A trio of remembrances written long ago by my mother, Frances, one for each of her three children. Edited by me.
All our friends and neighbors acquired televisions before us. Maybe it was because what we were seeing on their mini-screen sets didn’t seem worth the time or money. Perhaps we also held out because our first grader, Davey, a darling dreamer who put his rubbers [the kind one used to put over one’s shoes] in the refrigerator instead of the hall closet, would be too distracted by it. He was already hooked on movies. But the rigid requirement of a Saturday matinee was having his Monday homework done beforehand. But if we had a TV set in the house…
Bobby had been Davey’s best friend for a whole year. Bobby’s father was a television comedy writer who worked at NBC, CBS or ABC, depending on the shows he was writing. Our boys played after school almost daily, using our empty garage as a clubhouse. We respected their privacy. Here other boys went through very secret ordeals the two of them devised as initiation rituals to join the club. On request, I provided an occasional snack or drink. Once, I penned scrolls of the club’s by-laws, and members’ names, titles and pecking order.
One day the garage clubhouse was empty. I didn’t begin to worry until dark. Then I called Bobby’s house. Yes, his mother reassured me, Davey was there in their den with Bobby. And would I please let him stay to dinner? I asked the usual questions about his homework and he said it was done. Well, why not? He seemed so anxious. Staying at Bobby’s became almost a given and no matter how I invited him back, Bobby never wanted to have dinner with us. It was several months before Davey let slip that Bobby’s father had bought a television set. Bobby’s mother was pleased. Now she often went shopping because she could depend on the boys sitting, transfixed by the hour no matter what was on, their tired eyes a foot from the nine-inch screen.
I discovered Davey’s schoolwork suffered and it seemed the only sensible solution was for us to bite the bullet and get a set of our own. At least at home, we could control how much he watched. And we did. We laid down a set of rules and being a good kid, he adhered to them faithfully.
But I’ll never forget the day it was delivered. Two men lugged this rather handsome console up our outside steps and into the living room of our small two-bedroom Westwood apartment. They installed an antenna on the roof. Coming inside, they connected the antenna wires to the back of the set and began to adjust it, the one man fiddling with the controls at the back while the other man held up a large mirror so he could see the results of his fine tuning. It was a black and white, but the marvel of receiving live broadcasts in one’s living room was quite enough. We thought we were seeing in color.
They were almost through when Davey arrived home. We’d not told him of this, wanting to surprise him. He shut the door and stood there, frozen, disbelief in his widening big blue eyes. A flush suffused his neck, spreading to his cheeks, making his many freckles even more obvious. He stared, first at the television set and the men adjusting it, then at each of us in turn. As if to say, aren’t these the parents who’d vowed over and again that they didn’t care if they ever owned a TV?
The men finished, got their check and left, having to push by the boy whose eyes still bugged out in awe. I could read his thoughts. This was a better set than Bobby’s! This was a real piece of furniture, and the focus of the room.
“Well, Davey. What do you think?” his stepfather asked.
Davey shook himself awkwardly like a wet puppy that hasn’t quite mastered the movement and found his tongue.
“Is it really ours? Can we keep it?” he inquired timidly. We both nodded, beaming.
Davey half-ran, half-stumbled, to the corner. He sank to the floor on his knees and pushed his legs behind him to lay full length on his stomach. Reaching up, he encircled the cabinet as far as his arms would reach, closed his eyes and heaved a happy sigh, wearing the most beatific smile one could see.
THE LAST WORD [PAUL]
I had a new three month old daughter who also needed my time, and I hadn’t yet learned it was all right to be rude to your kid if he bugged you.
At nearly two, he’d discovered airplanes. Ever since, under his critical direction, I’d been busy putting toy airplanes together from kits—every model from the tiny BeeGee to the B-17 his father flew in WWII. He’d treasured those planes for nearly a year as they hung suspended by wires from his night sky blue bedroom ceiling. At his insistence we added pretend stars. This display had been his pride and joy for months and the envy of any pre-school friends he’d allow the mysteries of his sanctum.
We’d been spending two or three hours on Sunday afternoons taking him to neighborhood airfields where he’d stand, transfixed but not dumb, watching private planes take off and land. He’d called the Beach Bonanza a “Beach Banana”, the Piper Cub a “Paper Cup” but he knew them all and helped unwitting pilots by talking them down from the edge of the runway.
But a month and a half earlier he’d found something more engrossing—dinosaurs—and the real world of flight paled. Totally obsessed, he now wanted to go Sundays to the Natural History Museum instead of any old airfield. And the rest of the week was preempted for reading about dinosaurs, talking about dinosaurs, sketching dinosaurs. That was where I came in.
My years of design training were being put to use creating a landscape on the interior walls of a shoe box in crayon (paint wouldn’t do) under his very critical direction—a lush primordial scene to hold several of his miniature plastic dinosaurs, a burgeoning collection.
And when I wasn’t doing the diorama there were books on dinosaurs, bought or borrowed, to be read and well thumbed when I wasn’t available. I’d started to teach him to read and write in self-defense. It was the only way I could stop him from copying fascinating looking printing or script onto the nearest available surfaces.
Naturally these books were beyond his present abilities, but he never tired of discussing them. So this night, really tired, I lost patience with my little pedant after an hour of trying in vain to put him to bed. We’d done the story, the drink of water, the hugs and tuck-in, and he was still wide-eyed and full of impossible questions like… what do Stegasauruses eat?
“Who cares!” I snapped. “You know, Paul, Mother doesn’t know everything!”
He studied me soberly, chin resting in one small palm, one elbow dug in the pillow for support. Ashamed of my petulance, I still took the measure of his little forearm, about six inches.
“That’s funny,” he said solemnly. “When I was little I thought you did.”
We had a housekeeper at this time, a feisty, elderly woman who walked with a slight limp. She truly doted on her almost to the exclusion of all else. This wasn’t hard to do as Tina was petite and pretty, with blonde “gamin cut” hair that somehow complemented her huge melting brown eyes shadowed by enviable black lashes.
A sweet-natured child, Tina had frequent sore throats, earaches or colds. All due, according to our pediatrician, to her enlarged and easily infected tonsils and adenoids. He was against having them out until she was at least six. One Monday when they seemed especially inflamed, I rushed her to the ear, nose and throat doctor who’d taken out her brother’s tonsils and would, in time, be removing hers. Yes, they were pretty bad, he agreed and prescribed a sulfa drug. He also wanted to see her again on Friday morning. I filled the prescription and our housekeeper would see that she took it at the given intervals.
Wednesday, I noticed that Tina walked with a sort of limp, slightly bent forward, just like our housekeeper. I asked her if she felt all right and she said she did. I decided she was mimicking the housekeeper, to whom she was very attached. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and all that. But on Thursday, she was still walking that way and I decided our pediatrician must see her. His first opening was Friday morning, an hour before our appointment with the ear, nose and throat man. I didn’t worry too much because the housekeeper was a registered nurse. I was sure she’d have alerted us if anything was really wrong. Tina insisted “I feel fine, Mommy.” I had an intuition she wasn’t fine, but all these reassurances kept me in check until Friday morning.
In his office: “Oh, you mothers are all alarmists,” complained my famous pediatrician. “Making mountains out of molehills. Pampering your children. There is nothing the matter with this child but infected tonsils. Take her home and make her rest and fill her with liquids. She’ll be fine!” Looking at my poor baby, all bent and limping, but still wanly smiling, I suddenly knew how much this man hated kids. Only my instincts told me he was dead wrong. So off we went to the ear, nose, and throat man, a gifted doctor. I am sure he knew immediately, but suggested I consult her pediatrician. In some irritation I told him what the pediatrician said, and that we were not using him ever again. Could he recommend someone? He did, and personally asked for our appointment.
A compassionate, patient man, Dr. Kehr (appropriately pronounced “care”) remained our children’s doctor until they grew up. But on that first meeting, when he shocked me, saying, “This child has a burst appendix. She needs immediate surgery,” I’m afraid I didn’t believe him. So, I dragged poor Tina to the man we used as a family doctor—who was also a noted surgeon and head of Abdominal Surgery at St. John’s Hospital—for a definitive opinion.
He gave me one. “Don’t bother going home,” he said as he examined her abdomen and she cringed at the pain, “I’ll meet you at St. John’s in ten minutes!” He was instructing his nurse to make the arrangements as we left.
Driving to the hospital, trying to explain to her where we were going and what was going to happen, I asked, “Why didn’t you cry if it hurt when the doctor pressed your tummy?” She was half-sitting, half-standing on the front seat in her belt. I decided if that was more comfortable, I wouldn’t insist she sit. When I glanced at her, her eyes held mischief. “I didn’t want to,” she replied pertly, then asked me, “Aren’t we going to Dr. Schick’s?”
“What made you think of Dr. Schick?” He was our dentist.
“We’ve been to all our other doctors this morning.”
As soon as we got to the hospital, the nurses were wonderful, taking Tina in hand so gently, explaining, directing me where go. I called my husband, shaking him with the news, and he came immediately, bringing our housekeeper and son Paul.
Our doctor spoke to us a moment before the surgery, saying this was a serious situation, but that he would do all he could. Frightened, I didn’t understand why he said that until later when the technician who had done the blood count came down to see Tina.
“When they told me it was a four year old girl,” he said, “I didn’t believe it. I had to see her for myself. Her white count was so high, she should have died. She would have, too, if the sulfa she’d taken hadn’t walled off the infection. That saved her life.” I’ve never stopped being grateful to our specialist.
It was several hours before they brought Tina to the room she’d occupy for the next 10 days. I went in alone as the others had gone to get some supper. Tina, on her hands and knees, was slowly rocking back and forth, still dazed because the anesthetic hadn’t worn off. Her mid-section was wrapped like a mummy’s and cloth strips, loosely tied to the side rails of the big crib, confined her ankles and wrists to keep her from climbing out. Our surgeon said she was going to be just fine. Speaking softly and calling her name, I tried to see if she was conscious enough to know me. I stroked her back gently, then smoothed her sweaty hair off her forehead. She stopped rocking, turned her head and looked at me.
“Mommy,” she said in a mild tone of complaint, “I don’t think I like this game anymore.”