I may as well have been born in the backseat, so soon after birth did I find myself there. Being the youngest by 7 years, my siblings were well into elementary school when I joined the clan. Born at the end of May, in the middle of parade season, it wasn’t long before I was on the curb following Little St. Joe’s Drum Corps as they marched through the shimmering heat in the local Fireman’s Carnival parades. At 2 weeks old I was sleeping in my buggy on the sideline of Woodward field as the big corps competed in the annual Drum Corps competition. Crashing symbols, rolling drums, and the blare of horns were my bedtime lullabies. I was the tag along, carried on a hip, pushed in a buggy, dragged from Drum Corps practice, to Girl Scout meetings, to grade school Basketball games. I grew up in that school, and in the back of our blue Rambler station wagon.
My memories begin to form around age 3. I can remember playing basketball with Sister Mary in the school cafeteria which doubled as the gymnasium. As the Girl Scout meetings were going on, I played games on the brown and tan tiled floor. That cafeteria is stamped into my memory, the smooth brick walls, the green paint, and the old Coke machines with wooden crates of empty pop bottles stacked next to it. I got to have Grape Soda if I was good, but I always got what I wanted whether I behaved or not. It was good to be the baby.
I can remember going to pick up Dad from the old Niagara Mohawk garage on Ellicott Street one evening as he finished his shift. In my flannel jammies I rode along in the back of the Rambler. After Dad climbed into the passenger seat, I crawled up to the front seat to snuggle up to him, and soak in the security of his “fatherly” aroma of motor oil, perspiration, and aftershave. On the way home our beloved Rambler was rear ended by a drunk, and the glass from the back window came flying through the car. All that time around the nuns must have had the angels watching out for me.
Those were the days before Mom worked, so I spent every waking moment with her, tagging along as she paid the bills. We didn’t mail in checks, we went to the Gas Company, and Electric Company and stood at the counter to pay the bills. Check cashing trips to the bank were always good for a Ford Gumball from the gumball machine. Of course, it also meant being around other grownups as Mom ran her errands, and attended her meetings with the old ladies. Oh how I hated the old ladies peering down at me, telling me how beautiful my eyes were, and what a pretty little girl I would make. Is it any wonder I hid behind Mom’s skirt, to escape from their polyester and hairspray world?
Batavia was changing, even then. Walking down Main Street in a light rain, the women wearing their little plastic rain bonnets, we stopped for lunch at the lunch counter in J.J. Newberry’s. Across the street the wrecking balls were knocking down buildings for the great urban renewal. Piles of bricks lined the street , with wooden beams poking out of them like crosses. Main Street wasn’t the only loss. Our new church opened in 1970, and I can remember the work crews knocking down the burned out shell of old St. Joseph’s Church, after the fire. We collected a few bricks as keepsakes, and they sat in the cellar of 20 Prospect for years. Even then we felt the loss.
The Drum Corps folded in 1974, the instrument room was emptied, and a hole was knocked in it to use as a hallway to the new gymnasium that was being built. I started school and Mom went to work keeping books for Braukmann Industries. In the springtime she picked me up after school on her bicycle, and we rode back over to the Industrial Center on Harvester Avenue. There, in the ancient hulk of the old Massey-Harris factory, we rode the elevator up to a long, dusty hallway on the 3rd floor. Her office was in a corner of a large empty warehouse. Sunlight struggled to shine in through the stained windows of the old factory, and fell in uneven blades across the room. Thermostats from Germany, were stacked in boxes, on long rows of pallets. When the teletype machine purred to life, it’s typing echoed through the vast emptiness, delivering mysterious messages from old Europe. Afraid of the shadows, and the ghostly silence of that building, I amused myself putting “Made in Germany” stickers on her bicycle.
Our life at home was changing too. Granny was sick with cancer, and moved from Buffalo to live with us. She slept on a rollaway bed in our front living room, her green Oxygen tanks stood in the corner. One by one my siblings moved off to High School, and then college, leaving behind their belongings which I searched through like an archeologist. They were gone, but these things had stayed. While all over town, the empty lots, and vacant buildings stood like belongings left behind by a city that had moved on too.
Maybe that is why I clung to the past, and refused to surrender anything as I grew. My favorite orange sweatshirt with the numbers on it that I wore long after it had faded, and become riddled with holes. The winter coat and hat I wore well into May, refusing to take them off even though sweat soaked my hair. Maybe I knew that something was slipping away from us, never to return. What else can explain the melancholy that haunts me still, and brings me here, to this keyboard, and this glowing screen, searching through the cellars of memory. Surely there is something here that we have forgotten. Something we left it behind. Something that will show us the way back.