I have a few memories from when I was very, very young. Some are just faint impressions and others are vivid. The earliest thing that I can remember is riding in the kiddy seat of a grocery cart. My Dad was pushing it, and one of his hands on the push bar had a cigarette sticking out between the middle and pointer fingers. This was in the early sixties before the surgeon general came out with his report about the dangers of tobacco, and no one worried about exposing a toddler to cigarette smoke.
The cherry of the lit cigarette glowed bright red and occasionally pulsed brighter after my father took a drag. I was fascinated by it and reached out to touch the beautiful, glowing light. I think that I began to howl and cry once the initial shock of pain passed by. I suppose that this was the first time that I had ever been burned. I remember my dismay when I found out that something so pretty and wonderful could send such an unpleasant, stinging jolt through my fingers.
There was a big commotion around me as my father lifted me out of the cart. My mother, who could be very protective, must have seen what had happened and scolded my father for being careless. I don’t know if he surrendered me to Mom, or whether he attempted to comfort me, but I do remember that someone fussed over me and cajoled me into a state of calm. I became absorbed in all the attention that I was getting. I would probably have forgotten the whole thing eventually, but the cruel, seductive beauty of the glowing coal of the cigarette in my father’s hand did not let me.
My Dad’s parents were country and small town people from northwest Ohio. They met at a dance where my grandfather played trombone in a band. After they married my Grandpa Schmalstig found work downstate in a foundry in Dayton. They lived in a two story, wood frame house on the east side in a German Catholic neighborhood. My grandparents successfully raised a large family that somehow made it through the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War intact. They remained at their Haynes Street address for many years after their children left home, married and started families of their own, and only moved to a smaller house in Belmont when they grew too old to manage its upkeep.
When my Mom, Dad, my sister and I entered the front door of the homestead on Haynes Street a heavy oak staircase with thick, polished banisters confronted us. It led upward at a steep angle to forbidden bedrooms on the second floor. A parlor was to the right of the stairs, and beyond the parlor and through a gray curtain was a dimly lit storage area crowded with boxes, suitcases, broken furniture, a washing machine and a large, round, oak table. Beyond these dark, hulking forms was the kitchen, a long, narrow room with brightly lit counters, a big utility sink, and a window that looked out upon the back yard garden.
My grandparents had nine children, and most remained in Dayton. Family gatherings were loud and raucous. My aunts and uncles were fond of drinking and smoking, yelling and carrying on, and playing cards. They always brought along their families of three, four, five, six children to Christmas parties, reunions, weddings and the random gatherings the Schmalstigs held for no official reason.
At one of these parties—I don’t know the occasion—I wandered into the storage area, to the kitchen and back again. The house was crowded and there were relatives leaning against the walls, perched on the edges of chairs, and standing in clumps scattered throughout the house. Little kids mostly bigger than me ran around, bumped into each other and screamed whenever the spirit moved them. I couldn’t stand all the chaos and found shelter beneath the large, round, oak table. I must have been three or four, and my aunts and uncles seated around it looked like giants. Perhaps I thought that their size and relative immobility offered me some protection from bodily harm.
I remember looking up from the floor as they sipped their drinks, smoked their cigarettes and cigars, and laughed at jokes I couldn’t begin to understand, and I was suddenly awestruck. My sanctuary no longer appeared to be safe. My uncles were playing poker, and when they laid down a card they aggressively thumped the sides of their hands on the table. The sound was loud and abrupt like a thunderclap, and the glasses and metal ashtrays on the table rattled from the impact. When they made a good play they roared and bellowed with delight, and as they grinned their rubbery lips stretched back and exposed their crooked teeth.
I tried in a pathetic way to fit in. When they laughed I laughed with them, “HAR, HAR, HAR!” When they smiled I smiled back at them. When they talked over the top of each other and all at once, I jabbered nonsense in imitation of their collective babble. But no one saw me crouching there under the table or heard me. My efforts to appease my terrible aunts and uncles went unnoticed, but their indifference allowed me to escape to the safety of the nearly deserted parlor. My youngest aunt, an unmarried teenager who resented the intrusion of the greater family into her domain, sat on a chair by the front door and scowled at me.
My mother eventually found me curled up on the parlor sofa, and she carried me out into the cool night as my family left to drive across town to our house in Kettering. I must have dozed in the car, because it seemed like we got there instantly, and I remember the comfort of falling asleep in my own bed in a quiet house with my sister in the next room and parents in the one across the hall from mine.
My parents were giants too, but they were familiar, and under most circumstances they appeared to be fully domesticated.
It’s a spring day and my mother is hanging wash on the line in our backyard. The sky is a soft but bright powder blue, and there are flowers blooming pink, red and yellow in my Dad’s garden. All the colors are bright and sharp in the clear sunlight. The green grass, the brick houses, the clouds, and the robin pecking at the ground look like they have just been gently dropped from heaven. A cool breeze makes the sheets, shirts and skirts flap and dance above my head. I look up at my mother and she smiles down at me, and I know that in this beautiful world full of wonderful things, that she is the loveliest creature that I will ever see.