My first exposure to the inevitable was seeing Mrs. Doyle walk into our kitchen through the side door, the kitchen door which everyone used as the front door was too formal, useless, and hearing her cry “Jim’s gone.”
It was late spring or early summer, a fact that could be verified should I visit my father’s grave as he and our late neighbor are buried in the same suburban Philadelphia cemetery, Jim on the hill above, my father down below, appropriate, since everyone looked up to Mr. Quinn. I used to sit on his lap doing nothing but feeling safe and happy by just going next-door. Somewhere there’s a photograph of the two of us sitting like that. He was an executive at the steel mill, wore a white short-sleeved shirt and a black tie, smoked a long-forgotten brand, drank Carling Black label, played golf and drove a ’68 burgundy Oldsmobile back when a man was characterized not defined by the car he drove, Carl’s a Ford Man or He’s always been a Chevy guy. The Oldsmobile seemed dependable. Like Jim.
And now I realize why the kitchen door was used exclusively; it was off the carport and we drove everywhere, had to, until we were old enough to ride our bikes freely the first words out of my father’s mouth were always Get in the car and out the kitchen door we went to drop off a letter in the mailbox down the corner or up the turnpike to visit family miles away.
My father embraced Mrs. Doyle, cigarettes were lit, and I walked out the door into the carport and saw the long, sleek Cadillac ambulance conveying Mr. Quinn, dead from brain cancer, to Brock-Donnelly funeral home then to Resurrection cemetery and finally on to parts unknown, its siren silent, its red light muted with grief. My last image of him was as he waved to me from his couch where he was lying, recuperating from surgery, looking the same to me in memory as he did to me as a 5 year old. I remember his wave, his eyes and the smile.
My friends and I all grieved and felt the loss kind as he was to us all even though there may have times we were underserving of such unconditional kindness. Over the next few years Mrs. Quinn would take us in the burgundy Oldsmobile to visit his grave and plant flowers. The ground below waiting for my father as well as my friend Paul’s father, too, an irony neither of us will appreciate if we live to be 1,000 years old which we won’t.
A few years later when my father was in the hospital Mrs. Quinn looked after me in the morning before school for about a week after I stopped going, disconsolate from missing my father. My mother and brother left before my school began and so I simply stayed home and played cars and watched TV until the school decided five days of absences were worthy of investigation. She scrambled eggs every morning, two of them in a bowl, a little bit of milk whisked in and then all into the pan to set briefly before the scrambling to be served steaming hot with a little salt and pepper and a side of toast.
I remember heat radiating from the stove-top towards the small kitchen table where I sat waiting, knife and fork, butter, a glass of orange juice and the empty plate before me, the same couch just behind me in the living room off the small dining area in the Levittowner where Mr. Quinn had waved goodbye. I remember someone doing something she didn’t have to do. And I remember that although the eggs were made just as my mom made them they tasted nothing like hers, they had a stronger egg flavor and just weren’t as tight. To this day whenever I scramble eggs I let them go a little bit longer. I simply can’t eat a runny egg. It’s just me.