Chapter 1: Addie, 1961-1965
My mom killed my dad. Not intentionally of course. She did it with her cooking. Having spent most of her childhood hungry, my mother felt compelled to feed everyone. Bacon and pancakes in the morning, homemade biscuits, pickled eggs, pies, cookies, scalloped potatoes. Some people write love sonnets with pen; mom wrote them with pie.
The afternoon of the day Dad died, my sisters Nat and Mary Ann barred the door of the sunporch where they were playing so they could keep me out. My brother Tug was delivering papers and my oldest sister Martha was babysitting. So I helped Mom in the kitchen. I sat at the table and made a grocery list while Mom arranged the plates on the table. I scribbled some letters on a piece of paper like I knew how to spell.
“Crisco, butter, milk, brown sugar, eggs, do you have all that?” she asked. “Oh, and baking soda, I can’t forget that!” We didn’t want to run out of baking soda. Mom used it a lot to make Dad “bicarbs,” her home remedy for heartburn.
“Not bad for an almost four-year-old,” she said as she rewrote the things we needed on top of my scribbles.
When I heard Dad come through the front door, I ran to the living room to greet him, only he did not seem so happy to see me. Instead of picking me up like he usually did, he brushed me aside and plopped in his big easy chair.
“Don’t fuss for dinner Thelma, I’m not that hungry,” he called to Mom in the kitchen. Mom was scooping the meatloaf and fried potatoes on our plates. She liked for Dad to sit right down to a good hot meal after his long day at the brick factory. Although she ate like a bird herself, Mom thought we were all in a perpetual state of hunger.
“Dinner’s already on the table. Come sit down, you’ll be hungry by the time you see your plate. I’ve made apple pie for dessert.” She practically sang “apple pie,” trying to lure Dad to the kitchen.
“Addie, call your sisters,” Mom yelled to me.
“I’m not feeling good,” Dad called back. “I don’t think I can eat yet. It’s heartburn again. I need a good burp, that’s all. Get me a bicarb, would you?”
Mom had the mixture of water and baking soda to him in a blink. Mom’s eyes went from smiling to alarm when she saw my dad. She and I watched as he drank the bicarb and tried to burp. He was turning pale and beads of sweat were dripping from his forehead. He was grabbing his chest like he might have spilled hot coffee on it.
“Oh Bud, look at you,” Mom said. “I’m calling an ambulance. This is more than heartburn.”
“No, Thelma, no, it’s too expensive, just call Dr. Cavala and see if he can come to the house.” Dad’s voice was weak and breathy.
Mom called the ambulance from the kitchen despite Dad’s protest. I could not hear most of what she told the person on the other end of the phone, but she did say Dad’s name loudly and clearly, “That’s right, Bud Bloom, he’s forty-two. Please hurry.” She dropped the phone when she tried to put it back on the receiver and let it dangle. It clanked a couple of times as it bounced against the kitchen wall. Mom knelt on the floor next to Dad’s chair and talked gently to him, telling him to hold on and keep breathing.
The ambulance siren finally got Mary Ann and Nat to come out of the sunroom. We watched the medics struggle to hoist the stretcher into the back of the ambulance. Mom got in behind them. None of us kissed him goodbye.
“Call Aunt Eleanor,” Mom yelled to Nat as the ambulance door closed. It was already starting to get dark and the red whirling lights gave an eerie glow to the dusk of a November evening. My sisters and I just stood there. We didn’t have our coats on and I was starting to shiver. I spotted Tug with his empty paper sack maneuvering through the small crowd of neighbors who had assembled. “What’s going on?” he said.
“Dad’s heart is burning,” I offered.
“You don’t know anything,” said Nat, “He’s having a heart attack.” I did not know there was a difference.
“Holy Cow,” Tug gasped. “Get Addie inside. It’s freezing out here. I’m going to the hospital.” He dropped his paper sack and ran in the direction of the ambulance.
Dad spent the night in the hospital and died early on a Tuesday morning. Mom said that he looked up into the corner of the room as if he saw something no one else could see and smiled just before he passed.
That was just like Mom, trying to paint a peaceful picture of his death. But it was a look of pain he had, not peace. Death by heart attack wasn’t pretty and I knew because I could see my dad’s pain on Mom’s face for decades.
That night, Aunt Eleanor came to our house and took the youngest of us to the neighbors. I went to the Spinellis and Nat to the Zaconis. Tug and Martha were old enough to go to the hospital with Aunt Eleanor and join Mom.
Like most of our neighbors in the East End of Clearfield, Pennsylvania, Rose Spinelli and her husband Jack were immigrants from Italy brought over by their parents when they were very young. Jack Spinelli was a rusty, cranky old man. The only things he treated tenderly were the peaches on the trees in his backyard behind his old shed. He guarded those like gold. You would sooner be thrown in the cage with the coonhounds in the next yard (something Nat often threatened me with) than get caught picking one of those peaches. No telling what he’d do. By the looks of the bruises on Rose, you didn’t want to find out.
Jack Spinelli sported a topo map of Italy on his face. If I hadn’t been so afraid of him, I would have loved to touch his dark sunbaked skin to feel just how deep his wrinkles were. But he was a drunk who only spoke in growls and grumbles that you could barely hear unless you got close to his peach trees. When my sister Nat told me stories of the boogeyman, I pictured Jack Spinelli. Nat assured me that Jack was nothing compared to the real boogeyman who lurked in our alleys and slept in the sheds.
A dirt alley separated our house from the Spinellis’. Our large three-story red brick house dwarfed their small single-story one that was painted an odd shade of aqua blue. While ours mostly smelled like homemade bread and sticky buns, theirs smelled of cooked dandelion greens and whiskey.
A Formica table with a mustard yellow top, matching torn vinyl seats, and shiny chrome legs were the only bright spots in their dingy house. The floors seemed slanted and were covered with old linoleum that was cracked and so cold to my bare feet that night.
Rose Spinelli took me to her bedroom where there was a bureau against the wall with a lace doily, a vase of plastic roses, a Madonna, and a little jar of Pond’s vanishing cream on top. There was barely enough room to move between the bureau and the foot of the bed. She wore a tattered nightgown and hairnet that pressed salt-and-pepper ringlets of hair close to her head. The stinky cold cream smeared on her face didn’t smell anything like my own sweet mother. Rose must have thought it not a great idea to put me next to her husband so she put me on her side, on the edge of the bed. With her arm wrapped tight around me to keep me from falling off, I felt like she was pulling me into her own world of misery. “You poor thing, your poor momma, if He’d only taken Jack instead of Bud,” I heard her whisper before she fell asleep.
After three miserable days, Mom took us back. After that, she wasn’t the same. For weeks, Aunt Eleanor came over in the mornings and begged her to get out of bed. I stood at the doorway and listened to my aunt wheedling Mom to take a drink of coffee.
“I can’t do it, I just don’t think I can do it.”
“Well if you don’t do it, who will? The kids can’t lose both of you.” That sounded brutal but Aunt Eleanor had eleven of her own kids and surely didn’t want to take care of us too.
Mom glanced at me with a sigh of resignation. She dragged herself from the bed and went to the kitchen to start breakfast. Cooking might not have been a cure for her sadness, but it at least got her moving again. She went back to her routine of household chores. She didn’t have quite the same spirit; she didn’t hum “Moon River” to herself like I heard her do so many times. She neither scolded us nor gushed over us like we were used to. But at least she was feeding us again.
Most nights I wrestled with sleep. I kept my stuffed friends—Rabbit, Mad Hatter, and Alice—close by me. Martha had made them for me right after Dad died. I told my friends stories while I tried to fall asleep. I especially liked Rabbit, who seemed to listen the best and had a voice of reason when he talked back to me.
Then there was Mighty Mouse, the tiny invincible friend who wore a cape. He was very strong and could take out villains and rescue people from all sorts of disasters. I first met him on the cartoons on TV and soon after, my right thumb became Mighty Mouse. Mighty Mouse stayed in the cave that was my mouth, venturing out to puff his chest at the scary noises coming from the radiator in my room. The nights Mom wouldn’t let me get into her bed, I sucked on Mighty Mouse, talked to Rabbit, and prayed to fall asleep. I would eventually convince myself I had to pee and make my way to the bathroom.
The bathroom was scary because of the sunporch attached to it and the bathroom window that looked out onto the porch. Once, while I was sitting on the toilet, Nat donned a white slip over her head and popped up from the darkness through that window and scared me to death. During the frigid Pennsylvania winters, three-foot icicles grew from the ledge above the sunporch and created a spooky curtain of ice over the windows. In the middle of the night, I would sit on the toilet, suck on Mighty Mouse, and try not to look out onto that porch.
“Mom, Mom, I can’t sleep. I feel like I have to pee again. I need paregoric. Please, please.” I called from the bathroom. Mom shuffled to the medicine cabinet, got out the tiny bottle and put a couple drops of the magic potion into my mouth. I loved how it burned as it trickled down my throat and felt relieved that Mighty Mouse would soon calm down and Rabbit would softly hum me to sleep.
Right after Dad died, Mom sold his car and her prized mangle, a machine she used for ironing sheets and pillowcases. That money and a small insurance policy got us through the first two years. Then, when I was ready to start first grade, she announced, “If we are going to eat, I need to work.”
She used the small amount she had left to buy driving lessons and a bright red Ford. She took a job at a Leitzingers’ department store, where she had worked before she married. She made $1.20 an hour.
Even though she could barely provide for her own family, she always put her last dime in the collection basket and the last piece of dessert on a hobo’s plate. The hobos were thin, leather-skinned men with baggy clothes who came up to our back door from the railroad that was an alley and two rows of houses away from ours.
The hobos looked a lot like Mr. Spinelli, only with maps of their own countries etched in their faces. When we complained that the occasional hobo was getting our sparse leftovers Mom reasoned with us. “They’re poor men who are just down on their luck,” she said. “As long as I have something in my pantry, I won’t let a man go hungry.”
By second grade, there were four of us still living at home. Martha had moved out because she got pregnant and married, in that order. Mom worried about what other people thought about that baby. She said people would call it illegitimate, but we just called her Shelly. Nat was the one of the Bloom children who was supposed to be a genius. According to her school records, she had an IQ of 148. “What other people thought,” the bane of my mother’s existence, never seemed to be a worry for her. Tug was my hero. He was seventeen when I was in second grade. Sometimes he let me come along on his paper route and throw newspapers on people’s porches. Once, he took me around to all the places Nat said the boogeyman lived to show me that there was no such thing.
“But Nat said the boogeyman sleeps in the shed behind Spinellis’.”
“Nah, Jack sleeps there when he’s too drunk. Just stay away.”
“Maybe he is the boogeyman.” I reasoned out loud, thinking maybe Tug knew more about the boogeyman than Nat.
“You don’t have anything to worry about, Squirt, not while you got me around. You need to grow up a little. You’re in second grade now, for Christ’s sake. For starters, you need to quit sucking that thumb.”
At that time, I no longer sucked my thumb in front of people. I was old enough to know better, but I had a big red bump on my thumb. Mom called it a corn. She said it was the telltale sign that let everyone know Mighty Mouse still liked to hide in his cave.
Chapter 2: Thelma, 1939 (way before Addie)
Thelma sat on the edge of her four-poster bed picking at the threads of her tattered top quilt and wondering what to wear on her first date with Bud. A lone light bulb dangled from the ceiling. The late afternoon sun created long shadows of the bedposts across the bare wood floors. When she was little, she had named each of the posts: Betsy, Jane, Sally, and Milly. She imagined them as nice, clean, and friendly little girls wearing pretty calico dresses, who were always eager to play with her. She talked to them at night when her sisters had fallen asleep before she did. Her sisters had shared that bed and the quilt that was sewn from scraps of their brother’s boxers, their own dresses, and old flour sacks. Her sisters teased her about the bedposts, but sometimes they would play along too and spend endless hours making up stories about the lives of the little girls. Now only she remained at home. She could no longer conjure up the little girls who guarded her bed and even though she could turn and stretch without waking someone, she missed the warmth of her sisters’ bodies cuddled next to hers.
Now that her brother and sisters were gone, she was left to deal with Mudder.
“Mudder,” she said, out loud. When Thelma was little, her mother had insisted that she and her siblings call her “Mother,” but “Mudder” was the best they could do and they had been saying it ever since. Mudder never caught on that it was disrespect not endearment that kept them from improving their pronunciation.
Thelma lay on the bed. She had some time before Bud was due to pick her up. She was too excited to do anything productive like work at her sewing. Instead, she tried to recall a time when Mudder had been happier and easier to get along with. That was before her dad left, before the Great Depression had taken hold of her family and strangled the life out of them. She wondered if Bud Bloom would be as kindhearted as her dad had been.
During the Depression her dad took to the railroad to find odd jobs here and there and put a bit of money in his pocket to feed his family. He came home once a month or so and talked about the kind people who fed him. “There’ll be a little marking on a fence post or something,” he said. “That’s how you know which houses will feed you. The men who ride the rails make them. I’ve made a few marks myself.” Thelma and her sisters listened to his tales and were happy to have a good pot roast, potatoes, bread, and tea on the table all at the same time.
“You’ve never seen so many automobiles!” he told them on one trip home. “And at night the streets are all lit up like it’s still daytime. I even saw one building that must have been twenty stories high. I had to strain my neck to see the top. Inside, they had these things called escalators. They are moving stairs so the rich city folks don’t have to wear out their legs. Do you believe it?” Even Mudder smiled at the thought of moving steps with rich people standing on them. There were no escalators in Clearfield where the tallest building had just four floors.
“That’s enough,” Mudder interrupted. “Don’t fill their heads with stuff like that, they’ll have nightmares,” she said, even though she was laughing.
Thelma’s father brought home more than just good stories and a small income. He obviously had difficulty staying faithful to Mudder. On one of his trips, he brought back a terrible clue as to his infidelity. The image Thelma conjured up when she overheard Mudder talk about the crabs made her gag and itch all over. This plight had her and her sisters checking bed sheets for months. Thelma envisioned thumbnail-size crabs crawling on their parents’ private parts and pricking their skin with little claws. One time she even dreamt that Mudder turned into one huge crab that came after her and her siblings with huge pincers.
After the crabs, Mudder kicked her dad out and with him, any hope of keeping their bellies full. Thelma seemed to think that Mudder was sorry for letting her husband go, but her pride stood in her way of trying to get him home. Instead, she took to melancholy and ill spirits and stayed there.
They became destitute, dependent on what they could gather from their garden and the kindness of others even though Mudder didn’t take well to the idea of charity. Once, the welfare office in Clearfield began to issue free shoes, something they sorely needed. The shoes had “welfare” branded on the soles. Mudder made them scrape the word “welfare” off before they could wear the shoes as if you had to look at the bottom of their feet to tell they were poor.
Mudder didn’t do much to try to help their situation. In fact, most days she was still in bed when Thelma and her sisters got home from school. They took care of the house, baked the bread, tended the garden, and resentfully catered to Mudder. The boys traded their labor on nearby farms for eggs, flour, and an occasional slab of bacon. Once they told Mudder that the school was giving free milk to poor kids at lunch. Mudder yelled at them, “You take that milk and I’ll find the thickest switch in the yard to beat it back out of ya.” Thelma’s brothers took the milk anyway, but she and her sisters were too afraid of Mudder. Instead, they put their heads together for hours trying to figure out how to leave home.
When Thelma learned that she was class valedictorian and had earned a small scholarship to go to nursing school, Mudder was quick to point out all of the obstacles that would prevent her success.
“Altoona is seventy-five miles from here, how in tarnation will you even get there? We don’t know a soul in Altoona. Where will you stay? What’ll you eat? Where’d you expect I’d find a penny to help?”
“Why do you think I’d ask your help? You haven’t done a thing for me or this family since Dad left.” Thelma braced for a slap across her face and was surprised when she did not feel it. The sting came from Mudder’s words instead.
“You think you’re so smart, you just go ahead and try, you’ll see how the world really works, just wait. You’ll be back here in a week even if you do make it to Altoona.” The words rang in Thelma’s ears as she felt the crab’s pincers dragging her back to the bottom of the bucket.
Thelma’s sisters were more encouraging. They sat in their bedroom hashing out ideas for how they could get Thelma to school. “As soon as I find a job, I’ll give you money,” said Hazel, the oldest sister who had just quit high school and found a way to get to Boston to stay with their Aunt Lizzy. “Aunt Lizzy says there are all kinds of men looking for wives and good factory work till you find one.”
“I’ll quit school too,” said Eleanor. “Steve Sanko has his eye on me, I can tell. Maybe he’ll marry me. He has a truck.”
“What good will that do?” asked Hazel.
“Well at least I could get her to Altoona.”
“Eleanor, you’ll finish school. Hazel, when you get a job, you’ll need your money to live on. Cities are expensive, and it’s not like you can just go out in the woods and pick blueberries. And people don’t even have chickens there. I don’t really want to go to college anyway.” The last part was a lie. Thelma tucked her dream away for some other time and thought if it didn’t come for her it would come for her children. She would make sure of it.
It had been three years since Thelma’s sisters had shared the bed and plotted their dreams. Now her sisters were married and she was doing it alone. She turned on her back and stared at the bare light bulb and the cracks in the plaster ceiling. Lots of men asked her out. As much as she wanted to get away from Mudder, she had promised herself that she would not marry the first one to come along like her sisters had. She thought of her prospects. There was Royce Sloppy whose kisses matched his name. Royce ran the furniture department at Leitzingers’. If she married Royce, she wouldn’t be rich but she would have security. Unfortunately, the notion of intimacy with Royce was about as appealing as scrubbing toilets. Something she could do when it needed to be done, but it would be a chore to dread.
Then there was Kenny Spagnola, one of the Italians from East End, a handsome Catholic boy whose family owned a successful bakery. Thelma was excited about Kenny until their first date. “Look at that,” he said as he shoved the plates across the counter toward the waitress. “What a gyp. Take those back to the kitchen, honey, and put another scoop of ice cream on them.” The young waitress looked like she might cry. Her hands were shaking as she picked up the plates. Thelma was mortified.
On their second date, she had to fight Kenny’s advances and insist he take her home early. There was a brief moment when she didn’t think he was going to take “no” for an answer as he pawed at her blouse buttons and tried to put his hand up her skirt. He apologized when he walked her to her door. “I’m sorry Thelma, you’re just so darn pretty I could eat you up. Can I see ya again? Saturday night? I’ll be good, I promise.”
“I don’t think so Kenny, I have plans for Saturday. You can call me next week.” She was certain that Kenny knew they didn’t have a phone at her house and hoped he’d get her point.
Oak Winters was the most serious contender of her recent beaus. He and his brothers played in a band. Oak had dreamy eyes and the most curious cowlick that graced his blonde hair. Oak hinted about marriage by telling Thelma he would supplement his income as a musician with a job at the newspaper so he would have enough money to support a family. Thelma suspected that Oak would eventually propose. Dates with him were like a warm cup of milk on a chilly fall afternoon: very nice, very comfortable. Even so, they did not leave her longing for more.
She refused to feel desperate; then again, she was twenty-one. Bud was her newest possibility. When Thelma heard that Bud Bloom, a really handsome new soda jerk, had just started in the drugstore on Main Street, she donned a smart dress she had just sewn for herself and went to McCrory’s to see who the girls were talking about. Bud was as handsome as they described. In fact, for the first time in her life, she swooned instead of shuddered at the thought of a man’s boxers on her floor and shoes near her bed.
Now Thelma was eager to see what Bud was made of. She laid two dresses out neatly on top of her quilt: the red dress with a white lace collar and a solid blue shift. She had made them both last summer. The red one called her name. The lace was from the wedding dress that Eleanor had gladly disassembled to share with her sisters. Thelma considered the color. It would go nicely with her dark hair and the subtle red of her new lipstick. Red could be suggestive, but Christmas was near and red was, after all, appropriate for the season.
When she heard the motor of Bud’s car pulling up to their house, Thelma took a last look in the splotchy old mirror to be sure her hair was tidy. She wore it pushed back from her forehead to reveal her widow’s peak. She checked that her lipstick was fresh and her new front tooth was straight. She had worked at Leitzingers’ for two years before she had saved enough money to replace her tooth and found the courage to visit a dentist. She still wasn’t quite used to it. She leaned closer to the mirror and pinched her cheeks to add some color and realized she didn’t recognize the person looking back in the reflection.
A honk of the horn told her she had better hurry. Bud was a gentleman who would have gladly come to the door, but she insisted he honk so he did not have to face Mudder. Thelma left the house without saying goodbye. She didn’t want to argue with Mudder about what a respectable girl would or would not be doing. With luck, she would return after Mudder had fallen asleep.
Bud did not disappoint her. For the next ten months, they saw each other every Friday and Saturday night, and Tuesdays for lunch at the soda fountain where they met.
One cool Saturday evening, early in September of 1940, after almost a year of dating, Bud picked Thelma up at Leitzingers’ in his old brown Ford for a drive to the river before the sun went down. He drove without saying a word. Contentment filled the void created by their silence. He parked the car under a tree close to the river’s edge and pulled Thelma closer to him. The first leaves to don their fall colors were twirling in the breeze and landing on the windshield. Bud’s eyes matched the color of the water, sort of a hazel green and just as clear and gentle. He took her hands and looked her in the eye.
“I have some news,” he said. She noticed a little sweat forming on Bud’s temple as she became aware of her own heartbeat. She wondered if this was going to be what she had been waiting to hear. He reached behind his seat and grabbed something wrapped in a brown paper sack. It was rectangular and much bigger and heavier than anything like a ring box. She opened the package and was puzzled by what she saw. It was a brick.
“What’s this for?” she said, trying not to sound disappointed.
“I went to Harbison Walker today to check on my application. You are looking at the next master brickmaker.” His dimples were in full view.
Thelma wasn’t sure what to say.
“Darling, it means we can marry.”
“Oh my goodness.” Thelma felt something tickle her stomach as her mind raced with visions of what it would mean to be married to a man like Bud.
“There’s one thing I’m worried about. Something we have to set straight. Well, make that two things.”
“Are you sure there are only two?”
Chapter 3: Addie, Second Grade
With Mom rallying, by the spring of my second grade, during the mid-sixties, it seemed like the world had gone from shades of gray to Technicolor. The bright colors we saw at Leitzingers’ were quite the contrast to the shows I watched on our black-and-white TV that made the fifties and early sixties seem monochrome. Mom was trying to live in color too. She made me my very own purple jumper that spring. Most of my dresses had been through at least two sisters and a cousin before they got to me. The purple jumper was to celebrate my first confession, and Mom let me start wearing it to school right away.
First Confession was a big deal, and it was Sister Benedict’s job to get us ready. She wanted to be sure we got it right. So Sister Benedict taught us about sins the same way she taught us spelling. She wrote sins on the board so we would be sure not to forget them and coached us individually to make certain we each knew what to say on our first trip to the dark closet they called a confessional.
Before I made the walk up to Sister Benedict’s desk at the front of our classroom for my private consultation in my new purple jumper, I took a big tug on my tights in hopes they would stay in place. Those darn tights had a tendency to sneak down my thighs as I walked. One yank was just enough to get me there. Once there, I had trouble finding my voice because I was certain that Sister Benedict wouldn’t be happy with what I had to say.
“I don’t think I have a sin to tell,” I whispered. I held Mighty Mouse tight with my left hand. I wondered if my tights would stay in place for the trip back. Sister Benedict tilted her head to hear me and as she did, the folds of her chin and jowls spilled over the tight neckpiece of her habit. I caught the familiar scent of Ivory soap.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” she said grabbing the big metal cross that rested on her bosom. “Addie, everyone sins. Surely you fight with Tug or your sisters or disobey your mother. Those count.” She sounded a bit exasperated yet maintained a kind tone. She glanced at the long line of second graders waiting behind me.
“Now go back to your seat, dear child, and think about those sins,” she said as though she had settled the matter for me.
I slunk back to my desk. I was sure the crotch of my tights were at my knees by the time I got there. I sat on the edge of my seat, allowing room for Rabbit and my other imaginary friends. I was confused and anxious as ever. I always ran or hid from my sisters rather than stand up to them. Furthermore, Mom didn’t ask for much, so how could I disobey her? Even so, if Sister Benedict said I had sins, no doubt, I had sins.
Rabbit thought he had the answer. “Ask Nat, she ought to know since she’s always in trouble.” Rabbit was right, Nat and Mom were always fighting over the bad things that Nat did. Nat never did her chores, stayed out way past when the street lights came on and only God knows what else. She would know about sins.
The next night, after dinner, I got up my nerve to go to Nat’s room. It took bravery on my part because there was no telling what kind of mood she would be in. Sometimes she could be sweet but mostly she was prickly, especially with me.
“I’m having trouble coming up with what to say in confession this week,” I said. “I don’t have sins to tell.”
She didn’t take much time to think about it. “Yeah, you got sins. You probably ought to confess that it was you who killed Dad.”