SOMETIMES (part 6 of 8)
A memoir of a kid who changed the way the world was pushing her
101-I am W-O-M-A-N
We rolled into town and took an upstairs apt in a house on Tillman street. The owners lived downstairs and there was an inside stairway that separated the two living quarters between the two floors. It was a nice one bedroom apt, with a folding bed set up in the living room for me. I had to make my bed every morning before I left the room, a practice that I keep to this day.
There was a candy store diagonally across the street. It was one you could swear jumped out of an old time movie. Located on a corner, you walked up the steps into a small shop with wood floors and big canisters of loose candy lining the front counter and back wall. Candy was a penny a piece, and some, two for a penny. I saw all the candy ever made, I think, and got to know the shopkeeper very well. I was a candy-aholic and spent every last penny of my dollar allowance on candy every week. And the best part was how close we were to that store!
Nature came to call during the time we lived there. I was 12 and started my period. Let me tell you how difficult it is to try and tell your mother that you know all about it when she fully expects you don’t. I was concerned that if I professed to know anything about it, she might feel useless and on some level feel I had gotten my information from some outside source that wasn’t legitimate. I also worried that she might judge my friends about our conversations.
I called her into the bathroom and made out like I was surprised and then proceeded to go through the steps of how to handle everything along with her. Then she found a little pamphlet and gave it to me, explaining all about what was happening. She also told me I had to start slowing down a bit and not be so ‘active’.
“Where was Sister when I really needed her? Off in North-God-Damed-Carolina someplace!” It would have been nice to have my sister there to be ‘a sister’, and avert all this embarrassing stuff.
The little things that I now had to do, including everything else we were dealing with, didn’t make life or myself in general, feel very attractive. What do you do when someone hands you a twin-sized mattress to tie up between your legs because that’s what they used for patients in the hospital? You wonder how on earth you might ever be lucky enough for someone not to notice it, when you are wearing your jeans.
Plus, let’s not forget the hospital grade sanitary belt that made you feel like you were wearing a jock strap that is holding that mattress in place. Nothing has to be attractive when you are wearing a hospital gown and laying under blankets and sheets all day, but 12 years old and trying to be somewhat hip..WTF??!!
And now, when I had to change that pad, I had to roll it in the supplied newspaper sheets in the bathroom, and then march it out to the kitchen trash, regardless of who might be sitting at the table visiting and having coffee. If I ever thought visiting my Aunt and Uncle could be remotely embarrassing, this took the cake.
I believe I began streamlining the pads, eventually, with scissors so that they fit the contour of my body a little better.
Then, the next step was a bra. There was no way on earth I needed one. In fact, there was no way I needed one until I was 33 years old, after giving birth to my first child. Mom fitted me at the local five and dime in the middle of the store with a sales person to help. After publicly determining I needed a 32 AA, Mom made me wear it everywhere we went.
And it was one of those bras that was all cotton, and had that Madonna ‘bullet’ front on it, which was futile for my body to be expected to fill it. So, the end of bra always looked like my nipples were shriveled up and punched in like a head-on collision. I remedied that with a needle and thread. I simply flopped down the extra fabric and sewed it to the rest of the bra. When Mom saw it in the wash at the neighborhood laundromat, she held it up in the air and asked,”What the hell is this?” Crawl under the table much?
The fact that I used black thread because that’s all I could find, might have specifically drawn her attention to it. Needless to say that when the 60’s progressed and the natural look was ‘in’, I went braless, like everyone else.
102- Allentown-Oh Brother!
Not long after we had settled in that apt, brother showed up late one night while I was asleep. Mom still kept in touch with her good friend so Brother would be able to find us at any time.
I heard the ruckus in the kitchen and walked out in jammies to see my brother standing in the kitchen with two women who looked exactly alike. One of them was his new wife. The other was his wife’s identical twin!
What a night that was! We all enjoyed the visit and they took a room for the night , and returned the next day to visit for the day. I cannot recall them spending the night at our apt. Brother met his wife in NY shortly after he left North Carolina, and three weeks later they were married.
And nine months later to the day, they had their first child. They eventually had 4 children, one right after the other, with a gap between two and three, due to a miscarriage.
Sister had gone back home by this time to live with dad. She left North Carolina and decided she wanted to be with dad after all. He bought her something she always drooled to have, a T-Bird, and most anything else she asked for, as well as some things she didn’t ask for. After a night of heavy drinking, he beat her to a pulp making her afraid for her life. Shocker.
Brother went to rescue her and she began living with him for a while, until things went south there, too. Dad set the house on fire sometime after and still lived to tell. It only went as far as the kitchen, luckily enough, before it was extinguished. All damages could be repaired.
Not long after the visit in Allentown, Brother showed up again at our apt and announced that dad had found out where we lived, and was on his way. We packed up in no time flat, carrying newer Apple boxes of everything we owned downstairs and into the little trailer we made. We slept in the car behind a gas station one night, and then in the car at a bus station the next. Fearing for our lives, we really didn’t know where the next stop would be.
It didn’t dawn on me then, but it was somewhat a mystery how dad would get this information about us. Only a choice few had any idea where we might be living, and Brother was the only one who actually went to visit dad to ‘check on him’. As I am writing this, I am somewhat suspect of Brother.
We spent a night or two sleeping in the car until we found another place on Penn Street, the top floor of one of the old brick row houses that Allentown was so famous for. Carrying everything up to the third floor was work, but luckily there was no furniture to haul. Another furnished apt, this one was older. I noticed the paint and wallpaper was so thick on the walls, that wherever it chipped off, it left a good sized deficit in the wall.
Dad’s attempts were averted and now we felt somewhat safe once again.
We made friends with the people who lived below us and for the first time in a long time, I had friends in a neighborhood. We played in the alleyway and one girl played the accordion and I enjoyed watching that. Whenever music came into play, I was drawn like a moth to a light bulb.
105- Hold My Hand
I went to Harrison Morton Jr. High School for my 7th year in Allentown, and again, tested high, and went into that class. My home room teacher was also my Math teacher who looked an awful lot like Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies. Generally good in Math, I watched intently how Miss Peters did her calculations, and my brain picked it up differently, apparently. After a big test, she called me to her desk after class and said she had no idea how I arrived at my answers, and after looking at my calculations, she was lost. I explained my method and she said although it was crucial to explain my steps, she couldn’t fail me just because she didn’t understand my calculations, so I was given the benefit of the doubt.
That was the same year President Kennedy was shot. I was in Science class, a class I thoroughly enjoyed, when my teacher was called out of the room for a short time and returned crying. She labored with telling us the news. We were all stunned and I suddenly felt very insecure. I believe we were let go early that day and we all walked home somewhat unsure of what tomorrow would be like.
The assassination took up a good deal of the media for the next few weeks, and America seemed to be a very different place now. The only assassination we could relate to was Abraham Lincoln, which seemed like it was a time in our history when this sort of thing was much more likely to happen. But this was the 20th century and most people I knew loved our President. What a strange, uncomfortable time in history for us.
Three months later, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show! The US was ready for it. Music began to change drastically, and suddenly I wanted more than ever to be a part of it. The sounds were fresh and exciting, and I liked the new look of America. I had other things on my mind. I no longer had access to a victrola, so records were of no use, everything we owned was in apple boxes and we were more concerned with remaining invisible. The invasion of British music had to wait.
I kept running stories in my mind. I would ‘tune in’ every night before going to sleep and think about where I was in this fictitious world I created for myself ... this movie I was writing...this soap opera. It took me away from being an adult for a short while with opportunity to be anyone I wanted to be. It didn’t include danger or pain or monsters who created fear. It was safe and fun and loving and and I was beautiful and happy. And it was anything I wanted it to be.
Forever being a Polyanna, I searched for the best things in life. I took a bad situation and made it an adventure, like in the movies, where the underdog won. Still in my cocoon, I longed to be a butterfly some day. To this day, I still love movies with happy endings.
One warm summer night while sleeping in the living room with the windows open, I woke up to a neighbor screaming at a man who was evidently drunk, walking up to her door. She came out yelling and screaming at him to ‘go home!’ and he eventually left her yard... and came over to ours!
Now with all the info brother was giving us, it wouldn’t be beyond possibility that it was Dad, coming for us. I stayed awake to listen to what would be the next move, my ear stuck to the window screen. Suddenly, I began hearing footsteps coming up the back steps to our door. Being pitch black outside, I couldn’t see who it was. But the steps were getting closer and closer to our third floor apartment and I jumped out of bed and ran to my mom. I tried to scream the words out of my mouth, but I suddenly had no voice box! No matter how I tried, no voice came out, and finally managed a few key words like “Dad!” “Stairs!” “Now!”
Mom woke up with a start!
With all this, suddenly the fear of death and the commotion that would ensue, and the ugly scene in general that would take place, put a feeling into my brain that I wouldn’t soon forget. I had no idea that fear could take my voice away….Literally, not being able to utter a word was so far from what I would have ever guessed as a reaction. This was going to be the night I lost my mom, I said to myself…. my only strength I had in the world. My life, as I knew it would end in death or severe loneliness in a place I wasn’t prepared to be ‘okay ‘ with.
Mom jumped out of bed, pulling a hand gun out from under her pillow…What??!?! I never knew that she EVER had a gun, or where it came from… Nothing!
We went to the kitchen to listen for the steps. They continued and she cocked the gun and pointed it at the stairway. I was imagining what this night was going to end like and it wouldn’t be pretty. Someone was going to die and I wasn’t sure who. I had my druthers, personally.
My heart was racing and my voice was gone! Suddenly, as if by magic, the footsteps stopped as they entered the third floor stairs, and then started back down to the street again. And never returned.
I can’t tell you if it was Dad or if it was just a local drunk from a night at the bar. I never knew. But I did, now, understand the feeling of real fear.
I was to have nightmares behind that night. One such nightmare was my dad coming at me with a lit match, telling me he was going to burn my eyes out. Not a fun time.
107- Christmas 1963
We had our next Christmas at that apt, and this time we purchased a cardboard fireplace you could put together and pretend it was a real one. Fake cardboard flames were better than nothing at all. And once again, we had a real tree.
There wasn’t much in the way of artificial trees back in the day, unless you wanted a silver one with rainbow colored lights that reflected off the branches from the treestand below. There was a ‘color wheel’ with transparent plastic ‘windows’ of color that rotated above a lightbulb located at the base of the tree. As the wheel of color rotated, the light below it sent an array of changing colors up through the silver branches, reflecting to create a rainbow of changing colors in the tree. Pretty snazzy, but not very traditional or a very good replacement for a real tree.
‘Bottle Brush’ artificial trees were mostly popular for artificial trees. They were made of branches that were green and resembled bottle brushes, used for cleaning ....bottles. Again, they served well for a tree that wouldn’t dry out or lose needles, but there was no fragrance and they really didn’t look like any evergreen tree I had ever seen. You could hang almost any ornament from their branches, regardless of weight or size. The branches were sturdy and could be ‘arranged’ in any position imaginable. Department stores were famous for using these trees for display.
The music, the decorations, the signage, and then Santa himself had a spot somewhere grand, and parents were as excited for their children to see Santa as the children were. Honestly, many children found it uncomfortable to sit on the lap of some enormous sized stranger they didn’t know, who was dressed funny, with a long white beard, and who wanted to know your name and your secret desires. And your mom thought it was ‘Okay’. Photos of crying children on Santa’s lap weren’t uncommon. But in theory, the illusion was great. He came from the North Pole to let children meet with him before he visited their homes on Christmas Eve. The fallacy was that there was a Santa in every store, and they all looked a little different. So the explanation came that they weren’t the real Santa, they were Santa’s helpers.
108- Yes, Virginia
One of the very hardest days for me as an adult was telling my first born that Santa wasn’t real. She was almost 10 years old, and apparently we kept the magic alive very well. My husband dressed up as Santa each year and visited them each Christmas Eve while they were asleep in their beds. I followed with a video camera and the Magic became Real.
One day she came home from school, telling me she had an argument with a fellow classmate at school about Santa. She said he didn’t believe in Santa. She argued that he WAS real. Then she asked me,”He is real, right mom?”
I was washing dishes at the time and I stopped. My heart broke. I hadn’t realized or even thought about the idea that she might still ‘believe’. Kudos to us for being good with creating the ‘Magic.’ But now she was in a spot.
I looked at her and said, “Well, Santa is real. He is in our hearts, though, and in our dreams and we love to celebrate him.”
She looked at me with wide eyes, realizing the bare truth, and in the most horrifying voice, with tears streaming down her face, she announced to me, “You liiiiiieeeeed tooooo meeeee!”
Oh shit! What did I do? She would never forgive me. I never lied to my kids. I felt about two inches tall. I wished I had said something to her well before this, but it was now too late and I had just crushed her faith in Santa ...and Me! I tried to console her and make it okay to believe in the spirit of Santa. I told her to go back to that boy and tell him what I told her. This way she wouldn’t feel so bad, and would save face. We still talk about that moment and laugh, but in some way, back then, it was truly traumatic for her.
Two kids in one family can be so different from each other. My younger daughter was about six years old when Santa visited her, too, on Christmas Eve, like always. My husband had dark hair and although we were most careful with the wig and beard, buying the best one we could from Hollywood Costume, sometimes his hair would show through with hints of dark curls in the back, just around the collar of the suit. But it was never that noticeable. Except it was, apparently, this one night. As Santa reached into his bag to give her a toy penguin to cuddle with, she spied a lock of dark hair emerging in the back by his collar. You can see the moment in the video when she sees it. Her young brain went into high gear and everything became clear.
We never spoke about it until she was a bit older. I could tell she didn’t ‘buy’ the story any longer. I didn’t push it. We’ve gone over that video a few times since then, and it is one of the funnier and telling instances that let us know not much ever gets by her. Kids are the most wondrous beings in the world.
109- Christmas 1963, Continued
After Christmas, mom and I went shopping at the stores for ornaments that they would be selling at a severe discounts after the Holiday. We picked up mercury glass ornaments made in Poland. Many of them. It was a beautiful time and when I felt the most joy. I have a special place in my heart for mercury glass ornaments. I can still see the mounds of boxed ornaments stacked in every which-way on all the tables. I still have many of them.
Mom and I were grabbing boxes and checking to see if everything was in good shape, like eggs at the market. Other tables had other styles of decorations, and we rummaged through them as well, to find the perfect pieces. Mercury glass horns that made noise, wired felt soldiers that could be somewhat posed if you liked, and other mercury glass ornaments that were round with pointed ends. The hand painting on each was exquisite, and I studied them to see how they might have been painted. The simple round glass ornaments were beautiful colors, and only $.79 a box, regular price. I still have some of the boxes and ornaments.
Christmas was a time when people seemed nicer and I loved decorating the tree. By this time, the magic of Santa bringing the tree on Christmas Eve had passed and I was now instrumental in helping to decorate it. Mom said tinsel had to go on one strand at a time or it would look lumpy and messy. I had a hard time adhering to that theory. I make somewhat of a joke of it these days, telling my own kids the same thing. but I half mean it.
The soft warm glow of the lights from the tree in those days on the road were so soothing to my psyche, and the way the room looked was magical. Unlike years before, I could now sit and enjoy the room forever at night time. My bedroom had consisted of a folding bed or a convertible couch in the living room since our apartment in Boulder City.
110- More Christmas Memories
The tree traditionally never went up three or four days before Christmas in Yonkers. Instead, it went up on Christmas Eve, and down just after New Year’s. It was magical. When I came home from school after our first day back after Christmas vacation, there would be no sign of a tree ever having been in the house. All my younger life it was like that. “Santa stopped by and took it away”, was the explanation.
Christmas as a small child was pretty magical. At least I thought it was. When I was questioning if Santa was real or not, and thankfully now, sister didn’t hesitate to tell me that Tommy believed and so that cinched it. I never actually asked Tommy, but because my sister thought to tell me, it must have been true. So that was handled. I’m sure Sister would have ‘caught it’ if she ever said otherwise.
Mom and Dad generally could be found working on some sort of Christmas project as a decoration for our front lawn each year. There was the big Coca Cola looking Santa that stood by our front door, life sized, and propped in a waving pose for everyone passing by. Or the set of caroling snowmen that each had a name, or that huge diorama of the three wisemen traveling through the desert with the star of Bethlehem shining in the night sky, showing the way to the nativity. And then the taped Christmas music that I loved. I would sing all the Christmas tunes I knew day in and day out at any given time, all through the house. I’d try and urge my mom to sing along with me. I did that for many years, and she usually chimed in with me.
Just before bed on Christmas Eve, and after hanging my stocking on the fireplace, mom would follow me upstairs to read me the story of Rudolph the Red
Nosed Reindeer. I always looked forward to this, although, I felt it was a sad story, even though it ended well.
Our bedroom was on the second floor of the house and it overlooked many of the snowy rooftops all the way down the street. They glistened in the street lights at night, and looked every bit as magical as in any storybook.
After mom read the story and went downstairs, I listened so hard for the prancing and pawing of eight reindeer’s hooves on our roof. I couldn’t see our roof, but I could see all the neighbor’s roofs. And when I got up to look and check for hoof prints on the neighbor’s roofs, I never saw any. I always got angered with myself when I would drift off to sleep before I heard those hooves on the roof. Every year, I vowed to stay up to hear it, but I never could stay awake long enough.
Even in the morning. Then I realized something one year....All our neighbors were Jewish. Why would Santa visit their house on Christmas Eve? It was a perfect excuse for not seeing reindeer tracks on their housetops! It became synonymous with our religion that Santa would visit only Christians. (???!!)
But then I thought about it a few years later, “No, Santa had nothing to do with religion, really.”He wasn’t at the nativity!” I actually didn’t have an answer as to why Santa couldn’t visit my Jewish friends. By that time, I had given up on ever seeing or hearing reindeer pawing on rooftops.
111- Christmas Morning
Just before daybreak on Christmas morning, I was always woken up with the loud playing of a toy horn or a harmonica, and I would sit up in bed and think, ”He’s Down There, Right Now!”
I would slip out of bed and tiptoe down the stairs that led to the kitchen area. I’d ease ever so quietly around the corner, through the kitchen to the next doorway that separated the kitchen from the living room. I could see the warm glow of the lights from the tree enveloping the room, which meant that Santa had already arrived and the tree was up and decorated, and presents were most likely scattered under the tree already. Whether he was still there, I couldn’t be sure, so I was very hesitant to look any farther. Instead, I waited to hear for any rustling around, because I wouldn’t want to interrupt him. I had always been told that he might change his mind if he saw me peeking and take everything back. That would be horrible.
When the coast seemed clear, I ventured into the living room to see the tree, all done up with lights, glass ornaments and tinsel. Wrapped packages were strewn all about the trunk of the tree and it was a magnificent sight! My first order of the morning was to check on Mom and Dad and see if they were awake or not. “Nope, nothing.“ Then I would take a seat on the couch and just stare at everything, feeling so magical and warm and loved, this being my lone magical moment before the rest of the family woke up.
112- The Empty Stocking
This one year, I was probably five or six years old, and as usual, I took my seat on the couch this one Christmas morning. The tree was as spectacular as ever, and the pine scent of the fresh tree filled the air. I looked over at the stockings hanging on the fireplace, all filled, brimming with little trinkets and magazines, sticking out of the top of each. Except one. Mom’s stocking was empty.
As I stared in disbelief, I wondered why on earth Santa would forget her, or leave her out. She always did everything for everyone. She stayed home when we were sick, she made breakfast and dinner every day. She made everyone lunches to take to work and school. She did the shopping and bought all our clothes and school supplies. She cleaned the house, and scrubbed and waxed the floors on her knees. She washed our clothes every day. She bandaged our wounds and hugged us when we cried. And now Santa forgot her. Why.
I can say that confusion overrode any other thoughts I had that morning. My heart was sick. Of all people on this earth, Santa shouldn’t have forgotten HER.
I hoped he had at least left her some presents.
When everyone was eventually gathered in the living room, stockings always were the first things to be handed out on Christmas Morning. Mom was handed her empty stocking, and I watched so intently, the look on her face. It was one of disappointment, despair.. No one said a word, and I’m not sure anyone else noticed or cared. I didn’t want to make her feel worse, so I remained quiet and tried to find her presents under the tree.
Years later, when Santa was only a memory of a more innocent time, it occurred to me that dad was supposed to fill her stocking. She always filled everyone’s but her own. And I’m sure every year dad filled hers. But not that year. Another puzzle piece.
There are so many things that kids see on a daily basis that can be explained away and forgiven. Adults make mistakes, and the best we can do is explain that we all make mistakes. We forget to take the trash out. We forget to get gas for the car. We lose our keys. We drop glasses and spill our drinks. But we don’t forget to keep the Magic of Christmas for kids, especially. No matter what we do in life, that’s one thing we must keep. Everyone needs Magic in their lives. Everyone needs to feel special and loved. And those children who believe in Santa need to know he didn’t forget them. No matter how old they are.
When the school year ended in Allentown, we searched for another place closer to Brother in New York. We seemed to be easing back to the area mom knew best, closer to Brother, and which was also closer to dad. She had secured a lawyer for the divorce in New York, and I imagine this made office visits easier. I also think she now had a better contact for keeping a watch on dad and his intentions at any given moment. Brother was now settled in Yonkers with his new wife and chances were good he was going to stay there.
I simply couldn’t understand how dad found out our whereabouts at different times. That was a mystery to me. I never heard how that information could have reached him, but apparently it did. Looking back now, as I have already mentioned I have suspicions.
I learned monsters weren’t green with big sharp teeth that could rip you apart in ten seconds. Monsters were two legged and looked a lot like you and me. All the Godzilla movies in the world couldn’t match the monsters I knew and heard about. It became important to know who to trust and who not to. Instinct became automatic. I could spot danger a mile away. Sometimes I could swear I had some magic around me that protected me. I began to talk less and watch more.
We found an Estate located just outside the town of Ramapo, NY. It encompassed quite a few acres and was very private. On this property stood a large, old Victorian house with ceilings that seemed to go on forever. The flocked wallpaper in the design of a flour-de-lis in the foyer of the house stood out in my mind. The beautiful, ornate old furniture made me wish we had a house again, to some degree. They seemed very stable and set and comfortable in their life. The grounds were beautiful, and several families rented the smaller cottages around the center ‘green’. There were young families with small children, and everyone met on the green to let the children play on sunny days.
The owners had a daughter, Sarah, who I came to know. Her parents had distinct accents, but not Sarah, which led me to believe she was born in this country, and her parents were immigrants . They were very nice people. Quiet and very respectful. They did make it clear that they did not allow dogs on the premises. Especially German Shepherds. I thought that was unusual.
Sarah and I would come to be good friends. At dinner one night, Mom asked me if I happened to notice the tattoo on Sarah’s mom’s and dad’s arm. “No,” I said, “Why?”
Then mom explained to me that the tattoo was a number which meant that they had been in concentration camps in Germany during the war. My blood ran cold. “They don’t like dogs because the Nazi’s used them as guard dogs with the people in the camps.
It now occurred to me that their earlier life was devastating and although they were living freely in the US now, I couldn’t imagine what fears and nightmares THEY’ must still have. And probably for the rest of their lives.
We rented the upstairs of an old farmhouse at the other end of the property. I had my own room. The door at the bottom of our stairs had a window in it with a sheer white curtain stretched across it. The bell, located in the door was an ornate brass dome with a brass key located in the center that you twisted to ring the bell. I marveled at it to such a degree that I was hell-bent on getting one for myself some day when I had my own place. And I did.
There were wild blueberry bushes behind the house that I used to pick and munch on all the time. Four and five leaf clovers abound in the grasses. I picked them and pressed them in my books.
A pond farther behind the house was my summer swim, along with a black snake who kept his distance from me in the water. It didn’t bother me and I didn’t try to pet it. Some people didn’t go in the water because of the snake, but it seemed harmless to me.
I really loved this place with the big shade trees and greenery. The fact that I had my own room was more than attractive to me.
Brother and his wife invested in a motorized runabout boat that was perfect for water skiing. And we now had the room to park it. Every weekend, they would meet us at Greenwood lake and we would barbecue and water ski. Fun times. After a day of boating, we towed the boat back to the house and I washed and scrubbed it from head to foot, making it ready for the next weekend.
And then one night the call came, again. Dad was on his way. He found out some how where we were, and he announced he was going to kill us when he found us. He was on our trail. It wouldn’t be so bad if he was the threatening kind and exaggerated his intentions, but the history of what I witnessed him do in the past told us this was not an idle threat. So we loaded up and moved in no time, again. Because we were located much closer to Yonkers now, we didn’t have the luxury of ‘hours’ to put everything together for exiting.
I really disliked leaving there. It seemed that every time I started feeling good about a place, we moved. It was getting ‘old’ for everyone concerned, I’m so sure.
114 The Bronx
Next stop was the Bronx. I had never been familiar with the Bronx. And I didn’t want to go to school there. I didn’t like the feel of the place. The apartment was good, and the neighborhood was clean and quiet, but it was a direct link to a bad part of town.
It was an easy walking distance to the beginning of the subway line, located at 241st street and White Plains Road. At night you could hear people fighting with each other or singing at the top of their lungs as they walked from the subway. They never bothered us, but it was still unsettling. I was not a city girl by any means. The kids who hung around on the street corners looked nothing like me. It was the 60s and I was turning into a ‘hippie’ and they were ‘greasers’. Those two never mixed.
Mom ordered me to go sit on the steps and make friends with the kids in the neighborhood. She said that if I sit there for an hour, they will surely start talking to me and I would make friends. So I went downstairs and sat on the ‘stoop’. The kids talked and laughed among themselves and never looked in my direction for even a second. After an hour, I went back upstairs and reported that I had not made any friends. Aside from the fact that I was shy, I had nothing in common with these people.
I requested a guitar that Christmas, and it showed up! It wasn’t a Martin by any close chance, but it still made the notes it needed to. I bought a Mel-Bay book and practiced chords until my fingers bled, later turning to callouses. Since I had become what some would term antisocial, and had all that time on my own after school, I wrote poetry, and then, eventually put music to it. I think over the years, I counted 70 songs. My singing never improved over the years, but I sang anyway. I figured that if Bob Dylan could get away with it, so could I. Not.
The local school I would have been assigned to in the Bronx was famous for knifings. This wasn’t something I looked forward to, so we used my brother’s address in Yonkers to allow me to attend school there. Yonkers was a few miles away, but with a decent walk and a bus ride, I could reach school before the bell. And so I did that... from eighth grade to Graduation in my Senior year.
I went to school via city bus in the morning, and then a walk to reach school. On the way home, I had friends who went in the same direction toward my brother’s place, so I walked with them most of the way, and then waited with him and his family until mom picked me up later in the afternoon, after her work.
I had a good friendship with a few kids in Junior High, and then developed still more when I got involved with Art in High School. There really wasn’t anyone I didn’t get along with, but only a few who could be trusted to know I lived outside of the school district during high School.. It had to be kept quiet because I would have been ordered back to attend a Bronx school if discovered.
When my best friend moved from her childhood house to another part of Yonkers in the same district, I no longer walked to Brother’s place in the afternoon, but back to the bus stop I had been arriving at every morning on the way to school. My bestie now lived close to that bus stop and no one had to pick me up at Brother’s in the afternoon any longer. I would take the bus to Mt Vernon and then catch another one to White Plains Rd in the Bronx, where that subway line ended/began. I then took the same walk to our apartment that most did passing our apartment from the subway.
In the Bronx, we shared a brick house next to another brick house that had about an 8’-10’ alley for trash cans, between us. We could look out our hall window and see right into the kitchen window of the house next door. No yard, just cement between us. A small yard behind the house belonged to the landlord who lived below us. Both the landlord and we had a clothes line out our kitchen window that strung across the garage roof below. We hung our wash out there to dry on any given day.
I started tie-dyeing and screen printing shirts for sale to boutiques in the surrounding areas.
All went well, until one day the landlord dried her sheets on the clothesline at the same time my shirts were drying on our clothesline.
As I reeled in the shirts after a few hours, I noticed the white sheets below, still on the line, were ribboned faintly with rainbow colors. Colors from my shirts had dripped on her sheets!
I was more careful after that about when to dry my shirts. She seemed to have a pattern to her daily chores, and washed only on certain days. But she never mentioned the sheets to me. I did know, however, that if she bleached the sheets, the color would most likely come out. Maybe she even liked them, I don’t know.
One night, as we slept, we were suddenly alerted with the constant ringing of our door bell. The neighbors were trying to wake us. I arose to the smoke filled apartment, with mom coming to retrieve me. I grabbed my purse and we ran down stairs and watched the house next to us go up in flames. Neighbors gathered in the street to witness the firefighters that were chopping through the roof, and sending heavy streams of water into the flames.
We were told that the gentleman next door had come home that night, having had a bit too much to drink, and passed out in bed with a cigarette in his hand. Luckily, no one was killed. They lost their home, and everything in it, but everyone survived. Close call, for sure. It would be months before they reconstructed the house and moved back in.
It’s hard to say if we were in danger, but it was appreciated that the neighbors thought to alert us. I had never seen anything like that fire. It was closer to me than I would ever have liked. And it gave me the understanding of just how fast it can happen. And from that very event, I have become very aware of fire since.
The people in the house lost everything. Everything they held dear. All of it was gone. Forever.
Although it wasn’t exactly the same thing, I knew that feeling. I knew what it was to lose everything and not have any say in what you keep. Your belongings are ripped right out from under you. All you have left of what you once had are memories. When we left NY in 1962, all I had of my childhood was a jewelry box and a stuffed elephant and panda bear. That was it. Some clothes to wear, maybe. The shoes I had on my feet, and some clothes to change into. That was it, really.
My pets stayed behind. The toys, my bicycle, things I made, my bed, my pillow. It doesn’t seem like much, but it was my ‘everything’. We all left various things behind. All because we HAD to. Because someone had an illness that could have killed us all.
When I left Woodstock in ‘77, it happened again. I could only take a few things. If I wanted to save my life, I had to give everything up once more. This time I could decide what to take and what to leave behind. What I chose to take was mainly necessity. Again, there was no room for frivolous items . When I weighed the difference between staying and leaving, despite all that I gave up, it was well worth it. I knew I could not ever go back and retrieve anything. I had been there before. DeJa Vu . Leaving like this was like a fire had been set to everything I left behind. I’d never see it again. You got out safe, but everything you owned was burned to the ground.
When Brother’s wife eventually left him, she also took only what was necessary. When she returned so many years later, she thought she could retrieve everything she left behind, including her children. She was lucky that they even spoke to her. She argued and complained about what was still hers. She felt cheated.
These are things people don’t consider when they make life changes. There hasn’t been a day that I haven’t, in some way, considered that I might come home to my house on fire and burned to the ground. Every time I go away, even for the day, this is my silent fear until I reach my driveway again.
I do realize, however, that this is life. What you work for, shouldn’t be ‘stuff’. It should be for people, and memories. We all should prepare ourselves to lose our ‘stuff’ at any time. Love what you have accumulated, enjoy it, but if you lose it, do not lament it. Keep the memories.
Admittedly, I am a collector. Show me anyone who is creative and not a collector and it will surprise me. But if I lost it all tomorrow, I would just start over. As long as my family is safe, I’m all good.
117- Closer Now
Oddly enough, Dad didn’t know we lived so close now. No idea at all. Being this close to Yonkers gave mom the ability to sit down with her lawyer and file for divorce, and sign any papers necessary in New York. I believe she took out an order of protection, which forbade my dad to come within a certain distance of us, with hopes that we didn’t have to worry so much. But we still did.
There were threats back and forth, and sister was now in contact with both dad and mom. She always sided with dad, no matter what he did to her. I always felt she thought he was a soft touch, but apparently there was some sincere attachment. I do think she always resented mom for leaving in the first place, even though lives were at stake.
I’ll never understand, as long as I live, why people seem to go back to those that harm them the most. I was always bad at being dysfunctional. I don’t do it well. I need to stay away from people that cloud or have clouded thinking. Maybe the extra 5-1/2 years she spent in a violent household before I was born made her feel comfort in it. I really don’t know.
Sister eventually decided to marry a bank teller she worked with, who played the accordion at night. She introduced him to us one evening, and he brought along his accordion to serenade us for a while. Mom and I gathered in the living room and gave him our utmost attention.
We weren’t sure, but the ‘Jingle Bells’ we knew didn’t have the line “wait a minute” ribboned through the verses. Poor guy must have been nervous.. Yeah, that was it. Sure.
The wedding took place in a Polish church somewhere in Yonkers, and we were invited to the ceremony, but not the reception. Dad would be at both, but Sister was concerned that there might be a scene at the reception if we all showed up. Dad was paying for the wedding, so he deserved to attend the reception. I guess he still had some change left over from our life insurance policies.
Dad promised not to talk to me or have any interaction at the church. There had to be a truce. It had now been a couple of years since I had seen him. I was very nervous and I think I broke out in hives just before the wedding. Standing in the pews at the church, we watched as dad walked sister down the isle. It was very nerve wracking as he got closer. Like those films where a flash of what you imagine could suddenly happen appears in your brain, I saw a scene much like one in a Stephen King story.
But it all went smoothly, while my kneecaps jumped up and down with nervousness, as expected, during the ceremony. Thinking back on it now, I’m so sure that everyone who attended was watching mom and me more than the Bride, which was unfortunate. When we exited the church, we went straight home. My breathing soon improved and I began wondering what was going through Dad’s mind. I was very glad that he behaved himself, but thinking back now, of course he behaved himself. He always did in public situations. I can only imagine what the topic of conversation at the reception was...or wasn’t.
Sister was now married and hopefully fulfilled. At 19, she now had many years of accordion ‘wait a minute’ songs to look forward to.
118-No More Pain
Mid November, 1965, the phone rang. Mom answered and stood silent for a minute. Then she called me to the kitchen. Dad had taken his life. He had died from a self inflicted gunshot wound to his head.
Brother had called. It seems Sister had gone over for a visit. She found him in bed, in his pajamas, a gun close to his hand, with a pool of blood from his head reaching to the floor.
There was some question whether he was killed or took his life, but the final report went down as a suicide.
Mom walked nervously into the bathroom to brush her hair and readied herself to make way over to the house we grew up in. The house of many bad memories, but some good. The house she hadn’t seen in a few years. The house she built by hand with him. I can’t imagine how she felt, but honestly, my initial reaction was one of ‘freedom’. No one had to worry any longer. The danger had ended.
I should have felt remorse, but I didn’t. We had been through hell for how long, now? I no longer had to look over my shoulder. It never should have had had to be that way. It could have been handled in a sensible manner. Fear is a horrible, debilitating thing. One’s death didn’t have to be the answer to other’s lives.
Mom met brother at the scene while I stayed home by myself to digest the news. Sister’s husband was seen carrying the TV out of the house only minutes after the discovery. Sister retrieved Dad’s wallet, first thing.
When mom arrived, she and Brother investigated the scene and spoke to the police. I don’t know how they both were feeling, and I don’t even recall much talk about it. Brother and Sister attended dad’s funeral. It was my decision to sit it out. I had no desire to go at all. He was gone and couldn’t be hurtful any longer. That’s all I needed to know. I didn’t need to listen to the relatives.
119- The Brass Headstone
When the house was cleared of everything relating to the death, I went to the house to walk through it. This is when I realized he had gotten rid of every memory of ever having had kids at all. Of ever having a wife or a family in general. Our bedrooms stood vacant, and only a large stuffed black cat with green eyes sat on a white vanity stool by our bedroom door. No photos, no nothing. Beds were empty and without sheets. Like we never existed.
Stacks of unpaid bills were outstanding and had to be satisfied. Sister was his beneficiary on his work insurance policy. Without hesitation, she promptly outfitted her apartment with new furniture. Mom paid for the funeral. Sister bought the brass headstone plaque. Mom told sister that when she paid for half of the funeral bill with the insurance money she received, she could have the headstone placed on the grave. Until then, no headstone.
Sister carried that brass headstone with her to every address she ever moved to for years to come. It took up room in her closet and was a sure reminder every time she reached for a shirt.
No headstone was ever placed on the grave until mom died, when I paid for the new headstone to include both names. Sister wanted to use hers and I reminded her that now there were two people in the grave, and so the newer, updated headstone plaque was to be used. I suggested with irony that she could turn the one she had into a tray or a centerpiece on her table. Perhaps frame it and put it on the mantle, but it wasn’t going on a grave that had two people in it. Both people needed to be recognized.
This didn’t set well with Sister. Months after mom passed, she approached the cemetery office and requested to change the headstone. She thought that because I was living in California, I wouldn’t know the difference. However, sitting at my drawing table one afternoon at work, a thought randomly popped into my mind....”What if Sister decides to have them change the headstone?” I picked up the phone and called the cemetery.
Lo and behold, Sister had been into see them three days prior!!!….and you got it...she requested that the headstone be replaced with the one she had. They remembered the conversation and said they thought it was an odd request and would have to ask the other person who is tied to the plot. Sister said she did not know my whereabouts.
Well, that was a lie. And I said, “Under no conditions do I want that plaque replaced with anything different” and it went into record.
It was reported much later that she went back to the gravesite one night during the wee hours of the morning, hopped the fence, and lugged her souvenir headstone to the grave site with her, hoping to replace it without consent. What she didn’t know was that those plaques are not just placed there, they are attached to poles or rods that dig deep into the ground. Her efforts were foiled and she went home with her headstone in tow and tears in her eyes.