So I am 7 and half. And this is what I remember:
My home life is a violent mix of physical and emotional terrorism.
I loathe my father, and I cannot understand why he won't go away.
And we live in a big house, on a hill and death is all around us. My father's first wife, the mother of my half brothers, dies and leaves them without their mother. My mother's sister died some years before my birth. My brother's mother's mother, my third grandmother, grandma Bess has died. All of this is with us before the age of seven. Death lives with us. It isn't shocking when it comes. It just is a fact of life for us.
And then my grandfather dies.
This is my father's father, who I liked very much. This is the grandfather who taught me how to drive a nail, albeit a small one into a piece of wood without smashing my fingers. This is the grandfather who was my hero. My other grandfather is a good man, but he is old and sick and seldom speaks.
My grandpa Max is dead. It is July 30, 1970. And I am unprepared for what is going to follow.
And I don't understand why I am being relocated to my Aunt Marilyn's house on Winchell Road. But I am being sent there because my grandfather's shiva will be held in our large house and I would be under foot. They are expecting hundreds of people because my grandpa Max was a man of stature in the Cleveland Jewish community. And my father's six brothers and sisters have many friends. A small child would just be under foot.
And I am terrified because I have never been away from my parents, and my house over night before. I have gone away with my parents. I have been left at our house with my beloved Leatrice who cared so much for me. But I have never been taken from my parents and my house, both at the same time.
My Aunt Marilyn and Uncle Kenny are kind, wonderful people. They have a daughter, Phyllis that I adore and they have a son Eddie who is very kind. But I am scared and I am out of my routine and I don't get it. They do their best - we have fun. But I can't go home, and I want to. Still, Phyllis is good to me and I adore her because we get to do different things - like race to the mailbox, put on shows in the basement.
|Phyllis and I in her backyard, ca. 1966|
By Monday, I am beyond words homesick, and there are still five more days of Shiva to hold. And on Monday morning my Aunt is going to my house, and she isn't taking me. Aunt Marilyn wasn't a blood Aunt, more like a second or third cousin, but she was the best aunt you could ever hope for. But she knows that my mother needs help because the crowds have been growing. So Phyllis and I are sent down the street, just for the afternoon, to the house of two girls and their father.
My Aunt explains that Mr. Jim is a very nice man, and that he has two daughters. I am told not ask about their mother, because she died in a car accident. Mr. Jim has a limp and bad back and I am not to ask about either thing. Phyllis tells me that I will like the girls and that they are fun.
And we go.
They live in a duplex, just a few doors down, that looks like a house, but it has two apartments - more like one house stacked on another. The house is lovely. They have a fairly new car. Phyllis tells me as we walk down (she is older than I, almost ten) that Mr. Jim's wife was killed in a car accident and that their other daughter died in that accident. She says that I will like Mary and Molly, his daughters who survived.
We go in and Mr. Jim is very nice. His daughters are very nice. The youngest daughter, Molly is very animated and funny. She wants us to have fun, and we do. We play games, we explore, we just do what kids like us would do. And I am having a great time.
In their house is a window fan, that is installed in the actual window. But the window is closed and I don't understand how it works. The fan is bolted to the window frame, but my literal mind hears window fan and I think its attached to the part of the widow that goes up and down. "Can we turn it?" I ask.
No, says Mary. Her father wouldn't like it. "We'll get in trouble."
"And if we did," says the younger Molly, "And the window is closed, the window would EXPLODE!"
Now I am confused, and like my exile, things aren't making sense. So we move on and play with another neighbor named Karen. Karen has a play house tacked onto her parents garage. But we're all having a good time, just making things up as we go along.
Mary and Molly's father asks if I would like to go swimming and I say yes. So we all get in the car and go to Thornton pool, except I have no trucks to wear. "Can he swim in his shorts?" No - he needs trunks, says the life guard. "Would you like to wear one of the girls bottoms and swim," asks their father. NO! Because I'm a boy and they are girls. So we all pile in the car. "If Stuart can swim, we'll do something else." And we head back to their house and we go back to playing - making the rules as we go.
By this time, Aunt Marilyn is at the door to their house, she has returned from my parents house and says that my brother is coming to get me, and that he'll watch me during the Shiva's. And soon he comes by and picks me up and I go home. He tells me that Marilyn told my mother that I really wanted to go home and that it was OK. For the rest of the week there is no fighting. No threats from my father, things seem normal like on TV. Just lots and lots and lots of people, and food, and caterers.
And then it over. Slowly things return to normal - the real normal. The Hellish day to day that we live in. The fights. The screaming. The yelling. My mother and I against my father and my brothers. Us against them. Other kids don't know what's wrong with me - they won't be my friends. I act as I have been conditioned to. My best defense is simply to cry because their is nothing to look forward to.
1971, 1972. Death continues its visits onto our house. First my nanny, Leatrice (Who I have called E since I was a baby) dies, and then my mother's mother dies, and my Aunt Miriam gets sick with cancer. By 1972, my parents marriage - at least what's left of it does as well.
And we are kicked out of our home by my father. My mother has to find us a place, and life goes on as thing in the past get pushed down, and the memories of just surviving take over.
Slowly, the memory of that week when everyone tried to make me happy fades into the place where thoughts of upsetting times go.
And the memory of the man named Mr. Jim and his daughters Molly and Mary, and their kindness towards me, get buried deeper, only to remain tucked away.
I have lunch with with another one time Shakerite who lives in Baltimore. We talk about where we lived. I say Sherrington Road and South Woodland. She says Winchell Road.
"There was a mailbox that Phyllis and I used to race down to the street to. One was for letters, the other was green and had no shute," I recall.
Those were the mailboxes at Scottdale and Winchell, where this person used to catch her bus to school. She is five years younger than I. So we start tossing out names. I mention Karen (she knows her, but it's been years), I mention Phyllis and Tony who lived across the street. She says well you know that Molly Shannon was from Shaker. I knew that. Just like Paul Newman was from Shaker. nd we talk about different schools, and why I left Shaker, and why her family moved on. Lunch is delightful.
We go back to Winchell Road, and she texts her mother my aunt and uncle's last name. Did she know the Mann's? The Fromson's? The Wietzner's? I mention the two girls and the father who were so kind and patient with me 46 years ago when I was small, scared and homesick.
"Yeah, that was Molly Shannon and her sister, Mary." She tells me the story of their family. I am stunned. It all comes flooding back. Even the fan in the window.
I look confused, because I was. Molly Shannon? Mary Shannon?
"Molly Shannon from Saturday Night Live grew up on Winchell. Her mother died....."
I had known that Molly Shannon was from Shaker, but could it have been?
I call my friend Sharon, who knew and knows everyone and everything. We've been friends since second grade.
"Yeah, I knew she grew up down there....Mary was the quieter of the two..."
And I am stunned.
And for a minute, I am seven and a half, and these people are taking care of me. And all I want to do is go home. And then, I am 53, and all I want to do back again and give these people hugs for taking care of me.
In retrospect what concerns me, in reliving this, and I have kept almost all of this bottled up for a very long time, is that I was so afraid of losing my own mother that I lost sight of Molly and Mary losing theirs. My temporary trauma was nothing compared to their real, painful loss. Their loss was real and it was permanent and it hurt far more than anything I would ever endure. My failing is that I was too immature to understand that my familiarity with death was nothing like theirs. Death lived with us, but death never robbed me of anything before it should of. At the same time, I was 7 and a half; and children aren't always the quickest to pick up on what the right thing to do is for someone other than yourself. It's the 53 year old me that has the understanding that I do today.
Names can fade after all these years. But your emotions and feeling never really do. I am still scared of being away from home. I am still afraid of being outside my routine. But the emotions and feelings of safety and gentleness never leave.
You never know who you will meet in life, and you'll never guess who you've met, or passed on the street.
But sometimes, the best part of encountering them is knowing them before everyone else does. So to Molly Shannon and Mary Shannon, thank you for a day that I still remember, thank you for being a friend for the day. And forgive me for never telling you how much it meant.