What We’re Made Of
The memory of the ice-skating shop I referenced in last week’s post and the brilliant recall of its name, The Skate Exchange, which was revealed to me in a conversation I had this week, stirred-up some childhood memories that will no doubt come in handy.
Tell me a story, mom.
Every night when I lay with her for a few minutes at bedtime, my ten-year old daughter still asks me to tell her a story. She’s not looking for Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks, she wants to hear about my childhood, like how we used to jump fences when we were running from Dobermans in the gravel yard and whose kiss was the best when I played Spin-The-Bottle in the 7th grade. It’s fascinating to her and very different to how and where she’s being raised. Nestled neatly in the suburbs, an hour-and-a-half outside of the big city, there are no sidewalks for her to walk to school on, no empty lots to take a shortcut through, no bicycle to ride to a friend’s house. She doesn’t hangout on the street corner where the local deli is or come home when the sun goes down. She gets driven everywhere.
She has no idea what it’s like to live in a five-story apartment building, in the summer, on the 4th floor, with no elevator. I’m not sure she even knows what a dumb-waiter is or can imagine how we used it to send garbage from our apartment to the basement or pulley-up groceries and kids occasionally. Nor can she fathom the advantages of apartment-living, how great it can be for trick-or-treating and getting a game of kick-ball together, on the fly, with the gaggle of kids that resided within. Her entire class of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders combined don’t make a whole team. Woods with trails where deer live is her backyard. In-door pools and lakes are where she swims. She’s never seen a beach laden with tar that could only be found on the rooftop of an apartment building.
Tar Beach. It’s where we carried heavy, wet loads of wash to, two-flights-up because we had no dryer and because that’s where our and all the other tenants’ clotheslines were. It’s where you could go to escape from your crowded apartment and find solace for a while, maybe even meet up with a neighbor and chat a bit.
In the summer, the sweltering heat would leave a steamy haze over the roof’s flooring, partially melting the sticky-gooey-black glue in the uneven lines where the tar was laid extra thick to patch up cracks or small holes. If you were foolish enough to go up there barefoot, which we so often were, you’d quickly scorch the bottoms of your feet, leaving them blackened and raw, after a desperate attempt to find a shady spot somewhere across the rooftop to rest and cool your toes on. Sometimes we’d bring a towel and a bottle of Johnson’s baby-oil up with our load, choosing to fry for the hour it took for the clothes to dry. It was a fast but painful way of getting a “tan”, as we always ended up red instead of brown at that hour’s end. Those were the worst of burns.
Tar Beach was where we brought our lawn chairs to watch the fire works on the 4th of July. It was the temporary home to Secret Servicemen and government snipers when President Nixon’s motorcade drove down Main Street, right passed our building in 1972.
And it was from our Tar Beach that a woman in her early 40s purposely plunged to her death, landing in the same asphalt parking lot behind our building where we played our kick-ball games. Her name was Virginia Coombs and her mom was the Bubble Gum Lady who lived on the 2nd floor. All you had to do was knock on her door and when she opened it, she’d hand you a piece of Bazooka bubble gum from the drawer of a little wooden table she had against the wall near her apartment door. No words needed to be exchanged, expect “thank-you,” of course. She knew why we were knocking.
I didn’t know the Bubble Gum Lady had a daughter who’d been married.
I was eight or nine-years old when that happened. A few hours after her death, two men came and shoveled her remains into the bed of a red pick-up truck. I know this because I watched them do it from my bedroom window. I had to figure out how to process what I saw, myself because no one ever explained to me what happened to Virginia Coombs that day.
I chose to pray for her.
I still do, which is why I remember her name.
Tar Beach. It was from there that if no one was home when we got home from school, my siblings and I would climb down the wrought-iron fire-escape to a 4th floor, bedroom window in order to get into our apartment when we forgot our key. I remember doing this and being petrified while doing it too. I’m afraid of heights. It’s only a miracle that none of us fell and perished, ourselves.
Maybe there really is something to the old saying, “If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger.”
I think it’s the experiences of our childhood and how we process them that help define what we’re made of; the good, the not so good, the scary, the sad, the joyful. All these things contribute to who we are as adults. Our childhood helps build our character. It’s there, where we learn to use humor to protect ourselves, where we learn about compassion and empathy and most of all, love. Sometimes the purest kind of love can stem from that spin-the-bottle-kiss that you remember so fondly. The kind that lasts a lifetime.
My daughter will never have the same kinds of experiences I had. She’s not meant to.
She has her own.
But she loves to hear about mine and through them, some of them anyway, I hope she’ll get a glimpse of what helped me, make me, who I am.
Photo Credit #1 Beacon Hall
Photo Credit #2 Clothes Line
Photo Credit #3 Nixon in New Rochelle 1972