It was a long time ago.
Though it seems, sometimes, that most things that matter happened a long time ago, that is not really true. What is true is this: by the time you realize how much something mattered, time has passed; by the time it stops hurting enough that you can tell about it, first to yourself, and finally to someone else, more time has passed; then, when you sit down to begin the telling, you have to begin this way:
It was a long time ago.
If, instead of a pencil, I held a brush in my hand, I would paint the scene: the scene of Autumn Street. Perspective wouldn’t matter; it would be distorted and askew, as it was through my own eyes when I was six, and Grandfather’s house would loom huge, out of proportion, awesome and austere, with the clipped lawn as smooth and green as patchwork pockets on a velvet skirt. The rough pink brick of the sidewalk, bordered by elms, would wind the length of the street, past the Hoffmans’ house, past the bright forsythia bushes that grew around the great-aunts’ front porch, past the homes of strangers and friends and forgotten people, finally disappearing where the woods began.
Even today, with a brush, I would blur the woods. I would blur them with a murky mixture of brown and green and black, the hueless shade that I know from my dreams to be the color of pain.
But the sky above Autumn Street would be resplendent blue. In the sky, the painted ghosts would flutter, hovering like Chagall angels, benevolently smiling down on the strip of Pennsylvania where they had peopled a year of my life. Grandfather would be there in the sky, sailing past, holding his cane, wearing his most elegant suit, his tie in place and his hair impeccably brushed. Grandmother wouldn’t sail; she would hover primly in the most tasteful and protected corner of the heaven, buttoned to her chin and holding her ankles neatly crossed. The great-aunts would soar grandly by, holding hands and tittering, a trio of good manners and barely contained laughter, wearing gauzy dresses that billowed.
Poor little Noah—though I would never have called him that, then—he is among the ghosts, and I would have to paint him lurking somewhere, perhaps behind a cloud, sullen, the only one in my sky who would not be smiling.
Charles. How I would love painting Charles in the bright blue over Autumn Street: feisty and streetwise still, Charles would be shoving and pushing his way across the canvas sky, kicking pebbles, stepping on ants, thrusting the clouds aside and heading for the farthest corner, to explore.
Above them all, majestic, would be Tatie. Tatie would be wearing the reddest, the shiniest of satin dresses, the bright red dress that I promised, when I was six, I would one day give to her. She would be bulky and brown and beautiful, and she would be holding out her arms the way she held them out so often, to me, when I needed a place to hide, a place to cry, a person to hold.
Tatie wouldn’t like that. She’d push away my brush, even though it held the red dress she had dreamed of. “Not me,” she’d say, brusquely. “Not Tatie. I don’t want no place in no sky. You paint in your grandma bigger, Elizabeth. And you paint in that hat just right on her head, the way she likes it. Don’t you try to be funny with your grandma’s best hat.”
I wouldn’t be funny with my grandmother’s hat. I’d paint it in carefully, with the tiny black elastic down behind her ears, holding it neatly to her head, not a hair out of place.
But for once, for the first time, I’d have my way with Tatie. With my best brush, with a generous daub of golden paint, I would paint on Tatie’s proud head a crown that would beat the hell out of Grandmother’s black Sunday Episcopal hat.
And then, finally, not yet hovering, but with her bare feet firmly planted on the lawn of her grandfather’s backyard, I would paint a little girl. She would be looking up. She still lives, and her hair is still often uncombed; and she still needs, often, a place to hide, or to cry, or someone to hold. She finds those things, now, in places far from Autumn Street. But in the painting she would be back there again. She would stand there, watching, and would find in the sky the disparate angels of her childhood. With one small hand she would wave goodbye.
It was such a long time ago.
“I don’t want to go to Pennsylvania. I want to stay in New York. Why do we have to live at Grandfather’s? Why can’t we live at home anymore?”
“Because of the war.”
It had been Mama’s answer to everything for so long now, that I had learned to accept it as an answer even though I didn’t know what “the war” meant. The war had begun when I was four, and when I was four, everything was new, everything was unexpected, so that nothing came, really, as a surprise.
Chicken pox was unexpected, and it itched.
So was poison ivy, and it itched, too.
Kindergarten was new, too, that year, and scary, but Jess, my sister, sat beside me on the bus. She retied both my shoes and my hair ribbons when they came undone. Jessica was a lot like Mama, even though she was only seven.
Then, a surprise called Pearl Harbor. It sounded like a lady’s name. At the grocery store on the corner of our New York street, a woman named Pearl sat behind the counter and crocheted.
Daddy had been in the living room that day, reading the paper; Mama was in the kitchen, and the radio was on in the kitchen. I watched her face. Then, frightened, I ran to find Daddy.
“Pearl Harbor is on the radio, Daddy,” I told him, “and Mama is crying.”
After that, the answer to everything was “Because of the war.”
After that, there were air-raid drills at kindergarten. We had to run, holding hands, to the subway station and hide there. Because of the war.
“What’re those?” I asked, when my mother began to stitch together huge lengths of thick black cloth. I wanted her to make a ruffled dress for my doll.
“Because of the war?”
“I don’t like them.”
“No ones does,” she said, matter-of-factly, putting blackout curtains into the same category as cod liver oil: unappealing, necessary, for your own good, and you don’t have to like it, but you have to put up with it, preferably without making a face.
There were other things then that I didn’t like, and some of them were more clearly defined than the dark enveloping folds that covered our windows because of the war. I didn’t like soft-boiled eggs. I didn’t like the lady who lived in the upstairs apartment. Sometimes I didn’t like Jessica, who said I was too little to play Monopoly with her friends.