I don’t even know how many times WordPress has run this prompt or some close version of it. I do not know how many times I have responded to it, but here is a clip from my book that is pretty much on target. If WordPress is going to run the same prompts over and over again, I guess I can run the same posts too.

People are surprised when I tell them that Uxbridge, 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


His name was Alex. He was Greek immigrant. Dark and I thought handsome, he didn’t speak English at all when he came into our third grade class.

He learned fast. By the end of the year, he spoke English fine, but he never spoke to me. Girls didn’t speak to the boys in school — back in those far-off days. (Note: Outside of school, we spoke plenty and played together, too.)

Girls, if accidentally spoken to by a boy-person would simply giggle or sit frozen. There wasn’t much teasing going on. A little, but nothing like today. Mostly, there was little schoolyard or classroom mixing of the sexes. That would change soon enough!

Marilyn's 6th Grade class

Alex — all the way on the left, third boy in the row.

I don’t think I ever really spoke to him, though he continued to be a very handsome lad and I pretty much forget he ever existed until this morning.

Was it a crush? Or just my first awareness of a male person who looked really good? I suspect the latter. It wasn’t love and it sure as hell wasn’t lust. Maybe some admiration mixed with a hint of yearning. Talk about innocent!

What would I say to him? I think hello would be a good place to start … assuming I could recognize him at all.


For a woman who is essentially religiously neutral, firmly clinging to my position of “no opinion” like a limpet on a wet rock with the tide coming in — I really love church music. I cannot help myself. Play me some Christmas carols and I am singing (croaking?) along with heartfelt enthusiasm.

Blame my elementary school teachers, not to mention all those little Christian girls with whom I grew up.

rhyming HallelujahMy parents neglected to mention I was Jewish. They failed to mention religion at all for the first 8 years of my life. I knew we didn’t have a Christmas tree. I knew my mother didn’t eat ham or bacon, but the rest of us ate it and my father cooked it.

I wanted Christmas and felt deprived every year when my friends had millions of presents and a big tree and we had Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, two electrified plastic statues in our front window — the family’s nod to the holidays.

No menorah. No synagogue. No indication of any kind of holiday in progress except for our two plastic friends.

I didn’t know what a Jew was. I knew what a Catholic was because several friends went to St. Gerard’s, the nearby Catholic school. I knew what nuns and priests were. I could say the rosary, because Mary taught me.

I knew what Lutheran was, because Carol got time off every Wednesday afternoon to go for religious instruction. I had heard about Sunday School. And Mass. And services.

One day, at school, they showed a series of films designed to teach us to not be anti-Semites or racists.

It was a strip film with sound. Joe was on a trapeze trying to do a flying somersault. The catcher, clearly Jewish because he had a big star of David on his chest, was the catcher. But Joe, a blatant anti-Semite, wouldn’t take Joe’s hands and fell to the floor. Splat.

“Don’t be a shmo, Joe.

Be in the know, Joe.

Be in the know, and you won’t fall on your face.”

Then we got a lecture on being nice to Jews. I went home and asked my parents, “What’s a Jew?”

Mom turned to Dad and said these immortal words, “Albert, we have to do something about this.”

Shortly thereafter, my peaceful Sunday mornings were interrupted by boring classes at the nearby synagogue. I would come home pumped up on bible stories which my mother, the atheist, would promptly debunk. It wasn’t long before I was allowed to stop attending. It was clearly not “my thing.” If they’d let me out on Wednesday afternoon at 1 pm like the Christian kids, I’d have gone with more enthusiasm, just to get off from school early.

That being said, my enthusiasm for church music remains unabated. I love hymns, the organ, choirs. The blending of voices tugs at my heartstrings. I sang my heart out in the glee clubs of childhood and the All-City Chorus (Mozart’s Requiem — I was an alto) in High School. And of course, in college I was a music major.

It made my mother more than a little nervous as I wandered around the house singing the Mass in Latin. I did explain to her that the history of Western music is church music. From plainsong, to Hayden, Bach, Mozart and all the others who have followed.

Organized religion is the primary consumer of choral music. I am by no means the only person who can be lured into church by a choir.

little church 33

If Sunday morning services were all music without the rest of the yada, yada, I’d be there. From gospel to the local children’s choir, it’s all beautiful to me.

I suppose finally discovering I was of Jewish origin should have grounded me somehow, but it didn’t. Not really. It set me on a much longer path that I am still walking. Forever the seeker, I have learned it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.


Music transports me as does nothing else.

Chopin will always remind me of all the years I studied piano. He was my favorite composer to perform. Nocturnes, mazurkas, waltzes. All the sound of growing up and living in music because the world was too painful.

Music. All music takes me to other places. It’s why I can’t listen to music and drive. I’ll wind up in a ditch. Every piece of music reminds me of something. Johnny Mathis take me to my tormented adolescence. Any of Beethoven’s symphonies take me somewhere, I’m not sure where, but it’s not here. I like wherever it is.

Old show tunes — West Side Story especially — brings back memories of my middle and late teens when I thought it was the most romantic story ever. Even though it was a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but I thought that was swooningly romantic too.

Gigi took me to Paris. It still does. It’s the Paris I want to visit, but can’t, because it no longer exists. Maybe it never did exist.

The Transporter – Tell us about a sensation — a taste, a smell, a piece of music — that transports you back to childhood.


Growing up in New York, snow days were a special treat. Of course, it snowed every winter, but snows deep enough to close school weren’t common. Once per winter, maybe.


I would sit, nose pressed against the picture window, watching the snow pile up and hoping it wouldn’t stop. “Keep snowing, keep snowing,” I’d whisper. I wanted to wake up to a white world. To that hushed, near-silence of a morning following a heavy snow.

Finally, no school! We would put on all our winter clothing — at the same time. Back then, kids didn’t have as much clothing as they do now … and it wasn’t nearly as warm. When we were finally all bundled up, we’d clomp to the garage to get the sleds. Drag them to the hill at the end of the street.

And now, back to our snowstorm, about 14 hours in progress with another 12 to go.

And now, back to our snowstorm, about 14 hours in progress with another 12 to go.

It was quite a hill. Steep. Icy. You could go really fast if you were in the right position. If you got it perfect, you could almost fly. If you hit a rock or a ridge of ice, you might really fly. We didn’t think anything of it, no matter how many times we limped home, dragging our shattered Flexible Flyer behind us.

My feet always froze. They hadn’t invented insulated footwear or Uggs. Our coats were just cloth. Even wearing all the sweaters we owned, we were never entirely warm. I was usually the first kid to give up for the day. My feet would go from cold, to numb, to painful icy lumps. Hands, too. Galoshes leaked and my socks would freeze.

Worse, rubber boots had no tread. It was a thrill going downhill, but going back up would be increasingly difficult as the day wore on. Ice would glaze. Eventually, there was nowhere to walk where you could get any traction, not even along the curb.


Sometimes I could get my big brother to haul my sled and me up the hill, but pretty quickly, he’d lose interest and go off with the big boys to do big boy stuff, whatever that was.

I was the smallest of the girls. Scrawny and short. I remember going home, and defrosting my feet in cool water. Wow, that hurt. I think I was minutes from actual frostbite. I don’t know how anyone lasted all day, but some kids did.

deck and snowy woods

That was almost 60 years ago. Hard to believe so much time has passed. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. A frozen memory. Especially on a day like this, the big picture window framing the snow as it falls. It’s falling fast and hard and has been for hours. Garry keeps going out to dig a path for the dogs. More than four feet of snow in just over a week.

It’s winter in New England. I live about 250 miles north of where I grew up. Snow days are a regular feature. When we have a particularly hard winter, kids have to go to school extra days at the end of the year to make lost time.

It’s snowing hard. I wonder how many inches this time?