“I was seven years old. It was a cold November night. I was snuggled up to my twin sister in the big bed we shared. The soft corduroy green bedspread tucked up under my chin. My older sister was steps away.”
I woke up suddenly to find my dad sitting at the end of the bed. He was crying softly, his large hand covering his face. We were all awake now, sitting straight up in our beds, eyes wide open.
I was terrified. I had never seen my dad cry. It was more terrifying than his whipping belt against the wall, demanding peace and quiet. I held my brown stuffed puppy tight. I knew that something horrible had happened.
My dad was a man with strong opinions. He was intimidating and stoical. Now he was showing a vulnerable side. He was not the controlling, distant man we knew, the dad who would demand a kiss when he came home from work and then dismiss us afterward.
The first thing I said was, “Where is Mommy?” He said there had been a car accident. He was driving my mom and my grandparents to a supper club. Dad said they were hit head on by a car out of control. He said he wasn’t hurt, and Grandma and Grandpa were shook up but would be fine.
Once again I said, “Where is Mommy?” My voice cracking and little hands shaking. My sisters were crying but didn’t speak. “Mommy was hurt in the accident,” he said. She was in the hospital. “She will be fine, but it will take some time.” Panic hit me, and I asked who would take care of us.
“I will,” my dad said. We were devastated. We couldn’t imagine living alone with him. He tucked us into bed and left it at that. It was a long night for three little girls who sobbed themselves to sleep.
I was the first one up in the morning, working my way to the wooden painted steps. They were painted white and green every other step. The walls were covered in pictures of old relatives I didn’t know. I was always careful not to step on the silverfish that came out of the base of the steps. When the lights were turned on, the silverfish scattered in all directions back into the cracks.
I had my socks on and lost my balance. I slid down the stairs but wasn’t hurt, but was wide awake now. No one had heard me. I was shivering in my long pink flannel nightgown. Dad always kept the heat down; he liked it cold.
I walked toward the living room and stopped dead in my tracks. On the back of the Queen Anne chair was my mom’s treasured lambs’ wool coat. It was quarter-length with swirls of white and beige. She loved that coat. My first thought was why was Mom’s coat here and not with her. I turned on the lights and began to scream. It would be a long time before I would stop. I was horrified at the sight of Mom’s precious coat. It was caked with dry, rusty-red blood. I knew blood was bad. Very, very bad. I now believed my mom was dead.
My dad tried to take care of us, but he wasn’t very comforting. He had his own grief to contend with. As the days went on, he came home later and later. He found comfort in a bar after work. The only time we could be sure he was around was Sunday night when we would gather to watch The Ed Sullivan Show. It was the only time we saw him laugh and lighten up. He would try to tuck us into bed. His words were slurred as he said a quick goodnight.
Finally, my dad arranged a neighbor lady to take care of us before and after school. She was my friend’s mom, and her name was Gerti.
I was frozen in fear of everything. I wanted my mom. She was my security. I couldn’t sleep or eat, and I wouldn’t talk. I spent a lot of time with my head down, rocking back and forth.
Gerti stood on the steps to her backdoor. “Welcome,” she said. “You are safe here.” Gerti had three small children of her own; how she had her hands full.
Gerti was a petite woman with flaming curly red hair. She would always wear a black velvet bow pinned to the side of her hair. Gerti had sparkly green eyes, her eyebrows drawn in a soft brown. They would go up and down as she smiled her wide, happy smile, a smile that could melt your heart.
Gerti had a magical house. It always smelled like gingerbread from spices she simmered on the stove.
I would go to Gerti’s after school and plop down by the heat register in a fetal position. I wanted to be warm. Gerti left me alone for a few days. She would take her tiny hands and smooth my hair and sing, “Leave your worries on the doorstep.”
Eventually, Gerti coaxed me from the heat register to have some fun. To this day, I don’t know where my sisters were.
Gerti put alphabet pasta on the table. There were cardboard tags with safety pins glued to the back. She had us color the tags and glue our names with the pasta. I could forget my pain for awhile.
Many times she had us make Jello. She would squirt mounds of whipped cream on top. Kids love Jello. We would string Cheerios on thread and munch away. Gerti would pack little bags with Chinese noodles, raisins, and graham crackers and tell us to go out to explore. One of our favorite things was to find a tree that we were told was a gum tree. We would pull off a sticker and pretend it was spearmint gum.
Gerti’s house was always filled with music. She loved Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and my favorite, Nat King Cole. Gerti taught us to swing dance and gave us pots and pans to bang on. Gerti’s living room became the rumpus room.
Gerti told us every day, “Your mommy won’t be gone forever.” She never wavered. She gave us hope. The other adults in our life – aunts, uncles, and neighbors – stopped by with meals often, but that would stop. They would tell us, “Saw your mom today at the hospital.” That, too, would stop.
Mom was in the hospital. They would only let children visit in the lobby back in 1961. Mom had a broken back and couldn’t be moved. I pictured her with bones broken in half.
It was very hard to trust anyone. I longed for proof. But I always felt safe with Gerti. She would help me survive.
My dad finally hired a woman to cook and clean and take care of us after the days spent at Gerti’s. She lived in our small guest room. Her name was Gladys. She was a large woman with over-permed, black, frizzy hair. Her skin was translucent. You could see tiny blue veins in her skin. She had very small brown eyes, her eyelids covered in frosty blue eye shadow. Gladys wore colored scarves over her mostly blue outfits. Her lips and fingernails were covered in bright red.
Gladys was a godsend to my dad. She took a lot of stress and guilt off him. He was able to spend more time away at the bar. As young as we were, we knew he was drunk a lot.
Gladys spent most of her time in front of the TV watching soap operas and eating potato chips and powdered sugar donuts. Gladys didn’t share. When she was not watching TV, she was reading her romance novels. There was no interacting with us.
After dinner, Gladys would drink a large glass of vinegar. She said it would melt away all the bad calories. She always had a scowl on her face. Gladys always smelled like pickles.
We would stay away from Gladys. At the end of the day, I believe Gladys had a room temperature IQ.
My sisters and I would go through the holidays without our mom, clinging together on what little hope we had. We would have Gerti every day. She would tell us about our mom’s recovery. She saved us.
Hope finally came around Valentine’s Day. We could go visit our mom in the hospital lobby. After going through intense physical therapy, she could come to see us. The three of us stood still. We were holding homemade Valentines that Gerti had helped us make.
She came out of the elevator. My dad was pushing her in a wheelchair. She hadn’t changed. She didn’t look broken. She looked like an angel, her arms wide open, tears running down her cheeks. My sisters ran to her. I could not move. It was real; she was alive. She wheeled over to me. She touched my cheek and put me on her lap. She rocked me, holding me tight. She said, “I am coming home soon, and I will never leave you again.” The fear and insecurity melted away in my mother’s arms.
She did come home and there was love in the house again. I would stay very close to my mom, almost clingy, for many years.
Gerti still lived next door and I would go over and visit her often, her beloved music in the background or Queen for a Day on the TV.
As time went by and I grew older, I married and had children of my own. We would do crafts of our own. I would help little hands make igloos with sugar cubes. We would string Froot Loops on dental floss. Making Jello was a big deal. So was the whipped cream. Always in the background, the music played. My kids would sing along to Nat King Cole. There was always time to sing and dance, pans banging. We would swing dance the way Gerti taught me. We had our own rumpus room.
As Gerti got older, she became very frail and entered a hospice center. She died peacefully, a coral rosary in her hand and her family all around.
At Gerti’s funeral, her children showed slides of Gerti’s life. To my surprise, about ten slides showed pictures of Gerti and her children and me and my sisters. We were in the kitchen making Jello, finger painting, and making cookies. There were pictures of us dancing with funny hats on. We all had huge smiles on our faces. You could see the love. I really did leave my worries on her doorstep back then.
To this day, in my sixties, I still have the alphabet noodle name tag. It is kept in a little wishing well Gerti gave me one Christmas. It has faded in color but puts a smile on my face every time I run my fingers over the letters. I will cherish my memories of Gerti always.
This essay is a creative nonfiction piece by Sally, a permanent supportive housing resident who participated in OSH’s creative writing class. She dedicates her essay to Gerti, her childhood angel.
This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board,
thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.