Reindeer in the Sky

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Chapter 1: 504 Thatford Avenue

The Schumanns were all there; lined up on the stairway between our apartments like bowling pins.  Grandma Rose stood her ground as the head pin. Grandpa Robbie who looked like movie gangster George Raft and their firstborn, Bert positioned themselves respectfully behind her. Remaining above was Uncle Herby; the most sweet-natured of the five siblings. My Aunt Evie, only fourteen years older than I and my favorite used her fingers as a comb to untangle Aunt Sandy’s curly hair. Sandy, who up until that moment was the baby of the family, rarely hid her disdain for me, making our encounters mostly unpleasant and sometimes a little scary. Even Spotty, the street dog that returned each night to sleep on the tiled floors between the two apartments, stayed in that morning sensing another scrap-source was arriving.

Grandma Leslie held me as Grandpa Leslie followed Mom and Dad into the darkened hallway packed with their son’s inlaws. By nightfall, I had been inspected by Great-Grandma; GG, four great-aunts and their spouses, my two great uncles and their wives, my mother’s first and second cousins, folks we’d call Uncle this or Aunt that who weren’t blood relatives, most of Grandma Rose’s card-shark friends and all our neighbors. I was a firstborn child, grandchild and GG’s first great-granddaughter.  

It was 1947, the war my father and uncles fought in was over. America, Brooklyn included, was entering the golden age of capitalism. Uncle Bert was in college thanks to the GI Bill, Grandma made her last payment on a new electric clothes washer, Dad bought the first television on our block and I, straight from Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, was meeting my family in the home we would share for the next decade.

Gaggle after gaggle, the well-wishers left. Uncle Bert who, in his teens ran into a moving car and broke his nose, making his profile exactly like the Indian head nickel, walked GG back to her tenement on Watkins Street. Dad drove his parents home in time to feed their dog, Flossie. The house was quiet, or as quiet as an extended family home could be with four adults, four children, an infant, a calico cat named Toby and Spotty our sometimes dog.   

In our kitchen downstairs, Grandma Rose held me while Mom made my formula and remembered aloud.  “Did Dave tell you what he did at the hospital, Ma.” She stood over the cooling pot of boiled glass bottles looking for some sign of doneness.  

Grandma shook her head at the new expensive equipment, “Jeanie, are you sure you don’t want to breast-feed?”

“Ma, nobody does that anymore. Carnation Formula is healthier.” Mom filled, capped and handed the bottle to her mother and watched me latch onto the rubber nipple. “I wonder if the French woman had a boy or a girl,” she mused.

Grandma daubed my drool with a boiled kitchen rag. “What French woman,” she asked without moving her gaze from my chin.

Mom pulled out one of our yellow kitchen chairs to face us. “As soon as they examined me, the doctors said, even though my water broke, it was going to be a long wait.”  

“Three days, Jeanie,” Grandma broke in. “I never had that with any of my deliveries”

Grandma was really saying, home births are easier, safer and better, but the grown-ups in our house rarely had verbal throw-downs, instead they said, we don’t do that or nobody in our family speaks that way, as if the Schumann family rules were an improvement on the world’s morality.

“I know, Ma, you told me already.” Her new badge of motherhood emboldened Mom, but only temporarily. “So, while Dave was in the waiting room, a nurse asked him to come to the front desk. A doctor was standing there in a white coat and everything. He shook Dave’s hand and asked where he served. For a second, Dave thought maybe he knew him when he was a medic.”

Grandma handed my emptied bottle to Mom, slung me onto her shoulder and began patting. The two women waited for my burp. It would take a long time.

“…but instead, the doctor says, your wife isn’t having your baby for hours… probably tomorrow. But we have a French war-bride here who’s supposed to be in Manhattan at Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital. How she ended up here is anybody’s guess. Can you drive her?” Mom got up from her chair to catch another glimpse of me and finish her story. “Ma, you know Dave. He drove that woman, checked her in and came back to the waiting room like nothing happened. She could have had her baby in our car, for God’s sake!”

I burped. The two women laughed and applauded my wonderful feat. Then Grandma nodded towards the sink. “Wash it right away, otherwise the germs will get in.”  

We’d been home for hours and Mom hadn’t yet held me in her arms.

Upstairs, a fight ensued between my aunts. Evie was missing her gold-filled bracelet. Sandy insisted she didn’t take it. One of them slammed a door. The thud made me blink. “You tell your sisters to stop right now!” ordered Grandma. Mom stepped out of her role as wife and mother to return to her childhood place as eldest daughter. She sprinted to the hallway, grabbed hold of the bannister finial and shouted “You’re scaring the baby! Ma’s coming up there it you two don’t stop!” On her way back, she noticed Spotty, still in our hallway long after breakfast. She opened the front door and rousted him with her shoe, “Oh, you smelly thing! Out!”

Mom, who wasn’t a dog lover, didn’t like cats or fish and was afraid of birds, enjoyed the company of people and happily, the house on Thatford Avenue had a constant supply.