I’m eight years old and I guess I’m pretty smart; my teachers say I test way above grade level. But, right now I can’t stand my life. I’m scared a lot, and sometimes it’s hard to fall asleep. My mother and I are living here with Blue Nana (that’s what I call my grandmother ‘cause she always wears something blue). After the lawyer sends the papers I’ll be the only kid I know whose parents are divorced.
When we first arrived, Blue Nana pulled my face smack into her fat chest and smoothed my hair over and over, her rings getting caught in my red curls. “There, there little lady,” she kept saying. She meant to make me feel better, I know, but I couldn’t wait to get loose what with her perfume climbing up my nose and my hair being pulled every which way. “Oh, Sara Jane,” she sighed, shaking her head as she let me go.
I went outside to sit on the stoop and since nobody was looking, and to prove I wasn’t a “little lady,” I dug out a booger from my nose and rolled it between my thumb and finger before I threw it into the snake plant.
My mother was happy for my grandmother to take over; it left her free to take long walks and read her dumb romance novels. “Healing takes time,” she told me when I asked her if we’d ever be happy again. “We must be patient.”
Nobody explained to me why we were getting a divorce. Daddy was out a lot and he drank too many Manhattans when he was home, saving the cherries for me before he fell asleep in the easy chair. But he was fun lots of times. Like when he brought the lobsters home for dinner and let them race each other across the kitchen floor or pushed me in the swing on the old buttonwood tree, so high that my toes could almost touch the branches. And when I jumped to him in the deep end of the pool his eyes were the blue-green color of the water. I loved the way he laughed, a deep rumble from way down inside his chest. He always called me Sassy because he knew I hated Sara Jane. I know I’m not pretty like my mom and Blue Nana, but I don’t think he should have gone away without saying goodbye.
The Monday after we came to Blue Nana’s, I lagged behind my mother while we walked the long brown corridors of the Robbins Elementary School where I was enrolled in the 3rd grade. My stomach was reacting to the lunchroom odors of vegetable soup and warm milk. I was scared again and I was worried about what would happen to me when she left.
“I’m afraid I might throw up,” I said, hoping for a miracle.
“You’ll be fine, Sara Jane,” she said, kneeling and looking into my eyes, her beautiful pale hands holding my damp paws. Then the door closed and I was imprisoned with twenty-five classmates led by the towering Miss Ogden whose face was a sterner version of George Washington’s. She introduced me as a new girl and directed me to the empty desk in the back row. Forty-four dark eyes followed me as I stumbled by the blackboard and fell into my seat. It looked like my entire class was made up of Italians who probably lived nearby. I knew this because when my grandfather was still alive he would look up from his daily reading of the Bible to complain that the wops were taking over the neighborhood. “Hush now, they’re not wops, they’re Italians,” Blue Nana would say when she was around. Mostly she wasn’t around and he’d go on and on about the wops.
As that first week went by I knew I was not going to be popular at school. Out on the dusty playground I was building character. “We were afraid you’d be pretty,” two fat girls with tiny mustaches told me before they lumbered off. The boys weren’t any better. One tried to trip me and said my hair looked like piss, then ran snickering to the fence where his friends joined in the laughter as they glanced back at me. I willed the tears back and pretended to be fascinated by an ant hill by my foot.
“How’s school going?” Blue Nana asked a week later.
“Nobody likes me,” I answered. I was sitting on a stool next to the dressing table watching her roll her hair into a neat coil at the back of her neck.
“They’re just jealous!” she said.
“Jealous? Why would they be jealous?” I sputtered.
“Because,” she dabbed My Sin behind her ears, “you’re different and that scares them but at the same time it fascinates them.”
“Well,” she explained, “they have a lot in common; they have the same dark coloring, go to the same church, all live in the same neighborhood and have a pretty similar home life. Then you come to school in the middle of the year, a stranger with your fiery red hair and freckles, as different from them as you could be. They don’t know what to make of you but they can tell by the way you walk and hold your head up high that you are SOMEbody.”
I still didn’t understand. “But, what’s special about me?”
She put the cap back on the perfume and powdered her long straight nose with Ponds loose face powder. Apparently satisfied with the result she turned and looked straight into my eyes. We were very close and I could see her nose hairs. “Soul,” she said. “You have soul, Sara Jane. It’s hard to explain, but let’s say, it’s having a great, big generous heart. One that feels pain and joy extra much.”
“What good is that?”
“Wait and see,” she said, standing and brushing off her dress.
“It will serve you well.”
What saved my life was my voice and Blue Nana’s love of hearing me sing. In the old days, on visits, I had felt so happy when she would turn on the Victrola and play the “Italian Street Song” from “Naughty Marietta,” a high energy number which had the power, as I sang along, to cast me into outer space. Now that we were living with her, Blue Nana volunteered to do the dishes every night if my mother would play the piano while I sang. She claimed my voice thrilled her so much it made goose bumps up the backs of her legs.
On Saturdays she would take me downtown to the movies for a matinee that she thought was suitable for someone my age. We saw The Wizard of Oz four times; we were both in love with Judy Garland. Blue Nana said she had lots of “soul.” At night in bed, I began to plan a movie star career as I watched the streetlight glow outside my window and heard the trains passing to and from the railroad station three blocks away.
Toward the end of the year I had done nothing remarkable at school. The kids had stopped picking on me, but I was still floating on the edge, not really “in” anywhere. The big excitement was a talent contest being conducted by the Italian American Club around the corner from school. Anybody could enter by paying a dollar. The purpose was to raise money for the family of an Italian born laborer who had died on the job pulling wire rope for the local steel company. With no benefits, and hardly speaking English, the family was bad off.
I began talking the contest up to Blue Nana because I knew my mother wouldn’t go for the idea. I needed help getting there that night plus I needed her to bankroll me with a one dollar bill.
“Please, it’s for a good cause,” I whined. I said I knew she would feel sorry for immigrants since she came from England. She was shocked. “England is the mother country,” she explained, “and that fact exempts the English from immigrant status.” I was not going to win her over easily. Meanwhile, I kept singing “The Italian Street Song” around the house and World War II love songs after dinner. Belting out my version of “Give Me Five Minutes More” and “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree” I felt like a budding Judy Garland. I glowed. I sparkled.
“All right, you win,” Blue Nana relented.
On the big night, mother continued recovering by playing bridge at a neighbor’s house. Blue Nana backed out the old gray Hudson and drove us to the Italian American Club. We parked nearby and walked toward the large double doors with the stained glass windows. My heart was pounding like a bongo drum, my hands were getting all sweaty and I almost tripped going up the cement steps. I started to rethink the whole thing.
“Blue Nana, maybe we sh….” But her hand was already turning the doorknob.
As we entered the hall we were aware of a few curious stares. Blue Nana’s height was impressive. No one knew her elegant black wool designer suit with the blue brooch was a copy she made at home on her Singer sewing machine. The black hat with egret feathers added certain ‘panache’ she said. I was wearing my one good dress, a dark green silk she had made with heart shaped mother-of-pearl buttons at the cuffs. She moved like an ocean liner to the front of the auditorium and spoke to the surprised director. He looked over the sheet music she handed him and accepted the dollar entry fee. He nodded for us to take a seat in the front row.
The place was filled with familiar faces: Mr. Santoro, our shoemaker, Mrs. Epifanio, whose fruit stand I passed every day on the way to school, and others. They and their big boisterous families flashed warm, toothy grins our way. I exchanged vague signs of recognition with some of my classmates but could see suspicious curiosity in their eyes. The two of us sat on the folding gray metal chairs and waited. We watched jugglers, accordionists, and tap dancers perform, all to polite applause.
Finally the director beckoned to me with his finger. My grandmother squeezed my hand and suddenly I was in front of a microphone, under a spotlight just like the movies, listening to the introduction. Remembering Judy’s soul-piercing “Over the Rainbow,” and in the grand tradition of all abandoned women, I began softly. “Darling, I’m so blue without you” pause “I think about you” pause “the live long day.”
Hot white light blinded me; a frightening hush told me I was alone in this one. I dug deep into the secret bucket of unshed tears I carried around and poured them all into the song, gaining momentum along the way. “You went away and my heart went with you, I speak your name in my every prayer.” My phrasing and timing were followed perfectly by the piano player and at the end I was at full tilt. “If there is some other way to prove that I love you I swear I don’t know how, you’ll never know if you don’t know now.”
I opened my eyes and floated back down to earth. I was weak; all used up. There was no clapping. I began to fear that my career as the world’s youngest torch singer was over before it began. I looked over at Blue Nana. Her chin was up, lips pursed, eyes squeezed shut. A good sign. I knew right away it was the goose bumps. Then the applause burst through the silence like a huge, glorious waterfall echoing off the wooden walls and floor of the auditorium. That noise was better than having ice cream every day for a year. I was startled by the kids from my class who were suddenly jumping around me, smiling and pushing to get closer.
“Hey, you were good, S.J. I mean…really…you were great!” They kept saying things like that and a couple of the boys even hit me, nicely though, like I thought a big brother might. It wasn’t the same as getting tripped in the schoolyard. It wasn’t the same thing at all.
The show was over and the director asked for order. He called me to the table to select the first prize. I could have had any of them, but I picked the majolica wine jug because the blue-green enamel reminded me of my father’s eyes.
When we got home my mother was in the living room looking worried. “It’s late,” she said. “Where have you two been?”
“Sara Jane’s been busy tonight,” Blue Nana answered, pointing to where I was standing holding first prize. “We were at a talent contest and your daughter brought down the house. You should have seen her!”
“What are you saying?” She was completely baffled. We explained. “But, how did you do it without my knowing?” she said finally.
“It was easy,” I laughed. “Every night I practiced while you played the piano.” She didn’t respond and I felt suddenly shy. “And tonight,” I said quietly offering the jug to her, “I won the contest, Mom. I got first prize.”
“Oh,” she said slowly and put the jug on the mahogany drum table without so much as a backward glance. “Well, you better get to bed now, it’s late.” She hugged me then and went into the kitchen to pack tomorrow’s lunch. All of a sudden I felt the scaredness coming back. Blue Nana could tell.
“Don’t mind her,” she said, giving me an Eskimo kiss, “she’s just not herself yet.
Blue Nana thinks I’ll be famous someday if I keep singing with soul. I really think the majolica wine jug’s pretty darn ugly. It’s got these different colored bumps that look like a weird skin disease I saw on the newsreel. Chances are my mother will never see my father’s eyes there, but every time I look at it I start to smile.
About the author:
Marge Dwyer’s past credits include Kelsey Review, U.S. 1, Sacred Journey, and a WW 2 memoir she edited called So Long for Now. At present she has published a novel, The Heart Knows the Way, available through Amazon, and she is currently working on a second novel. She has been a book columnist for The Lawrence Ledger and a copy writer for a radio station.