Ernest and Copeland Streets (My Mother’s First Apartment)

by Tim Gilmore, 8/1/2021

Here’s the problem. I’m trying to know the girl my mother was, but I can only reach the girl my mother said, when she was older, she’d been.

Joan Irene Keene, yearbook photo, 1953

I listen to her account from 40 years ago, recognize its cynicism, five years before she died, of whom she’d been, 30 years before.

So I set out across Riverside, one broiling evening at the beginning of August, 2021, stumble two and a half miles past old houses, across the creeks, through the parks, and arrive at 725 Copeland, a much cooler evening in February, just before Valentine’s Day, 1954.

She stands in the doorway waiting, holds the screen door ajar, tall and thin, wears a tan wool overcoat. The light by the door is on. This young girl is my mother, but I’m 30 years her elder. Because our parents are not just our parents. They’re real people.

Joanie finished high school just a year ago, 1953. She missed graduation, but finished exams early, so she could board ship for her new husband’s three month overhaul with the U.S. Navy in Honolulu. She loves him dearly. As her father’s the past, her husband’s the future. On the page called “My Favorites” in her “My Graduation” memory book, beside “Ambition,” she’s written, “To be with Bobby.”

In this handsome woodframe house built in 1926, its front porch and dormer window facing Ernest Street, two apartments in the front, Joanie’s apartment on the side at Copeland Street, another apartment in the attic floor, its front door upstairs at the back of the house, she’s made for herself a lovely first home, a model for what she might make her husband. She won’t be here long before joining him in Texas.

(She makes her first home, Bobby’s wife, a block from Gilmore Street, as was her father’s home at the other end of Ernest, having no idea that in 20 years, divorced, she’ll marry and take the name of a man named Gilmore, my father. Much of the time in between will be Hell; she’ll say Bobby was possessed by the Devil. But as the future hasn’t happened, as it’s 1954, it doesn’t yet exist, so this note stays parenthetical.)

Here she sits on the palm-themed sofa just inside the door, beneath the tall floor lamp. She wears a satin blouse and velvet skirt.

Her favorite flower’s a carnation. Her favorite color is “Blue or pink.” Under “My Favorites,” beside “Band Leader,” she’s written, “Tommy Dorsey.” She’s scratched out the word “Book,” replaced it with “Singer,” and written, “Mario Lanza.” For favorite record, “‘Be My Love’ by Mario Lanza.” For favorite song, Mario Lanza’s “Be My Love.”

“Be my love, for no one else can end this yearning, / This need that you and you alone create. / Just fill my arms the way you’ve filled my dreams, / The dreams that you inspire with every sweet desire.” Oh but this operatic crooning! is music to fall in love with, to fall in love by. Lanza sang it with Kathryn Grayson in the 1950 movie The Toast of New Orleans. It lit fevers in teenage hearts.

Joanie points to her doll collection. She has dolls from Mexico, the Netherlands and Hawaii. She kneels by the bookcase, pulls close a porcelain doll and displays her, looks this way and smiles. Her feet are crossed beneath her in soft leather shoes. Her bracelet slides up her arm, away from her wrist, as she holds up her favorite doll. Under “My Favorites” in the memory book, by “Hobbies,” she’s written, “Collecting foreign dolls.”

(From my memories of the early 1980s, I recognize that obsession. Our house was filled with cases filled with dolls and small typed placards including dates and places like Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, Mexico, Java, Japan, Holland, Spain and Austria. I’m trying to meet her here alone in 1954, but ’79 and ’84 keeping intruding.)

She’s a little girl, yet she’s a young woman. She’s not yet the woman who is my mother, but she is the woman who will be. I’m 30 years her senior and want to nurture her like a daughter, to encourage her independence, provide for her strength and education, while missing those exhausted afternoons when she’d fall asleep on my shoulder, her tiny hands locked about my neck, missing when my words of encouragement made everything magically better, but never holding her back for my own sentimentalism, as all the world lies before her.

Does she think Bobby looks like a younger Mario Lanza? “Be My Love” is their song. Especially when Bobby’s away, it’s Bobby singing when Mario sings, “Be my love and with your kisses set me burning. / One kiss is all I need to seal my fate. / And hand in hand, we’ll find love’s promised land. / There’ll be no one but you for me. Eternally.”

Mario Lanza, publicity still for the movie The Great Caruso, 1951

(Oh how quickly eternity passes! But not yet.)

The “most famous tenor in the world” is just a few years older than they are. Born Alfredo Cocozza in South Philly, he’d grown up poor like Bobby had. Hand in hand, Joanie and Bobby will surely “find love’s promised land.”

In her graduation memory book, other girls have written, “Be good and have lots of kids for Bobby” and “Gee, I sure do envy your trip to Hawaii” and “I hope you enjoy your stay in Hawaii and come home P.G. [pregnant]” and “Be good to that husband and name the first girl after me” and “Always remember the good ole days in gym and economics” and “Always stay the same” and “You are a cutie and the sweetest girl.”

Joanie sits down at the tiny corner kitchen table. Sheer curtains on broken blinds beside the back door. A tablecloth with a floral pattern. An empty bowl. A cup. A porcelain rooster on a dinner bell, a wedding gift from Bobby’s mother. “Hot pan holders” on the wall “hanging from that little thing” she and Bobby “bought in Honolulu.”

Joanie’s sister Dot takes more pictures of her in the kitchen, but they don’t “turn out.” (I want to see them. Desperately. I don’t know why the desire’s so strong. I’m missing something, have always been missing something.)

Joanie sits on the bed, the bedspread a graduation gift from Bobby’s mother Hattie. Dot’s little girl Sandy sits on her lap. The floral designs on the wallpaper around them make the tiny room both more like a womb and larger within against the outside night. A print of Warner Sallman’s 1940 “Head of Christ” hangs overhead.

That’s the newly married couple’s image of Christ. Jesus saved Joanie repeatedly. That’s their Bible on the table. And their clock. Those are Joanie’s mother’s organdy curtains. And in the background, seated at the foot of the bed, Joanie and Bobby’s chair in the background. Rose velvet. Their wedding picture on the dresser.

from The Florida Times-Union, March 7, 1953

The new lampshades look prettier in person than they do in pictures. And here’s the pincushion Joanie bought in Honolulu.

“How do you like my short hair? I haven’t rolled it even once since I cut it. That’s the best thing about it.”

She thinks every day about their time in Hawaii, how she stood atop the Aloha Tower, downtown Honolulu, 1953, one woman in one picture on one tower on one ocean in one moment in all of time. Her hair was longer then, blowing in the winds high over the city.

(And though that moment is complete in and of itself, I know what stands either side of it. I know what she escaped in her father’s house. I know how her new husband will echo her father. I don’t know how she kept her head together. Now I’m almost the age she was when she died and having traveled back in time, I meet her much younger than me and I want to save her. I want to save my mother’s life before my own life begins. It’s uncanny. Last parenthesis.)

In that one moment, that one moment is all there is. All she needs. “If you will be my love.” Her one ambition, “To be with Bobby,” she’s already achieved. There will be. No one but you for me. Eternally.