SOMETIMES ( part 1 of 8)
A memoir of a kid who changed the way the world was pushing her
By Christine Suhré-Garza
This is a chronicle of my life, for the most part, of the last 60 plus years.
Much like the Benjamin Button story, I grew up in reverse. From as far back as I can remember, it was crucial that I think as an adult. While I still did ‘kid things’, our family situation required me to learn hard and fast with how to survive. I didn’t think of my situation as unusual or sad, or unhappy. It just ‘was’. There were some happy times, some sad times, and some times I thought if I could hold my breath long enough, I could disappear, and no one would notice.
It became very apparent over the years that my story isn’t all that strange or unusual. There are plenty of families that struggle with abuse on a daily basis. What makes my story atypical is the journey my sister and I took with my mom during a time it was unheard of for woman to take such steps. I learned enough in the first 14 years of my life to know I could save my own life should I need to, which seemed to be my destiny.
While the world never slowed down to allow us much in the way of normalcy, we managed to immerse ourselves in those few sane moments we stole from time to appreciate what we did have, what we could ‘own’. The lessons I learned had a great bearing on how I would live the rest of my life and how I would treat others both personally and in business.
For so long, secrets of who I was, the lack of a real identity, held a part of my heart that could not let go and allow it to Love. When love did eventually find me, I embraced it with my soul and promised myself I would never take it for granted. And I never have.
I hope this story brings awareness to some, closeness to others and understanding that, as women, there are no impossibilities.
Quite often, we put off making changes in our lives. We endure abuse because it isn’t constant. It happens Sometimes. Not all the time. There are plenty of early graves in every cemetery because abuse happened Sometimes.
Life with abusers is not continually bad 24 hours a day. More often than not it is sporadic, triggered from some deep seated anger the abused know nothing about. Threats or apologies keep the relationships going, knowing full well it will happen again and again.
This is a story about a woman who chose not to be in one of those graves. She risked her own life to save herself and her children. That woman was my mom.
This is the story of abuse that happened ‘Sometimes’.
These are my memories of the day-to-day that stand out in my mind after 68 years. We laughed, we cried, and we lived in fear. And we survived.
2- ‘The House’ /and The Sterns
My mom and dad built our house on the corner lot, a two story cinderblock , stick and stucco house with a fireplace and a screened-in back porch. A little later on, dad built an outdoor patio, complete with a built in fireplace there as well. The Sterns bought their house right next door...a ‘model’ home... that looked just like the one right next to theirs and, in fact, just like the rest of the houses all the way down the block.
The Sterns lived right next door to us in Yonkers, New York. I knew this family from the day they moved in. They had a set of twins, Robin and Stewart (girl and boy) a year younger than myself and an older sister, Deborah. The mom worked at some office job, I believe, and the dad started a coffee business shortly after they moved in, which I understood my mom helped him create. ‘Grandma’ stayed at home, and I can still recall her, sitting at the kitchen table, picking greasy chicken apart with her hands. I never knew what exactly she was ever making, but I can always recall her chubby fingers shining with chicken grease as she massaged the chicken meat off the bones at the table.
Although the one year difference in age, Robin and Stewart and I would soon became good friends. They liked to swing on my swing, hang out in my pup tent in the backyard and also play ‘school’. Every day after school, I would come home and hold classes on our enclosed porch, teaching them everything I learned that day in school. I loved learning, and I loved teaching. I’d pass out Cheerios as a treat if they got the answers correct.
I decided, once, to try my hand at making percolated coffee as a snack/reward, because I had seen mom do it so many times in our own kitchen. I personally don’t care for coffee, but it seems most everyone else did. I never saw mom offer tea to anyone, except me, when I was sick. I made a pot of coffee and served it to the twins and they wouldn’t drink it. So I stuck with the Cheerios.
This one day, while sitting in the tent, conversation eventually came around to what happens when we die. Always intrigued with that subject, I wondered where my pets went when they died. I must have been six or seven, and the subject was something I thought about often. On some level, I think every kid wonders about this very same thing. And I also think this is the time in life when religion begins to embed itself in most young, not-yet-rational minds.
This is the age when most kids never think to wonder how the moon could possibly be made of green cheese. Except kids like me. I remember being told that, and seriously wondering if the adult person telling me really believed it themself. This isn’t to say I didn’t love wild stories. We just needed to be square with each other that we both KNEW this wasn’t possible.
And of course I went to Sunday school every week. I earned all my pins that they gave you each year, for attendance and graduation. Looking back, what a strange concept it was. If you ever really decided to wear them, you would look like a Four Star General. But for a kid still in the single digit age category, they were kind of cool. They all fit together like a puzzle and hung like signs on an old professional building, when you finished.
I collected my pin each year, much, I’m sure, to the chagrin of the teachers. I was much like Satan, sitting at the table each week, playing Devil’s Advocate, as the rest of the kids watched the Q and A’s ‘happen’. I felt that teachers had the duty to tell the truth. If I wanted a bedtime story, it shouldn’t come to me in Sunday school, expecting me to stay awake..
All those little passages just didn’t add up. Most of all, why did I have to go to church to have God see me? Why didn’t my pets need to go to church?
And then I was told they didn’t have souls, like people did, and so it didn’t make a difference.
That did it. If there was a God, he wasn’t talking to THESE people, I was sure. They were just making it up as they went along. I even thought about the creepy concept that God is always watching you, like Santa Claus, to make sure you behaved well at every turn. And then, also creepy, were those pictures of Jesus with the eyes that followed you wherever you stood in the room. Way too much for me. Luckily enough, no one ever told me I was going to Hell, until I got older.
So, it seemed to me that I had too many questions for the teachers to answer and I began to feel that they didn’t much like me. I used to try and be sick every Sunday Morning, until my mom caught on, and I’d have to get up and get that starched dress on with my patent leather pumps, and my numbered envelope containing my weekly stipend, neatly tucked and glued inside and then trudge five miles to church with my older sister. ( Not really five miles, but it seemed like it)
My mom starched my dresses in a pot on the stove, then wrapped them up, rubber banded them, and put them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. When she eventually ironed them, they had so much starch in them, they could literally stand up by themselves in the living room. I used to place them on the floor and and tell mom, “ Look, I’m the invisible kid!” She found it a little funny.
3- More Sterns
Back to the Sterns. So we were are all sitting in the pup tent and we started talking about what we think happens when you die. Stewart started telling me we become Angels; that we sprout wings and fly up to the sky and sit on a cloud. Robin was listening. I said, in perfect Wednesday Adams fashion, “Nope, that’s not it....when we die, we just die. We disappear. They bury us and we just fade away.”
Stewart looked at me with great fear in his little rat eyes and immediately took off to tell his mom what I said. He was always good for that, like clockwork. He returned shortly after to tell me his mother said I was wrong. I said, ”I’m not wrong. When you die, you just die and you go away..there’s nothing.”
I admit I didn’t even like saying that, but everything I heard at church wasn’t making sense to me. I wished it wasn’t so, but I had no other concept to go with that seemed logical.
Now, I may have been a little hard on Stewart. He was light haired with curls, always marching around with his big barrel chest pushed out, stomping here and there. But underneath all that, he was a wimpy little kid who, in my mind, never thought much past his next meal. Mom said he looked like a ferret. I didn’t really know what a ferret looked like, but I know the word seemed to fit his face. Robin, on the other hand, looked nothing like Stewart. She almost looked Asian to me. Maybe it was her straight, dark hair with fine features and light complexion. Can a pair of twins, or brother and sister, look so absolutely opposite? Apparently so.
Looking back on that now, Stewart DID look like a ferret. I happened to find a photo of him on facebook the other day and ... tragically, he STILL looks like a ferret.
Interesting what happens when you look back on episodes of your life and see all the things that stand out in your memory. And now, thanks to Facebook, you can accurately revisit everything you did, or thought at any given time. No guesswork there. They even make little videos and books for you to purchase and keep forever....all the things your kids kids will donate to Goodwill some day. And someone like me will run across them and think about how it must feel when some member of the family finds Grandma’s life in photos sitting in Goodwill in a book or on a mug.
I visit Goodwill from time to time and see all the random children and adults on photo mugs that are selling for a dollar on some shelf along side fifty other mugs, or glasses from the Hard Rock Cafe or the Rainforest Cafe somewhere in the world. Who would buy them? I suppose it would be like an adoption, or fostering, of sorts. Or fake proof that you have been around the world.
Anyway, someone like Steven can look back, thanks to facebook, and accurately see he hasn’t changed much at all. Facebook is great for all of that. He looks just as happy now as he always did.
I can’t tell you for sure what happens when we die, but I can tell you I prefer to think some part of us remains. I feel I have some proof that we continue in some form, but Angel wings and sitting on clouds just never made sense. Sorry Stewart.
Eventually, my friendship with the twins dwindled, and the simple fact they lived right next door wasn’t quite enough to keep them on my ‘Friends’ list. My memories of the Sterns have brought back yet more snip-it’s of those early days before we made that fateful trek across country in the summer of ’62. Although not always the best memories, they were still memories.
4- Different Friends
I came to find better friendships farther up the street with kids that were more fun, and to me, exciting. On one occasion after my friendship with the Sterns went sour, I was sitting on the back porch with a friend from up the street, eating watermelon and spitting the seeds onto the lawn. And then a police car pulled up to the front of the house. My friend and I were accused of spitting watermelon seeds into the Stern’s ‘property’.
We were still eating watermelon, and still on the porch when the police arrived. When we were approached, it was evident that this couldn’t possibly happen. And the Sterns had no seeds to show, either.
The distance from our porch to the Stern’s property measured 40’. And then they had hedges that separated us that stood at least 4’ high. Even the police looked at the situation and apologized and then left.
Understandably, the Sterns weren’t happy with us. Could this have been merely because I was no longer friends with the twins? Apparently it went further, I came to understand later.
So, mom randomly hung our clothes on the backyard clothesline, which had underwear facing their house, in our back yard. That, also, was also another official police call to the house that went sour. Mom, in retaliation, decided to pick a selection of underwear and let it hang on the clothesline facing their house all through Winter and well into Spring. It was a source of laughter for anyone who visited us. Seeing the frozen underwear hanging on the clothesline in a snowstorm was hilarious.
And now, years later, and with all the nitpicking harassment between the two families long ago, I thought it would be a good idea to contact Robin via Facebook and reach out with a truce and possible healing conversation between us.
Apparently my sister, at some point, had made contact and had conversation when the parents were still alive, with no apparent conclusion. But now so much water had gone under the bridge. I hoped to bring closure after so many years.
As I mentioned, Facebook is a wonderful source to find people from your past. I decided to look up some of the kids I spent the first eleven years of my life around. Surely enough years had gone down the line.
I messaged Robin, who had become a Dr. since those days. I felt that perhaps, being a professional would invite the opening of a door.
But no go. Her answer to me was that she was always afraid of my family. She felt it was traumatic living next to us. She said they lived in fear of my dad and my family in general. I understood this to a large degree, but it was now 40 years later or more and all those people had met their demise, one way or the other.
My answer to her was ,”Imagine what it was for me to live under his roof.” I explained that if she would like to talk, I would be more than willing, but if not, I would leave it at that and move on, if I heard no response.
No response ever came. I moved on.
Meg was a friend of mine in elementary school. We were in the same class a few years in a row until 5th grade. We were the best of friends. She had brothers and sisters and I always thought that because she was the oldest girl in her family, she had far too many chores after school. She looked like a ‘mom’ before her time.
Meg was smart, but embarrassed easily. She tested poorly in school because she froze when she was put on the spot to answer questions. I will always remember her face when she was called on in class. Her curly red hair stood straight out in all directions and her freckles seemed to pop out remarkably on her pale white face that blushed terribly.
But we were good friends. We always had lunch together and if we walked home to my house at lunch, mom made lunch for both of us. We hung out together and sometimes I would help her with her homework if we were going to have a test. I would see her freak out when the mimeographed tests were handed out and she glanced at the questions. I wasn’t very ‘hands up’ in class, but tests never bothered me. I think it was my opportunity to delve in and write essays and get creative.
When we left Yonkers, I didn’t get to say good-bye to anyone, and Meg knew nothing of the situation in my family. I understand she went to my house several times after we left, and no one answered.
Years later, I caught up with her. It was like we were never friends. She was so angry at me. She told me how she kept going to my house after I just ‘disappeared’ one day. I realized I was her best friend and I did disappear on her. But I was a child. And I wasn’t able to contact anyone after we left. We all just went into hiding, much like the witness protection program.
She never really responded.
Of all the people I remembered and contacted from my childhood, I can count on one hand and have fingers left over, of those who were willing to accept my apology and move on and keep in touch now. Usually it’s the ones who have grown to understand dysfunction and try to live above it, try to change it for themselves. They seem to understand so much more. We are the survivors.
6- The Blitz’s (weeping willow)
There was a house across the forsythia bushes that had probably twice the property that we did. My guess is that they built that house around the same time or just before my parents built ours. It was a red brick house, double storied, with green ivy growing from bottom to top in some places, and the rich color of the dark red brick and mortar always made me have a secret fascination for what the house looked like inside. I’m sure at some point, very early on, I might have ventured inside, as I have some recollection of a dark, rich, very peaceful feeling of a family that spent their days quietly maintaining the living quarters without much of a ruckus. Certainly not like what I was used to.
They had a good sized back yard of solid green grass framing possibly one of the largest weeping willow trees I had ever set eyes on. No one else in the area had a weeping willow. Mostly elms and maples and oaks, and birches, but no weeping willows. This particular tree was my favorite, and with comic books in tow, I would sneak through the forsythia to sit beneath it by myself when I suspected they weren’t home. For that duration, I felt I had jumped into a story book and expected some wonderful creatures to come out of the wild and talk to me. They didn’t, of course, and never-the-less, I was content to enjoy reading under that magnificent tree.
It was maybe about 1959 when the Blitz’s sold their house and that tree was cut down to the ground and two very boxy looking three story houses went up in its place. I watched from my side of the forsythias and tried to find a good reason to be ‘okay’ with this.
Her name was Jan, about my age, and I don’t remember that she had any siblings. She moved into one of those ‘box’ houses and I felt sorry for her having to leave the town she grew up in. The only place she ever knew, up to now. And now she had to start over with new friends, a new school, new everything, and be that new kid on the block. How long before she would become one of the gang? What was so important to her parents that they had to take her away from everything she knew?
I reached out to her and made friends. I had never experienced someone on a friend basis who had done something so bold as start a brand new life in a brand new place she had never been before. So I asked her one day, “ What is it like to move? Is it scary? It’s got to be. I don’t know how you get through that.”
She shrugged and said she didn’t really think much about it. I remember leaving that conversation in awe of her being all too okay with it. I suppose that she had no control in the situation, and maybe it was for a reason I would never know. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it. It would kill me.
Gone was my weeping willow, but my new friend lost everything, I kept thinking.
The Blitzes moved on. I don’t know where they went, but I wondered if they knew about what their beautiful, serene utopia had become. I checked now and then to see if the ivy was still on the side of their house. I wasn’t completely sure if they still lived there, perchance. One day it was gone. And so was a little part of my heart.
Perhaps that was a little hint to me that things change, and for no reason having to do with me, but for just the idea that nothing can be expected to last forever.
8- Yankees Fan
I wasn’t much into baseball, to tell you the truth. I liked to play with my friends, but I wasn’t into any teams in particular at the time. I knew there were Yankees and Dodgers and that’s about it.
A boy about my age moved into the other boxy-looking house and one day pushed through the forsythias, right by where the wild rhubarb grew, when his golf ball landed on our property. I happened to be right there and we struck up a conversation. He looked like a mini Arnold Palmer in golfing attire, and with golf club in hand, introduced himself. I’m not sure where he hailed from, probably the Bronx or Brooklyn, but one of the first questions he asked me was in a very serious tone, “ Are you a Yankee or Dodger fan?”.
I looked at him with a blank stare. That was never a consideration for me. I really didn’t know. I knew New York had two teams, but I didn’t know which one I would like better or why.
I didn’t want to sound stupid, so I answered with the name that sounded best. He was kind of intimidating to me. So I kept up...
“Yankees, what about you?”
“Dodgers. They are the best team in the world.”
I didn’t know if I made a mistake by saying Yankees, but I stuck with it. And as we all know, eventually the Dodgers left and went to LA.
He walked around all baseball season with a portable transistor radio glued to his ear while swinging a golf club now and then. I rode my bicycle and built a go cart, complete with an extra box in the back for my rabbits.
City mouse, country mouse.
Maybe he’s a Mets fan now.
I remained a Yankee fan all my life, and I really did come to love baseball.
He told me he played golf, and that his dad also played. I took a few swings with his club and decided it was not my kind of game. Golf was very foreign to me, except, maybe, the miniature golf place on Central Ave that l’d been to once or twice.
The neighborhood was changing and becoming more populated.
Summer, and one of the best memories was The Good Humor Man. Just after dinner, Herbie would cautiously drive the big white truck, open in the front with a series of bells aligned across the top of the windshield. He would pull on the cord that attached them as he entered our neighborhood and you could hear those bells ringing from a mile away. I could be in the bathroom, and if I heard the bells, I would stop everything, pull up my jeans and run like hell to catch Herbie. Running with every muscle in my body stretched to its max, I yelled ,”Herrrrrbie!! Waiiiiiitt!!” Sometimes I’d run so fast, I’d slip on the gravel in the road half way to the truck, pick myself up, and continue running. And there was Herbie, waiting. He always waited. My night was made. I made sure I was always the one that finished my ice cream last so everyone could see I was still enjoying mine.
I loved the little metal money clicker he had on his belt, used for making change. That, with his white suit and white hat, made him resemble a five-star Fleet Admiral in the Navy. And the fact he could reach in the little door on the truck and pick the exact kind of ice cream bar or cone you asked for on a first try, made me in awe of this magical pied piper who drove through our neighborhood every night, bringing delicious treats to all of us for ten cents. I can recall a few conversations about Herbie from back in the day. We wondered if he had a girlfriend, or how old he was, or if he was still in school. We never asked him, though, and if we did, he never answered. Herbie was some kind of a muse to all of us.
Another Ice Cream truck, with a brown shingled roof like a house, would occasionally meander through the neighborhood, ringing its bell in hopes a flock of children would gather to stop him and prefer his ice cream over Herbie’s. Bungalow Bar. Those bells fell silent in our neighborhood. We were very loyal to Herbie and instead would run out to sing,”Bungalow Bar, tastes like tar, the more you eat, the sicker you are”. So Bungalow Bar never really stuck in our neighborhood. Good Humor was the bomb.
And God Forbid Herbie didn’t make it one night and someone else showed up in his place, there were questions flying at this other guy as if he did Herbie in or something. We made it extremely clear that Herbie was to come back as soon as possible.
I often wonder if Herbie was his real name.
It wasn’t but maybe a year after Jan moved in that I would know exactly how it would feel to move somewhere completely different...to make new friends and try to fit in. Who knew this would be my fate over and over again for the next 2-3 years. It was crazy. Be careful what you don’t understand.
We were a family that had its moments. Every day. Every single day there was some war going on in the house, and although I grew to expect it, it threw the fear of God into me when dad was involved and got angry. A strong, generally quiet Dutchman with the accuracy of a sharpshooter. Wherever he aimed his fists, he never missed the target. I made damned sure not to be a target, but that sentiment didn’t resonate with my siblings, somehow.
Apparently my mom, too, was the target one too many times, and one sunny day in late Spring of ‘62, a fully packed brand new Rambler, Algier rose in color, appeared in front of my grammar school in early afternoon, packed to the gills with suitcases and a couple of little what-nots. Sister was propped in the front passenger seat with a tearful hankie in hand, while I climbed in the back, hugged my very nervous mom, and we were off, headed for the adventure of a lifetime.
Mom had given me the courtesy of asking if I would like to join her in this adventure well before hand. Like I would ever turn down the offer.
11- The Talk
It was just before dinner one evening, still living at the house that we spoke directly with each other, one on one. I was up in my bedroom when mom entered. She quietly sat me down and said she wanted to show me something. Slowly and silently, walking over to the bedroom wall, she faced it and dropped her slacks. She didn’t look back at me. She just faced the wall, afraid, I’m sure of my response. She was solid black and blue bruises all over her torso, and legs, where clothes normally covered her. In an instant I felt her pain, and my limbs throbbed. I had no clue how that could have happened to her.
For an instant, I couldn’t even venture a guess. I had not been aware of what took place when the house was quiet and the kids were asleep. But then it became apparent, and I feared the next few minutes as I sat shaking in my skin, in shock. All my fears had been realized at this moment and everything began making sense.
Why hadn’t I known about this? I never witnessed my dad hit my mom, ever. And that’s where the missing piece was. He was so violent with Brother and Sister, and not mom. Maybe he loved her so much and thought she was infallible. But they argued. Maybe I was just naive. Maybe I wasn’t aware of the old adage that if you see someone mistreating someone else, don’t be fooled, they will mistreat you as well.
She told me dad wasn’t a bad person, but he had an illness, and she was afraid he would really hurt us at some point. She said he was an alcoholic. She said he liked beer too much. Then I remembered how I would sometimes go with dad to pick up a case of Ballantine from a store in town once a week. He was really the only one who drank it, and so the weekends started a line of continual drinking from Friday to Saturday night. Whether he was working outside or sitting on the enclosed porch at night, staring out into the darkness, or watching TV, that can of beer was always near. He seemed to get quieter as the weekend progressed, a cigar in one hand, while sipping a can of beer with the other. Little did I know he was waiting for the kids to go to bed.
It was my understanding that alcoholics drank whiskey. Because that’s what they showed on TV. Mom explained that beer alcoholics are just as bad, mainly because no one suspects beer is that addicting, nor is it as strong. But drink enough, and a shot of whiskey can’t hold a match to it.
Mom told me she had been planning to leave dad for a long time, in fact, before I was born. But when I came along, she put it off until she felt I was ‘old enough’. That meant I held up the process for over 11 years. It also meant that I probably wasn’t the product of a consensual situation.
I imagine it would have been difficult to take a younger child with her and run the risk of legalities that would wind her up in jail. At least, at this point, I had full understanding of the issues. My loyalties never wavered. I had witnessed enough that I didn’t need to live the rest of my life with fear that mom or Sister or Brother would wind up front page news from one of dad’s anger-fests. At that point, I had been spared any beatings from dad. I was smart enough and saw enough to keep my distance and do as I was told.
Dad often would let loose his anger on my siblings for ‘talking back’ and fists, and anything else he had in his hands at the time, including hammers, would be used to pummel them until I thought they might not live through it. Watching the abuse on my siblings was heart breaking and frightening, and there was a real element of danger that began to ring out louder every day.
Kids don’t often know everything that goes on between adults, and most adults would rather have it that way. But I must tell you that kids also have a sixth sense and when the missing puzzle pieces are found, the world seems a bit more complete as a picture. Not terrifically nice, but more complete. It was time to grow up. Childhood was over. Not that it hadn’t been long before this, but now it was time to own it.
Mom asked if I wanted to join her on the ‘escape’, and without hesitation, I answered definitively, “Yes!” and hugged her. I will tell you I think mom was relieved. That had to be one of the hardest things to tell me. Oddly, I didn’t shed a tear. I think the shock was overwhelming.
Then mom said she had to go downstairs and finish dinner. It would be ready in a few minutes. I hugged her again, and sat for a few minutes to digest what had just happened. That was a lot to think about in a very short time before dinner. I can’t say I was surprised with anything that happened in our family. I may have been ‘unprepared’ for the complexity of life from there on in, but I was more than ready to leave. Those words were probably the most comforting part of the conversation….that we were ‘going to leave’.
When you suddenly find that things have been happening that you had no idea about, you become so stricken with a guilt that you hadn’t somehow been able to have stopped them. How could this have gone on for years, and I had no clue? I still can’t wrap my head around that. While it’s common to keep issues between adults private, I couldn’t believe I didn’t suspect THAT.
At the dinner table, trying to get excited about dinner, thoughts rang through my head at a raging speed. I was supposed to act normal. But this person who regularly pummeled my mom to such an extent that she had more black and blue on her body than not, was sitting to my right. I wasn’t really hungry at that point, and instead, I was trying to figure out how this exit was going to happen.
I remember being so engulfed with the new information and process that would soon take place, that I slipped for a moment and asked mom at the table about how something was going to play out. She looked up at me , I’m sure, with terror, and asked what I was talking about. Dad looked over at me with question as well.
Thinking as quickly as I could, realizing my predicament, I said, “Oh, never mind, I was just thinking about that last Lassie show and how they got that baby out of the hole it fell in.”
I knew Dad never watched Lassie, so he couldn’t know if I was making it up. I was generally one of those kids who could keep a secret until the cows came home. Admittedly, this was a mighty shock just before dinner. Everyone went back to eating and I was silent for the rest of the meal. And of course, I was expected to eat everything on my plate, as usual.
I began having nightmares about dad and wishing we could leave right away. I knew when the day came, I would be more than ready for it. I recall asking my mom on different occasions when we could leave. She assured me it would be soon.
12-Up On The Roof
One sunny day, sometime after our talk, Summer was just around the corner, and Sister was sunning on the garage roof. I had never been on the roof, and I thought, “What a great place to be,” and I began to climb up to join her. Sister started complaining for me to get off her roof. I really only wanted to sit and look out at the view. It was great looking out over things from that perspective. I wasn’t there to harass or make fun, or even acknowledge her, just to experience the view. But I was the little sister, and she was not my biggest fan.
Sister wouldn’t have it. She called for dad to make me get off the roof. Along came dad and sure enough, in perfect fashion, he told me to get off the roof. I asked him why I had to when Sister didn’t have to, like any red blooded sibling would ask. He had no answer, except to come down before he came up to get me down.
For the very first time in my life, I said, “No.”
I’m sure dad was as surprised as I was, and he went to grab a broom stick and ordered me down. At this point I began to be afraid. Sister just looked on, with some delight in her heart, I’m sure, that now I was going to finally get a beating like she regularly got. But I wasn’t having it.
Not only was I now aware of what he did to mom, but I was now aware that he might do the same to me. I had officially come of age. I was now in the category of Brother and Sister. I had stepped over the line. I had defied dad.
In this case I didn’t understand why I had to get off the roof when Sister could be up as long as she wished, with no coarse words or threats to her. It was at that point, right then and there, that I realized my relationship with dad had changed. I was fair game now. I stood up to him. I stood my ground. I think, at this point, he had gone way over the line with what I was willing to bow to. In my heart, I hated what he did to the family.
I don’t think most fathers would have done this, but he began to climb up to the roof, with stick in hand, and I ran up and over the other side and down off the roof. It wasn’t a game. No one was laughing. He did the same and ordered me to come over to him. I refused. I thought I’d be pretty stupid to listen to him with that broomstick in his hands.
So I started up the street as he disembarked from the garage roof. He turned, stepped into his car and chased me up the street and around the block. They were long blocks. I imagine the neighbors could see me running through the streets and dad driving after me. I took short cuts, and returned just before he did. I ran into the house, out of breath, to where mom stood in the utility room, doing washes. She was unaware of any of this. I ran into her and grabbed her and told her as best I could not to let him near me. I quickly gave her a synopsis of the prior 20 minutes through my panting, to catch my breath.
She looked up as dad entered the kitchen, making his way to the utility room. In a stern, daring voice, she turned to him before he got too close, and said, “Stop! Right there!” And he stood there with stick in hand and a fighting look on his face. He was angry, with full intent of beating me to a pulp. Mom knew it.
She looked him straight in the eye and said,”If you touch her, I will kill you.” Mom wasn’t one to mince words, or say anything that wasn’t so. He turned and left. And dad and I never had any relationship much at all after that..
I think mom knew it was just a matter of time before I became his punching bag. I watched him every minute I was around him. I no longer trusted him in any way. Silently, we knew we were no longer friends. Times I still went with him to get cigars at the candy store, he offered to buy me any candy I wanted, he told me to go pick some things. I declined the offer.
Oddly enough, sister could get beat within two inches of her life by him, and then she would still protect him, and feel he was in her corner. Until the day she passed on, she carried a torch for this man. She had a connection with him I will never understand.
One night, in early morning, as the sun was beginning to rise, mom crept quietly up the stairs into the room I shared with Sister, slipped in bed beside me and pulled the covers over herself. Not long after, dad followed. As he tiptoed into our room, I wrapped my arm over mom and held her. The Dutchman, quietly, so as not to wake my sister or me up, whispered to mom, “You think you’re safe here, don’t you”. Those words have haunted me my entire life.
I never spoke to mom about that. We left it alone. She knew I knew.
I continued to have nightmares several times after that. The idea that I might not have to live in a household that could turn very badly at any time made me anxious for that day to arrive soon. I knew there were guns in the house. I had dreams of crawling along the floor as people were shooting into the house through the windows. I plotted often to decide how I could dodge the bullets. And still other nighttime escapades in my dreams consisted of hiding behind furniture while more gunshots rang out throughout the house. I didn’t know why I dreamt of gunshots. It was much later that I would make the connection.
14- The Rabbits
As a kid in Yonkers, I was forever doing things. Never bored. I had rabbits and ducks and a raccoon, a skunk, and even a talking crow we inherited from a friend of my brother’s. Life was like living on a farm. I loved animals. They were my world, my escape from people. If I wasn’t to be found under the weeping willow, you could find me sitting in the rabbits’ run, stocked nicely with hay from one end to the other. Every morning before school, my chores included feeding the rabbits and any other of our pets, and changing the hay every few days.
Thursday was grocery night. Mom and I would go to the local A&P and do the weekly grocery shopping. I always looked forward to seeing the produce man. He was an Irishman with a thick brogue and clear blue eyes, surrounded by very dark lashes, and dark hair, greased back like they did in those days. Always with a big smile, he would greet us and load the box of veggies under our cart for the rabbits before we began shopping. He explained that he would be tossing them out anyway. Many of the veggies were still in excellent shape, and we wondered if he was just adding them as a courtesy for the pets. Or us. I would lie if I said we never went through the box and picked out some good looking veggies for us to eat. I can’t recall his name. I wish I could. I used to call him by his first name, but for the life of me, it escapes me now.
I couldn’t fully enjoy the shopping night without a trip to the candy store. The candy store was just a couple of doors down and I could spend my quarter allowance on all the fine choices of candy the store displayed at the register. Candy bars of every kind you could imagine. It was called a news shop, because they sold newspapers and magazines, and had a fountain, but my interest was mainly the candy. Mom hated the smell of Adams Grape gum, but I loved the taste. I figured there were plenty of other options, so I never bought it. Only now might I even entertain chewing grape gum.
Sometimes, if I was lucky, my mom would pick up a bag of red licorice Twizzlers in the A&P and we would devour it on the way home. I think we were the only ones in the family who liked those things. Those and Circus Peanuts. Circus Peanuts were those orange colored marshmallow candies that were in the shape of peanuts. They tasted like bananas, and I loved those things to death.
We had a simple rule in our house growing up. Eat everything on your plate. “Kids are starving in China and would love to have your meal.” My answer was always that we should indeed send my plate to someone in China, then. I often found myself sitting at the table in a darkened dining room by myself with a plate of food in front of me until it was empty. Every now and then someone would pass by on the way to another room, and say, “The cow’s tail… Wag, Wag, Wag…” meaning I was the last one to finish dinner. Sometimes I would slip food into my pockets and then ask to use the bathroom and then empty out my pockets. That worked only a few times.
I made myself a promise not to make my kids, should I ever have any, eat everything on their plate, or make them eat anything on their plate that they simply didn’t like. I kept that promise, and my kids grew up healthy and happier, and I’m sure the kids in China are still are starving.
It is my belief that we know what is good for us, and what isn’t. Later on in my life, I came to understand that most of what I didn’t like as a kid, wasn’t good for my particular Lupus condition. As I got older, some foods seemed to attract me more. But now that I am older, too, I never eat anything I don’t like. I don’t care where I am or who cooks it, if I don’t like it, I don’t eat it. I make sure the cook is not to be blamed.
Some people live to eat. I eat to live. There are other things far more exciting in life than food to me. I am hypoglycemic, so I must eat. It sometimes becomes a pain in the neck, and often I eat the wrong things when my blood sugar drops. It’s a vicious cycle.
My family loved pastrami. On any given weekend night, it wasn’t unusual for my parents to order Deli sandwiches to go from the local Andy-Delica-Dandy up the road. They were thick with meat (pastrami and /or roast beef), sandwiched between pure, wonderful, fresh bakery Jewish Rye bread. In order for me to eat pastrami, mom had to tell me it was ham. So I took a bite, and it was the strangest tasting ham I ever had. I was sure to mention to her never to get that for me again.
She used to fry up breaded pork chops and call them veal cutlets. So I told everyone I loved veal cutlets. Meanwhile, evidently, I have never actually eaten a veal cutlet in my life. I’m perfectly fine with that.
One night, many years later, mom and I went to a steakhouse for dinner in Yonkers. I was visiting her for the weekend at her apt in Yonkers, while I had already moved up to Woodstock. We had steak and a baked potato, along with all you can eat shrimp. We were served our baked potato and steak, and then went up to serve ourselves shrimp at the salad bar. I usually eat one item at a time, so when I was done with the steak, I went up for shrimp, keeping the potato for last. I love baked potatoes and truthfully was just getting the steak and a few pieces of shrimp out of the way. When I finally dug into the big baked potato. It tasted weird to me.
Now I know that sometimes eating one food can make the next bite of another food taste a little different. On the second bite of the baked potato, it was STILL ‘off’. I couldn’t tell you what it tasted like, but it was ‘different’ and not a good mix with the shrimp, I thought.
Finally after a few bites and no change in taste, I offered a bite of the potato to mom, who was seated across from me. As soon as she put it in her mouth, she literally spit it out into her plate, saying,”That tastes like shit!” I’m so sure her voice traveled across a few nearby tables.
I personally didn’t know what shit tasted like, but when I thought about it, yes, that’s what I would have thought it might have tasted like. Mom began elaborating on it, saying it was a bad potato, and then I started to feel sick and ran to the bathroom where I threw it all up and then dry heaved for about 15 more minutes. I wound up heaving so violently, that I strained the muscles in my neck and got violently ill for a couple of weeks.
Yet a few years later, while I was living in Los Angeles, and Mom was visiting, Benji, Mom and I went to a Chinese restaurant in Hollywood. Those crunchy noodles they serve you at the beginning of the meal in a cute little bowl are some of my favorite things to munch on. Benji too. We finished one bowl and asked for another before our actual order arrived. But mom wasn’t having any. Finally we asked her why she wasn’t joining us with the noodles. She said “No, thank you,” that they were rancid. We both looked at her and asked why she didn’t mention it and she said, “It looked like you were enjoying yourselves, so I just let you eat them.”
This was Mom. She wasn’t a big talker, and she didn’t get involved in gossip or stupid conversation. She loved a good laugh, and found amusement in people. Brilliant as she was, she also had a dry sense of humor. She loved putting people on, and if they tried to take advantage of her, she was always five steps ahead of them. Her words were always deliberate and quick. And you had to be ‘good’ to keep up with her. She could tell a joke with the best of them, and keep a straight face.
16- At ‘The House’/ Ginger and Flower
Ginger was a combination Springer Spaniel and Golden Retriever. He was the color of an Irish setter, but a bit smaller. He was my best friend. He came to us from the Local ASPCA as a puppy, and was almost a year younger than me.
One of my other chores before school, in addition to feeding the rabbits and whatever other critters we had, was walking Ginger up and down the block to do ‘his business’.
When we left Yonkers, Ginger and the rabbits were what I missed most of all of the pets we had. Our skunk, Flower, had been given to a man in White Plains who really wanted a skunk. They make good pets, and Flower was already de-scented. I would be able to go visit him as often as I liked. Flower needed more attention than he was eventually getting at our house.
Flower came to us one day when Brother arrived home on his new pink Harley, with black saddlebags. A family of skunks had been crossing the road in the Grassy Sprain area, when the mom was run over, along with all but one of her babies. This one was spared, so Brother picked him up and brought him home to add to our menagerie. Flower had unusual markings, as the only white fur went across his head, like a crown. No stripes at all.
We fed him with a doll’s bottle and nursed him to be healthy and happy. We had him ‘de-scented’ after a small realization one day as he sat in my shoulder. One of the neighborhood kids startled Flower, and lo and behold, he backed himself up to my neck and spread the news! He had become of age!
Mom thought the fact that we nursed Flower as an infant was news worthy, so a man from the Herald Statesman came out to photograph me feeding the young skunk with the doll’s bottle in our livingroom, and did a nice little editorial on Flower.
It wasn’t but a few hours after the story broke that one of our neighbors called the game warden and complained that we were harboring a wild animal. A phone call from the warden told us to make a place for Flower out in the yard so he could see where he resided in the wild.
So mom diligently created a nice little crèche for Flower, and when the game warden arrived, he was more than pleased and left, apologizing for the visit. Our neighbors were just pains in the ass. And every one in the police dept and any other dept knew it. By this time, they all knew us as well. On a first name basis.
I inquired about Ginger when we caught up with Brother much later on in ‘62, about eight months after our departure from Yonkers. Brother had made some trips up North during the time we were in Nevada, so as to keep us ‘up’ on the status of things.
Brother responded with a smirk that Ginger was sent to the farm. For a short while, I really thought he did go to a farm, as that would be sad, but I could deal with it. When I came to understand what that term meant, I was devastated. Even more sad was that no one else seemed to care. And Brother could smirk about it. In time to come, I would witness Brother shoot his dog in cold blood because he came home to find he peed on the kitchen floor. The two things I took away from that: Never pee on Brother’s kitchen floor, and Brother should never have dogs.
17-Ginger in Yonkers
Back in Yonkers, my Ginger was special. He came up to sleep in my bed every night. I would call him, ‘Giiiiiiiiiiiinnnnn-gerrrrrr’, much like in ‘Lasssssiiiieeee’ and he would come running up the wooden stairs like a horse, and jump on my bed. Then he had to listen to me sing a gamut of songs at the top of my lungs before I tired myself out and drifted to sleep.
On Saturday mornings we had a ritual. I was up at 7 a.m. and Ginger and I would go down stairs, grab a stack of Oreos, and sit down on the couch to watch The Modern Farmer and Fury and Sky King. I loved The Modern Farmer because I got to see how everything was made, like wheat being reaped and milk getting bottled.. from cow to table. I just loved it.
Fury was my ‘get away’ program. I wanted to live on a ranch like Joey did and have a horse like Fury that loved him. I wanted the cowboy lifestyle. It just looked like he had everything. He had a father that was super cool and good looking, but he didn’t have a mom. That’s the one thing he didn’t have. I would have to have a mom.
So, I would start my shows, find my corner on the couch, and open the Oreos. I’d twist off the top of the cookie and give it to Ginger. Then I’d scrape the center filling with my teeth and munch on that. Then the other side of the cookie would go to...you guessed it, Ginger. We would polish off a good many by the time my shows were finished.
18-Ginger ’s Trick
Ginger had this little trick he would perform for guests when they came to visit. I would be making the hors d’oeuvres in the kitchen for our visitors, and ultimately, Ginger would be showing off his trick. When I walked into the room with my tray of snacks of Ritz crackers and whipped cheese, there was Ginger, hugging some guest’s leg and having his way with it. The guest, feeling a bit uncomfortable, was usually shaking his leg to rid Ginger of the leg lock, while the rest of the guests were enjoying Ginger’s abilities, watching and smiling to themselves.
When I thought Ginger was making the guest a little too uncomfortable, I’d assure them, “Oh, it’s okay, Ginger is just being friendly! He does that all the time!”, while dislodging him from the guest’s leg.
I had asked mom one time why Ginger did that and she said he was just being friendly, so I took that as ‘word. “Ginger is just being friendly”, I would always say.
Ginger howled when I sang his name ever so softly. It was like we were singing together. We harmonized for as long as I wanted to sing. Usually that was until mom said to “Stop, already”.
When I would dress him in my clothes, his tail would create a big lump in the back of my jeans. He would manage his way down stairs from my bedroom sometimes missing a few steps, but usually pretty sure footed. He was a trooper. Sometimes I’d dressed him like he was my horse. I’d outfit him in my special gold holsters as his saddle, and make a rope bridle and reins . He was my ‘hoss’ and I’d lead him around the yard like that.
19- Nutzy ( Nootsee)
Nutsy magically arrived one day while on our journey. I now had no dog, no rabbits, no skunk, no fish, no nothing for a while, and quite frankly, I was lonely. But suddenly, now I had a cat. Nutzy must have been 6 weeks old at best and was orange striped with blue eyes. Her eyes eventually turned golden, and she never grew to be very big. And she was finicky. I wanted a dog badly, but it seems it wasn’t in the plan. Cats were easier to care for, and I guess she would do.
But she wasn’t Ginger. She didn’t appreciate my creativity like Ginger did. And she peed on almost everything that belonged to me. She was never fixed, and so when she was in heat, she was particularly annoying. There was nothing off limits to Nutzy, and my high school graduation certificate is stained with the remnants of once being soaked with ‘Nutzy pee’. So if anyone ever asks to see it, to make sure I graduated, they are in for a treat. I can take it out of the zipped up plastic bag anytime. So far no one has ever asked.
She was a ‘one person’ cat and loved Mom. And she peed on her things too, so at least she didn’t show favoritism in that way. She used to sit on the window sill and chatter at the birds she couldn’t catch outside. I decided to use her to model my new Cat Line of fashion creations and she would run like hell away from me on a regular basis.
Mom bought a portable sewing machine along the way and I was allowed to use it. I learned to sew long before most kids, watching mom create my skirts for school when I was quite young.
I sewed Nutzy an entire wardrobe and created Commercial Ads for every outfit, in case anyone wanted to buy them (?), I guess. All fashions were created from cloth scraps, dish towels and old shorts I no longer wore. And plastic bags. Each item was carefully crafted and meticulously fitted especially for Nutzy, who chattered away while I captured her each time for a fitting. She never bit me, so I guess she found some sort of enjoyment in my efforts.
She had a raincoat made of blue poplin, with clear plastic bagging sewed to the outside. I drew different rainy day images with a ballpoint pen throughout the inside of the coat. It was like the slickers we had as small children. It had red naugahyde pockets on the outside with a red Naugahyde rain hat, shaped like a Chinese rice field hat, complete with an elastic chin strap. Much like the pet wear you see these days, with the design of double sided tabs with buttons to secure the garment underneath Nutzy’s stomach. I have to admit it was novel for the time!
She didn’t much care for the Naugahyde rain boots. She flicked them off in two seconds flat. So, I designed boots that had a shoelace that ran from one boot on one side, up and across the cat’s back, and down to the boot on the other side. This didn’t work either, so I scrapped the boot idea.
Another, was a winter coat I quilted and made with plaid wool pieces, and lined in satin fabric. Her nightgown was made from a cotton dish towel, and included was a night cap, too, with a tassel at the end of it, and elastic for a chin strap. I kept her garments in a nice little pink zip-up overnight bag decorated with flowers and two handles.
God, Nutzy just hated me. She would run like hell when she saw me getting close to her. She hated trying things on. Not at all like Ginger. He would have loved all of it.
She was also the first cat I ever had. We had ducks and birds and raccoons and opossums and hamsters and turtles and frogs and fish and rabbits and even Flower, the skunk, not to mention a talking crow! But we never had a cat. Brother hated cats for some reason, so they wouldn’t have been a good thing to have, at all.
Whenever Brother visited us, Nutzy was greeted with a big long spin on the floor, that caused her to walk into walls when he finished. She hissed and spit at him each time she saw him. I recall her being perched atop the refrigerator in the kitchen to get a good bird’s eye view of where Brother was at every moment while he visited.
Nutzy was finicky with food. But Ginger ate anything. Dad would sit down and share a full box of Whitman’s chocolates with Ginger on any given night. Come to find out much later that dogs aren’t supposed to have chocolate because it can kill them, but Ginger never wavered. He was the best. Super Dog!
Nutzy, the best dressed cat in the world, traveled state to state and even went on vacations much later, finding solace in the back window of the car. She was good with traveling, unless she was in heat. That was unfortunate, because, as it turned out, we did an awful lot of traveling. By the time mom decided she should have been spayed, Nutzy was too old and had already peed on just about everything we owned anyway. She lived until 14 years old.
I would eventually come to love cats, when I had some of my own. They WERE easy to care for and mine were not finicky, and they loved people. And they also got spayed and neutered. Big difference there.
20- Commercial Kate
I liked TV, with all the sitcoms, and still in black and white. I would learn all the theme songs, and Ads, and sing them over and over, so that mom nicknamed me Commercial Kate. I always loved tape recorders also. When on the road, I didn’t have the luxury of playing with Brother’s big reel-to-reel. He had a Webcor full sized reel-to-reel, the same machine we recorded Christmas Carols on for our Christmas display outside the house.
So, for my 13th birthday, I got a mini reel-to-reel tape recorder and took care of it like it was gold. But the microphones were always breaking, and to replace them would cost over a dollar. So I taped them together over and over until they finally just fell apart. They were traditionally cheap little devices that were made with a hot needle, as mom would say. Planned obsolescence. But the machine itself worked forever. I cleaned it with alcohol and q-tips regularly, to make sure it stayed in tip-top shape.
I created commercials for the clothes that I created for Nutzy, giving the origin and material, benefits of the item and explanation of the design. No audience, just me and the cat. Occasionally I would rope mom into listening. I often wondered if she thought I was a little ‘off’. I’m so sure there was something a little ‘creative’ about me.
I knew every commercial and every theme song on TV. I could break into the tune of any jingle, or a theme song, from Paladin all the way to The Beverly Hillbillies. I’m not saying I sounded good, but I was accurate. When I played back the tape of my singing, I couldn’t believe my own ears. If you ever want to humble yourself in two seconds, just listen to your voice played back on a cheap recorder. Actually, ANY recorder, in my case. With all that I did, I never recorded my mom’s voice. I don’t have any recording whatsoever of her. Videos were non existent, and 8mm film was silent.. I strongly advise everyone to get recordings of your loved one’s voices. When they are no longer here, you will want to hear them again at some point. I even record conversations at the table between family, friends, and relatives now with my phone. I know how important it can be.
My love of Advertising never wavered from those days of Ginger and Nutzy, and as luck would have it, I found myself working at McCann-Erickson in Los Angeles in time to come. However, not part of the creative team, I was a production manager. When mom visited, she commented that no one in our family had ever made the salary I was making. That was a proud moment for me.
I would eventually land a job later that had everything to do with what I loved about merchandising and advertising. It was JW Robinson’s in Los Angeles, and I worked in Advertising, creating special projects for photo shoots, packaging, direct mail pieces, special functions. It was an excellent job. I kept it for nine years and then moved on when I had my two young daughters that I wanted to spend my time with. Besides, May Company had taken over Robinsons, and wasn’t so much fun or creative any longer. That just accelerated the changes I wanted to make.
I really didn’t want to leave the job of bringing up my kids to some stranger. I wanted to be there for them. I wanted to watch them grow and be involved with their lives. Having them was a decision, not a result. I was responsible for them. And I wanted the chance to do it my way. So I had to figure a way to continue with an income and be able to stay home and focused.