One spring morning when I was four, I had a brush with death. My mother had just walked me and my little sister to “The Butcher’s,” a corner store two blocks from our house in Amsterdam, New York. Its real name was Partyka’s Market, after the family who owned it, but we never called it that. To me, The Butchers meant Bill and Ray, two nice men who worked behind the big white case with kielbasa, pork chops, and cold cuts inside, the men who smiled at me and gave me a slice of cheese. Many of my earliest memories are images inside and around that neighborhood store.
Besides Bill and Ray, I knew the family who lived above the store: the tall silent father, the house-dressed white-haired mother, and the childlike middle-aged sister who tended the zinnias, snapdragons and sweet peas climbing white string in the garden behind the store. I see three cement steps to the front door, big windows with cardboard ads for Lucky Strikes, and inside, three or four aisles of canned vegetables, cellophane wrapped loaves of bread, jars of pickles and sauerkraut.
I don’t know who gave me the Lifesaver that day. The hard candy with a hole in the middle is supposed to keep you from choking on it should it become lodged in your throat. My mother said that in a split second after she saw me choking, a salesman who happened to be in the store picked me up by my heels and while I was hanging upside down, slapped my back hard with his free hand. The candy popped out onto the hardwood floor.
I’ve been thinking about how long I have lived since then, and of friends who have passed away, some years ago and some more recent. I see, these days, how fragile life can be.
My mother told this story many times, so I know it made a big impact on her. But I don’t remember it actually happening to me. Decades before the Heimlich Maneuver was posted in grocery stores, supermarkets and restaurant dining rooms, how did the salesman know what to do? What if he hadn’t been there? And why don’t I remember it? Why do I remember all those details of the store and people but not the traumatic event that scared my mom and almost killed me?
I believe we all have near misses when we might have cheated death. Do you remember yours?
Tell me about it in the comments and I’ll put your name in the hat for a copy of The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. No choking incidents, but a good read.
The winner of this month’s drawing is Nancy Taylor. She wins a copy of Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, a story of espionage in WWII England. Congratulations, Nancy, and thanks for adding to the conversation!