COLLATERAL DAMAGE

I didn’t grow up poor, but when I was young, my father’s business was new. Money was tight. It got looser with the years, but by the time he started making serious money, I was gone from the family nest.

stick and ball

As a child, toys were few and far between. I always got one really nice doll every year. Usually for my birthday in March. My mother had exceptional taste in dolls and I have carried on the tradition and passed the taste for (now) antique dolls to my granddaughter.

Other toys, though … we didn’t have much. No one did. Everyone had a bicycle, even the poorest kids. Whether we got them brand new or third-hand, all of them were equally beat up. A shiny bike was a bike nobody rode.

Someone had a badminton set. Someone else had an old swing set. One of the girls had an inflatable pool. Monopoly was ubiquitous. We all had a set and we played it relentlessly for hours on Mary’s front porch on hot summer days.

We had decks of cards and learned to play bridge and poker. Someone could usually scrounge a length of rope for jumping. We built “forts” out of old crates. Otherwise, it was tag, stoop ball, stickball, hide n’ seek. Anything you could do without mom and dad supplying the tools. Because they didn’t. Wouldn’t. We were expected to make our own entertainment.

Creativity was our main weapon against boredom. We weren’t allowed to sit inside when the sun was shining. I wasn’t allowed to watch television at all. Sometimes I got a temporary pass to stay in if I was immersed in a book, but eventually, mom took the book away and told me to go out and get some exercise.

monopoly

Fresh air and exercise were deemed more important than another book. If given my druthers, I would have spent all my time reading — which was considered unhealthy, so out I went.

The other day in Walmart I saw a boxed “stickball” set. It included a special stick, and a couple of hard rubber balls. And of course, logos. You gotta have the logos, right?

A stickball set? I don’t know why I was shocked, but I was. To me, it signaled the death of youthful invention and imagination. No one would again sneak into the kitchen to try to steal mom’s broomstick. Or resurrect a nearly dead rubber ball for “just one more game.”

Why bother when you can ask your folks to buy a set at Walmart or order it from Amazon? Which doesn’t seem (to me, anyhow) to leave a lot of room for fond childhood memories. I’m glad I’m not growing up now.

The freedom of childhood has been collateral damage in the advance of technology. I don’t think I’d like being a kid now.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD

I grew up in a semi-rural nook in the middle of Queens, New York. The city had surrounded us leaving a tiny enclave walking distance from the subway.

The house was more than a hundred years old. It had been changed by each family who had lived there, so much that I doubt the original builder would have recognized it. From its birth as a 4-room bungalow in the 1800s, by 1951 it had become a warren of hallways, staircases and odd rooms that could be hard to find.

96-Holliswood1954

It sat at the top of a hill amidst the last remaining mature white oaks in New York city, the rest having fallen to make masts for tall ships. The shadows of the oaks were always over the house. Beautiful, huge and a bit ominous. Some of the branches were bigger than ordinary trees. I remember watching the oaks during storms, how the enormous trees swayed. I wondered if one would crash through the roof and crush me.

I was four when we moved into the house, five by summer. When the weather grew warm, I was told to go out and play. Like an unsocialized puppy, I had no experience with other children, except my baby sister and older brother and that didn’t count. Now, I discovered other little girls. What a shock! I had no idea what to do. It was like greeting aliens … except that I was the alien.

First contact took place on the sidewalk. We stood, three little girls, staring at each other. First on one foot, then the other, until I broke the silence with a brilliant witticism. “I live up there,” I said. I pointed to my house. “We just moved here. Who are you?” I was sure they had a private club into which I would not be invited. They were pretty — I was lumpy and awkward.

“I’m Liz,” said a pretty girl with green eyes. She looked like a china doll, with long straight hair. I wanted that hair. I hated mine, which was wild, curly and full of knots. She gestured. “I live there,” she pointed. The house was a red Dutch colonial. It had dark shutters and a sharply pitched roof.

A dark-haired, freckle-faced girl with braids was watching solemnly. “I’m Karen,” she said. “That’s my house,” she said, pointing at a tidy brick colonial with bright red geraniums in ornate cement pots on both sides of a long brick staircase. I’d never seen geraniums or masonry flower pots.

“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. We stood in the sunlight for a while, warily eyeing each other. I, a stranger. I shuffled from foot to foot.

Finally, I fired off my best shot. “I’ve got a big brother,” I announced. They were unimpressed. I was at a loss for additional repartee. More silence ensued.

“We’re going to Liz’s house for lemonade,” Karen said, finally. Liz nodded. They turned and went away. I wondered if we would meet again. I hadn’t the experience to know our future as friends was inevitable.

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. I did not know what went on in anyone else’s house. I imagined lights were bright and cheerful in other houses. No dark shadows. No sadness or pain except in my scary world where the scream of a child in pain was background noise, the sound of life going on as usual. Behind it, you could hear my mother pleading: “Please, the neighbors will hear!” As if that was the issue.

Across the street, Karen’s mother was drinking herself into a stupor every night. The only thing that kept Karen from a nightly beating was her father. He was a kindly older man who seemed to be from another world. As it turned out, he would soon go to another world. Before summer was ended, Karen’s father died of a heart attack and after that, she fought her battles alone.

Three friends

October 1952

In the old clapboard house where I thought Liz led a perfect life, battle raged. Liz’s father never earned enough money and their house was crumbling. It legally belonged to Liz’s grandmother. Nana was senile, incontinent and mean, but she owned the place. In lucid moments, she always reminded Liz’s dad the family lived there on her sufferance. Where I imagined a life full of peace and good will, there was neither.

A lovely neighborhood. Fine old homes shaded by tall oaks. Green lawns rolling down to quiet streets where we could play day or night. I’m sure the few travelers who strayed onto our street, envied us.

“How lucky these folks are,” they must have thought, seeing our grand old houses. “These people must be so happy.”

I have a picture in my album. It’s black and white, a bit faded. It shows us sitting in Liz’s back yard. I’m the tiny one in the middle. A little sad. Not quite smiling.

We envied each other, thought each better off than ourself. It would be long years before we learned each other’s secrets. By then, we’d be adults. Too late to give each other the comfort we’d needed as we grew up. Lonely in our big old houses, all those years ago.

Image

WAITING TO GO HOME

I moved to New England 35 years ago. I don’t want to sound like a cliché, but it feels as if it was no more than few months ago. On some level, I think like a transplanted New Yorker. Yet I’ve lived up here longer than I lived in New York. I’ve live here more than half my life.

P.S. 35

I grew up in Queens, New York. Holliswood. I went to P.S. 35 — the same school Art Buchwald attended (yes, I know, it’s not a big deal but it’s the best P.S. 35 offers) — J.H.S. 109 (which my husband also attended, but in a different year) and finally, Jamaica High School. That’s about as New York as it gets.

I was 30 years old when I moved overseas and settled in Jerusalem. I returned — to Massachusetts — in 1987. Other than visits, I haven’t lived in New York  since 1978. Odd how the early years, where you grew up, carries more weight than places you live later. Our “defaults” get set by where we take our first breaths, where we attend school.

I am hooked on the four season year. Autumn is the most evocative season, the crunching of leaves under the soles of brand new school shoes. The start of the school year. The year really begins in September — I am forever ruled by a school calendar that ceased being relevant in 1967.

Drifting leaves

When I was in Israel, I desperately missed Autumn. I yearned for snow that never fell. Even though now I could live without seeing another flake. And I wanted the ocean. I wanted to smell salt in the air, hear breakers hitting the shore. That feeling of the sea washing the sand out from under your bare feet as you stand in the surf with the waves lapping around your shins.

96-SunriseWalkNIK-CR-1

I don’t want to go back to New York to live. I really don’t. I love the city but not that way, not to live there. Visiting New York is fun and full of memories, but I don’t want to make a home there. New England is home now and I can’t imagine living elsewhere.

We’ve got all four seasons (okay, three and a quarter really because spring is minimal). But a New England autumn is the best, though it isn’t as long as it was a few degrees of latitude south. As for winter?

75-BigSnowHPCR-4

This valley outsnows just about every place except maybe central Nebraska and northern Minnesota. Not quite as cold and I don’t mind that.

It’s beautiful here … yet sometimes, I feel like a New Yorker, living here and waiting to go home. Why is that?

75-home-108

 

A MEMORY OF COLD

I grew up in a very old house. It started — sometime in the late 1800s — as a 4-room bungalow with an attic. At some point, the attic was turned into an apartment with one bedroom, a living room and a kitchen. Tiny. There was also a miniscule balcony where perhaps one person could stand and gaze out over the countryside. Downstairs just grew from the original four rooms to seven, all added on to one side of the house or another. There was no order or reason to the design. Eventually, the dining room had no windows having been enclosed by added rooms on all sides.

96-Holliswood1954

After my parents bought the place, it was under constant renovation for years. I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t being remodeled.There was always a project. One year, bad planning and a slow-moving contractor left us without a wall in the dining room through the long, freezing New York winter. We all wore overcoats from November till April when finally, the new room was added. Apparently they couldn’t pour the cement foundation for the addition in freezing weather.

With all this renovation going on, you’d think they’d have put in a modern heating system at some point, but they didn’t. It was an old converted coal burner. The radiators were antique cast iron relics from the turn of the century. Maybe older than that.

The old furnace barely heated the first floor and for all practical purposes, the second story was unheated. I was cold in that house. I developed a peculiar love-hate relationship with bathing. I loved being in a bathtub full of hot water. It was the only time I was completely warm. But getting in or out of the tub was awful. The bathroom was frigid and I was a tiny, skinny little kid. Bony. The kind of kid that in a Jewish family is always being urged to eat. Another story for another time.

Even today, I have trouble convincing myself to get wet. I have a knee-jerk reaction on a visceral level. Getting wet means being chilled to the bone. After I get started, I’m fine… but getting started requires some strange head games.

It’s odd how unconscious memories live on in our bodies. I have physical memories that elude my conscious brain. There are many reasons for this and a lot of things I can’t remember are best left forgotten. But this one thing … I remembered it.

I had a very cold childhood. In so many ways.

HERE’S TO US … WE MADE IT!

I’m not one of those people who romanticizes the 1950s, but there are some truths worth remembering and revisiting.

I grew up in a very different world. Play meant using imagination. It mean physical activity. Jump rope, hide and seek, tag, Stick ball (no one owned a real bat). Stoop ball, jacks. Building a “fort” or climbing a tree. Cowboys and indians. Toys were simple, not electronic. Getting a new doll was a real thrill. She never needed a reboot, unless you count having to find her lost shoe.

If you were having a hard time with the bullies in school, you got up, got dressed and went to school. It didn’t mean you weren’t scared. I was plenty scared. It simply wasn’t a parent problem … it was mine. Yours. Ours.

Marilyn - Senior YearYou didn’t get a lot of pats on the back for “trying hard.” You might get an “attaboy” for doing exceptionally well, but you were expected to do your best. Nothing less was acceptable. Doing your best was your job. You took it seriously.

You learned your lessons in elementary school so you could go on to junior high school and then high school. You had to do well in high school because if you didn’t, you couldn’t get into college. We all knew — with 100% certainty — if you didn’t go to college, you wouldn’t go to heaven.

My son commented the other day we are raising — speaking of my granddaughter’s generation — a bunch of weenies. We are protecting from them everything, effectively from acquiring the coping skills they will need to survive when mommy isn’t there to bail them out.

I said this to my granddaughter too, because she needs to hear it:. No one gets a free pass. Even being rich doesn’t guarantee bad stuff won’t happen, that you won’t get sick, lose a loved one, a child, or for that matter, your own health. Nothing prevents life from happening. Pain is part of the package. Learning to deal with adversity is called “growing up.” If you don’t learn to fight your own battles, when you get “out there,” you won’t survive.

Just about every family has some members who didn’t make it. The ones who never got a real job, formed a serious relationship, accomplished anything much. If they happen to be our own kids, it makes us wonder what we did wrong … and usually, we have a sneaking suspicion the problem isn’t what we didn’t do. It’s what we did too much.

I don’t think we should be mean and uncaring. Nor am I an advocate of corporal punishment. But I think it’s important to recognize we didn’t get strong by being protected from every pain, every hurt. We didn’t get everything we wanted the moment we wanted it. Or at least I didn’t. If I got one really cool present, that was a big deal. Now kids get so much, it’s meaningless. They don’t appreciate anything because there’s always more where that came from.

P.S. 35

So, in memory of the good times, the bad times, the hard times, the great times. The schoolyard battles we fought and sometimes lost. The subjects we barely passed or actually failed and had to take again. The bullies who badgered us until we fought back and discovered bullies are cowards. Getting cornered in the girls’ room by tough chicks with switch blades, wondering if you can talk your way out of this one.

Being the only Jew, Black kid, Spanish kid, fat kid, short kid or whatever different kind of kid in a school full of people who don’t like you. Getting through it and out the other side. Being the only one who used big words and read books when everyone else was watching American Bandstand. Being the klutz who couldn’t do those dances and never had the right clothing or hairdo.

Then, finally, getting to college and discovering the weirdos and rejects from high school were now the cool people to know. Magically, we were suddenly part of the “in crowd.” Metamorphoses. No longer were we outsiders. What had made us misfits were now the qualities that made us popular. And eventually, successful.

The fifties and early sixties were not idyllic. Especially if you weren’t middle class, white and Christian. Yet it was a great time to be a kid. Not because we had more stuff, but because we had more freedom. We had time to play, time to dream. Whatever we lacked in “things,” we made up for by having far fewer rules. We were encouraged to use our imagination. We didn’t have video games, cable TV, cell phones and computers. Many of us felt lucky to have one crappy black and white television with rabbit ears that barely got a signal.

We learned to survive and cope, and simultaneously, learned to achieve. We weren’t scared to try. We screwed up enough to know if it didn’t work out, we’d get up, dust ourselves off and try again.

When we got out into the world, for at least a couple of decades, we had a blast.

Here’s to us as we limp past middle age into the laughingly so-called golden years. We really had great lives. We’re still having them.

Jo Joe, by Sally Wiener Grotta

Pixel Hall Press, Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) Members’ Titles
314 pages, Publication Date: May 6, 2013

It would be hard enough growing up any different kind of kid in a small rural community. Growing up the only Jew in a poverty-stricken mountain town would be significantly harder. So what would it be like growing up a brown-skinned Jewish girl — the only Jew, the only person of color and the only foreigner — in an inbred narrow-minded fundamentalist Christian town with a strong skinhead militia contingent and longstanding prejudices against anyone who is at all different?

Add it together and it goes far beyond difficult and moves into the realm of nearly impossible.

Judith Ormand spent her early life in Paris, France, the daughter of a Black man and a converted-to-Judaism white mother. After her mother dies of causes never clearly explained, she ends up being raised by her Moravian German grandparents in a small insular Pennsylvania mountain village.

Her growing up years were punctuated by racial attacks, by violence, hatred and fear. Her only protector? Joe Anderson, a handsome blond football player, son of a drunken father and a skinhead, drug-dealer brother. When Joe — her beloved best friend — turns against her, her world is shattered. She vows, encouraged by her grandmother, to never under any circumstances return to Black Bear, Pennsylvania.

But Gramma and Grampa are gone and despite any promises she made, Judith — Jo — must return and face the nightmare of her growing up years and uncover the truth about the people she loved and lost.

The book is a compelling  psychological drama and Judith Ormand is a fascinating character, a perfect target for bigoted small town residents. I found the story gripping and honest …. until it approached the end.

All of a sudden, the book went into overdrive, as if the author had reached her page limit and now had to quickly tie up all the loose ends and somehow give this sad story a happy ending. I didn’t believe the ending. I didn’t find it emotionally honest and didn’t think it made sense based on everything that had gone before. After such a very promising start, it was a big disappointment.

For all that, the book is worth the read. The misery of a child who is so very different trying to find happiness in a frightening and hostile environment is heart-wrenching. I wish the author had stayed the course and written the ending with the same integrity she gave to the story’s beginning and middle.

Jo Joe  is available as a hardcover from Amazon. It will be available in paperback and on Kindle in June 2013.

That Rosy Glow

With the big day coming up — the 50th high school reunion to which I am not going — I’m getting deluged with emails from The Reunion Group. I no longer read all of them, but every once in a while, I open one up and I’m always sorry I did. The primary area of discussion has moved on from each person telling the story of his or her way better-than-mine life to reminiscing about the school song, almost the definition of “from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

We never sang that song. Not at assemblies, not in chorus, not at all. Almost no one knew the words. I knew the words because they were so funny to me, given the real school and who we were, that I memorized the words for kicks and was usually the only kid who knew all three verses.

Here’s to her the school we love,

Jamaica, tried and true – oo,

Source of all our dearest aims,

Dear School of Red and Blue.

Red and Blue

Red and Blue

School of Red and Blue!

In love our hearts go out to her,

Dear school of Red and Blue!

-

If that doesn’t make you cry, you have no soul. It makes me laugh, so what does that make me?

What compels otherwise sane folks to transform a mixed experience rich with the good, the bad and a big dollop of indifferent, into “the best years of our lives?” It wasn’t. Not for anyone.  They cancelled the Senior Prom due to lack of interest. I know because I actually had a date for the prom, but he and I were the only two people to sign up, so they cancelled it. What does that say about reality versus memory?

A few people go way back. We didn’t merely attend high school together. We also went to elementary school and junior high school in one big batch. We got to know each other a lot better than we wanted, a huge dose of too much information. By junior high, I was too miserable to remember much of anything and was being actively bullied by the same mean girls I swear are still hanging around hallways and school yards today. Maybe they are clones of the same girls.

Thank God for the special program that got me through three years of junior high in two years. At least the misery was shortened by a year. Pity about never learning fractions and all. It certainly didn’t improve my shaky math skills.

So all of these people are singing (literally in some cases) the praises of the school and the school system. It was a better than average school academically, but fantastic? It was huge, crowded and if you didn’t measure up and get yourself into the “brainiac college-bound” group, you got nothing from the school except a place to sit in class. The school was academically better than most, but otherwise was no better than every other overcrowded New York city high school. I had some interesting teachers. I had a few really good teachers, and at least one that seriously influenced my future. There were also one or two memorable ones, though not always in a good way.

With current planning involving all these aging nerds and geeks singing the school song, I cannot begin to imagine myself standing around (probably sitting since my arthritis is pretty bad) howling a school song no one ever sang while we were going to school. I think I’d collapse from laughter, genuine ROFLMAO stuff.

What urge makes people cast a rosy glow over a time that wasn’t rosy for them?  So many of my classmates seem intent on reliving a past that didn’t happen at all. Is it because we are getting old and want our youth to have been much happier than it was?

Life was what it was. I am not a fan of revisionist history. I occasionally get an email from someone who has found my blog or my Facebook page. They want to renew our friendship. But we weren’t friends. Ever. Some of them are from that group of “mean girls” who turned my life in elementary school and junior high into a small personal hell. Now they want to be my pal? Really? Why? Have they actually forgotten the way it was? Why does no one ever talk about the one really cool thing we had: a gorgeous Olympic-sized swimming pool. Maybe I was the only one who always chose swimming instead of gym. I didn’t mind getting my hair wet, but apparently I was unique that way.

Is this whole collective stumble down memory lane a bizarre form of self-hypnosis whereby we erase real memories and replace them with stuff that never happened? Are we that old and out of touch?

I remember. Many of us suffered from, as did I, difficult home lives. We did a lot of acting out, each in our own way. I buried myself in books and didn’t emerge until college. Fortunately, that turned out to be a lot less destructive than other possible coping mechanisms. I’m watching my granddaughter do her own version of self-destruction for reasons painfully similar to mine, minus the abusive parents, but adding in social ostracism impossible until computers and cell phones. I have serious doubts about the human race and supposed social progress.

But here I go waxing philosophical again. Hell, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what point God was making when he took Job, beat him to a pulp, then told him he had no right to question why it was happening to him. That’s my very  favorite Bible story. Life in a  nutshell. Shut up Marilyn. Apparently everyone but me has been highly successful and had insanely perfect lives. It’s just possible that I didn’t live the past half century on the same planet as they did. It doesn’t sound like my planet. Does it sound like yours?

This is far too weird for me though it makes good fodder for writing. And inserting lots of question marks in my tired old brain.

-

Daily Prompt: Places – Take Me Back to Coney Island

BoardwalkAndParachutePaitingARTO-CR-72

Take me back to Coney Island, the Coney Island I remember. I want to be on the Boardwalk. I want to sniff the air full of the aroma of spicy exotic food, pop corn and hotdogs. I want to smell the salt air blowing off the ocean and shade my eyes from the gleam of bright sun on white sand.

I want to hear the endless screams of riders on the Cyclone, the squeal of kids discovering how far they can see from the top of the Wonder Wheel.

I want to watch the people, all the different people of every color from everywhere in the world as thy gape at the strange wonders along the boardwalk, hear the rumble of the elevated trains passing.

I want it to be exactly how it was the first time I rode the big roller coasters and screamed in delighted terror. I want to be that child again for a single day, the little girl discovering fear and wonder on a hot summer day when the world was young.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Mind the Gap — Being a kid only looks easy …

I could wax sentimental on childhood. The innocence, the fun, the lack of responsibility. But that would be a lie. It wasn’t easy. Innocent? Not as much as pop psychology and sentiment would like it to be. Growing up is hard work. School is work, learning to be a person, to find ways to fit in with your peers without disappearing as an individual is a battle that starts young and never entirely ends.

Many kids, maybe most, don’t have idyllic childhoods. We have abusive parents, or poor parents who are just too busy trying to keep the household afloat so there’s no time to coddle the children. Schools these days load down children with so much homework they have no time to play. In large households with many children, kids have responsibilities. That’s okay, maybe good, but playtime is important too. Play is how kids learn to use their imagination, test out the social skills they’ll need to have a successful adult life. Playing house is practice for the real deal.

Childhood is a perpetual challenge. There are kids who had a charmed childhood, but I don’t know any of them personally. Most of us had problems. We had learning problems, social problems, poverty, bad parents, busy parents, no parents. No siblings, too many siblings. Not enough “stuff,” or way too much “stuff.” No discipline, too much discipline, trauma and sometimes, just somehow never fitting in.

With all the pains and agonies of growing older, I wouldn’t swap it for going through childhood again, not unless I could have someone else’s rather than mine.

From a parents’ perspective, the odds of getting the parenting thing right approaches zero on a close order. Many of us had kids when we were ourselves still kids. What did we know? By the time we learned enough to be reasonably competent, the kid had his/her own kids.

Raising my son in the early 1970s, I didn’t think much about kids in adult versus kid-oriented places. Where I went, my son went with me. I wasn’t into bars or clubs, so it pretty much meant our house, or someone else’s house. We went to museums, safari parks, other typically family oriented venues, but we did it as much for ourselves as for him. He didn’t go out with us when we would be up late unless it was a friend’s house where he could go to sleep when he was tired. Otherwise, he was as much a member of the family as his father or I. He assures me it was great. I guess I have to believe him.

When my granddaughter came along, her grandfather and I tried to introduce her to stuff that would broaden her horizons. We took her to the ballet and she adored it. We took her to concerts. She loved them, too. We took her to the museum which she loved less, but the zoo was a big hit. I tried to do for her what I would have wanted … which may or may not have been right, but in the end, what else do you have to work with but your own life experience, dreams, hopes, and passions? I tried to teach her to love books … not as successfully as I might with, but managed to give her a love of old things, antiques, old dolls, things from days long ago.

Both my son and my granddaughter understood that there was appropriate and inappropriate behavior in public. That was true whether we were in McDonald’s or Boston Symphony Hall. They might have been hellions at home, but in public, they were polite, interested, and sometimes extremely funny. My granddaughter cartwheeled through the entire Museum of Science in Boston. Japanese tourists thought she was part of the entertainment. The guards applauded. Inappropriate? Maybe. But then again, maybe adults sometimes need to loosen up.

I gave her tools — a good camera,  a computer and a sense of curiosity. Maybe it will take, maybe not. She’s a good photographer and secretly, she writes poetry, but is shy about showing it to her family. When she’s ready to share, she will. I was shy about my writing until I was well into adulthood. She’s entitled to her privacy.

If you have more than one child, each one will be different, so whatever you know, you soon discover it doesn’t apply. Most of us do our best, but somehow, our best is never good enough. We make mistakes. We make them because we don’t know better, because we believe we are doing the right thing (but it isn’t), because someone told us that’s what we should do, or that’s what our own parents did … or some other secret reason. Most of us try to be good parents, but it’s not universal. Make no mistake: there are bad parents … brutal, cruel, uncaring and neglectful parents, and far too many of them.

Kids from ugly environments can turn out good or bad according to some whatever inner compass they have. You can see plenty of examples of great people emerging from dreadful homes, and dreadful people emerging from what appear to be an ideal upbringing. It’s a crap shoot. You just don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve made your toss.

I remember the school readers we were given when I was in elementary school. They were full of happy children, happy parents, lovely homes, peaceful streets, and everyone was white. No one was anything like me and no one lived anyplace like I did. It was science fiction for the young. Television shows: “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It To Beaver” portrayed homes so completely unlike mine they might as well have been from another planet, or maybe I was. Those shows did so many of us a disservice because reality is that almost no one had a childhood like that. That was Hollywood. Life isn’t.

When I was pregnant and taking Master’s courses in psychology, I had one professor who was a mother of four young kids. She was teaching child psych and I asked her whether she applied that stuff to raising her own kids.

“Hell no,” she said. “You just love them as much as you can and muddle through. All those books? Forget them. That’s all theory. Real life is something else.”

It was the best advice I got.

 

Neighborhoods, Part 2

Continued from Neighborhoods

Other girls lived nearby but were not eligible to join our group. Tribal affiliation was accounted block by block. You belonged to the group of kids whose block you shared. Woe to he or she who lived on a block without other children of the same age and sex. The isolation would have been fearsome.

I did not know what went on in anyone else’s house but my own. I imagined that the lights were bright and cheerful in the other houses and there were no dark shadows, nor was there any sadness or pain anywhere but in my scary world.

In my world, the scream of a child in pain was an everyday background noise. It was the sound of life going on as usual. Behind it, you could hear my mother pleading: “Alf, please, the neighbors will hear!” as if the issue was really whether or not people knew what was going on. Did my mother believe if the neighbors didn’t hear the pandemonium, it didn’t count? Or if other people didn’t hear it, nothing had happened? Perhaps it was that she knew nothing else to say that might quiet my father, stop his rampage.

Meanwhile, across the street, Karen’s mother was drinking herself into a coma every night and the only thing that kept Karen from a nightly beating was her father. He was a kindly older man who seemed to be from another world. As it turned out, he would soon go to another world. Before summer was ended, Karen’s father died of a heart attack and after that, she fought her battles alone.

Down the street, in the old clapboard house where I thought Liz led a perfect life, an endless battle raged. Liz’s father never earned enough money and their house was slowly but surely crumbling around them. The house belonged to Liz’s grandmother who lived with them. Nana was senile, incontinent and mean, but she owned the place. No Nana, no house. In her lucid moments, she never failed to remind Liz’s dad that the entire family lived there on sufferance. Her sufferance. Where I imagined a life full of peace and good will, there was neither.

What a lovely neighborhood I grew up in. There we were, living in our fine old homes shaded by the giant white oaks, our green lawns rolling down to quiet streets where it was safe to play stick ball or tag any time of day or night. Few cars came through our little enclave, so far off the beaten track were we. I’m sure that the very few travelers that happened through, probably lost and looking for some other neighborhood much better traveled, envied us.

“How lucky these folks are,” they must have thought, seeing our grand old houses and huge properties. “These people must be so happy.”

I have a picture in my album. It’s in black and white and a bit faded now. It shows the three of us … Karen, Liz, and me … sitting in Liz’s back yard. Liz looks very pretty and somehow very grown-up. Karen looks like the kid from the Campbell’s soup commercial, all dimples and freckles, carefree and happy. There I am. I’m the tiny one. I was always the smallest, a pipsqueak, looking just a little sad, not quite smiling. My mother had wrangled my hair into two pony tails that day to keep it out of my eyes and tied a ribbon on each clump of hair.

We envied one another and thought the other much better off. It would be many years before we discovered one another’s secrets and by then, we would be adults and it would be too late to give each other the comfort we had all needed as we grew up, sad and alone in our houses, so many years ago.

From The 12-Foot Teepee, by Marilyn Armstrong

Copyright 2007

Related Links

Neighborhoods

96-Holliswood1954People 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 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 at my house. “We just moved here. Who are you?” I felt 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. I wanted that hair. I hated mine, which was wild and curly, always full of knots.

“I live down the street.” She gestured in the general direction. “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 was watching solemnly. “I’m Karen,” she said. “That’s my house,” she said, pointing at a tidy brick colonial across. 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.

“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. We stood in the sunlight for a while, warily eyeing each other, old friends, the in-crowd. I the stranger. I shuffled 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.

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

Copyright 2007

Related Links