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.

TO CAMP OR NOT TO CAMP – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Camp

I always wanted to go camping. All my friends went camping. My brother and sister went camping. I so envied them.

I stayed home. My mother felt camp was where you sent a child that needed “the experience” of “being away” from home (like my clingy sister), or who had a troubled home life (like my brother). Since I didn’t seem to need those experiences and always managed to find something to do, I didn’t need camping.

Garry’s horse

But I wanted to go. I wanted to swim and be out in the country. All through August, every kid was gone for weeks at a time. It was lonely.

Many years later, I tried to explain it to my mother and I think she finally understood that “camp” wasn’t where you sent psychologically deficient children, but a place for normal kids to have fun. Play games. Learn to swim.

She had never considered that.

I suppose it was a compliment, but if ever I experienced a truly back-handed compliment, that was it.

I sent Owen to camp because I didn’t go. Not only did I send him to camp, but I sent him to the camp to which I would have given an arm and both legs to go. It was a horseback riding camp. He didn’t like it. Too rough and tumble.

We always try to give our kids what we wanted and it almost never works the way we intended it. You just can’t win.

We try so hard and somehow, we manage to get it at least a little wrong. Maybe that’s the way parenthood is. You never stop learning. I still haven’t stopped learning. I don’t think I could stop if I tried.

The dock at River Bend

As a child, I wanted freedom. The less adult interference in my life, the happier I was. The fewer parents around, the more I learned. If you gave me a heap of books and as many horses as I could wrap my legs around, I was in heaven.

That wasn’t what Owen wanted. By the time Kaity was growing up, I didn’t have the money to send her anywhere. And she was more like Owen insofar as she didn’t want to leave home and the idea of being with a bunch of kids she didn’t know was not appealing.

Lucky for her I didn’t have the money to send her anywhere!

YEARS OF BRASS, YEARS OF GOLD – Marilyn Armstrong

I’m not one of those people who romanticizes the “old days,” but there are some truths worth remembering and revisiting.

I grew up in a different world. Play meant imagination. Physical activity. Jump rope, hide and seek, tag, Stickball because no one owned a real bat. Stoop ball, jacks. Building a “fort” or climbing a tree. Cowboys.

Toys were simple, not electronic. Getting a new doll was a thrill. She never needed a reboot, unless you count having to find her lost shoe. Almost nothing except flashlights needed batteries.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

If you were having a hard time with the bullies in school, you got up, got dressed and went to school. It didn’t mean you weren’t scared. I was plenty scared. It simply wasn’t a parent problem … it was mine. Yours. Ours.

You didn’t get a lot of pats on the back for “trying hard.” You might get an “attaboy” for doing exceptionally well, but you were expected to do your best. Nothing less was acceptable. Doing your best was your job. You took it seriously.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

You learned your lessons in elementary school so you could go on to junior high school and then high school. You had to do well in high school because if you didn’t, you couldn’t get into college. We all knew — with 100% certainty — if you didn’t go to college, you wouldn’t go to heaven.

Pretty much every family has members who didn’t make it. The ones who never found a decent job or formed a serious relationship. Or accomplished much of anything. If they happen to be our own kids, it makes us wonder what we did wrong. Usually, we have a sneaking suspicion the problem isn’t what we didn’t do. More like what we did do — too much.

I don’t think we should be mean and uncaring to our kids, nor am I an advocate of corporal punishment, but I think it’s important to recognize we didn’t get strong by being protected from every pain, every hurt. We didn’t get everything we wanted the moment we wanted it. Or, at least I didn’t. If I got one really cool present, that was a big deal. Now kids get so much, it’s meaningless. They don’t appreciate anything because there’s always more where that came from.

So, in memory of the good times, the bad times, the hard times, and the great times. For the schoolyard battles we fought and sometimes lost and the subjects we barely passed or actually failed — and had to take again. For the bullies who badgered us until we fought back and discovered bullies are cowards and for the terror of being cornered in the girls’ room by tough chicks with switchblades, wondering how you can talk your way out of this.

Being the only Jew, Black kid, Spanish kid, fat kid, short kid or whatever different kind of kid you were in a school full of people who didn’t like you. Getting through it and coming out the other side. Being the only one who used big words and read books when everyone else was watching American Bandstand. Being the klutz who couldn’t do the dances and never had the right clothing or hair. Then, finally, getting to college and discovering the weirdos and rejects from high school were now cool people.

Magically, suddenly, becoming part of the “in-crowd.” Metamorphoses. No longer outsiders. Whatever made us misfits were the same qualities that made us popular. And eventually, successful.

The fifties and early sixties were not idyllic, especially if you weren’t middle class, white, and Christian. Yet, whoever you were, it was a great time to be a kid. Not because we had more stuff, but because we had more freedom.

We had time. Time to play, time to dream. Whatever we lacked in “things,” we made up for by having many fewer rules. We were encouraged to use our imagination. We didn’t have video games, cable TV, cell phones and computers. We were lucky to have a crappy black and white TV with rabbit ears that barely got a signal.

We learned to survive and cope. Simultaneously, we learned to achieve. By the time we hit adulthood, we weren’t afraid to try even if success seemed unlikely.

We had enough courage to know if it didn’t work out, we’d get up, dust ourselves off and try again — or try something else. We knew we would make it, one way or another. When we got out into the world, for at least a couple of decades, we had a blast.

Here’s to us as we limp past middle age into our not-so-golden years. We really had great lives. We’re still having them, but slowly.

SWINGING THE PICK – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Pick

The summer of my 13th year, my girlfriends and I discovered that there had once been a swimming pool in the front yard of a neighbors’ house. We immediately decided to clear it out and make it into a swimming pool again.

We collected whatever digging implements we could find and the five of us went forward to commence the project. We tried the various shovels, most of which were really spades designed for garden work and eventually decided to try the bigger shovels to see if we could make more progress that way.

Bigger shovels were in short supply, so I decided to use the big pickax. I think this is when my back problems began because scrawny little me swung the pick backward and I heard a snap accompanied by a sharp pain in my back. Probably that was the first of several vertebrae to bite the big one.

I immediately abandoned the project of building our own swimming hole and hobbled home. I said I’d hurt my back.

Five-pound steel head pick — but I think the one I used was heavier. Or maybe it was just that I was much lighter.

No one paid me much attention to it. We were always getting banged up doing something. Also, my mother was of the “old world” opinion that no one calls a doctor (much less goes to the hospital) unless they are near death. Even though I was walking bent over and couldn’t stand up? It would get better. Just another childhood bump.

It did get a little better, but it never got all the way better, so I took up riding horses next. This also didn’t fix the problem and when I fell off, it made the problem worse.

Eventually, when I was 19, surgery was required. I had begun to lose all the sensation in my right leg and most in my left leg.  Also, for the first time in years, my back didn’t hurt. It was numb.

Most youngsters damage themselves — often for a lifetime — while playing sports. I’m pretty sure I’m the only girl who did it with a pickax.

ADULTING 101 – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I read a fascinating article from Today, on Facebook. It was written by Meghan Holohan on March 29, 2019, and is titled “ ‘Adulting’ Class at Kentucky high school teaches crucial life skills.”

What a great concept! I’ve always thought high schools and colleges should offer life skills classes so kids aren’t left totally unprepared when they move into adulthood (that is if their parents don’t prepare them, which most don’t).

In the Kentucky school, ‘Adulting’ seminars were offered and the response was overwhelming and positive. Parents were as thrilled as the kids when the project started blowing up on the internet. Seniors could choose three out of eleven workshops to attend with the goal of gaining more general knowledge and specific skills needed to help them navigate their lives after high school.

The classes offered were awesome and totally practical. Some of them were: Dorm Room Cooking, How To Interact With the Police (I’m assuming it’s an inner city school), Healthy Relationships and Boundaries, It’s Money, Baby, i.e. Personal Finance, Writing a Resume and Cover Letter, Filling out an Application, Basics of Checking and Savings and When you Need to See A Doctor.

The first class to fill up was dorm room cooking. The Police were the second most popular and the third was Healthy Relationships. Apparently, a lot of young girls were not sure how and when to set boundaries in a relationship and what you should and should not expect — or accept — in a relationship. If you don’t see good relationships in your life, I guess you need to be taught what a good one looks like and how to get it. Very sad.

This school’s adulting classes are hopefully the start of a new trend. I looked online and found an adulting class for millennials that teaches them ‘survival’ skills like monthly budgeting and how to open a wine bottle with a cork. A library in Oregon offers “Adulting 101: Basic How-To’s for ages 16-25.”

Apparently, neither mainstream schools or parents are preparing kids to take on the world beyond home and high school.

I’ve read several conflicting explanations for why kids today seem so clueless when it comes to basic adulthood skills. Some blame it on the fact that so many kids continue to live at home through their 20’s, and even later. But one article pointed out that in the 1940s, people lived at home in even larger numbers and for even longer periods than recent generations. But those kids also did chores and were given adult responsibilities while at home, so making it in the real world was not a problem for them when the time came.

That points to late 20th-century parenting as the problem.

One author argues that both parents usually have to work crazy hours just to provide good lives for their families, so no one has time to teach life skills to their kids. Another author blames helicopter or snowplow parents who treat their kids like delicate, pampered snowflakes, do everything for them and expect nothing from them.

Another school of thought blames high schools, which used to teach skills like cooking, shop, and bookkeeping but now don’t. My husband had a great home economics class and learned how to cook as a teenager. He was the only boy in a class full of girls! Win, win!

Another author argues that every generation of young adults is equally ignorant of life skills and that most people learn them in the field, as adults. I had never cooked a thing until I reached law school and had my first apartment. Many kids don’t have their own checkbooks when they live with their parents and so they don’t learn how to manage one until they are living and working on their own.

I’m not sure which theory I believe, but I agree with the person who said that whatever the root causes of their egregious lack of ‘adult’ knowledge, the kids today should be commended for trying to learn what they realize they don’t know.

Hopefully, there will be a big spike in enrollment in the Adulting School that has opened, which offers classes in cooking, sewing, and basic conflict resolution. I know some adults who could use those classes. I know many career women who don’t know the first thing about cooking, except ordering out. I still can’t balance a checkbook.

Where do I sign up?

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.