When I was seven, I was on the bus on the way home from a grueling day of second grade (now as a college student, I often wish I could go back to the much simpler demands of second grade!) I looked out the window — I always had the window seat, I even fought little red-haired Frankie O’Callahan over that window seat — and saw my Aunt Jeannie, Grandma Margaret and Grandpa Jerry waiting for me. They were on my dad’s side of the family and, at seven, I recalled being a big baby and didn’t understand why families had “sides.” Were they always fighting or something? But at that time, I thought I knew everything about the world around me. Sometimes I saw it differently than other people, but that was something I didn’t know then.
I was very excited to see my relatives, because I hadn’t seen them in a long time. Before the bus even came to a full stop, I pushed past the girl sitting next to me (red-haired Frankie sat at a window seat two rows behind me), and she called me a jerk, which at the time I thought might be a curse word, but I didn’t care. I was on the first step down off the bus before the doors opened.
”Be careful, Eric!” the bus driver warned, but I paid him no attention. I ran to my aunt and grandparents, a huge grin on my face.
“Auntie Jeannie!” I yelled. “Gramma! Grampa!” I shouted.
They all smiled and laughed and, even at such a young age, I could tell how happy they were to see me, how much they loved me. They gushed about how big and handsome I was getting. They hugged me tightly and gave me wet kisses on my cheeks (I wiped them off when they weren’t looking, because I didn’t want to seem mean).
“How was school today?” Grampa asked. “Get in any fights? Always like your daddy, always getting into fights,” he said.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that my father used to fight a lot. He fought with my mom all the time. Somehow, even then, I knew that the fights Grampa was talking about were different than the ones my dad would have with my mother. I got a little upset, but I didn’t show it. I didn’t want them thinking I wasn’t happy to be with them.
“Well…” I started.
“Go on, tell us,” Grampa said. “Did ya win the fight, at least?”
My Gramma lightly slapped his arm. She wasn’t fond of violence of any kind.
“Well,” I repeated, “that red-haired kid is always trying to sit where I sit! Like today he wanted to sit next to Jessie at lunch but she has really long pretty hair and — but ew, I don’t like her! Seriously, I don’t, girls are really weird. I wanted to sit there and ask if she wanted to trade snacks — she had cookies and I had butterscotch pudding, but I don’t like that flavor — but Frankie told the teacher I pushed him and then he got to sit next to Jessie and I had to go sit next to Jack and he smells like the bathroom at school.”
They had all listened, apparently enthralled, to my little tale of second-grade woes. Again, I could tell how purely interested in me and my life they were. It made me feel so special. Nothing has compared to that feeling since, even 18 years later.
It was their idea to go get some ice cream, even though I told them I wasn’t supposed to have sweet treats before dinner. They promised me they wouldn’t tell my parents, and I said of course I wouldn’t tell either. The place we went to was small, and you had to wait outside in a line to be served. There were tables outside, but none inside. This is where I always got ice cream when my parents would take me. Aunt Jeannie and my grandparents knew it was my favorite place. Because it was early and a fairly cool day (it was only mid-April in New Jersey), there were no other customers. I ran up to the counter that I could barely see over, and I ordered a cone with vanilla custard and chocolate sprinkles.
“Aren’t you guys getting anything? Auntie Jeannie, don’t you want ice cream?” I asked them, but they just shook their heads.
I turned back to the man at the counter (he seemed old to me then, but looking back on it, he was probably only in his early 20s) and he was staring intently at me. He wanted money, I knew that. I didn’t have any, Grampa would pay, so I just walked away to sit down at one of the red outdoor tables.
As I ate my custard and talked with my family about my teacher, friends, girls I thought were weird, and movies I had seen, the man at the counter continually stared at me. Not subtle glances, but full-on staring. It made me so uncomfortable that I asked my family if we could leave. I didn’t say why because I didn’t want to worry them, but they seemed to understand. They were very understanding people. As we were walking away from the place, I turned to look over my shoulder, and now two other employees had joined the man at the counter to stare at me. I faced forward and walked a bit faster.
Since that ice cream place was close to my bus stop and house, we walked back to my house. During the walk, I opened up about mommy and daddy’s fights and asked for advice.
“You have to understand, Eric, your father has a bad temper. He always did, even when he was young like you,” Gramma told me.
They explained to me that, no matter what my parents fought about, they still loved me and that they would never hurt me in any way. Gramma said that when they fight, I should go wherever they are and then they’ll stop, because they don’t want me to hear their arguments. I told her that was a good idea, and that I would try it.
Auntie Jeannie said my father was good to my mother and to me and it would always be that way, despite any bad times we might have. With a belly full of custard and a little heart made lighter by my family’s words, I was feeling very good. I walked between Gramma and Grampa, holding their hands. When we were on the sidewalk only a couple houses away from my own, I let go of their hands and started running. I was eager to tell my parents how glad I was that our relatives had visited, and I would ask if they were going to spend the night, but I definitely wasn’t going to tell mom and dad about the treat before dinner!
When I ran through the front door, my parents were in the kitchen (not fighting, thankfully).
“Mommy! Dad!” I yelled to them. “I had fun this afternoon! Are Auntie Jeannie and Gramma and Grampa going to sleep over? Can they get me again tomorrow after school? Please? I don’t get to see them ever! Please!” I begged.
My parents looked at me. Not like they were annoyed or angry, but they looked at me like the people at the ice cream place had looked at me. My mother then put her hands over her face and sat — no, more like fell, into a chair that, if it hadn’t been there, she would have fallen onto the floor. I was so surprised and upset; my seven-year-old brain was desperately trying to figure out what I had said or done to make my mother cry like that.
“I’m sorry!” I said, tears welling up in my own eyes. “I didn’t mean to whine like a big baby. I’m sorry, is it because you know I had custard? We went to get custard, but it was their idea!” I felt bad blaming my relatives, but it was true — it was their idea to get me a treat before dinner. I couldn’t hide the evidence, anyway; custard had dripped onto my green sweatshirt. My mother was still upset, even after my confession and apology, so I tried again: “Is it because we didn’t get you anything? Let’s go now, then! We’ll walk and you can get ice cream, Mommy!”
That was when my father spoke up.
“Eric, be quiet,” he said. He knelt, and gently put his hands on my shoulders. He looked me in the face. “We have to talk now,” he said.
That was when he told me something else I didn’t know at age seven: apparently, my aunt and grandparents died in a car accident when I was an infant.