A memoir by
Youngstown, Ohio, 1945
I'm three years old, sitting on a rough woven straw carpet on the front porch, in warm sunlight. Beyond the railing is a trellis covered with blossoms of honeysuckle, jasmine, morning glories and roses with vines of sharp thorns. Superior Street is lined on both sides with buckeyes, elms and maples, and from that dense mass of green leaves comes a loud buzzing. I wonder what’s making that sound. It’s natural and sort of calming and pleasant, but at the same time seems odd, and nobody, not even grandma, seems to notice it. Beside me is our big white, blue-eyed cat. His paws are folded beneath him, and his eyes are narrow slits. In the bright sun I feel content, safe, in a drowsy pleasantness, a perfect beautiful state.
In the window above is a white, red-bordered flag with two blue stars. Grandma says they are for my father, Chester, and his brother, Alex, who are in the Army. They signed up when the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. Alex is in England. My father is stationed on Oahu, in Hawaii. Grandma says war means fighting Japs and Nazis who want to take over the world. Our boys are there to keep that from happening.
It’s summer so I’m wearing no shirt, socks or shoes, just a flimsy pair of shorts with a fly. When I lean forward it opens, when I lean back it closes. My little cock, I observe, is like the fire hydrant half a block down the street. Same short body with a rounded bulge at its top. The hydrant is also like the spigot in the kitchen sink. When you turn the handle, water rushes out. Like my willy, when I pee.
I think of the picture of a little boy on the paper bag that holds the loaf of bread grandma bought earlier this morning at the store three blocks away. The boy is holding the round loaf against his chest, and he has a knife, and is cutting the loaf…only he is doing it the way one of grandma’s old lady friends said you must never do, which is to slice bread pulling the knife toward you. It’s safer to cut away from you, because if you slip you won’t stab yourself.
I put my hand into the gaping hole of my shorts and idly twirl my cock in a clockwise direction. To my great surprise it gets stiff, something I’d never seen it do before. I stop, and twirl my willy in the opposite direction. It goes down.
Very strange! I try it again. Same thing happens.
Why does it do that?
I have no idea.
Suddenly white cat leaps up, bounds quickly down the porch steps, and disappears around the corner of the house. I think about the day before when I tossed it off the porch, to see if it would land on all fours. That’s what they said cats did, no matter if you turn them upside down. Sure enough, white cat made three perfect landings.
“Janek!” shouts my grandma, invisible behind the dark screen door. Janek is my name in Polish.
“That’s DISGUSTING, stop it!”
She pushes open the door, bends over, and slaps my hand. Her face is all twisted up. I wonder what makes her so angry.
That’s the word she used yesterday when white cat went behind the Gabler player piano in the dining room and left a pile of smelly shit. When she found it she grabbed a broom and chased white cat all over the house until he fled out the front door. Yes, that pile of shit WAS disgusting.
I can’t connect her angry word with what I am doing now. Twirling that part of my body feels no different from scratching my arm, or tugging my earlobe. I am only three, but that’s precisely what I think: She is simply wrong.
An infantile erection, I learned much later, is not sexual but merely the result of the constriction of blood flowing from the penis, either by a full bladder or other pressure. In my twirling in a clockwise direction, I had likely been pressing the heel of my hand on my lower belly, and then when twirling counter-clockwise, I’d lifted it.
But grandma, being a Roman Catholic, believed in the toxic Augustinian notion of original sin, and interpreted my playful, curious experimentation as masturbation, and therefore dirty, sinful, and above all disgusting.
Why was I immune to grandma’s loud angry condemnation, and was able to stick with my own perceptions rather than hers? Although my mother had abandoned me when I was about a year old, she many years later told me she’d spent that year loving me, nurturing me at her breast. In her eyes I was lovable and worthy, and that affirmation was imprinted on my psyche.
Earlier or later: I silently creep down the hallway, and peek into the bathroom. Grandma’s sitting on the pot. Her long dark dress is pulled up and bunched around her waist. Her legs are thin, pale white, her knees are bony and her feet are bare. She pulls off about a yard of toilet paper, and meticulously folds it into a perfect square. She looks up, sees me. Her eyes get wide.
“Don’t look at me!” she shouts. “Close the door!”
She always watches me when I sit on the pot, yet she doesn’t want me to watch her. Why? Another curious thing about her is that she yells a lot, she looks so grim and unhappy. Why? She never spanks me or punishes me in any significant way, she just screws her face up into a frown and yells.
Nothing at all to get scared about, though.
Grandma never hugs me, cuddles me in her arms, runs her fingers through my hair, pats me on the back, or leans down from that high altitude to give me a kiss. She never smiles. Often the light reflects off her squarish rimless glasses, so I can’t see her eyes.
In the living room above the couch on the north wall is a big faded sepia photo in a carved wooden white-painted frame. It’s of a man with a big black moustache, and a woman in a white veil. Both stare out with blank faces, unsmiling. It’s Grandma Josephine and Grandpa Casimir, after their 1898 wedding in Polish Galacia. A couple years after the wedding they sailed to America, intending to stay only as long as they saved enough money so they could return home and buy land. They never went back.
Grandma never says anything about the old country, or about Casimir, or about why they never returned to their homeland, or where my mother is, or anything else. Just grim silence.