The Affluence of Love When the Pockets Are Empty

Papa was a free spirit who could not be locked away in some dim factory, cutting furs or operating a machine.

Early in the Great Depression he lost his job as a crackerjack salesman for a furniture store that went out of business. From then on he was nearly always out of work. He had no savings and no trade. And that was the title of our misery.

In order to keep a roof over our heads, Papa and Mama became janitors in the house we lived in. But around that small railroad flat, Papa made music.

All day he sang, whether he was fixing a leaky faucet or setting a mousetrap. In his lyrical tenor he sang songs of the Bowery with a regretful eye to its carefree life.

''A job he doesn't need,'' Mama would say. ''What your father needs is a band of music to follow him around.''

In answer Papa would kiss her and insist, ''To here,'' (indicating his right shoulder), ''to here, I'd give up my arm for you and the children.''

She would kiss him back and retort, ''Where there's no money love flies out of the window.'' She was not convincing.

Sometimes when she was standing at the washboard scrubbing clothes or holding the mop and the pail, ready to go out to wash the hallway, Papa would sing to her, ''Oh you beautiful doll....''

In answer she would sing defiantly in her thin high voice, ''You made me love you, I didn't want to do it.''

What Papa had was his true-blue wife and four adoring children -- my two sisters, my brother, and I, the oldest -- all born about a year apart.

Papa stood about 5 foot 2, perfectly proportioned with gold-flecked gray eyes and a chin so deep and firm that we kids loved to explore it with our grubby fingers. My child heart warmed to anyone who said I looked like Papa.

In his early youth, Papa hopped freight trains to find work and see the world. He treasured a faded brown snapshot of himself against the ''Thousand Islands,'' to him the most beautiful place in the world.

Papa made friends on the Bowery. Once he brought home a Russian prince whose stories exceeded in mystery and romance even the stories Papa told us. Once he brought home a has-been stage idol, who recited Shakespeare late into the night while I lay awake listening with the same awe I had for thunder and lightning.

''Someday,'' Papa would say, ''my ship will come in.'' And he enumerated the things we'd get. I would get the piano I wanted so, not an ordinary piano, but a white grand piano. On the green mantle in the tiny master bedroom was a blown-glass version of Papa's ship that he had won at Coney Island.

Whatever Papa's being out of work meant to Mama, to us it was a time of infinite possibilities, a time of joy.

Papa would draw us pictures of animals with our very own faces. Mama was a deer with the sweetest expression.

Rare indeed was the day on the treeless Brooklyn streets when one could not find Papa walking to Nanny Goat Park, one of us on his shoulders, three tagging along, holding on to a shirttail, a pant leg, or a sleeve. Every few blocks came the refrain, ''Papa, carry me now,'' and he would make the quick change.

With the coming of night, Papa let us explore the mysteries of the universe. The stars, he told us, were the princes and princesses of the sky and court was being held. ''There's the Big Dipper; there's the Little Dipper. There's the North Star. If you ever get lost, follow the North Star home.''

I remember once overhearing my stern grandmother tell my mother: ''A living he can't make. You should have married the builder. He's a very rich man today.''

''But I didn't want the builder,'' was Mama's tortured cry. ''I wanted Harry. I love him. He makes me cry, but he makes me laugh too.''

Periodically, Papa took the post- office exam. He would come home with the test papers filled out in his elegant script, all answers perfect, but always stamped, ''FAILED, under 5 foot 3.'' One couldn't coax 5 foot 2 another inch.

Papa took us on outings to farms, to museums, to the zoo, and to Coney Island whenever he had the money. So what if bread was scarce in our home, when Papa would instantaneously transcend our slum lives into a jungle of animals, a forest of trees, lush green hope, and wild birds.

He had been a jockey when he married Mama, but he gave up the horses he loved, the life he loved, for us. Papa loved us, and that was the treasure I'll always have.

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