Childhood in Bay Ridge

Beyond the rails of my crib, blue-tinted roses paper my walls. I am a bud in this nursery, the room where my parents sleep. My mother’s face rises—a full, smiling moon—above the brown wooden footboard which rears tall like a cliff. Nestled in a flannel valley, my chin protrudes from soft covers. My father appears beside her to check in on me, beaming from the bright vault of my sky. “Good night, Dotty,” they say. Lights are turned off.

I feel warm, safe and loved. This is the earliest memory I have.

Pushed along 87th Street in a perambulator, its tires rimmed with white, I touch the shiny chrome handlebar and see my reflection all squinty and compressed. The navy blue body is decorated with the insignia of a crown. It hints to oncoming passersby, I am royal. I bounce across uneven pavements; coiled springs beneath my chassis shimmy and squeak. I don’t yet know dandelions are weeds. Protruding everywhere from lipped cracks, they dazzle as miniature suns.

Briefly, I am king! I’m too little to know queens rule, too.

The bonnet tips stiffly to and fro, a rigid awning shielding half of my view. Looking up, I see Mom in a violet dress. Gripped knuckles are visible as she pushes my pram, soft bony ridges I trace with my eye, gentle curves resembling a hilly landscape. From my buggy, we travel to nearby Key Food on 86th Street to shop for groceries. I fall asleep.

Courtesy:  Rachel Duffy

Courtesy: Rachel Duffy

Old enough to climb furniture, I explore my parents’ bedroom. I hop from the mattress onto a mahogany chest decorated with Chinese designs. If I fall onto the blue carpet below, I’ll be devoured by little-girl-eating sharks. It is harder for me to scale the tall bureau, the one which keeps Mom and Dad’s private things. Clad in grey laminate, it matches a dresser with a mirror, night tables and a headboard that make up their bedroom set. Clambering onto its surface, careful not to disturb the upright photo frames displayed in Vs or Mom’s hand-crocheted doilies protected by a thick film of clear plastic, I can almost graze the ceiling with my pointy finger.

Inside the sliding doors of the headboard, I find editions of Reader’s Digest, a Chinese-American dictionary and a small copy of the New Testament. The latter looks new, its spine hardly cracked. The dictionary is thumbed and well worn. It occurs to me, this is the real bible of our home.

Briefly, I am king! I’m too little to know queens rule, too.

Crouching, I pull out the drawers from above. Upside-down, I investigate.

Sheltered within salvaged cardboard boxes, the type you receive checkbooks in from the bank, are pens, a container of Tiger Balm, a pearl tie clip and a gold watch with an elastic band. Bank statements and thick sheaths of paper—folded neatly in thirds—are bound with rubber bands. Mom and Dad are nothing if not meticulous. The items take on a sacrosanct significance.

These are their most valuable possessions; I close the drawers with greater respect.

I jump across the treacherous gulf and land on top of the dresser. The large upright mirror vibrates but doesn’t break; I exhale in relief. I feel triumphant having circumnavigated the room before bouncing back onto the bed. Inside the sliding doors of the headboard, I find editions of Reader’s Digest, a Chinese-American dictionary and a small copy of the New Testament. The latter looks new, its spine hardly cracked. The dictionary is thumbed and well worn.

It occurs to me, this is the real bible of our home.

I stare at the children, a little afraid. I did not think I could play with them either.

Courtesy:  Rachel Duffy

Courtesy: Rachel Duffy

Around the corner on 88th Street, an Italian family has trained woody grapevines over their driveway. Greeks occupy a small building with a stoop. Years later, I recognize one of the sons when he shows up at my school. The house with white siding, forest green trim, and a porch wide enough for a rocking chair, is occupied by an Irish family with multiple boys. Skinny, freckled, red hair askew and unkempt, they perch on the railing and ogle me.

“Ching Chong!” one of them calls out.

I don’t recall which parent was with me, or if they said anything back.

All I thought was, “What does this mean?” I did not think I could play with those kids.

That weekend, when my parents take me shopping in Chinatown, we walk by Columbus Park—its playgrounds, basketball hoops, soccer fields, and an abandoned pavilion overrun by roosting pigeons, all cloistered within a towering canyon of federal courthouses. People gather here to practice tai-chi. Unified hands sculpt the air. Sounds from the erhu and guqin, ancient Chinese string instruments, bray from shaky transistor radios. Even though Mom and Dad don’t listen to this at home, I absorb these plucked, pensive tunes as my internal anthems of birthright.

Passing the frolicking children, I hear them call out in a tongue I do not understand.

“Ma.” I tugged at her sleeve. “Qak gong mot, ma?” What are they saying?

“Guangdong hwa,” Mom answered. They spoke Cantonese, the language of old Canton.

“Gnaw gong mot, ma?” What do we speak?

“Tsoy-san hwa.” We speak Taishanese.

I stare at the children, a little afraid. I did not think I could play with them either.

In big brother Tom’s room, a model of the starship Enterprise dangles from the ceiling. Hopping onto his bureau, I reach plywood shelves which house his precious 8 track reel-to-reel player. Tapes are stored in cardboard boxes. Blocky letters read: Santana, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Easy Rider and the Rolling Stones. I try matching these bands with the sounds that I hear. Wolfman Jack shrieks his lyrics with a lupine howl.

The controls of the tape deck resemble a NASA space station. Fiddly knobs with grooved edges where food always gets trapped let me spin the volume way up high. My sister Mary screams from the other side of the apartment, “Turn it down!” Woofers emit ear-splitting MMMM, mmmm sounds before settling into “Brown Sugar.” Whenever the tape mangles or breaks into two, Tom places the damaged sections within a stainless steel tray. Overlaying the pieces above a recessed groove (like that split in the box where the lady is cut into two), he says, “See how I use the razor?” Applying a quick diagonal stroke, he trims the tape, then uses adhesive to splice the ends together.

Leaving him, I glance at the image of me looking coquettish. I am learning the use of my wiles.

Fascinated, I imagine putting my pinky in there. I think of guillotines.

The next time I visit, music from his reel-to-reel skips a beat where the fixes took place. Standing at the foot of his bed in my flannel nightgown, I place hands on bony hips and beam for attention. Strewn across pillows, ankles crossed, Tom fiddles with a heavy object decorated with buttons and knobs and lenses in its own brown leather case. I guess, it must be valuable to require such protection.

Looking up through his Buddy Holly glasses, Tom says, “Smile, Dotty.”

I bare teeth. Click! I dip my head like that photo of Garbo in Life and bat my eyes. Click!

Weeks later, he shows me the black and white contact sheet, smelling faintly of chemicals from his college darkroom. One pose shows me jutting forward with a Cheshire Cat grin, another depicts me smirking. “OK, Dotty. Time to go to sleep.” Tom saying so means I have to comply.

The Brownie box camera idles on a shelf. I ask, “Can’t I stay just a little bit longer?”

Tom tickles me. Laughing, I say, “Stop! No more!” Leaving him, I glance at the image of me looking coquettish. I am learning the use of my wiles.

Courtesy:  Olivia Larrain

Courtesy: Olivia Larrain

Twin mattresses flank the tight aisle; imagine cots in an army barracks. I now share the front room with Mary. At the foot of her bed is a freestanding wardrobe. Each time I close it shut, the wood doors shake tinnily. The mirror inside rattles. “Careful!” she warns. Hunched by the desk at the window, Mary is doing her homework. Jet black hair falls lank on her shoulders. Beige corduroys with thick-ribbed wales cloak her so-much-longer-than-my legs.

I can’t help but stroke her thigh. The furrows feel rich; like velvet!

Mary shoos me away.

I thumb through a pamphlet from Seventeen magazine recommending proper clothing care. Always use padded hangers for lingerie. Hand wash knits and lay them out flat. Launder panty hose in a jar of suds. These hints describe womanhood so…elegantly! I envy my sister. Imagining my own grown-up closet one day, I open the door to face my reflection.

This is how I discover what beauty is.

Staring back is a waif with dark button eyes. Clumped hair curls and tickles my jaw. Knobby knees are scratched; nails are crescented with dirt. My bangs look as if they’ve been trimmed with a bowl over my head. I lift them to check my forehead; Mary always complains about zits.

I make funny faces. I stick my tongue out. Finally, I leave my sister in peace.

Later, when she has time, Mary shows me a book she studies from at her university. Bound in handsome grey linen, its heft and weight indicate importance. Gold embossed lettering on black proclaims, H.W. Janson’s History of Art. Leafing through the pages, she reveals stony torsos of headless men. I giggle, spying their privates.

“These are Kouros, statues of Greek men, and here’s the Parthenon,” she says. “It’s a really old temple in Athens. See the top of the columns? There are 3 kinds: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Doric is plain; Ionic has those curlicues; Corinthian is the fanciest. Aren’t they pretty?” I touch the page to feel the groove of the fluting. Acanthus leaves unfurl the same way iris bulbs in our yard open up—from a tight knotted fist—into a fleur de lis.

This is how I discover what beauty is.

Lesley Ann Warren plays Cinderella in a musical on TV. I gawp at her tapered neck and chiseled collarbone draped in ermine. Tom records the broadcast onto our tape recorder. I love playing with this! Sitting cross-legged on the shaggy carpet in Tom’s room, I depress fat buttons that resemble sticking piano keys. Shiny brown tape unspools and rewinds. I think of deadly pythons crushing their victims in comics and tremble with glee. I re-play favorite songs: “Impossible,” “A Lovely Night,” and warble to the lyrics while flipping through my pop-up book, Cinderella.

My sister stops by.

I play these tapes over and over again. They never cease to make me smile.

“Hey,” says Mary. “Let’s do our own musical!” She joins me on the floor, slips in a blank cassette (90 minutes!) and begins reading dramatically, “Once upon a time…”

When Mary gets to the page that depicts Cinderella forlorn, we break into a rendition of, “In My Own Little Corner.” Lowering her voice to a baritone, she announces the Prince’s invitation with deep-throated pomp. When the pumpkin turns into a coach, she says, “Poof!” I collapse into giggles. Her dotty rendition of the Fairy Godmother has me in stitches. Neither of us can keep a straight face miming the Prince singing, “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” By the time we get to The End, both of us bellyache on the floor.

Mary and I record a second cassette as she reads aloud another pop-up book, Robin Hood. In lieu of Rogers and Hammerstein songs, Mary renders The Sheriff of Nottingham as a cackling villain. Maid Marian is a high-pitched Pauline in Peril. I yank the cardboard tab to loose Robin Hood’s arrow into the bulls-eye, “Pfffft!” We lose our composure at the part that’s so funny, when Little John tips Robin into the stream—“Kersplash!” Listening to myself on the recording, my laughter rat-a-tat-tats like a machine gun.

I play these tapes over and over again. They never cease to make me smile.

During one of these recording sessions, I excuse myself as I pad away to find Mom in the kitchen. In fluent, unconscious, sibilant dipthongs, I request a glass of water in Taishanese.

Sometimes, when I doubt who I am, I remember I grew up speaking Chinese.

Weeks before Christmas on a Saturday morn, Dad retrieves an ungainly cardboard box from our basement. He erects a wood pole that mimics a tree and locks it into a stand. I jam stiff wire ends of fake branches into pre-drilled slots that pierce the trunk like a woodpecker’s handiwork. “No, no,” Mom says. “Check the color.” I look and notice the painted tips: green for the longest that spread at the bottom, then white, then orange, then pink. Upright clawed branches need no color code; these go at the top which is over my head.

One year, I’ll be as tall as this tree.

On December 25th, we exchange gifts. Tom hands me Fifty Best Fairy Tales! Mary’s is a box of stationery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each card portrays a work of art. I recognize some.

We don’t have to go all the way to Europe?

“Would you like me to take you to the museum?” Mary asks.

“Yes!” I say. “Yes!”

Courtesy:  Rachel Duffy

Courtesy: Rachel Duffy

We take the subway to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Strolling past townhouses, I stare at porticos, pediments, and grout joints so deep, I can stick my whole hand into the crevice. We enter the noisy, murmuring main hall of the Met where, though it is January, enormous vases of blooms erupt in multi-hued splendor. I’m distracted by the gift store and that pretty blue hippo! Mary threads me through a maze of exhibits: a stately, freestanding Egyptian temple, the biggest (Ionic) column I’ve ever seen, and a fierce medieval cavalry clad in silvery mail. Crowds shoulder us as we squeeze our way forward. I draw my breath at the sight.

Rising to the tippy-top of a chapel-like room is a towering Norway Spruce adorned with the loveliest little statues! Plaster angels are scattered on every bough as doves would alight on a tree. A crèche at its base reveals an infant. Surrounding him are animals; they seem quieted by something unseen. The people standing, as well as the human figurines, gaze at this spectacle with great reverence. The clamor of tourists I heard in the great hall has dwindled to a hush.

Staring at the Nativity scene, I’m filled with a silent elation to know the story behind this tableau. 

“See,” Mary whispers to me. “That one’s Joseph. And there’s Mary.”

In our History of Art back home, Mary had introduced me to the Mérode Altarpiece, an Early Netherlandish triptych painted by Robert Campin in 1428. The left panel depicts a monk pausing outside the doorway; he is the donor who commissioned the piece. The right shows Joseph at a carpenter’s task. The center shows Mary resplendent in a poppy red gown receiving a winged angel. Mary showed me the hidden image of Christ, a sprite resembling Tinker Bell with a cross, speeding arrow-like from the diamond-paned window to impregnate Mary, its mark. It delighted me to uncover this secret of the Anunciation.

Staring at the Nativity scene, I’m filled with a silent elation to know the story behind this tableau. Discovering layers of meaning makes this prettiness more enjoyable. I feel enlightened and lucky to see oh-so-sparkly lights dancing about the branches. I witness people around me so happy. I share with them this communion.

Like the faces of seraphim beaming with bliss, we too, are swept up with glory.