Peter Pan soared across the black and white television screen. Enthralled, oblivious to my surroundings, I too clutched Peter Pan’s hand on our way to Never-Never Land. And then the rapping began, for real, and my fantasy faded.
“What was that?” Dad asked. The sound seemed to come from the garage. Before anyone responded, the rapping repeated, a hollow sound, like a fist thumping an automobile hood. My brother, Johnny, walked to the window and peered out; Diane, my sister, began speaking excitedly, an irritating mannerism she perfected over the years. I plugged my ears to block out their loud talking, but that also prevented my hearing the television set, a dilemma which resolved when the three of them left the house to investigate the rapping. My mother remained on the sofa, knitting, serene and unperturbed as always. Moments later they returned, having not discovered the source of the baffling sound. For me, Peter Pan flew on, to battle Captain Hook, to never grow up, to always love Wendy.
The summer of ‘58 might have melted into oblivion had it not been for “the rappings.” Our family lived in a suburb of Boston, in a rented two-family house, with a detached garage, on a street dotted with maples. July heat and humidity poured over those summer days like honey. Routine defined our lives.
The day following the rapping incident, Dad, Mom and I drove to Narragansett, Rhode Island, to a race track Dad claimed he owned. And in some ways, he did. While Dad looked over his investments, Mom and I remained in the car. Dad said he wouldn’t be gone long, an hour or two. The July sun dripped down on our blue Plymouth Fury. Mom read stories out loud, while I colored with Crayolas. The car’s interior heated. Boredom gave way to drowsiness, and Mom dozed off, as did I.
An abrupt sharp rap on the car’s hood startled us awake. Mom poked her head out of the car.
“John?” she whispered, hoping the sound announced my father’s return. Dad didn’t answered nor did he appear. A minute or two passed and then another forceful rap resonated from the car’s hood. I remember feeling weird: the two of us out there alone in the sticky heat midst a sea of empty cars, with rapping sounds coming out of nowhere. Weird. Mother got out of the car. I pulled a pillow up to my chest and chin and watched her circle the car. She called out Dad’s name a few more times, but not like she expected an answer. I clutched my pillow and waited. When she got back into the car, she turned towards me and shrugged her shoulders.
“Guess we’ll take the car in for a check up,” she said.
“Let’s just get a new car,” I suggested. Mom chuckled, but seemed distracted.
Dad returned soon after we’d heard the rapping. Mom spoke about the it, and they discussed possible causes as we began the long drive home. No explanation seemed to fit. I became aware of my parents’ fallibility.
About halfway home, Dad stopped at a gas station where an attendant pumped gas into the Fury. Mom handed me a nickel which I plunked into a bright red Coca-Cola machine and got a cold bottle of Squirt in return. Dad found a phone, and placed a call to his mother, whom we knew as Nana.
“She must be out shopping,” Dad told Mom as we piled back into the car.
“Maybe we ought to drop by and check on her,” Mom said, ever the protector and worrier.
“It’s OK, we’ll see her tomorrow after church,” Dad replied.
After dinner that evening the rapping began again, creating confusion and excitement among my family. We didn’t have a telephone at the time, so Dad left the house a few times that evening to walk up to the corner phone booth to call his mother. Nana never answered.
“Guess she went out to a movie,” Dad said after returning from the fourth and final trip.
That night everyone seemed on edge. Even our dog, Randy, fidgeted and paced, until Dad turned him out into the backyard. The rapping continued sporadically throughout the night.
The following morning, the family attended an early morning church service. Afterwards, Dad dropped Mom and Diane back at the house to begin fixing Sunday afternoon supper. Dad, Johnny, and I drove into Boston to pick up Nana.
Nana lived in a brick apartment building on a cobblestone street near Beacon Hill in Boston. A rickety elevator with a sliding chain door carried us up the few stories to Nana’s floor. Exiting the elevator, I ran down the narrow corridor, carpeted in a faded burgundy floral runner, to Nana’s apartment. Everything about that hallway felt dark. A dank, sweet, and definitely unpleasant smell grew stronger as I approached Nana’s door. I pushed open the door and ran into a pungent smell so caustic I covered my mouth and nose with my hand. I recall walking into her bedroom, which seemed especially luminous, with sunlight beaming in. I remember seeing rumpled white sheets and blankets, a swollen leg, blue and blotchy, extending out from underneath the sheets, and flies—hundreds of flies crawling over and through the screen window, which looked out onto a back alley. Then a hand slapped down onto my shoulder and pulled me backwards, out of the room.
I next recall standing in front of the green velvet settee adjacent to the entryway. There Johnny sat. Sobs shook his shoulder, his hands pressed hard against his eyes and forehead. A policeman stood next to him, looking solemn. I remember poking fun at my brother’s crying, calling him a cry baby, and making faces at him. He didn’t so much ignore me as seem unaware of me, consumed by grief I could not comprehend. The policeman looked down and softly smiled at me. I knew vaguely something awful had occurred, and I felt it my responsibility to somehow cheer everyone up.
Upon arriving home, Dad handed Mom an antique porcelain pitcher, which Nana referred to as the “cocoa urn.” Without words spoken between them, Mom understood the significance of the gift, and surrendered to tears. The rest of the day blurs into memories of relatives coming and going, and much commotion of which I took little part.
That evening, Dad and Mom came into my bedroom to tuck me in. As usual, I said my prayers out loud and when it came time for the “God bless” segment, I paused to ask them if Nana should still be included. Dad said yes, she should be, and I have ever since. Mom left the room, but Dad remained sitting on the bed next to me.
“Nana may be gone from our sight,” he said, “but her spirit remains, in our hearts and in our lives, forever.” Then he added, “I think that was Nana rapping on the car, trying to tell us dummies to come and take care of her body.”
I shook my head in agreement. It made sense. It didn’t seem spooky or scary either, not the way it seemed earlier, and maybe since. Dad kissed me good night and left the room.
Years later I learned that my grandmother died five days before we discovered her body on that steamy Sunday morning in July. My father also told me that her body lay on the bed in full view, but I have no memory of that.
We never heard the rappings again.