In the Beginning: What happens in childhood is significant as a point of nucleation; the grit that stimulates the pearl, the dust that allows the snowflake to grow.
I was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1950. I have no direct memory of that city. When I was four years old my father accepted a job in Chicago: my mother, brother, and I went to stay with relatives in western Pennsylvania until our new house was finished.
My mother’s parents lived in a four-room apartment above a hardware store reached by a staircase that opened onto the street. The door had a purple glass knob, and I told myself that I could find my way home to Grandma by looking for that knob. My brother stayed outside town with an aunt and uncle who had a boy his age. Most of those months, I was alone with my grandparents.
My grandmother had been brought to this country as a baby and had never seen her birthplace, but she kept afternoon tea like the other Welsh people in town. An oak pedestal table in the front room was covered by a plastic cover printed to look like lace. In the exact center she placed a ruby red drinking glass that held teaspoons. This detail was forgotten until years later when I set the table in my own apartment and felt that something was missing, something that ought to be there.
At tea time I was allowed to pick a teacup from my grandmother’s collection of gaudy gilt and painted sets that she purchased at the dime store, which were displayed on painted corner shelves, along with capacious tea pots. This made me feel special and grown-up. We ate bread & butter with jam and sharp white cheddar cheese that she melted on a plate on the gas stove and then deftly slid onto pieces of toast. My grandmother ate little but bread, jam, and cheese, which she converted into to two hundred pounds of cool as marble flesh.
My grandfather was a shadow in comparison, but equally important. He had labored in tin mills all his life: the intense heat caused chronic dehydration, and severe muscle cramps. His health was ruined. He still worked when I lived with them, but I don’t know where. My mother seemed to hate him and she and Grandma ignored him, except when they stopped arguing with each other to berate him. I think now that their rough treatment of him broke my heart, but my mother now and then hinted that she had a reason to hate him which she kept secret from us. She also said that the Grandma I adored used to beat him up with an iron skillet when he came home drunk on Friday nights.
The small apartment over the hardware store had one bedroom that barely accommodated a double bed, so I slept in the front room on two chairs pushed together to make a cradle. One of the chairs was covered in blue fabric woven with small flowers; the arms and headrest were slick from wear. The other was one of the straight back chairs from the pedestal table. It held my feet.
My grandfather got up every morning before daylight and I got up with him and watched everything he did; how he made lather in his shaving mug and methodically shaved his grizzled face in the bathroom mirror; how he made us tea, then set a chair near the front window so that we could watch as sunlight crept along the empty street. As I remember it now, we were lonely inhabitants of an Edward Hopper painting.