By Marge Thorell
For six years after the war, we lived in a rented house in Wissinoming, a town beside the railroad tracks, by the Delaware River. My mother, who had come from a more elite section of Philadelphia, hated this post-war sojourn, calling the town at best blue-collar. My father, who never had a bad word about anyone or anything, deemed it the salt of the earth.
These were the good years, the burgeoning, prosperous years. Though my uncles, who had served their country valiantly, were still recalcitrant and too frequently drunk.
“Boys will be boys,” my grandmother often said of her thirty- and forty-year-old sons. Although the war was over, residual effects lingered. The uncles, home from far-flung places, were free to continue in their wayward ways.
My cousins came to our house frequently for meals, perhaps because their mother was gone somewhere or because their father, Uncle Buck, drank more than was good for him after his service in the South Pacific.
“Come have Easter dinner with us,” my mother had blurted out, perhaps without thinking.
I was a young child on that Sunday in March, when Easter came early. It was still cold—no Easter bonnets for us. Mother and I worked in the kitchen, the warmest room in the house. I remember the worn linoleum, discolored from many washings, no pattern discernible, mother on her knees, scrubbing away. A round, wooden table scarred from years of use, accompanied by six chairs, whose blue cushions were faded and frayed, sat by the window overlooking clothesline, swing set, and sandbox.
In that kitchen at Easter that day, I watched as she pulled eggs, cream, butter, and other accoutrements from the icebox, which kept perishable food cold by way of a huge block of ice in the bottom drawer. Mother began preparing ham, dotted with pineapple slices, au gratin scalloped potatoes, ubiquitous green bean bake made with Campbell’s onion soup. Her baked biscuits, as well as her specialty: lemon pie, meringue tips baked a toasty brown. Her lemon meringue pie was the talk of the town.
This was the year my sister and I received four furry, little, yellow chicks as our Easter present. They lived and whimpered in a wooden crate under the footed stove. The heat from cooking offset the cold from the icebox.
When our guests came for dinner, I invited my cousins to enter the kitchen, so I could show them my Easter present.
“Come see the chicks Daddy bought me,” I said to Francis, the eldest of the quartet.
I knew somehow that Uncle Buck would never buy little chicks as an Easter present for his kids, but my father would and did. Bemused, the cousins leaned over the box and tried to pet the skittish chickens.
Right before dinner, my father went through his collection of classical music, pulling out his records, putting recordings of Swan Lake and Chopin’s Polonaise on the record player, much to the chagrin of my uncle. As the strains of the Polonaise waft into the room, Buck made his opinion known.
“For God’s sake, Al. What are you doing? Are we going to dinner or a concert? Some kind of a high-class joint we got here, huh?” This was followed by guffawing and more gulps of beer.
The grown-ups sat at my mother’s table covered by a lace hand-crocheted tablecloth, festooned with china, silver, and Irish crystal goblets. We children, my sister and I and the four cousins, sat at the children’s table—a card table set up in the corner of the dining room. A large mirror on the wall, which I faced, allowed me to watch the adults at the big table eating dinner, drinking wine, and talking politics and religion.
I also kept tabs on Francis, who wiggled in his chair and kept looking back toward the kitchen. From past experience, I knew he was usually up to no good. When we were halfway through the meal, Francis suddenly left the table. I watched as he made his way toward the kitchen through the swinging doors. Somehow, I knew what he was going to do. I rose and slipped into the kitchen behind him just in time to see him squeezing the baby chicks in his fist one by one, and then throwing them back into the wooden crate.
Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.
He turned and smirked at me.
“Look what you did to my chickens!” I hollered.
My mother came running, my father jumped up from his seat, my grandparents were startled by my cry, and the other three cousins stood at the doorway, peering in curiously. Uncle Buck continued to drink.
I was only ten, Francis a year younger. We never liked each other, and I certainly had no empathy. This was my first experience of cruelty, a world I did not know. I often find myself thinking about Francis now, though, and how he suffered at Buck’s hand. The war was over for most of us, but Francis had to fight for many more years to come.