We knew the family was in trouble, when our sister, Helen, starting putting bologna on the walls. Helen told us that Winston Churchill was living in her left ear. We believed she was joking. Winston Churchill living in her ear was by far better than bologna on the walls. An ear infection no doubt had spread to her brain. That’s what we thought. We were convinced the medicine produced her hallucinations, because prior to that, she was at the very least, lucid. She told us that Churchill told her enormous lies. Eventually, Helen began believing Churchill’s lies.
But it was the lunch meat she placed on decaying plaster walls that cinched the severity of her mental state for us. Winston Churchill could have been viewed as an imaginary friend, albeit, but she was fifteen at the time. What right did we have to say at what age one is supposed to give up a friendship fantasy? But putting food on the walls when we ten were so poor–we knew then, she was sick-in-the-head. Her mind was ka- put. The noodle was cooked. And our mother, who wasn’t quite right in the head either, would say, “Well, you know, Helen’s mental.” To this, our only response was, “And who wouldn’t be, living here with you and Tattie?
This all happened a very long time ago when our country didn’t use terms such as economic down turn or recession. We called a spade a spade. It wasn’t a melancholy economy. It was a depression. We knew Helen’s ultimate fate–the looney bin.
After the lunch meat incident, Helen began punching and hitting everyone. She was removed from school. Adolescent psychiatric units didn’t exist back then. Mental hospitals did, and sanitariums, but not the specialized mental heath facilities that are so common in this century.
After the wall-meat incident, and the hitting and violence, and Winston Churchill taking up residence in her left ear, she starting seeing a ghost in her room at night. The she-ghost told her things such as …your parents helped at the corpse factories in Mauthausen and Dachau. They are the worst kind of Jews, because they were baptized. They will push you into the oven too, you undesirable. While the ghost was visit- ing her nightly, Churchill had taken to belching and singing Russian sea shanties. We thought she was thinking of Tattie.
The way to subdue the mentally infirm didn’t differ all that much from today. More like incapacitation. Zombies in white pajamas roaming the halls, mumbling the nonsense of geniuses. We became increasingly fraught, for her kooky behavior grated away at what little sanity we could muster. We wanted out of this house, out of this neighborhood, out of this asylum of life.
We started reading about electrical shock therapy. We felt badly that our Helen might have to undergo this procedure. Frontal lobotomy was the rage during the late 1940s. So was sterilization.
One night, Helen was really violent. So we decided that we would call the police. We reached an operator and was connected to the Girard Avenue Police station. A gruff male voice was on the line with us; his labored breathing interspersed between his words. We could picture this detective wearing a pork pie hat, suspenders, a pin-striped vest, with both of his feet placed on top of a heavy mahogany desk. A lone Lucky Strike hanging, listing really, barely clinging to the right corner of his lip. Little wheezes mixed his words, when he said, “ So what’s the problem, gang?”
We paused for a few seconds and replied, “ Our sister is not well. She’s hitting everyone and busting up the house. She has a knife.”
“I’ll send a car right over, gang. Why don’t all of you get out of the house.”
We all stood around the paddy wagon while the four detectives struggled with Helen. She was stronger than all four put together. By the time they finished with her, two had black eyes, one had a bloody nose, and she had bitten a large chunk of one’s left ear lobe. She said that Winston Churchill told her to do it, because the detective was a no- good-fucking-jidoofka. We all cried, the eight of us, and our two brothers, stood motion- less staring at their boots.
With Helen locked away in Byberry and our youngest brother dead at 15, Tattie left. Our uneducated mother from Ukraine, who barely spoke English, looked to rich Episcopalians for help. We really started living good. We forgot about Helen and our brother and our father. On holidays, we were taken by childless families to mansions on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia. We loved the lawns and driveways. It was nice to be away from the Schlitz Brewery on Pollard Street with the drunken ruffians and vaga- bonds. Rich people would give us new clothes and shoes, and we always had delicious food. But we always returned to Pollard Street after the festivities.
One night, a knock at the door awakened us. We answered it. Three handsome sail- ors were standing on our stoop, swaying to the rhythm of the evening breeze and cheap whiskey.
Almost in unison we asked them, “Can we help you?” The sailors stared at all five of us girls and said, “Is this the home of the Luick girls?” We said, “Yes. Why do you ask?”
While whispering back and forth to each other, they all wore the same confused look on their faces. Almost dumbstruck, the older of the three said,
“Are you sure?–‘cause you don’t look like whores.” We all could have died at that very moment. We said, “Well, you’re damn right we’re not whores!” “We are so, so sorry, ladies. We never meant to insult you.”
“Who sent you here,?” We asked. “Tommy did–the Russian Red Head. He said that if we wanted to have a good time, to call on the Luick sisters.” The five of us were dumbfounded. How low could Tattie get? Our own father! After gaining our composure we said, “Well, we’re not whores. We’re sisters.” The sailors were embarrassed for us. The youngest one said, “Do you want us to beat Tommy up for you? He’s got some nerve that guy.” Before closing the door completely, we told the young sailor that it wasn’t necessary to beat up Tommy–he was our father. The days went on like this for years. Caroline and I were the only two who married later. All of the rest of the girls, and our surviving brother, were married before they were eighteen. Caroline and I were the big dopes.
We were the only ones to visit Helen weekly. Mommy always came with us on these trips that took most of the day. We’d catch a bus, then a trolley, then two more buses, before we arrived in Northeast Philadelphia, where Byberry was located.
Most of the time, Helen sat motionless in the solarium, unaware of the sunlight streaming in shattered, angled rays, or the man pissing in the hallway, swaying his penis around like a fire hose. One woman thought she was Eleanor Roosevelt, and they had a Madame Curie and Mary Queen of Scots. History was so nice.
Helen said she was alone now. Winston Churchill drank himself to death in her left ear, and the she-ghost stopped appearing in her room shortly after the Nuremberg Trial ended. She finally looked happy, but the long, winding scar on her forehead remained red and swollen for almost two years. It did not complement her placid stare, dark circles under her eyes and thinning hair. We always said she was the most beautiful of the Luick girls.
After every visit, we wondered about Helen’s happiness. Her stories took us away–if even for only a moment.