Cousin Ernie described two traits of the family that he and Florence came from: rage and secrecy.
The rage I recognized. It was loud and either I fought back or hid deep within myself. The secrecy was another matter. Like oxygen, it was untouchable, invisible, scentless, but saturating and essential to keep our family life going. I couldn't stand it. I needed to understand what I kept hearing in silent thought and unexpressed desire.
So, I went hunting for the proof of what wasn't being said. By the time I was 6, I was an expert at going through the nooks and crannies of our ancestral seat on Broome and Columbia. And one of the first place I started with was Florence's closet.
The flooring was the same as the kitchen I think or it was the same flooring in Gramma's house. Whatever it was, it was the flooring of home. It was beautiful.
This closet held the beautiful dresses and skirts and blouses Florence wore to perform in until she stopped performing and stopped wearing dresses. It also held all her spectacular heels from Red Cross Shoes, whispering glamour and other places besides the Lower East Side. Sitting on the floor and watching her get dress I could feel yearnings pour out of her. Maybe stepping out of the house she'd be stepping into her wildest dreams which clearly wasn't raising us kids.
I am not sure why, but birthdays were huge in our house. Sort of like what Christmas was to the Christians. Weeks before the big day, the corners of this closet would suddenly fill with odd boxes and bags. And I knew this because, during afternoons where I was left to my own devices while she practiced or when both parents went to the supermarket, I investigated each and every box and bag.
Only once did I get almost caught. The minute I heard my parents lock the front door, I dove into the closet and opened for the 3rd time the box with a tin rolling fish toy and the other box with my new training bra. Suddenly they were back in the apartment, seeking something they forgot. Thrusting everything back, I sat on the floor and leaned against the closet door, hoping that what they forgot wasn't in that closet or that they didn't notice the bra strap caught in the door and sticking out.
Also in this closet was a mysterious blue box with odd white paper covered cylinders. I had asked what they were but oh that family trait of secrecy was a tough one to crack. It was nothing I was told. But nothing didn't come in a box of its own. So again, one day, the minute the door locked behind me, I dragged a chair to the closet and pulled down that blue box to find out what was what. It was mesmerizing, the paper so easily pulling off, the odd cardboard, the string, the cushy thing inside that with one yank of the string came out of the cardboard... I must have gone into a trance because the next thing I knew I was surrounded by the many pieces of the mysterious box. And standing over me was a very angry, very upset and very silent Florence, back from her walk with my father. I had completely dismantled her only box of Tampax.
And even then, she never told me what they were for.