MY NEIGHBORHOOD

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.

96-Holliswood1954

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.

96-Matthew-HouseOnPaloAlto-1953

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.

1952

1952

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



Categories: Autumn, Life, Literature, Writing

Tags: , , , , , ,

14 replies

  1. I don’t do WordPress’ writing prompts, but I’ve noticed that they tend to run identical, or similar, photo challenges. They also have a handful or two of bloggers that gets the honor of featuring the Weekly Photo Challenges.

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    • Yes, the photo challenges are repeats and the editors have no understanding of even the basics of photography. I remember when they explained the rule of thirds without apparently so much as ever reading anything about it or taking a class. They really piss me off.

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  2. The “no unbroken walls” kinda reminds me of the house I grew up in. Five rooms with doorways that went in a circle, meaning each room had two doorways. That included the bathroom. I’ve only been in one other house before that had a bathroom with two entrances. Throw in the window places conveniently right over the bathtub, and privacy was a foreign concept…

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    • That’s not so unusual in old houses that “just grew,” without a plan. The one I grew up in was originally a 4 room cottage and was a 9 room house by the time we moved out, 24 years later. Everyone who lived there in it’s more than 100 year life added something, remodeled something else. I’ve seen really BIG houses like that where you needed a map to find some of the rooms. At least they are interesting, if rather odd.

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  3. Thanks for the trip back in time. The kids bed upstairs at our farm was piled so high with quilts, it was hard to turnover after you got in bed, my legs still hurt from the cold. Maybe from thinking about polio. Water would freeze in the glass. We moved into town when I was seven, that took some adjusting, we were little aliens descending into town.

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  4. Always such an engrossing read. I loved your book.

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  5. Speaking of neighbourhoods, we just found out this morning, that one of our old neighbours, Art MacDonald, won the Nobel Prize. He was one of Peter’s students when Peter was a TA at Dalhousie Universtiy.
    Leslie

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  6. Yes Marilyn this prompt is becoming a bore. You can write it once, perhaps twice, but on the third and fourth go it can get a little boring for the writer, although I always enjoy reading it again. Today I discovered how to upload quick and easy photos from my iPhone to my web photo host, so at least I found something new. I am now tormenting everyone at home with my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you are going to pay a zillion dollars for a phone, you might as well annoy everyone with it. Why own it otherwise?

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      • I would have been lost without it when I was in London. It was my means of communication with Mr. Swiss, sending SMS and photos to let him know I was still alive and thriving. I could also listen to Swiss radio and keep in touch with what was going on. They are not cheap, but I had my last phone at least 5 years so it was worth it. Since I have the new phone I have discovered lot of possibilities, especially with the photo opportunities.

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