People are surprised when I tell them that this town with its oak woods, huge plots of land, picket fences and farms reminds me of the neighborhood in which I grew up. I was raised in the middle of Queens, one of five boroughs that make up the city of New York.
My neighborhood was an anomaly. The city had grown up around us leaving us in a tiny rural enclave within easy walking distance of the subway.
My childhood home was more than a hundred years old or at least its foundation was. It had been changed by each family that lived in it. I’m sure the original builder would never have recognized it. It began life as a four room bungalow. Subsequent owners added to it, seemingly at random. By the time our family moved into it in 1950, it had become a warren of hallways, staircases and odd little rooms.
Two staircases went to the second floor, both of which ended on the same landing. Eighteen doorways on the first floor meant that there was not a single unbroken wall in any room. The living room was cavernous and dark. Amongst the many unfathomable additions to the house was the living room’s huge field stone fireplace that lacked a chimney. No mere faux ornament, the fireplace was a massive construction that completely dominated the room to no real purpose.
Despite the strange interior, the setting was stunning. Beautifully situated on more than two acres, it stood at top of a hill, enfolded by mature white oaks. They were the last remaining mature white oaks in New York state, the rest having been cut down to make masts for tall ships.
Because of their rarity, the city of New York cared for the trees free for as long as we lived there. My mother was passionate about trees, which is why she’d wanted the house. She became a fierce protector of her trees, never letting anyone as much as trim a branch from one of her precious oaks.
All the land belonging to the house lay either in front of it or off to the side. There was no back yard except for maybe a 15 foot sliver separating the house from the back property line. After that, the land there dropped abruptly downward … so sharply that it was useless for any purpose.
The house had been placed at the highest point of land on the property, set back about 250 feet from the road. The enormous trees towered over it. Summertime, when the trees were in full leaf, the house was invisible from the street. In all seasons, it was a long climb from the street to one of the house’s many doors.
Our oak trees loomed. No sunlight penetrated their canopy. The house stayed comfortable through most of the summer because of the perpetual shade, but was bitterly cold in winter.
My mother was stingy about heat. The furnace, an old converted coal burner, was nearly as old as the foundation and very inefficient. With huge amounts of hissing and groaning, it delivered some heat to the first floor of the house and almost none to the bedrooms on the second floor. I was cold from fall through spring, no matter how many blankets were piled on my bed. Some mornings, a thin skin of ice formed on the glass of water on my night table.
Being such a small, thin child, I was cold even when I was fully dressed. All complaints drew the same unsympathetic response from my mother.
“Put on another sweater,” she said. End of discussion.
Pointing out that there was a practical limit to the number of sweaters that I could actually wear was pointless. Once my mother had her mind made up, she was not going to be confused by facts.
The shadows of oak trees were always present, summer and winter. They were magnificent, but also ominous. Many branches of those oaks were bigger than the largest tree on our land in Mumford. As a child, I would watch those branches sway during storms and wonder when one of them would crash through the roof and crush me like a bug.
I was just past my fourth birthday when we moved into the house in Queens. I was considered a precocious child, which meant, I suppose, that I knew a lot of big words and could talk in full sentences. I’d had no contact with children my own age and was a complete social retard.
When winter turned to spring and the weather warmed up, I was told to go out and play and so discovered that there were other little girls in the world. I hadn’t the slightest idea what I was supposed to do about that. I might as well have been commissioned to make peace with the Martians as make friends with other kids.
First contact took place on the sidewalk in front of my house. There we stood, three girls, all not yet five years old, staring at one another. We stood on one foot, then the other, there on the sidewalk until I broke the silence with a brilliant witticism.
“I live up there,” I said, and I pointed up the hill at my house. “We just moved here. Who are you?” They looked so comfortable with each other and I felt immediately left out, as if the two of them formed a private club into which I already knew I wouldn’t be invited. And they were both pretty. I felt lumpy and awkward, standing there on the sidewalk.
“I’m Liz,” said a pretty girl with green eyes. She looked like a china doll, with a sweet, smooth face. Her hair was absolutely straight and I immediately envied her. I wanted that hair. I hated mine, which was wild and very curly, always out of control and full of knots.
“I live down the street.” She gestured in the general direction of down the hill. “There,” she pointed. The house was a barn red Dutch colonial. It had dark shutters and a sharply pitched roof.
A dark-haired, pink-cheeked, freckle-faced girl with braids had been watching us solemnly. “I’m Karen,” she said. “That’s my house,” she said, pointing at a tidy white brick colonial across the road. There were bright red geraniums in ornate cement pots on both sides of a long, red brick staircase leading uphill to the house. I’d never seen either geraniums or vase-shaped masonry flower pots. Both were from far outside my little world.
“Hello,” I said again, wondering what else I could say to keep them around for a while. I’d never had friends, but something told me I wanted some.
My four-year-old social skills were maxed out. Probably so were theirs. We stood there in the sunlight for a little while, warily eyeing each other, they the old friends, the in-crowd and I the stranger. I shuffled back and forth from foot to foot.
“I’ve got a big brother,” I announced.
They were not impressed and I found myself at a loss for additional repartee. More silence ensued.
“We’re going to Liz’s house for lemonade,” Karen said, finally. Liz nodded. And they turned and went away. I wondered if we would meet again because at four years old, I hadn’t the experience to know that our future as friends was a virtual inevitability given the proximity of our homes.
I watched them go. Then I went back up the hill where my father was screaming at my brother and my mother was trying, without success, to maintain calm.
Summer lasted much longer back then than it does nowadays. By the time spring had metamorphosed into summer, I had become a probationary member of The Kids Who Lived On The Block.
To be continued …
From The 12-Foot Teepee, by Marilyn Armstrong