gasp and fall back onto the bed or slump in her chair. "Mom?" we asked. "Mommy?" Only when she knew we were appropriately stunned and worried would the pink in her cheeks come back. Then she would rise like Lazarus into the center of the room.
She also had a habit of warning us about doing things even as she did them. "Never put a knife into the English muffin stuck in the toaster," she would say, as she did it. "Don't ever do this, see, it is very dangerous, you could be electrocuted." Then she would add, for effect, "And if something happens to me don't touch me — I could still be electrified."
My father also found ways to scare us. As a cop he had seen every kind of accident, and he used them like parables to keep us in line. One night I was going to bed and I had a bobby pin in my hair. "Make sure you take that out," he said. "I had to go to a house one night where this little girl had a bobby pin go in her ear while she was sleeping, it went right through her eardrum." Some nights my mother would try to put little foam curlers in my hair that had to be held in place with bobby pins and I would be hysterical and crying about the girl! She would have no idea what I was talking about.
Another time we were with our father outside the Two Guys superstore on Route 440, and there were little horses on automatic rocking machines. We were begging for a nickel to ride them and my father said, "I saw a boy once who was riding one of those and got struck by lightning. Trust me, kids, you don't want to go on that." I developed a spastic colon to go with my swollen glands, and had a habit of pulling at my eyebrows when I was reading, and developed lots of other little nervous habits while I waited for horrific things to come from behind the twisted birds on the wall. My sister studied harder and made the honor roll. My brother charged out of the house laughing and everything happened to him. Almost everything I was afraid of would eventually happen to him.
My sister used to say that child abuse in our household meant that my father could read at the dinner table and we couldn't. Books moved in between the rooms, in between the walls. There were paperbacks with their pencil smell and heavy special-order books on all the bookshelves in all the rooms. We read cereal boxes at the table surreptitiously. We couldn't talk too much because, well, my father was reading. The first book that made me cry was Orphans of the Wind. I was in fourth grade and I remember sitting in the overstuffed flat gold chair, sliding on its shiny fabric. I remember two little boys on a warship and the way the evening light slid through the blinds. I remember my mother calling me to dinner just as I finished and how nothing that night, not even the salt in the crackers, could keep me from crying.
I idolized three women in my life: Clara Barton, Kateri Tekakwitha, and Molly Pitcher. I read their biographies more than once. They made the women I knew — my mother, my aunts, my neighbors'seem ordinary and boring. I didn't want to become someone who carried bags of vegetables home where I would slice them and drop them in water. I didn't want to wash clothes in big basins and hang them on clotheslines stretched from house to house. Kateri Tekakwitha, Indian saint. Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. Molly Pitcher, who walked among Revolutionary War soldiers with water jugs and wiped their fevered brows. I didn't just read about them, I wanted to join them in their good deeds. My goodness was a nighttime secret. During the day I was stealing little things from my aunt's bedside table and my mother's wallet and hoarding them under my bed in a wood box belonging to my grandfather.
When I try to remember what it was about the pull of the life of caregiver and healer, all I can recall is the hard yellow of the Tekakwitha book, the way she knelt over the Indians suffering from smallpox, this "Lily of the Mohawks," the sketch of her, her face disfigured from milky pocks and ulcerations. I remember the last drawing in the book, after her death, when her skin was miraculously healed. I practiced her caring gestures under my sheet, pretending it was a teepee, laying a hand on an imaginary sufferer. The sufferer with parched and cracked lips surrounded by pox lesions, who smiled up at me, the only one able to take their pain away.
Saints were so familiar to me as a child they were like first cousins. I liked to kneel on the brown cushions in the pews and to take communion. I wanted to be a saint. I made a little altar on the marble table in my room and waited for my visitation, but sin was around every corner. I found myself telling little lies; they piled up. Was this the kind of girl who gets visited by an apparition? I had the desire sometimes to faint and just lie on the cold floor of the church while the parishioners walked over me. Instead I fidgeted and imagined Kateri Tekakwitha leaning over the Indians suffering from smallpox. She lifted burning sweetgrass over their blankets. In the background were the shadows of the black-clothed Jesuits she was prepared to die for.
My aunt Frances, who was a nurse, would walk in her crisp white uniform out of our house, carrying her cap from the Chinese laundry. I would hear the men on the corner: "Nurse, help, my heart is broken!" they'd call out. This was followed by whistles and laughter. She walked straight and fast until she appeared taller than all of them. The smack and twitch of their kisses hung in the air behind her.
It was in this neighborhood that once I started to see the impossibility of sainthood, the impossibility of reconciling my little thefts and disobediences with the miraculous, I paid more attention to my aunt. She took care of our neighbors' wounds and gave out advice and cough syrup, and it was among those days and in that luscious neighborhood that I began to think like a nurse, that I began to desire nursing. Among the other occasional fantasies I nurtured, like being an astronaut, being a nurse took over. I started, innocently enough, to begin my entire life.
Excerpted from Beautiful Unbroken by Mary Jane Nealon. Copyright © 2011 Mary Jane Nealon. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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