My sister Peggy, the oldest of the five Liuzzi children, was ten years old when I was born. Peggy recently told me she quickly realized Ma had no interest in taking care of me. She thought maybe Ma was overwhelmed or too tired, so she stepped in and made sure I was fed and changed. For the next eight years, she was more a mother than Ma. She would enter my life again when I most needed her as a teenager in an interracial relationship.
I was four when Peggy lost me, or, should I say, we lost track of one another. Had I paid attention, I would have been right at her side. It was 1961, and she doesn’t recall the incident. Yet the panic and fear of those few minutes stayed with me.
The family was at Thatcher State Park, just outside of Albany, on a summer day. Peggy, tall in my eyes, with ash brown hair, hazel eyes behind cat’s eye glasses, pale skin and freckles across her nose, held my hand and took me over to a food stand to buy small cups of soda. She let go of my hand to carry the sodas back to our picnic table. Without her hand to guide me, I did not follow her. I stood in the crowd of shorts and skirt-covered legs and sandaled feet, overwhelmed by the size and number of adults. I grabbed a hand.
“Oh, my. Whom do you belong to?”
It was a lady’s voice, but not one I knew, and I was too shy to speak. I looked up at her. Her face seemed far away, and her cheeks, rosy with circles of blush, seemed to slide toward her chin as she looked down at me. Her Jackie O. sunglasses hid her eyes, making her seem alien and frightening.
“Where’s your mother?” she asked. I thought she sounded angry. I still held her hand. I pointed toward the picnic tables. “Let’s walk that way and see if we can find her.”
“There you are,” Peggy said, marching over and grabbing my hand. “Thank you. She didn’t follow me back from the stand.”
“Keep an eye on her,” the woman said, turning and walking back to her group of picnickers.
A nightmare haunted me after that incident. We were at Thatcher Park and Ma was calling me because it was time to go home. She stood under a large oak tree in her short-sleeved black dress with the white collar and white buttons on the bodice and sleeve caps, her silhouette all breasts and belly. I ran over, and she grabbed me. She pulled her face off, and underneath was her true face, that of a witch with a long crooked nose and craggy, green skin. I screamed. She took me back to her cave. Her longhaired scarecrow husband, dressed in denim overalls and a red and white plaid flannel shirt, sat cross-legged before a fire pit. A tin plate of food balanced on his knee.
“Good stuff,” he said while chewing.
I stared, and the witch cackled.
“That’s your little brother. Now I’ll cook you for my dinner.”
She picked me up and held me over the fire pit. I kicked and screamed with all my might, and the flames licked my Keds.
But that was how it was with Ma and me. I always thought she regarded me as if I were covered in pricklers; and I always regarded her as the mother in my dream who devoured her young.
Peggy was born on November 4, 1947. Frank came two years later on October 4, 1949. He was chubby when he was young and drank skim milk instead of whole. His ears stuck out from the sides of his head, made worse, Ma said, because he wore a cowboy hat crushed down over his ears for the first six or seven years of his life. I had a hard time pronouncing his name when I was little, something about the ‘f’ and ‘r’ troubled me, and I called him Winko.
Rocco was born five years later on Frank’s birthday in 1954. “Take him back,” Frank told my mother, “he’s not what I asked for.” Rocco was the baby Ma said she almost died having. He was the largest baby, and I always imagined he was too heavy to stay inside her tummy. She told the doctor at delivery that if he had to choose, he should save the baby. Ma had a sweet spot in her heart for Rocco, letting him put his feet in her lap so she could rub them. He was a child of few words but he knew how to use a pencil and drew for hours a day. His nose was broad and flat, and Ma said he was part Aborigine. I imagine Ma liked how the word Aborigine rolled off her tongue and how it caused any neighbor or stranger to whom she mentioned it to stare at her with wide eyes and open mouths. But I liked believing Rocco was part Aborigine, and when I was in elementary school, I announced it whenever I could fit it into conversation.
I was born three years later on May 30, 1957 at 5:30 a.m. Ma’s abdominal muscles were so stretched by the time I came along that I languished sideways in her womb. The nurses piled rolled blankets at her sides to coax me down into the birth canal headfirst. Hearing Ma tell the story of my birth, I believed my turning headfirst into the birth canal was the first of many times in my life that I would do my best to please others. But there was no pleasing Ma, no offers to rub my feet, and I stopped trying early on. Princess was not a word she had used to describe me before the day she learned I was in love with a black man.
Andy was born one month before my fourth birthday on April 29, 1961. I remember Ma pregnant with Andy. I kicked her in the stomach while she washed my hair at the kitchen sink, her baby-filled tummy pressed against me, and she left a red handprint on my shoulder blade where she slapped me.