Until I was three, Mom, Dad, and I lived in a duplex overlooking Allen Grade School, which stood below street level. A blacktopped playground surrounded it. On three sides, a sloping, grassy embankment separated this playground from the bordering streets.
The duplex in which we lived faced the back of the brick school building. My dad’s parents lived two blocks north of it. Often, Mom and I visited Grandma while Grandpa was away being a fireman.
Mom and I would race down the slope shouting, “Here we come! Ready or not!” She’d take my hand and we’d skip across the playground, hike up the alley with its overhanging oak trees, cross at the corner, and climb the steps to Grandma’s.
At the end of our visit, Grandma would hand me a nickel. Mom and I would hurry to the corner drugstore and spend my nickel on an ice-cream cone. Then we’d amble home, me licking, Mom whistling.
On the day of this story, which took place right before my third birthday, Mom was ironing.
“Mommy, could we visit Grandma today?” I asked.
“Not today, Dodo. I’m too busy.”
I kept asking. She kept ironing. Ultimately she simply set the iron aside and gave me my marching orders: “I want you to go outside, Anna Dolores,” she said. (She always got formal when frayed.) “Go and play house with Jimmy.”
Once out in the yard, I told my four-year-old playmate about the ice-cream cone.
“You’d get a nickel too, Jimmy. Want to go?”
“How’d we get there?”
“Walk.” (I’d figured out how to open the gate latch. Wouldn’t Mom be surprised!)
Jimmy and I left the yard, crossed the street, and plunked ourselves down on the embankment. Giggling, we rolled down its grassy slope. At the bottom, I took off running. Jimmy lagged behind. “Come on,” I shouted, trying to galvanize him.
Jimmy shouted back, “I’m an old slowpoke!” We grinned delightedly at one another and waved our arms like dove bombers.
The alley at the tail end of the playground stood in deep shade. Ominous. Half way up, Jimmy started to cry.
“Don’t cry, Jimmy,” I said. “It’s okay. We’re almost there.”
He just kept sobbing. Wailing. “Mommy says I’m a crybaby!”
“You’re not, Jimmy! Come on. Remember what I said. Grandma’s got nickels.”
I continued marching up the steep alley, singing—shrilly—“Whistle While You Work.” (Mom had taught it to me. We sang it as I used my little red-handled broom to sweep corners.)
I could hear Jimmy sniveling. Wiping his nose on his sleeve, he sniffled a couple of times then shouted, “I’m going to get chocolate!”
“Me too,” I shouted back. We scampered the rest of the way up the alley in our Buster Browns. Mounting Grandma’s porch steps, we banged the door. “We’re here!” we bellowed.
Grandma shooed us into the kitchen, fixed lemonade and peanut butter sandwiches, and told us to settle our bottoms on the kitchen chairs and stay put. Then she left.
A few minutes later, I heard the screen door slam and Mom say, "Where are they?" I didn't hear Grandma's reply, but the two of them didn't come into the kitchen right away.
When they did, Mom wasn’t smiling or whistling. She had the serious look she wore when I’d been naughty. She took my hand and Jimmy's too and marched us back to the duplex. The only thing she said was "Never do that again, Dolores. Never. Promise me." I promised but kept my fingers crossed behind my back. You just never knew when you might need a nickel.
What was said between the two of them? Mom never said, but more than once in the years that followed, Grandma told me, “Your mother’s shanty Irish. We can’t expect much of her.” She thought her son could have done better than this “no-account Catholic hussy.”
Grandma tried hard to get me to agree, but I didn’t even know what “shanty Irish” meant. (Much less “hussy.”) I only knew that Mom made me laugh when we danced together. She let me dry the dishes. She stood on her head against the wall—to get the blood rushing to her brain she said. I loved her.
Oh sure, I got a swat on the seat of my panties when she took Jimmy and me back to the duplex. But in the days that followed, I bet she told the story to anyone who’d listen. This Irish lassie wasn’t going to let my dad’s mom make a wimp of me.
Mom anchored me. This was the woman who told me at every turning point of my life, “Dolores, you can do anything you set your mind to.”
The next day, Mom walked Jimmy and me to the corner drugstore and bought us both ice-cream cones. "You don't run away, Dolores," she said. "You ask for what you need."
During the years since, I've often forgotten that. Such forgetting always leads to heartache.