|A Drinking Life: A Memoir
by Pete Hamill
At the beginning of my remembering, I am four years old and we are living on the top floor of a brick building on a leafy street in Brooklyn, a half block from Prospect Park. Before that place and that age, there is nothing. But in those remembered rooms are my mother, my younger brother Tommy, and me. It is the winter of 1939. I remember the kitchen, with its intricately patterned blue-and-red linoleum floors, and windows that opened into a garden where an elm tree rose higher than the house. The kitchen light was beautiful: suffused with a lemony green in summer, dazzling when winter snow garnished the limbs of the elm tree. I remember
|the kitchen, with its intricately patterned blue-and-red linoleum floors, and windows that opened into a garden where an elm tree rose higher than the house.
The kitchen light was beautiful: suffused with a lemony green in summer, dazzling when winter snow garnished the limbs of the elm tree. I remember the smell of pine when my mother mopped the floors. I remember her whistling when she was happy, which was most of the time. I remember how tall she seemed then, and how shiny her brown hair was after she had washed it in the sink. And I remember my brother Tommy, two years younger than I, small and curly-haired and gentle. I don't remember my father.
He was there, all right. Billy Hamill wasn't one of those Depression fathers who went for a loaf of bread at the corner store and never came back. He moved through those rooms. He slept in one of the beds. He shaved in the bathroom and bathed in the tub. But for me, he wasn't there. In some ways it made no difference. On summer afternoons, I would sit outside the house, in a patch of earth near the curb, playing with a small red fire engine, telling myself stories.
Perhaps my father was in those stories. But he didn't take me on those long green walks through the endless meadows and dark woods of Prospect Park. My mother did. Nor did he take me to see my first movie. My mother did that too. It was The Wizard of Oz, and the streets were dark when we came out of the Sanders Theater and she took my hand and we skipped home together, singing Off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz, because because because because Because. I have no memory of him bouncing me on his knee or looking at the drawings I made each day with my box of eight Crayolas. I remember sitting on the stoop, watching Japanese beetles gnaw the ivy that covered the face of the brownstone next door and my mother teaching me a little song to be crooned to another insect neighbor: Ladybug, Ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire, your child is alone. . . . But I learned no songs from my father. Not then.
In large part, my father's absence was caused by his work. He left home before I awoke and returned after I was asleep. So in some ways, I didn't really miss him. He wasn't in my presence often enough to be physically missed. Besides, I was too busy learning the names of the world and even having small adventures. Once I went to Prospect Park with Billy Kelly, the boy who lived on the first floor. He was my first friend, a year older than I was, and his family owned 471 Fourteenth Street, the house where we lived on the top floor. Our adventure began in a very simple way. Billy said, Let's go to the park. And I said, Okay, let's go to the park.
And yet I knew that what we were doing was full of risk. Most important of all, it was the first time I'd ever gone anywhere without my mother and this act could lead to punishment. She might get cross. She might spank me. I went anyway, trusting Billy Kelly, certain we would be back before my mother noticed I was gone. I crossed the wide avenue called Prospect Park West, following the vastly more experienced Billy, watching for the trolley cars and the few big boxy black automobiles that moved through the streets in those days. We plunged into the park and wandered through that green world whose trees loomed high above us. Soon we were lost. We crossed streams, gazed at lakes, threw stones into the woods, but never could find the familiar playground and low stone wall beyond which lay home. I was filled with panic. I might never see my mother again or my brother Tommy or the kitchen at 471. We could end up in jail or someplace called the Orphanage, where they put kids without parents.
Return to Books