Christmas 1973. Peter and I, both twenty-five, have just completed our three-year tour of duty with the Army in Heidelberg, Germany. Having seen my parents only twice during that time, we are eager for our children to visit their grandparents. Claire is almost three, Beth is two, and Annie, seven months. At nine thirty in the morning, after an overnight flight from Frankfurt to New York on a military-chartered plane, we arrive at my parents’ house, 763 Montgomery Place, a brownstone mansion in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Peter is holding Annie and her blanket, a diaper bag, and a sack of the children’s toys. Although it’s a cold winter’s day, he’s wearing only a sweater over his tall, lean body, which had turned muscular during his four years at West Point. Dad answers the doorbell. His gray hair is parted neatly on the side, he’s wearing silver-rimmed bifocals and a navy velvet dinner jacket with burgundy ascot, and he’s holding a martini.
“Cath, dear. And Peter . . . how delightful it is to see you both,” he says, stepping back to lead us from the vestibule into the first-floor foyer. I watch his slow pace, distrusting his calm demeanor. My stomach tightens as his blue-green eyes, now appearing icy, meet mine. “Oh, yes, and the girls, how lovely!” he continues.
I glance at Peter, and he nods that we should go in. I am reassured by his decisiveness. I clutch Claire’s hand, simultaneously lifting Beth into my other arm. She’s chubby, so lifting her isn’t easy, but she’s also one whose need to explore can get the best of her in any new situation. And this moment feels rife with danger.
I walk through the vestibule and kiss Dad’s cheek automatically. Peter follows, opting for a handshake. I look first into the room on the right, behind Dad, which had been the waiting room for his ophthalmology patients during most of my childhood. The chairs, tables, lamps, and magazine racks are covered with sheets and plaster chunks. I look up to see that large sections of the fourteen-foot ceiling have caved in. Slabs of the ceiling are strewn throughout the room, and it looks like it’s been that way for a while. When did this happen?
I turn to the left, staring into what had been my father’s secretary’s room. The beautiful mahogany Steinway baby grand his mother had left him when she died is wedged in front of the secretary’s desk with a huge chunk of ceiling on its closed top. Beside it, the broken arms and legs and ripped upholstery from the Victorian rocking chair I inherited from my maternal grandmother, Ammy, are stacked in a pile on the floor. What I am seeing is hard to absorb. Ammy had told me that she cherished memories of my running into her living room and planting myself in this chair at the beginning of each visit, rocking to my heart’s content. I had left it at Mom and Dad’s because I feared the move might damage it.
“What happened to my rocking chair?” I gasp.
“Can’t you tell by looking at it, dear? I destroyed it with a hammer,” Dad says matter-of-factly.
Beth looks at me, her hazel eyes widening, then nestles her head of thick, shiny black hair into my chest. Claire squeezes my hand. “Mommy, I don’t like this man,” she whispers.
Welcome to your grandfather, Claire. Welcome to your mother’s childhood home. “Where’s Mom?” I ask, turning toward my father.
“Oh, don’t you see her, dear? She’s right up there . . . right at the head of the stairs. Your mother has had a slight accident, so she can’t come down. She hurt her ankle. She’ll have to be in a wheelchair until it heals.”
I look up. There she sits, leaning forward, smoking a cigarette, waving madly. She appears to be drunk. Her thick black hair is now streaked with gray, and she has gained weight. Her fifty-one-year-old body stretches to the limits of the size-20 charcoal gray dress I recognize from years before. One of her feet is wrapped in an elastic bandage reaching to mid-calf, and she wears an athletic sock on the other.
“Hi, Cath! . . . Hi, girls! . . . Hi, Peter! Come on up, all of you! We have a Christmas tree and some presents for the girls.”
I feel reluctant but lead the way up the stairs with Claire and Beth. I cannot kiss Mom; she reeks of gin. I guide my family into the living room, walking right by her.
“I need to go potty,” Claire whispers, fidgeting with her pink corduroy pants.
“Okay. I’ll take you in just a few minutes,” I whisper back, hoping one of the bathrooms is clean enough to use.
As I finish my sentence, I hear Dad telling Mom he’s going to the kitchen to refill his martini glass and find her another pack of cigarettes. I motion to Peter to keep an eye on Beth, along with Annie, who has fallen asleep in his arms, and then I head down the hall with Claire. I’m relieved to see that even though old newspapers are stacked high in the bathtub, the toilet is usable.
When we return, I deposit Claire with Peter and follow Dad to the kitchen. I’m intent on preparing lunch for the girls, but the sight of the kitchen weakens me. I am amazed by the density of dirt, grease, and grime on the counter, sink, and cabinets. The sticky filth of the floor grabs like glue at the soles of my shoes. I look down and say, “This place is an absolute shithole.”
“Oh, really, dear?” Dad says. “So, it doesn’t meet with your approval, sweetheart?”
Hell, no, I think, but it’s useless to reply. It’s clear that he has been on a drunken binge for days, and so has Mom.
I open the refrigerator to find something for my family to eat. All I see is a container of orange juice and a six-pack of beer. No food in the cabinets, either. Only roaches. Big, fat, New York roaches.
“We thought you’d go to the grocery store for us, Cath. Your mother and I haven’t been feeling up to it,” I hear him say from behind me, but I’m already halfway down the hall, headed for Peter.
“There’s no food,” I tell him. “They were expecting me to get groceries, and probably to clean the house, too. This place isn’t fit for children. I want to leave. Now.”
“I’ll tell you what, Cath . . . you wait here with the girls. I’ll go upstairs and check to see what condition the bedrooms are in.”
I hate it when Peter questions my intuition, but he leaves before I can protest.
He returns more quickly than I expect. “I never want you to lay eyes on your bedroom again, Cath,” he says.
“That bad, huh?”
“Trust me. It’s worse.”
“Let’s get out of here,” we say in unison.
Peter gathers all the children’s things in one arm, maneuvering without awakening Annie, who is still asleep in his other. I hold Claire’s hand and reach for Beth’s, but she flails into a temper tantrum. Peter drops the kids’ belongings, spanks her little behind, then lifts her and their things and heads toward the staircase. I am furious. The grandparents deserve the spanking, not our two-year-old.
Dad reenters the living room just as I’m saying goodbye to Mom, who is begging me to stay.
“What’s this? Just what do you think is going on here, Catherine?” His tone is hostile, authoritative.
“Great question,” I respond, without editing the sarcasm from my voice.
Suddenly I’m distracted. His piano. His second Steinway baby grand—this one ebony—is destroyed, too. Splinters are strewn randomly on the keyboard and the floor underneath. Large pieces of wood lie on the strings. He’s smashed the top in. The hammer is still there, on the piano bench. Thank God he isn’t standing near the hammer now.
I don’t notice him come closer until Claire yanks my hand, looking at me with urgency.
“Mama, Claire no lika dat man.” My articulate firstborn, who is almost three, is so frightened her speech pattern regresses twelve months. I lift her into my arms.
“Mommy, that man is going to hurt you,” she says, pointing.
He is still approaching and suddenly I can’t let him anywhere near me or my children.
“Get out of my way!” I shout, pushing him aside. I run down the stairs with Claire and hurry through the front door after Peter, the still-crying Beth, and Annie, while Dad yells after me.
“Go ahead, Catherine, leave! Think only about yourself! Go with Peter! Do like your precious Bible says, leave your mother and father and cling to your husband, even if your poor mother’s in a wheelchair! Why should you care? Ha! You’ll see how wonderful your perfect little life will be!”
I race to the car, holding Claire securely against my chest.