University of Baltimore M.F.A. student Noelle Ford remembers growing up in Baltimore County, and what could be said inside her house versus outside it. Noelle is a Spanish teacher at Friends School of Baltimore.
I grew up in a corner rowhouse of Tommy True Court, a Baltimore County neighborhood peninsula-ed by the Liquor Pump and a car auction lot. Tommy True was full of identical houses with mostly mowed lawns and mostly rusty lawn chairs out front. In winter, these lawn chairs migrated to the parking lot where they guarded freshly shoveled parking spaces.
“Why does Dad have to dig us a spot? Can’t we just park in the spot Mr. Jack shoveled?” I asked, one winter. I smeared my forehead across the condensation of our glass front door. I was watching my dad, bent and backlit by headlights as he shoveled wet snow into curbside mountains.
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Because people get mad when we don’t take care of our responsibilities,” my mom said. White-sneakered and stethoscoped, my mom was heading for her night shift, two words that meant mac and cheese and Dad asking me to grab him a Bud Lite from the fridge. Her voice was the same as when she told me to not suck my thumb, to not pinch the dog’s ears, and not to open the door when men in long white robes and pointy white hoods walked through our court.
The summer the ghosts wandered the court was the first time I found our usually open front door shut and locked. Mom curled onto our blue pinstriped couch in the front room and peeked through the curtains. The cream-colored phone cord pulled from the kitchen to her seat like CAUTION tape. She and her Catholic cronies planned to find those racist, anti-Catholic men and hand them a white, bleeding Jesus dangling from blue, plastic beads. My mom owned rosaries like batteries: she bought them in bulk and worried that we would not have enough when we needed them. Rosaries, I learned at a young age, had magical powers. Can’t sleep? Put a rosary under a pillow. Afraid Dad will die in a plane crash when he has a work trip? Hide a rosary in his suitcase. Sore throat? Wear a rosary as a necklace. My mom never directly gave a rosary to a ghost, but she did stuff “just-in-case” rosaries into her purse, so when anyone went to grab a napkin or a chapstick, they had to negotiate a nest of them.
Yet, on that winter night, my mom did not reach for a rosary to allay my confusion of the court’s unnamed rule for parking spots. “Everyone takes care of themselves in our court,” my mom said and kissed the top of my head. I exhaled, not realizing I had been holding my breath. Wind rattled the front glass door. The snow kaleidoscoped my dad and the red pinpricks of neighbors smoking night cigarettes as they huddled by their front doors.
My childhood neighborhood was tense, taut, like a fish yanking the line my dad dipped into Loch Raven Reservoir. First, ya gotta let the line out, or she’ll snap. We want a fish, not a broken fishing line, my dad always said. If my mom wanted to protect our privacy and our pride (our wanted fish), we needed to reel people in by respecting Tommy True Court’s unnamed rules.
If there is a chair in the parking spot, it’s taken.
Don’t tell Ms. Teresa you don’t like nuts in your banana bread. Say thank you and pick out the nuts later.
Don’t go into Tommy’s house because his mom has yellow pill bottles. Yes, you can play in his front lawn.
Don’t get Manuela’s dad mad because he will yell at you.
Don’t ask why Mr. Jack drinks so much.
Don’t ask our neighbor Pop Pop why his granddaughter Elisa is a different color than him.
Don’t talk about mom being sick.
The evening my mom went to the hospital, my entire family had been in the basement about to order pizza and watching The Masters Golf tournament. I trailed Polly Pockets up and down the curve of my mom’s leg. My dad, sipping a beer in a denim colored La-Z-Boy, asked, “Hey, Trish, where should I order the pizza from? ”
My mom, laying on her side, did not respond.
I can’t remember if it was my dad or my older brother who shook her. I do remember my dad, his voice a growl, telling my brother to get a mint and the orange juice from upstairs. I remember my dad’s big hands shaking as he tried to unwrap the mint. I remember the wooden panel walls being cool against the back of my naked calves as I watched my pregnant mom groan and shift on the coach.
“It’s her diabetes, not the baby,” my dad said to my brother, “I need to call 911. Billy, I need you to stand up at the front door and call down to me when you see the ambulance.”
My brother’s shadow, I stood beside him at the front glass door and waited for the ambulance.
“I’m afraid,” I cried. My brother fisted his hand and hissed, “Shut up, Noelle. We need to listen.”
The ambulance arrived silently. I remember the legs of faceless adults rushing to the front door. I remember the nameless neighbors collecting out front to watch my mom get carried out on a stretcher. One blond neighbor with a swollen belly of soon-to-be twins waddled to our porch and guided my brother and me to her living room across the court. We waited there for an aunt. She was a nice neighbor who put on a VHS tape about wolves that we pretended to watch. My aunt arrived and my mom did not come home that night.
My mom’s blood sugar had gotten too low. She was about four months pregnant, even though her doctor told her she should not get pregnant because of her diabetic condition.
“You or the baby could die. Or both,” he warned.
But ever the Catholic mom, she wanted a fleet of little saddle-shoes-wearing school kids.
“One more,” I imagine her telling my dad, like she was just cracking open a beer instead of putting a life into her womb.
Eight months later, my dad would be guided by a GBMC doctor’s rolodex of risks (preeclampsia…death of infant…cardiac arrest…death of mother) to sign a “right to induce preterm pregnancy” while my mom lay unconscious in the room. My sister was born premature. For a month after her birth, my parents shared night shifts and a red rosary. They waited for Maura’s pink raisin lungs to bloom. Now, Maura lives joyously, engaged, employed, and only slightly aware of the rosaries that tended to her in that early month. Rosaries, and the quiet prayers of my family and my neighbors each Sunday, as we huddled into pews at Immaculate Heart of Mary. There, my family and some of my neighbors sat and prayed, naming out loud things we never spoke about in Tommy True: “For the lonely children, for the sick babies, for the fear of the unpaid hospital bill, let us pray.” And after mass, we all drove home, parked our cars in our designated spots, and waved to each other before we shut our doors.
I support the author’s unlimited right to express derision for her Catholic upbringing, but references such as “Catholic cronies” seem laden with contempt for what others might call observant believers. Nonetheless, I respect the author’s effort and Fishbowl’s publishing of it.
I enjoyed Noelle’s story and writing style. She made me feel as if I was standing beside her with my forehead to that glass door. I look forward to more from Noelle in the future.
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