Hard to know, really, what is a true memory and what is based on an old photograph. I hate that. I hate the fact that my childhood memories are such a blur. I know the reason, I didn’t review them. Somewhere along the line, I must have decided that the memories weren’t valuable. Too late now.
There are a few stand out memories of my father nonetheless. I can remember walking the neighborhood streets with him. Back then, it didn’t really matter where we were going; I liked walking with him. He always wore a hat, a fedora, and carried a cane. I’m not sure he actually needed that cane; I thought he looked distinguished. He always held my hand, although it was rough with calluses, it was a very large hand, a carpenter’s hand, and it completely encircled my own. I felt safe. That is, except for the times I had to stand outside the store and wait. I was never allowed inside that store with the lower half of its windows and door painted jet black. I couldn’t see inside, I couldn’t see if Papa was coming. It was some years later before I realized our walks had a specific destination: the local liquor store.
My father was a drunk, an alcoholic. These are words I learned later in life. Back then, it was a walk and a smell. I have a few cursory images of him arguing with my mother and on a few occasions, he would be unwieldy and unsteady, and my mother would do her best to get him to bed. Considering that he was probably 6 foot and she was only 4’11”, this was no small feat. The worst memory for me is seeing my father passed out in a chair, half naked. It was my first glimpse of a man’s private area and it was frightening. How old could I have been?
Other flashes are of card games with men friends, feeding one of our critters (no, that’s a lie memory, we have a picture of him doing that), reading the Latvian newspaper, and smoking. He smoked everything from pipes to cigarettes; did he smoke cigars? I don’t remember.
The strongest memory of all is the last one I have of him alive. We were visiting him in the hospital, my mother and I (was my brother there?). According to my mother, he had been there a month and although there were days when he was doing very well and was up and about, on this day, he was under an oxygen tent (old school). I was too short to see him from the side of the bed because of the tent, so the nurse pulled out the side table and I stood at the up left corner, near his head. He swiveled his head and looked at me, really looked at me. I cried. He wept. But what did he say? What did he say? What did he say?
A few days later, my brother woke me up to get ready for school. He stood at the foot of my bed, shook my feet and told me to wake up.
“Papa is dead.”
“That’s not funny, Zig.”
“I’m not trying to be funny. Papa died last night. Mami went to the hospital. We have to go to school. get up.”
He was only fourteen. I was nine. And we went to school that day, without a father.
This is one exchange that has already found a home in my fiction, in Swan Children, when the mother dies and the oldest must tell his sister that the mother died. “That’s not funny.”
I’ve been running my mind through the aisles of Pete’s Market as best I can, but mostly, there are fragments: the worn wooden floors, potato chips in the long aisle at the back, penny candy near the register, a black worn counter at the register that I could dig my fingernails into when no one was looking, a round lit clock that advertised cola of some kind, and double screen doors was at an angle to the corner of 11th and Park.
The meat counter ran along the short left side of the store but its top was way over my head which put me at eye level with red meat,huge linked sausages, and whole chickens behind glass. When my mother bought meat there, Pete was the one who cut and wrapped the pieces into dark red/brown paper and sealed them with a strip of masking tape.
The year after my father died and I was trying to get used to the latchkey routine, my brother was supposed to come home straight from school to look after, but he rarely did. Not really. On the days he would come home, he would be grumpy and plop in front of our old Philco black and white TV (my mother still had that TV when we moved her out 44 years later). Somehow, he seemed to always have a little money and he would “send” (command?) me to run up the street to Pete’s to buy his favorite snack: a bag of chips and a quart of milk. My enticement would be the promise of shared chips, but of course, the results were unpredictable in the number of chips I would actually get. After some months of this, I caught on and negotiated more firmly for a specific count. That was a flabby year.