Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Disney: Not Just Mickey

It's amazing how much of my life was influenced by Disney. I grew up with the gorgeous cartoons and believed all the stories that he told . . . but I want to see if I can remember enough details to make sense of it all.
The first Disney feature I remember is actually The Mickey Mouse Club. I must have started watching before I started school, because I remember tidbits of the show and where I was sitting. I was in the parlor of our apartment on Broadway, and I think I was three when we moved. I don't remember much, but it's enough for me to know that's when "it" started. By the time we moved to Woodlawn Street (where I had the tire swing in the backyard and met my best friend, Therese), I knew enough about the MM Club to be able to name all the Mouseketeers. Annette was my favorite, and I am sure I wasn't alone. In fact, when I met a girl named Annette in grammar school, I was sure she had to be related to Annette Funicello from the Mouseketeers. She even looked like her, except that her dark hair bounced in sausage curls rather than the short coif Funicello had. I could sing the song (couldn't everybody?) and felt a certain nostalgia everytime they signed off with it because it meant the show was over for the day.
When we moved to Road B, I got my first taste of the nighttime Disney show, Walt Disney Presents, and I was hooked for life.
One of my fondest memories is being awakened by my mother after we had already gone to sleep. She would usher us downstairs, and we'd be treated to Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. It aired on Sunday night, so this was a BIG treat for me. My mother believe in early to bed/early to rise, and we kids were always the first ones in the neighborhood to be ushered in, bathed and pajama'd and sent to bed (there were times during the summer that the sun was still high in the sky! I was always jealous of the kids who got to play outside until it got dark). For Ma to wake us up and allow us to watch television made me almost reverent. I remember sitting on the couch, my bathrobe wrapped tightly around my feet (Ma always kept the house ten degrees cooler than it should have been), engrossed in the show and afraid that if I moved or did so much as breathe loudly, this special gift would be taken away and I'd be sent back up to bed.
Donald Duck and Ludwig von Duck were early favorites of mine, but once the show started airing the color cartoons that I loved (like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella ((Boy, did I want a fairy godmother to turn me into a princess!)) and Snow White), I wanted to make sure I took advantage of every Sunday. I made sure that by Sunday afternoon, I was on my best behavior, and sometimes I got myself so keyed up that I couldn't fall asleep. Of course, those were always the times that my parents decided we needed our rest. Determined to get my "fix," I crawled out of bed and sneaked to the top of the stairs, sitting quietly in the dark, trying to imagine what was on the television by the dialogue and noises that floated up the hallway. 
Sometimes I got caught, and if I did, I got a spanking and was put back into my bunkbed, crying. But as soon as my tears dried, I was back by the edge of the stairs, hoping that they'd realize how much we wanted to see the show and reconsider letting us watch.
I was so naiive back then that I thought the cheerful, moustached Walt Disney was related to another Walt -- Mr. Cronkite. After all, they both had moustaches, they kind of looked alike and they both worked in television. They must be brothers, right?
One Christmas, I received an album of Christmas music, and I must have driven my mother nuts playing it over and over again. I memorized all the words to "Someday My Prince will Come" and "When You Wish Upon a Star." One night in early winter, I was crossing the yard to see my new friend Patti, who was visiting her cousin in the apartment diagonally across from us, and it was so quiet and clear that the stars seemed close enough that I could reach out, grab a handful and put them in my pocket. It was one of the only times I remember the projects as being peaceful. I saw a few lights in windows, but all the doors were closed because it was a bit chilly, and I was the only one outside. I felt all alone and free, and hopeless romantic that I was even then, I started dancing around, arms flung, singing "When You Wish Upon a Star." It was probably good that all the doors and windows were closed, because I can't sing, but at that moment, for that split second in my childhood, I was that fairy princess who trilled like a lark in those Disney movies. It was probably one of the most happy times in my childhood, yet it only lasted less than a minute.
And even now, when Fantasia is on TV, I will watch it to see Magical Mickey and that dancing broom, the whales who fly out of the water, the way the spirits swirl to the sound of Night on Bald Mountain. It was another introduction to classical music, and probably the only one most children have, and who better to lead the orchestra than Mickey himself. It's funny, because when I got older and realized that film was created in the 1940s, I was amazed. Disney was a genius.
Disney affected me so much that I ended up in Disney World for my honeymoon. Even then, grown and much wiser, I felt like I'd walked into a fairytale when entering Cinderella's castle. And to see the incredibly ornate and electronic world Disney had created made me appreciate the man much more than I had during those early years when the Mouseketeers and Davy Crockett were the emblems of Disney's forays into television.
I think there are very few true geniuses in the past couple of decades -- in fact, I can probably count them all on one hand -- and probably each of the moviemakers I would add to that list can honestly say that Disney taught them some valuable lessons about imagination and the power of a good story. To this day, I would prefer going to the movies with a child and seeing animated brooms and flying whales than to see a gunfight at the O.K. Corral. 
Thanks, Mom and Dad, for waking us up.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Penny Candy

When we lived in the projects, there were no big malls anywhere close by, and the grocery stores weren't the superstores they are now.  We bought just what we needed that week, and sometimes supplemented our refrigerator on a daily basis.  To get anything for supper quickly, we simply walked to the corner store.  To me, that little store on the corner was open for the main purpose of selling us kids penny candy.
Though we were poor, my mother attempted to give us some kind of small allowance every week.  Before I reached fifth grade, it was usually between a nickel and a quarter a week.  And as soon as that hot little piece of silver landed in my hand, I sprinted to the corner store to fill up a tiny brown paper sack with a variety of penny candies.
I had several favorites, and occasionally, I still find a general store that has the old standards.  In fact, this Christmas, I found a small net bag of gold wrapped chocolates in the shape of different coins just like the ones I used to buy back in the early '60s at the little store on the corner of Road B and Ferry Street, across the street from Ski's Homemade Ice Cream.
For a nickel, I could get some strings of red licorice, a few sheets of sugar dots pasted on paper like the roll they put in adding machines, some of the chocolate coins I just mentioned, and a few hot balls that scorched your mouth and left your lips a bright red to rival any of out mothers' lipstick.  I'd make that candy last as long as possible because I knew I wouldn't get another nickel anytime soon.
During the summer, that nickel might be spent on a Popsickle or a Fudgesickle that would start melting as soon as we walked down the block back to where we lived.  My hand would be covered in grape Popsickle juice, and within a couple of minutes of standing in July's heat, it would be so sticky and smelly that it would take several washings to get it out of my skin.  (What did they put in those things anyway?  It was like dye!)
My mother also had special favorites from the store.  If she had an extra nickel, she would send me down there to get a large sour pickle for her from the big wooden barrel they kept at the end of the deli counter.  I'd walk in, letting the wooden screen door slam behind me, and ask whoever was minding the store to give me the biggest pickle from the barrel.  They wrapped it in waxed paper, yet the smell still rose from the paper, permeating the air around me like a cloud on my walk home.  My mother would eat it with relish (no pun intended), sucking in her cheeks and rolling her eyes with the sourness of it.  She loved those stupid pickles.  I have no idea how she could have eaten a whole one in one sitting, but she did.
My father, on the other hand, was a sweets man.  He would rather take us kids across the street to Ski's for an ice cream on the weekends when he was home from work.  He'd always get an ice cream sundae, but my favorite was their chocolate chip and if I could get it in a sugar cone, I thought I'd gone to heaven and was singing with the angels.  That place had the absolute best homemade ice cream, and they'd stuff their containers so that there was at least an inch more above the top of the container, then they'd cover it with waxed paper and jam the lid atop that.  It was like getting a fourth more than the container would hold.  I'm not sure how they made any profit.
When we moved to Walnut Street, there was a corner store diagonally across the street from our house called Foley's.  My biggest childhood fantasy came true when I had the chance to work there.  Now I was behind the long glass counter where all the candy was sold.  I kept those shelves neat with Milky Ways, Almond Bars, red and black licorice, boxes of Double Bubble bubble gum, jawbreakers, and Sugar Daddys.  I even got to use the slicing machine when people wanted sandwich meats.  The only problem was that there were many afternoons the store was quiet, and once I'd finished my homework, all those shelves of candy wove their hypnotic siren song.  I spent almost my whole paycheck on candy, ice cream, and sodas and probably gained about ten pounds.
By the time I graduated from high school, some of the corner stores in Everett were already closed, but the last time I visited, we actually stopped at one that had been open since I was a kid.  Today, it's more of a franchise than a family-owned business, and that makes me sad.  We used to know the people behind the counter at those neighborhood stores.  Now the small family businesses are gone, replaced by the sterile sameness of a chain store.  Those stores will never provide the memory of a slamming screen door, of a child filling a candy bag with all sorts of treasures, or of the refreshing chill of a glass Coca Cola bottle as you popped the top and took your first swig.  I never thought I'd become one of those people who think the old days were better than the now, but when it comes to corner stores, I can only say this:  I miss them, their intimacy,  their smells, and their personalities.  Whether it was a corner store near where I grew up in the projects or the one near my cousins' summer home where the floor was covered with sawdust and locals could sit on the porch with their Coke bottles, they were part of the neighborhood and a convenience of friendship more than a money-making proposition.  I think we should start a movement to restore small neighborhood businesses!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Park Theater

Every Saturday afternoon from the time I was in third grade, a group of us went to the Saturday matinee at the Park Theater. Considered historic even then, the theater had opened in 1914. My father and mother told me stories about going to see live theater there, and even my grandmother had memories of vaudeville performances on that stage. Her sister-in-law, Gladys, had performed in some vaudeville shows, and I always imagined her as a Gypsy Rose Lee type of character, fish-net stockings, booming Ethel Merman-type voice, and a mind-your-own-business attitude. The theater still had the red velvet drapes and pull cords even after it had stopped hosting live shows and did nothing but movies.
During my grammar school years, I always got excited about going to the movies, largely because we'd all walk together from the projects to the theater, the farthest we were allowed to go on our own. Parents didn't chauffeur kids around then. We were actually able to do some exploring on our own. The Park was probably a mile from where we lived, and there were times during the winter that, by the time the show got out, it was dark on the way home. 
Another reason for the excitement was the prizes. During intermission, one of the ushers would come on stage and start pulling numbers from a spinning cage where all the movie ticket stubs had been stored. Your number was on your ticket -- and some were lucky enough to have a red stamped star on the back, which meant you were an instant winner. They'd spread the prizes out on stage, so we'd all ooh and aah over them. The prizes always included a bike -- I wanted the pink one with the long streamers floating from the handlebars -- dolls, stuffed animals, bats and balls, books, and basketballs. In the winter, they often added a sled or one of those "new" round silver disks that you could skim along the snow. Three or four lucky kids would win something each week. I was never one of them.
The show would start with a few cartoons, probably designed to get us to settle down before the matinee began. And the regular movie always had time for an intermission (just like the ones they showed at the drive-in theater that we went to with our parents on summer nights). I loved the animal movies, but the films I remember more than any others were the "different ones."
In 1960, I saw my first horror movie there. It was also the first 3-D movie I'd ever seen. And it scared the beejesus out of me. It was called "The Thirteen Ghosts" and starred a bunch of people who never made anything else. I can't remember the plot, but I do remember that every time one of the ghosts came out, you could see them with your 3-D glasses, but if you took them off, there was nothing there. That seemed magical to me, and most of the time the ghosts came on screen, I pulled my glasses off because it felt safer.
And then there were the Elvis Presley movies. It almost feels now like we saw one every other weekend during the 1960s, but that was impossible, especially since Elvis only made 2 or 3 movies a year. Still, I can see scenes from "Blue Hawaii," "Kissin' Cousins," "Viva Las Vegas," and many others in my mind, and I saw each of them at the Park Theater.
As I got older, I still went there on the weekends, and it became common to go there with my high school dates (mostly because we could sit in the back rows and make out). It was almost a rite of passage to be seen there on the weekends, and if I were with a girlfriend rather than a guy, we spent most of the movie craning our necks around to see who was in the back row making out with their date of the week. That ended up being gossip for the school cafeteria during the rest of the week.
The Park Theater ended up being demolished in the 1980s, and there's a high-rise apartment building there now. It's kind of sad that a place with so much history has disappeared, but I know there are many of us who treasure the memories still in that moving picture that plays in our brains.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Barbie and Ken Years

Okay, so if my earliest years and earliest images of relationships were built by the connections I had with my parents and by watching them together, the more formative years were built by the images on TV and the stories I read -- and the dolls I played with . . . how sad.
Those TV families I mentioned earlier built the impression that we would all be wonderfully happy if the moms would stay home wearing shirtwaist dresses and crisply-starched aprons, their hair permanently in place (thanks to hairspray that we didn't know damaged the ozone layer), the breasts abnormally pointy (thanks to killer bras) and their feet jammed into high heels that definitely weren't meant to be worn while making dinner for a family of five. 
The stories we read during the 1950s and 60s were just as damaging, even though they were delivered under the guise of being fairy tales. Let's face it, Cinderella was a housewife, even though she never had an electric stove. She cleaned as many kitchens, swept as many floors, and did as many chores as those women we watched on TV (probably more). The only difference was that she was doing all those chores for women (her stepmother and stepsisters), while the TV housewives did their chores for husbands and children. Why was Cinderella's fate so drastically different? We all felt bad for her, but we didn't feel any compassion whatsoever for women (like my mother) who stayed home for their families day after day.  And look at who Cinderella got -- the perfect male. Good looking, rich, in a position of prominence in the town, and, of course, devastatingly, hopelessly in love with her.   Our mothers might have gotten decent men, but Prince Charming they were not!
Here's another fairytale maiden: Snow White -- rescued from death by a man's kiss. Another devastatingly beautiful, fine specimen of a man, who was going to rescue her from the most dysfunctional family ever: an evil stepmother that wanted to cut her heart out and seven of the weirdest little dudes in the history of fiction.
Then we have Sleeping Beauty. The poor girl just wants to close her eyes and forget it all, but again, the guy (yet another prince -- how many of them were there in the olden days anyway?) finds her in that dusty, cobwebbed castle, and kisses her, waking her up and sweeping her away from that horrible lifestyle.  (Men must love taking advantage of the women who are simply out of it.) And, again, another devastatingly handsome, wealthy, privileged guy carrying her away from her troubles.
All of these fairytale princesses were both beautiful and sweet and exceedingly happy to have their Prince Charmings,  a pretty solid basis for failure for any of us 'normal' women growing up in the innocent Fifties.
Why should it surprise me that we fell into the Barbie trap so completely?
Here comes the doll that all the little girls (who won't sprout breasts for at least another five years) beg for from their parents. An impossible figure: that waist was so tiny, she couldn't have hidden an extra spoonful of anything fattening, never mind breathe properly. Boobs so large for her figure that, in real life, she would have been stooped over with the additional weight. And those first Barbies didn't even have real hair!  Their molded upswept hair defied the worst tornadoes.  And those molded, made-up cat's eyes.  Do you think Elizabeth Taylor modelled for them?
I was probably 7 years old when my parents bought my first Barbie doll -- and it wasn't even the real deal. No Mattel Barbie for me. I got  an imitation of the original, and like any other kid influenced by commercials for the real deal, I was upset with my parents that they had given me a simple fake. Gotta give it to them -- this one really looked like an original. She had the same painted on cat's-eyes, the same molded hairstyle, the same impossibly out-of-proportion figure. But the fake had knife-sharp seams in her plastic legs and along her arms, as if she just came out of the mold, and she was physically lighter in weight than the real Barbie. Barbie had a rubbery heft to her that made it obvious she wouldn't wear out early. My doll was light and a bit on the brittle side, as if when I worked her legs and arms, they would simply break off if I moved them too quickly.
And she did break. By the end of the first week, the Fake Barbie's head loosened and popped off. My grandmother was mortified when I continued to play with the doll without a head. It was almost like the doll was human and my grandmother wanted to turn me in for beheading the poor thing. She did everything she could to fix my doll, including asking Grampie for help, but there was no way the head was going to stay on the doll.   So, I played with this big-boobed, tight-waisted doll that had three changes of clothes and tiny mule shoes that attached to her feet with a tiny plug.
By that time, my Fake Barbie and I had connected. I wanted to keep her. She had clothes I could change her into, legs and arms that still worked. Besides, I had no replacement. 
But within a week, Nana saw to it that I had a replacement (I really think I freaked her out by playing with a headless doll), and along with the Official Barbie, I received a Real Ken. But I kept the Fake Barbie, and when no one was looking, the Real Ken and the Fake Barbie (with or without the head) went on dates. I wanted to prove to myself that even a woman/doll with faults could still get the devastatingly handsome guy, but even I couldn't get that past the Fake Barbie. She knew the Truth. So did the Real Ken.
And, I think that after a while, the real me also knew the truth. Some men wanted to be there for me no matter what, while others couldn't have been bothered. One thing's for sure: I knew that the Fake Barbie's head was the most important part of her body because that's where her brain was. And even though she might not have the brain everyone thought she should, she was the person I counted on. Ironically, she ended up being more real -- faults and all.

Friday, January 27, 2012

TV -- The 'early' years!

I think everyone who grew up in the 50s/60s fondly remembers the television shows that shaped their lives.  I definitely remember the ones that shaped mine, and my very first memory of a TV show is a very young one because my family and I were still living on Broadway, and we moved from there when I was around 4 years old.  I distinctly remember the show "Rin Tin Tin," and it must have been something I regularly watched because we had a cocker spaniel type of dog at the time that we (I) named "Rinny" (after Rin Tin Tin, who was, ironically, a German Shepherd -- quite the opposite of my dog).  I can still feel the nobby fabric of the couch under my legs as we watched the black and white TV and can see the regal profile of Rin Tin Tin as he gazed down at whatever enemy he was fighting that week from his lookout point.
There were lots of animal shows back then that I fell in love with:  "Lassie," "My Friend Flicka," and later on, "Flipper" (which made me fall in love with dolphins).  Watching the gorgeous collies who played Lassie and seeing the connection Timmy and his favorite dog had made me want one of my own.  The closest I ever came was Buffy, a Sheltie with the same coloring as Lassie but nowhere near the size.  Unfortunately, her hair was too long for my mother (who had asthma and a lot of allergies) and Buffy was also quite ill with seizures.  We had to have her put to sleep before she reached her first birthday.  Of course, living in the city made pets like Flicka, a gorgeous black stallion, impossible to consider, and Flipper . . . well, that wasn't even a remote possibility.  But I did learn all about pets and the kinds of connections people could have with them, and eventually, I did have several animals that were incredible (but that's another story).
By the time we moved to the house with the swing, "International Showtime" was popular.  To me, it was like having a circus in your house once a week.  I watched the flying trapeze act with awe.  Little did I know it then, but I would develop a fear of heights that made the trapeze act even more awesome to me.  I have no idea to this day how someone can take such chances in midair.  And the show horses that ran in circles around the ring with gorgeously costumed women atop their muscular backs were one of my favorite parts of the show.  Don Ameche played the ringmaster on the show, and he was every inch the consummate showman:  handsome with black hair and a well-oiled moustache, a deep voice, and a gorgeous white smile.
Of course, there were also the shows that were either cartoons or with cartoon-type characters.  "Bozo," the clown with the white face and huge head of orange hair, invited kids out of the audience every day, and I wanted to be one of them.  "Captain Kangaroo" did the same thing, and he was much less scary than Bozo (though I'm sure there were quite a few stories floating around about his irritation with being unable to speak during that show.  And  "Howdy Doody" who was almost a puppetized version of Bozo, though on the quieter side.  "What time is it, kids?"  "It's Howdy Doody time"   Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!!!
Though my mother wouldn't let us sit in front of what she called "the boob tube" all day, the hours that I did spend in front of the television were my favorite time of the day.  I felt that Miss Jean of "Romper Room" really did see me in her mirror and that if I had seen the Cleaver, the Anderson or the Nelson families on the street, they would have called out my name to say hello.  I wanted to dance with Lawrence Welk and to meet Topo Gigio when he came on the Ed Sullivan Show.  Every show pulled on a different imaginary thread, and they were all connected to the little world that invented itself on a weekly basis inside the little box we called a TV.
It's funny.  We had only three television stations, but we found plenty to watch.  Now I have more than a hundred, and I'm not sure any of the programs are going to be as memorable as "Father Knows Best" or "I Love Lucy."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Tough One to Write: Epilepsy

When I was in first grade, I was diagnosed with petit mal epilepsy.  I have no real idea what was said to my parents or how they were told to handle it.  I only know what it felt  like when an episode was about to come on, and I never quite understood what was happening.
The first time it happened, we were living on Woodlawn Street, and I was going to school.  I was in first grade.  Those were the days when kids lived in the same neighborhood where the school was located and no one thought much about a really young child walking to school alone.  It was safe.  We were even allowed to have adventures on our own.  No one worried about kids being abducted or sexually abused, though I'm sure it was going on (ironically, in churches, where we were supposed to be super safe!). 
As I was walking down the street that morning with my Roy Rogers/Dale Evans lunchbox and my shiny new black patent leather shoes (I always remember my shoes -- guess it's because I was always looking down), I saw what I thought was a monster in the window of the house at the bottom of Garland Street.  The face looked like one of those horrendous rubber masks, the kind that fits over your whole head and transforms you into the creature from the black lagoon or an exaaggerated version of a dead president.  I'm sure that the image of that monster was just symptomatic of the way the first epileptic episode came on, but throughout the rest of my life, I've had nightmares about that house and that face.
The next thing I remember is picking myself up off the sidewalk, feeling really shaky and unsure of where I was.  I stood there for a few moments, my lunchbox open on the ground, its ingredients spilled out, the sandwich my mother had made squished under the matching Rogers/Evans thermos.  I packed up the box, and not knowing what else to do, continued to school.
Now that I think about it as an adult, something must have happened that day at school to make my teacher suspect there was something wrong.  She notified my mother of my condition, and after that, there was a series of visits to the doctor, then to the hospital, and that went on for years.  Eventually, I ended up at the Children's Hospital in Boston with a specialist.  Though my mother told me how famous the doctor was, I had no idea who she was.  I'm sure my parents were much more impressed than I was that the woman putting wires into the tablespoon-sized wads of gunk she spread onto my scalp was Tenley Albright, the 1956 Olympic champion figure skater. 
Dr. Albright and I sat in her office many times throughout the next five or six years.  She asked me about my parents, made me draw pictures (and depending on how I felt that day, sometimes they were happy scenes and sometimes they were not), and gave me what felt like hundreds of EEGs.  Every time I had one, the gunk they attached the electrodes to was never completely washed out of my hair.  It would dry hard as cement and ended up taking chunks of my hair with it when my mother and I tried to pick it off my scalp.  I think that's why my hair went from being waist-length to chin-length by the time I was in fourth grade.
My mother described my episodes as "trance-like."  She said that I would stare straight ahead, unblinking, unseeing, for what seemed like five or ten minutes at a time.  I remember those times as being deep in thought, away from whatever was happening in front of me, and focused on something deep inside.  Sort of like daydreaming.  But there were other times that were more scary -- like the face in the window. 
When we lived in the projects, my bedroom was on the second floor, and one day I stood at the top of the stairs, ready to walk down, when one of the epileptic spells hit.  My mouth went dry, what felt like little electrical shocks ran through my body, then everything went black.  I had tumbled all the way down the stairs to the bottom, and when I focused again, all I could hear was my mother's voice.  I thought she was angry with me.  Her voice, loud and shrill, made me nervous.  Scared.  I tried to stand up, but my legs wouldn't support me.  Every time I opened my eyes, things would go black around the edges again, and my face felt prickly like I'd run into a rose bush.
That type of event happened at school several times, and I could always tell when it was going to occur.  Then Dr. Albright put me on some kind of medication (I later learned was Phenobarbital) and all I wanted to do was to sleep.  The teachers started complaining to my mother that I daydreamed all the time.  It became evident that when I started "daydreaming," it was best if I could get up and move around.  No one knew that I was smart enough to realize that it meant I could get away with doing things the other kids couldn't.  In the fifth grade, I had special "permission" to get up and leave the room whenever I felt like it.  I started venturing further and further from the classroom (our room was on the second floor -- the older you got, the higher you actually went in the building).  Soon, I found myself in the basement of the building where I often took violin lessons.  The basement was our bomb shelter, with a glossy, painted cement floor, and wide open rooms we used as a gym during rainy or snowy days, but during regular times, the place was empty. 
When I went down there, it was quiet, and my imagination roamed freely.  I danced among the stanchion poles that held up the rest of the school, pretending to be Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly.  I wanted to be a ballerina, wanted to waltz in one of those flowing ball gowns from the movies, and I could when I was down there.  No one bothered me.  No one even knew I was there.
But soon Mr. Sansone, my teacher, figured out that I was gone for longer and longer periods of time, and he must have said something to my mother because my permission to leave the classroom was curtailed.  About that time, the episodes of epilepsy were also waning.  Surprisingly, I grew out of the "disease" about the same time I "became a woman," and by the time I left the projects, I hadn't had an episode in quite a while.  I couldn't have been happier not to have the horrible EEG tests anymore, but when I became old enough to take my driver's license test, the disease reared its head again, and I had to go back to the doctor's to get ok'd to drive.
Many years later, I heard Caesar was an epileptic, as was Napolean.  Somehow, that made it cool.  But my younger cousin, Ernie, was also epileptic, and his grande mal seizures were much more scary than my petit mal ones.  The disease was no joke, I realized.  Nothing about it was cool.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Here's Where My Love of Reading Came From . . .

Once I learned how to read from those gigantic Dick and Jane books, there was no stopping me.  I began thinking of books as little treasures -- and I'm sure I had an odd expression on my face as I flipped the pages of those early books, practically fondling them like some kind of pervert.  I was hooked.

The first book I remember receiving as a gift was a Christmas present from my parents:  a large, thick treasury of Shirley Temple stories.  I read "Heidi" over and over again until I could practically recite it by heart, then "The Little Colonel," "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," and if I'm not mistaken, there was one more.  I can't think of it right now, but I knew them all.  That book stayed with me for many years until one of our dogs chewed the corner off.  Even then, I still zealously guarded it, but my mother (in her own zeal -- cleaning!) commandeered it and threw it away.  I was heartbroken.

That early gift made me realize there were lots of stories that I had yet to read, and when my mother took me to the little library on Union Street (hardly more than a storefront), I had found Nirvana.  I roamed the stacks, immersed in the infinite number of books available to me -- and the variety!  I could read about Annie Oakley or Abraham Lincoln, I could learn about Japan or the deepest parts of Africa.  I could go on sleuthing explorations with Nancy Drew or enjoy the family stories of The Bobbsey Twins.  I rampaged that place!  The maximum number of books you could take out on that cardboard library card the librarian stamped with the date (one stamp for every book) was ten, so that's how many I took out -- every seven days.  And, yes, I read every single one of them (some of them twice!).

I carried those ten books all the way home from the library, stopping at my grandmother's on the way in the hopes that my grandfather would be home to share some graham crackers and milk with me.  We'd sit at the pine table in their kitchen, silently (my grandfather didn't talk much), smashing the graham crackers in the bowl of milk and slurping them until the last crumbs were left at the bottom.  My grandfather had dark Clark-Gable-eyes and a pompadour of pure white, soft hair.  He was gruffly handsome, and one of my favorite photos of him is the doughboy shot of him in full uniform from World War I.  But when we sat at the kitchen table together, he was always wearing a white t-shirt, khakis and his brown leather slippers.

My grandmother had a birdhouse outside the kitchen window and while we were eating our graham cracker mush, my grandmother (Nana, I called her) would name the birds for me:  "That bright blue one is a blue jay.  See how pretty that one is?  That's the male.  That smaller, plainer one over there?  She's the mama.  She needs to be plainer so that she doesn't attract attention."  By the time I was 8, I knew all of the city birds that visited my grandmother's house, what they ate, and what their eggs looked like.

That's one lesson my Nana never learned:  how to be plain.  Instead, she was always taking instruction from the flowers she grew along the driveway coming into the house--gladiolii, tulips, jonquils, lilacs, roses.  I have pictures of her in a three-quarter length sleeve white coat with huge round buttons.  She wears elbow length black kid gloves and a matching hat.  She stands like a model, one foot in front of the other.  I thought she was elegant, slim, classic.  (She was responsible for my love of gardening.  I think she would have been thrilled if she had seen my climbing roses at my last house.)

I loved the library, but I also loved visiting my Nana's house on the way home.

My best friend, Therese, loved to read, too.  In fact, we still talk about books to this day, and one of my alltime favorite photographs is of the two of us -- lying on the front stoop of her house (not a porch, just a cement, two-step stoop with an iron railing) on a hot July day.  Both of us on our backs, books raised in front of our faces.  You can only see our legs, bent at the knobby knees, our Keds flat against the cement stoop.  We both are wearing cotton shorts and sleeveless tops because it's the middle of the summer, and I can bet you my last dime, that as soon as one of us finished what we were reading, we silently passed it to the other and we'd start at the beginning. 

My "rite of passage" occurred when I graduated from that little library on Union Street to the big library on Broadway -- the Shute Library, an impressive brick building with a tower in the middle that was the entrance to the upper level.  You had to walk up around two flights of stairs to get into the adult section.  The kids library was in the basement and the entrance was around the side.  I can still remember the first day I entered the adult part of the library and was told "shush."  I walked through the stacks as reverently as I had walked through the vestry of our church.  I was afraid to touch anything.

The first "adult" book I read was KON TIKI by Thor Heyerdahl.  It was a story about his journey around the world on a raft, complete with disasters, battles with sharks, horrible storms and near-death experiences -- as well as visits to completely exotic lands I had never heard of before.  I promised myself when I brought that book back to the library that someday I would have my own traveling adventures -- though I wasn't sure I wanted to have them on a raft.

Years later, I found a copy of that book at a yard sale and couldn't resist.  It was nowhere near as large as I remembered it, but the magical voyage was still as vivid.  It is still on my bookshelf, and if I have to sell every book in my collection, that will be the one that will go to my grave.  That and my white Bible that my mother gave me on my 13th birthday.  But that's another story.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Introducing -- ta da! -- My Family

I realize I've been writing about my family, but you haven't had a proper introduction, so this installment will be about them.
My mom and dad were together from their twenties until the time they died, almost fifty years later, and although they occasionally complained about each other, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they loved each other from the day they were married until the day my mother passed (my father died less than two years later).
My mother, Elaine (Bessie) Gordon, graduated from high school, then went to work for an insurance company as a secretary.  She quit as soon as my mom and dad married and never worked again, but she wasn't a stupid woman.  In fact, she always reminded me that her dream of being a journalist was one she never gave up on, and I like to think she lived her dream through me.  Her high school picture shows a truly sweet woman with reddish blond soft curls, and even when she was in her late sixties/early seventies, she never did look her age.  She couldn't drive, didn't swim, and really didn't cook well, but she sang beautiful lullabies, was the best tutor I've ever had, and made certain that each of her kids pushed the envelope in whichever way possible.  And she loved her grandchildren with that passionate "they can do no wrong feeling" that only grandmas possess.
Dad never graduated from high school.  Instead, he walked out of the building shortly before graduation with four of his good friends to join the thousands of other young American men who wanted to be battle the evils of the world during World War II.  He joined the Navy and became a gunner.  I always have an image of him high above the battle, looking out through one of those clear domes atop a fighter plane.  I'm sure it wasn't that romantic, but his stories made me see it that way.  He came home, safe and sound -- though there was a report sent home about his death that sent his family into a tailspin, but it was another family's son that had been killed in action. 
A few years after his return, my dad decided to enlist again.  This time, he went into the Army and ended up in Korea.  He was an MP, but he also saw action and told me at the dinner table when I was in high school about his best friend blowing up in front of him.  We didn't know the name for it then, but my father ended up in the hospital when I was in high school (during those years when the Vietnam war ended up on the news reports on our television sets) with what we now know is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  My mother shared that he often woke her up in the middle of the night, thinking she was the enemy, and that there were a couple of times when she was afraid he'd hurt her.  He never did.
Many years later, Everett High School had a special event over Memorial Day for vets who hadn't finished their high school years.  My dad was given his high school diploma and when they introduced him, they listed all the medals and honors he had won during his years in the service, none of which he'd shared with us.  My father was a hero, but it took someone else telling us about it for us to realize what a brave man he'd been.  I can still see him accepting the accolades, chuckling as if embarrassed by the attention.  (He was always chuckling.  I didn't realize until he was gone what an affable man he was and how easy he was to get along with -- probably because we always teased him and called him "Oscar the Grouch.")
Mom had six siblings; she was the youngest.  They were a blend of three families:  my grandmother's (to another husband), my grandfather's (to another wife.  Both of them were widowed), and from their marriage together.  They had two sets of twins; one set passed away before their first birthday, and the other set (my Uncle Bud and Aunt Sis) were siblings, but I never would have known they were twins if I hadn't been part of the family.  They didn't look alike and really didn't act alike either.  Each of my mother's siblings had at least three kids, which made for quite a large extended family. It always amazes me that I remember giving presents to EVERYONE when we were little. I have no idea how we afforded it, especially since we grew up poor. 
Mom's parents came to the United States from Canada.  Her father's family originally emigrated from England to Newfoundland, then he came to Boston from there.  He owned a small grocery store in my home town of Everett and added up the cost of whatever his customers bought with a sharp pencil on the brown paper bags he used to bag their groceries, tallying the totals as quickly as today's computers.  At night, he and his friends filled the living room with political arguments and academic discussions that kept the family up until the sun rose over the horizon.  The one photo I have seen of him shows him in his Mason uniform, stiff and stern as he posed for that formal picture.
Grammie looked like the typical loving grandmother: thick-legged, bespectacled, dressed in a dark dress with low-heeled and laced black shoes.  Everyone who knew her called her a saint, swearing that she was the sweetest person they had ever known.  In all the pictures of my family, she is smiling or laughing, and one of my favorites shows her holding me as a baby, a loving expression on her wide face.
Uncle Bud was low key and mild-mannered.  He always called me "Donna," though we reminded him over and over again that my name was Dawn.  He loved teasing people and always did so with a side smile that gave away his pleasure.  My Aunt Sis was my godmother.  She married a tall, lanky Swede with a prominent Adam's apple, and that marriage kind of reminded me that I had Swedish elements on both sides of my family (mother's and father's).  I loved my Aunt Sis, her black coffee that she set out for all of us (even us little kids) in china cups and saucers so delicate you could almost see through them, the pies and cakes she made, the quiet and assured way she would sit and watch the rest of us act like fools. 
My Aunt Till (Thelma) had 6 kids (each of whom had at least two of their own -- most I babysat).  She had the most amazing Christmases, because not only were all her kids around, but she also took in any of the local service people she could find at the local Y or the Salvation Army.  She was a small, stocky woman who worked as a waitress and walked everywhere.  I don't remember a time when she wasn't laughing, no matter what.  When we were little, train tracks wrapped three or four times around the Christmas tree in her house, and there were packages everywhere:  for all of her kids, for all of us, for all of the other cousins, for everyone in the neighborhood.  I swear she started buying gifts the day after New Year's.  She had the biggest heart.
My Uncle Jack had his issues (he was an alcoholic) and years later, my cousins (his kids) would share horror stories of what they went through with him, but he was a charmer.  My mother used to tell us stories of how Uncle Jack tap-danced on the street corners for pocket change during the Depression.  What I remember most about him was when he came to our house for dinner and how much shorter he was than I was.  He had a look about him that reminded me of the actors from the 1940s--not the handsome heartbreakers, but the bad guys, the ones who would talk out of the corners of their mouths, wore their fedoras perched on the side of their heads, and threatened everyone with guns.  He married my Aunt Edie, who kept the family on track, worked her whole life in the local bank, and dressed impeccably, no hair out of place.  Years later, she and I lived near each other in Florida, and I visited her often.  She was always amazed that I kept in touch with her since she'd divorced my uncle much earlier, but when you're a kid and you're brought up with sets of aunts and uncles, you always think of them as sets, no matter what happens later down the road.
I had another Aunt Edie, too.  She was my mother's sister, and she lived in Illinois with her husband, Ray.  She had the saddest story of all my aunts and uncles.  A beautiful redhead, she had married her handsome Navy man and left her family behind, heading for the corn fields of Illinois and what she hoped was a happy family life.  She had three children:  Adorable Nancy who loved posing in cowgirl outfits, stocky Billy who was chosen to be on the Olympic wrestling team, and smiling Laura Lee, the baby of the three.  Before Nancy had her fifth birthday, she found some medication and took the whole bottle, not realizing that the pills were for adult consumption and would prove fatal for her.  Devastating as that was, my aunt continued, her belief in God helping her to keep her little family together.  Many years passed, then my cousin Billy, a high schooler, made the family proud by becoming a champion wrestler.  When he got word that he had a chance in the Olympics, we all celebrated.  Then came the horrible day when my mother got a phone call from my Aunt Edie, and she stood in the dining room on that old black phone, saying, "No.  No.  That's not possible.  No."
Billy, at the tender age of 17, had driven his car into a huge oak tree across the street from the family home.  The accident resulted in his death.
My mother and my Aunt Sis donned their best Easter hats and suits and got on the plane to travel to Palatine, Illinois, to be with their sister for the funeral.  My mother told us about the distraught young athletes that carried Billy's casket into the church and about the lines of mourners that waited hours to come in to the funeral home.  He was such a big guy that it took many of his fellow athletes to raise him high.  And it took everything my mother and my Aunt Sis could do to support their grief-stricken sister.  I still don't know how my Aunt Edie managed to lose two children and to still find the strength to smile and to finish raising my cousin Laura Lee.
Just writing about these people makes me realize how much strength it takes simply to live.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Beatles: Music Timeline of My Life

My mother always had the radio on when we got up to get ready for school in the morning.  Most of the time, I ignored it, because I found it irritating.  I never liked getting up early and she was always so damn cheerful that it just got under my skin.  I know I got her irritated, too, because she had to call me at least 10 times before I finally stumbled downstairs.  When we lived in the projects, all three of us kids shared a bedroom and bunkbeds.  I went through kindergarten through fifth grade before we moved into my grandmother's house, so out of the three of us, I have the bulk of the school memories from that period of time, and to tell you the truth, I don't even remember whether Candy and Brian got up with me in the morning (though Candy must have).  Now that I think back, I realize Ma had a real love for music, though I never quite appreciated it.  She had a collection of albums that ranged from classical music to Frank Sinatra to country; in fact, when I moved out of the house, I took her Rhapsody in Blue/Gershwin album with me, and though she must have known I had stolen it, she never said anything.
When the Beatles first came out, we were still living in the projects. I had never liked Elvis, so when this new group was compared to him, it wasn't interesting to me at first, but then I heard them one morning on Ma's radio.  She teased me a little, told me I should learn how to dance like they did (she always liked it when we kids put on shows and sang and danced for her in the living room -- I'm sure we were horrendous).  In spite of myself, I did want to dance to their music.  I wanted to do more than dance to it -- I wanted to sing with them, wanted to scream with the girls who went to their concerts, wanted to date Paul.  Hell, I wanted to marry him!
Through the next ten years, I -- like most other teenage girls around the world -- watched the Beatles change the landscape of music itself.  I remember my 7th grade music teacher, a little guy who was a concert musician and pretty talented in his own right, telling us that the Beatles were a "flash in the pan," that they wouldn't even "be remembered much past 1968."  I had never been so sure of myself when I argued against him.  I found my voice during 7th grade and argued against any authoritarian who would let me (and got into trouble for it).
"She Loves You" was the theme of my middle school years.  We would pretend to hold microphones while we screamed and shook our hair, then fell against each other, laughing.  When I went to my first school dance in junior high, one of the songs they played on a regular basis was "Yesterday."  It was the slow dance, the one that made everyone look around nervously, wondering whether they would be one of the lucky ones to be paired off with someone else.  When I heard that song played tonight, it actually brought tears to my eyes because now it really IS yesterday. 
When the Beatles were playing with us during their Sgt. Pepper days, I was wearing an Eisenhower jacket (a tan wool jacket with a high collar and brass military buttons), white go-go boots and a Mia Farrow haircut.  I had my first boyfriend, and I thought it was cool to say that "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was my favorite song on the album (though I have to admit that, looking back, it wasn't my favorite album of all the Beatles produced).  Little did I know that the song (and many others) referred to more than a brilliant nighttime sky sprinkled with stars :-)
I was one of the lucky ones that got to see the Beatles in all their combinations:  as a group, Paul with Wings and Linda, Paul with Wings without Linda (loved that concert because I could fantasize about him), Ringo alone (what a horrible concert that was!), George with Ravi Shankhar (George was so hoarse and out of tune that I ended up angry to have spent nearly a hundred bucks on the ticket, but I left the concert with a new love for Indian sitar), and John with Yoko (I would have much preferred him alone; she screamed through the whole concert).  What has always amazed me is that they were not only brilliant lyricists but incredible musicians.  One of the few groups that could hold it together on their own, as well as together.  And not too many people could play their chords on the guitar!
By the time they sang together for the last time on "Abbey Road," I had dated several guys who had gone to VietNam.  Two of them didn't come home, and I'm not sure about a third.  I hated the war, hated what it was doing to people, hated that guys my age were killing others then coming home changed in ways that made them unrecognizable.  It was at that point that I found myself at odds with the church because the minister kept blessing troops that were breaking one of the Bible's most basic rules:  killing.  But, again, that's another story.
When the last Beatles album came out, I lived on the 3rd floor of my grandmother's house in my own room overlooking the street.  The room had pitched attic walls that I lined with posters of Simon and Garfunkel, Janis Joplin, and yes, the Beatles. If you turned the lights off and adjusted your eyes to the darkness, the posters would glow for a little while.  I used to pretend I was stoned and watch the shapes shift and settle into the darkness.  Often I sat at a makeshift desk in the corner, looking out the two windows that led onto a small roof (my mother caught me out there one night and was convinced I was going to jump. I had no intention of doing that -- sheesh, she knew I was afraid of heights! --  I just wanted to see the stars). At that rickety desk, I wrote poetry that mimicked what the Beatles were producing.  And I thought about the strange world we had been brought into. 
My mother still played the radio in the morning when I dragged myself out of bed for those last two years of high school, but she was playing country music now, and I found it repulsive.  Songs about sad lovers and dogs that followed trucks didn't move me like "Because the world is round it turns me on . . ." and "Blackbird singing in the dead of night .  . . "  And when the boyz went their separate ways, I followed along like so many others.  Lennon's revolutionary music spurred me to push back against those who wanted me packaged up nice and neat.  McCartney's love songs made me believe all would be right in the end.  And Harrison's shapeshifting from traditional to oriental sounds helped me appreciate the different ways people can believe in something other than themselves.  Ringo just made me laugh.
My mother might have taught me to appreciate music, but I think she was a bit dismayed to find that I had carved my own path, with the first bricks laid by four guys from Liverpool.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Millis and The Ol' Folks

My father was one of two children (I've already written about my aunt's camp in New Hampshire), but his mother (my grandmother) had several siblings, some of whom I never really met.  One was close enough to us that I ended up spending a lot of time with her. She was my Great Aunt Lily.  She and Great Uncle Ed had two children: Edward and Arthur. They all lived in a ranch-style house in Millis, west of Newton, in a very rural area. The house was nestled in a forest, yet their next-door neighbor  had a large patch of farmland. I didn't know anyone else who had a farm or grew anything, so it wqas fascinating to me to see food come out of the ground. 
My first memory of Millis is not my Aunt Lily's house, though. It's of my great-grandparents' farm, and it's really an image more than anything, a sensory memory of smells, sounds and one image: a large Christmas tree decorated with lit candles and surrounded by a series of graduated wooden dolls that fit inside each other, nesting dolls. That image was one I revisited for one of my short stories ("The Nesting Dolls"). 

Ma and Pa (my father's grandparents) had come to the United States from Sweden when my grandmother was approximately twelve. They settled on a piece of farm land and raised chickens, cows and horses. My father used to tell me stories about going out there when he was young.  He learned how to ride, as well as how to milk cows, kill chickens and grow vegetables. In fact, his skill with horses gave him one of his first jobs as a stable boy in Everett (if you could see Everett now, all brick, steel and tar,  it would amaze you to know there were farms in the area right up to World War II). I remember Pa as being quite tall (and scary) and Ma as having a lilting accent. Other than that, there's very little to connect to them since I was so young when they passed away.

But the rest of the group in Millis was a different story. And what a group they were! Every time my family went out there, it was a party, whether it was Christmastime or the middle of the summer. Aunt Lily was what we called a "hot ticket." Roly-poly and always laughing, she took no guff from the guys and brought my grandmother (who tended to be gracious, elegant and a little on the chilly side) out of her shell. Uncle Ed was big, too, with a booming voice. He had some kind of executive position in the local shoe factory. Their boys were as different as my city home and their country one. Eddie, a big football player, was engaged to tiny Jeannine, a girl all the guys constantly teased and fawned over. Arthur, on the other hand, was erudite and suave, and though everyone knew it, no one admitted he was gay until many years later.

In the basement of their house, Uncle Ed had built a wet bar and converted the area to a party room, with red leather banquette seating against the wall and plenty of room for dancing. It was there that Arthur taught me how to do the Cha-Cha (he could have competed on "Dancing with the Stars") and the Stroll. My father smoothly moved over that floor with his champion Jitterbug moves, and I considered myself lucky if he danced with me since most of the women monopolized his time. He was a charmer, Frank-Sinatra-style. There were very few moments in my life that my father wasn't laughing, and he especially loved to dance, so my memory of him is with a full smile, a toothpick stuck in the side of his mouth, his blue eyes sparkling. He wasn't very tall, probably 5'8", but he was the biggest man I knew, especially when he was out there on the dance floor. I loved watching him, but even more, I loved dancing with him.

When I grew a little older, I would go to Millis for a few days every summer, all by myself, and I roamed the sweet pine-smelling forest behind the house and helped the woman next door harvest potatoes, but I didn't get to dance with anyone. I did, however, get to eat my first lobster with Aunt Lily and Arthur, both of them teasing me mercilessly when I cried because the lobster was alive before it went into the boiling water. I didn't like that first lobster, though I love the meat now (and still can't watch them being boiled alive).

I was with Arthur in his red and white Impala convertible the day Marilyn Monroe died. When the news came over the radio, he pulled over to the side of the road, turned up the volume and just listened. His eyes filled with tears and his skin paled, and since I had just seen my first Marilyn movie ("Bus Stop") with Aunt Lily just a little while before that, I felt the sadness, as well. I'm not sure he has ever realized that my fascination with Marilyn started that day and ended up with me writing a book about the millions of collectibles created in her image. He probably would get a kick out of it. I should tell him the next time I send him a Christmas card . . .

Saturday, January 21, 2012


I just picked up a cheap (but good) boombox because I was tired of not being able to play my own CDs or listen to the radio (and yes, I know I can do it on the laptop, but it's not the same), and it got me thinking about how important it has always been to me to have music around . . . and why.

The first time I heard classical music, I was in second grade (probably around 1960), but the first time I truly appreciated it was third grade. Our music teacher was Miss Babikian, a tiny woman who wore cat's eye glasses, smiled all the time and had hair that I'm sure was hairsprayed into its truly permanent waves. She was a no-nonsense kind of person and demanded our attention, sometimes even more so than our regular teacher who was in charge of making sure we learned what was valuable (English, History, Math). Miss Babikian convinced me that music was just as valuable -- maybe even more so.
She taught our classes upstairs in what I could refer to as the "attic" of our grammar school. It was probably used as a rehearsal hall, because it had a stage and an audience full of folding chairs. (We also had a big auditorium downstairs.) I remember being up there one day when she played Peter and the Wolf for us, and she told us the story in between the orchestra's pieces. I visualize it in my head as she talked: the cold, winter white scene, the boy and the hunter, the wolves. Then she started teaching us the different sounds of the instruments: the timpani (love that word), the bassoon, the viola, the flute. And she would play a piece of music, asking us to identify the instruments. I knew the sound of the oboe, and she was amazed. Her reaction still sticks with me to this very day.  ("Excellent, Dawn!  That's right!  I'm amazed you knew that instrument.  It's one of the ones no one ever recognizes.")
After that, I would ask my mother to change the radio channel in the morning from her usual country music (don't ask me why she listened to that -- but that's what we ate breakfast to every morning.  Maybe that's why I don't like it) to the classical station. Occasionally she would do it, and I would get swept away in this romantic reverie, seeing delicate women dressed in huge, flowing ball gowns, circling a floor in a graceful waltz. It entered my subconscious like no other sound.
When I was 14, my parents gave me a new dress (sleeveless ivory lace with a brown velvet trim -- the prettiest dress I'd ever owned) and took me to dinner at a restaurant on the wharves in Boston. There was a piano player there, and he asked me what I wanted to hear since it was my birthday. I told him the name of the only classical piece I could name: Clare de Lune. It made me feel so grown up to hear that song and to actually recognize/name it (I still love it). My parents had no clue how deep my love for classical music went.
I'm sure I'm not the only person who ties particular songs to certain moments during my childhood, teenage and adult years, and I'm also sure I'm not alone in needing music to take me away from the day's confusion. Certain songs can make me cry no matter where I am ("Dance with my Father" by Luther Vandross), and others make me feel exceptionally "dangerous" ("Born to be Wild" by Steppenwolf). Others are signatures ("My Girl" by the Temptations was the first song they'd play at high school dances, and it's always been my phone ringtone), while others simply evoke memories ("United we Stand" was our high school song, and all of the Cat Stevens songs remind me of my first years in college and the friends who came to my house at least once a month for a party). I can't listen to Frank Sinatra without fond memories of my mother, and the Big Band music from the Forties makes me want to dance -- my father taught me how to jitterbug to that music, and it always makes me smile. And, of course, there are those songs that remind me of particular romantic moments when the future was something I looked forward to without fear. Those songs make me sad because that future is here and I should have feared it then, but then again, if I had, I wouldn't have had the experiences.  I would have had "The Dance," as Dave Koz says.
Yup, I'm listening to Norah Jones now on that "new" $12 CD player, and this little apartment seems so much warmer with the sound of music filling its little rooms . . . I'm less alone.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Opposite Sex: the early years

During my early grammar school years at the Hamilton School in Everett, the boys were pretty much just royal PIAs. They would take my waist-length braid and dip it into our paint cups (which didn't make my mother very happy), or they would tease me.  But there were a few good ones.

One of them (I'll call him John to protect the innocent :-)) and I were chosen to be the resident dance-and-song couple, and on special occasions like St. Patrick's Day, we would  go from room to room to do a song/dance. As a result, I learned how to do an Irish jig, a wooden shoe dance, and several others. (Don't laugh!) I can still remember the feel of the wooden shoes, and the clomp-swish-clomp as we danced.  Years later when clogs were in style, I had a head start on everyone else because I had practiced in those wooden shoes.

John and I played Hansel and Gretel in the school play in 2nd or 3rd grade, can't remember which, but I do remember being on stage in front of a large audience (as with everything, when you're a kid the rooms, buildings, and audiences are always bigger than when you return to the same place as an adult.  Somehow I think those childhood memories get tarnished if we try to relive them as adults).

As a result of being embarrassed on a regular basis, I think, John and I became really good friends. Yes, he gave me my first kiss, and I think my mother watched us closely throughout my school years, hoping we'd end up together. My parents had a habit of teasing me all the time about who I liked and what it would be like if I married that person (sigh), but we didn't even date. We were friends, period, and he's even on Facebook now. From what I hear, he became a fireman and has several kids and is still as nice a guy now as he was when we were growing up.
Then there was another guy, who I'll call Steve (again, to protect the innocent!). We met at the same time--1st or 2nd grade. He had a bit more of the "dark side." His teasing was often mean, but he made it clear from the time we were 7 or 8 that I was his "girlfriend," even though I didn't want to be. 
The kids teased him about his name, which tended to morph into some pretty vulgar iterations (thanks to kids' humor) and I think that teasing might have sharpened his already dark personality. I started to ignore him, and eventually, he turned his attentions to someone else. Through the years, he became one of those oily, vocational school guys that was always on the periphery of being in trouble. By the time we reached high school, I really wanted nothing to do with him, and after we graduated, I lost track of him.
Many years later, I was working as a professor of English at a small college in Northern Florida, and a guy came into my office, asking to be registered for one of my classes. He kept smiling at me, which I thought was strange, but I didn't think anything of it. He was pretty strange looking, too, with long gray hair  loosely gathered into a ponytail and a rather scruffy beard. He wore a pea green Army jacket, like the ones the guys who had fought in VietNam wore for years after they came home, and his holey jeans looked like they could stand on their own with the dirt caked on them.
Finally, he said, "You don't know me, Dawn, do you?" I said, "Should I?" (Figured he must have been in one of my classes previously.) When he replied, "I'm Steve." I almost fell off my chair. 
I had known him in Massachusetts, so what was he doing in Florida?  What were the chances he would enroll in the same college where I was teaching?  To say I was shocked is an understatement.  We sat in my office and talked for a long time about growing up, what he'd been doing (he'd been a long-timer in the Navy), families, friends, life.  By the time a couple of hours had passed, he looked like the Steve I knew in grammar school again, but a lot of time had passed, and I was willing to give him a chance to prove he wasn't the oily, almost illegal guy I knew in high school.
He and his stepson ended up in my class, and neither were prepared for how difficult I might be as a teacher. When it was clear I wasn't going to give them special breaks because I'd grown up with Steve, both of them dropped out. I was disappointed that he hadn't hung in there, and I tried to tutor both of them, but it was a no go.  He disappeared from campus as quickly as he'd appeared in my life again.
I found out from another former classmate a couple of years later that Steve had approached her and asked to borrow some of her clothes -- he had become a cross-dresser! She and I had a good laugh over it, but I've often wondered what happened to him after that . . . pretty sad, I think.
Here I am around the time I met the guys -- my hair goes all the way down my back, and yes, I'm missing teeth in the front, and my mother always cut my bangs  :-)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Summers in the 1950s/60s

I've told at least one story about a summer event, but summers, as a whole, were a different animal. If we stayed home when I was living in the projects (we moved to my grandmother's house when I was in 6th grade and lived on the 2nd and 3rd floors), we spent the summer in the playground, where we rode the swings, slide down the slide (couldn't do it on hot days because it was made of steel and would scorch your butt!), and climbed the monkeybars. I was good at hanging by my legs and often my friend Therese and I would hang upside down for long periods of time while we had silly conversations or sang equally silly songs. High school students hired by the Parks and Rec department worked in the playgrounds throughout the city and organize games or activities. On July 4th, we'd have bike decorating contests, and throughout the rest of the summer, we'd have coloring contests or hopscotch decorating (they'd give us big pieces of chalk to use). I always wanted to be one of those students who got that summer job. Always seemed like they were having fun.

But the best moments of summer happened only two or three times each year. Those were the days we drove to Newton Junction, New Hampshire to spend the whole day (or, if we were lucky, overnight) at my Aunt Jean's camp. The ride itself gave me tingles, because it was an hour long and wound through green areas, past farms, through groves of fir trees that smelled like Christmas, and gave us a view of life far more relaxed and special than our hot tar summer days in the projects.

When we entered the road leading to the lake where my aunt and uncle and three cousins lived during the summer, we'd play a game with my father called the "whoa nellies." The road twisted and turned through tall pine trees, going up and down like a roller coaster. My father would bring the big old Buick to the top of one of the hills, going up the hill as slowly as possible, then he'd hesitate at the top of the hill, and tap the gas so we'd speed down the decline and the three of us kids would yell "Whoa Nelly!" from the back seat. Then he'd do the same up the next and down again, three or four times until we came to the single lane bridge that gave us our first view of the lake. That smell is one I'll always associate with happiness -- the smell of the fir trees and the slightly musty smell of the lake.

The house they lived in was really basic, but it was large and split into two, like a duplex. The walls made of rough wood were thin -- you could hear everything through them. We'd head for the bathroom immediately to get changed into our swimming suits (why else were we there other than to dive into the lake?). I can still hear the sounds of everyone at the lake, kids screaming, parents warning kids to slow down, motorboats pulling skiers.

As soon as we got into our suits, we'd head down the stairs to the lake -- there were 46 creaky wooden stairs (I think -- I counted them every year), and halfway down, there was a landing where some of the adults would gather at night for drinks and talk. The sounds they made would float out over the lake, amplified as though they had microphones. The beach at the edge of the lake was a little strip of sand, maybe four feet wide, big enough for my mother to drag a lawn chair so she could sit and watch us. She never swam and rarely went into the water, and when she did, it was just up to her knees. She was content to just get her feet wet. My father, however, was a swimmer and taught us all how to swim, sometimes by just throwing us in. He could ski, too, and I would watch him getting pulled up by the boat and wave at him. I tried several times when I was in high school, but I never could catch on how to do it.

Just swimming out to the end of the wharf where a floating dock allowed us a "grown up" look at the beach was a goal. I finally made it when I was around 9 years old. Lying down out there, I felt like I had accomplished an Olympic feat. Next: to dive off the diving board. I did that several times and always wondered afterward why someone would put themselves through such pain. My body was not made for diving :-) I like to see and breathe!

When I was a teenager, the tenor of our trips to the lake changed. There were boys there! I could go out in a canoe at night! I could take a rowboat out all by myself and explore the little coves I hadn't even known existed when I was little! I met two boys who came from the other side of the lake (Richard Nixon -- I'm not kidding--and Paul Provencher). They made my mother nervous, but I ended up going out with Paul until he went to VietNam. He died there, and I couldn't go to the lake afterward without thinking of him. There was another boy, too, John Carpenito, who lived in the house next door to my aunt. He and I dated for a while in high school, until he went into the service. He ended up at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. I'm not sure what happened to him in VietNam. We lost touch. (I've always hated that.)

My cousins, Karen and Janice, were a lot older than I was -- gorgeous blond girls who seemed to have a golden existence. They dated the most handsome guys, sang like angels, and had beautiful lives -- or so I thought then. My cousin Karen now lives in Florida (she moved to the same town where I lived) and Janice still lives in New Hampshire. I know now that their lives weren't so "golden," they were simply normal, though better than mine. But back then, they had their own rooms and that was far more than I ever had. Janice covered her walls with felt flags from every little scenic town in New England and from every sports team. Karen's room was filled with white wicker furniture, and I got to sleep in her bed when I was older during one of the periods of time when I ran away to escape Richie's abuse.

I remember lying there and looking at the ceiling, thinking about what it would have been like to grow up there rather than in the projects. Would I have had a totally different life? Would I still have married someone who beat me? Would I have had more confidence in myself? Would I have had the gorgeous wedding she did, leaving the church looking like Grace Kelly in a classically-cut white satin gown, pale blonde hair piled atop my head, holding my husband's hand as we ducked under the arches created by the Marines in all white uniforms raising their sabers high above our heads?

But the most pertinent memory of going to the lake was one that truly shaped my life. An English couple lived in the house next door to my aunt's. The wife's name was Violet Winstead. She was beautiful in that dewy, blondish-silver-haired way that Vanessa Redgrave is. She was a writer and did pieces for the local newspaper. She and my aunt would talk about what she was doing, and I would hang out really close, just listening to her English accent, fascinated by this woman I believed to be worldly and wise. She was making a living as a writer, she had traveled all over the world, and she dressed like Kate Hepburn. I wanted to be her in the worst way, and when I finally started publishing in my teens, she complimented me once, and I treasured that compliment. Whenever I think of an inspiration, she is the person who comes to mind.


Age 10/11 -- 1963/64.  LOTS happened during that year.

In August, it was a hot-as-hell day, and I was in the playground where we spent our summers.  The tar was soft enough that you could carve your initials into it.  The playground had the requisite basketball court, a dome-shaped steel Jungle Jim, a slide, and several sets of swings.  It also had a circular spot where a spray pole was raised, and the Parks/Rec department would turn on the water for us to dance in on very hot days.  Those days were special.

We all could shimmy up the swing pole to get the swings down, and I used to do it first thing in the morning for everyone else.  The swings were essentially black rubber seats like pieces of car tires hung on chains. We used to have contests to see who could push them hard enough so that they would wrap themselves all the way up around the pole at night -- and in the morning, we would have to climb the pole to get them down, of course.

I climbed the pole that morning and reached my leg across to flip the swing over with my foot so that I could reach it to unwrap it.  Unfortunately, I lost  the seat and ended up falling from the top of the swingset (about 15 feet) to the tar ground below.  I landed on my back with a thud, blacked out, and laid there for I don't know how long until one of the other kids found me.  I distinctly remember them yelling for my mother, but I couldn't move.  Someone carried me home, and my mother took me to the doctor's where I ended up going through months of physical therapy.  They told my mother I'd have problems for the rest of my life and that I wouldn't be able to have kids.  They were wrong.

In November, JFK was shot/killed.  It was the first time I'd ever seen a whole community brought to its knees.  Mothers and fathers alike, everyone crying.  We kids were pretty much forgotten during that week  after the announcement and funeral.  And my mother -- who never put on the TV without complaining about it -- had the TV on nonstop for the next four days.  Since I had written my first published essay about the Cuban Missile Crisis probably just a year before he was assassinated, the death really resonated with me.  Still does.  I can't imagine the pain Jackie must have felt throughout the whole funeral with the world watching as she tried to maintain simply standing up straight.
In early December, my sister was crossing the road in front of the projects to go to the playground and was struck down by a drunk driver in a truck.  He took off like an already convicted felon.  I was outside at the time and when everyone started yelling, I went to the street and saw her lying there: her head on the curb, a slight scratch on her forehead, before the ambulance arrived.  She was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.  But they got her back, miraculously.  The operation those doctors performed to save her was the first of its kind:  the main artery to her heart was severed, and they literally sewed it back in place somehow.  People have doubted me when I tell them this story, but it happened and was written up in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Candy was in a coma (no drugs) for almost two weeks, and thoughout that period, my brother and I had a rotating group of babysitters staying with us (aunts, cousins, neighbors) while my mother and father were at the hospital.  I thought it was cool that I could watch TV all the time.  Really had no idea what was going on until we were allowed to see my sister in the hospital on Christmas Day.  It was overwhelming -- the smells, the sounds, seeing my sister in that hospital bed, small and pale and not like my sister at all -- and I passed out cold.  Everyone used to tease me about that. 

Candy's time in the hospital brought about quite a few changes at home.  I think my parents realized all too clearly how close we had come to losing one of us, and they began treating us all just a bit differently.  One of my favorite memories is of a sunny, quiet afternoon when I was alone with my dad and he let me fall asleep cuddled on his lap.  I know this was when Candy was in the hospital, but it wasn't until I became a parent myself that I realized the significance.  My dad wasn't someone who normally let us crawl into his lap.  He worked hard, came home and ate, then fell asleep.  There weren't too many down moments like the one he shared with me.  He must have been feeling especially shaken during that period in our lives when every day was measured in moments rather than hours.

When my sister came home after almost three months in the hospital, she was a spoiled rotten brat, and I couldn't stand her for a long time. I had no clue at that time exactly what she had been through, no understanding of the strength it took for her to survive and to come back to us, so my only thought was that she was getting anything she wanted, whenever she wanted, and that wasn't fair.   (Okay, I was a brat, too.  I was a kid -- so shoot me!)  One thing I can say now that I'm an adult is that I'm really glad she had the strength to pull through, because she's been one of the most special people in my life, and I love her almost as much as I love my own daughter.