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 bast 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

SUMMER CAMP NIGHTMARE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Ellin is away all day, but will answer comments when she gets back this evening! It’s that time of year 😀


Most people wax poetic when they talk about their idyllic summers at sleep-away camp when they were kids. Tennis, volleyball, waterskiing and other fun sports. Campfires, nature walks, bunk hijinks, and lasting friendships.

I had none of those wonderful experiences. I went to sleep-away camp one summer when I was thirteen.

I refused to ever go back again. I was miserable.

Me at around thirteen

My horrible experience was basically due to three factors. The first problem was my parents’ choice of camp. They sent me to a progressive, Montessori style arts camp called Bucks Rock Work Camp. The selling point for the camp was that there were lots of artistic opportunities but there was no schedule or requirements for the campers. Each child had to choose their own activities each day.

While this format is great for self-motivated kids with intense interests and actual talents, it was a disaster for me. I had no overpowering interest except for theater. And that was an organized activity that did have a specific schedule. So most days I wandered around. I tried jewelry making, art, and pottery. I took fencing classes and a few guitar lessons. But I was pretty aimless most of the time.

The second problem I had was my bunkmates. There were four of us in two sets of bunk beds. One of the other girls spent every night sneaking out the window to meet boys. The other two were best friends and overtly excluded me. It was very uncomfortable and demoralizing. I had other friends but this cast a pall over my camp life.

The third problem was the way the camp handled the casting of the big theatrical production of the summer. This was what I was looking forward to. This was the all-consuming activity I was waiting for.

The play was “Peer Gynt”. I auditioned along with hordes of other campers. And the lead females role narrowed down to two girls, me and someone else. I didn’t get the role. This would have been fine if they had done the reasonable thing and given me a subsidiary role. I was good enough to be the lead, so you’d think they could find some other part for me. But no. I got nothing. Not even a place in the chorus. This was a horrible thing to do to any camper. Anyone who was interested and had any skills whatsoever should have been allowed to participate.

Theater production in outdoor theater

But I was shut out completely. And I was devastated. A part in the play would have given me focus and purpose for the rest of the summer. Instead, I joined a small theater class. I did end up with a lead role in a scene we did from the “Madwoman of Chaillot”. (Great play choice for teenagers!) The problem here was that the counselor was the brother of a girl I grew up with. I had known him my whole life and we hated each other. We did not get along at all. So this turned out to be another unpleasant experience.

The whole situation stressed me out so much, I could not memorize my lines. They were actually quite hard to remember because they were the nonsensical, non-sequiturs of an insane woman. At the performance, I skipped a page and a half of dialogue.

The audience didn’t notice. In fact, I got a compliment I’ve never forgotten. An adult from the audience told me that they had been to a professional production of the play and that my performance was as good as the professional actress they had seen!

another photo of me at around thirteen

I called home once a week and cried hysterically every time. My parents offered to take me home but I refused. I decided to stick it out. I didn’t want to admit to or give in to failure.

Looking back, I now know that I had an anxiety/depressive disorder my whole life and I was probably spiraling into a pretty bad depression that summer. Going home might have been better for me, therapeutically.

But I proved to myself that I was strong and could survive a lot. So while I had an awful summer, I learned that I’m a survivor. That lesson has gotten me through a lot in life and I’m grateful I learned it so young.

AND NOW, WITH TWO HANDS – Marilyn Armstrong

Ragtime Daily Prompt #66 – ABIDE (WITH ME)


“And now,” said Mrs. Nelson, “You can try it with both hands.”

This was huge. Before now, I could only play one note at a time, one hand at a time. I was four and a half. Almost five, I would point out.

Today, I was going to play “Abide With Me” with two hand using chords (okay, only two notes in each, but still chords). A power performance!

I was definitely going to be a great pianist. I couldn’t reach the pedals yet. I was much too small, but eventually, I’d get there.

Thus I advanced my musical career which, in the end, didn’t amount to much. I enjoyed it, though. I tried majoring in it in college, but piano wasn’t the right instrument for me. I needed something more compact, with fewer long reaches. I was tiny with very small hands (but big feet, go figure). Making those long reaches in complicated pieces was impossible for me.

By the time we were moving past the easier Nocturnes and into the longer Beethoven sonatas, it was obvious to me it wasn’t lack of practice. I practiced a lot. Every day, for hours.

I was simply ill-equipped to get it done on a piano.

Piano became a hobby and writing became my profession and I’m not at all sorry it worked out that way. I can’t even imagine myself performing with an orchestra or alone on the big stage.

I’ve also got an insane degree of stage-fright where music is concerned, though I can speak in public. There’s no accounting for irrational fear, is there?

THE TINY WORMS IN THE FRIDGE – Marilyn Armstrong

My house was neat enough if you didn’t look too closely. You could walk into it without falling over a pile of dirty clothing (that was all in the basement — another story entirely) and the dogs and cats were  (usually) housebroken.

I couldn’t say the same for my toddler or my friends. Overall, the toddler was less of a threat to house and home than the friends, but when they got to messing around, anything could happen.

As my son grew, he developed (what a surprise) a passion for all kinds of creatures. Rabbits. Hamsters. Birds. We already had cats (many) and dogs.

We never properly owned more than two dogs but often had three or four. Two of them were ours. One was on loan from a friend who was in the army or on the road playing gigs. The fourth had belonged to a houseguest who had left but somehow forgotten to take their dog. Sometimes, it took us years to get the owner to come back and take the furkid too.

I love animals that aren’t insects, so while I frequently pointed out that it was NOT my dog and would they please come and get him or her, I would never throw them out. The owner I might toss out the door, but never the dog.

The year Owen turned eight, he decided he wanted geckos. They were the “in” things for 8-year-old boys that year. I pointed out that I didn’t think they would last long with the cats in the house.

He wanted the geckos. I was not much of a disciplinarian. If you argue with me, I’ll say no at least twice. After that? I usually give up.

As soon as we got the terrarium and the plants and finally settled the geckos into their home, Owen promptly lost interest in them and rediscovered his bicycle. That left me to care for the geckos, who would only eat mealworms.

I am not a big fan of worms. Any worms. I can tolerate earthworms because they are good for the soil, but overall, if it creeps or crawls, it’s not my thing. Did I mention that the geckos would only eat LIVE mealworms? I had to buy them in little cups at the pet store.

So mom dropped over and the cup of mealworms for the geckos had tipped over in the fridge. Which was now full of tiny worms. I assured her that my fridge does not usually contain worms and the worms were what the geckos ate. I don’t think she believed me. It was years before she would eat anything at my house. She always quietly inspected everything, in case there were a few worms there.

As for the geckos, a few days later, the cats figured out how to open the terrarium and there were no more geckos. And thankfully, no more mealworms.

I WILL NOT BE A BALLERINA (OR A COWBOY) – Marilyn Armstrong

When I was a girl, my mother took me to the ballet. She didn’t take me to the typical “first ballet” for kids — Nutcracker Suite — which mommies take their little girls to see. Instead, she took me to the New York City Ballet Company, while Balanchine was still its choreographer.

It was magic. Extreme magic. I left the theater sure I’d found my future. All I needed were a few lessons, a pair of those cool ballet slippers and I could leap and twirl on my tiptoes, just like the stars at the ballet.

I had not accounted for the klutz factor. I was young and sure that wanting it badly enough would make it happen.

Sadly, I had no talent for dance. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I had a go at ballet, tap, jazz — even belly dancing. All had the same results, yet somehow,  I survived the disappointment.

I was simultaneously coping with the realization I was not going to become a cowboy, either.

For one thing, I wasn’t a boy. For a second thing, I was living in New York, didn’t own a horse, wasn’t likely to ever own a horse and pretending the fence rail was a horse was not going work out long-term.

For anyone who likes dance … even if you don’t … check out the  delicious parody of classical ballet from the original Disney “Fantasia.” No matter how many times I see it, it always makes me laugh. You have to love hippos in tutus.

NON-RELATED FAMILY MEMBERS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I have a very small family. I am an only child and so is my mom. My dad had a sister we never saw. So I had to create my own sense of extended family. To do that, I’ve developed family depth relationships with people who were not actually related to me.

My earliest memories include the family housekeeper, Ethie. She was with my mom for years before I was born and left to have children of her own when I was four. Though Ethie was black, I thought she actually was part of our family. I remember that around age four, someone mentioned Ethie’s church. I was stunned. I suddenly realized that Ethie wasn’t Jewish. Like we were. She wasn’t ‘one of us’. She was different in some way.

Ethie and me

It never occurred to me that she wasn’t ‘family’ because of her skin color. That was a non issue to me. I loved her and she loved me.

Ethie also protected me from my stern and unloving nanny. She got suspicious of the nanny’s treatment of me and eavesdropped on her threatening me when I cried during the night. Ethie also conspired with my grandfather when he noticed that I was coming home too clean from the playground. She got Grandpa to spy on the nanny too. He discovered that she was making me sit on the bench with the other nannies in the playground. She wouldn’t let me play because she didn’t want to have to chase me around. Ethie and Grandpa finally convinced my mother to fire the nanny. But she had been terrorizing me for two crucial years, from birth to age two.

When I was four, I used to punch Ethie’s pregnant belly because I knew that the belly was why Ethie was leaving me. But my mother and I stayed in touch with Ethie and her two daughters until she died. I was in my early thirties. Ethie had a hard life. She lost a daughter to diabetes in her twenties and suffered from the disease for years herself. In fact, she became blind a few years before she died. She remained a very special person in my life and she always treated me like her third daughter.

Another pseudo relative from my childhood was ‘Aunt’ Esther. She was actually a distant cousin, but definitely not an aunt. She was my grandmother’s best friend and she spent a lot of time at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. She sometimes visited on her own. But she also spent weeks with her husband, Louie, at my grandparents’ summer cottage on my parents’ property in CT. It became an extended family enclave. I don’t remember Louie ever speaking.

After Louie died, Esther spent even more time with Grandma, including most of the summer in CT. In a one bedroom cottage. It caused endless fights between Grandma and Grandpa. But it was great for me. We all played cards together (Gin Rummy) and I got to have a second Grandma. (I had no grandparents on my father’s side).

I adored Esther. She was more patient than my grandmother teaching me to crochet, knit and cook. She also told great stories, often about her own five grandchildren. She always told me I was her sixth. She also mediated between me and grandma when we got on each other’s nerves. When I got older both Grandma and Esther would complain to me about the other and I had to smooth things over for the two of them. Quite a lot. But Grandma and Esther were really like sisters, with the same love hate that most siblings have through the years. Esther stayed in my life till she died, a few years after my Grandmother.

The next example of a non-family family member came into my life when I was an adult. I was pregnant with my second child and was on strict bed rest. My housekeeper walked out on me with no notice. I was left scrambling to take care of my four and a half-year old son – from bed. I called an au pair agency and a nineteen year old German girl named Daniella arrived for an interview. I hired her and she moved in immediately. It was a week before Xmas, 1984.

Daniella with David and Sarah, newly home from the hospital

Daniella said she would stay with me for a year but she only stayed for seven months. She did, however, find a replacement for me from her hometown in Germany. She never really had her heart in babysitting but she fell in love with New York City. We got very close in those seven months and we stayed in touch after she went home.

A year or so after she left us, my whole family traveled to Europe. Daniella joined us in Paris. A few years later, we all visited Daniella in Germany. But Daniella was still obsessed with New York City. So she saved up her money and almost every year from then on, she visited us in America.

Daniella, David and Sarah in Paris. Sarah was two

Sixteen years ago she had a little girl of her own and couldn’t come to visit us as often. But she still came. Now she is a teacher in Germany and is the chaperone of a school group that takes a trip to Wisconsin every year. She always spends time with us on her way home, sometimes with her daughter and sometimes on her own.

Daniella with her daughter in 2013

Over the years, Daniella has come to every major family event. She came to my kids’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, to David’s wedding and to my wedding to Tom in 2002. She is considered part of the family and we talk and email often. She’s on the short list if there’s any family news. We met when she was nineteen and she’s now 42. So she has grown up with us as part of her life. And my kids have grown up with her as part of theirs.

There is one non-family member who stands above all the others. We ‘adopted’ him in the late 1980’s and he is still a major part of all of our lives. His name is Brian and he was a caretaker for my mother on her CT estate. He became a close friend and literally helped me raise my kids when their Dad was working long hours and living part-time in a different state. I’ve written a separate blog about him, called “A Fortuitous Friend”.

Me with both Daniella and Brian at my 2002 wedding

But there is one other person I want to mention here. I lost touch with her a long time ago, but she played a pivotal role in my growing up years. Growing up as a child with live-in household help is a unique experience. I got very attached to many of these wonderful people who shared my day-to-day life and knew me and my family better than anyone else possibly could.

A housekeeper/cook from Austria named Liesl came to live with us when I was around ten and she was around twenty-two. She stayed for two years and we spent a lot of time together. She became my ‘best friend’. She even protected me when my mother got mad at me. She had great spirit and humor and enthusiasm for everything in life. Though we lost touch over time, I developed a very strong attachment to her. I adored her. She helped me go from child to teen. I still remember her and think about her. Some people just have an impact on you for some reason and you never forget them. Liesl was one of them

So I’ve been very lucky to have life long relationships that rose to the level of family relationships. My real family was very small, so these people gave me the sense of extended family that most people have naturally. I am very grateful to all these people for being such a wonderful part of my life and my memories.