This was the day we went to market, my grandmother and I, and the journey began with us going to the bus stop across the street, where there was a stone wall.
I had set out my patent leather shoes with the white socks that let the shoes slip on so easily. My blue coat and hat, usually worn for church or family visits, were also out and ready for the day when I woke up and came into the kitchen. Grampy was sitting in his special chair, laughing as he often did while he told a story.
No one told a story like Grampy. The stories often began with “in the old country” and always ended up with his being overtaken by his own story and laughing so hard it was difficult to understand his words. No one else seemed to enjoy these stories as much as he did, but that did not stop him from being the storyteller in any circumstance. He was the youngest of eleven children and the last to come over from Ireland at age thirteen to live with his sister Catherine in Chicago. Chicago had plenty of jobs in the meat packing industry, and Grampy made his way as a worker in that industry for a couple of years before going to Lynn, Massachusetts, where his brother John had a job for him at General Electric.
“Come and have some coffee with us,” Grampy sang out to me that particular morning, and Grammy made the cream-sugar-and-coffee- laced drink for me while I joined them at the table, as I often did. Telling Grammy a story was particularly full of energy and fun for Grampy, but there were times when he came home at night angry and said the same things over and over again. This would make Grammy cry, and Grammy’s crying made my world feel shaky. She was clearly the strength of the family, not only for Grampy and their daughter Mary, and son Joe, my dad, who was away on a ship in the Navy, but for many family members who came and went from the house on Green Street. Grammy’s hands often trembled as she lit her Chesterfields; her eyes held tears that didn’t seem to have a reason I could see behind her shiny glasses. Other times, her eyes would shine with delight and warmth. We had known each other for only a short while, and every morning her voice would bring me to the kitchen just to sit and watch her and listen to her. That day her eyes were clear and she was enjoying Grampy’s story as they finished their coffee and I finished mine.
“Time to get dressed,” Grammy announced as Grampy left for work. Most often when the blue coat and bonnet and the shiny patent leather shoes were brought out, we were going to mass/church and then for a family visit with the cousins—the Greeleys, Grammy’s family, and sometimes the Conways, Grampy’s family. Their houses, with dark mahogany walls and furniture and bright chandeliers on in the daytime, were filled with cousins, aunts, and uncles. The children were offered ginger ale and sent to a room to entertain themselves while the adults visited before dinner. Dinner with the Greeleys always consisted of mounds and mounds of creamy whipped potatoes in a pie with peas and carrots and tiny bits of hamburger; the crust was always a toasty almond color. This was the happiest of my times at my Auntie Dee’s. The Greeleys had a record player and Irish music, which everyone enjoyed. That particular day, though, as Grammy buckled my patent leather shoes and tied my bonnet, she said we were going to Boston to shop.
We walked across the street to the bus stop, and there was the lady who talked to herself; I saw her often from the living room window. When we arrived, my grandmother pretended the lady wasn’t there, and I could tell she didn’t want me to look at or talk to her. Quite often, though, I would do the thing people asked me not to do or, in this case, act in a way I knew they didn’t want me to. To this day, I don’t understand why I did it, but as soon as someone called me out and said, “I told you not to say this” or “I told you not to do that,” I would remember that I had been told not to and would feel so bad, so miserable for having done it—again. My grandmother’s yank at my white-gloved hand as I stared at the woman next to us was an indication that I had done the wrong thing again.
The bus arrived and my grandmother tightened her hold on my hand as we got on. The loud hissing noise of the door closing behind us brought a sense of urgency about finding our seat as the bus lurched forward. The woman wearing a blue hat with small white flowers across the aisle smiled at my grandmother and asked my age. “Just turned four and a half,” she said, but she didn’t encourage a conversation. My legs didn’t touch the floor, and I felt the heat of the bus warm my legs as the movement of the bus rocked me back into my seat.
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