My mother called it the Grown-Ups’ room. I called it boring. All doctors’ offices seemed the same back then: dark and stuffy. They were either a one-person show with a crooked shingle on a neglected front lawn, or packed into some dreary compound with other stethoscopes. Some had tan leather couches and others had plastic or wooden chairs. There were newspapers on end tables with ripped out articles and coupons, and a few magazines sat in a plastic bin that jutted from the wall. There was a smell like soapy dishwashing liquid in the room and some days the aroma was more like furniture polish. Crayons were always scattered on an end table next to a beat-up coloring book. Some had floors with puke green tile or pale gray carpeting and the overhead music was barely audible. A few had plants and artificial bouquets on coffee tables. Women with bright red lipstick wore their everyday dresses with pumps and the few men who rushed in on their lunch break had dark sport jackets, thin ties with clips, and hair parted to the side. In the Grown-Ups room, kids had to put on their soldier faces until their name was called. That day, Dr. Silador’s office was torture for me. At the age of four, going on five, I’d rather have been playing hide and go seek.
“Ma, when are we going in?” I asked.
“In a minute,” she told me.
“But when?” I repeated.
“Soon,” she replied.
“Soon, when?” I persisted.
“Soon, when I tell you, that’s when,” she barked.
I sat with a long face on a wooden chair that hurt my tushy. Mom was never specific on wait times in offices. She’d use that firm whisper tone and stick her index finger in front of her lips. “Shh, kids, sit still, five more minutes.” Her five minutes seemed to drag on all day. My three-year old sister Susie was glued to my hip. She brought her talking doll, Chatty Cathy and giggled and rolled with her on the floor spitting out the words from Wonderama, “wocca doo, wocca doo.” We watched that show on Channel 5 every Sunday morning the way that other families went to church. We loved the fake snakes in a can. After school I’d prance around the house with a toy microphone singing, “Kids Are People Too.” Mom used to say, “Who do you think you are, Bob McAllister?” My mother, a teacher, was taller than the other ladies who used to come over to our house. She was big boned, but not heavy, with chocolate brown hair and soft, hazel eyes. Her words were firm. She’d scold, we’d mope, not talk back. I used to think she was born with chalk and a ruler in her hand.
The only reason I had told Mom I’d see the eye doctor was because she’d said we could go to the Barn on Hamburg right after. It was the biggest ice cream palace in our north Jersey town of Wayne, on a main stretch of road called Hamburg Turnpike. I’d always thought the Barn on Hamburg was a funny name for an ice cream store. My pre-school teacher Miss Sally was always yapping about horses and pigs in barns. When we’d leave the door to the boy’s room open she’d yell, “You live a barn? Shut the door!” Now I know what she meant: barn doors were always left open so the horses and pigs would get some fresh air. On humid summer days we’d run through the backyard sprinkler for a few hours, then jump onto the beach towels inside the steamy back seat of the car and head for the Barn. Mom would park the car and Susie and I would run up to the outside window. The woman would lean on her elbows and say, “Hi kids, what’ll it be today?” I was chocolate. Susie was vanilla. We’d take two licks, and then it would melt all over our hands and faces. Eventually, the napkin would stick to the cone and Mom would yell, “Kids, you’re getting it all over!” If I behaved, the Barn on Hamburg was better than getting a new toy.
Mom was thumbing through a magazine when a nurse wearing a crooked white hat and carrying a clipboard opened the door and called, “Tommy Migdale.”
“C’mon, Tommy, get your sister off the floor. We’re going inside,” she ordered.
“Now?” I asked.
“Right now,” she told me.
We all followed the crooked hat into a desolate hallway and wound up inside The Little Room, which was Mom’s code name for the doctor’s white-walled infirmary. The nurse slipped the clipboard into a big yellow folder on the door and told us to have a seat.
“Dr. Silador will be in shortly,” she said through her nose.
The eye machines looked like still robots from a late night horror movie. On the counter were tiny white plastic bottles and small thick oval pieces of loose glass. In front of us was an oversized light green chair. I thought, “I guess that’s where the doctor yells at you if you’re bad.” The Little Room had no music. It was quiet until the fat man came in. He had a long white coat, glasses, hair on his face, and wore a big watch that was on backwards. After a long stare at the paper on the clipboard, he spoke.
“Hop up in that chair, young man.”
“Ma, I’m scared,” is all I managed to say.
“Tommy, do what the doctor says,” she whispered.
“But, Ma,” I whined.
“We can sit here all day, son,” he smirked.
“But, Ma,” I said, I tugging on her dress, “that’s where all the bad people go.”
Dr. Silador sat hunched over on his stool. He never smiled, just stared at me.
With a sigh, I walked over and pulled myself up onto the big light green slippery chair. It had a smell that reminded me of a hot summer day up in my treehouse when Mom’s plastic cups filled with lemonade lined the aluminum floor. He swung one of the robots in front of me and told me to rest my chin and forehead against it. Then he twisted my face and told me not to blink. I squirmed. His cold, clammy index finger and thumb stretched my eye open while he zapped a bright light into the center. His “uh huh’s” and “we’re almost done’s” were annoying. Then he slid to his right, looked into my left eye, and the light got brighter. My eyeball was on fire. The pain stabbing my eye was agonizing. Dots of blue, yellow, and white, floated in front of me. “Try not to blink, son,” he repeated. Seconds later he swung this other thing in front of me. It was a cold metal mask with two round holes I was told to look through. I wanted to jump down and run out of the room when it pressed against my nose and hurt my eyelashes.
“Ma,” I cried.
“She’s right over there, young man,” Dr. Silador told me.
It was as if a cloud from the sky drifted into the Little Room and parked itself in front of me. There was this foggy stuff I’d never seen before on the two holes and I wanted the fat man to wipe it off. Then I thought, “How can he check my eyes with all the smoke in the room?” He just kept spinning the wheel. The doctor’s beard and white coat looked light gray. I wanted to go swimming in the plastic pool in the backyard, not be here with the mean man.
“What do you see?” he asked.
“See?” I wondered.
“Son, the eye chart straight ahead,” he said.
Then the bearded man scribbled on the clipboard. He spun a wheel that clicked and clacked on the side of the cold metal mask and said, “Is it better this way, or this way?” What was he trying to do? I was able see the image of the nurse with the crooked hat, Mom, Susie, Chatty Cathy, Dr. Jerk, and nothing else. I didn’t see any letters, numbers, charts, or whatever the fat man was making me read. I thought about my friends, records, books, Magilla Gorilla, Top Cat, and the bin of toys in my room. I wanted to call him a name and run out of the room. After each round of clicks, clacks, and silent letter guessing, I’d shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
I shrugged again. “I guess, yeah,” was all I said.
The fat man stood up and told me to lean back. Then he kicked a metal bar at the bottom and the seat tilted.
“I’m going to put some drops in, Mrs. Migdale,” he said.
“For dilation,” he mentioned.
“Ma, I don’t want drops,” I whined.
“Doctor, is it necessary? He’s only four.”
As Dr. Silador reached for a plastic bottle on his table, Susie walked over with Chatty Cathy and reached for my hand.
“Excuse me young lady,” he stammered, bending over to guide Susie back to Mom.
“Doctor, I’m not sure what—-”
“Mrs. Migdale, please,” he barked. “There’s an issue here, I need to dilate.”
In the shadow of a dull overhead light, the doctor hovered over me with his beady eyes and plastic bottle. I resisted as he leaned in, pushed my head back. When he tried again I cried, “Ma! I want the barn!” Within seconds, his sweaty fingers pried my lids open. I winced, yelled, and pushed his hand away. The fat man handed me a tissue, then removed his glasses and wiped his eyebrows with a towel. He told my mother that my eyes needed to get bigger and to wait in the Grown-Ups room until he was ready to see us again.
Back inside the Grown-Ups room I saw a distorted image of a dark-haired girl with glasses and a patch covering one of her eyes underneath. She looked at me with a serious face as I squirmed in my chair. I’d wondered what was wrong with her and if she was waiting for her eyes to get bigger also. Mom whispered that the girl looked familiar and might be a student in her school.
In Wayne, the young and old knew my mother. She was every student’s favorite teacher, every parent’s hero. Kids would spot her in supermarkets, movie theaters, shopping malls. Parents would run up to her in the street. We’d hear “Hi Mrs. Migdale! wherever we went. If she had run for town Mayor it would have been a landslide. There was almost a waiting list to get into her class.
Mom said she and I would be entering Theunis Dey Elementary School at the same time. She’d teach second grade and I would be in kindergarten. Why did my mother have to teach in my new school? It wasn’t fair. I never understood why I had to go to that school when I liked the teacher and my friends at Country Day, the pre-school I’d been at for two years. Maybe because I was afraid my mother would hug me in front of my class or wave to me if I was in the lunch line. I’d pictured the kids shouting, “Tommy Salami, is your mommy driving you home today, or you gonna take the bus with us cool kids?” I was really mad about the whole thing.
Mom leaned in and asked, “How are your eyes?”
Chatty Cathy glared at me as Susie giggled.
“It’s fine,” I answered.
“What can you see?” Mom asked.
“I’m fine,” I blurted.
“Well?” Mom wanted to know.
“It’s bright and blurry, I don’t know,” I shrugged.
My mother knew all the singers and bands and would sing to Susie and me in her car or in the kitchen, while she was cleaning the dishes. Sometimes she’d hum the beginning then make up the words as she went along. We didn’t know any better. It sounded good. Then she’d belt out the melody as she tapped with the beat. “Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon, we could float among the stars together you and I, for we can fly…” We knew that one as the “balloon” song sung by five people trapped in some unknown dimension. Mom was head over heels for some guy Perry Como and worshiped Frankie Laine. If Susie and I giggled during one of their songs in the back seat, Mom would yell, “Kids, do I have to pull over?!” Most of the time she’d just crank the volume. She’d tell us that when she was a teenager there were black and white posters of those singers in her room and she “played their records until the needle warped.” Mom was so weird.
I tugged on her dress that day when I heard the “balloon” song over head in the Grown-Ups room.
“Balloon! Balloon!” I screamed.
“Balloon,” Susie repeated.
Mom leaned in and gave us the old “Shush kids” for the umpteenth time.
“But Ma, the balloon song is…”
“We’re in a doctor’s office,” she told me.
“But I want to sing like you do,” I whined.
“Shhhh…” she repeated.
“It’s not fair,” I said as I folded my arms. “Daddy lets me sing all the time, and why do we have to be here anyway?”
“Nurse Dottie sent us here.”
“Well, she’s stupid,” I let her know. “Nurse Dottie has high hair and fat legs.”
Maybe I should have blamed Nurse Dottie. She had given me the eye test that morning. In Mom’s words, “it was convenient.” Her old friend Dottie had an office at Packanack Lake Elementary School, the same school where Mom had taught. It was her final year. That day she brought Susie and me to school with her. We’d seen Nurse Dottie only a few times but never met her. When class ended, she dragged us in. Nurse Dottie was a heavier version of Hazel the Maid on TV, but without the white hat and the nasal tone. Her bee’s nest was coated with bobbi pins and smelled like a bag of cotton candy. In the hallway, I gave Mom a hard time.
“But Ma, why do we have to…”
“Shush, it’s for kindergarten.”
“I don’t wanna go here for kindergarten?”
“You’re not going here for…”
“It’s not fair!”
“Nurse Dottie’s gonna check you to make sure…”
“But, I don’t wanna go…”
There were phones ringing and a lot of chatter. People walked in and out, Mom sat. Susie played with Chatty Cathy. Somehow I ended up in front of Nurse Dottie’s desk and was asked to read an eye chart. I wasn’t sure where to look. Eye chart? Where? Mystified, I remained silent in my plaid shorts, and light green polo shirt. With one hand over my left eye and my right hand in my pocket, I saw a white sheet on a wall really far away, nothing else.
“Your Mom tells me that you’ll be in kindergarten next year,” Nurse Dottie smiled.
I stared at her bee’s nest and nodded.
“Myrt Withers is a sweet lady. I bet you’re excited.”
“Myrt? That must be Mrs. Withers’ first name. How weird,” I thought.
“I am,” I told her.
“Good, then stop daydreaming and read the chart,” she said.
I stood, stared, and shrugged. Why did Mom have to take me into Nurse Dottie? She kept repeating, “you can’t go to kindergarten until you get a check-up?” Nobody I knew got one of those. I felt fine and didn’t want to talk about my new teacher Mrs. Withers. Mom said she was a jolly soul who sneezed a lot and had a bigger beehive than Smiling Dottie. I just wanted to leave.
“Tommy, don’t look at me, look at the eye chart,” Mom said.
There were no letters, just black smudges of blur. Nurse Dottie yapped on and on about a letter E. Is the E facing left, right, up, down? Her words faded and my thoughts drifted to other things like The Barn and playing kickball on the playground at lunchtime. This eye thing was boring and I wanted Mom to take me home.
Nurse Dottie walked over and bent down. “C’mon. Get that hand out of your pocket and read the letters,”
I looked at her and sighed, “I’m nerbus,”
“Nervous?” she questioned.
“Tommy, what’s wrong honey?” Mom asked.
If I had any clue that there was a white poster with letters hanging on a wall, I would have spit out a few silly words. Maybe I was tired or not feeling well, but there was no eye chart with the letter E, just unclear visions of paper and objects. What was the big deal? Mom told me once that her eyes get stuff in it when she wakes up from a nap. Mine do too but this wasn’t a nap. I felt gunk on my eyelashes and wanted to wipe it off so I could see the letters. Why didn’t Mom take me to see the nurse in my pre-school? I liked her. One time she put a band-aid on my knee when I fell off of a swing. She was just as important as Nurse Dottie. Mom used to say, “The kids love Nurse Dottie. She gives them medicine and they feel better.” So did the nurse in my pre-school.
Then Nurse Dottie walked over to Mom. “I’m gonna send you guys over to see Dr. Silador on Ratzer Road, have him check Tommy’s vision.
Mom seemed upset. She picked up Susie and grabbed my hand and said, “OK kids, let’s go?” Go where? I wasn’t sure what had happened. Then we were on the sidewalk. It was so hot. The sun was shining and I could feel the heat on my legs. As Mom reached into her purse and flipped on her sunglasses I asked her if Nurse Dottie knew Hazel the Maid. She never answered.
There was a high-pitched voice coming from somewhere. Mom said they had called my name. I didn’t want to go back in. Dr. Jerk was mean and all he did was say “son” and shine lights in my face. It was blurry, and sometimes there were streaks of bright lights but I couldn’t see much. I thought I heard the girl with the glasses and the patch on her eye saying goodbye to the fat man. It could have been a different girl but I don’t think so. I remembered her voice from before. It was definitely her. Maybe she could come with us to the Barn later and get an ice cream cone. How come Dad wasn’t here? I had to squint and follow Mom into the Little Room.
Then the fat man came in and this time he mumbled some words and looked at Mom, smiled at Susie. He pulled up a stool with wheels and told me to hop up into the light green slippery chair that smelled like a lemonade stand. He handed me a lollipop and said if I was good he’d give me another one for the car ride home.
“Ma, my eyes,” I cried.
“Your eyes?” said Dr. Silador.
“That’s good, it’s what we want,” said the doctor. “Now, let’s have a look.”
He stretched my eyelids open with his stubby fingertips and beamed a toy flashlight bulb into the center of my eye. It was bright, white, and made my eye water. His stare seemed to last an entire day.
“Ow! Ma, it hurts,” I cried again.
“We’re almost done,” the doctor uttered.
“It hurts!” I sobbed.
“Try not to blink,” he said.
Then he rolled his stool to the side, stood up, and said something to my mother. All I heard were words like “lens” and “thick” and this phrase “born of them.” Mom gasped, cried, and sat down. He nodded and said “I’m sorry.” Why was he sorry, because he was a mean man and made my mother cry? I already knew that. She put her hand over her mouth and repeated, “Doctor, are you sure?” Susie had crawled under a chair with Chatty Cathy and was lost in her make-believe universe.