LET’S BE TWELVE AGAIN — Marilyn Armstrong

Someone asked me what I would do if I were twelve again. Twelve. A little too young to be a teenager, too old to be a ‘child.’ It’s the middle-age of childhood. There might be a few things I could do — or, more to the point — NOT do that might make old age feel less old. I could avoid those events where I broke my back, for example. Or maybe not. We all know that changing the past doesn’t usually work. Somehow, you either don’t exist at all, or whatever happens lands you back in the same place you were in anyway.

But I’m up for a try, as long as I don’t have to go back to school. Ever.

96-Marilyn1964

I’ve got all the diplomas I’ll ever need. I’m an adult. I get Social Security. Pensions. And never to be forgotten, Senior discounts. At 12 I had my full height and was a smart as I would ever be. I looked old for my age anyway.

Smarter. We reach our maximum intelligence in our early teens. It seems like a waste, but it isn’t really. That’s when we are collecting the knowledge that will enable us to decide what want to do with the rest of our lives. In this case, I already know.

I know what I want and I know how to get there.  I know what to avoid, which may be the most important part. It’s a perfect second life. With all the body parts still working and foreknowledge of what may come.

To the good part. A 12-year-old body you say? Before I broke my back. I get the chance to protect my spine and avoid the big issues I’m facing now.

There are some issues to be worked out. Young, growing bodies have needs. But in my head, I’m old and wily, so I know what to do. I have the body of a youngster, the brain of a senior. Oh, joy. This is the best of both worlds! Garry would be 17 — just about to go into the Marines. This wouldn’t be fun without him.

We will have legs that can run and minds that remember everything. But this time, without dysfunctional parents and all those stupid rules?

Bring it ON! I am so ready.

OLD TIMEY RELIGIOUS MUSIC – Marilyn Armstrong

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 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 a church by a good 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.

Destination unknown.

YOU TALK TOO MUCH! – Garry Armstrong

“You Talk Too Much.”

It was a 1960 pop single that kids used to sing outside of school and on the streets. Usually, it was making fun of adults: teachers, parents, politicians, and others who they dissed from the temerity of youth.

It’s not something we — of a certain age — say about those who do most of their socializing via texts and emails.  We value the word, conversation, face-to-face sharing of thoughts and beliefs.

As a youngster at large family gatherings, I remember the older men — uncles, cousins and male hangers-on, emboldened by liquor and loud Carribean music casting insults at the women in the house.  When they were inevitably chastized, one of the men usually would bellow, “Woman, you talk too much.”

Most of the men, shielding themselves from a proper physical response, would giggle in a protective huddle.  Much like a bad football team after committing an egregious foul.

“You talk Too Much”?  In my youthful mind, I wondered how my elders dare say such an obviously disrespectful thing. I couldn’t in my boldest young bombast even consider saying that to an elder. Certainly not my Mom. I’d be picking up my teeth scattered around the room after the two slaps on my cherubic face.

It IS something I now mumble at the political blabbathons as Presidential wannabees stumble over themselves, verbally shooting each other in the feet and leaving us — the losers — as we try to zero in on a preferred candidate to take on the current White House squatter whose rent is overdue.  Yes, you people, you talk too much and don’t say things that will make us believe in you and your candidacy.

I’m growing increasingly angry with baseball’s  TV sports talk jocks who think their jibber-jabber is more important than the high anxiety postseason games.  The nonstop verbal poop is often insulting when it’s obvious these people don’t know the basics of our national pastime.

This 77-year-old retired TV Newsie with 40 plus years on the job, YELLS profanities at the Sports yakkers. The nicest thing I can offer is: “You talk too much!”

I wrestle with the image of my sportscaster hero — the iconic Vin Scully — who truly was a wordsmith, mixing in Shakespeare, baseball play-by-play and John Keats — without missing a beat and allowing minutes of silence to heighten the import of an excellent, game-changing play.  Alas, Vin Scully, closing in on 90, chose to retire still at the top of his game.1

In my best Brandon DeWilde “Shane” plea, Vin Scully, come back! We need you now more than ever! EVERYBODY needs you. Come back, Mr. Scully, please!

Those of you of a certain age can, perhaps, see and hear Archie Bunker yelling at his wife and son-in-law: “Hey, youse!  Ya givin’ me a headache. Stifle ya-selves.  You talk too much”.

No, Pilgrim, I’m not going there.  As sure as the turning of the earth, I’m not going there.

MY OLD NEIGHBORHOOD – 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.

96-Holliswood1954

It sat at the top of a hill amidst the last remaining mature 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.

Oak woods

“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 were 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 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.

Three friends

October 1952

In the old clapboard house where I thought Liz led a perfect life, battles 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.

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 ourselves. 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.

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.

BE HOME BEFORE THE LIGHTS COME ON – Marilyn Armstrong

When I was growing up … and even when my son was growing up in the 1970s, kids went out to play. Alone. Unsupervised. Unstructured. Disorganized with not a single adult to keep an eye on us. We built “forts” and “clubhouses” out of crates and old boxes and anything we could find that mom wouldn’t miss.

We played stickball with old, pink Spalding balls that were often long past bouncing or even being “round.” You didn’t go and buy a “stickball set.” You found an old broomstick and someone had a ball, or what used to be a ball, or you all chipped in and bought one in the local (!) toy store.

The dock at River Bend

Remember toy stores? Not “Toys R’ Us.”

Local shops where you could buy a ball or a bat or a Ginny doll for a few cents or a few dollars. The shopkeepers were always grumpy old guys (probably a lot younger than we are now), but they had a gleam in their eye. If you don’t like kids, you don’t run a toy store.

We ran around a lot. Playing tag was basic. Even dogs play tag. “Catch me if you can,” you shouted and off you went. If you got tagged, you were O-U-T. But if you could run fast enough, you could grab whatever was “home” and one shouted “Home free all!” and everyone was back in the game.

There was Hide and Seek, another classic. Someone hid, everyone hunted. You had to be careful. If you hid too well, your friends might get bored looking for you and go do something else. But no one’s mother came to complain that you were being bullied. This was stuff you dealt with because there will always be bullies. Unless you were in real danger, it was better (then and now) to cope on your own. Much better than waiting for rescue.

In the real world, rescue is rare, but bullying is not.

1953 -I’m in the middle

Jump rope. There was always an old piece of laundry line somewhere. They actually call it skipping rope in other parts of the country. In the cities, the Black girls played a variation called “double Dutch” using two ropes. We all knew how to do the double Dutch ropes turning, but none of us ever mastered the technique of actually jumping. More like an intricate dance — and I also wasn’t ever much of a dancer.

Klutz that I was and am, I was barely competent on a single line, much less two. I remain in awe of how incredibly graceful, athletic, and coördinated those girls were … and are. There was a feature about them on the news a couple of weeks ago and I am no less awestruck now than I was more than 60 years ago.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

Along with jumping rope came chanting. All those weird little ditties we sang as we jumped. They mostly were alphabetic and involved names and places.

“I call my girlfriend … in …” when we were playing in a group. You could gauge your popularity by when and who “called you in” to jump in tandem. Looking back, I think the problem was not unpopularity, but being a washout as an athlete. I was a slow runner, an indifferent jumper, and a terrified tree climber. On the other hand, when it came to derring-do, I was a champ. I could organize games of pretending –pirates and cowboys and outlaws and cat burglars.

We burgled, but we never stole. We weren’t thieves, just little girls trying to prove we could do it.

I don’t see kids playing outdoors these days. Almost never, except as organized groups with one or more adults supervising. Calling the plays with whistles and shouts. Children are not allowed to “go out and play” anymore. Everyone is afraid of something. Bullying, kidnappers, traffic, skinned knees. Unlike we kids who were always covered with scabs from a thousand times falling down on the sidewalk or street.

Come home with a bloody knee today and they’ll call an ambulance. Growing up, unless you appeared to have broken something, a bath was the remedy of choice and usually, beneath the dirt, was an unbroken kid.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

It makes me wistful, thinking about it. My family was dysfunctional, but I could escape by going out to play.

“Bye, Ma, I’m going out,” and off you went. It was the best part of being a child. Those months between school and hours after school (much less homework and we still learned more!) contained what seemed unlimited freedom. That was the freest I would ever be in this life.

Once you were out of the house and too far away to hear your mother calling, you could do whatever you liked. You could be whoever you imagined. There was nothing you had to do, no place you needed to be. Until the streetlights came on.

Streetlight is on. Time to go home!

You had to be home when the streetlights came on. It was a fundamental law, the bottom line. Do what you will, but be home when the streetlights come on. In those warm summers of childhood, the days flowed in an endless stream.

Darkness fell late. There was more than enough time.

DEFIANCE OR DETERMINATION? – Marilyn Armstrong

So I found this question on Facebook and it brought back a deluge of memories.


Hey moms, I’m in desperate need of help. I’m at my wit’s end with my lovely little defiant child. I love him lots, but enough is enough. Every morning, my son wakes up at 3 in the morning and refuses to go back to sleep. He will literally be up for the entire day. I’ve repeatedly tried putting him back in his room. I’ve tried time outs, taking away his privileges. Tried having him do chores. Nothing works. He talks back, makes faces, or just laughs at me. I literally don’t know what to do anymore.


My mother used to tell stories about me as a baby. How I’d be up and wide awake by 3 or 4 in the morning. We lived in a cheap apartment on Rose Street in Freeport. When I got up, she would get up too. She’d put on her overcoat and wait until the heat came up, which wasn’t until around seven.

She eventually figured out that I needed to be busy. Crayons, paint, and lots of paper were big items in my world. I didn’t sleep as much as most kids and when awake, I needed to be doing something. Ultimately, reading took over a lot of that time, but until then, drawing (the three-year-old version of it) and other crafts filled the time. That and running around outside. Knowing me now, it’s hard to imagine what an active kid I was.

Sisters playing by the river

Eventually, I learned to read books, write stories, and draw. Life got better.

Even as a toddler, I went to bed hours later than the “official” bedtime for little kids. I never slept as many hours as other kids. Garry recalls being much the same. Of course, these days, there’s no such thing as too much sleep, but we are long past youth, much less childhood.

Defiance is an overused term these days. Any time a child doesn’t want to do what mom or dad wants him or her to do, it’s defiance. My theory is that it’s more like boredom than defiance when a box of crayons and paper can cure it!

Smart kids need challenging activities and they can be hard for caretakers. Especially hard for working mothers who are already tired by the time they get home.

Pop psychology can be dangerous.

Don’t label your children. Smart kids hear what you say and figure out what you mean. Just because he or she doesn’t “behave” doesn’t make him or her defiant. These days, with so many mothers working and convinced that “outside” await predators waiting to snatch your kid, every minute of the kid’s time is programmed.

I shudder imagining growing up like that