BY MEL MASSEY
Copyright is held by the author.
IT WAS Boston in the late fall of 1951 and I was almost three. I was following my mother who was bulging with a second pregnancy under the long overcoat which appears in a black and white photograph. My brother was born in March of that year, so they attacked me in late November or early December. I remember the pink and white scarf wrapped around my neck, the ends dangling to my waist. The street was bleak under the grey remains of afternoon daylight.
I was trailing some distance behind my mother when I noticed the boys. At first, they hung back. There were two of them and they may have been hanging around behind the spiral staircases of the three decker buildings which lined the street. I think of dogs chasing a rabbit before darting in with open jaws.
The boys were half again as high as me, small six year olds or tiny sevens. I thought they wanted to play and I ran around trying to catch them, the big boys. That is what I did on our street across town. However, these children had a different purpose as they rushed in and clawed my face. Then each grabbed an end of my long scarf and yanked me round and round until I tripped over my feet and fell. It took a little while because I was a sturdy and stubborn.
I looked up at their faces and I didn’t know what they were going to do.
I must have cried out because my mother bore down waving her arms, shouting “go away” and something about ‘parents’. I got up. However, even in the presence of my mother the boys didn’t leave and she had to protect me behind her swollen body as they circled, dashing in to grab at me. Again and again she shouted about telling their parents and eventually they sidled off up the street but hung around behind the staircases.
What I remember clearly is the sting of the ripped skin on my face where the boys’ nails had dug in. It was an itching hurt that lasted for days. Once the danger had receded, my mother bent over and examined my face. She must have said something because her reaction impressed me and I felt important.
Looking back, I marvel at her actions after the assault. It was truly vicious attack despite the age of the urchins.
My mother started to track them down. She inquired at the doors at street level and then climbed up to second and third floor apartments, again and again. Whenever a door opened she described the boys and asked where they lived. I remember her legs ahead of me on the stairs and her panting in the stairwells.
She went up and down knocking on ancient doors in the dark hallways amid the stench of old cooking. Whenever one opened she showed the bleeding scratches on my swollen face and said she wanted to speak with the boys’ parents. Sometimes people shut the door in our faces. We went up and down in several buildings before a woman said she knew the boys and gave my mother their address across the street.
She knocked at a door on a third floor. We waited so long my mother was about to leave when a red faced little woman opened the door. My mother pointed out the scratches and on my face and described the attack. She couldn’t have described my terror at being yanked off my feet by the scarf and how the pressure cut into my breathing.
The door opened into a tiny living room with ancient furniture. Both of the doors leading into the apartment were closed. There was a barnyard odour here, stronger than in the other tenements and I heard shuffling and whispers behind the doors.
The two women spoke. I remember the inhabitant’s raised voice arguing with my mother’s account of the attack, denying the evidence on my face. Maybe she accused me of fighting with her boys. More probably, she was telling my mother that her sons had been warned again not to get into trouble. I looked up at the mothers’ faces and wanted to go outside where I could breathe. We saw only that boys’ mother in that airless space.
They stopped talking and my mother turned to leave.
The sounds started while we were still in the room; the first shout and the impact of a blow. The noises were so loud we heard them through the door. They could have been made by a hand or a fist on bodies, maybe a belt. There was a man’s voice, followed by children’s screams. They went on and on; a bellowing male, sounds of hitting and the children’s shouts of pain and terror, following us out of that squalid apartment downstairs.
When we got home my mother smeared something cool from a tube on my face. She held me up to the mirror in the bathroom and I saw the white tracks of torn skin on my cheeks. Dutifully, she recounted the incident to my father and deplored the beating the man had laid on the kids.
Years later, when discussing the attack, my father said the people my mother spoke with probably telephoned ahead to warn the boys’ parents. That would be normal in what he called the ‘ethnic enclaves’ in Boston. He also wondered about the noises; questioning whether we could have heard them through a closed door. He suggested the family may have been play-acting to discourage us from reporting the incident to the police. I know it was all real.
I had well educated liberal parents and I believe, at least in the case of my mother, they condemned the familial violence I share my parents’ views on generational brutality and I see the attack on my three year old self as the product of a dysfunctional family. I must confess, however that I somewhat relish the memory of the unseen brute’s shouts, the blows and the screams of those nasty little buggers.