Photograph Packet #4: StairstepsSerena could hear them laughing and having fun in there. She wanted to go into the living room, but she knew that getting out of bed without permission after eight o’clock was a serious offense. Daddy was playing piano and singing. She heard him play the “Piano Roll Blues” and some boogie woogie. Sometimes Bill Mavis played the spoons for rhythm. She and her sisters would stare wide-eyed, dumbfounded with fascination as he knocked the spoons together against his knee, making a noise like the maracas the Mexican girls played on Cisco Kid on TV.
If Vic Haddock was there, he would sing Irish songs, like the one about Clancy lowering the boom. She knew the chorus: Oh, that Clancey! Oh, that Clancey! Whenever they got his Irish up, Clancey lowered the boom! When her uncles and aunts were there, they would all take turns playing the piano and singing songs like “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey”or “The Dark Town Strutters’ Ball”. She wanted to be in there.
Serena strained to hear the voices of the guests over the clanging of the piano. She didn’t recognize any of the voices. She had been asleep for awhile when the music woke her up. Daddy worked at Delta Airlines until after they were in bed every night and he usually left before they awoke. They saw him mostly on the weekends. Sometimes she heard him come in at night. One time her mother had the lights down and the radio on really low, and when Serena tiptoed to the door and cracked it enough to peek in, she saw lit candles on the dinner table. Another time she awoke to hear her parents arguing, but quietly, so she and her sisters wouldn’t hear. But tonight the noise was jolly and raucous, impossible to miss. She knew that Carlie and Vanderly lay awake beside her, and even Bethany was standing up in the crib.
Finally, Bethany started to cry. It wasn’t her upset cry, it was the cry she cried when she wanted to be picked up. “Morgan! I told you that you’d wake the children! That’s the baby!” her mother reproached her father. But Serena knew that her mother didn’t really sound angry.
“Good!” her dad said, as he continued to make a few tentative notes ripple off the keyboard. “I want to show them off anyway! Bring them all in here!”
Before her mother could object, Serena and Carlie were out of the bed and out the door of the bedroom. The living room was full of strangers and cigarette smoke. Only Serena’s mother didn’t smoke. Everyone started laughing and talking even louder when the little girls padded in barefoot, in matching white nightgowns their mother had sewn them. Each nightgown was trimmed with a different color of pastel ribbon, woven through the fabric.
“Oh, aren’t they adorable,” the two women crooned, and the men said things like, “I have to admit, Moe, they’re pretty damn cute.”
“Wait till you see my baby,” Daddy insisted. “She’s the star!”
Mama walked in from the bedroom with Bethany in her arms. Mama could hardly carry Bethany because Mama’s stomach was getting big. Mama was pregnant again. As if on cue, Bethany had stopped crying and turned her most beguiling smile toward the audience.
“Line them up in stairsteps, Hon!” Daddy said excitedly. Mama didn’t have to do a thing. This was a performance to which they were accustomed. Carlie shyly took her place beside Serena, and Vanderly obediently lined up next to Carlie. Even Bethany struggled to get down and toddled over to her place on the end, beaming.
The guests oohed and aahed in compliance. One man said, “Damn, Moe, haven’t you figured out what causes this? And another one on the way!” The company all guffawed as they were expected to do. The little girls stood coyly in line, each a head shorter than the older one next to her, soaking up the admiration. This ritual was to be one of the easiest and most rewarding performances of their lives.
But Daddy could never tolerate being upstaged for long. He called Serena over to sit on the piano stool with him, and began serenading her with “Daddy’s Little Girl.” “Isn’t that the sweetest thing?” one of the women cooed in an undertone.
Next Daddy called Carlie over to the piano stool and sang “Ragmop” to her. It wasn’t Serena’s song, but she loved Carlie’s song too and sang along under her breath, R-A-G-G, M-O-P-P, RAGMOP! “She has a head of hair, doesn’t she?!” Daddy marveled. He hugged Carlie to him and gave her a “Dutch Rub,” roughly mussing her dark tresses with the knuckles of his closed fist. Sometimes Daddy’s affection was a thing to shy away from, but the little girls still thrived on it.
After Carlie squirmed free of his embraces, Daddy tried to get Vanderly to sit on the piano stool but she was afraid. She was only two. So Daddy sang to all of his babies as a group. Three gathered around the piano stool, an admiring flock of little birds, faces lifted for a crumb of special recognition. Only Vandy sat apart on the floor, rocking to the music as she always did, a faraway look in her eyes. Music transported the toddler to another world. Daddy sang “Paper Doll,” and “Three Little Fishes” and “My Mama Told Me.” Serena loudly sang along on the last song:
My mama told me,
If I’d be goody,
That she would buy me,
A rubber dolly.
But since you told her,
I kissed a soldier,
Now she won’t buy me,
A rubber dolly.
“Did you teach her that? Shame on you, Moe!” one of the women howled.
“Daddy, sing ‘Mairsey Dotes!’” Carlie begged. So Daddy obliged with “Mares Eat Oats.”
“That’s enough,” Mama said firmly. “These little girls need to get back in bed.”
“Oh, hell, it’s Friday night,” Daddy protested. Sometimes Daddy and some of the other grownups said bad words, but Mama never said them and she wouldn’t let the girls even say “darn” or “heck” or “gosh.”
“No, it’s back to bed for them,” Mama insisted.
So they all went back to bed. Serena lay for a long time listening to the festivities in the other room, until she finally drifted off to sleep in spite of the noise. The music and laughter went on until late in the night.