A man in a police uniform announced, “Come to order. Court is now in session.” Mom kissed me, “I must go. I’ll return soon.” Mom, her attorney, and Grampa disappeared through tall mahogany doors to the hearing. I sat with my grandmother, Ruthie, on a bench in a tiled hallway where everyone’s shoes and voices echoed off the walls. I was five. Mom had taken me to a custody hearing in Miami.
She returned, hugged me, and said, “The judge will decide whether you’ll stay with me, or live with your father.” Her words puzzled me. They caused a growing fear, like the sudden darkness I sensed before a hurricane's lightning and thunder, when everyone runs for shelter, and feels helpless. Mom’s facial expression said she felt turmoil. What was about to happen? She tried to prepare me, but I had no idea what was at stake.
Mom had dressed me in my best pair of dark slacks, a white shirt, and black shined shoes for “Court,” a word that had no meaning to me. It sounded scary. A huge courthouse of gray stone with a large flight of cement stairs to a set of steel doors and down a tiled hallway beyond which sat the majestic room where a judge dispensed justice that pleased only half of the parties who appeared.
A grim expression scarred Ruthie’s freckled face, so different from the joyful way she looked when making music on her organ or piano. She and I talked about the fun we had playing card or word games, singing songs, going to the beach, and throwing a ball to Blackie, her black and white terrier. She mentioned our Cocker Spaniel, Sheba, and eating at Miami Beach buffets where Grampa drove us in his blue Buick roadster.
Mom, her attorney, and Grampa, partially bald with black hair beneath carefully combed white shocks of gray with alarm on his face, returned to the hallway. Grampa whispered to Mom, “Dick’s attorney lied.”
Mom came up and her large blue eyes looked at me, “You’re going to have a chance to talk to the judge.”She took my hand and led me down the marble hallway in the gray courthouse and into the judge’s courtroom. Mom took me to a table for lawyers. A white-haired judge in black robes sat in a tall-back chair above the court reporter, clerk, and bailiff. He looked like a picture of God with flowing white hair I had seen in church. A scowl covered his wrinkled face, as he shuffled papers. He had a gruff voice.
A high voice shouted, “All parties in Lavery vs. Lavery approach the bench.” Next to Mom, holding her hand, I trembled. Her attorney faced the judge with confidence. Dad tall, chest puffed out in his naval uniform decorated with medals, held a white hat with gold braid and anchor in the palm of his hand. His attorney stood next to him.
The bailiff wore a uniform like a police officer’s with a shiny gold badge, khaki shirt, and slacks. A gun in a black holster was attached to his belt. He had a burly neck, and muscular arms. His blonde hair rose one inch high in a crew cut. “Silence in the courtroom,” he ordered in his deep voice. He walked past Mom to me. His blue eyes pierced me, “Danny, the judge wants to see you.”
Mom had fearful eyes and stood shaking before these powerful strangers. “It’s alright, Danny. Do as he says.”
He took my hand and walked me to face the judge. My legs quivered and heart pounded. A heavy-set red face looked down at me, “Danny, you’re going to start living with your father today.”
Tears immediately flooded my eyes. My world shattered and fell apart. How could anyone take me from my Mother? My voice cried out to the stone statue, “I want to live with my Mom.”
“Now Danny, you are going to live with your father. That’s my order. Bailiff hand the boy over to his father.”
Darkness completely surrounded me. My world as I knew it had ended. My words didn’t matter. Now I would have to live with a man I barely knew and his family who were strangers. Tears fell from Mom’s eyes. Ruthie and Grampa openly wept. They could not prevent my helplessness.
The bailiff grabbed my right arm. Dad came up and took my other arm, “Stop crying. I’ll take care of you.” Dad led me towards the courtroom door. My feet stumbled in oblivion. My chest heaved as if I were going to vomit. Looking for a last time through tears at Mother, Ruthie, and Grampa, we said our goodbyes. We hugged and kissed while Dad stood close. Grampa held on to Ruthie and Mom. He had never cried in front of me before, but there he was wiping tears with his handkerchief.
The bailiff said, “Move out of the courtroom.”
Dad had won the custody competition by criticism of Mom as unfit and arguing a naval officer deserved custody regardless of who raised me. Having served America in a world war trumped the values of love and care from Mom and her parents. His lawyer argued, he should be granted custody to unite three children under one roof with his parents. That ignored the strong bond I had with Mom, her side of the family, and that naval officers spend half the time at sea. My world had little of Dad’s influence. Leaving my home had never occurred to me. When the judge tore me from her, I felt ripped from my Mom by a force too strong for me to understand or fight against.
For our trip, Dad bought tickets for Washington, D.C., and we walked to the Champion, a streamlined silver train, that for a moment took my attention away from my despair. I noticed steam shooting out from under the engine. The engineer waved at me making me think about my new life with Dad as an adventure.
I missed Mom, Ruthie, and Grampa who used to read books to me that took me into my imagination. They made me dream. Mom took me to the library with colored pencils and drawing paper. Having witnessed many newsreels at the theater depicting World War II, the books of American warplanes fascinated me. Carefully drawing and coloring at least two planes in action scenes, I spent two full hours each visit while Mom checked out a few books written by her favorite authors. Ruthie’s piano, organ music, and fairy tales made it fun to live with them. I fell asleep and dreamed of going to the beach with Mom.