My parents died in an apartment fire when I was around 7 years old. I was visiting with my aunt when it happened According to my aunt my mother, Susan, dropped me off with her older sister, Ida, while she tried to work out things in her marriage. When I was older, around 13 my aunt had told me more details about how my parents fought frequently. I remember some of it when I was little, but my mother would usher me to my bedroom when it happened and I would hear them arguing through my bedroom walls. I remember hearing my mother crying and pleading with him. Both my parents drank, especially my father, Robert whose drinking escapades were legendary and were well known in family circles. My father would often go out drinking after work with his buddies and be out until the bars closed. On some special nights of debauchery he would show up with a bloody nose, broken of course, with statements “You should see the other guy!” “I really clocked that son-of-a bitch!” Often times he would not make it into work the next day, and the next and subsequently would end up losing his job. He never held a job for very long. My aunt said my mother tried to get him to change, but to no avail.
Consequently the lonely nights and bouts of depression caused my mother to drink even more. I have faint memories of sitting on her lap the scent of beer on her breath, her right hand tightly holding her bottle of salvation. She would cry and say she wished they could be better parents. I remember saying I love you mommy and saying it would be okay. But it was not going to be okay.
From what my aunt told me this went on for a several years until that last night. My mother called Ida crying as she had done many times before, but this time it was different. There was resolve in her voice. A dry, sober, clear direction as she poured her heart out to Ida. She asked her sister to take me in and watch me for a few weeks while she tried to work things out with Robert. Ida asked her if she was sure as she knew nothing about children and had none of her own, but she pleaded and so Ida agreed, for as long as it takes.
Mom brought me to Aunt Ida’s and Uncle George’s house. She must have been planning this as she had my things carefully packed. My Sunday best clothes, my favorite jammies, my teddy bear, and my favorite toys. She had quite a few things with me. Uncle George carried my things in to the house while Ida hugged my mother, they were both crying. I don’t remember much, but I do remember that night, my mother looked so pretty wearing one of her favorite dresses, she smelled of vanilla and onions (funny the things you remember) she picked me up, told me she loved me and told me to be good for my aunt and uncle and that she would see me real soon. “What about daddy? I asked” She said; “Honey, mommy has to work out some things with daddy so our family can get better, but In the meantime you stay with your aunt and uncle. “John”; she said; “I want you to promise to always be a good boy and to do your best in school” “And don’t forget that I will always love you son.” She then set me down and ran to her car crying like she was afraid that if she stayed any longer that she would not be able to go. That was the last time I saw my mom. I remember that I didn’t cry at all when she left. And I didn’t cry much when I found out later that they both had died. It was almost as if I expected it to happen.
Now my aunt Ida was a unique person to say the least. She was the older than my mother by 10 years. To me she seemed ancient. She was 45 years old. She had always told her sister that if god meant for her to have kids she would have had them. Unfortunately she and her husband were unable to conceive. She had a loud voice and a hefty laugh that filled a room. She was very bright and was a voracious reader like her father. She loved keeping up-to-date with current events and often had women to her home for conversation and tea. She lived in a very large old house in an eclectic neighborhood of various styles of expensive homes. The house sat on a hill and was surrounded by a beautiful garden. She tended to the garden daily spending many hours pruning and weeding. To me it was like I had moved to a palace! In my short little life all I knew was a small apartment where I had a small bedroom and very little yard to play in. I had spent my play time playing in the apartment parking lot or on special days my mom would drive me to the park where would swing on the swings. Those were special days. But those days ended when my parents drinking increased.
Ida was a large women, but built strong and tall. She carried herself with strength and poise. She gathered my things and found a room in the second floor of the home where she made a makeshift room for me. “John” she said; “I am sorry that this doesn’t look like much of a kid’s room.” “It was set up mainly for visitors.” She set my things down and started putting my clothes away in the dresser. I didn’t say much except thank you. “John” she said; “If you want you can relax in your room or you can come downstairs and help me fix dinner?” “Okay” I said. “Alright” she said. “You just let me know.” She disappeared down the stairs towards the kitchen.
I sat down on the bed and looked around. It looked a little like my old room at the apartment, but it was musty smelling and the decorations looked very plain, not like my room which had colorful curtains, blue colored walls and my bedspread was covered in a western pattern with cowboys. I just loved cowboys. Some of my favorite shows were Rawhide, and reruns of the Rifleman. I also like watching old westerns like the Lone Ranger. I sat there for a while, then I crawled onto the bed and stretched out on the bed. I must not have realized how tired I was because it did not take long before I fell asleep…and I dreamed…in my dream I saw my mother smiling at me and was taking my hand, we were walking in the park and off in the distance I saw my father…then I got scared…he started coming towards me and I froze…then I woke up with a start! “John!” “John!” “Dinner is ready!” Came my aunt Ida’s voice from downstairs… I jumped up and walked to the door and went downstairs for dinner…
Aunt Ida had the table set really nice with nice china and flatware and with cloth napkins and fresh flowers from her garden in a vase in the middle of the table. I remember smelling the flowers, the strong scent of roses filled the room. It felt akward being in a strange place. I sat there for a few minutes not exactly sure what to do? After some odd stares from me and figeting in my chair aunt Ida spoke; “Well John, don’t be shy, you are family of course and your uncle and I want you to feel right at home so dig in.” Well I wasn’t sure where to start. Aunt Ida was known to be a good cook from what my mother had said. It certainly looked good… A lot different from what I was used to. There was a wonderful beef roast covered in gravy and carmelized onions, fresh vegtables on the side, and fruit salad. I was fascinated by the fruit salad. It was pink and fluffy with this creamy stuff mixed with the fruit? In a small voice I spoke up; “Aunt Ida, what is that mixed with the fruit?” Aunt Ida said; “Why haven’t you ever tried fruit mixed with whip cream and jello before?” “I made it just for you because I heard that kids love whip cream and jello.” I looked at it again and said; “Oh, I have never had it that way. Mom just used to put fruit on the side or give us apples to eat. It looks good.” I tried it and after that I wanted it at every dinner. Uncle George asked if I wanted seconds, but I was too full. I finished dinner and was so stuffed I thought I would burst! I didn’t realize I was so hungry. We finished dinner and Aunt Ida cleared the table. Uncle George left the table to go settle down in his easy chair to have a smoke on his pipe. I followed Aunt Ida into the kitchen.
“I know you have questions John” she said; “I am not sure I can answer them right now. Your mom said she would call and check in with you and see how you were doing.” “Okay.” I said. “Do you think she will call pretty soon?” “Yes, I am sure she will.” Said Ida. “She is just having to work out some things with your father first.” “So John, what would you like to do?” “I have a few board games we could play” “Do you like board games?” Ida said. “No, not really” I said. “But I do like to read and mom did start teaching me how to play chess.” “Well you don’t say?” Ida said. “Your mother did say you were a pretty smart cookie.” “I may be able to help you there.” Aunt Ida motioned to me to follow her through the big old house down a long corridor to a large room with big French doors she opened it up and inside was a large library filled top to bottom with books. I looked long at the room. My eyes followed the shelves up and down and around the room. It seemed there wasn’t a space left that didn’t have a book on the shelf. “This is my own personal library John.” “I have been collecting these books since I was quite little.” “A number of them used to belong to your grandfather John Senior.” I bet your didn’t know that.” “he collected books from all over the place, he traveled all around the world as he was a cartographer.” “What’s a cartographer Aunt Ida?” “Well that’s someone who studies the land and creates maps.” Ida said. “Here look at this old globe over here.” I looked over in the corner of the room near the big bay window that overlooked the garden, it was beautiful, it was very old with ornately carved wood casing and the globe itself was slightly weathered and a bit yellowed, but the maps were still clear and legible. “If you look closely John you will see small marks on the globe where your grandfather had travelled.” “He kept track of all the places he visited.” “He was hired to scout out and map out locations all over the world.” “This house used to be his and when he died he gave it to me to take care of.” Ida said.
I looked at the globe with fascination. I touched it and spun it gently and watched it turn around and around. I kept thinking wouldn’t it be wonderful if you spun the world around that it could magically turn back time and change things if you could. Make my father not drink and make my mom happy again.
The next day I was more comfortable with my new housing arrangements and started exploring the old house. My aunt and uncle were pretty easy to be around. My uncle George was educated and went to the university of Berkley and was working at one of the local law firms. My aunt was an elementary school teacher at Longfellow Elementary in Spokane. She taught 3rd grade. But they both were home on the weekends and Aunt Ida was home during the Summer. School had just got out a week ago for me so I had lots of free time on my hands. They inherited the old house from my grandfather who lived to be about 89. I have some memories of visiting him in the home where he spent his last years. I remember visiting him and seeing his small thin frail body was sitting upright in his chair in his private room. He was very kind and would talk to me about his various adventures. He would talk about his visits to Africa, Australia, Eygypt. He worked with various teams of cartographers and explorers that were traveling across country to discover new places and write about the adventures and create new maps of the locations. On one of the last visits that my mother took me too I remember he was not his usual cheery self he was a bit different. He was more talkative than normal, if that’s possible. He kept saying to me that I need to do things with my life and not to waste a day… He was so insistant. I remember him asking me to come closer so he could talk to me better… He reached out all of a sudden grabbed my arm with his bony hand, which was much stronger than it looked, he said; “Johnny, you take care of yourself. You need to go down the right road… Don’t take the wrong road in life…you might miss something…something really important. I got a little scared and pulled away. I said alright grandpa. I will. “He looked at me square in the eyes with this look that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I said “Okay grandpa” again. Mom told me to give him a quick hug, he hugged me back. Then mom talked to him a little while in private and we left. He died a few months later. I sure miss his stories. The places he would talk about. I sure wish I could remember more of his stories, but I was pretty young.