I'd held a baby only once before when I begged my mother to let me hold my brand new cousin.  "First wash your hands, then sit on the sofa," she ordered.  She put Laura in my arms and knelt in front of us.  "Hold your thighs together so you make a lap.   Support her neck, prop up her head, keep your arm under her body, don't breathe in her face.  Careful when you kiss her, watch out for her soft spot." 
"What's a soft spot?" I asked.
"It's the part of her head that covers her brain.  Now lower your voice or you'll startle her."
Laura started to wail.  "Here, take her back, babies have too many rules.”
I steered clear of babies after that and then it happened again.
"Here, my phone is ringing, hold her for a second," my neighbor Lucy said as she thrust her baby, Kiki, into my arms. I was only five years old, a tiny kid myself, sitting on the stoop and munching on a Snicker's.   
I pressed my thighs together to make a lap like I remembered from Laura and, poof, just like that, Kiki flipped out of my arms.  I gripped her ankle; her pink rubber pants flashed the whole neighborhood.  Clutching her leg, I hoisted her up to eye level.  Lucky thing her brain didn't fall out of the soft spot.  When I flipped her right-side up, she looked okay.  Her face was as bright red as a flaming-hot jawbreaker, but her bonnet was still stuck on her head, and she wasn’t bleeding.  
"Kiki," I scolded, "you can't just do a somersault whenever you feel like it."  Kiki was screaming and not paying attention.
"I don't know why she's crying, maybe she missed you," I lied to Lucy, who hadn't seen her baby bungee-jump from my arms.  I was glad Kiki couldn't tell her mother that she was twirling around upside down and almost bounced on the sidewalk.
Over the years, worrying about Kiki's brain caused me many sleepless nights.  My brother's friend, Stevie, went to the hospital after he jumped off his garage roof while playing Superman. My brother, who was very smart, said Stevie had a concussion which meant his brain got jiggled in his skull.  Even though Kiki hadn't  hit the ground, I knew her brain had a good jiggle.  Would she grow up to be normal? 
"Whatever happened to Stevie after his concussion?" I asked. 
"He got in trouble for playing on the roof, and his dad punished him."
"I mean what happened to his brain.  Did he like start acting weird?"
"You're weird," my brother sneered, as he rode off on his Schwinn.  "Something's wrong with your brain."
So all I could do was spy on Kiki to see if her brain was working right.  Every time I'd see Lucy with her in the buggy outside, I'd push the mosquito netting aside and peer at her little bald head.
"How is she today, Lucy?  Has she started to talk yet?"
"Oh, Sweetie, she won't be talking for a while. She's still too little."
I wanted to tell Lucy that, thanks to me, Kiki might never talk.   I worried that she might get stuck in kindergarten for a couple of years because she had trouble learning then she'd end up like Butchie, down the street.  My brother said Butchie was slow because he'd been dropped on his head when he was a baby.  Butchie had to repeat second grade twice.
Being on the alert for signs of brain-damage was complicated by the fact that Kiki's family was strange to begin with--I mean, her brother's name was Jujube.  Jujube!  All the boys in our neighborhood had names like Joey or Junior--no one was named after candy that you bought when you went to the movies.  On top of that, Jujube's ears were lopsided, and he kind of looked like he might not make it past fifth grade. To further complicate matters, Kiki and Jujube had different fathers because my brother said Lucy was divorced which meant she traded in her old husband for a new one.   So it was going to be hard to know if Kiki was goofed up because of me or her loony tribe.  I worried that I was going to have to take the whole blame if Kiki didn't turn out right, if she couldn't spell or add or subtract.
When I was seven, my Nana died and we moved into her old flat six blocks away.  Though I didn't change schools, I did lose track of Kiki.   I always prayed, though, that she turned out to be normal and that someday I could tell her it was an accident and please forgive me.  I dreamed of explaining to Kiki that if she had brain problems it was partly her fault for acting like a kangaroo.
Kiki's caper set me up for a life of chronic worry, but, in fairness to her, I did go to Catholic schools where hijacking cerebellums and embedding neurons of fear was an art form. 
At the age of seven, my First Confession, the day before my First Holy Communion, kicked off a deluge of anxiety when I toddled into the black hole of a confessional. A weekly Examination of Conscience required searching out every sin committed in thought, word and/or deed, by acts of commission or omission, intentionally or accidentally, either consciously or unconsciously, in rain, sleet or snow, in sickness or health, pre-conception or postmortem. 
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned..." was my Saturday afternoon mantra, a ritual that was supposed to "...stop God from crying over all the bad things you did during the week," said Sister Perpetua.  I thought God must be nuts to cry because I'd rolled my eyeballs at my mother when she told me to dry the dishes.  But just after I thought about the possibility of God being cuckoo, I realized the thought was sacrilegious so I'd wait in church all afternoon until the priests changed shifts and the refugee Croation priest, who spoke almost no English, came on duty.  No matter what you confessed, he'd say, "Okay, tree r fodders, tree Hey, Marys. Go."
That I accomplished anything in school was astounding seeing that I was so busy dissecting, analyzing and seeking second opinions from my girlfriends on the gravity of my sins.
"Josephine, I know snitching is a sin, but what if I snitched on my brother because I heard him use a swear word?  I don't think it's a sin because it did stop him from saying hell."
"Well, you just committed a sin yourself because you said the "H" word," said the pint-sized Elmer Gantry.  "Plus snitching is a sin no matter what your brother did."
"Another sin just because I said the "H" word?"
"Yes, but it’s just a Venial--you only go to "H" for Mortals," she said. 
I ran to Confession, and was relieved when I smelled beer through the little screen which meant Father Alky was on the other side.  He probably didn't know what rolling eyeballs were since he too had language limitations.  But then I worried that if he didn't understand me, his forgiveness wouldn't count so I added yet another sin by lying that I'd left my prayer book in the pew and fled.
I ran across the vestibule, and got in Father Steve's line.  He had escaped the Communists too and his English was not the best, however, he was up on the latest sins.  Sometimes you'd be waiting your turn and you'd hear him bellow, "YOU DEED WHAT?"  Within minutes you'd see a blubbering eight-year old exit, and run down the aisle with his jacket pulled over his head hoping not to be identified.  One time Peter Manzino crashed right into the baptismal font as he tried to make a break for it.  Sister Praxeda caught him and dragged him back to the box.  Pushing Peter to the front of the line, she made him go in and confess that he'd broken the baptismal watering hole.  This time Father Steve's "YOU DEED WHAT?" shook the choir loft.  I went in right after Peter, and the kneeler was all wet.  I pretended it was holy water. 
Over the next few years, my repertoire of sins expanded.  Envy, wrath and eavesdropping reared their heads when my brother turned sixteen and got his first part-time job and a paycheck.  His tales about the shoplifters, quick-change artists and crazy customers caused me to covet his exciting life.
Then came the day I had long prayed for:  a Kiki update.  Her mother popped up at my brother's store.
"Ma, remember Lucy, our old neighbor--Jujube's mom?  She came shopping today."
My Dumbo ears flapped at the mention of Lucy's name. 
"Oh, I haven't seen her in ages.  How is she?” my Mom asked.
“She’s fine; she has a new husband and another baby.”
“How’s Kiki?” I blurted.  "Is she alive?"
"Well, yeah," he said with a 'you are such a knucklehead'  look.  "Most people are still alive in fourth grade." 
"I meant to say is she normal?"
"Yeah, I guess so," he said, "but they don’t call her Kiki anymore—she’s Katherine, and Jujube only answers to Jerome.  He’s studying to be a detective.”
“Good for him,” my mother said.
“Yeah, it is, but Lucy’s really braggy.  She said detective like it was a big deal.”
“It is a big deal,” I chimed in.  “She probably thought that with his uneven ears he’d never make it through school.  But what did she say about Kiki?”
“Katherine,” he corrected me, and turned back to Mom.  “Mom, do you ever brag about me?”
“No,” she said as she greased a pie pan.  "Your father and I don’t believe in it.  We expect you to do well, and we don't need to advertise."
“I get it, but I’d appreciate a little bragging once in a while.”
I agreed.  “You could at least say something like my daughter is very intelligent.”
“Ma can't say that because she doesn't want to lie,” he smirked.  And then he dropped a bit of gossip that was intended to make me jealous, but instead took a ton of weight off my heart.  “Lucy said Katherine got to be May Crowning Queen because she got straight A’s.”
“Straight A’s?” I screamed, "You're kidding! Kiki, straight A’S—May Crowning Queen--wooohoo!"  Bubbles of shock, disbelief, gratitude and relief fizzed in my head.  "That’s the best!  I can't believe it!  Go, Kiki, go!"
“Mom, she is psycho,” he said, his mouth twisted like he was sucking on a dirty sock.  "I'm positive that one day when you weren't looking, someone dropped her on her head."

1 comment:

Judy DiVita said...

I love this. You really capture being a kid and the way we thought as we unraveled the mysteries around us.
Judy D.