The original plan had been to create a family heirloom; instead, the object of disdain and ridicule that resulted from their efforts was rapidly tossed aside. After much disappointment and grumbling my parents and my older sister, Esther, decided the photographer must have been drunk or incompetent. In any case, they declared to anyone who would listen that Mr. Lara did not even deserve payment. My little brother, Ralphy, and I were too young to know or care what happened to the photographer or his demand for payment, although I am sure it was paid. My parents were always proud to say they owed money to no one.
There is no date stamped on the back of the photograph, but I believe it must have been taken around 1946 when my brother was about two and a half; I was just five. Why do I choose this date? Because my brother still wears his hair a bit long, even after much criticism from family and friends. My mother loved his beautiful hair so much that she could not bear the thought of cutting it. When Ralphy was two years old Mami declared that her son would not get his first haircut until age three. However, when a stranger asked why the little “girl” was dressed as a boy, my father interpreted the innocent question as an insult hurled at him personally. He told my mother that the boy’s manhood was being called into question and that the golden-brown curls had to go immediately. That very day he took his son to the barber for the first time.
Somehow this much-despised family photograph has survived all these 64 years when other cherished images, memories and souvenirs have been lost or destroyed. Few precious mementos remain. Studying this photograph, I remember my mother complaining she looked too fat and indeed, in this picture she does. In addition, there is a defiant scowl on her face, guarantying that no one in her right mind would have ever admitted to her face she had, indeed, gained weight.
My sister’s face is almost unrecognizable in its haughty rigidity—as if the act of suppressing some intense anger had robbed her of all patience and beauty; my younger brother, Ralphy, looks frightened. My eyes are closing because the discipline of posing for that photograph is more than I can bear and I am yielding to fatigue. Lastly, my father’s expression is that of a piteous, saintly man who has endured extreme emotional pain and disappointment worthy of martyrdom, and who had long ago resigned himself to endure even more. Of course, none of these assumptions is true, even my mother’s weight gain is exaggerated in the photograph. However, inspired by the horror of her image, she lost weight. My sister was and is still a very beautiful woman. My father was a man who lived a life full of intense joy and whose sudden bursts of song and laughter filled our lives with love. My brother, Ralph and I were strong, energetic and healthy children, always into mischief.
In 1946 we lived at 903 Avenue Saint John in the southeast Bronx. It was a working-class neighborhood, a little tough, perhaps, but still about five years from developing into the infamous inner city neighborhood that many neighbors fled. Our building still stands and looks just as I remember it— painted red, four stories, the second building in from the corner where Prospect Avenue and Avenue Saint John meet up. The neighborhood saloon is still in business on the corner.
In our building there were four, railroad-style apartments, one on each floor, and each one with six rooms—luxurious in size by New York City standards. An apartment, for the superintendent, took up a small portion of the basement. In the back of the building, I remember the small overgrown, weedy garden we were not allowed to enter. Our apartment was on the top floor.
The kitchen and large dining room were at the back of the building; the kitchen window gave us access to the fire escape. Until the day we left the Bronx, that large, fire escape was my favorite place in the world. Every summer my mother placed cardboard, covered with a blanket to soften the iron slats, and there I would nap, play, dream and watch the older children play in the school’s playground around the corner on Kelly Street. When I was a little older I read and tended my miniature garden consisting of as many flower pots as would fit in the limited space of the fire escape, and there, too, I learned to garden.
I don’t remember who gave me the seeds for those first, pale-yellow marigolds that jumped up from the dirt, filling the fire escape with stalks, leaves and huge buds that opened petal by curled petal. Warmed by the summer sun, the marigolds yielded a unique scent that no one else tolerated, but I loved it. Several generations of marigolds grew in my garden until one year, fascinated by extraordinary images on their envelopes, I talked my mother into buying me flower seeds of other species and varieties at the Woolworth on Prospect Avenue; that was the summer I discovered that flowers also come in many other sizes, shapes, colors and even more delicious perfumes. I had discovered magic.