Thirty-nine years ago, today, my older sister and I were sitting on the stoop on a warm, summer, Brooklyn evening, with our grandparents. That's what people did in Brooklyn back then. On summer nights, when darkness didn't come until well after 8pm, we'd all go out and sit on our stoops, or lean out of the window and watch what was going on outside. My sister and I would play jacks. My grandfather would read The Daily News evening edition. My grandmother would talk over the fence to our next door neighbor, who she'd been best friends with for years. It was a neighborhood.
On this night, July 26th, 1973, we heard the upstairs door open, and out came my mother and father. My mother was very pregnant. She was a small woman, and this baby had added a good 50 lbs to her. Getting around had become uncomfortable for her, especially in the summer heat.
"Do we have to come inside, now?" I asked.
"Just a little while longer, please?" my sister asked.
My mother took a deep breath. "No," she said, "you don't have to come in, yet. I need to stretch my legs. Daddy and I are going to take a little walk."
Ma and Daddy came down the steps, hand-in-hand. When they reached the bottom, Ma kissed first Lisa, and then me on the forehead. "Be good, babies" she said, "Abuela's in charge."
She looked up at my grandmother, then, who was seated on the step above me, trying to braid my thin hair, and said, "Mami -nos vamos."
My grandmother did that thing with her chin that Puerto Rican people do. (I do it, myself, these days.) Even back then I knew it meant "Ok."
My grandfather didn't say anything, Neither did my father. This wasn't man's business.
Dad opened the front gate and he and Ma started walking slowly up the block, holding hands. They always looked so funny together. Ma was short and chubby. Dad tall and lanky. More than a foot apart. That year, dad had let his hair - what little there was of it - grow, and it reached almost to his shoulders. His beard was really long, too. He always wore really worn jeans with a garrison belt, a white t-shirt, and a pair of Clark's Wallabees. He was in no way a hippie, but he looked a little bit like one. Like a really clean hippie. Ma didn't look like a hippie, at all. She just looked like, well, like my mother.
As they walked up the street, one of our neighbors called down from her window, "Hey, where are you two headed?"
"Taking a walk on the ave," Ma answered.
"A little hot for that, doncha think?," another neighbor chimed in from his stoop.
"I just feel like stretching my legs," Ma replied.
A second later the first neighbor, a feisty, older Italian-American woman who lived two doors away and was good friends with my parents, yelled out, "BULLSHIT! You're going to have that baby!"
My sister and I looked at each other, and then looked up at my grandmother. She smiled and said (in Spanish), "The new baby is coming." Abuela had had nine babies of her own, all at home, with only the aid of a midwife. This business was nothing to get worked up over.
My sister and I were allowed to sleep with Abuela and Abuelo. It was the first time in my life my mother would be away from me as I slept. The four of us piled into the big bed that night, and watched Channel 47 for a while before turning out the lights and falling asleep. Early the next morning, Abuela shook me awake, "Despiertate, mi gordita de oro," she said, "Your father's going to take you to see your new baby sister."
Lisa and I got up, brushed our teeth, and put on the clothing Ma had gotten ready for us before she'd left the night before. We sat at the table in Abuela's kitchen, where we drank big mugs of hot cafe con leche and ate bread with butter. Abuelo peeled an orange and divided the wedges between us. Just as we were finishing up our breakfast, we heard a tap at the window. It was Dad. "Come on, let's go," he called out, "your baby sister is waiting."
We ran outside, and walked up the street, each of us holding one of Dad's hands. The early morning sun was bright. It would be another hot day. When we got to the corner, as we were waiting for the light to turn green, Dad looked down at me, "You know," he said, "this means you're not the baby, anymore."