They say you can’t form real memories until you are four, but I have a couple of them that seem to me to be earlier than that.
In my childhood, my family went to my father’s uncle’s house in Yonkers, NY, every Christmas Eve. The house was very grand. In the study was a densely decorated and lighted tree, and in front of a large fireplace was a polar bear rug, with the bear’s mounted head attached. Over and over, laughing and laughing, my younger brother and I sat on the bear’s head and slid down onto the flat part of his hide, where his shoulders would have been, a distance of about the length of a man’s hand.
On Christmases, we went to my mother’s parents’ house. The house had a formal dining room with a big table that could seat 16. The table was supported by three four-legged pedestals down the center of the table, so that no one’s chair would be interfered with by a table leg. From the bottom of each pedestal’s column the legs curved outward, ending in a rounded scroll-like foot three inches high. I remember crawling around under the table at Christmas dinner, seeing the forest of my relatives’ knees and feet, and climbing over the table legs, which were very large.
When I was older, six, I made my Uncle John a Christmas ornament. It consisted of one large aluminum pie plate with the center cut out and a second smaller pie plate, cut in a star shape, suspended by a thread in the center so it could turn. My uncle and aunt made much of it and hung it by a thumbtack in the high doorway of the study. I was pleased by their thanks, but even at six I knew it didn’t really go very well with the glittering decorations surrounding it.
THE AIR RIFLE
The Christmas when I was ten, my father gave me a Sheridan air rifle, one of the kind you pump up. After lunch, when my father and my uncle were dozing in front of the fire according to tradition, I went outside in the snow with the air rifle.
My grandfather, a kind man, always put out a lot of bird seed in the snow and wired pieces of beef fat to the trunks of the big maples and oaks near the house. The feed attracted winter birds, fearless chickadees and bigger cardinals and jays and other birds that kept their distance.
I remember very clearly looking over the air rifle’s sights at one of the nameless birds as it perched on a high branch fifty feet or so away, and shooting. I didn’t expect to actually hit the bird; I expected to frighten it with a near miss. But it fell fluttering to the ground. I was horrified. I went over and picked up the wounded bird. I saw a hole the size of an air rifle pellet in its breast, and blood pulsing in the hole. I tried to hope the bird would recover, and I put it in a protected spot under the branches of a shrub. But I knew it would die. I walked slowly around outside the house, feeling terrible guilt, crying and wishing I could undo the deed, wanting to tell someone, but ashamed.
As I passed the front door, it opened, and my grandfather came out. I think he knew what had happened. He asked me why I was so sad. I told him, “I shot a bird. I wish I hadn’t done it. I think it’s going to die.” I lapsed into more tears. I showed him where I had laid the bird. It was dead. My grandfather said he knew how I felt, that something like that happened to everyone at some time. He told me a story about a friend who had been staying with them once who had been so annoyed by an owl hooting outside his window in the night that he went out with a shotgun and killed it, but then he felt so sorry and awful that he couldn’t sleep the rest of the night anyway. My grandfather and I buried the bird under a drift of dead leaves. The story, my grandfather’s understanding, and the burial ritual made me feel better. We went back inside.
In 1957, shortly after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, my grandparents took in and employed a Hungarian refugee family, Stephen and Caterina Pesty and their 11-year-old daughter, also named Caterina. Caterina senior (“Big Cattie”) was cook and housekeeper. Stephen was butler and gardener and handyman. Both had some English and learned more fairly quickly, though always with a heavy accent.
Stephen was a classic Hungarian. He was in his mid-forties when he arrived. He stood 5’9” and was stocky, muscular. He had dark hair brushed straight back, beginning to recede, dark moustache and eyebrows, and white skin. His manner conveyed solidness and self-respect. He was dignified but not stiff. He called my grandfather Sir and my grandmother Ma’am, and he was always proper and respectful.
With us, though, Stephen was fun. That Christmas I was the oldest, at 12. My three siblings and I and our three cousins and Little Cattie were a noisy crowd in the house. The grownups, our grandparents and parents and more distant relatives sat and stood around in the big living room with a blazing fire, drinking and smoking and talking and contentedly ignoring us. We were outside, and then we were in again, and out and in, always with snowy boots, and coats and gloves all over the front hall. Stephen was our friend, and he was a little mischievous. He was bartender as well as butler on such holidays, and he indulged us with maraschino cherries and sweet little pickles and olives that were meant for the grownups’ cocktails, and he thrilled us—scandalized us—by pouring Dubonnet, a sweet red aperitif wine, in our Cokes. We loved it. My brothers and one of my cousins say it was rum, but I don’t think so. At Christmas dinner, one of my cousins, a little girl years younger than I, stood on her chair and made a laughing incoherent toast, until her mother told her that was “enough, thank you, dear.” But Stephen managed us pretty well; we were happy, but not too happy, and the grownups, if they knew, never objected.