Never look at a new moon through glass, my mother told me when I was a little girl. It brings the sickness. Ah, you would’ve loved your great-grandmother, Darlin’. She was full of the old stories from the other side. Every new moon she’d stay indoors and pray, “Dear Jesus, leave us whole and sound as Thou hast found us.” As if He were the man-in-the-moon. Did I ever look? Never. Well not that I remember. But look at me, skinny as a broom and coughing up the mucous. Two trips to Saranac, too, but that was a million years ago. The moon business? I didn’t really believe all that Connemara palaver. Some of those west Irish had awful pagan ideas. Jumping over a fire in the middle of the road to get rid of headaches and all the stuff about hanging rags on a tree next to a holy well... Imagine! The loonies.
My grandmother, Nell, sat knitting in the red plush velvet chair, framed by pin-stuck antimacassars. I was on my way to the airport. Some business in Pittsburgh. But I had a little time before my plane, so I stopped by.
Little pricker hairs grew from smile lines at the corners of her mouth. A deep cleft ran along each side of her nose, beginning half way up and circled gently around her mouth, then faded into the wattles that hung lank beneath her chin. Her face had settled into a webbed tracery of age. Her body, very old bones loosely assembled in a housecoat that fell open from her knees. Wisp legs crossed at the ankle, resting on the ottoman, propped by a brocade cushion. Her needles clacked and scurried through maroon furrows, propagating row upon row, row upon row. And she was talking away.
Of course, it was hard to see any kind of moon from where we lived – 131st Street over by the river, Manhattanville, they called it then. You had to walk down the hill and all the way over to the docks to see the big part of the sky. Me and my sister Annie had a slice of a cut-up room in back. Da had built a partition between us and the three boys, right after Annie turned thirteen. The boys had the window. You saw just the bricks and if you leaned way out you could almost touch the other side of the airshaft. In July, when the sun was high in the sky, the boys would get a sliver of light but nobody was hardly ever there to see it. Everybody was working you see. Never could see the moon from back there. But then I never tried.
Mother was sure about a lot of things – she had the faith. Whenever she lost something, she’d pray to Saint Francis. She prayed to Saint Jude for impossible things, the hopeless causes. Like the time my Da, God rest him, was hit by the passenger express train they called The Patterson Flyer. Easter Sunday morning, it was, and he was visiting his brother, Vincent, out in New Jersey. And we were waiting dinner on him when the policeman came. He told my mother that Da was crossing the tracks behind the local as it was pulling out. In the noise, he never heard The Flyer coming the other way. Holy Jesus and Saint Jude! she screamed, and ran into their bedroom and grabbed her book, yelling to Saint Francis to make it a mistake, to please, please make it some other Thomas Lavan.
It’s this book here. It lay on the table beside the lamp with a tasseled shade. She tapped it gently with the palm of her hand. Moroccan leather cover, black rubbed gray, and swollen with In Memoriam prayer cards, their once gold edges age-deckled and smudged. Novena to the Sacred Heart was embossed in gold across the front cover, these letters now faint, eroded by time and touch. She called her ritual a ‘flying novena’, perhaps because she felt the prayers flew straight to heaven or because she said it every three hours, every day of her life. Cause after cause rotated in every nine days. My father’s blood pressure, my brother’s deafness, that Charlie, her husband (my grandfather), would hit the Daily Double at Belmont, about her brother Roger’s drinking, that I would get over my allergies, her layer cake would rise, and Mike the butcher’s roast beef for Sunday would be tender, that Tommy, her nephew the policeman, would pass the police sergeant’s exam, that Russia would be converted. There were hundreds. Sometimes she’d bump the current cause for another. It all depended on how assertively she tsked-tsked when she heard about it. Importunate grandchildren got top priority, regardless. The eldest – that was me – trumped everyone. Young worries need fast solving, she’d say. The others would get picked up later on. It was a vast internal system of pleas and thanksgivings, all precisely ranked, finely handicapped. Her prayer life was a great, seamless tapestry, her cloak of hope. Ours as well. Don’t worry, she would say, Nana will pray for you.
It’s grand for you to stop and see me, she said. I know you’re very busy. How are the children?
Fine, I said, Everything is fine.
She tied-off a new ball of wool, making sure that the knot would be on the inside of the sweater. My mother taught me how to knit, she said, I was a little girl, five or six perhaps. I remember sitting on her lap and watching her fingers clicking the needles and the wool unraveling from the skeins like it was alive down there in her basket. I learned everything about wool from her, how to drop a stitch, pick it up, how to do the cables, all of it. And more than just the knitting. How to sew, too. Cut out a pattern, embroider, tat lace. Your great-grandmother taught me all the touches. The works, and she laughed.
Who will teach my daughters, I wondered? Was it necessary to know such things? Who will teach my sons?
You taught me too, I said. She looked up. Don’t you remember? My first job for you was holding the new skeins so you could ball them.
Ah yes, she said, Indeed.
Make like the Holy Jesus, she’d say, and I’d spread my arms out in front of me and she’d loop the ends of the skein around my thumbs and begin to spin a ball out of nothing, wrapping round and round, faster and faster, and you’d see the ball grow and grow in her hands until finally the end of the skein would fly off through my fingers and I’d feel a little lick of fire because she was wrapping so fast, and then we’d start all over again until she had made perfect round balls of all the new wool.
My grandmother was unwell. She never had any health, never weighed over ninety pounds and seemed significantly less than that now. She would erupt in coughing fits from what everyone said was her TB from back in the Twenties – the stays at Saranac Lake had done little for her. Her cough would roll deep inside her, rising in tonality and violence. Her tiny chest heaved like a robin swallowing a worm, her face flushed bright crimson, the eyes agog, the neck arched backwards, tendons like cables. Then, in cascading crescendos, she’d shinny that mucous-snake up her throat, the deadly thing slipping its way along, impelled by her chokes, then sliding back, pushed deeper by a life-grabbing inspiration, until a final great burst of breath shot it full in her mouth, to lay shapeless and inert. Leaning back deep in her cushions, her face fading pale, she’d reach into the sleeve of her cardigan, cradling her latticework of needles and wool in her lap.She’d pluck a hanky from her sleeve, bring it to her mouth, a subtle expectoration, a discrete look down, and she’d fold it over again for a finishing tup-tup with her lips. With a satisfied tuck, the hanky disappeared up her sleeve again, her sputum, her tormentor, for now secure against her arm.
She sat before me, a stick doll, all angled sharpness and draping cloth. Ancient. Responsible. Nothing, and certainly not the coughing, interfered with her work. She, the exquisite needle, whether knitting sweaters, making surplices for the parish priests or stitching up the pope’s nose on the Thanksgiving turkey.
I watched her hands dart and zag, as quick and flitty as moths at a candle. Occasionally, she’d brush aside a snarl with a finger-flick. The needles seemed as extensions of herself. The deft fingers, her lips softly smacking as in some hidden prayer, or perhaps just counting stitches. The skin on her hands and wrist spread thin and brown against the sinew and bone, like a lightly roasted chicken. She seemed overrun by age. Time had nibbled her flesh. She had spat her life into a million lace-trimmed hankies. She was slowly disappearing. Her shock of hair, a snowdrift at noon, her head nodding to the rhythm of her needles, she seemed a tribal totem, or a talisman shaken in accompaniment to an incantation.
Did I ever tell you about the pocket watch, she asked?
No, Nana, never.
Ah, now there’s the story for you.
I had begun to keep company with your grandfather. He lived in the apartment downstairs with his gaggle of brothers and sisters. He had a shine for my sister, Annie. So one evening he came calling. I answered the door. Is Annie home, he asked, for I want to buy her a soda at Horton’s. No, I said, She’s very sick in bed with her headaches. Annie suffered terribly from what I guess would be now called the migraines. Well, Charlie Potter was one foxy quiller. Then you’ll do, he said, a big grin on his tomato face. Besides, you look like you could use some fattening up. So out we went for a soda. And after that he always asked for me when he saw my mother on the street, and he would lug her bundles too.
And the watch, Nana? I had to pay attention to my time. The Triboro Bridge gets crazy at rush hour.
Ah, the watch. I was working at a switchboard at the Shubert’s down in Times Square. By then, your grandfather and I were real sweet. He was working for David Belasco, the big producer. Charlie was trying to get Belasco to run an ad in The New York Theatrical Review, the Shubert’s newspaper. He’d tell me how Belasco would dress up like a priest so nobody would bother him on the street. What a sin that was and I didn’t like that Charlie had to get the run-around by such an imposter. Anyway, one day Charlie came barreling into the Shubert Brothers office, all agitated, his face flaming and dripping wet. He wanted to see Mr. Lee, that’s what he called Lee Shubert. Charlie was yelling about Belasco to Mr. Lee, The big baboon won’t spend any money on ads and now he says that the audience won’t give a damn about Cliquot Club! Charlie had this idea about using bottles of Cliquot Club soda water and ginger ale in some scenes. He had convinced the soda company to pay a fee for the advertising. Mr. Lee loved the idea so much he offered Charlie a job on the spot, twenty-percent commission. Made him the business manager of the Review. He came out of Lee Shubert’s office purple with happiness. My God, Charlie, I said, you’re gonna get apoplexy. And we ended up working at the same company.
Charlie always had these ideas about making extra money. He liked to play the horses. Just like his mother – she loved the cards, too, particularly pinochle. Gracious, he had such hustle and all. So full of the talk he was, about the shows, the nightclubs, the fights. It was all so exciting for me. We went to the Hippodrome one afternoon to see the vaudeville. Your grandfather wore a straw boater with a huge red carnation in his lapel. At intermission, he smoked a thin cigar. That did it. I knew he was for me. He was a real earner guy, even though he liked the ponies.
But I couldn’t always be doing the taking, so I thought I’d impress him. Well, I had saved up some money from the piecework I was sewing on weekends for the Franklin Simon Department Store, $25. That was a lot of money then you know. So I bought him a watch, a real gold one with a chain and a fob. Had his initials put on the back – CDP, all etched in gothic letters. But the special thing of it was, I had a picture of me taken, my hair all done up in a Gibson-Girl. Then I had myself etched on the watch face, right next to the Elgin label. Such a thing was very rare for that time – it cost two dollars extra.
One day Charlie was pounding up the stairs as usual to see Mr. Lee about another money scheme and I said, here Charlie, have a peek at what’s in the box. It was tied with a blue cord, wool – I had knitted it, little rosettes on each end. And he opened it right there and shut up his huffing and said, Nellie, I never got anything so beautiful. I’m gonna call you Elgie from now on because we’re gonna have the time of our lives together. I said, Charlie, you just keep calling me Nellie, not some brand of goods like with your deals with Mr. Shubert.
She stopped knitting and stared intently into her lap. And we did have a time, she said, Never mind the sickness. Everybody gets sick. You live with things…
I don’t know, maybe Charlie pulled the watch out too much at night when he was standing around outside those theaters during the intermissions. Maybe some new moon beam shone through the crystal and nicked me. Maybe mother was right about that.
I had to catch a plane. We had no time.
I’m sorry Nana, I said, I’ve got to run.
I rose, kissed her, and she returned to her work.
Of course Darlin’, she said, Don’t be missing your airplane on my account. Hurry now.
But instead, I lingered at the door, watching her, just hair, bones, bits of cloth, the needles, the inevitable needles crossing, crossing, clicking, crossing….