The Spider and the Fly
“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I’ve a many curious things to show when you are there.”
“Oh no, no,” said the little Fly, “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair
-can ne’er come down again.”
Photo Credit: Web ©2016 KarenSzczukaTeich&Takingtheworldonwithasmile.com
Fall bursts with bright colors, Oktoberfests and beer, memories from my childhood and the man with the handlebar mustache.
Memories are a curious thing. They come in the form of a person’s personal perspective. Each situation, event or conversation, means something different to all those involved, and also to those not involved. We give different meanings, according to our belief systems, and how we are affected by the event. In Other words, we don’t see things as they are necessarily; we see things as we are. (http://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/perspectives.htm)
The following is my perception and memories of a man who I am truly grateful to have had in my life.
The sun had set and I remember watching the glow of the red sky slowly fade to black. It had been a long day, a great day of blueberry picking but it was late now and clearly we were lost. It felt like hours since we’d left my parents. Maybe it was. Somehow, we missed where they turned. The back roads of the Catskill Mountains are endless, nameless and windy. There were no maps or street lights to guide you on these less traveled roads. I can’t recall everyone who was in that pale blue Volkswagen bus with me that evening, I think my brother was, maybe my sister too but I remember the mood perfectly: content and tired, despite being lost. I think I was seven or eight-years old. Another thing I remember for sure; I wasn’t scared. I felt safe. It was another adventure. Finally, we came upon a tavern and stopped for directions. We followed him inside the small watering hole and waited patiently, spinning ourselves on bar stools as he drank from a frosty mug, no doubt making new friends while he inquired about our whereabouts and how to get back to the Parkway.
This remains one of my earliest memories of the man with the handlebar mustache.
He wasn’t a “blood” relative but we were close like family and called him Uncle anyway. Uncle Jacob (pronounced Yahck-up) lived with his family, his wife and three sons in an affluent part of Westchester, NY, a short walk from Rye Beach and Playland Amusement Park where their famous boardwalk was featured at the end of the movie “Big”, when the “Zoltar the Magnificent” fortune teller machine returned the adult Tom Hanks to his original childhood age/state of being. As a kid I roamed that boardwalk with my siblings a million times over. My family spent lots of weekend time at the house in Rye. Uncle Jacob and my Dad were very good friends. Shortly after my Dad immigrated to this country from Germany, Uncle Jacob gave him a job as a painter’s apprentice and a place to live. That was over 50-years ago. Back then, an immigrant coming to the United Sates had to have a job and a place to live so as not to be a burden on society.
Uncle Jacob’s wife, Tante Theresa, was an amazing cook and made the best Sunday dinners and chocolate chip cookies you ever had. For real. The three boys were older than me and my siblings. I can’t say I had a relationship with any one of them in particular but I do believe that a life-long bond that exists among family members was created between us during those years and beyond. They knew my Dad before he got married, before we were born. They were patient with us when we came over. I remember watching them and my Dad play with this huge train or racing car track that Uncle Jacob built for them. It was on a wooden board as big as a bed, in fact it retracted onto the wall just like a Murphy Bed. It was a fun, comfortable place to be in, like home and even though the neighborhood was a quiet and reserved one, Uncle Jacob’s house was anything but quiet and reserved.
Looking back I realize Uncle Jacob was the most progressive man I’ve ever known.
To. This. Day.
Everything I experienced at that house was unique and unusual although it all seemed quite normal at the time. As a child, I loved Uncle Jacob but it’s only now as an adult that I truly appreciate the happy, wonderful, exciting things he introduced and exposed me to.
I think of him with the same kind of respect I have for Jean Piaget, John Dewey and Ralph Waldo Emerson and realize how amazingly lucky I was to have had this man’s influences infiltrate my childhood. My schooling occurred behind the stone cold walls of a small, strict catholic school but much of my learning occurred under the indirect tutelage of the man with the handlebar mustache. He was a natural teacher demonstrating a hands-on approach to living and learning. He was a modern day Dr. Doolittle only instead of having an English accent; his was German occasionally slurred by a happy consumption of wine or beer. Like the Pied Piper too, children and adults were drawn to him and his charismatic ways.
Let me explain.
In addition to being a house painter by trade, he was a musician and a singer. Actually, he was a party on two feet, a walking Oktoberfest, all-year-round. He played the accordion. Always and everywhere.
He was a butcher. One time he and my dad bought a pig and among other things, made sausage in his basement, letting me hold the clear, thin casing while he cranked out the ground up sausage meat into it. Another time they bought a calf. We ate veal every day in every way for about a year. I don’t eat veal as an adult.
And yet another time when my younger brother wandered into the basement and as he puts it,
One minute there was a chicken running around and the next minute Uncle Jacob laid it on the butcher block and chopped it’s head off.
He was a farmer, growing tomatoes and other vegetables, and berries along the perimeter of the square shaped fence that surrounded the patch of grass that was his back yard.
He raised rabbits. I remembering playing house with them in their living room, dressing them up and rocking them in my arms like I would a baby doll.
He was a Bee Keeper and for some time, kept his bees in boxes on the roof of his quiet little house in the affluent city of Rye. One summer, when I was 10 or 11, he gave me and my friend a job building bee hive frames. He showed us how to hammer and wire them. He treated us like we were capable. At the end of the day he paid us with jars of honey. Soon after, a neighbor complained and called the police. Uncle Jacob called the newspaper and had me come back and go up on the roof where the bees were to show them how safe it was. Eventually, they made him move the bees.
We had freedom to explore in and out and around his house. There was a small concrete swimming pool that was enclosed by a gate on the property that we swam in often, amongst the huge green lily pads and giant orange gold fish that he kept in it.
He made my brother his first fishing pole out of a stick and some twine and helped him catch his first fish with it.
He was a swimmer and swam in the Long Island Sound, probably every night. He would walk to a small alcove with his flippers in hand and his best friend, Horste, by his side. Horste was his dog, I think he was a coonhound. Sometimes we would go and watch him and Horste swim together.
Uncle Jacob and my Dad would lay in the living room on a Sunday afternoon reading the German newspaper or watching soccer, my Dad on the couch and Uncle Jacob on the floor. Uncle Jacob would call us over one by one and tell us to walk on his back to massage his weary muscles.
As I grew older and became more preoccupied with my own life and living, going to college and working, my personal contact lessened and at some point Uncle Jacob left his house in Rye to go live where his heart was, in the back woods of the Catskill Mountains. I never got to see his place there but my mom used to refer to it as Jacob’s Chutzpah! I imagined it to be a place where animals and people could dwell in an uncomplicated way. Tante Theresa remained for the most part in the house in Rye and I was told that when Uncle Jacob would come down from the mountains to visit his grandchildren he’d bring a baby chick or a bunny rabbit in his coat pocket on the train for them to see and hold and play with.
Needless to say, not everyone he came in contact with appreciated his carefree nature and unfortunately, or fortunately, a neighbor who didn’t enjoy his unconventional ways of living (or German music maybe?) had him arrested on a DUI one night after playing at a local party. He was put in a small-town, back woods jail for a few months, to teach him a lesson. Needless to say, sitting idle in a cell didn’t sit well with Uncle Jacob. He asked for a can of paint and a paint brush. By the time his sentence was served, his cell and the whole jailhouse for that matter was left with a fresh coat of paint on its walls, compliments of the man with the handlebar mustache.
Is there someone in your life that had a huge, positive impact on you as a child?
I’d love to hear about them.
People wear masks all the time, covering up all kinds of situations and emotions.
Halloween is one of my favorite celebrations. In disguise, you get to openly be whatever you want to be and get a bag full of free candy to boot! My memories of Halloween as a child are filled with endless hours of trick-or-treating (mostly treating) first through the 5-stories of our apartment building and then, all over town until our legs could take us no further. After that, my Dad would put us in the back of his shiny, red, Volkswagen bus and drive us to friends’ houses until our bags were stuffed and our eyes were bleary.
I don’t cut my Dad a lot of slack when it comes to my childhood. I can’t sugar-coat fear or disappointment. No one ever wanted to be on the receiving end of his wrath. You never knew what kind of mood he would come home in, if, or when he came home. Every day was unpredictable. He enjoyed holidays and parties though and could really get into the “spirit” of things– when he wanted to. Despite his ominous nature, he was big on costuming and we could pretty much count on his help for a clever idea and creative way of making it happen. He had an impressive repertoire of costumes himself. I remember him spending weeks working on them before the annual masquerade ball he and my mom attended every February at the German Club they belonged to. (I’ve mentioned in previous posts that my Dad is from Germany.) Every winter, the German Club celebrated Fasching which is a German holiday that resembles our Mardi Gras and is similar to Halloween in that parades are held and “clubs” host costume balls.
My Dad’s costumes always won awards, if not First Place.
These are a few of my favorites.
My Dad, the mummy.
This “old man” was only in his late 20s.
A group shot of my “old man” and his date who, of course, is my mom.
The Godfather (4th man in)– is my father.
One year my Dad went as the Statue of Liberty. Another year he was a Prize Fighter who lost to a midget. He even dressed in Blackface as a Minstrel which now-a-days of course, would be considered offensive.
The Minstrel and my mom.
Another questionable but winning costume; large, blond lady wearing a dress made from potato sacks.
My Dad loved masquerades and wore many masks.
As an adult, I realize he was a resourceful, creative man and I often wonder how different his life might have been if he had been raised and educated in this country. Like many people, he had to contend with his demons while they competed with his redeeming qualities. He loved to cook and I have happy memories of him lifting me up and setting me on top of the refrigerator so I could watch him roll out the dough on the kitchen counter to make donuts or melt sugar and butter in a pan on the stove-top to make candy. He’d dribble the hot mixture into ice-cold water to form droplets of yummy home-made caramel. He took our family camping and taught us how to play Yahtzee and Monopoly and passed along his love for puzzling. I love my Dad.
He did the best he could.
Children are resilient. Thankfully, despite the imperfections of our childhoods or the tumultuous relations we have with our parents, most of us also have unconditional love for them or at least forgiveness. I don’t deny the turmoil of my youth but I do try to have compassion for the fact that no matter how tough I believe some parts of my childhood were, my Dad’s was unimaginable; growing up in Germany during WWII. As a parent myself now, I realize we all just do the best we can and I hope that when my kids reflect on some of the mistakes I’m making, they will have compassion too.
Unlike the song in the title of this post, there is absolutely no inspiration in the following story.
Although, it is true.
My parents are immigrants. I’m first generation American. Growing up was interesting—to say the least. Our extended family were all back in Europe except for two, older, boy cousins who grew up about an hour north of where we lived in Westchester. Their house sat on 6-acres of rustic, rugged and crude land which we lovingly called the “country”. Abundant in fields, woods and streams it provided a whole host of exploratory (if not dangerous) opportunities for kids who were allowed to roam free in the wilderness, which they were. I loved it there. Complete with a full-size barn and chicken coop, I have some interesting memories of our play-time together there as I’m sure they do too, for the times they came to
terrorize visit us. Our environment was the extreme opposite. We lived on the 4th floor of a 5-floor walk-up that offered dumb-waiter service and pick-up kickball games with random neighborhood kids in the concrete parking lot behind our building. Instead of hiking through woods and streams in the summers, we walked to the local beach or tanned on tar-beach which was conveniently located on the rooftop of our apartment building and also doubled as a laundry facility for hanging clothes to dry. My cousins were a little “rough around the edges”. They had NO FEAR of anything or anyone and always left a clear and decisive impression if not ABSOLUTE FEAR in the hearts and minds of the neighborhood kids they encountered in our neck of the woods. When gone, the other kids often referred to them as “your crazy cousins” which, they were. Crazy and my cousins. Not that we couldn’t hold our own of course, but truth be told, it wasn’t the worst thing for a gal growing up across from one of New York’s many “Projects” to be able to say,
“Oh yah? You just wait til my cousins come back!” Ahh, family.
Back to Europe.
When I was eight, my mom took myself and my younger brother to Ireland to meet her family. My grandmother lived in an authentic two-room, thatched cottage that had a red front door. The living and kitchen area was dominated by a constantly burning hearth. Inside, a black iron kettle always seemed to be bubbling or brewing something. I wasn’t surprised to later learn that the townspeople often referred to my grandmother as the local witch doctor. During our visit my mom got sick one day and whatever my grandmother gave her to remedy her sickness blinded her temporarily for several hours. My six-year old brother and I were my mother’s walking guide back to the outskirts of town where we were staying with my aunt. Later during that trip, my brother took ill and whatever was given to remedy his condition caused him to have fierce hallucinations in where he saw leprechauns in his room and feared my dad would be an old man when we saw him next. Ahh, family.
Three years after that European vacation, I took a trip to Germany to meet the rest of my clan. While my other friends went to day-camp or Playland or the Jersey Shore, I
was sent went to Germany.
For six weeks.
I was eleven.
Did I mention I didn’t speak German?
The upside of that trip was that one of my boy cousin’s from America was also going to Germany later that summer with his mom. At least I could look forward to some English speaking kin after a month of speaking very slowly and loudly and using multiple hand gestures to try to communicate. Why is it that people think people who don’t speak their language can understand them if they just speak slowly and loudly? It was fun and tough and a whirlwind of meeting relatives before my aunt and 13-year old cousin got there. Sadly, my grandmother had Alzheimer’s and didn’t know who I was or why I was in their home. After a few weeks I began to understand the language much better than I could speak it and I could tell she was confused about the strange child staying in her house. I’d overhear my grandfather trying to explain to her over and over again that I was her son, Guenter’s daughter.
When my aunt and cousin finally arrived from the U.S., it was a welcome reunion. After a few days of re-adjusting, my grandfather took us on a tri-country tour. By car. Compact car, that is. The five of us (six if you count my Omi’s over-stuffed white handbag) drove from Germany, to Austria, to Italy and back again.
The most memorable part of my trip lies within the Austrian mountains of Tyrol near the city of Innsbruck. We stayed in a small village surrounded by mountains for a few days of sight-seeing. After a day or two of exploring the village’s architecture and taking a cable car to the snowy top of one of the mountains, my cousin and I set out for some play-time of our own. After all, he was used to roaming free in the wilderness. Why should that be any different in Austria? And why wouldn’t I follow him when he said,
Hey, let’s climb the side of this mountain.
You never really know someone until you climb a mountain with them.
Instead of taking the dirt path that wound itself upward, we — he, chose for us to rough it, climbing partly on the mountain’s side and partly on the concrete boulders that were wedged into the mountain every 50 to 100 feet or so. There were several of them, leading upwards. Their purpose was to slow the onslaught of a rock or mudslide that could come crashing down into the village below. They were several feet wide and about 5 feet high, massive to a girl of eleven and vertically challenged. As height was not an attribute of mine, it was necessary for my cousin to climb first. He’d haul himself up and then extend a hand to help me up to the somewhat smoother part of each boulder as we made our ascent. Every so often the dirt pathway appeared off to the side of one of the concrete slabs and our intention was to take the path down when we were done with all of our climbing. Soon after our adventure began, my cousin started collecting “rocks” and insisted they accompany us on our journey. As the cool morning hours turned into a warm afternoon, his rocks grew larger and heavier and by mid-day there were far more than I wanted to deal with. I was exhausted hauling them up to him one, by one before he extended his arm for me. I was thirsty and hungry and tired and finally sometime in the late afternoon, I refused.
No, I cried. I’m not carrying your stupid rocks up this mountain anymore!
Fine, he said, then I’m not helping you up the mountain, anymore.
With that, he jumped off the concrete slab and onto the side of the mountain. He climbed his way up onto the pathway and vanished. After hours and hours of climbing together, he disappeared in just a few short minutes, leaving me with his stupid rocks, stranded, atop a huge concrete boulder, on a mountain, in Austria.
I was eleven.
It was nightfall and several hours later before I heard the dogs barking and the men shouting. Flashlights blinded my eyes when the Austrian patrol finally found me and lead me safely to and down the pathway to a frantic grandfather and somewhat hysterical aunt.
Life lessons I suppose begin when life does. I’ve said it before and it’s warranted again:
If it doesn’t kill ya, it’ll make you stronger.
I am a bull, who is afraid of heights BUT not afraid of being alone in the dark.
It’s all good.
I’m not quite sure what happened when my cousin descended from the mountain without me that evening. I remember being given “medicine” when I got back to my grandfather’s room. He fished a bottle of pills out of my grandmother’s big white handbag and gave me two, to calm me when I started to cry for my dad and wanted to call home. Whatever it was gave me a similar feeling to one I had thirty-five years later when I was prescribed Valium before having a dental procedure. Only instead of lasting a few hours, it lasted the whole next day which I remember as a haze, literally. I didn’t call my dad and my fearless, crazy, rock-loving cousin was much nicer to me for the rest of our trip. Things resumed to normal. As they eventually do, with family.
These days my cousin lives far-away in another state and I don’t get to see him much but whether it’s two years or ten that pass between meetings, it always resumes to normal.
I miss and love him dearly.
Bless the beasts and the children
For in this world they have no voice
They have no choice
Bless the beasts and the children
For the world can never be
The world they see
She was tucking the light-yellow and blue plastic container of Vaseline Intensive Care back into a drawer of her desk and we had barely returned to the hardwood chair that uncomfortably attached itself to our desks, when over the PA system came the voice of doom. The announcement demanded that all the girls who’d been to the third floor bathroom in the last ten-minutes come to the school’s auditorium, immediately!
The pock-marked, red-faced teacher who’d just finished slathering cream all over her angry face and whose first words to me after reading my name on the roster for the first time in her 7th grade math class were, “Oh, no! Not another one. You’d better not be like your sister!” eyed us suspiciously. Without a word she nodded toward the classroom door and myself and the girl I’d just been excused with immediately rose.
I will never understand why teachers who don’t like children teach. They seem to enjoy being mean or hurtful. It’s sadistic and kids can always tell who they are.
This girl and I were quite different and while I wouldn’t say we were the best of friends, we were, friendly. Confusion and fear ran through my 12-year-old body as we came upon the two fifth-graders whose entry into the girl’s room only minutes ago, prompted us to quickly discard the evidence. My heart was racing and my brain was in overdrive. Did they say something? They couldn’t have. They wouldn’t be called here with us if they did. Besides, like two little kittens cornered by a pit bull, they were clearly shaking with fear. It was all I could do to keep my fear from being as transparent as theirs.
The auditorium was dark and empty of people although we stood at the back of what seemed like endless rows of gray, metal folding chairs that stopped right in front of the big black piano that rested itself off to the side of the stage. In the distance came the echoing of footsteps clapping steadily over the hard, cold, stone floors. The door swung open and she walked in. With an ever present “gotcha” attitude and a permanently stern look on her face, she glanced us over in one terse swoop as we stood nervously in a row, all wearing the same white collared blouses beneath regulation sweaters and plaid skirts that varied in length, above and below the knee.
I think you know why you are here, she said, confidently. Can anyone tell me what was going on in the third floor bathroom? Does anyone have anything to say?
No one spoke.
Okay, maybe this will help, she said and she pulled from her pocket as only a vice principal in charge of being the heavy can, a white tissue, neatly folded into a rectangle. Do you know what this is? She asked.
Of course we didn’t know! How could we know? We were scared, witless to her antics and worried about our fates for crying-out-loud! We stood there gaping at her treasure as she slowly and quite dramatically unfolded the tissue. In her Perry Mason moment she revealed the evidence we had discarded only minutes ago.
Full props for her unexpected display of shock and awe. Her quick reaction and immediate response brought the perpetrators directly to her lair.
We had immediately discarded the evidence. Actually, my friend threw it out the window in a panic when we heard the bathroom door opening and the two fifth graders came in. Now, here it was before us, stained with the glaring, red markings that obviously pointed to at least one of us. I wasn’t allowed to wear make-up to school and the fifth graders were too young, but there she stood, my friendly schoolmate, smiling her deep, red, shiny smile, as we viewed the incredible, half-smoked cigarette butt that held the imprint of my friend’s lipstick-laden, lips.
Unbelievable! How was this possible? What are the chances of throwing a half-smoked cigarette butt out of a third floor bathroom window only to have it land on the concrete ledge of the vice principal’s open window, while she was sitting in her office?
A gazillion to one, maybe?
Evidently pleased with herself, she carefully re-folded her prize and in another dramatic moment, told us she was going to leave us alone for a few minutes and let us talk it over.
Slaughter to the altar.
I can’t speak to Catholic School these days but the one I went to thirty-years ago reveled in discipline and there was without doubt, a constant, underlying movement to instill the fear to behave in otherwise good kids. As a child functioning under those conditions, you tend to find yourself in a perpetual state of “survival-mode” knowing that anything you do or say could be deemed bad. When it’s evident that the truth will not set you free but possibly get you expelled or left with a permanent mark on your record or worse, a tarnished reputation, you make another choice.
For right or for wrong and without a single word being uttered between us, in her two-minute absence, collectively, we made a decision on how this was going to go. When she returned, it was apparent that she fully expected the culprit(s) to have cracked and step forward or be offered up by the others so that she could swoop down and usher the fallen-soul to the next level of punishment.
Instead however, we presented her with a force she was clearly unprepared for.
There was no crying or finger-pointing. On the contrary, she was met with silence.
Well? She said, impatiently
We said nothing. We were silent, the four of us and the vice principal who sometimes wore two different shoes to school and whose forehead was now growing red with frustration, didn’t know what to do. Clearly the evidence pointed to at least one of us but there were in fact four of us in that bathroom and no one was giving the other up.
After several minutes of agonizing silence, she reluctantly dismissed us and never a word was spoken about it again, by anyone.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t step up and take responsibility for your actions but I don’t regret the decision we made that day not to speak up. We were all pretty good kids who were often treated in a not-so-good way by some of the adults in our lives.This was after all, the same school that called my parents in to convey their concern for my then six-year old brother after he drew a black Jesus Christ. Aside from the fact that because of the climate we know Jesus lived in there’s no doubt he was a brown-skinned man, when asked by my parents why he drew Jesus black, he said it was the only crayon he could find.
Bless the beasts and the children
Give them shelter from the storm
Keep them safe
Keep them warm
~ Richard Carpenter & John Bettis
Photo Credits #1-4 Google Images
“There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again.” Elizabeth Lawrence
I love the ease that comes with the close encounters of a playdate-kind. The ones that are shared between boys and girls, say… before the age of twelve, before things start to get weird between the sexes. There’s something magical about the way they interact; without judgment or concern, self-consciousness or worry. They’re simply honest and fun-loving with each another.
I heard the laughter coming from the basement. It was a deep, it was loud. It was the kind that makes you run toward it because you want to be a part of whatever is causing such joy. My ten-year-old daughter’s happiest days seem to be when she’s having a play-mate over. She loves her gal-pals with all her heart but there’s something very special about spending time with the boy– friend who’ll explore the woods with her, go the distance in an Xbox dance-off or eagerly engage her in a round of laser tag. It allows for friendship which is what boys and girls share when they’re not trying to impress one another. It’s not like a brother or sister relationship either, there’s no jealousy or rivalry to taint the waters. It’s a bond that’s made to be cherished well into adulthood. It’s not forgotten.
My friend’s name was Walter. He gave me the most beautiful multi-colored, flowered-dress for my 10th birthday. One time his parents took me and him sleigh-riding Upstate. His mom brought hot-cocoa in a thermos for us. My love for Walter is genuine. It holds a forever-place in my heart and it has nothing to do with romance. In fact, it never really occurred to me that Walter was a boy. His gender was never on my radar and didn’t seem important when we played games, went sleigh-riding or explored the woods together. He was my friend and having been fortunate enough to have shared a friendship like that, it’s easy to recognize it now as an adult, when I see it.
There’s something very lovely about observing a friendship your child shares with a member of the opposite sex, especially at a time in their lives when they are exploring and experimenting with independence but are still young and naive enough to really enjoy one another’s company. It’s pure. As a parent, you do your best to encourage it, foster it, allow it to grow and hope that when those weird years arrive and they do arrive, somewhere in the back of their heads and hearts they’ll both remember, they’re just boys or just girls. Behind their new-found bravado and all the pretending not to care that comes with it,
we they all really want the same things, boys and girls that is: to be loved, to be respected and to be-befriended.
Do you have a friend of the opposite sex that you remember fondly from your childhood?
Photo Credits #1-4: Karen Szczuka Teich & http://www.takingtheworldonwithasmile.com
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