Broken Spells

I turned five the month after my widowed mother married Karl Levin. We went to live in a bungalow hidden behind my new grandfather’s house. As in fairy tales, a father had suddenly appeared as miraculously and undeservedly as the unknown one had disappeared; a dream home, with my very own room—even a ruffled dressing table—bloomed into reality.

True, the bungalow, one block from the ocean, was rented out in the summer and we three moved into the big house where the new grandfather I hated ruled us all. But this seasonal repossession by “others” fitted my explanation of existence. I knew that bad witches cast spells that lasted only until good fairies outwitted them. Life was just a matter of waiting out the bad spells with their inexplicable rules: magic circles one couldn’t cross; foods not to be tasted; doors not to be opened.

I was not a questioning child. I had too many questions, I think, and since I couldn’t frame the first, could not, therefore, go on to the next. So I accepted my grandfather’s rules too. No bathing suits worn on the front porch, not even to cross inside; no food left over on plates; no child may touch the piano.

I broke the piano rule the first Sunday we visited the big house. I had been excused from the dinner table and wandered into the parlor from the hall door. My mother’s brother had given me piano lessons the previous year, when I was four. I was picking out a tune, by trial and error, when suddenly the double doors to the dining room crashed open and my short, barrel-chested grandfather strode to the piano and slammed the lid.

“There will be no children practicing in this house,” he roared.

Before I could scramble from the piano bench, my new father scooped me up. “Hey,” he said, “it’s all right, Nina, You didn’t know.”

I put my head into his shoulder and allowed the comfort to continue. As my father carried me out he explained, “Grandpa’s back is hurt and he has pain all the time. People in pain can’t listen to little children practice—especially people who  know a lot about music.”

I lifted my head. “Does he play piano, too?”

My rather rubbed his chin in my hair. “No. But I’ll show you what he used to do.” He took me to my grandfather’s room. “Those are famous opera singers,” he said, pointing to framed and signed photographs. My grandfather had been an assistant manager for the Metropolitan Opera before his car accident. He still broke into Wagnerian themes regularly, his thick gray hair, once red as rust, springing to life as he sang and tossed his head.

I studied the pictures and noticed that my grandfather was in some of them, shaking hands or with an arm flung over his shoulder.

“Do they visit him?” I asked, ready to be touched by the famous.

“No,” my father said quietly . . . then added, “He doesn’t ask them to. He doesn’t want—anyway, they don’t.” He whisked me out of the room as if we were escaping. Ghosts, I decided.

I never broke another rule. Coming home from the beach I had to enter the dark, spider-filled basement, undress in the chill damp, and appear for lunch in a freshly starched sunsuit, silent with hatred for this grandfather.

Yet I never asked to return to our previous home, the only one I had known. I never knew my real father. I was just two when he died and my mother had to return to work. We lived with her mother, brothers and sister where I ate nothing unless I was begged. They sighed to the ceiling but considered me too fair and delicate to deny. But later, when asked if I missed Grandma Rae, or Uncle Murray, I would shake my head because now I had a father; and even in the big house the three of us had our Sunday morning wrestling bout in the big bed while my mother laughed like a little girl.

My Grandma Rae and nervous uncles had kept me safely indoors unless one of them could personally take me somewhere. Therefore, when we moved I was terrified of bigger children, swings, seesaws and bicycles.

But this new grandfather didn’t believe in the pain of skinned knees or snowballs thrown by the boys from the nearby parochial school. “You go back out there and let them see you’re not afraid,” he shouted, sending me out like a manager does his fighter. Every held-back tear seemed to swell a bitter pool inside me that swore revenge.

The day before my sixth birthday, my mother gone for the day, my grandfather presented me with a tricycle. “Let me see you ride it,” he said as I backed away.

“I can’t.”

“Of course you can,” he growled and pointed to the seat.

I eased myself onto the small triangle of leather, the tips of my toes brushing the ground. “It’s too big,” I whispered.

“Put your feet on the pedals,” he said.

I hauled each foot up separately, swaying, clutching the handlebars with slippery palms.

“Push down,” he shouted. “Push the pedals down one at a time. Hurry up.”

I knew I was going to fall and the pile of metal and rubber would land on me and I would bleed and cry and nothing could prevent it. I pushed on the pedals, first both of them, and then, accidentally, one of them. As that foot went down the other rose up, and the surprise pitched me over.

“Get up, get up,” I heard him shouting through the cotton of my head. “You’ve got it. Do it again.”

Sobbing, I found myself back on the seat, my feet hitched to the pedals. By the time my parents came home, I was speeding up and down the sidewalk. But when they bent to express their surprised pride, I showed them my skinned knee and wrinkled my mother’s skirt with my tears.

In my eighth year we moved into the big house permanently. I didn’t know that my father was recovering from a near-fatal illness, nor that the Depression was grinding on. To my unquestioning mind the inexplicable was still the rule: no more bungalow; mother away at some part-time job; grandfather my only greeter when I returned from school.

A daily ritual ensued. Timidly, I ascended the front porch steps, closed the front door, not letting the screen door slam, and asked if Jack Armstrong had started. Without a smile, he would switch on the big radio and we would sit rapt before it for two hours while Tom Mix, the Lone Ranger and Captain Midnight worked their suspense on us.

Although he helped me send away for code rings, badges and periscopes, my grandfather’s rule was inflexible. “That’s another box of Ralston,” he would warn me. For whatever boxtops we sent in, I had to eat the cereal inside. Ralston, Wheaties, Cream of Wheat.

“I’ll eat it,” I’d promise.

The next morning breakfast would be one sticky mass that refused to pass the constricted muscles of my throat without a glower from his pain-ridden eyes. My code ring burned on my finger.

On the rare occasions when I had to miss an episode, he listened alone and told me in gruff detail what my heroes had suffered and were being threatened by. While he listened he fashioned strange figures for me from lobster claws, lumpy potatoes, bits of cellophane and colored string.

I wanted to tell my mother, “I hate him—I hate him,” but my father would be there, reaching for me. Let’s make a sandwich,” he’d shout, and I would be hugged between him and my mother, the words buried one more time.

Often, when evening came and I had nothing to do, I would eventually approach my grandfather and ask, “Do you want to play checkers?”


“How about War?”


“A hand of rummy?”


Then, when he seemed about to either bury himself in his stamp collection or retreat to his room, I would blurt out desperately, “Casino?”

After a grown, he would always say, “All right. But where are the cards?”

And I would whip them out from behind my back.

It never occurred to me to ask anyone else to play. My grandfather taught me the games, and just as elves had special gifts, I assumed these were his. Years afterwards I would hear one of my parents suddenly say, “Casino?” in a desperate tone, and the other would laugh and give in.

I never heard either parent remonstrate with my grandfather until his daughter came to visit from Oklahoma with her two boys. His only grandsons filled the house with noise and knobby knees, and I adored them as much for their superior years as for their abandon.

They talked pig-Latin in front of me until my tears moved the elder to translate. They bought dried apricots with our candy money. They slammed doors, obeying only the bathing-suit rule. The even invaded the parlor and played a duet on the piano one dusty afternoon before they waved good-bye and left me with a wistful affection that persisted over the years.

That evening I heard my father say, behind a half-open parlor door, “That’s not fair, Pop. You can’t let them play the piano and forbid Nina.”

“Once and they’re gone,” my grandfather answered. “I can’t put up with the clatter of a child practicing.”

“But she can’t understand that,” my father insisted.

“Nina’s an obedient child, not like those demons,” my grandfather said. “She understands rules. She’ll live among the elite some day, and they recognize quality.

Hearing them move toward the door, I fled to the bedroom I had to share with my parents in the big house. I crawled under my bed and lay on my stomach. In fairy tales magical people like my cousins are not bound by rules that bind others. Yet my father did say it wasn’t fair. Before, I had accepted my grandfather as mean and wicked—that was his nature. Now resentment boiled in me.

I recalled how I had to force down bits of food to clean my plate, while he vowed that some day I would eat at the Waldorf-Astoria. In preparation, I had to break off a small piece of bread to push the food onto a spoon or fork. “You’ll stay at the finest hotels,” he would chant, after correcting my posture. I had never questioned the strange justice in fairy tales. But father Karl had said it wasn’t fair.

What was the spell that kept the three of us bound? Was it that voice booming out of his room with strange words? My mother said he spoke seven languages. I knew that seven was a magical number.

I rolled out from under the bed and tiptoed to his bedroom door, which was slightly ajar. I pushed and peeked into the room. The framed pictures stood on a dresser, with a few hung on the wall.

I stepped inside and took one of the photographs in my hands. A lady with her throat hidden by chins smiled back at me. She wore a fancy dress dipping off her shoulders. I tried to read the name scrawled across the bottom. I made out “love” and “Helen.” She had the look of the rich and powerful queens in my stories. Next to her my grandfather held himself stiffly, not an inch over five feet, his chin parallel to his round chest. I tried to imagine that thick hair bright red, with red tufts above his brown eyes. But he was the color and texture of iron to me. And even when I heard him cursing in his room, or bursting into song, the sounds were gray filings in my mind.

If I broke the glass would I break the spell? I held the metal frame against my mouth. Suddenly, I let it drop. My ears rang from the tight breath in my throat, waiting for the crack. But the picture missed the wood and bounced harmlessly on the soft rug next to the bed. With numb fingers, I replaced the photograph on the dresser.

My brother was born right before we moved to Chicago because of my father’s new job. Magic again. A baby out of nowhere (my mother said I never asked the usual questions). Ahead, a train ride and a new home. But the rules first required my mother to stay away for four nights. On the last night I left my father a note that I suspected my grandfather would see. “I hate Grandpa,” I wrote. “I always have and I always will. I don’t care if he hurts.”

That day June Locke had taken my best crayons and told the teacher they were hers. I rushed home knowing my grandfather was a friend of her parents. “Will you tell them?” I asked.

“You don’t want to be a tattle-tale,” he said.

I could hardly whisper the words, “But they’re mine.”

“Then you get them back,” he said. “You don’t get other people to fight your battles. You march over there and tell June to give you back those crayons or else.”

I backed out of the dining room, ran down the porch steps and around to the back. Or else—what? June was stubborn. She never minded the spankings she got for lying. She wasn’t afraid of anybody, although I believed she would be afraid of my grandfather. I picked up a heavy branch in the backyard and beat it against the ground. If only I could see it land on June’s head, see the blood spurt, have her beg me to stop. “Not fair, not fair,” I chanted.

I kept beating the earth as I walked to the front of the house and crossed the street. June was smirking on her porch, one hand on the screen door, ready to dash inside. I paused at the bottom step and pitched my voice to reach her, but not carry indoors where her mother might be. I squeezed the stick, scratching the bark against my palm, and tried to put menace into my stare.

“I’ll tell my grandfather,” I said through clenched teeth. “If you don’t give back my crayons. I’ll tell him and he’ll come over—right now.”

She glanced across the street and said suddenly, “Stay there. I don’t want your old crayons. I was only teasing.”

Her scabby legs disappeared into the house, and I wondered if I’d been tricked, but she just as quickly reappeared and threw the box down at me so that a few crayons rolled into the street.

“Stupid dope,” I half-shouted, still afraid of attracting an adult, but as I gathered my crayons I felt an embarrassed triumph.

I rushed to my bedroom and hid the crayons in my drawer, yet I still felt wronged—by my grandfather, by June, by myself. I wanted to throw the crayons in his face. I rubbed my palm where the branch had made it sore and then decided to write that note.

I didn’t cry when my grandfather died, only one month after we moved away, but I was uneasy overhearing my mother sigh that she thought it was because I wasn’t there anymore. “Gave him something to get up in the morning for,” she said.

In less than a year we were able to buy a piano and I began the first of seven years of lessons. My joy became another nodule of resentment to use retroactively against my grandfather. A talent almost blighted—as perfect in plot as any fairy tale.

Seven years later my cousins and I found ourselves reminiscing during their visit to celebrate my high school graduation and piano recital. I reminded them of their pig Latin and my incarceration in that awful house.

“You’ll never know how it was,” I said for the benefit of my little brother, who had never known his grandfather. “My mother said she tried to intervene, but we were living in his house. He made a big thing out of accepting a widow and her daughter for his only son. (I didn’t know what I meant by that, but had once overheard my mother telling someone how unusual that was for such a proud man.)

“That was really a shame,” the older cousin said, “especially when you consider he wasn’t really your grandfather.”

“How can you say that?” I blurted. “He w-was as much my—he certainly loved . . .”

I didn’t dare finish in the glare of their surprise. I felt as if past images were composing before my eyes, like shifting pieces of colored glass in those kaleidoscopes my father gave me. As each piece slipped, a whole new design appeared. I wanted to stop the radio, the bicycle, the cards, the stiff, framed photographs.

I crossed my arms over the pressure in my chest. By acts of will—and love—he had transcended the barrier of blood. Now I, willing heir to those acts, transcended the barrier of time and gave myself a grandfather. The spell was finally broken.

Enid Levinger Powell


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