Books

04.07.14

‘Tracing the Blue Light’: Read Chapter 1 of Eileen Cronin’s ‘Mermaid’

What is it like to realize you have no legs—and that’s why you’ve been left behind by your vacationing family? The author remembers in this excerpt from her acclaimed memoir.

I was almost four when it first occurred to me that no one else was missing legs. Flooded by questions without words to articulate them, I connected images with explanations. Those first confusing moments unravel in my mind like an old film. It begins with me being nudged awake by a waxy moon spilling silver-white light through the window as I sucked my thumb. But it wasn’t my window. I grabbed the bars to pull myself up and thought, “Where am I?” I held my breath and searched for clues. Below was a driveway. My parents’ Volkswagens were not in it. I found instead a pearl-blue station wagon with pointed tailfins. A scary tree shook its fists at the moon, and I drew back. My bedroom was square and yellow and brand-new; this one was an attic with a gray-blue wall curling into its ceiling. Quickly I grabbed my Gaga Bobo, stuffed a corner under my nose, shoved my thumb back into my mouth. In this aqua blanket with its frayed edges I smelled home: warm laundry, bacon frying, coffee and cigarettes. Then I saw the black-and-white portrait of a baby crowned by a golden hula hoop: my cousin’s baby Jesus. I whipped my head to the opposite wall and saw on the nightstand a pair of cat’s-eye glasses. In the bed, I found blond hair awash in moonlight: my cousin Sally. Her hair was lighter than mine, but we shared the same bowl-shaped haircut. I tottered backward onto the mattress. How did I get here? Sally was a year younger than me but she had a real bed, and I still had a crib. The assignment of beds—who had a real bed and who didn’t—puzzled me. I did not remember rolling off my parents’ bed when I was six months old and breaking my femur, the only bone in my right leg. There was something bigger than a bed troubling me, though, and I wondered if it had to do with legs. Sally had two legs and a bunch of toes, whereas mine ended at the knee, one above and one below it. I wasn’t concerned about the missing fingers on my left hand, which had been “webbed” until a surgeon reconstructed it. My sisters Rosa and Liz called it “the claw,” lovingly at times, and at other times I was not so sure. Right now I was focused on legs, and I wondered if grown-up beds were only for people with two whole legs. When would I get some? What if they didn’t grow in? These mysteries mounted until I hurled myself against the bars of the crib and found my voice, a wrathful screech, bold and steady. My chest pressed into the foot of the crib, arms outstretched through bars, I wailed at an open door to an empty staircase. Soon Aunt Gert climbed those stairs and scooped me up. I relaxed. “Oh, oh, oh,” she whispered, her voice soothing in that it matched my mother’s, then agitating because it wasn’t Mom’s. Gert’s arms were sturdier than my mother’s, and she sang “Goodnight, My Someone.” Every year she starred in Saint Vivian’s variety show: a bulky woman best known for roller skating in a clown suit while singing “I’m the Greatest Star” and playing a violin. Right now I wanted Mom’s meager voice and made-up lyrics to songs no one sings anymore: Whaddaya know, Joe Joe from Kokomo? Before my aunt had children, she was a psychiatric nurse at the state mental hospital. Since then, she’d become every child’s mother and every adult’s best friend. I looked into her eyes and she explained that my family was on vacation. They would be back for me. Soon. This was a soothing thought until I made the connection: my family had chosen to go on vacation without me. There were eight of us kids by then. Why was I the one they left behind? I screamed loud and long, hoping to reach my parents wherever they had gone. While I bellowed from my aunt’s Tudor home on a street lined with buckeye and oak trees in Cincinnati, my family was apparently trekking north to a lakeshore cottage in Michigan along with a caravan of other Catholic families. Our father owned a Volkswagen dealership. He had brought home a sleek new camper with a kitchenette, polished wooden cabinets, and foldout beds. My brother Frankie and I had built forts in it all week. Frankie couldn’t have known they would leave without me. Exhausted, I fell asleep. Over the next week I basked in the attention of my aunt. At home I competed with seven siblings by wrapping myself around Mom’s ankles to bend her to my will. Here, Aunt Gert doted on my cousin and me. She lulled us with her violin. In her cramped kitchen she mashed pork fat with oatmeal and sculpted a loaf, which she fried up in patties. Geotta! Sally ate it with maple syrup; at home we ate the store-bought kind with ketchup. Out back my aunt pinned up the wet clothes while we hid in the sheets. On my hands and knees, I “squiddled,” which was the word my sister Rosa gave to my idea of walking: a cross between crawling and running on my knees. Sally didn’t note the difference; she just chased me around on her knees.

mermaid-cronin
Eileen Cronin’s ‘Mermaid’ (Eileen Cronin/W. W. Norton & Company)

Twenty-five years later, Aunt Gert would remind me of that day under the canopy of drying sheets when I picked up my cousin’s shoe and tried to put it on my own leg. Of course it didn’t fit. I’d forgotten about the incident with the shoe, though I never forgot that moment in the crib when I began to see that I was different. I’m not sure why my parents didn’t include me in the vacation. Maybe they assumed I’d have more fun with Sally, but in my four-year-old mind I believed my legs were to blame. The week with my aunt gave me time to ease into the idea of being different. I doubt that my placement with Aunt Gert was planned for this purpose, and yet I couldn’t have found myself in more comforting arms for such an event. No one in my family would have imagined that I might connect my family’s trip to my legs and abandonment. Until I grew to adulthood I would not fully realize the crucial role that Aunt Gert had played in my life, nor would I notice the similarities between my closest high school friend and Aunt Gert. Each exuded warmth, stability, intelligence, and a sense of humor, all qualities valued by the women in my home, although at home sense of humor topped the list, with intelligence next but only in the service of a sharp wit. Otherwise, according to Mom, intelligence could handicap a woman. As for stability and warmth? Both were considered excellent qualities to have in a friend. If Gert had been everyone’s mother and best friend, her sister Joy, our mother, was everyone’s muse: part Blanche DuBois, part circus trainer, and mostly a pregnant Lucille Ball. While Aunt Gert skated her way to stardom in the Saint Vivian’s variety show, Mom was placed front and center in the opening act of a chorus belting out something about the greatest show on earth. It was the yellow evening gown with the bejeweled neckline and the slit revealing her tanned calf that won Mom the spotlight, although the chorus might have been better served by placing Mom in the back row, or at least requiring her to simply mouth the words because she affected an Ethel Merman posture, outstretched arms casting a shadow over the faces of the others while she crooned in a voice closer to marmot than Merman. She didn’t mind it a bit when we heckled her the next morning. Mom just tossed her head back, eyes turned heavenward as if she knew something about herself that no one else could possibly understand, and grinned. Our house on the hill—a bull’s-eye in the farmland shifting to suburb—was the house where the neighborhood gathered to play. When a child went missing, their parents’ first move was to call the Cronins. My sisters opened a beauty parlor in their bedroom, curling hair with crisscrossed bobby pins and calling it a perm. My brothers ran a basketball league from the patio court. Our parents poured cocktails for friends and family on our screened-in porch. If my legs made me a nuisance, I vowed to become less of one. And I kept to that promise—until Christmas. We spent the holiday at another family’s house across town. We knew several Irish families with at least a half-dozen children. I was always the one in dresses, partly because I had nothing to put into long pants, but also because Mom and I liked the pink and frilly effect of Polly Flinders, which we bought at their warehouse downtown. I must have looked like a broken doll in that dress, with my silky hair around a heart-shaped face with wide brown eyes shifting from mischievous to doleful. In the basement where the small children played, I wiped the foam of a red pop from the smocking of my dress while Frankie opened his third orange soda and watched it spill over the top. Frank was five years old and not a bulky, in-your-face boy. He had skinny legs and bloated ribs fanning from his torso like an accordion strapped to his chest. Surrounding those chocolate-almond eyes was the creamiest skin in the world. The women in my family often rubbed their palms against his cheek, though it was his eyes that made him so beautiful. Our parents both had almond eyes, almost Asian-looking, and yet our ancestry was Irish and German. Frankie inherited the most exaggerated version of their features. With his black hair and eyes, he could as easily have been pedaling a bike on the streets of Hong Kong as wielding a baseball glove on a grassy field in Ohio. Some of the more unsavory boys from the neighborhood called him “chink.” Perhaps because we both stood out in our homogenous town, Frank protected me. He lived for sports, and every neighborhood boy with athletic potential was drawn into his network. Our backyard had a baseball diamond and a “Pickle” path worn into the lawn because of Frankie. Our father seeded the lawn every spring, and a gang of Frankie’s friends would tear it up by June. His friends tossed balls through our windows, pilfered golf clubs from our garage, and dripped sweating Popsicles on the garage floor so that it was stained not by motor oil but by purple, orange, and lime-green Popsicle juice. When it came time to divide teams for basketball, Frank always picked me. His friend Stilts, who would go on to local basketball fame, often balked and said, “I quit,” to which Frank gritted his crooked teeth in defiance. He knew his best friend, Chief Taylor, would stand by him and that Stilts would have to capitulate. Soon Stilts would be stepping his spidery legs over me to face off with Frank. After dinner, we crammed into the family room for home movies. I climbed onto Dad’s lap in a reclining chair, his belly round and hard as a gibbous moon tucked into a red cardigan. We sat opposite the Christmas tree, fourteen or so kids fanned around us. My mother leaned into the archway while resting Ted on her hip, and let out a sigh of exhaustion. Her hair was a black-lacquered crown and she looked to me like a queen after another long night at the ball—olive skin on high cheekbones with tarnished eyes. Ted tugged at the brass buttons of her red, wool-crepe dress. She looked too exhausted to stop him. The other family’s father fiddled with the projector and called, “Lights!” Someone pulled a plug and the Christmas tree went from multicolored speckles to a black haze in the corner. The first movie at every holiday was usually my oldest brother’s sixth birthday party. Mom sparked to life because this was her favorite film. Michael was now a proud thirteen-year-old carrying his head as if guided by his chin, while onscreen a six-year-old girl pecked his cheek and, as she did every year, my mother laughed the loudest. Next, the screen darkened until a glowing cake with six candles floated down a long table toward the young Michael. I imagined myself in the illumination of that candlelight. I could feel the heat of melting wax at my nose as I blew into this crowded family room, while onscreen my brother blew out the candles. Usually Mom would doze off at this point, opening an eye to catch only what she found pertinent. I opened my eyes as the screen brightened with waves of sparkling water. “Michigan,” someone said. This family was on that vacation, too? Was everyone in the world there but me? I leaned hard into Dad’s belly, pressing my elbow into his gut, shoving away all memory of that desperate moment in the crib at Aunt Gert’s house. “Hey, there,” Dad whispered, “not so hard.” I jammed my thumb into my mouth and almost choked on it while the screen lit up with sunny skies on a gleaming lake. My oldest sister, Bridget, water-skied in a two-piece bathing suit, her long brown hair lifted off a noble neck. She batted her blue eyes at the camera; they were like diamond studs over a silver platter lake.

“Is that a two-piece?” said Mom, squinting at the screen, and Bridget blushed from her place on the floor. The camera shifted toward the beach and zeroed in on the faces of children, while the kids from the floor, one by one, shrieked, “That’s me!” Liz, Kevin, and Rosa: each a flash onscreen, the middle children, barely present in the film and yet, when I saw Liz in this movie without me, my eyes welled with tears. Two years older than me, Liz was more often in the company of Rosa, who was now almost in high school. Together, Liz and Rosa made a brilliant pair of comediennes, and—I couldn’t be sure because of the quick sweep of the camera—it looked as if Rosa had just pushed her nose up while Liz pretended to swing a strand of pearls. At not quite seven, and under the twelve-year-old Rosa’s direction, Liz could mime “Second Hand Rose” with such mastery that even Barbra Streisand would have had to laugh. And now the inside jokes began. Ted, the toddler, appeared onscreen in a black bathing suit with white polka dots. Someone shouted, “Black-eyed monster!” This was where he got that nickname? Why was the baby in Michigan when I was not? In the archway Mom was half asleep with Ted in her arms. Onscreen, he shoved his jaw out, jutted his hips, and sneered at the camera. Dad laughed out loud, his belly quaking underneath me. “He looks like a miniature Anthony Quinn,” said the other father. That quickened the bounce of Dad’s belly until I tipped from his lap. I clambered back to my place and turned to the screen to find that Frankie was now the star. To my horror, he was romping with a girl on a white beach, a scrim of sand dusting her tan skin. I had no idea that Frankie had a girlfriend. He called me Lear Dear and, except when he was at school, Frankie and I were inseparable. Now the camera zoomed in on the rollicking bundle. I knew all about the sports and the boys, but the last thing I ever thought I’d have to share Frankie with was another girl. Every belief I held about Frankie was dashed. This girl, with her white-blond hair and tan legs, had won the hearts of everyone here: sandy-faced, wrinkling her nose, a few teeth missing, adorable. She and Frankie kissed onscreen. Every kid in the room roared while, on the floor below Dad and me, Frankie’s shoulders formed a turtle shell to hide his blushing face. Frankie in love? The grief of losing Frankie to this trip so overwhelmed me that I let out one long screech. I was still screaming five minutes later, only by then Dad was rushing me to the car, the other father chasing us with our coats, apologizing: “We didn’t know she felt this way...” Outside, Dad set me in the passenger seat of our Microbus, and I heard the tinny echo of the slammed door. From my cocoon I held onto the other father’s apology amidst the chaos of a scattering crowd. I imagined myself protected from the mob of angry siblings now cutting across the lawn toward me. Within seconds they tore open the door. Silence gave way to sorrow that flickered to panic, and then I had about ten seconds of a peculiar ecstasy—floating on a cloud of glee. For some years afterward I recalled that instant with shame, and still later with pride. I would not be left behind. Even as I felt that first kid thump the back of my head, I thought, “Got ’em back.” Sadly, that moment turned into, “Am I so awful that they should have abandoned me?” I looked up at the other family’s house, at their father crossing the damp lawn, still apologizing. It had just stopped raining. Water splashed from their slate roof onto the driveway and flooded gutters as it pushed its way down the street, while my family finished squeezing into two Volkswagens. Behind us, my oldest sister took the baby from Mom, who was left holding car keys in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Mom drew deeply on her cigarette, fingers shaking on the exhale. “Dick!” she called to my father. “I’m a nervous wreck.” She said this a lot. And he shook his head. “I can only drive one car at a time, Joy.” With sangfroid, Mom snuffed out her cigarette with the toe of her high heel. In her youth, Mom had been an aspiring artist specializing in pen-and-ink fashion drawings like those in the ads for Giddings Jenny or Henry Harris, the toniest stores in town. Now she was a suburban housewife in a camel-hair coat, which she wore like a movie star wore a mink; she was angular, from her lean calves locked onto feet that seemed rooted in the concrete, to her head tilted just so above the collared coat. She was an unlikely mother of eight. Her brown-velvet eyes often soothed me, although her eyebrows added to her every demand: “I mean business!” At the wheel she always swiped a hand over her hair, checked her lipstick, and then attended to the business of driving. As Dad took the driver’s seat of the Microbus, I shifted toward the passenger door because he tended to muffle his rage so that he moved like a gorilla in a restraining jacket. Yet my next thought, being only four, was, “At least I get the front seat.” My brothers and sisters in the back seat formed an a cappella choir chanting an enraged “Eileen!” along with one weak note from Frankie, who asked, “Lear?” It could have been that the others were angry about the front seat, or the aborted party, or about something I didn’t understand, but I felt their fury hurled at me and clamped my hands over my ears. “Hush,” said Dad, and the back seat went silent. He hadn’t started in on me yet. I wondered if he felt as bad as the other father. With his body poised at the wheel, Dad became the tight end in an endless fourth quarter, score tied. Overtime. Overtime. Always overtime.

He started the engine, and I looked again at the house. Through a front window I saw the blue light of the running projector, making silhouettes of the children. I focused on the light, as if by watching the film I could become a part of their vacation. Just then the father of the other family stepped closer to our car to wave goodbye, and in doing so he blocked the blue light. He shrugged and kicked at the lawn. As we pulled away, he turned back to meet his wife at the front door. She rubbed the shoulders of their daughter, the one my age, who was now crying. The blue light came back. Dad gripped the wheel, his jaw set. He was already putting distance between himself and this memory. My gaze followed the blue light, watching it grow dimmer with distance.