Saturday, February 25, 2012

A-B-C: Spelling Bees

In sixth grade, a sort of adolescent transition took place in more ways than one.  Yes, we moved to a house with a backyard filled with lilac bushes on a tree-lined street.  My sister and I shared a girls' only bedroom, instead of sharing with my brother.  My feminine senses became heightened.  Boys started mattering.  And the high school loomed as a very real "next step" only a few blocks up Broadway.

The traditions and repeated events we enjoyed throughout grammar school started to disappear, though I didn't see it at first and wouldn't appreciate it until much later.  I should have treasured those last experiences, but like everything you trundle through as an adolescent, the experiences were confusing and painful and I was never quite sure whether what I did was "right."

At the Hamilton School, once a year we had a spelling bee, and if you made it to the "finals," you ended up in the auditorium on the stage in front of the microphone . . . staring down at a small audience of friends and family who had come in to cheer on their spelling bee participant.  For days before the bee, my mother would sit at the kitchen table with me, drilling me on the lists of words our teacher gave us throughout the year.  The bee was usually scheduled at the end of the year, right before summer break, so those lists were long.  I remember laying my head on the table, begging her to stop so I could go to sleep.  I knew these words.  Why did we have to drill for hours?

On the day of the bee, I joined everyone else who had made it through the preliminary rounds.  Heart pounding, palms sweating, we sat on stage next to each other until it was our turn.  Then we would be given a word, repeat it, spell it out correctly, repeat it again, then sit down. I distinctly remember every single spelling bee and every word I misspelled that took me out of the bee.  I would go home and tell my mother, and years later, she, too, remembered the misspelled word and would ask me out of the blue how to spell it . . . F-R-I-E-N-D, capital A-m-e-r-i-c-a, C-O-U-L-D-N-apostrophe-T.  Ugh.

Finally, in the 6th grade, I participated in the final spelling bee.  Thank God.  Only this time, the bee wasn't in the familiar auditorium that I remembered, there was no microphone, and no one I knew in the audience. 

I felt more trepidation than I ever had before.  Surely everyone in the room would laugh out loud at the new girl when she made a mistake.  Surely everyone stared at me when I rose out of my seat to repeat the first word back to the teacher.  Surely everyone wanted me to fail.

I knew that my strengths in the classroom revolved around anything to do with reading or writing.  Had there been a Math bee, I would have failed miserably.  But I also had less faith in myself as the years went by because of those earlier failures and my mother's expectation that I would get nothing but A's on my report card.  Perhaps it was my own insecurity that I wasn't perfect that butted its ugly head into the last spelling bee, making sure that I lost in one of the earlier rounds rather than to face the fear of standing on a stage in front of a microphone to be tested to spell words that I would normally have no problem at all spelling . . . but, whatever the case, that 6th grade spelling bee was over quickly.  And I was happy.  My mother, however, was not.

These days, I watch on TV when the grammar school kids make it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.  I see them struggle with roots and prefixes, know that they are aware of the Latin and Greek spellings that give them clues to words they have never heard before, and I wonder how many of them practice with their parents for hours and hours before striding onto that stage.  I think about the time they spent with mothers or fathers more intent on their child winning than the child him/herself. I also think about the incredible satisfaction and rush of love they share when the child spells the word correctly, the partnership, the bonds that strengthen as a result of spending so much time together striving for a common goal. 

And I realize I miss that.  I miss the intense caring only my mother could provide.  It's not the spelling bee.  It's time.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Moving . . . Nothing Easy About It

During the summer before sixth grade, my parents announced we were moving into my grandmother's house.  After my grandfather died, my grandmother took the insurance money he left her and bought a house.  Ironically, it was the first house she had owned since her kids were little.  My grandfather and she had always lived in an apartment when I was growing up.  Now that I think about it, I realize that she bought the house just so we could live upstairs, and it was probably just as well, because we were able to keep her company and take care of her as she aged.

The house on Walnut Street represented the "moving on up" mentality Americans had during the 1960s, but to me, all it meant was that I was leaving the friends I had known since kindergarten and the school where I had been happily ignorant of how poor we were. 

Though the Edward Everett Hale school was right around the corner from the new house, the walk to my sixth grade classroom that first day seemed more fraught with boogeymen and nightmares than the days when I saw the face in the window at the bottom of the hospital hill.  I knew no one, though my parents had both grown up in the neighborhood and told me tales of Miss Dyer, the principal of the school, who had been there when they were little.  I figured she must have been at least 100 years old by that time, since my parents were soooo much older than I was.

The school's windows, reaching to the ceilings of the classroom (probably only about 10 feet tall, though they seemed twice that size at that time), opened with the help of a long pole with a hook on the end.  My most vivid memory of the one year I spent at that school is a smell of lilacs . . . the scent I have since associated with springtime.  The teacher pulled down the top half of the windows and warm air -- and that fresh lilac smell -- floated into the classroom.  No one paid attention to the rest of the History lesson.

I made new friends there, but I was always aware that I was the "new girl."  The group of girls who befriended me lived in the neighborhood and went everywhere together.  We walked to school and home together, tried smoking cigarettes together (hiding the pack we shared in someone's bushes every night and hoping it didn't rain before we reached them again the next morning), dressed up for Halloween together, roamed the neighborhood looking for driveways to shovel after the first snow (I discovered how to make money then), and talked about the boys we met when we started Junior High.

My family's new house, a pea green, three-story buidling, where my grandmother lived on the first floor and we occupied the second and third, was the place where I would spend the rest of my teenage years.  Its small backyard gave my grandmother more room to garden, and she happily created little beds that outlined the square expanse.  In one corner, a huge old lilac tree grew and behind it, the perfect cave where I could bring my books to lie on the cool earth and read for hours on a summer afternoon.

Gone were the days of playing on a hot tar playground.  It took a while to get used to the move and to adjust to being the "new" person.  And I must admit that it made all the difference in how I saw myself as a person.  I was no longer confident and happy.  Instead, I started questioning myself and everything around me, especially the scary visions of war I saw on TV every night.

But that's another story for another blog.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Glendale Park

Growing up in the projects meant that we didn't really know too much about trees.  I never climbed a tree as a kid (though my father hung a swing from the tree in the back of our house on Woodlawn Street, I moved from there before first grade), though I was great at climbing swingsets.  We never saw a fox or a rabbit or a deer, except on TV, but I knew how to capture a grasshopper in a Skippy Peanut Butter jar (with holes punched through the lid).  I had not learned the knack of skipping stones across the mirror surface of a quiet pond, but I knew how to attach a pair of iron skates to my shoes, turning the key with enough force so they'd stay attached (I had skinned too many knees when a skate flipped off, bringing me to an abrupt halt on a patch of asphalt).

But we had a large, green park in the middle of Everett where we city kids could get a taste of the green grass and trees that I would learn much later in my life could actually be part of someone's back yard.

In the summertime, Glendale Park came alive.  Four baseball/softball fields welcomed teams throughout the day and into the cool summer nights.  Around the periphery of the fields, a paved walking path provided enough space for two large prams to pass each other comfortably so mothers walked their children during the daytime.  My aunt would meet us there, usually with one of her kids in a big black baby carriage, and she and my mother would sit on a bench while the "older kids" (me included) tossed a ball, played baseball, or just chased each other around the bases.  Lots of other moms brought their kids to the park and took advantage of the time to catch up with the latest gossip.  They paid little attention to us, so we explored the whole park, including that area behind the bleachers that would end up being important for a different reason (much different!) when we were in our teens.

The baseball area of the park was flat, but in the back of the park rose a fairly good size hill, terraced at two different levels.  The parks and recreations department hunkered into the first level of the hill, tucked against the rise in such a way that anyone with a yen for sports would be discouraged to try to navigate the trek to the office.  Above the office building sat a double tennis court where a friend and I first learned how to lob the ball across the net when I was in junior high.

Above the parks department and the tennis court was another rizer.  And only the bravest of the brave would make the trek upward so that s/he could catch a wave back down the rest of us.  Up above the park, another set of projects sat with a great view of the skyscrapers of Boston in the distance.  We knew some people "up there," but we rarely visited them until later in my life when my cousins moved in, had children, and I became their babysitter.

That hill became my favorite part of the park in the wintertime.  Come December, when the snows began to fall in earnest, the hill became a sledder's dream.  One could start at the very top on a Fearless Flyer and make the long run down the first (and most exciting) half, then over the rise and down the second half to land on the flat area of the baseball field.  If the snow was particularly slick, one could go over the rise to the second half in the air -- screaming and laughing -- like Evil Knievel.  Plenty of kids did that and more than a couple landed on their skulls, occasionally having to take a trip to the emergency room.

One of my favorite pics is of me at approximately two years old, wrapped up in a snowsuit, bundled in several blankets, and being pulled on a sled by my father.  I remember that day and how cold it was -- and how hard it was to move even my little finger!  My rosey and cold cheeks took at least an hour to thaw out.  Many more times in my life, my cheeks were just as frozen and chapped at the end of a day in Glendale Park.

The Park isn't the same anymore.  Our sledding hill is now occupied with the new high school.  All glass and chrome, it's pretty to look at, but I must admit I still love the brick building on Broadway where we crammed into small classrooms and complained about the cafeteria food.  And I hate that the new building takes up the space where we spent so many happy days sledding, playing tennis, and getting to know ourselves under the trees.

P.S.  Thanks to John Cooney (Class of '71) and my sister, Candy Cioffi, for the pics they provided me for this post.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


My grandfather (my father's father) was one of those men women gravitated to.  A dangerous man, handsome in a sensual way even late into his sixties.  His shock of pure-white hair was thick and shining, styled in much the same way as Elvis's but long before the rocker was born.  It is that hair and his dark, knowing eyes that I remember most and that pierce anyone who sees a photo of him.

But the Grampie I remember is the one who came home from work in mid-afternoon, showered and changed into a white t-shirt and work pants, and immediately took a nap on the flat, brown, nubby couch my grandmother kept tucked in a corner of their living room.  It was such a ritual that everyone knew not to disturb him as he lay there, white-socked feet crossed neatly, arms wrapped around him like a blanket. 

When he was awake, he was my partner in crime.  We'd sit at the kitchen table eating breakfast when I stayed over during the summer, and he'd teach me how to create his favorites:  peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches; graham cracker and milk "soup"; soft-boiled eggs, butter and mayonnaise.  Now that I write this down, it's no wonder that everyone in my family has died of heart attacks.  We had the worst diet!  But it was delicious, because I was eating it with Grampie.

Grampie and my dad took turns teaching me how to swim when we visited my aunt's summer camp in New Hampshire.  Grampie, tanned and muscular in his swimsuit, would put his hand on my stomach, then show me how to cup my fingers and bend my elbows to do the Australian crawl, and when I least expected it, he would take his hand away and say, "See, you're floating, now just keep on going.  That's it.  Just keep moving your feet.  Dig your hands through the water."

During the week, Grampie worked for the City, repairing their vehicles and managing road crews.  At one point, he ran for mayor of the city, but something happened -- I'm not quite sure what -- and he decided he really didn't want to be a politician.  But politician or not, it was clear to me that everyone knew him.  He'd ride in one of the convertibles for our 4th of July parades, and I'd point him out to all my friends as we sat on the sidelines watching the marching bands and the troops of Army men filing by.  My Grampie would wave and laugh, as my father would in later years, and point at me as if I were someone special.

When I stayed at my grandparents' apartment on Baker Road during the summers, I'd roam through their five rooms, touching the momentoes from his years in the service, his medals, the photos of the two of them, their children and all of us grandchildren.  My favorite photo was the one of him in his dough boy uniform from World War I.  The sepia photo depicted him in the flat, wide-brimmed brown wool hat, his face at an angle to the camera, those hooded eyes of his challenging the photographer . . . and beyond, as if he knew all the women who would be affected by the photo.  He wears the high collared jacket and though we can't see him, I'm sure he has jodphurs on, as well.  If he had a moustache, he could be Clark Gable, that movie-star handsome -- and confident.

By the time I was in grammar school, Grampie was in his late sixties, and though none of us knew it until it was too late, he had lung cancer from smoking close to two packs of cigarettes a day.  No one realized how dangerous smoking was back then, or I'm sure Nana would have asked him to quit.  And every one of the guys in our family smoked.  It was part of being a man, part of growing up, and it was something even I would adopt before I hit my teens.  It was "cool."

Grampie died when he was 71 of complications due to lung cancer and heart problems.  I remember my father going back and forth to the hospital at the end and how hushed the house was when he came home with the news of his father's death.  Somehow, my father realized that my Grampie's death was the first I'd experienced, and I'm sure my parents talked about how to deal with it.  At 11, I knew what death was and knew that I would not see Grampie again, but I had no idea how to say goodbye.  Thankfully, Dad did.

He brought me to the funeral home where Grampie was prepared for viewing.  My Uncle Bill owned the home and greeted us at the front door, a little more somber than his usual boisterous self.  He hugged me, called me "Little Dawn," as everyone in my family did (my father was "Big Don"), then took us into the hallway of the home.  The cut-velvet wallpaper on the walls reminded me of the wallpaper in our own living room, except this wallpaper was darker and more elaborate.  The carpeted hallway led to a room lined with velvet curtains so that sounds became whispers.  And there, in an elaborate, mahogany coffin, lay my grandfather, his white hair perfectly groomed, wearing a suit and tie, looking distinguished, handsome and almost like he would turn his head at any moment and say, "What do you say, little girl?  Want a peanut butter and banana sandwich with your Grampie?"

We were the only ones in the room, my father and I.  He whispered to me that I could kneel on the red velvet bench in front of the coffin and say a little prayer.  I was terrified.  What if Grampie didn't like my prayer?  But I did, staring at my grandfather the whole time.  Dad let me stay there for a moment, and I was sure he stood behind me, ready to answer whatever questions I had.  But I didn't ask any.  I got it.  This was death.  Grampie was gone.  He wouldn't be there to hold his hand under me as I swam anymore.

Dad finally touched my shoulder and led me to the guest book, telling me I could be the first to sign it.  So in my awkward grammar school penmanship, I wrote my name and the date.  And as I followed my Dad out of the funeral home, I realized he had done this especially for me, and I knew, at that moment, that I had grown up.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Playing Outside

We played outside every day when we were kids. I think we went out as soon as the sun rose and didn't come in until it set (maybe my mother planned it that way! It seemed she was always cleaning and wanted us out of the way, though I don't know how that was possible since our house wasn't that big. On the other hand, my aunts came over on a regular basis, so I do remember them sitting having tea and chatting it up.) The good thing was that the other kids in the projects were out at the same time, so we always had someone to play with -- even in the wintertime.  But summertime was my favorite, so this blog is going to be about all the games we played during those hot days.
We were never at a loss for things to do, and most of them cost little to nothing, like the hand clapping games. Sometimes just learning the clapping sequence took a whole summer, but we all knew at least three or four of the games, and it was our goal to get the person we were playing with to miss a beat. Now that I think of it, those who played instruments in the band probably got good practice with the hand games we took. Each game had a chant to go with it, like "Miss Mary Mac Mac Mac, all dressed in Black Black Black . . . " There were so many, that I can't remember them all. The most important part was that the words went with the clapping sequence. We didn't know it then, but that was early rap (LOL!).
I was always good at Chinese jump-rope. The "jump" rope was actually a huge elastic band that two people could stretch between them. We'd stand with the jump rope around our ankles, stretching it taut between us. Then one of us (or a third person) would take one of our feet and bring the rope over, criss crossing it and jumping over it so that it becomes a geometric shape. To manage the complicated jumps takes coordination and timing, and not everyone got it. There were some girls who were so nimble that they seemed to fly back and forth over the Chinese jump-rope and others who could barely manage a three-step sequence. I had my good days and my bad days, but the hula hoop, now that . . .
My father brought my first hula hoop home when I was 5. I had no idea what it was or what I was supposed to do, and he really didn't either. We stood under the big oak tree where my tree swing was hung, and he leaned against the tree, smoking the Camel always hanging from the corner of his mouth. "You're supposed to swing it around your waist," he said, pointing to the hula hoop. "Okay, Dad, how do I do that?" "Just kind of swing your hips," he said, then he turned and went up the stairs, leaving me to figure it out on my own. And I did. Pretty soon, I could stand there and hula hoop-it for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Right now, I'd probably be able to swing it three or four times, and that's about it.
One of my favorite things to do on a summer afternoon was to create hopscotch tables with chalk, especially if it was colored chalk. We would designate a "score" for each block and add them up as we hopped. Some blocks we'd hit on one leg, others we'd hit with two feet down. During the summer, you could see a set of hopscotch squares every ten feet or so. We'd draw them all over the playground and use them until it rained, then we'd have to draw them again. Each block would have a number, and you'd have to follow the numbers in order to go through the hopscotch correctly.
At night when it was cooler, the running games would start -- like dodge ball. When I think about it now, I realize how cruel that game was. If you had something against someone or didn't like what they did that day, you could take the ball and SLAM it against the person. The point was to circle a group of people around and have one person in the middle who would have to dodge the ball as it was tossed against them. If you got hit with it, you lost; and you knew if you had pissed off someone if they hit you with the ball so hard that you ended up with a huge red circle on your thigh. I can definitely remember going inside at night still aching from that game.
Speaking of group games, the easiest one to play was one whenwe stole our mother's clothesline and used it for a group jump rope. Two people would hold the rope and swing it for three of our people to jump in between. Sometimes this would become a huge cluster-mess, but other times, synchonicity would happen, everyone would jump simultaneously, and it would be like the event was choreographed. Those were the moments when it was exhilirating to be a kid.
After a day of all of this physical "stuff," the one thing I remember about the moments between dinner and bedtime was the nighttime bath (with my mother, your skin was rubbed so raw, it became bright red), then the clean-smelling, soft PJ's . . . ahhhh . . . it's definitely time to slide between the crisp cotton sheets and sleep!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Moving "Carvinal" -- Food Trucks/Rides

This one came up out of the blue when I was thinking of something else, but there's definitely a connection with growing up . . .
As I've said before, I grew up in the projects, and though we were poor, we had a good time.  All of us kids made games out of nothing.  We didn't need to have fancy toys or expensive bikes to have a good time, but occasionally, we did like being entertained by someone else, and during the summer, that was not a problem. 
During the summer, when all the kids were home from school, the moms had us 24/7, and I have to admit there were times when the females screaming at their children reverberated in the neighborhood.  Thankfully, we kids were like migrating birds:  when a female shriek rose above normal decibels, we all swarmed and flocked to the other end of the neighborhood where it was quieter :-)  We all loved our moms, but we had each other as "protectors" when it got to be a bit too much.  And our mothers, bless them all, definitely went beserk more than once during a hot Boston summer (pre-air-conditioning, mind you!).
It was on those days that nickels/dimes/quarters were handed out with abandon when the traveling food trucks came into the neighborhood.
The ice cream truck was usually the first one to arrive.  It would play an obnoxious musical tune (like Pop Goes The Weasel) -- over and over and over -- as it patrolled the neighborhood, stopping two or three times to sell Popsickles, Fudgesickles and Ice Cream Sandwiches to the kids and their parents.  If we were lucky, the moms would relinquish their coins and let us get a treat.  I'm sure they were terrifically excited that we quieted down for at least half an hour (until the sugar kicked in :-).
And at night, the Italian guys in the pizza truck came through.  They usually arrived on the weekends (it wasn't a nightly thing, probably because the guys knew that we all had certain dinners that fell on particular nights on the week -- the myth about spaghetti on Wednesdays was actually true in our neighborhood).  So, Friday night would be our moms' night off from cooking for the family.  That didn't happen often with my mother.  I could count on one hand the amount of times we got pizza from the truck.  My mother would say it was because the pizza wasn't that great, but I think it was because we simply didn't have the money.
And then . . . and THEN . . . there were the "other trucks."  The ones I loved best!
I remember three ride trucks in particular. One had a mini ferris wheel on it.  I think it probably sat 6 kids, tops.  The tiny wheel went round and round with a callipe playing the whole time.  Again, an obnoxious tune.
Then there was the bumper car truck.  Four or five little cars with antenna type wires that attached to the ceiling of the truck.   And when kids got into those cars -- BANG! -- you could drive, first of all (how cool was that?) and you could bump into anyone you wanted to -- with no apologies!  Yeah!  Let me drive!!!
And the third one was the mini Whip.  On the back of a flatbed trailer, a small oval race-car type of track and cars that attached to the center of the circle and whipped in oblong circles so fast that your head would jerk back.  (All kids love pain and they love to scream!)
Those trucks came around half a dozen times during the summer, and if we were really really really lucky, we got to ride them.  I often wondered about the kids who lived in other neighborhoods (rather than the projects) and whether they could ride those truck rides more than we did.
Yes, we might have been poor, but summers were special, and whenever we got one of these special treats, it was memorable.
I really appreciated those treats -- still do!