“Every electron generates a magnetic field.” —fourth-grade science
Back in 1965—when I was seven and HELP! topped the charts (so much younger than today)—I received a very cool toy for Christmas. It was called Magnastiks, manufactured by the Ohio Art Company, makers of the fabled Etch A Sketch.
(Was I the only kid who tried to “etch” the glass screen clear of all the gray dust—“aluminum powder”—so you could look at the innards of the contraption?)
Though invented in France in the late 1950s, the Etch A Sketch is a piece of pure Boomer Americana that endures to this day. Magnastiks (horrible name, sounds cancerous) is all but forgotten.
Called “the wonder builder,” the toy came in a small briefcase covered in fake, maroon leather. It opened onto a blue plastic “workbench” with four square pieces of magnetized metal flush with the surface.
Below the plates were a half-dozen in-laid trays for different shapes and sizes of metal: washers, rectangles, ball bearings, among others. It also included plastic “MagnaStiks”—not longer than cocktail toothpicks with small magnets the size of pencil erasers on the end of them.
With these sticks, you picked up pieces of metal and set them on the magnetized plates to build things: planes, cars, houses, or, if you were a kid like me, who enjoyed reading the annual World Almanac, King Tut’s Tomb.
If you were an especially curious child, you did dumb shit like dropping one of the ball bearings into your ear. And then, panicked when no amount of slapping the side of your head would make it come out, walked into the kitchen while your parents were enjoying their after-dinner coffee to tell them what their brilliant son had done.
Mom freaked, and Dad studied the situation. Flipping me over didn’t work. Nor did turning me on my side. Shaking my precious noodle with both hands—“Easy,” said Mom, “easy.” Nope.
There was talk of going to the hospital (no comfort) until Dad, a marine engineer who went to sea as a teenager and was then working tugboats on the Baltimore waterfront, got an idea.
He had me lay my head in his lap, ball-bearing ear facing up, took one of the “Magnastiks” and, like a surgeon, reached into my ear canal and—VOILA!—emerged with the ball bearing.
In a span of a few short minutes, I had cycled through fear, relief, and then—PAIN!
Dad flipped me over, pulled down my pants, and spanked my bare ass. I was shocked. Not that I had never been disciplined before. That occasionally had happened when I disobeyed or talked back or, once, when I broke my grandmother’s Jewel Tea sugar bowl while goofing off.
But I never thought I’d be paddled (barehanded) for doing something stupid like dropping a ball bearing into my ear.
Perhaps Dad, an otherwise gentle man, was letting off some of the anxiety he and Mom had built up before the ordeal was over. Or he couldn’t believe he’d fathered an otherwise intelligent kid who could be that dumb.
In any case, I never did it again and continued to build things with the magnet set without becoming physically intimate with it.
I remembered the incident the other day when the three of us were together—me, Mom, and Dad—on our hands and knees in their bedroom, looking for something not much larger than a piece of metal from that long-ago toy.
Mom’s hearing aid, about the same color as the varnished wooden floor, had gone missing again. It falls off the end table when she sleeps, falls out of her ear, or slips through her fingers when she tries to change the battery. It falls often.
When I introduced the ball bearing into the canal of my ear (I can’t remember whether it was the left or the right), my parents were both about 30 years old. That was more than 50 years ago.
With the help of a small, powerful flashlight that my brother bought for these frequent situations, we found the hearing aid and what passes for normalcy returned to my 86-year-old parents’ lives.
No one was spanked, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind when it happened again, just the other day.
• • • • • •
It is late March of 2020, and, with the global virus upon us, I am posting this from the basement kitchen of my parents’ brick rancher near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. There is a vintage Chambers range in front of me and the family “beer” refrigerator at my back. My writing table is a Depression-era enamel topped table now used to fold laundry.
I am comfortable here, in the back of the basement, with its combination workshop/pantry/laundry room aura—perhaps conducive to my long career of telling stories about labor—and have always preferred writing at the kitchen tables instead of desks.
To my left, Dad’s long-unused tool bench, to which my brother, Danny, he of the powerful and indispensable flashlight, migrated. I hid in a corner at the far end of the basement (cool in the summer), reading about Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson.
To the right, a rusting washer-and-dryer combo next to the stationary tubs into which the washing machine emptied.
Until the virus crept in like Casper the Baleful Ghost, I was here about three times a week and often spent the night, my “visits” becoming more frequent as my parents slowed by degrees.
Sometimes Danny and I would pull off a charade to get our father out of the house. We would pretend to have stopped by together coincidentally and would use the occasion for Danny to take the old man out for a beer while I stayed with our mother, who, even before Covid-19, rarely left the house.
Now, I am here about every ten days to do grocery shopping, pick up their prescriptions, and duck into the basement to bang out a few sentences before saying goodbye. Danny, who enjoys cooking comfort food for large numbers of people, drops off regular meals about twice a week.
My parents bought this house about a year or so after I dropped the ball-bearing into my ear in a cottage with pale green asbestos-siding on an avenue named Daisy. From Daisy Avenue to Orchard Road in what had once been strawberry and bean fields.
I lived here, a mid-1960s model popular in suburbs across America, for a little more than a dozen years; from the age of eight when I told my parents I was going to be a writer after my third-grade teacher read Stuart Little aloud to the class until my 22nd birthday when I returned to our family’s roots in Baltimore to work as a newspaper reporter.
I’ve visited often in the four decades hence; for crab feasts with the bounty my old man and his best buddy Jerome Lukowski caught in the Chesapeake Bay, birthdays, traditional Christmas Eve celebrations after the death of my grandmother moved the feast from the city to the county, random weeknight dinners and a couple of long months in early 1989 during my divorce.
Many of my stories were written here, from college and “alternative” journalism composed on a Metropolitan Life typewriter liberated from the company by my shifty Uncle Pete to screenplays on my first laptop, a lime-green Apple “clamshell.”
And many a discarded idea—sounded good yesterday, makes no sense today—have been tossed in the trash here.
The time I now spend with Mom and Dad (whom I’ve taken to calling “Wig” and “Wam” as they’ve become both funnier and more frustrating with age) is profoundly different from all that came before. It had been this way for at least a year before the coronavirus limited my visits to errands, leaving with nary an elbow bump.
Gradual but steady changes at the homestead led directly to this adios gentiles lectores missive, delivered initially to followers of a column I wrote about books, a feature for which I was paid little but filed faithfully from the graves of famous writers around the world.
The decision to end Ralphie’s Bookmobile arrived in the midst of nickel-a-word deadlines at the Art Deco laundry table, its thick wooden legs a wan, institutional green, likely done with leftover paint when my father did the cinder block walls.
My parents were always busy. I rarely saw them just sitting around daydreaming. Do, do, do. Work, work, work. Create, produce, harvest.
The truth that drove my decision is a classic from the old Baltimore waterfront: You can’t shove ten pounds of shit into a five-pound bag. Something has to give.
As recently as four or five months ago, I believed my involvement with my increasingly fragile parents was “helping out.”
Either Danny or I would stop by every day to keep them company and maybe watch a ballgame. Danny would fix whatever odds-and-ends needed some attention, and I drove to funerals too important to miss, like the not-too-long-ago service for my father’s cousin, Philomena DeFelice, an original Baltimore Colts cheerleader.
There’d be lots of up-and-down-the-steps running to retrieve this or that (paper towels, linguine, Spam) from the pantry next to the beer fridge, and I took advantage of nostalgic moods each of them would fall into and take notes.
But then, while trying to think my way through an obstinate sentence as Mom’s “walker-on-wheels” traversed the wooden floors upstairs like a local trolley car, I realized something: What was once helping out had become a full-time job.
I don’t resent the work as much as the reason for it, the slow and steady fading of a once extraordinarily productive and vibrant couple; high school sweethearts who had no reference or experience with a writer’s life but told me that if I was going to be one then work hard and be a good one.
In 1970—the year Simone de Beauvoir released The Coming of Age—my parents were both 36 years old, and I was a 12-year-old in angst over the unfathomable break-up of the Beatles.
We spent that summer in Spain, visiting the village in Galicia where my namesake grandfather was born in 1904. My parents, especially my father, led the way for the whole gang from Baltimore: siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins.
Dad translated for “the Americans,” and Mom paid close attention to our Gallego relatives’ cooking techniques, later working her magic on the Spanish meals here on Orchard Road.
When we arrived in the ancestral homeland, the first thing I did was ask my Aunt Dolores (a name that wafts through the generations of my family like Rafael, Manuel, and Victor) for a pencil and a sheet of paper.
I wanted to get down what was going on around me in a letter I mailed to a girl back home whom I’d kissed in the basement of her parents’ house after going over on my bicycle the afternoon our plane took off.
And what I’ve been telling you is what is going on.
As Dylan says, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there. . . .”
One of my mother’s favorite songs is “Spanish Eyes,” as sung by Al Martino on a 1965 Capitol LP the folks used to play on a turntable inside a serious piece of furniture the old man called “the jukebox.”
In the song, the eyes of a Mexican beauty are said to be “blue,” as in sad. Mom was especially moved by the tune while sipping a glass of white Brillante wine because Danny has blue eyes.
“This is just adios,” say the lyrics, “and not goodbye.”
• • • • • •
The same year I received the Magnastiks toy from Santa Claus, I made my First Holy Communion, a huge deal that seemed like ten Christmases and birthdays rolled into one with a gloss of religion. I remember our next-door neighbor—“Miss Edith”—allowing us to take photos near the statue of the Blessed Mother in her backyard.
What did I receive on this biggest of days for a Catholic kid?
Money in envelopes (it always disappeared into something called ‘Savings Bonds’), a small party with grandparents and godparents, but nothing particularly religious that I can recall.
After coming back from the ceremony at St. Clement Church in the brewery village of Halethorpe outside of Baltimore, my parents directed me to an upstairs room where they watched a black-and-white TV.
The room had been transformed into a boy’s study, complete with desk and lamp and bookshelf filled with pure treasure: a brand-new, 1966 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia, twenty A-to-Z volumes plus the 50th-anniversary Yearbook.
I’ve been dropping them in my ears ever since.