A ROAD HOME – Marilyn Armstrong

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.

The 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.

1952

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 were inevitable.

1953 – Three little girls

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 the 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, a 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 goodwill, 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

Opinionated writer with hopes for a better future for all of us!

20 thoughts on “A ROAD HOME – Marilyn Armstrong”

  1. This is truly 💔breaking. But of course, it will take half a lifetime to learn seeing beyond the well erected facade of our surroundings…..

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    1. Garry told me he thought we were all rich up there. We weren’t. Many people were quite poor, but they had inherited the land from their parents, so they lived essentially free and taxes were low. But all the tall trees and big lawns “looked” rich. No one had “help,” and everyone thought everyone else was better off than they were. It took many years to really understand.

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      1. Marilyn, we really lived geographically near you in Jamaica, Queens from 1947-1954. Geographically close but worlds apart socially. Or so I was told.

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    1. And strangely, ALL of us went to college and I was the ONLY one who didn’t get at least a master’s degree. Most of the girls went Ph.D. They said it was all my fault. I convinced them to read. I didn’t know I had done that. Funny the influence we have without realizing it, isn’t it?

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        1. I was an obsessive reader and I used to tell the stories to the other girls — which got THEM reading. I also introduced them to classical music because I played it all the time on my big grand piano. We lived at the top of a hill, so EVERYONE could hear it … mistake and replaying the same part over and over. Practicing isn’t nearly as much fun to listen to as a concert! But I do remember hearing my friends humming Mozart and Beethoven, so I suppose they did hear.

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  2. You have hit on a universal problem. We rarely know what goes on behind closed doors. My home wasn’t especially abusive, but there were problems, and we were always told to keep things quiet, never to be spoken once we stepped out of the front door. As Kiki said, we build facades. Shame can be very powerful.

    My siblings and I were good friends with the children of one of my parent’s closest friends. We didn’t know he was an abusive husband and father until I was in high school. I should have known it when he backhanded me hard in the chest. I was six years old. My offense was clearing snow from his car window. “You’ll smear it!”, he said. My father would have rewarded me for helping.

    I love the description of your house, the trees and your neighborhood. And that is a very sweet picture of you and your friends. 💕

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    1. We knew about one friend because of the stitches and broken pieces. It was her mother, her father having died. And my other friend always had mashed lips and a bruised face … but for some reason, it didn’t click. We all had problems including acute and serious poverty. But we were kids and we had no context from which to draw the information

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  3. I remember Queens because it is the route from Kennedy airport to New York City and you have enough time to look at Queens when stuck in the traffic jam. My mum grew up with our neighbours in Norah Street, Bethnal Green, East End of London and so she knew them all. I would play with their kids, but never knew their real second names because my mum always referred to them with the maiden names of their mothers with whom she played when she was a kid. There were no real secrets as mum knew everything about them all.

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    1. I think the other kids knew more than I did. My mother didn’t spend time with the other mothers. They watched soap operas and she read books about space and black holes. And she was Jewish and they definitely were NOT. There wasn’t a lot of ethnic integration then. It turns out, there isn’t nearly enough now, either.

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    1. I think we could and should have been more sympathetic if we had understood that we were all coming from difficult home lives. But who knows? Kids can be very mean and saying nothing was a lot safer than the truth. The truth started to emerge when we were in the final years of high school and hoping, for college. What WAS odd was that as a group — all different backgrounds — we were very smart kids, always in the advanced classes. And truly, the area was very mixed with kids who had been born there and others who came later. There was actually another Jewish family on the block, but they were very un-Jewish jews. True for many of us. Our parents had been brought up “in the religion,” but we had not. I knew absolutely NOTHING about Judaism until I was older.

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  4. I think you were adorable, but I realize those words may never have been spoken to or about you where you could hear them. Sometimes we, as children, live in worlds that would shock our parents, who live in them too. Sometimes the parents are the monsters in those worlds. They attack each other and sometimes their children, leaving scars both psychological and physical. Sometimes one is torn from their childhood world and thrust into another that is alien and frightening and sometimes in those new worlds, nobody comforts the lost. More scars. I love this snapshot into the world of Marilyn: The Early Years. I’m glad you found friends!

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    1. I was not considered pretty at all. My hair was super curly (it straightened out as I got older, as did my granddaughter’s hair … that must be genetic). I had buck teeth. I was tiny … always the shortest, thinnest person in whatever grade I was in and not particularly athletic in a team sort of way. I wasn’t too bad on individual things like riding (bikes, horses when I could). Played really good badminton and ping-pong, but not tennis (no power in my wrists). I was a pretty good musician (piano) and I was a great climber. I swam, but not very well. I learned to dive (turns out you don’t have to swim well to dive). I didn’t KNOW I was tiny until I got much older. I didn’t think of myself as small. But then, girls were smaller back then, too.

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