By Khimm Graham
I lived above a tavern in Sloan when I was 10. It was the first time I changed schools and made new friends – girls a little wilder than the kids I climbed trees with in the suburbs.
Karen’s older brother had a garage band and Michelle was crazy about the Beatles, as we all were – wearing ankle boots and bangs. Since guitar lessons weren’t elective in music class, we took drum lessons on little rubber pads, practicing awkward stick twirls in honor of Ringo Starr, my favorite Beatle deemed the outcast of the Fab Four.
Adventure was the antithesis of present-day adolescent psychosis and remedies of popular PTSD counseling for children of dead mothers and volatile fathers. Removed from our home by the Family Court and a compassionate judge, I was grateful to be alive, living with family and exploring childhood as a creative girl with a scoliosis spine.
Oprah wrote the gratitude journal decades ago when she was revered as a daytime talk show queen and a role model for transformation. But I never understood the need to list my gratitude like sins I rehearsed before entering the Catholic confessional. I am simply thankful.
Aunt Gert and Uncle Ray owned Ray’s Tavern on Halstead Avenue next to the railroad tracks. The upstairs flat was small for seven kids – three of theirs and the four of us. My sisters and I shared a full-sized bed in a room no bigger than a closet. Being the smallest, I often landed on the floor.
The building shook when the trains passed through the village and railroad workers filled the bar before 9 a.m., bringing skinned rabbits for us to eat. I thought they were cats and was afraid of dinner, which was my only serious revolt toward my weary new guardians. But eating in the restaurant booths like patrons was fun and my cousins were so different. I was fascinated with their freedom. They owned cars!
There was a piano and a stage, a bowling machine and a pool table. The place smelled like bar chips and stale beer, Pine-Sol and cigarettes. I loved coming home from school into a film noir movie scene.
Aunt Gert was smart and reasonable, stern and controlled. She was pretty and popular with her customers and they obeyed her rules – collecting nickels for every swear word in a jar labeled, “No Swearing.” It was always full.
Uncle Ray worked security – nights at the Buffalo Public Library – and tended bar all the time. He was quiet, played “Canadian Sunset” on the old upright piano and secretly made me cheeseburgers when I refused dinner.
His son, Bruce, was my age and kind of a brat. Intelligent, he was eventually enrolled at Calasanctius for gifted boys and cried until high school. The pressure for perfection was palpable. We went to the movies together to see “The Bible” and “Goldfinger,” giggling at naked scenes like goofy kids.
Handsome Cookie and independent Sharon were young adults, starting college and making plans for the future. All this and us – four kids who suddenly needed a home. My mother’s little sister tried valiantly to keep us together, which was ultimately impossible.
These fine, imperfect people fought hard for my custody and ensured our safety. The journal of thanks beats in my heart for them and for anyone who has the empathy to keep a motherless child in his or her arms. They taught me that fun is mostly dysfunctional, and imagination writes the pages of a curious past.