(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)


MY EARLIEST MEMORY: I can still feel my fingertips running along the braids of the circular rug beneath me when, some 71 years ago, at an age that couldnít have been much more than a year and a half, I was listening to my mother and father screaming angrily at each other in the adjoining kitchen.  Of course, I canít remember the epithets they hurled at each other. This was long before I learned to talk.  How far back can you remember?

I was born in that kitchen.  On May 20, 1928.  Right on the table in the kitchen of 207 Farnsworth Avenue, the main drag of tiny Bordentown, a wisp of a municipality only a few miles south of New Jerseyís State Capital of Trenton.  Bordentown, where the Delaware River pinches New Jerseyís waistline.  Farnsworth Avenue, just up the block from the house once occupied by a man I like to think of as one of my spiritual ancestors: Citizen Tom Paine.

Not too many years later, I would learn to braid carpets like the one on which my mother had placed me after taking me out of the kitchen, which is where the argument began.  I would learn how to braid the threads of cotton wrapped around the brad nails hammered into the top of a used-up wooden spool of cotton thread.  My mother bought such spools of sewing  cotton thread in the five-and-ten, one of the most important stores of my existence when I was growing up.

As you pulled the cotton thread off each nail in a certain pattern, using some kind of tool, often a needle, the cotton would braid and the braid would drop down through the bottom of the hole that ran through the emptied wooden spool.  When the braid was long enough, you sewed it together into the kind of rug on the living room floor where my mother had placed me.  My guess is she didnít want me to witness the screaming argument she was having with my father. 

I know itís odd, but I remember this scene even more clearly than I remember the steel sidewalk cellar door falling on my hand two or three years later. Pain has the one forgiving quality of being easy to forget. Otherwise, I've got two twisted and scarred fingers on my left hand to remind me of the cellar door.   On the other hand, Iíve got something just as vivid to stir up my memory of sitting on that braided rug while my Mom and Pop fought a pitched battle in the adjoining kitchen.  A photograph!

Itís cracked and torn and faded and in my youth I was tremendously embarrassed when my mom or my sisters showed it to anyone.  Obviously, I have no idea what touched off the fight between my mom and pop.  It started in the kitchen.  I can only gather that my mom remonstrated with my pop about shouting in front of me and then quickly picked me up off the kitchen table to deposit me on this circular braided rug in the center of the adjoining room.

No, I can't remember their words.  Like I say, I hadnít yet learned to talk.  But their

My father took a swing at me,
I ducked
and he hit my mother.

 screams and shouts went on for a short time longer. I don't remember any blows being thrown.  The only time I ever saw my father hit my mother was years later when I was approaching adolescence.  Losing patience with me, he let loose with a big roundhouse and I ducked.  My mother was standing right behind me and it was too late for my pop to pull his punch.  My mother took the blow right in the face.  That was the maddest my father ever got with me.

Sitting on that braided rug, I must have been crying because the eldest of my three big sisters, my dear and now departed sister Rose, picked me up and comforted me.  All my life, my big sisters have been comforting me.  All my life, I've been babied.  Not that I'm complaining, mind you.  

Rose, 15 years my senior and as beautiful as the flower that shares her name, was always fashionable and smart looking. She's visible in the background in this faded, cracked and torn photo.  She's the beauty with a ribbon tied around her hair.  Before this picture was taken, Rose picked me up off the circular braided rug and carried me down a long, steep flight of wooden stairs to what I remember was our family's beach at that time---the bank of a canal that ran close to our house.

In the kitchen, my ma had been frying hamburgers for a picnic on the beach.  She'd wrap each burger in a cloth and stack it with the others in a big aluminum pot with handles.  My other two sisters, Pearl and Irene, were already on the beach.  So was Herman Gutstein, about 16 then, same age as Rose.  In fact, he fancied Rose.  He wanted to be her boy friend.

Herman fancied Rose and his younger brother, Freddie, fancied Pearl, my next eldest sister.  Herman and Freddie were the sons of the experienced midwife who helped the doctor, his name now long forgotten, drag me kicking and screaming from my mother's womb.  Mrs. Gutstein was my mother's best friend at the time. 

I don't remember if I ever knew Mrs. Gutstein's first name.  My mother always addressed her as Mrs. Gutstein and so did I and so did my three big sisters.  Her husband, the local pharmacist, was named Harry, but he was always "Mr. Gutstein" to us.  That's what my Ma and Pa called him.  Mr. Gutstein.  My sisters and I remember him as kind, gentle, sweet, caring and benevolent.

As Iíve already explained, Bordentown happens where the Delaware pinches New Jersey's waistline.  My father was in partnership with his younger brother in a slaughterhouse somewhere in the Bordentown vicinity.  On the beach, Rose put socks and sandals on my feet.  I remember that clearly.  But I forget whom it was who took the picture.  Like I say, I can remember turning scarlet with embarrassment whenever my mom or any of my big sisters showed it to me or to anyone else a few years later. I tried to keep the picture hidden.  Was I the one who ripped it?  

No, I didn't want anyone else to see it.  With Herman Gutstein crouched behind me, there I am squinting at the camera, dressed in nothing but my socks and sandals.  ##



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