One of the hardest things about being a seven-year-old with a drug-addicted mother was realizing why everything from piles of pennies to my most prized possessions slowly went missing.
When I was in second grade, an adult cousin of mine who was a junkyard operator came across a stack of beautiful beaded necklaces and assorted costume jewelry while doing his rounds. Finding he couldn’t leave such pretty things to rot in a landfill, he salvaged them, sterilized them and sent them to me to do with them as I wished.
I was seven then and not so enamored with jewelry that I needed some two and a half dozen necklaces in my tiny closet, so I took to the corner of my block to sell them for a dollar apiece. In 1986 I still lived on 86th Street in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, between 3rd and 4th Avenues. It was an ugly, barren block that served as the conduit between the shopping district of the area and the entrance to the fancy suburban neighborhoods of Shore Road, where most of my affluent classmates lived.
I made sure to accost every yuppie couple that passed my way between the stores and their mansions, charming them with my waist-length hair and two-teeth-missing smile. In only a few short hours, most of my necklace batch was gone. After I strutted up the steps of my apartment building to dinner and sauntered through the front door, singing loudly about my new riches, I took my Strawberry Shortcake purse and dumped it out on the living room rug, laying out twenty dollars in wrinkled one-dollar bills and the silvery sheen of an assorted pile of quarters, nickels and dimes.
My mother and stepfather oohed and ahhed, seemingly more admiring of my money than I was. I was brimming with pride. It was my first profit, the first money I had ever earned in my young life. My mind swam with the possibilities: it was enough money for a chocolate malted from Carvel every day for the next couple of weeks. After the appropriate amount of admiration was doled out, I started to feel uncomfortable with my mother’s odd fondling of the bills and coins as she counted and recounted them. I asked for my money back.
“But honey, where will you keep it?” my mother asked.
“In my purse,” I answered.
“All the time?” she countered.
“Sure. I can bring it to school with me.”
“But what if it gets stolen?”
“Why would anyone steal it? Everyone in my school has more money than us. They’re all rich,” I reasoned.
“That doesn’t mean anything. People steal…especially rich people.”
“Well, I won’t let it out of my sight.”
“What do you plan on buying with it all?” she asked.
I was starting to squirm, as the ominous feeling settled over me that this money wasn’t going to be mine for much longer.
“Malteds,” I said and snatched my money out of her hand.
My mother began to twist her mouth together, giving me that hurt look she reserved for guilting me out of my money. I could see her preparing herself, taking in a deep breath before beginning her tirade.
“You know, your dad and I need stuff around the house. We don’t have a lot of money.”
“It’s my money. I earned it. You didn’t even care when I said I was going to sell the necklaces.”
Surprisingly, my mother dropped the subject, and I felt the pride coming back. I had out-argued my mother. I had won.
But it wasn’t finished. Later on that night, my stepfather sidled into my room after bedtime, after my mother gave me a stiff “goodnight” and refused to read me a bedtime story because she was “too tired.” He sat on the edge of my bed and began, in his best basset hound voice, to dole out a replay of the hard times we were having: bills to be paid, my baby brother to feed.
I looked over at the crib, where Matthew was sleeping soundly. Unlike me, he didn’t seem to have an innate terror of his crib. When I was a toddler, it seemed like a cage and filled me with fear whenever it was time to be put down, causing me to erupt in ear-splitting screams that only one of my stepfather’s spankings could curb. I loved my brother and took my new role as a big sister seriously. I forked over the money, hoping I was making the right choice. But I still cried myself to sleep that night as the sense of pride seeped out of me, replaced by a sticky feeling of shame and anger.
* * *
Earlier that year I had received my First Communion. An inundation of congratulatory cards followed. Later on, like a big girl, I opened each and every card by myself, making sure to read both the canned text of Hallmark and the signed addendums of my extended family. I was particularly touched by the card my great grandmother, or as I called her, “momo” (from the Gaelic word mamo), sent: the sprawling, labored scrawl of her elderly hand, as she must have struggled to keep the pen straight while offering her kind and loving words. The sight of my momo’s crooked handwriting brought me to silent tears. She only sent me a five-dollar bill, while most other ones had tens and twenties, but I knew that to her, it was a lot of money. It was one of the last coherent pieces of communication I would receive from her before she slipped into the dementia of rapidly advancing Alzheimer’s.
After I read all the cards, I counted the money as my mother pretended to be busy cleaning up in the kitchen. But I know now, even knew then, that she was listening carefully to the crinkling of the bills, already trying to calculate in her mind’s eye how much it might be. I could feel the buzz of her anticipation like a a live wire electrifying the air. She tried to keep her excitement under control, tried to ask me questions about the cards first, what my aunts and uncles had said in them. But before I really even finished answering, she interrupted to ask me how much I’d “made.”
I forget exactly how much it was all these years later, but I do remember it was over two hundred dollars. My mother bit her lip to keep from gasping as I relayed the amount.
After dinner she scooped up the stack of bills, told me she was putting it away for safekeeping and zipped out of the room. I was more naïve then, thinking she might surprise me with a present, or maybe buy me one of those savings bonds that a lot of the kids at my school bragged their parents did with their communion money, saving it for their “future.”
But the money was never mentioned again, and the cards, every last one of them, including my momo’s, were thrown out. As with my birthday money that same year, it simply vanished. When I asked, my mother acted as though it had never existed. When I recounted how much it was, she laughed at me, exclaiming how kids have such wild imaginations. My mother thought my being young somehow made me stupid or forgetful, as though she could just pretend certain things didn’t happen and the passing of a few weeks or months would blunt my recall. She did this despite the fact that I could recite by heart enough Bible passages, prayers, nursery rhymes, song lyrics and assorted movie dialogues to fill more than one book, a talent that impressed the nuns at my school to no end.
She did the same thing when I’d catch her asleep on the toilet, or when I told her I smelled strange smoke coming from the living room – where she and my stepfather slept on a roll-out couch – seeping under the door and into the bedroom I shared with my brother. She would say I was dreaming or making things up. The necklace money was never mentioned again. I was bought a single chocolate malted the next day as a reward for helping out the family, but that was it.
* * *
At some point during that same year, my grandmother gave me a silver dollar from her Depression-era childhood. She told me it was a secret present for me and that it would be worth a lot of money when I was an adult. I could use it when I was older to help me out. With what I didn’t know, but I cherished that dollar.
I decided not to mention it to my parents and hid the dollar in one of my dresser drawers, in a sock. Occasionally I took out the dollar and looked at it, even made it a part of my games (Barbie buying a mansion on Shore Road with it). But one day it wasn’t in the drawer, in the place I was sure I put it. I panicked, tearing apart the drawers, my piles of toys, my whole room. When my parents came in and demanded an explanation, I grudgingly told them that the silver dollar Nan gave me was missing.
“Oh, you mean that half-dollar,” my stepfather sheepishly laughed. “I needed some change to buy a token for the subway last week.”
“What?!” I shrieked. “It’s not a half-dollar. It’s a real silver dollar from the Depression!” After this, I began to forget my manners, and in fit of rage I screamed, “How could you be so stupid?!”
My bad behavior earned me a hard spanking I hadn’t received from my stepfather in the years since the night terrors that besieged my toddlerhood had abated, and another night with no supper.
The next time I went to Nan’s, I came right out and confessed that the silver dollar was gone forever, and how it came to be that way. She shook her head and didn’t speak to me much for the rest of the day. I kept asking, “Nan, are you angry at me?” And she’d say “no,” but in the same stiff voice my mother used when she wanted me to feel bad about something.
After asking my grandmother several more times if she was angry, she snapped, “No! Now go play and leave me alone for a while!”
My grandmother wasn’t one to snap back then and I could feel my face flushing, a rush of sadness much stronger than I had ever felt at home on 86th Street. My grandmother may not have been angry, but I knew she was disappointed in me. I had failed to keep my heirloom, my special, secret present, safe.
* * *
About two and a half years later, after my mother and stepfather separated and my mother and uncle began their short stint as cat burglars in the neighborhood (for which he was caught and sent back to jail), we finally moved in with my grandparents the next neighborhood over in Sunset Park. For fifth and sixth grade, I had regular weekend visitations with my father and he gave me my weekly allowance. This money I hoarded and invested in my new passion: music.
I bought a recorder, the simple starter instrument the music store manager suggested when I told him I wanted to be a musician. I bought the companion books and taught myself to read music. Like a language that spoke only to me, I pored over these books, sweeping my fingers delicately over the pages as if I were reading braille. It was something that took me far away from the squalor of Sunset Park and the small, claustrophobic confines of our tiny tenement apartment.
Within weeks I was playing like a pro, from simple songs like “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” to snippets of complex symphony pieces such as “Swan Lake.” The music made me forget my mother, my snooty school, everything, and transported me to worlds of rivers and mountains and rustic farms silhouetted against autumn sunsets.
Almost every day after school I walked the two blocks to my Uncle Johnny’s house, where he lived with his troop of four daughters, all roughly my age. Uncle Johnny was an amateur jazz musician who had a fully converted music studio in his basement. I would go down there and fiddle with the instruments, even the ones I didn’t play. I took my recorder there and then later on, the Presario keyboard my father bought me, which taught me how to play songs in its selection by lighting up the keys that accompanied each note. As with the recorder, I could already play over a dozen songs on it.
It wasn’t long before Uncle Johnny started making comments about me being a “little music prodigy” and doing such things as playing a keyboard note or having a band mate of his strum a chord on his guitar to see if I could chime in on my own keyboard or recorder with an affable tune. Maybe (or now I am beginning to believe, likely) they were exaggerating my talents to buoy me up from the wreckage of my home life due to my mother’s myriad addictions, which were at that point common knowledge among my larger family. For the most part, I was a painfully shy kid who didn’t speak much to adults unless I was spoken to. But music made me bold, and with my mouth kissing the recorder or my fingers caressing the keyboard keys, I was a different person – a better person.
Soon Uncle Johnny’s eldest daughter, Jodie, had to learn to play the flute for school. The flute had actually been my ideal instrument and what I really had my eye on when I bought the recorder. I often went to the music shop when visiting my father and made sure to spend the most time in the flute selection, stroking the shining instruments, my envious eyes mirrored in their metal bodies.
That following Christmas, my grandmother bought me a flute. Not just any flute, but one of the fanciest ones from the store. It came in a leather box with a velvet interior and gold inscription. She must have scrimped for months to afford that flute. I carried it with me day and night, even taking it to bed with me when I went to sleep. Several times a week, I went to my cousin’s house and had Jodie teach me whatever song she had learned in school that day. I’d stay there beside her till I had it down. I eventually outpaced her though, going ahead in the book and teaching myself all the songs in it till our roles reversed.
Around this time, I also become very clever with hiding money. In an episode of “I Love Lucy,” Lucy threatens Ricky with a hunger strike if she cannot feature in one of his shows at the club. But instead of starving she shrewdly hides food around the house in carefully concealed places her husband would never think to look. In one of my favorite scenes, Ricky leaves exasperated after trying to force Lucy to eat. When next-door neighbor Ethel comes by, Lucy goes around the house, smugly disclosing all the different food items she has in hiding. In particular, she flips through a book she takes off a shelf and thumbs the first few pages while crooning, “One, two, three…baloney!” and holds up the proclaimed cold cut for the audience’s raucous laughter.
Inspired by this, I hid my ten- and twenty-dollar bills in between the pages of books, often marking a favorite chapter or poem. I also crammed them in the zippered butts of my battery-operated stuffed animals, assorted doll heads, taped them to the underside of dresser drawers. I always waited until my mother wasn’t home to hide and procure the bills, so I wouldn’t risk being caught in the act. My grandmother knew I did this, but we never spoke of it. She’d sometimes walk right by me while I was in the act, sneaking a sideways glance at me but never commenting.
The jig had been up for quite a while about what my mother was doing with the money and all I had to say to shut her up was, “Dad doesn’t like me taking home money he gives me, because he thinks it will disappear,” making sure to stress the last word with a sneer.
But my mother, who also watched “I Love Lucy” every day, gradually caught on to my antics. One day I came home from school and found the bookshelves nearly bare and a large pile of books on the floor, all opened and tussled, obviously turned upside down and shaken hardily before being tossed to the floor like garbage. The only things I loved more than my musical instruments were my books. I felt horribly violated by this act, as though someone had strip-searched me, probing their filthy fingers inside my secret spaces.
My mother started routinely going through my books after that, sometimes even feigning interest in the contents of the book if I was around. But I never hid my money there again. Eventually she decided to look elsewhere, and I would come home to find my dolls decapitated or my mattress flipped over and on the floor.
One time, she even came up to me and showed me the twenty she had found when she tried to play my recorder (“for fun”) and took it apart to investigate why it sounded muffled. She laughed as though she found this cute, as though it were an adolescent quirk for me to hide money like stowing buried treasure. Then she asked if she could “borrow” the money. I shrugged, which she always took as an affirmative answer. Refusing my mother always meant being prepared for, at the least, being called a bitch, and at worst (and more likely), being slapped or spat at in the face, lumps I learned to take with spiteful stoicism.
When my father found out that, despite the repeated rehab visits, my mother still stole from me weekly, he cut off my allowance, instead making it up to me in meals, books, and more musical goods. Not believing me at first that I had no more money, my mother began to become more aggressive in her desperation, sometimes thrusting her hands right into the pockets of my pants and jean jackets as soon as I walked in through the door from my weekend visits at my father’s. She’d frisk me roughly from head to toe till my grandmother would catch her and start scolding her.
Like a typical pre-teen female I was fickle and my passion for music, though not at all dissolved, had waned to the point where I started to put aside my flute for days or even a week at a time to concentrate on books or boys. After one particularly long stretch of a few weeks, I found my fingers and lips twitching with withdrawal and went to the armoire to dig my flute out and play something soothing. It was missing, along with my keyboard and most of my music books. When I brought this to my mother’s attention in the high pitched wail a girl that age usually reserves for sisters who steal their lip gloss, she shrugged me off, scornfully jeering that I hadn’t practiced in weeks and instruments were worthless things when not played.
After an intense, feverish grief over the loss of my music that gripped me for about two weeks, I forced myself to forget about it altogether, the way kids forget the dead goldfish or hamsters they once mourned like lost family members, later not even recalling the names of their once beloved pets.
When I hit junior high, I started writing poetry and stories as my new outlet, which let me once again visit worlds my mother couldn’t reach, but this time she couldn’t take them away. After all, paper and pen have no resale value, so a daughter who is a writer is of no use to an addict in need of her next fix.
Yet despite my best efforts, the loss still nagged at me, especially when I saw other kids with their instruments. In high school, I was once even seized with a sudden welling in my throat that rendered me speechless for several minutes as I thumbed through a classmate’s sheet music and realized the language I once read so fluently had become as illegible to me as Hebrew or Latin.
The loss still nags me from time to time, like an arthritic pain that kicks in in damp weather, or the slight soreness that always lingers in a bone that was once broken.
* * *
For Jodie, who taught me to play the flute, Rest in Peace.
Laura Kiesel is a Boston freelance writer whose articles and essays have appeared in Salon, Orion, The Street, Earth Island Journal and Al-Jazeera America. She is currently completing a collection of personal essays, “The Drug Addict’s Daughter.” Follow her on Twitter @SurvivalWriter and on Facebook.