When I was four, we lived in an apartment complex that divided a gingerbread house neighborhood and a ramshackle, riverbank neighborhood – one with neat little blocks of brick and garden, the other with litter strewn yards, debris from basements flooded every spring. Our buildings stood in between, a corridor of indecision for renters on their way one direction or the other, living in not quite a tenement, not quite a house.
We would eventually move to suburbia, our faces turned toward the light of the middle-class sun just a few streets away. But for a time we too straddled, my parents reaching beyond their marginalized backgrounds, counting on the American dream of ingenuity and effort to change their circumstances. They had worked hard to get this far, this nice arrangement of buildings, each with a tended square of grass in front. Our two bedroom apartment was a step up and they had their backs to the river.
I remember one day playing in front of our building as my mom sat on the stoop, reading Ladies Home Journal or maybe Alfred Hitchcock Mysteries. I played on the sidewalk, scooting along on a Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer riding toy.
Rudolph was plastic, with molded tufts of fur on his neck and tail, big Egyptian eyes painted Bambi blue, small green wheels under each hoof and a red painted saddle where I sat perfectly tall. I could push on the cement with my sneakers and then fling my legs wide, coasting away in a story. His horns were detachable, rounded handles; I held the top prongs or the lower, adjusting the height by sliding them up or down in the notch at the top of his head. I leaned over and whispered in his ear; he listened with his cartoon face, kind and spunky, just like on the TV show.
This particular day there were other children who spilled outside. Mikey was younger than I was and Michelle a little older. They lived upstairs. Their mother did not sit but followed them around watching closely, speaking in a voice slightly too loud, narrating as her children asked questions or made funny noises or rolled somersaults. She praised them and petted them the same way that I petted my Rudolph.
Then Mikey decided that he wanted to ride on Rudolph. He grabbed at Rudolph’s horns and yelled in my face, demanding that I let him have the toy. I said, “No! Rudolph is mine!” I stuttered noticeably as a child, yet at this age was only somewhat aware of the broken words as they came out of my mouth. I heard them amplified, however, in Mikey’s response.
“Nanananana – RuRuRuRu – dadadada – meemeemee,” Mikey laughed and pointed, “You talk like a baby!” Mikey’s mother looked nervous, concerned for her child. “Now, now,” she said to me slowly as if talking to someone unpredictable. “Just relax, don’t get so excited, Mikey just wants to ride on your reindeer. You can share.” I shook my head again, “Rudolph is mine!” Mikey yanked the deer away from me and repeating consonants like a motor, rode out of reach. Mikey’s mother clapped, “See! Look how fast Mikey can go!”
I ran to my mother who looked up from her magazine. I was crying. “Mikey has Rudolph and he was copying me, making the words go over and over, and he took Rudolph and laughed at me.” My mother saw the other mother crowing over her son and frowned; her eyes, not unlike Rudolph’s in their size and shape, looked fierce. But she did not get up. “You need to fight back,” she said. “No one is going to fight your battles for you. If you want your deer back, you go get it. If I go over there, you will never learn.” “But Mikey is bigger than me,” I worried. She shook her head, “Call him a name or something. He is just a whiney little momma’s boy, you can get that toy back on your own.”
I ran back to Mikey and Rudolph. Mikey had gotten off the deer but held it behind him as I approached. “You can’t have it back, baby talk, nanananna.” I pushed him aside and grabbed at the deer. There was a brief tug of war. Mikey’s mother began to move quickly saying, “Now children. Children!” I wrenched the deer away and, with both hands, lifted Rudolph in the air, swinging it over my head and down on Mikey’s, gravity and shifting antlers adding velocity to the hard plastic arc and subsequent crack. Mikey and his mother screamed at the same time. Holding on tight, I set the deer back on the ground, climbed on the bright red saddle, and rode toward my mother.
I heard the other mother trying to comfort her sobbing son. Out of the corner of my eye I watched her pick up Mikey and stride purposefully passed me to where my mother was still sitting. Mikey’s mother bellowed a string of incriminations; my mother shrugged, said something like: “The kid had it coming.” She opened the magazine again and continued reading. Mikey’s mother screamed for Michelle, who had been practicing Cartwheels, to “get upstairs and away from these people.” My mother got up and called me inside after the door slammed. She said, “Good girl. You have to stand up for yourself or people will walk all over you.” And that was the end of it. Mikey never played outside again, at least not when we were there.
For my mother this episode was a mundane interaction, daily proof that the world required vigilant self-reliance. She grew up fighting for her place in a town where Sicilian immigrants were still called WOPs. She married a boy who had hitchhiked his way from the poorest side of the tracks. They learned to survive, moving hungrily from job to apartment to house, then to a better house, a better neighborhood, a better status, propelled by a tenacious belief that good fortune had nothing to do with it.
My memory spans my parents’ progress from scrappy to privileged. I echo the syllables of their past and it never occurs to me to look up or around for rescue and explanation. I think of Mikey’s mother and sometimes long for a life protected by benevolent authority or intervened by God or woven by the delicate fingers of fate but as my mother’s daughter, this seems fanciful, even weak.
There are many Polaroids of myself and my mother during the time of the reindeer riding toy. We are almost always photographed together, dressed in similar clothes, a strikingly exotic woman in her intricate beehive hairdo and a small, skinny child with pixie bangs, awkwardly posing as tough and true as her mom. Beyond these pictures is a square of grass, many afternoons and a lifetime leaning into the wind, riding on Rudolph, determining my speed with each shove of my foot on the ground.
This essay was previously posted under the pseudonym Ramona Wengler.