Note to Reader: Please join me in Chapters 7 to 20 as we go back in time to read and enjoy the lessons and life story of Alphonso “Sonny Williams” (The previous owner and seller of the little Cape Cod style house on Lebaum Street).
Alphonso “Sonny” Williams saw the light of this world in a small town on Staten Island, New York, on a blustery winter’s morn in 1930. His mother used to tease him how his infant’s squeal matched the howl of the raw Atlantic winter wind that swept across Staten Island that day, churning the icy, grey waters of the Hudson River. Thick mists had wreathed the Outerbridge Crossing and Goethals Bridge connecting Staten Island with the mainland since 1928. As a little boy, Sonny remembers the Hudson River under more benign weather conditions, a calm, blue-grey stretch of water under sunny New York summer skies. Hazy memories of childhood include watching the orange and blue boats of the Staten Island Ferry fleet skim the waters, carrying thousands of people to and from the mainland while the awe-inspiring Manhattan skyline filled him with a desire to reach beyond his own little world.
On some nice weekends when the raspy wind wasn’t blowing harsh and rude across the faces and sunlight shone warm and radiant all over the body, Sonny’s mother, Sarah, would feel the urge to board the five-mile journey across the Hudson, scrounging the nickel-ferry fare for the two of them, so that they could wander and explore all around the dense city metropolis of lower Manhattan.
On one extended, summer weekend, when the sun sweltered and stayed, Sarah and Sonny caught the subway to Coney Island. She had never seen bikini-clad girls and muscle men in shorts walking and talking along a busy broadwalk. She had never buried her feet on a sandy beach, one that seemed to go on long and forever and wrapped in the ubiquitous warmth of the New York sunlight.
But these excursions into the city and to the beaches were memorable and rare. Sarah had a passion for homemaking and was the quintessential mother and wife, for someone who would appreciate having and loving one.
Whenever appetizing food aromas waft towards Sonny, he is reminded of his mother’s delicious cooking. The mouthwatering bread and pies she used to bake, the meat stews and roasts that filled the air with great aromas and sent him scuttling to her side for a bite of something, the heartening smell of sizzling bacon, in the early morn. However, Sonny’s memories of his childhood are tainted by the disharmony and violence he witnessed at home. His father, Leo Williams, was from the Virgin Islands, a tall, bulky man with a surly expression seemingly fixed on his face all the time. His fits of violence could never be anticipated. If a chair was slightly out of place or if one of Sonny’s toys were in his way, he would raise his voice to the high heavens and yell, making Sonny shiver in his shoes. He would grab at whatever he could and would start throwing them at his mother. He remembers how his mother crouched behind furniture as his father ranted and raved at perceived neglect of him. His angry eyes would seek her out and despite the tears pouring from her beseeching, helpless eyes, he would shake her violently, pull her hair till she screamed and then bang her against rough edges of furniture and on the wall. Bumps on the head and forehead, bleeding noses, split lips, bruised face and arms were a daily occurrence. Even in the innocence of childhood, he hated this man who hurt his mother so much. Despite all she did for him, waiting on him hand and foot all the time he was at home, he never had a kind word or a loving expression for her. She would slave away at trying to make him comfortable and at the most unexpected moment he would turn on her like a mad man. When Sonny was old enough to understand, his mother would tell him that her first marriage was her punishment for an indiscretion committed as a young girl. She got herself pregnant in 1928 when she was yet unmarried. Living among nine siblings, she delivered the baby who was then taken away by her mother to bring up because she did not have the wherewithal to do so. Sonny had reached adulthood when he learned that the person he had played with as a cousin was really his brother.
As a guileless three-year old, Sonny grew up quiet and timid, afraid to say and do things that would start his father yelling. Instinctively he knew the time his father came home. Before the wooden steps creaked and grumbled under Leo’s weight as he staggered up to the entrance, Sonny would clear up all his toys so his mother would not get a black eye. As young as Sonny was, he knew he had two different lives – the carefree, laughing child he was with his mother and the fearful, nervous one when his father was home. Sonny remembers one terrible night when his father acted more violently than he had ever before. He tore the clothes off his mother’s back and pushed her out the back door into the icy blowing of a freezing winter’s night. Later, when he was old enough to understand his mother filled in the blanks in his memory. As she shivered in the dark night for hours before Leo finally allowed her in, Sarah made up her mind. No more of this, she thought fiercely, as she suppressed her sobs, trying valiantly to cover her nakedness with a rag she had in her hand. She was up even before dawn on that grim December day in 1933. As she lay awake during the long night, she had made her plans. Her head ached and her body had chilled in the freezing wind. Her limbs were sore with beatings. She could not tolerate another night under the same roof with her abusive husband. As she dragged herself to the kitchen to get breakfast going, she marveled at the way Leo could so conveniently forget all the devilish things he did. This morning, it was as if nothing had happened last night. Oh, how could he? As his raucous laughter jangled her nerves, she could hardly wait for him to be on his way to work. Finally, he was ready to leave. As he stomped down the wooden steps and got into his rattling jalopy, Sarah watched from the kitchen window, hardly daring to breathe. Would he have to come back in for anything? Would he decide to take a day off? The driver’s side door creaked shut, the engine spluttered and started up painfully, a squeal of tires, and then, he was gone. Her heart jumped with joyful relief and she sent a silent prayer up to heaven. Please, please, let him not come back till late evening. No time to squander, at any rate. She wiped her hands and got up on a chair to raid her scanty food supply. Some crackers and cheese for Sonny and some canned fish for lunch. She packed her can opener into a grocery bag with the food. She hurriedly got her small overnight bag from under her bed. She pulled her clothes out from her closet and urgently chose a few warm sweaters, two thick pants and some straggly underwear. She took a handful of Sonny’s winter clothes and thrust them all in her case, along with her meager toiletries and their toothbrushes. The next half-hour she spent getting herself and Sonny dressed while making anxious trips to the window for signs of her returning husband. At nine o’clock in the midst of a freezing rain, Sarah decided it was safe to assume Leo was out of the house for the day. She hurriedly wrapped Sonny up in a thick quilt and slinging her overnight back on her shoulder, she stole out the back door, into their back yard, then out the gate in furtive, swift steps. Even as her heart tripped in relief at this unexpected end to a miserable existence, she was gripped with a sudden fear of the unknown. What would happen to her and her son now? She was like a ferry that had broken loose of its moorings. She was drifting along, being carried by the swirling current of fate to who knows where? As she lay sleepless last night, she had planned what to do. She would get to the bus terminal and buy a one-way ticket to Washington DC. She had enough money with her to buy her freedom in this form. A one-way ticket out of hell. A one-way ticket at the gateway to a new life for her son and herself.