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.

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