Tag Archives: Bridgeport Connecticut

Mother’s Day and Raleigh: My Brother Disguised as a Dog

Raleigh A

My relationship with Raleigh began on Mother’s Day in 1961 when I was eight years old and continued for eleven blessed years.

I was living on Huron Street in a railroad tenement with my grandmother and mother, who both worked full-time jobs. Our top-floor apartment was run down but immaculate and was laid out in a single long line of rooms: from the kitchen to the living room, to the bedroom that I shared with my mother, to my grandmother’s bedroom at the end.

The tiny bathroom was directly off the kitchen to the left and lined up with a long narrow hallway that ran from the bathroom all along the length of the entire apartment and ended up at a dark, steep and narrow stairwell that led down twenty steps or so to the front door. We never used that door, because it was padlocked—sealed shut and unusable. So the only way in and out of the apartment was to climb the several rows of steep stairs in the back of the house and enter through the kitchen. Only one way in, and one way out. A real fire trap.

My grandmother Mammy (pronounced MayMe) worked the 3-11 pm shift, so she was already gone by the time I got home from school. My mother worked until 6 pm or so.  I didn’t like coming home to an empty apartment at all. What eight-year-old would?

Every day after school I would slowly trudge home. Then I would anxiously climb the stairs upon stairs in the back of the building and hole myself up in the kitchen until my mother came home.

Huron Street 1958 A

And in the winter when the sun would set super early, I was a bundle of nerves—tense and agitated. Because scary things inevitably came out when it got dark in that crummy apartment on Huron Street.

I would continuously and frantically check the clock in the kitchen as it got close to the 6:15 mark while sprinting from one end of the apartment to the other, to press my face and hands against my grandmother’s bedroom window in the hopes of catching a glimpse of my mother arriving home.

Huron Street

I would furtively check out the street below for a mother sighting and then race as fast as I could back to the kitchen, my mind full of monstrous thoughts about the dark hallway. During that time in my life, I had a recurring nightmare that troll-type demons were lurking at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for me. That damn dream didn’t help the situation at all.

I would rock myself on a kitchen chair, willing my bladder to cooperate so I wouldn’t need to go to the bathroom and face the dreaded scary hallway.

I finally got up the courage to tell my grandmother that I was afraid to come into our empty apartment.  I tried to play it down because I didn’t want her to worry about me. Plus what I told her was sort of true: I was more lonely than afraid.

“The poor dear is lonely,” she repeated to my mother soon after that, as I listened intently while pretending to color at the kitchen table. As they discussed the situation, they glanced over at me, and when I curiously looked up at them, in hopes of hearing their solution to my predicament, they finished off their conversation in French.

A few weeks later, my mother treated Mammy and me to an elegant and very expensive Mother’s Day brunch at the Lighthouse Inn in New London, Connecticut.

Lighthouse Inn New London, Conn

Now, this brunch was way beyond my mother’s means, but it was Mother’s Day after all, and it was also a rare day that we ever went out to eat.

I recall the Lighthouse Inn being the grandest place I had ever seen, and incredibly fancy, with magnificent views of the Thames River, as well as the Long Island and Fishers Island sounds.

At the time, I didn’t know what the bodies of water were called, but they most definitely left a lasting impression on me. So much so that 56 years later I can still recall that Mother’s Day like it was yesterday while most other memories from later in life are a bundle of murk and haze.

There was an elegant pathway leading up to the Lighthouse Inn, which was set way back from the main road. Both sides of the path up to the mansion-turned-Inn were spilling with the brightest and most beautiful wildflowers, roses, asters, and goldenrod.

Before we reached the front door of the Inn, there was a magnificent fountain sitting inside a circle of lush meticulously manicured green grass.

The entire scenario reminded me of the royal estates I had seen many a time on the  “Million Dollar Movie.” For anyone that remembers the series, they would show the same movie twice every night from Monday to Friday, and then three times a day on Saturday and Sunday.  The “Million Dollar Movie” music was “Tara’s Theme” from “Gone With The Wind.” So as I strolled up to the grandiose entrance of The Lighthouse Inn, I hummed the iconic tune quietly to myself.

While I stuffed my face with eggs benedict, and hordes of crispy bacon, I was pretending that I was one of the rich and the famous. I play acted in my mind and ordered a Shirley Temple.

After brunch, the three of us decided to throw pennies into the fountain and make a wish. The fountain area was packed with families who all had the same idea, and as we squeezed in and out of the crowds toward the fountain, Mammy suddenly and violently began to throw up.

Well, that dispersed the crowd rather quickly. And to their horror, Mammy’s top false teeth flew out of her mouth and onto the green leafy grass. My mother and I looked at my grandmother in shock as she bent over and picked up her teeth, shook off the vomit, and popped them back into her mouth.  When she turned toward us, she casually and matter of factly said, “The food was too rich.”

My mother was humiliated and wanted to get the hell out of there. I was in no rush—and intent on throwing a penny into the fountain. She dragged me to the car, all the while talking under her breath about how embarrassed she was and how she couldn’t take us anywhere without us causing some kind of an incident.  Poor Mammy was nauseous as all get out.

We got into our rickety old car, and it took a few tries before the engine turned over. My mother was frustrated, and I figured our Mother’s Day outing was over—ruined by Mammy’s teeth flying out of her mouth.

We drove for a while and came to a white house with a large red barn-like building. Mammy, who was still feeling queasy, stayed in the car. My mother took my hand and together we walked up to the house, and she rang the doorbell. An elderly woman answered the door and chattily walked us to the barn.

The woman opened the latch to the barn and lo and behold, there was a pile of black fluffy puppies! I was having a hard time trying to figure out why we were there with these adorable fluffballs and ran back to the car to get Mammy.

When I got back to the barn with Mammy, the woman handed me the tiniest and most precious black powderpuff puppy I had ever seen.  “He’s a pedigree Pomeranian,” my mother told me proudly as he fervently licked my face with his teensy red tongue. I was still confused as to why I was there.

“He’s yours,” Mammy said lovingly. “Someone to keep you company,” my mother added. The woman pulled out a folded paper from an envelope as I crushed the little black snowball against my chest.

“His mother’s name is Marlene, and his name is Marlene’s Onyx Jet,” she explained as she presented my mother with his “papers.” “His name is Jet,” my mother reiterated to me.

Jet? I didn’t like that name. It didn’t suit my puppy at all.

“What’s his father’s name?” I inquired. “His father? Who cares?” Mammy responded. The woman pointed out a name on the piece of paper and replied, “His father’s name is Sir Walter Raleigh.”

Sir Walter Raleigh! Now that was a fitting name for a dog with papers!

“I’m calling him Raleigh,” I informed them both, even though they thought it was an overly pretentious name. On the way back to Huron Street, they tried to convince me to call him something else, but my mind was made up. His name was going to be Raleigh, and that was that.

It was a Mother’s Day I will never forget. Poor Mammy asked my mother to pull off the side of the road so she could throw up again, and right before we got to Huron Street Raleigh puked all over my new dress.

I often look back at that time in my life and refer to it as before Raleigh and after Raleigh. Before that Mother’s Day and after that Mother’s Day.

Now with Raleigh in the picture, when the school bell rang, I would ecstatically race back to our apartment, fly up the stairs upon stairs, and burst into the kitchen where my too- fancy-for-Huron Street pedigree puppy would be patiently waiting for me.

The bathroom? No problem. The hallway? Easy breezy. Raleigh would growl and bark at anything he thought was moving about. Heck, Raleigh would bark at the air.  He thought he was a Great Dane, and I guess whatever was lurking around thought he was too because nothing scary ever showed itself when Raleigh was around.

I had no need to sprint from one end of the railroad apartment to the other, furtively looking for my mother.  And I wasn’t afraid of the dark any longer.

I was too busy dressing Raleigh up in pink tutu’s and teaching him to dance on his hind legs. Or I would whip him around the kitchen with his tiny teeny little front legs.

I look back on it now, and I hope I didn’t hurt him, but he loved every minute of it, the two of us swirling and spinning full tilt in circles until I would fall down. Then the two of us would dizzily try to walk it off. I would laugh uncontrollably. He would bark playfully.

From that Mother’s Day forward it was always Raleigh and me—my best friend, my fierce protector, my favorite sidekick, my beloved brother.

Raleigh D

The Little Drummer Girl from Bridgeport Connecticut

The Little Drummer Girl A

I spent a couple of hours yesterday reading through a creative writing fellowship application, and came to the following question:

What was the first piece of creative writing you ever produced?

Since I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, I really had to go far back into the past for the answer.

And since my response is required as part of the fellowship application (should I decide to even apply), I figured I could practice up with this blog entry. You know, write it down and then see if it has any legs.

It was December, and I was in the third grade at Saint Ambrose Catholic School. I will never forget that it was right before Christmas, because our teacher, Sister Regina Mary, placed a small figurine of the baby Jesus in His manger on a table in our classroom and gave us an assignment.

Each one of us was to bring a gift for the baby Jesus on or prior to the last day before the holiday break. It could be a monetary donation for the St. Ambrose School or church, a wrapped gift that would be passed out at a local orphanage on Christmas day, or some canned or jarred goods that would be donated to a food kitchen.

My classmates were beyond excited. Me? Not so much. What kind of gift could I possibly round-up for the baby Jesus?

Because we wore school uniforms, there was hardly anything to tip off my fellow classmates to the fact that I was dirt poor.

I say hardly because my shoes were always the giveaway.

While others were shopping at the local department stores, I was supplied with clothes from the Salvation Army. And since my feet were huge, the only footwear appropriate for my age and fit me, were boy’s shoes.

The old adage “You can judge a person by their shoes,” didn’t work so well for me back then.

Anyway, after school that day, I walked home defeated and depressed. Heck, we couldn’t even afford shoes so my thoughts came back to the same dilemma.

How was I supposed to muster up an impressive gift for the baby Jesus?

My grandmother, always the optimist, sat me down at the kitchen table to “put our heads together.” But try as we could, the bottom line? I had no gift to give.

And then it hit me. I had no gift to give!

Neither did the little drummer boy, I told my grandmother. And then we went to work.

Days before the holiday break, the kids were bringing in envelopes of all sizes and colors, beautifully wrapped Christmas gifts, canned soups, hams, jars of jellies and jams, other non-perishable goodies, and decorative tins of that God awful fruit cake.

For several nights before the “deadline” I would sit at the kitchen table with my grandmother. While I vigorously wrote away, she created a masterful drum for me. She meticulously adorned a Quaker Oats container in gold foil wrapping paper saved from the year before. Then she rummaged around in her sewing kit and found some red piping to further enhance the look of the drum.

As she glued, I wrote.

On the last day before the holiday break, I was a nervous wreck and started to regret my whole simpleminded drummer girl storyline.

My grandmother lent me two of her wooden crochet hooks for drumsticks, shoved them, the drum, and my hand-written story into a brown paper grocery bag, and sent me on my way.

As I dragged myself to school, I rehearsed aloud and prayed that I wouldn’t let my nerves get the best of me and screw up my baby Jesus gift.

As the school bell rang, I squirmed nervously at my desk, with the paper bag carefully resting on my tapping ugly boy shoes.

When Sister Regina Mary asked if anyone had any last-minute gifts for the baby Jesus, I warily and shyly raised my hand. She looked at me with disdain.

Another back story I should mention.

Because I was raised in a home with all women (my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother) and no father, the nuns didn’t take too kindly to me. I was from a “broken home,” and as such, a second-hand sinner.

The Sister indifferently asked me to come up to the front of the class.

I took a deep breath, grabbed the paper bag, and walked over to the baby Jesus.

I pulled out my story, silently told myself I could do this and recited it to the class.

The story was about a poor girl from Bridgeport Connecticut, who was supposed to give a gift to the baby Jesus. But she had no money, and so she had no gift. And then she came up with an idea with her grandmother. A simple gift that she prayed the baby Jesus would like.

The whole class was whispering and asking each other what this stupid girl wearing boy’s shoes was talking about.

Sister Regina Mary stood by the blackboard with her arms crossed waiting for the baby Jesus gift.

I reached into the paper bag, pulled out the contents, and began to sing — Little Drummer Boy style…

Little baby Pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor girl too Pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring Pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give our King Pa rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum
Shall I play for you? Pa rum pum pum pum
On my drum

Mary nodded Pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him Pa rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum
Then He smiled at me Pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum

Tears filled Sister Regina Mary’s eyes but to be honest, I could care less. Sister Regina Mary was of no importance to me.

What was of import, was that I was proud of myself and mostly relieved the whole stressful ordeal was over.

The bottom line? I had given my all for the baby Jesus.

But most importantly, and what I will never forget for as long as I live…

As I turned around to go back to my seat, I caught a fleeting glimpse of my grandmother slipping quietly away from the classroom door.