"Sidekick" published in the 40th anniversary issue of Hanging Loose (89), Copyright 2006
Going by car to Boston was only about a one-hour drive from Worcester, but taking a Trailways bus made the trip down Route 9 longer. The bus driver put on the squealing brakes again and again. I was happy to have a window seat. He stopped near fields where there was not a house in sight: one time to pick up a man, another for an old couple. They looked cold and I wondered: had they been waiting long? The driver also stopped at gas stations, where he picked up passengers who had been inside the office. Somehow he knew they would be there, although the windows were steamed up so that you couldn’t see inside. When the doors opened, sometimes a woman with a tiny baby in her arms or an old man all alone would come out and climb on board. And just before we got into the city there was a little hut at the side of the road in Chestnut Hill. There, a blind man leaning on a white cane was with a couple of black women who were dressed in white uniforms. “Are they his nurses?” I asked my grandmother. I was thinking about my father having to go to the hospital for his operation. I understood that I was with my grandparents on this bus with my two sisters and my brother, so that my mother wouldn’t have to worry about us. She had enough to worry about. The white uniforms of the women with the blind man reminded me of my father’s situation, and I began to worry again, not knowing whether my father would be able to see after the bandages were removed from his eyes. Would the surgery improve his sight or make it worse? The doctor had told him that there was no guarantee. Would he need to have nurses? I had questions, but I did not ask them.
“No,” Gram said. “They aren’t nurses. They work as maids in some of the big houses around here.” She seemed sure of it. Still, they didn’t look like they were wearing maids’ uniforms to me, at least not like the ones worn by actresses who played the parts of maids in the old movies I saw on television. These uniforms didn’t include frilly aprons and caps. “But look, Gram! He knows them. He’s talking to them. They must be.” “You don’t see colored nurses too often. They’re maids. He’s talking to them because he can’t see them. He doesn’t know they’re colored.” My grandfather started to tsk-tsk, which was what he did whenever my grandmother said too loudly something he thought was wrong. Even when she whispered these kinds of comments my grandmother could be heard clearly. My Aunt Margaret said sometimes that my grandmother had a stage whisper. I’d been with her in church when she whispered her opinions about the clothing people were wearing, loud enough for them to hear. I remember intently watching the blind man that day as he made his way toward the bus. He hesitated at each step getting on. And then when he tried to sit in the first seat he reached, he almost sat on another passenger’s lap. He apologized and the person aimed him then at the empty seat across the aisle. There, he collapsed in the same way that his cane folded up: so that no one would notice. I was watching, thinking of my own father, worried that he might be like the blind man on that bus some day, the continued focus of everyone’s curiosity. When we got to the city we ate at the Waldorf Cafeteria near the Trailways station, where we could help ourselves. “Have whatever you want,” Gram said. I was dazed by the sheer number of plates of chocolate cake slices lined up on the shiny aluminum shelf, and there was a row of glass parfait dishes filled with bright red Jello topped with whipped cream. “I’ll have that.” I pointed to one of the sundae dishes. “Just the cream. I don’t want the red stuff.” Gram special-ordered a tall glass dish of whipped cream – a mountain of it – for me. I liked being able to say what I wanted and to get it. “Spring is here!” Gram said, and headed in the direction of Filene’s Basement where she was going to buy new shoes for me and Peg and Kate. We found shiny black patent leather ones in our sizes. She paid the clerk. We wanted to wear them. She said we could put them on after we finished shopping. We made a couple of stops first, one upstairs in the lingerie department where my grandmother unbuttoned her silky shirtwaist dress, unbuttoned all the buttons right down to her navel, in order to show the clerk that she wanted to buy vests. The sales clerk, a young woman, didn’t understand what she wanted, and that was the reason for her demonstration. Vests were the camisoles she wore under her dresses. She often used different words than the ones other people used to describe things. Besides calling camisoles vests, she called zero cipher. The letter z was zed. She said ye instead of you, and called cancer catarrh. Gram told the elevator operator she wanted the street level. The man pulled the metal trellis on the door closed and delivered us to the first floor. We were just about to enter the revolving door to go out to the sidewalk at Downtown Crossing when Gram said, “Wait,” and turned us around. Out of the corner of her eye she’d seen the Barton’s candy counter and remembered to buy peanuts to take to the circus. “Don’t they have peanuts at the circus?” I asked. “They have Spanish peanuts here. They’re easier to eat. No shells.” The clerk packaged the peanuts in a miniature hatbox, a very special-looking black box decorated with a colorful design that made me think of confetti or a fireworks display. It was a box too nice for peanuts. I believed that I would feel rich eating peanuts at the circus from such a beautiful box. Before we headed to Boston Garden, where the Ringling Brothers Circus was performing, we went first to have our picture taken in front of the wrought iron gate at the entrance to the Public Gardens. If we had time, we would take a ride after on the swan boats in the lagoon. My brother Jack has the photograph: He and I and Peg and Kate, standing at the gate with our grandmother and grandfather. The photographer’s camera was resting on a tripod and covered by a black cloth. He lined us up in various ways trying to determine the best light, the best places for each of us to stand, and when he was satisfied with his arrangement, he stuck his head under the veil. Some one of us must have moved because he suddenly jumped out yelling, “Hold it! Perfect! Just like that! Stay one moment till I shoot.” Then he was gone again under the cloth. When he finished and we all resumed breathing once again, Peg was crying uncontrollably, like she sometimes would when she was afraid. She was afraid of a lot of things: school, the dark, thunderstorms, having her picture taken. I remember I went with Aunt Ceal and Cousin Bill, Peg’s godfather, to the Loews Poli on her birthday to see Snow White, and she stayed home because she was afraid to go with them if my mother wasn’t going, too. That day at the Public Gardens after having her picture taken, Peg could not stop crying because she had been thinking that the man was going to shoot us, like the cowboys in the movies on TV shot each other. “One moment till I shoot!” he’s said. The Swan Boats seemed to glide over the surface of the water, which was dotted with yellow-green leaves and branchlets the breeze had stolen from the willows that ringed the pond. Looking out at the dirty pigeon-house as we passed by, I found it just as enchanting as the little islands around the bend, where ducks, as well as real swans, nursed their young. “Can I buy a program?” I asked my grandfather as we entered Boston Garden. I wanted to show my father pictures of what we saw, so that he would know what it was like. At intermission I turned the pages of large color photos of the performers in action, and I tried to decide which ones my father would like most. I thought probably the elephants and the beautiful ladies in glittering costumes riding them bareback. The elephants were the best. “We don’t even know if he will be able to see them,” my grandfather said. “But go ahead, take your program home with you as a souvenir.”
Going to Boston and the other exciting things we did during school vacation week helped me forget – or at least not to worry as much – about my father’s operation. We ate out in restaurants a lot and we kept busy shopping. We saw a 3–D movie at the Capital. We didn’t see much of it, because it was so scary that we got down on the floor in front of our seats. “Just keep your eyes closed tight, like I do,” I told Peg, who cried throughout the whole show. When the movie was over I saved the glasses the usher had given out – cardboard frames with red cellophane lenses. “They don’t work as well without the movie,” my grandfather said. I didn’t care. I wore them anyway. When I got home I was wearing them, expecting my mother to ask what they were, how they worked, where I got them. She didn’t ask me any questions, though. She said, “Take off those glasses, will you? Before you ruin your eyes!”
When my father came home from the hospital he was wearing white patches over his eyes, that made him look injured, which he was, I thought, seeing the way he was acting. I had expected that the patches would be black, like the pirate patch Jack wore for his lazy eye. I preferred that people would think of him as a pirate, rather than someone who was injured. I did know he had been injured. I had heard my mother describing the operation before he went to the hospital, telling someone on the telephone that during the surgery my father was going to be awake because he had to have his eyes open. She had said the doctors were going to “scrape” cataracts from his eyes. I did not know how that could be true, how anyone could stand to have that done to them. When he came home from the hospital, my father spoke only when someone asked him a question, and whenever he could, he gave a simple one–word answer. I was beginning to wonder if the operation had done something to his voice. It seemed almost to hurt him to speak. I remembered that once my grandmother told me that the big scar on her neighbor Jay Ramsey’s left cheek came from the slip of a surgeon’s knife during an operation to remove something that shouldn’t have been growing on his left earlobe. Knowing this, I worried that the doctor had made a mistake, had cut some connection to the brain, and perhaps that was the reason my father was having trouble putting his thoughts into words. During this time I was greatly involved in investigating how the eye works. I had been studying a diagram of the eye in the encyclopedia at my grandmother’s house and knew about the optic nerve that went straight to the brain. I knew that nerve was necessary for seeing, but I wondered: was there another one near it that maybe the doctor had mistakenly disconnected, that had to do with talking about what was on your mind? My mother said that there was nothing new that was wrong with my father. “He just needs to get hold of himself.” My mother never tried to persuade my father to go out with her, to give him the change of scenery that he probably needed then. She was not the kind of person who went out walking in the neighborhood anyway. She had even stopped going to church with him. She went to a different Mass or else she didn’t go to church at all on Sundays. In school it was drummed into us in religion classes that not going to Mass every Sunday was the kind of sin that could keep you out of heaven, so as a child I thought my mother might be going to hell. If I ever mentioned it, she said God would forgive her because she had a good reason for not going. When I asked him to go for a walk with me, my father answered, “No,” giving a little laugh, like he was both mad and surprised at me for even thinking of such a thing. “He doesn’t know what to do with himself,” I overheard my mother telling my grandmother on the telephone. I had never seen my father in a sitting position for such long stretches. Before when he wasn’t at work he was always fixing something about the house or working in the yard. I was generally with him, so now I missed helping him do things. My mother called me his “sidekick.” He said I was “his eyes.” My father had built steps and sidewalks on the property that included two houses with small front and back yards. I helped him measure and nail frames and mix and pour cement. I watched to make sure he was doing things right. He asked me to read the yardstick and to tell him when to stop mixing and where he needed to pour more cement to even out a step so it was level. We cleaned up the yard together, too, raking and then sweeping the sidewalks all around the property. He clipped the hedges out front and fixed basement windows broken by stray balls. In the cellar he drained rusty water from the boiler and had me read the gauge to check the water level as I watched him fill it up to the right line, saying, “when,” so he knew to stop. I helped him change fuses, running up three flights of stairs to see if the lights went on when he replaced a particular one of the many in the box on the cellar wall, and I would holler down the stairs at the top of my lungs to him, when he had found the one that was spent. “That’s it. You found it. Okay. Lights on!” Or, when he didn’t, “No, try another one!” I also helped him pull up weeds that grew up out of the cellar’s dirt floor: strange weeds, tall as trees and still green, I suppose because of the many basement windows that let the light in. He called them “trees of heaven,” which I found odd at the time, thinking that a plant with a name like that ought to grow in the attic rather than in the basement. I was so used to being with my father that, after his operation, when it seemed he wanted to be left alone, I missed his company, as well as the activity. I sat with him in the living room each day after school, and for most of Saturdays and Sundays. My mother chastised me for not going out to play. “Go on. Get out. Get some fresh air, will you?” she said, passing through the room time and again on her way to another room – doing what, I could not figure out. She seemed busy all the time, but the clothes that had been washed and were already for ironing just piled up on the open ironing board leaning against the wall in a corner of Jack’s bedroom. The pile of clothes reached to the ceiling almost. The stack of envelopes on her bureau was nearly equal to the mountain of clothes. “Bills, bills, bills, that’s all that ever comes in the mail” My father and I sat on the couch side by side, not talking, just staring at the television. He still had the white gauze bandage taped over each eye. I heard my Aunt Margaret talking just outside the living room door in the front hallway, saying “Goodbye” to my mother after visiting. “He’s not himself,” she said. “But who could blame him? Imagine going through all that – and for what?” “I don’t know how I’m supposed to manage with four kids,” my mother said. I could hear them talking even though they were on the other side of the closed heavy gum wood door and the television was blasting in the background. I had good eyes and good ears. If my father heard he never did let on. He continued to face straight ahead, just as if he were able to see what was happening on The Loretta Young Show. From what I overheard whenever my mother talked to anyone about us, I gathered that money worried her more than how we might feel about the changes in my father.
Money was a great worry, especially for my father, who had married her knowing that she came from a family of well–to–do professionals and that he would have to work hard to please her. That fact had not stopped him from pursuing her. Although he was a smart and ambitious man by nature, in marrying my mother, I think my father was driven to strive with even greater intensity, to provide a comfortable life for his family. I can’t be sure that anything motivated him other than that, and the fact that he loved her. I do know though, that all the years I watched my father’s hard-working ways, it became clear to me that to be “comfortable” financially was ultimately what he wanted for his family, and he willingly made tremendous personal sacrifices attempting to secure that goal. Was my father’s silence after the failed cataract surgery an indication that he was trying hard to understand how his efforts could have fallen so far short of success? Was he wondering how things in life could go so wrong? He must have been tortured by these questions, but somehow motivated, too. How else could he have gone on to a new, more successful career for himself?
My father never wanted any of us to do without. He loved my mother even as her attitude toward him seemed to change. He could not understand her anger and he told me many times in the years that followed that it troubled him. He wanted so much to please her. When my father knew that he’d be working on a special day – my mother’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, their wedding anniversary – he would be sure to leave me with money before he left the house. “Buy your mother some roses,” he would say, directing me to stop at Dianne’s Florists on the way home from school. “Or get a good box of chocolates. Not Whitman’s, Schrafft’s or Russell Stover.” I never heard him complain about having to work so hard and having no time to relax with his family. If he complained about anything related to work, it was that he “ought to be making more money.” When he worked as a precision toolmaker he kept up double shifts for years; if he worked just one, it was always that one that stretched from mid-afternoon until nearly midnight, and then he walked that mile or so home alone in the dark for many years, struggling with his impending blindness yet never speaking of the difficulties it presented. My father believed that it was his responsibility alone to provide for my mother, for all of us as a family, and my mother had been brought up the same way, believing that it was the man who ought to work. That was the rule. Maybe it was not the stress of daily lives that brought on such a storm of affliction – bad health for my mother, financial troubles and the like. Some might say that this is just what happens in life. Still, I am convinced it was unrelenting stress that brought on my father’s major heart attack when he was only 52 years old. Even my mother was surprised and has said to me, “He was strong, never missed a day of work. I never expected it of him.” What’s more, when he was brought into the hospital and examined, the doctor, discovering scar tissue on his heart, wanted to know when he’d had his first heart attack. It was only then that my father revealed that one Sunday afternoon years before, sitting in the living room talking to my grandfather, he had felt ill with the very same kind of pain and had never mentioned it to anyone. My father had kept silent that day, and gone to work the next morning.
The days were long. Spring came late. The sky remained a dull grey. It was cold and rainy outside and my father’s thoughts seemed dark. I longed for one of his jokes or the stories he told me about what it was like when he was growing up. I knew that my father loved me and I wanted him to know that I understood why he was sad and worried. I did not know how to let him know this. I did not think I could in words, but I held tighter to his hand, once the bandages came off and he went to church with me again. As we walked together, my father asked many questions: precisely where we were, who was there, what was going on? At first I told him everything I could, even mentioning the people passing by who made faces at us, the ones who had most likely heard about the useless operation, the troubles at work. People sometimes looked at us as if we were doing something wrong, as if we didn’t belong in their world. And there were those, too, who walked right by, even though they knew my father. I turned his attention to whatever might trip him up. I tried to see who was coming toward us before they saw us, and I signaled my father by whispering their names, just loud enough for him to hear me before they reached us. Then my father knew who they were and could call them by name. They stood in the doorway of Finlay’s Spa, or they were out puttering around in their yards or on their porches peering over newspapers, watching us from rocking chairs. Did we leave them wondering, confused, thinking, “Is he really blind? If he is blind, then how did he know who I was?” I hoped so. That was my intention. My father’s intention though, I think now, was not to fool people but simply to make them include him in their world. Sometimes, people standing around on the sidewalk in pairs or in small groups whispered, and I heard them. “Would you look at who’s coming,” they said when they saw us. I talked louder then, making conversation that would distract my father. “Don’t pay any attention, Ree,” my father said, if he overheard them. “Let it go. Some people just don’t know.” We would not be cast aside. I would make sure of it. I let my father know who smiled or waved from across the street, who tooted a car horn going down the road. I wanted him to know who his friends were. The blue sky was striped with pinkish clouds. I looked at them through the open bell tower of the Protestant church. In the distance I could see the spire of St. Peter’s Church, our destination on a Sunday morning. We walked mostly in silence, talking only when people approached us. Past Sellar’s Bakery, Gus’s Barber Shop, where my father took my brother Jack for a buzz cut. I imagined the bell tower through which I could see St. Peter’s was the keyhole on the front gate to the kingdom of heaven. I told my father what the sky looked like through the giant keyhole tower, so that he would know that we had reached Gardner Street. Then he knew that it was time to cross, that he should step off the curb. He understood my clues, knew when to step up or down, off a curb, around a signpost, when to avoid stumbling over the tree roots pushing their way through the sidewalk pavement, or when to avoid walking straight into a fruit bin outside the Blue Front Market. “Mr. Callinan is alone today,” I said, when I saw him coming. In this way, when the man approached, my father could say, “How are you this fine day, Mr. Callinan?” The man might think then that my father had recognized him. Since I had mentioned that he was alone, my father could also say, “Where’s Margaret today?” She was the man’s daughter, my classmate, and she was generally with him. The more people my father greeted, the better he seemed to feel. My father was becoming full of energy again, stepping lively, and with confidence. Getting it right out in the world restored his confidence, made my father think that he was winning at this game of getting around, almost blind. Some people stared when they saw us coming. I watched them talking. Someone I did not know pointed at us, at me. Her face was full of fright. As she talked to her group she shook her head. Did she pity us, was that why she did that – looked away when I noticed? My father missed a lot, but I saw everything. Auntie Margaret called me “Hawkeye.” Outside St. Peter’s Church the crowd from early Mass was getting out and we were going against the current, arm in arm, heading to the front steps of the upper church. It seemed that my father’s purpose was above all, to convey that in the eyes of God he belonged with them. I think he wanted to prove he was as much a member of the parish as anyone else. By showing up he was directly confronting their fear of difference, the prejudice of those who might have excluded him. His presence at church every Sunday morning exposed their hypocrisy. “Good morning, good morning,” my father said as he made his way through a sea of neighbors, and people he did not know. Then we went up the stairs and into the vestibule. Inside the air was thick with incense. We walked right down the center aisle, all the way to a front pew. Sometimes I wished we could sit inconspicuously in the back of the church, but my father wanted to be up front. To be closer to God? I didn’t think so. I thought he simply wanted everyone to see him there. Once we reached the front, we genuflected in unison and he told me to go in first. We let the cushioned kneeler down gently and dropped to our knees to pray. I looked around at the congregation and saw other fathers with their children. My father was a handsome man. He did not look like all the rest. On Sundays he was always well dressed. “Dressed to kill,” was the way my mother said it. To church he wore a freshly starched shirt. He had stacks of them, cleaned and pressed at the laundry, and folded around cardboard so that they would stay perfectly crisp. Each time he took a new shirt out of the stack of them packaged in brown paper at White’s cleaners, he gave me the cardboard sheets to write on. He wore nice suits, too, usually dark, some with pin stripes that accentuated his fit build and his dark, European face. My mother was right: he did have panache. His shoes were always shined, almost so that you could see yourself in them. “You’ll wear them out if you polish them any more than that,” my mother would say to him, when she came upon him buffing them in the kitchen on a Saturday night before he went to bed. Mass ended. The priest dismissed us: “Go in Peace.” “You look like a million bucks,” someone said to my father. It was Happy Farrell, who lived up the street from us. He was a politician, our neighborhood’s state representative. My father and mother always signed his election papers. I did not need to whisper Happy Farrell’s name to my father. His voice was as unmistakable as the voice of Elmer Fudd or Bugs Bunny. Happy was a match for my father’s upbeat mood, animated, his voice heard over the recessional hymn being played on the pipe organ in the balcony, as we filed out. We passed from shadow to light. I was a camera recording what I saw. I unraveled my word pictures for my father as we moved along a sidewalk or crossed a street. I thought I could go on like that forever, preventing trips and fall, faux pas, and the crash that would finally bring him down. It was not until I had a child of my own that I really understood that none of us could truly protect another, though love makes us want to. Too soon after this realization, my father was gone, disappeared quite suddenly from the world. It is true that I was small, but I was sharp and vigilant. We walked side by side, stepping lively.