I grew up in my grandparents’ home with my mother and my Uncle Henry, a scowling, dark-haired, dark-eyed man with one arm. He’d lost the right one when, as a 16-year-old, he joined his friends in an adventure. It was the Great Depression. Boys needed jobs and California, it was rumored, had them. So Henry and his friends left Philadelphia by rail, holing up inside boxcars or atop them. The second time he went, he returned minus an arm, having fallen from the top of a freight train car when going around a bend.
As immigrants, my grandparents didn’t think of suing anyone, blaming someone. They were just happy that their son wasn’t sent to prison for trespassing. Instead, he banished himself to his room and never came into the kitchen when the family gathered for meals, never had any sort of social interaction with the family at all. When sober, that is.
Growing up with these folk had its fun side, I’m sure. I know I must’ve laughed or been giddy – dancing, singing — because I was always being told to be quiet. Either there were customers in the store and my grandfather had to concentrate on business or my grandmother had one of her very frequent headaches. When I was very young, they kept me busy sewing buttons to pieces of cloth, sequestering me in a dark corner in the back of the store where I’d pretend to be a tailor like my Grandpa.
My Uncle Henry wasn’t anyone I’d want to emulate. He scared me when I was a little kid; and angered me when I was older. As a child I often heard him grumbling when he emerged from his third-floor room, the small one in the back. He spent all of his daylight hours up there, with a radio, the newspaper, and a quart bottle of cold water fortified by a slice of lemon. He didn’t talk to me or my mother. He hardly talked to my grandmother. He definitely didn’t trade words with my grandfather during the day.
Because, in the daylight, he was always sober. Only at night, when he stumbled in around midnight or so, did he want to converse with anyone. A drunk, he started off friendly, but soon turned mean. Sometimes the cops were called because the quarrels rose to the level of domestic violence. Once, the cops took Uncle Henry away. As they pulled him out of the house, using the side door that led to the staircase to the upper floors, my mother cried out, “You gonna let them take away your son?”
Looking back, I wonder why she was on his side. I remember, as an 8-year-old, being frightened and standing at the top of the stairs in my pajamas, watching the uniformed police drag my uncle out of the house, and hearing a cop say to my mother, “Shut up or we’ll take you, too.”
I stopped them from doing that by screaming, “Don’t arrest my mother.”
The cops soon left. I hurried back into bed. The next day, Uncle Henry reappeared, sober. He continued his daily regimen, continued life in his room. Continued leaving around 4PM each day.
He liked to walk the couple of miles or so that took him to Richmond, a neighborhood of Philadelphia that bordered the Delaware River. This is where he grew up. This is where he had friends. Including a girlfriend. This is where he was happy. Of course, by around midnight, he came back to the house, drunk and making enough noise to wake people up.
After my grandfather died, my grandmother kept the tailor shop open and took in dry cleaning. But when she died a year later, we closed the shop and the front room became our living room. A very long living room. So long that I set up a little bowling alley using plastic ten-pins and a large rubber ball. I bought the set at John’s Bargain Store for about a dollar. The ten pins stood near where I used to sit and sew buttons onto strips of cloth.
The middle room became our dining room. We never ate there, but my mother acquired a table, decorated the chairs with decals, laid out a tablecloth, and set a bowl of wax fruit as a centerpiece. My uncle took a bite out of the apple one day, thinking it was real. Which precipitated a big argument. My mother didn’t think her brother should just grab whatever he wanted off the table. He didn’t think she should put out fruit that he couldn’t eat.
Of course, there were other things to argue about and neither my uncle nor my mother missed a chance to engage in verbal sparring. He always insisted that their mother left the house to him. My mother thought otherwise and pointed out that she paid the monthly mortgage, so the house was hers. And then there were fights about food in the fridge or the cupboard. My mother shopped and my uncle didn’t. He took. He didn’t contribute.
Right after my grandmother died, they fought about his daily allowance. Every day my grandmother left Uncle Henry 2 quarters. My mother didn’t want to continue the tradition, but my uncle thought she should.
One night, the rain poured like it would never stop raining. Buckets of rain. Thunder and lightning, too. Henry came home soaked. Drunk and soaked, a bottle of Muscatel, his go-to wine that cost 90 cents a quart, in his jacket pocket.
At 15, I was still awake. It was summer. No school for me the next day. I stayed up to watch Jack Paar and the late night movies. My mother often went to bed by eleven. The night of this horrendous rainstorm, when my uncle came home talking too loudly and banging into things, my mother woke up.
Somehow, we wound up in the kitchen, my mother smoking one of her Chesterfields, the short ones, the type of cigarette that was all tobacco, not filter. She leaned against the sink. I stood in the open doorway. Uncle Henry stood in the middle of the small kitchen, his hand on the top of the back of a red vinyl covered metal chair.
We all looked at the ceiling, which had developed a slight bulge when the rain started earlier that night. My mother complained about Henry always coming home drunk, not contributing to the upkeep of the house in any monetary way, and generally not helping out.
And now she had this growing bulge with which to contend. It wasn’t just a bubble. It had become an upside-down mound in the ceiling.
My mother cried. She sucked on her cigarette and cried about the condition of the house, while the rain punished the roof above us and, I surmised, fell through a hole in that roof, letting the water collect in the ceiling.
Henry touched the middle of the bulge.
“Don’t,” my mother cautioned in that screeching voice of hers. “You’ll just make it worse.”
“I can fix it,” Henry grumbled. “Just need to – ” He pushed on the bulge, like you would press a bump on the head after getting hit with a metal spoon. He pushed on the bulge until — The ceiling broke. His hand went through the rotting material. Water poured down on him, soaking him more than he was already soaked.
My mother laughed. She didn’t just snort and giggle. She laughed like this was the funniest thing she’d ever seen. I laughed, too. Laughter filled the tiny kitchen. My one-armed uncle stood there, his hand through the ceiling, rotting pieces of wood and clumps of dirt in his straggly black hair.
Soon, even Uncle Henry laughed. It rained laughter. Like it never rained in the house before. Like it would never rain in the house again.