from Remembering Eva
Sometimes I try to imagine how things would have gone if he hadn’t been waiting for us that day. My re-imagined version of events starts out as the real one did: Eva and I are dressed in our best clothing, she in a navy blue sailor-style twill dress, white socks and Mary Janes, I in my brown wool suit with its pleated skirt, stockings and sensible pumps. I have the money Mimi has given me hidden inside my girdle, and I look in the mirror to check the angle of my hat one more time. I take Eva’s small hand in one of mine and pick up a large leather traveling bag in the other. It holds all that we will take from this place: a change of clothing for each of us, a few toiletries, Eva’s Raggedy Ann and a worn copy of Topsy Turvy and the Tin Clown. I take one last look around the room that has been both our home and our prison for the last four years. And then I open the door.
But this time he’s not there, his face an awful mixture of anger and glee. This time the hallway is empty. Eva and I escape down the back stairs, thirteen flights of them, out onto the busy street, and are free.
After that my imaginings become less definite. There’s usually a house with a white picket fence in which we live; sometimes it's out in the country and at others on a quiet street in some small, unknown town. In the back there’s usually a yard with a big oak tree, a child’s swing hanging from one of its branches. There’s an invented husband who died of influenza or wounds received in the Spanish Civil War or of anything really, just so we can explain his absence. But this is what I always see no matter the other particulars: Eva’s face happy again. The shadow gone from her eyes. Her giggles peal out irrepressibly and her little legs take her running, fast and then faster. She shouts “Mama” at the top of her voice and the very best thing of all is that I no longer have to stop her.
But if he hadn’t been waiting for us, if we had been successful in our escape, then I suppose there would have been no reason for me to remember her, no reason at all.
This is the first thing you should know about me: I was a pretty normal kid at eleven. I lived on the Lower East Side of New York City with my mom, who worked as a head nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital. I was six years old before I realized that the green cotton scrubs she put on most mornings was a uniform and not just an outfit that she really liked (In my defense, ‘surgical green’ did go particularly well with her short red hair). You’d think having a single mom would have messed me up but it didn’t. I never met my dad and, call me weird, I never really missed having one. My mom’s fierce love always seemed enough.
It was the mid-eighties and I wore leg warmers over my jeans even in the summer, owned every album The Bangles had put out and never missed an episode of “Who's the Boss.” I attended school at P.S. 20, near Delancey Street, exactly nine blocks from the apartment building we lived in on Grand. My best friend was Katie McLoughlin, and we were like the odd couple. She was tall, blond and willowy and was always being courted by packs of popular girls and boys shorter than herself. I was a strange hybrid of a bookworm and tomboy who didn’t see the special allure that members of the opposite sex were now supposed to have. But when Katie and I got together a sort of alchemy happened; we became the funniest people in the world. We could make each other crack up until we were both bending at the waist, tears streaming down our faces, our laughter reaching some range of frequency that had no sound.
I don’t remember being anything but happy. Maybe it just looks that way in hindsight, relative to what came next, but I don’t think so. I think I really was one of those lucky kids whose whole world was a clear blue sky.
I started to remember two months before my twelfth birthday. The memories didn't scare me; I was at that age when anything still seems possible. I didn’t even know that they were memories right away because the early ones came in my dreams.
The morning after the very first dream I was sitting at the kitchen table, still half asleep, my mouth full of cornflakes, when it suddenly came back to me.
“Mom!” I said, bits of cereal shooting out of my mouth.
She turned from the kitchen sink where she was washing dishes while I quickly wiped my chin with the back of my pajama sleeve; she didn’t like it when I talked with my mouth full.
“Yes?” Her eyebrows rose in response to this rare, early morning enthusiasm of mine.
“I had the coolest dream last night.”
“Yeah? Tell me about it.” She turned back to the sink, but I could tell she was still listening.
“There was this little girl in it, and we were playing some kind of strange game. I think it was called What Time is it, Mr. Fox?”
My mother reached over for the dishtowel hanging off the refrigerator door handle. “Interesting. What sort of game?”
I closed my eyes to remember. “Well, I would have my back to the little girl and she would ask me, ‘What time Is It, Mr. Fox?’ And I would say something like, ‘It’s three o’clock,’ and then count out loud to three and she'd take three steps towards me. We’d do that a couple of times and then when she asked me again, I would yell, ‘Supper time!’ and chase her to the couch, which was the safe area."
I thought for a moment and then asked, "Did we ever play that game, when I was younger?"
"I don't think so, honey," she said, drying a coffee cup with the towel. "What else did you dream?"
"Just that. The little girl kept wanting to play, and it was hard to say no because she was having so much fun."
My mother put away the cup and gave me one of her distracted 'hmmms.' I had lost her, and I suddenly felt frustrated because I hadn't explained at all what was so special about the dream: how vivid and real it had seemed, even now, thinking back on it. I opened my mouth to explain this to her, but before I could she looked at her watch, clapped her hands, and said, "Let's get this show on the road."
Ten minutes later we were out the door, the dream forgotten in the rush. We walked together as far as Delancey Street Station at which point we parted, she to catch the subway to work and I to walk the last few blocks to school.
I should also tell you that all the memories, except one, took place in the same room; it was a suite really, decorated in an old-fashioned way. All the walls were delicately paneled with some kind of soft, almost velvety material in a green pastel with an imprinted pattern. At one end of the room stood a Queen Anne bed, covered with a pale orchid and gold silk bedspread. All the other furniture was in the Empire style (although I wouldn’t have known how to describe it then) and made out of mahogany. There was a small bathroom off to one side with black-and-white tiling and a claw-foot tub. Between the bedroom and sitting area two pillars, one on either side of the room, suggested a division. A couch and two wing chairs were upholstered in gold damask and a small writing desk sat under one of the broad casement windows. Through the windows you could see mountains nearby, cradling part of the city, as well as taller peaks farther away in the soft distance. And if you looked down you could see people on the sidewalk and crossing the busy street, going about their daily lives, small as toy soldiers.
The first dreams were simple ones: just me and the little girl whose name I soon discovered was Eva. She was three years old (she reminded me of this often) and called me ‘Mama.’ We played all sorts of games—some that I'd never heard of before like Mr. Fox and Mary Mack, but some that I'd played myself when I was younger like Cat's Cradle and Hide-and-Seek. Eva also loved to play house and would happily serve me pretend tea over and over again while I made a fuss over her imaginary little homemade cakes. There were only a few children's books in the room, books I'd never heard of like No-Stitch: The Hound and Topsy Turvy and the Tin Clown, which was her favorite. I read them to her often and sometimes used them to help her sound out her letters. Some dreams were more practical: helping Eva take a bath, toweling her off with large white fluffy towels, braiding her shoulder-length hair into neat little plaits. When I put her to sleep in the large bed with the pretty quilt, I would kiss her on the forehead and sing her lullabies until she was asleep. The one I sang most often always made me feel a little sad:
There's not a rose where'er I seek
As comely as my baby's cheek.
There's not a comb of honey-bee,
So full of sweets as babe to me.
And it's O! Sweet, sweet! And a lullaby.
There's not a star that shines on high,
Is brighter than my baby's eye.
There's not a boat upon the sea,
Can dance as baby does to me.
And it's O! Sweet, sweet! And a lullaby.
No silk was ever spun so fine
As is the hair of baby mine.
My baby smells more sweet to me
Than smells in spring the elder tree.
And it's O! Sweet, sweet! And a lullaby.
I dreamt of Eva every night. It didn't seem strange to me that I returned to the same place to visit the same little girl night after night. It was a great adventure, a magical land as real as my everyday life, and I couldn't wait until bedtime each evening to go back there.
There was one unsettling awareness, soft as a whisper at first, that I couldn't quite put a name to until much later. I knew of course that in the dreams I was Eva's mother, but with each successive visit with her the actual feeling of being her mother grew and grew. Somehow, over time, I became utterly and irrevocably responsible for her wellbeing.