Margie and I went to the Grotta Azzurra in Greenwich Village for dinner and we ended up at her apartment for drinks (sherry) and for me to meet her roommates, Annie Steinert and Joan Williams. Annie, a fashion writer, was the titular tenant and Margie and Joan shared the second bedroom. All were in thrall to Annie’s two Burmese cats. Annie had done her junior year abroad in Florence. She greeted me warmly in basic Italian and I responded in kind. We were friends for life. Joan worked for Smith Barney, a prestigious investment bank – they were all prestigious in those days. Joan was friendly enough but she appraised me coolly. Six months later when Margie told Joan that we were to be married, she said, “Margie, how could you? He has no prospects.” Margie was offended. Joan of course was right, I would never make an investment banker.
Two weeks later Margie and I had dinner at Marchi’s which was around the corner from her apartment. After the meal we walked back toward her place. At her front door I said, “Oh Margie, let’s, LET’S! go to my apartment.”
She ran upstairs to collect some things. Afterwards, as we lay entwined upon my narrow bed, she said, “I’m so glad we finally broke the ice.” It was our third date – not counting the rides I had given her to Philadelphia, together with Sid and Joe. We admired each other’s topography as we lay there. Margie’s breasts were considered small by those who would never know what lovely handfuls they made. They would have slipped nicely into wide mouthed champagne glasses. Yes, I thought Margie my sexual object; happily, so did she. And I was hers. She played her fingertips lightly across my chest, lingering at my nipples. “How cute!” she said gleefully, as she watched my prick rise again. “I wish it were bigger,” I said wryly. “Is it considered small?” I kissed her gentle hands.
Margie, an only child, was unintentionally conceived because her mother, Helen Headley, thirty-seven years old, unmarried and once divorced, had been told that she could never have children. She had a prolapsed uterus. Helen Headley and her long time beau, Roy Ridge, got married in a hurry. Margie was born seven months later on March 31, 1931.
Roy, a civil engineer, died suddenly in 1956 at his desk in the city of Philadelphia’s housing inspection office. He was sixty-four years, eleven months old. Helen was called Huna because her youngest brother, as a child had trouble pronouncing Helen. Helen liked it and the name stuck. Huna was shaken by Roy’s death, not outwardly, that wasn’t her style. Roy was gently ironic, an antidote to her overly literal mind. Because he died before his sixty-fifth birthday, his city pension was not vested. Huna got only a one-time cash payout. She herself had worked for more than thirty years as an actuary in Philadelphia. She retired in 1957. Her life style was viable only because her own pension income was augmented by withdrawls from Roy’s cash payout, and by the proceeds from the sale of the house in Ludwig’s Corner.
Margie was a first reader at Lippincott Publishers, in their Philadelphia office. She was promoted to children’ editor, and transferred to its New York City office. She felt guilty leaving her mother alone but she was anxious to assume her more challenging new duties and to enjoy life in New York City. She wrote Huna long, cheery letters and she visited Ludwig’s Corner regularly, for as long as her mother continued to live there. It was a long train ride from New York City.
Huna was lonely in Ludwig’s Corner but not unhappy; she worked in her garden every morning, almost to exhaustion. Afterwards she’d take a shower, rest in bed for a half hour before coming down for a lunch that she would have prepared early that morning. She always came down in a nice frock, her hair primped up. Her figure was still good and she dressed casually but smartly. She’d have lunch occasionally at the Shuman’s who lived at the end of her road.
Then that last winter, in 1957, she was unnerved by the snow storm that blocked her road for three days. The storm downed power lines so that she had no electricity: no heat, no water, no phone service for two days. She slept on a cot she placed by the fire place in the living room. That spring she called her brother Bob, a realtor, and he put the house up for sale, her dream house, that she and Roy and Margie had restored fifteen years earlier. It was a wrenching loss, for Margie too.
Her tendency to depression, long suppressed – “I simply will not have it!” – came stealing back. She took stronger and stronger anti-depressants, but nothing worked. She entered The Institute, the psychiatric hospital in Philadelphia for a few weeks. She emerged more chastened than cured, but she felt well enough to move into a garden apartment in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, an easy train ride to nearby Philadelphia. She threw herself into furnishing and decorating it: “I am extravagant but not wasteful.”
Huna was functioning, not yet her old self, but keeping her depression at bay. Her early character had been shaped by having grown up the lone sister among five brothers. She had had to fight for her rights and she had prevailed. Her brothers respected her, they liked her. She was confident but not pushy, intelligent but not subtle, loving but not demonstrative.
Margie fainted at the dinner table when she was ten years old, slumping down in her chair. “Don’t be silly Margie!” said Huna, who considered fainting a failure of character. “Helen!” exclaimed Roy, jumping up from his chair to rescue his daughter. Margie and her father became allies. They were sensitive, amusing, self-deprecating, and sotto voce, they dryly commented upon Huna’s little tyrannies.
Sunday breakfasts at Huna’s in Wynnewood were beautifully served, with Danish pastries from the Viking Bakery. One morning she called out from the kitchen to say she had found some interesting new rolls at the supermarket. She entered the dining alcove bearing a half dozen “bagels!”, accent on the e. She had never before eaten a bagel. I had never before eaten scrapple. Huna and I traded firsts those early years: pizza, ravioli, biscotti for her; Yorkshire pudding, oyster sauce, shad roe for me.
Eighteen months after the wedding, Margie and I planned our first vacation trip together, a week in Rockport, Massachusetts at an inn on a rocky cove. It would serve as our base for visiting historic sites and nearby seaside towns. Margie hoped to eat some form of lobster every day: “Lobster rolls, yum!” I suggested we take Huna with us. Margie was touched and grateful. We hatched a plan.
Huna tried to beg off. She didn’t want to intrude upon our vacation, but we insisted and she relented. In Rockport, some afternoons she remained at the inn while Margie and I drove around. The inn was quiet and comfortable, with a shaded deck where she could read. We found her sitting there looking out over the water, a book in her lap She seemed fine. Margie shook her head. “You haven’t seen the real Huna, the take-charge Huna.” We played our trump card.
“Mother, we’re going to have a baby.”
Huna’s eyes widened, they lit up her face: “Margie, oh Margie.” Margie leaned down and kissed her cheek. We were quietly exultant. Huna took a deep breath that squared her shoulders, that tilted her head imperiously. “Margie. Margie.” In her mind’s eye she began to make lists of people to call, things to buy, baby things to knit. A grandchild! At sixty-eight!
Huna’s joy was complete when I had called from the hospital: a girl! The outfits she would buy! She was waiting at our apartment door when we arrived five days later. She took Fernanda from Margie’s arms and marched off to the changing table, cooing sweetly as she went. She stayed for two weeks while Margie eased into motherhood. I was better prepared for fatherhood for I had grown up in a house with five recently married cousins who nursed their babies in my presence. They would casually thrust a baby into my eight-year old arms and dash off for a smoke.
We resumed our Sundays at Huna’s. After breakfast Huna would take Fernanda out in the stroller. There were tree-lined paths that crisscrossed the landscaped courtyards. Whenever she encountered a neighbor, or anybody she knew even casually, Helen would announce, “This is my granddaughter, Fernanda Helen Perrone.” Sometimes Margie and I walked with them, more often we stayed in to read Huna’s Sunday New York Times.
Nanda began to spend weekends at Huna’s by herself after she was weaned. We would deliver her on Saturday and pick her up on Sunday when we’d arrive for brunch. Huna and Fernanda treasured these weekends. So did Margie and I. We could go to bed early and sleep late, not attuned to sounds from the nursery. When I’d lift Margie’s night gown over her head, she’d stick her arms straight up, woodenly, as if submitting resignedly. Then she’d throw her arms around me.
We moved out of that first apartment because of landlord problems. The brick chimney that rose up from the incinerator in the the courtyard was attached to the rear wall of our building. The chimney passed our kitchen wall on its way to the roof. The mortar binding its bricks, and those of the wall, was old and porous, Whenever they fired the incinerator, our apartment was invaded by a powerful smell of burning trash and garbage. I called the landlord about it. He denied there was a problem and he was curtly rude before hanging up the phone. He became inaccessible.
I called the city’s sanitation department. They told me our landlord had been cited for this problem before. Whenever his case worked its way to trial – it took months – the landlord was happy to pay the relatively small fine rather than put out thousands of dollars to fix the chimney. I called the police, they said call the sanitation department. The next time we smelled smoke, I called the fire department.
They responded immediately: hose truck, hook and ladder truck, the works. The lieutenant came to our door and explained that there was no danger, no need to call the fire department; it was merely smoke seeping through the walls. “Lieutenant,” I said, “ whenever we smell smoke I’m going to call the fire department. I cannot assume that the next time it will not be a real fire.” Two or three days later someone came and bricked over the incinerator door. It was my lone victory over a landlord, ever. We soon found a bigger place in the The Montevista Apartments, three blocks away, on Sixty Third Street.
We bought all twenty two volumes of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit books for Nanda and we read to her incessantly. We also had Margie’s old children’s books and we bought dozens of new ones. We would prop her up by our side and read, acting out the dialog in the various voices of the characters. Huna was best at this. Nanda would take her favorite books to bed. Her crib was in the room adjoining ours with a connecting door that was always open. In the silence of the night, we would hear the soft flapping noise as she flipped the pages in the darkness.
Nanda thrust yet another book onto Huna’s lap. Huna had just read her several books so she tried to talk Nanda out of it. Margie called out from the other room, “Mother, just say no,” Nanda countered, “Huna is not in the habit of saying no.” It was a direct quote from Beatrix Potter. I loved Beatrix Potter too for it was my first exposure to children’s books. My mother knew only Italian fairy tales.
We sent Nanda to nursery school at the Presbyterian Church on Lancaster Avenue. Was she three or four years old? When she came home that first day, she showed Margie what she had learned at school. She lay her coat down flat on the floor, splayed open, with its collar toward her feet. She stooped and inserted her arms halfway into the sleeves and she rose to her feet. She raised the coat over and behind her head and shoulders, thrusting her arms backward and downward, and rolling her hands in forward circles, like a conductor asking his orchestra to rise, Presto! she was into her coat. She did it again when I came home from work. How proud I was. How happy her teacher must have been, not having to wrestle twenty-five little children into their coats every afternoon.
We loved the Montevista Apartments, three story stone buildings separated by inner courtyards. We had a corner apartment with seven rooms including a maid’s room! with its own sink and toilet. If only we had had a maid! The rooms were light and airy with nine foot ceilings and tall windows. The building was old but solidly constructed and well maintained. The washers and dryers were in the basement just beneath our kitchen. Very handy when you have two children – our son Stephen had arrived, noisily, joining three-year old Nanda. The building superintendent, a courtly old Egyptian called Mr Said, lived on the premises. So did Al, his energetic assistant.
Best of all we had Suzy Pillion, our baby sitter whose family lived on the third floor. She was a high school sophomore who hoped to become an elementary school teacher. Nanda loved Suzy, So did we. Suzy would take her for an hour or two in the late afternoon, or in the evening. Some Sunday afternoons we’d send them to the park for three hours, a windfall for Suzy for she would earn three dollars! Margie and I would go to bed.
As Nanda approached her fourth birthday, we realized sadly that we’d have to leave the Montevista. Her would-be elementary school was marooned in a rapidly deteriorating neighborhood. Decaying neighborhoods were to blight our quests for affordable apartments.
We’d find a spacious apartment in a nice building – the Montevista, for example – very reasonable! but it would be on the fringe of a questionable neighborhood. Having grown up a street kid in South Philadelphia, I was a connoisseur of bad neighborhoods but I went along with Margie’s decisions. “After all,” she said, “If nice people don’t make a commitment, things will never improve.” She had never heard of Gresham’s Law: bad money drives out good money. Margie hated my pessimism. my narrow-mindedness in some things, the result, as she saw it, of my having grown up in an ethnic neighborhood bordered by other ethnics. Tribal fear of the other. Nonetheless, we decided to buy a house in West Philadelphia and to take Huna in with us.
End of first installment.