THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD

Originally a chapter from my book. Abbreviated these days, but still (sort of) relevant.

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.

It sat at the top of a hill amidst the last remaining fully-grown white oaks in New York, 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.

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.

About 6 or 7.

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. It would be years before we learned each other’s secrets and by then, we’d be adults. Too late to give each other the comfort we’d needed while we grew up, lonely in our big old houses all those years ago.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. Retired! Yay!

45 thoughts on “THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD”

  1. I’m curious why you thought you were lumpy? You were a delightful child, and you were very pretty. Sometimes, it’s good to have neighbours. I used to have a set of pictures that were of a row of houses and the first thing I thought of was, “I wonder what goes on behind closed doors.” Sometimes, we find out. Sometimes, we don’t. Still, friendships can form and longevity continue. Were you able to keep in touch with the other little girls?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was very awkward and not especially pretty. Not hideous, but not pretty like the rest of the kids. I didn’t have a classical pretty face. I never did. Pretty was then defined as looking like one of the kids from the Campbell’s soup ads. I was not one of them.

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        1. I was less pretty in person. I also had buck teeth and my hair was frizzy. I got better as I got older while some very “pretty” kids got a lot less attractive with time. It’s all about when our various genes kick in, you know? Some very dumpy looking girls turn out to be beautiful women. Ditto boys. By the time I hit 17, I was reasonably good to look at. It just took time.

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          1. I find it interesting that this is often the case. The kids that were gangly turned into super models actresses or the like. Some became beautiful, they grew into themselves. Others, shockingly, cute or “pretty” became quite homely. I also believe that it has a lot to do with inner personality and beauty. Some who are pampered as children never grow into themselves and their “fake” beauty dries up.

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            1. But some prettiness doesn’t seem to last past childhood. The freckly faced kids weren’t nearly as cute 30 years later. It has something to do with skin and dryness and freckles and what may be defined as cute in a six-year old isn’t necessarily adorable in a woman.

              More important, however, “pretty” is overrated. Many pretty girls grow up feeling like frames without a picture. It has to do with how they were treated as girls, how their “prettiness” was the most important part of them and when it began to fade, they were lost. Not-so-lovely little girls developed intelligence, charm, humor and other personality features that became much more important in adulthood and lasted longer.

              When you are a girl and not-so-pretty, you are sure all the pretty girls have “IT.” They must be happy because they are lovely. It’s not true. Beneath a pretty face is often a very sad child.

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              1. I so agree with you on all points. There is too much emphasis in society on looks, and not enough on inner beauty. Books, magazines, the “idols” everyone looks to. In fact, even at 60 or 50 your compared to the “stars” in hollywood and how they look at these ages. It’s pathetic if you ask me. Its as one man mentioned, and it’s been in movies since, you know how there’s someone you wouldn’t look at twice, but when you get to know them, suddenly they become beautiful to you and you love them. It’s true. Eventually, when people grow up, they’ll realize inner beauty is something that lasts and rarely diminishes with time unless we let it. I was always sought after for modelling, no matter where I lived. I turned down the offers as I was more concerned with the inner beauty and not glorificatin of the outher shell, which I was born with, not something I’d worked for, but a gift to be enjoyed. Unfortunately, because all I was noticed for was the exterior, I didn’t appreciate it either.

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                1. What IS inner beauty? To me that is essentially as meaningless as “outer” beauty. I like people who are funny and intelligent. Witty without being mean. Kind without being sappy. Is that beautiful? I don’t know. Maybe it’s about definitions. I don’t know what beauty is — inner or outer — unless we are talking about pottery or a photograph. I know what smart and funny are, though. Does that make me less beautiful?

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                    1. lol, well I have to agree. I look in the mirror and think, omg who is that old woman staring back at me and when did that happen? My favourite saying to my kids as they aged was “when did you get old? I didn’t!” smirk smirk
                      Now I resemble that remark, I have to come clean and admit it haha

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                    2. I remember the day my mother looked at me with utter shock and said “Your HAIR is gray.”

                      “Yes,” I pointed it. “It has been gray for a while.”

                      Apparently she had failed to notice. It was apparently a real shock for her. Now, I look at my son and realize “Holy shit, he could join AARP!”

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                    3. lol. I grayed overnight after the accident. I looked at my driver’s license, my hair had gone from nearly black to light brown. Within two weeks of the accident, it was completely silver on top and a mix of gray and black along the bottom. My kids have a few silver strand making their way in, but with you ( being a winter person) and my kids as well, silver comes early. Not necessarily welcome for all that.

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                    4. My hair went dead white after my near-death post surgery experience in 2009. It is actually LESS whit now with streaks of sort of brown in there, but it might be the iron in our water causing it. Suffice to say that I was already grey by then, but after then it was really dead white. I liked it white. Unfortunately, after that it also pretty much fell out. Oops.

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                    5. Did you know you can buy a vitamin that contains chlorophyll and your colour will come back. cant remember the name but the x got it, liquid form is better and within 2 weeks his hair was b lack again lol no dye necessary

                      Liked by 1 person

  2. When I was a kid I never got to know what happened in the other houses in our street. It was such a mixture and we all met at the end of the street in the summer evenings. Two boys were brothers with down sydrome and they had another 5-6 brothers and sisters, others I knew from school – all different ages, but one thing we had in common – we were working class and poor.

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    1. I really didn’t know anything until I was an adult. Regardless of where you lived — and ours was indeed a working, lower middle class neighborhood which got richer when they knocked down our old houses and built fancy new ones — you didn’t “talk about” what happened at home. It was nobody’s business. Everyone thought everyone else was much better off, but we were all much the same. More than anyone imagined.

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      1. that’s exactly it. I had two years in Brookline Mass when I was 9 and 10; i had two sets of friends, and knew almost nothing about their families. What I did know was what my mother told me, and that was very little. A lot of it was inference, and connecting the dots, but only after years and distance and my own maturity kicked in.
        No one ever discussed family problems, it just wasn’t done. Things are much more open, now, not always a good thing, and not always a bad one. Times change.

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        1. I knew nothing until in adulthood, I connected some dots and eventually, had a couple of conversations with my now-adult friends. It’s why I think child abuse is so much more wide-spread than people think. Almost every kid was getting whacked around by parents — and they never told anyone. No one, not teachers, clergy, anyone. And those who knew about it did nothing either. The doctors certainly knew. I wonder if anything has really changed. We talk more now, but do kids talk? I’m not sure they do. It’s possible they are as silent as ever.

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  3. Such a resonant piece of writing. Very touching. It also makes me wonder how many people actually had happy ‘normal’ families. Mine was a nightmare in a low-key middle class sort of way. Happy did not come into it much anyway. Endurance maybe.

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    1. I think most of us had pretty crappy childhoods. All my friends did. Brutal fathers, drunken mothers, lots of anger at the grinding poverty in which they lived … or the grinding misery of it. But we all covered it in smiles. No one realized how miserable we were. No one talked about it. EVER. Even into adulthood, for long, long years we were completely silent about childhood. Whenever I hear all this stuff about how wonderful childhood was, I shudder. Mine was not wonderful — often barely tolerable. My friends’ lives were no better. It is the main reason I started to write. I finally realized — it WAS time to talk about it

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  4. This is excellent! From the description of the oaks and the old houses to the awkwardness of making new friends. I love it. It also reiterates the point, “be kind”. You don’t know what people are going through.

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    1. As kids, I’m pretty sure we weren’t particularly kind to each other. We were children. We acted like children which isn’t generally kind. Kindness is an adult behavior, I think. The best we can be as kids is “nice.” To not taunt or tease each other. To not be intentionally mean. That we can learn at home and more kids need to learn it. They don’t teach it in schools, but they should. Maybe in adulthood, it will morph into kindness and empathy.

      I wish I’d known as a child many things I learned much later. But that is the way life is. We behave like children because we ARE children.

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  5. “Lumpy and awkward” It must be the feeling of inadequacy that most of us have as children and yet you are the sweetest, most adorable little girl in the photo.
    Leslie

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    1. Thank you, though I don’t know if it is true. I was a pretty squirrelly little kid, full of books, spending as much time as life let me anywhere but at home. I think my friend Mary was the nicer kid and her life was no bed of roses either.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I honestly don’t think kids always realize how miserable they are. I sure didn’t know until later when a friend said, “Your life has been harrowing.” When she said that, I wanted to punch her.

    The neighbor girls where I lived as a little kid were older and not very nice. They kind of scarred my psyche, but I learned to play by myself or with my little brother. Luckily, no one abused me. My mom used me as a grown-up friend until one of my aunts said it was unfair for her to put her (significant) fears problems on a small child, so I grew up too fast and too serious.

    Friendship has not been a big part of my life. It’s more important now than it’s ever been, but I’m not good at it. But, at this point, I’m aware of myself enough to understand I can’t be someone else so it works out. 🙂

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    1. I absolutely knew I was miserable. Getting beaten up by a big strong man is a hard to miss clue. My brother had it worse, which surprisingly, comforted neither him nor me. We both knew we were miserable and when we were alone, we talked about it in hushed voices. We each left home as early as we legally could. Earlier, actually. I was gone before I was 17 and my brother was only 16. I kept hoping I was adopted and my real parents would find and rescue me.

      I have been lucky in the friends I’ve had in adulthood. They help me laugh. The laughter keeps me alive.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ah. Now it all makes sense! 🙂 Not really. But I did enjoy reading this excerpt of yours. We all have fantasies of what goes on beyond our friends’ or neighbors’ closed doors but it is usually less compelling- and sometimes more so- than what we can imagine as children. I lived on a block that had no other children so my summer days were pretty boring and I could never wait for school to start every fall. Nothing dramatic in my young life. Mom and dad were deeply in love and we kids were just a by product that were tolerated. The best thing that ever happened to me was when my sister had to drop out of school for getting pregnant at 17. Now that was something I could really get excited about. She got married and moved out and I became an only child. More or less.

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    1. I think a lot more goes on in other children’s lives than we imagine, but we are so bound up in our own world, we don’t notice. “Noticing” is an adult behavior. As is kindness, empathy, and so many thing that get ascribed to kids, but really aren’t a part of kidhood.

      A non-dramatic childhood is a good thing. Trust me on this one. Boring is a LOT better than so many of the other possibilities.

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  8. A timely and well written reminder that we never know the secret lives behind closed doors. Mostly we only ever see what the occupants want us to see and nothing more. You were a very pretty child IMHO, but I don’t think anyone ever really likes how they look, we see the flaws clearer than other people do maybe. Or maybe we’re taught that vanity is a big sin and therefore to extol our virtues is bragging and to be avoided. What a beautiful post that was. A story.

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    1. Buck teeth and frizzy hair? Not the picture of pretty in our world. But I improved. Some of us take longer than others. I think i was better than most kids at knowing what was good and not so good. My hair sucked, but I had fabulous skin. My eyes were a bit too close together, but I had terrific eyelashes. My teeth were terribly crooked, so I wore braces until they were straight. When my hair relaxed and my teeth were straight — and I got taller, there was hope.

      I was surprisingly analytical, even as a kid. I might not have been as pretty as Carol, but I also didn’t have acne. I rated that a very BIG plus. I also recognized some things would come with time because my mother talked to me about it and I believed her.

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  9. How true! We were very poor and always thought the families surrounding our little home led a wonderful life. Like you said, no one spoke of their personal life. We found out much later in life what some of them went through, and it was a shock. I think we all used our outdoor play time to escape the things we were going home to. Like a fairy tale that would end when we were all called in to eat our dinner.

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    1. I think you are absolutely right. I was sure it had to be heavenly somewhere else. It had to be heavenly SOMEWHERE, right? But maybe not. Maybe that’s because we all think that childhood is supposed to be heaven and if we aren’t IN it, then there must be a better place — down the block — where everything is just like they tell us on TV.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. There is often a contrast between the way houses or people look and what really happens inside and with them. You capture that really well in your chapter. I love the photo of little you in the middle. And the houses I’m sure looked really beautiful. Have you ever see Karen and Liz again, much later in life?

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    1. Yes, though briefly. We did talk on the phone. Liz got married, discovered she was gay, taught school. Karen became one of the top dogs in the city of New York’s educational hierarchy. She got married and her daughter was born on my birthday. She said she remembered me every time her daughter’s birthday came up.

      Liz told me once that if it weren’t for me, she would never have discovered reading, classical music, or psychology. She came from a very non-reading household and it was listening to me play the piano and reading books I gave her that got her to go to college. I was surprised. I never knew I influenced ANYONE. Funny how a twenty year look backward changes things.

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      1. I’m not surprised that you influenced Liz. Isn’t it strange to picture friends from when were kids being old? Since I left France I’ve lost touch with many of mine. So in my mind they are still little girls, frozen in time. I loved this post of yours.

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            1. I think we are all shocked when aging affects us. We have a mental image of ourselves as young. IF we thought about getting older, it was the Hollywood version. A few gray hairs. The odd wrinkle. We didn’t think we’d get REALLY old. Life can be a very big, and not always happy, surprise.

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