Yonkers. Like Hungary and Canada I used to think these were places that only we had heard of. These were our places, places that other people didn’t know about.
Yonkers was the first place. You stepped into a space without windows – a table and chairs where my father drank coffee in the morning, and further back, away from the door, a kitchen counter, the stove. My mother hovered there like a shadow.
The living room had the windows, windows that I knew looked out towards a river. I heard them say so. I could sense we were at a height and that there was space beyond those windows, and light. That was where my father went during the day, somewhere into that big space and light. My father, who brought home a briefcase in the evening, a hard rectangular one that opened with the snap of two gold clasps.
My room -- farthest away from those windows. A crib with bars. And this room too is dark though it has a window that looks out onto the walkway that brings you down from the sidewalk to our door.
We move to the white house where my mother and father do work like painting – things with paintbrushes and ladders, hammers – because this is an old broken down house, with broken glass in the dirt around it and splinters in the floor. My mother says you can tell it’s an old house because the floor boards are wide.
Workmen sit together at lunch time away from the house, down by the road where my parents park our yellow car that they call “The Rambler,” and the men unwrap thick meaty sandwiches that I wish I could taste.
I sleep at the top of this house, under a pointed roof against a wall. My parents put a bar along the side of my bed because they say I fall out at night. They tell me not to draw on the wall.
Now I have a sister, a baby. “Watch she doesn’t roll,” my mother says, leaving me with the new baby as she takes the dirty diaper down the short hall to the bathroom at the end. I watch the baby who lies on her back watching me on the big bed where my mother sleeps at night.
My mother washes my hair with Breck shampoo in the bathtub. She pulls my hair and it hurts. She says it’s nothing. One time I resolve to not make any noise the whole time. Just to see if I can do it. I make it through.
The next time my mother says it is time to wash my hair it is after lunch and my father is home. We climb the steep stairs together. The first room at the top is my father’s room where he watches the news in the morning as he gets dressed. I invite my father to come watch me get my hair washed without making any noise. But he says he needs to take a nap. I don’t try to accomplish my feat a second time. It is too hard.
Next to the bathroom is my mother’s darkroom. I know she has trays of liquid in there. She takes a lot of pictures. She has two or three cameras and a square brown leather camera case with a long strap. You can sit on the camera case. It is like a little bench.
My mother holds the oval light meter in the palm of her hand. It has a white plastic dome and dials she moves back and forth.
She sells myrtle out of the garden. She puts an ad in the paper and people drive up and my mother hands them clumps of plant and dirt in newspaper.
Myrtle: this is something else that is only ours – the plant, the word.
My mother shows me how there used to be a road behind the house. It is an open grassy lane and we walk down there to where there is a clothes line – a pole, like a tree with strings for branches. My mother hangs things up and takes things down.
If you keep walking you get to the Kaisers’ house. I slept there the night my sister was born. They are old people who live in a white cottage. I can go there by myself. I sit in their kitchen and they give me hot sweet milky tea. I ask my mother to make it for me, but it doesn’t taste the same.
My mother tells stories about being a girl in British Columbia on a farm. She speaks of animals and plants and six brothers and sisters, an English father, a mother with a Spanish accent.
My father speaks of hiding from the bombs in the basement during the war in Budapest, about the fruit trees his father planted that the rabbits ate, of the 18 boys who asked his sister to marry them.
When my parents tell their stories I picture the farm, the basement. These become places I know.
Grandparents are people who live far away. One grandmother sends a big box of wrapped presents every Christmas. The other grandmother sends stiff picture books and things you don’t want to play with. A family is the people in your house.