The War Room
by S. Menduke
The kitchen was the war room. To this day, whenever I
think of my grandmother’s house nestled in the suburbs of
Northeast Philadelphia, my mind’s eye takes me to that kitchen.
And it doesn’t matter how many times it’s been redecorated –
garish pink-and-green wallpaper replaced by even more garish
yellow-and-brown wallpaper with giant flowers, flooring changed,
new tile installed – all I can ever see is the same round, white
Formica table. The table that always held a large bowl
containing a loaf of Wonder Bread, a few Tastykakes, and maybe a
lone plum or orange. The butter dish always sat next to the bowl
so my grandfather, an electrician, could easily slather a few
slices of bread to have with his coffee when he got home from
work. The man seemed to survive almost entirely on buttered
Wonder Bread, coffee, and cigarettes.
I would often watch him as he sat at that table, deep in
thought, until my grandmother would inevitably yell, “JOE!”
Sometimes it was “Joe, I need you to get these taxes!” while
clutching a stack of envelopes, shaking them for emphasis. Or it
was “Joe, I said we need to pay the electric bill!” or “Joe, the
basement is flooded!”
On this day, late afternoon sometime in the early 1970s, it
was “Joe! Didya hear me?”
He snapped out of his dreamy state, the moment gone, and
replied, “Awww, for Christ sakes, what now?”
“I said I gotta get to the store. And…” Her voice lowered
as she remembered that I was sitting at the table, but it was
clearly taking the breadth and depth of her very soul not to let
go of the wrath that she wanted to unleash. “…I need to talk
Even then, as a young girl of seven or so, I knew. My
mother was not a bad mother; she was just never going to conform
to what society expected of her. While her younger sister was
busy filling Tupperware containers with fruit salad for one of
her many suburban parties, my mother was likely marching in a
protest wearing her favorite jeans, which had a scrap of Old
Glory sewn across the rear.
On the days she decided to forgo screaming on a picket line
or marching for civil rights to instead attend one of my aunt’s
events, the results were generally the same. Within a very short
time, my mother could be found getting stoned with like-minded
individuals. And if she stayed too long, I would see “the look”
and know that I was about to hear “Let’s go!” and would soon be
following her out the door while my grandmother yelled, “There
she goes! Zoom, off like a rocket! The gypsy!”
My grandmother honestly tried not to disparage my mother or
her choices in front of me, but I knew. She always referred to
my mother as “the gypsy,” whether or not my mother was on The
The List. You did not want to be on The List, nor did you
want to be in close proximity when Grandmother “threw a seven”
because someone on The List had made the sad mistake of
confronting her. My grandmother was a small-boned woman with
jet-black eyes and sharp, almost birdlike, features, and
according to her, she’d at one time had great legs.
“Legs Diamond, they called me,” she’d say, laughing, smoke
from her cigarette causing her to squint a bit. “I used to dance
up a storm.”
But when Legs Diamond threw a seven, all holy hell broke
loose. It was something akin to a tiny Italian tornado spinning
through the house. Legs would turn into something that could
strike fear into the heart of the most vicious of mob bosses.
Throwing a seven was serious business.
But that day in the war room, things were still relatively
calm. At least it seemed like Legs was attempting to remain calm.
“I said,” she repeated when he didn’t answer, “I gotta get
to the store because we need lunch meat…” Her black eyes
glared, darting back and forth, trying to send my poor
grandfather some sort of coded message. Unfortunately, he didn’t
have the encryption key, and I could see he was starting to get
nervous, woefully missing whatever clue she was trying to pass
Legs looked at me. “Bella di mom, go get Gran a cold cloth
for her forehead.”
Dutifully trotting off on my errand, I returned to the
war room with a wet washcloth in time to hear the tail end of
something being said in a venomous whisper: “Mar. Di Graaaaas…”
Legs took the washcloth from me, issuing a thank you, but
never took her glare off my grandfather, who seemed more
confused than when I left to complete my task.
“YESSSSS, NEW ORLEEEANS,” she replied in a hissing sort of
shout. “Now do you see? Now are you getting it?” She was
clutching the wet cloth I had given her to her forehead.
I knew this had to be big, even though not much was being
said. The cold cloth request normally followed a seven. That
and a glass of Alka-Seltzer. But from what I could tell, no
seven had been thrown that day prior to my arrival. Nothing had
been broken that I could see. So far, my grandfather and Legs
were more or less calmly discussing the current situation, which
I’d named The Gypsy at Mardi Gras.
I figured it obviously couldn’t be that bad, since none of
the aunts and uncles had shown up yet. But experience told me
that the threat level could be raised two or three notches in a
matter of seconds, spontaneous combustion sparked by the wrong
word, a phone call, or some other outside accelerant. Then
anything could happen. Someone could be pushed out the door and
down the front steps or slammed into a wall. Stabbed with a
fork. As incidents went, this one was tame so far, but still it
I watched as Legs retreated to her spot outside the war
room: the head chair at the dining room table. This table housed
everything but food. Stacks of bills sorted and bound by thick
rubber bands, “jings and jongs” (Legs’ name for knickknacks and
other miscellaneous items), pens, cartons of cigarettes, and
used lottery tickets. There was always a yellow legal pad too.
The yellow pages contained everything from lottery numbers to
amounts owed to my grandfather for jobs he had done (this was
another cause for the odd seven to be thrown) and a plethora of
other notes Legs had determined to be necessary information.
The dining room was also where everyone huddled when the
war room became too crowded or, God forbid, an opinion was
offered outside the agreed-upon analysis of the situation at
hand. For example: “Well, maybe he didn’t mean it like that.”
If that happened, a collective of heads would jerk towards
the silly soul this came from, and then the volume would
increase to a deafening level, with outcries such as, “Oh no,
buddy-boy, you better believe he meant it! Believe it when I
tell it because I was there! Not you, me!” These declarations
were always accompanied by mass agreement and support. “That’s
right!” and “You can’t be that naive, c’monnn!”
And so the defeated naysayer would retreat to the dining
room, banished until the next food item was put out or until a
tender aunt or uncle approached with conciliatory rhetoric, such
as “It’s okay, you didn’t know any better. Go back in and get
some cake or a cannoli. Oh, and did you see the stuffed cherry
peppers? Did you have those? They’re so good, Madonna mi! C’mon,
Legs was no one to trifle with, to be sure. Stories of
bricks being thrown at my father when he showed up on a
motorcycle to pick up my mother for their first date had reached
my ears. I was barely walking when those two crazy kids parted
ways, but I knew the stories, at least the versions I was
allowed to hear.
My father was not the only target of Legs’ wrath, and
bricks were not her only weapons. She was not beyond throwing a
beating on my mother’s would-be suitors. One would think having
a small Italian woman jump out from behind a potted plant at the
mall and proceed to beat you about the head as a pre-marital
warning would have prevented my mother’s second husband from
joining her at the altar, but it didn’t.
That short-lived union lasted two years before ending in
disaster. All holy hell broke loose and culminated in my mother
sitting in the war room being chided by Legs.
“What did I tell you? No good, I said, NO GOOD! But did you
listen? No! And now what do you have? STUGATZ! That’s what.
GATZ!” She ended her speech with an Italian salute.
My mother, knowing Legs was right but hating every second
of it, had only, “All right, Ma, give it a rest,” to offer.
Legs’ reply? “Go get Mommy a cold cloth; I gotta calm
Legs was a “take no shit” kind of woman. She didn’t believe
anyone was better than her. Man or woman, no matter what a
person’s financial status, education level, or social standing
was, Legs was not impressed by any of it unless she was shown
respect. If she liked you, she would help you in any way she
could. If she didn’t, look out.
And she certainly did not believe that her daughters, or
her granddaughters, should subject themselves to someone not
worthy of them. Legs had told me once that she’d risked the
wrath of her beloved father by marrying an Irishman because
she’d known from a young age that she would never, ever marry an
Italian after watching her uncles in action.
“I would run and hide when my mother tried to teach me how
to cook. I wanted no part of learning how to be a wife. I saw my
poor aunts work their fingers to the bone cooking and cleaning,
and for what? My uncles would disappear for days on end and come
back acting like the king of the castle. Not me, girl, not me.
And not you. Don’t you ever, ever take that kind of bullshit
from a man.”
Sage advice from a woman who drew her own line in the sand
decades before being a feminist was even a thing. And she did it
with olive-skinned fists of fury.
To the outside observer, it might sound like a harsh and
violent environment to grow up in, and at times it was. While it
was true that over the years more than a few drops of blood had
been spilled in that Philly abode, there was love too. Always
love. I can attribute a great deal of the strength I have today
to what I saw and heard in that war room all those years ago.
And The Gypsy at Mardi Gras incident? That day, my mother
had called Legs from Philadelphia International airport. She’d
decided to attend Fat Tuesday in New Orleans in person.
According to my mother, ”It was a spur-of-the-moment thing.” She
was gone for two weeks.
Aunts and uncles did show up that day to comfort Legs in
her hour of distress, but no seven was ever thrown over the
However, during the Gypsy’s absence, my grandparents
decided to call a priest and hold an impromptu baptism, despite
the Gypsy’s prior declaration of atheism and her insistence
that, “My daughter will choose whatever religion she feels like
choosing whenever she’s ready.”
In addition to the baptism, we may have gone to Dutch
Wonderland, or Hershey, or both… It was long ago and the
memory has faded somewhat, but what I can tell you is this: it
Art by Shepard Fairey
The War Room