Friday, May 2, 2008

The Dollhouse - part 3

William sits at his workbench in the dim garage and sorts through boxes of the Christmas decorations he is putting up today. Seventy-five Christmases stand out in his memory as distinctly as colorful tags placed in a book to mark a page.

Each Christmas tells a new tale of loss and hope that began when he was too young to comprehend the significance life's crapshoots.

On Christmas Eve, 1937, William's mother was admitted to the hospital with pains in her abdomen. On December 26, she died of an infection that today a dose of penicillin would have cured. She left a grieving husband, four daughters, and a five-year-old son.

The saddest thing is, William says to me. I don't remember my mother.

He spent his life in the city, but his voice is like the forest. We are sitting together in his living room. He hands me a gray and white photograph of a young woman with dark hair and dark eyes, wearing a long coat, standing in front of a stone wall.

His swollen, shaky hands hold the photo with surprising delicacy. Although he cannot will his hands still enough to eat a bowl of soup, they seem to understand the sacredness of what they hold, and pause their stutters.

She's a beautiful Irish woman. But I don't remember her.

I turn the picture over. Someone long ago had written, "West Philadelphia, 1936" in smooth cursive.

Although it is difficult for the young to recognize beauty in the old, William still carries traces of a handsome man that are evident even to teenagers he passes on the street.

His movements are slowed by his post-Godfather Marlon Brando belly. His stomach protrudes smoothly, and seems if it were punctured, a rush of air would spray noisily into the living room. But his deep, mahogany eyes possess the slippery delicacy of thinning ice.

When William's sisters helped him dress the cold morning of their mother's funeral, they had no way of knowing those would be the last moments they'd spend in their house. William did not understand, but children do not need to understand loss to feel it in their bones.

After his mother's funeral, they never returned. They carried their suitcases to homes of different family members in their father's native South Philadelphia until they could afford to rent their own house on Beechwood St.

His mother's absence silently occupied the empty rooms. With only a porch rocker and a toy chair in the dining room, and a single hot plate in the kitchen, there was room to linger.

Outside, the bustling streets of South Philadelphia left no room for memories. The corners were crowded with boys and men dressed in suits, playing cards, throwing dice, staking claims.

But today, inside William's living room, there is no amount of furniture that could keep out the ghosts. For my grandfather, years are woven together with warm penny pretzels, altar boy robes, dance halls, hopped trucks, and of course, Christmases.

We always had people over for Christmas. Because no matter how poor you were, in Philadelphia, there was always someone poorer.

Each Christmas, Buck brought home the largest, most magnificent Christmas tree he could find. Its branches filled the empty living room, and the fragrant needles blanketed the entire floor by New Year's. It didn't matter presents were scarce. Their tree was royalty.

When asked about his favorite childhood memory, William does not hesitate. Before one Christmas evening mass he was scheduled to serve as an alter boy, the parish nuns told him to bring his sled.

After mass, he and his friend went to the convent. The sisters handed him a large wicker basket filled with food, and gave him the address for an impoverished family living on Mercy St.

The falling snow had blanketed the streets, and was illuminated by the lights seeping through the church's stained glass windows behind him. The War's white service flag hung from the bell tower, solemnly displaying hundreds of gold stars -- one for every parish boy who wasn't coming home.

I'll always remember walking along the street, pulling that sled with that basket of food. He leans close to me. We knocked on the family's door, and said the nuns sent us. That guy was so thankful he wanted to give us a couple bucks. But we wouldn't take it. That was the best Christmas I've ever had.

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