By Catherine Arra
HIDDEN LAYERS Using intense X-ray beams, scientists discovered three other locations that Rembrandt considered placing the servant (the character without a hat) in his 1662 painting “Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild.” Two of the hidden faces were found on the right edge of the painting, and the other was between the two right-side drapers.
-Science News, Vol. 185, March 8, 2014
The frame for my nuclear family was Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best.
At 24, Dad worked two jobs as mailman and mechanic to make the bills. Mom, 22, a bottled-up housewife, eyed the business world, pant suits, her own car and money.
Still, she read Dr. Spock and Good Housekeeping, served three square meals, set a table with coral melon slices layered diagonally on white, melamine plates. Napkins folded in triangles.
Mom and Dad were high school sweethearts: she a local girl, he a second-generation immigrant born and transplanted from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn along with his older sister. His parents escaped Sicilian poverty and the American Depression. They headed upriver to the sleepy, rural town where Papa bought a gas station garage with an apartment, a bungalow and a house. Years later he’d buy the old one-room schoolhouse next door where Mom and Dad first met. He’d renovate it into two apartments. Nana loved the icicles. Nothing like that in the city or the old country.
Mom was the middle sister of three. The baby brother came 17 years later. They were local WASP stock with long farm roots and family knots, especially on her father’s side where I suspect hands reached into places forbidden. The Depression and then the war left them almost poor. Her Daddy’s favorite, Mom became the target of her sisters’ jealousy. She escaped into the dark Italian, a Catholic no less, and no less domineering than her Daddy.
I was their first born, a passion child conceived two months after the 1954 wedding, one month after Dad finished a four-year stint in the Navy while Mom waited, sending him photos of herself in tight mini-skirt turtlenecks, a sailor hat and sporting a broom like a nautical pixie ready to swab his deck.
My brother was Catholic guilt after Dad confessed the “rhythm method” to the priest. Mom warned, “I’m going to get pregnant,” but he did it anyway, and the baby arrived 16 months later.
Budgets squeezed them down to pennies. He was tired. Her hands were chafed from diapers, dishes and too many Marlboro Reds. I was promptly potty trained; Mom didn’t want two babies in diapers.
We lived in the three-room apartment above Nana and Papa, in the renovated school- house until Dad bought the two-story next door behind the garage for 8,000 from Papa.
There was a long front yard with a catalpa tree and an acre long hill in back.
My second brother came in 1960, a planned baby, the last and forever baby.
Dad drove them home from the hospital in the brand new white ‘61 Ford Fairlane with upside down Q-shaped taillights. After that, Mom took control with birth control.
There are no family portraits before 1961, only 3x3 black and white snapshots packaged in gold Kodak mini albums. The first and only portrait is an 8x10 professional photograph, in color: three children spooned in descending order from left to right: the girl, 5, the first son 4, the baby, 18 months. Parents absent.
Mom waited until the baby was in kindergarten to take the secretarial job in her uncle’s real estate office. She worked once a week. She knew the balance would be tricky and started slowly. Encouraged by her father-in-law who understood the business of getting ahead, she earned a realtor’s license and graduated to sales associate. She made money, bought clothes, managed to be mommy and wife too. By the time I hit seventh-grade, she had a broker’s license and her own business. I’d come home from school to find directions for how to start dinner. Women in the 1960s needed to help each other.
At supper, Dad would say to Mom, “Mmmm, this chicken is really good. Better than yours.”
She’d eye him and me and light a cigarette.
Then, I’d go to college, have boyfriends, sex before marriage, my own job and money.
I was the generational Cinderella and she the ugly stepsister.
Watching them for so long, I knew that I’d never be like her or marry a man like my father. I was the one, not my brothers, who left, read books, got an education, two degrees, though nothing more than to be married and have babies was expected of me.
I never did have babies.
Mom made some serious money. It was a game changer. They bought two Cadillacs, one that would limo me to my wedding in 1980, a motorboat, up-scale vacations. They moved from the old two-story house on Main Street, behind the garage, to a modern ranch with an elite address. This was the picture Mom wanted. Dad liked the cash cushion and what it could buy, but not her independence. It just plain went against his Italian bones.
It’s always then, isn’t it? When you think the painting is finished, the story complete, and you can sit back, rest, retire and ride out this round with ease, the ghost images emerge, all the unseen movements. The faces painted over bleed through, and the portrait is nothing as you imagined.
Mom left Dad for another man the summer before their 33rd anniversary. The kids grown, gone, married, Mom was done.
Before the cancer took her second husband and her alcoholism unbottled, Mom and I went to see the 1992 film, Orlando, based on Virginia Woolf’s novel by the same name.
Outside she said, “Why does a woman have to become a man to have anything in this world?” She was crying in the ghostly, white streetlight like X-rays.
Catherine Arra lives in upstate New York. A former English and writing teacher, her poetry and prose have been published in various journals online and in print. Recent work appears or will soon appear in The Timberline Review, Writers Tribe Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Sugared Water and Wildness. Her chapbooks are: Slamming & Splitting (Red Ochre Press, 2014) and Loving from the Backbone (Flutter Press, 2015).