By Mary Ellen Gambutti
Louisiana, summer, 1958, continued
Mom tells me Dad’s work is hard when I ask her about the migraines that have become frequent. He shows me his white pills, “Cafergot.” He goes to bed early with a washcloth on his forehead, or he keeps their door closed and rests in bed on Saturday. It troubles me that he’s sick and in pain. I’m fearful and worried that I’ll get sick.
I sometimes tremble at night and make myself sick, but Mom doesn’t know how to console me when I can’t calm down. She just lets it pass, without a hug. She never hugs me like her mother, my Nana, does in our New Jersey home–our permanent home.
Dad is impatient with me and is angry more often. When I back-talk Mom or let the screen door slam, he yells, or threatens, “Don’t make me take my belt off!” But it’s too late, and it flies; buckle and strap. At recess, I show the raised welts on my left arm and shoulder to a few curious classmates.
“See what my dad did?” They ask why a girl who looks well-cared-for is treated mean. “What did you do?”
“They’re not my real parents, you know. I’m adopted.”
They might ask, “What’s that?” I explain to the third graders what Dad told me at six: “I had nobody. They picked me out in an orphanage in South Carolina.”
My wound opens with each re-telling. I want their pity. I want to tell them about my difference, my frailty. And I want to get back at my dad for hurting me.
Still, I have the freedom to ride away on my blue bicycle. I wear my yellow leather boots and a cowgirl hat. I wear my leather holster and two six-guns and carry a good supply of caps to boost my power.
New Jersey, 1960-’61
I didn’t understand we’d be living in New Jersey again. More likely, I thought it was only another visit to Nana and Granddaddy’s house as we drove north again for the last time with my baby sister, who was adopted the previous year in Louisiana. I later learned that Dad was transferred to the New York City Federal offices to prepare for three years in Tokyo and that he was an intelligence officer.
I’m in the second half of fourth grade in January at the church school of the Ascension. I wear a blue serge jumper dress, beanie with gold AS letters, a white short-sleeved shirt, and a blue clamp on bow-tie. I recognize kids from my kindergarten days. The van brings furniture, boxes, and on the driveway “My bike is here!” For the first time in New Jersey, I’m ready to ride on our familiar neighborhood streets and sidewalks. When the ice melts, I can ride it a mile to school from Asbury Street, up the little hill, and a right turn at the corner onto Hoffman Avenue, then a left onto Berkeley Street, down to Faller Circle, and around to Ridge Avenue, then right onto the short block of Carnation Drive to my school. I’m proud to stand my handsome blue bike with the other kids’ bikes on the rack.
I have no bicycle basket, so I clutch the grown-up-looking cordovan leather briefcase Dad gave me for Christmas in my left hand, and it swings forward and back as I steer with my right hand. The crossing guard at Hoffman and Berkeley, whose name I never learn–but I know he’s a retired policeman says, “I’m worried about you only using one hand to steer. You might lose your balance holding your bag that way. I’d like to make a hanger to hold it against the handlebars. I have something I can use in my garage.” He lives down the block on Hoffman. “Okay, yes, thanks. That will be good.” I say to my new friend, and we walk together across Berkeley with my bike.
The next morning, he holds it up to me. “Let’s see how it works.” He explains how he bent and shaped the thick, pliant metal into a double hook, and attaches it between the handlebars in the same place Dad hung the safety lamp and buzzer in Louisiana. My friend the crossing guard hangs my book bag from the hook by its handles and stands back, smiling. “That looks good!” he says, and I smile, too, and thank him.
I put my bike away in the garage after school, as usual. I think it’s just as well that no one at home notices my new bike fixture. I think it’s a secret, and don’t want to make my dad angry at me and the crossing guard. Braids bounce against the back of my shoulders and the spring breeze streams me back and forth to school. When school closes for summer, I never see the hook again, exploring our town with new bike-riding girlfriends. At the end of six months in our warm New Jersey home, it’s time for another change.
© 2022 Mary Ellen Gambutti
Mary Ellen writes about her life as an adopted Air Force daughter, her reunion with her biological family, her gardening career, and her survival of brain trauma at mid-life. Her stories have appeared in these and other literary journals: The Remembered Arts Journal, Modern Creative Life, Halcyon Days, Memoir Magazine, Borrowed Solace, mac(ro)mic, The Drabble, and Portland Metrozine.