Everyone who lived on Hamilton Avenue had children, except for the Markowskis, our next-door neighbors, who owned a series of standard poodles instead, all with the name Claude. The Markowskis weren’t fond of kids playing on their lawn, which is to say the Markowskis weren’t exactly fond of kids. So since there were no fences in those days to show property lines, we just had to be light on our feet during games of Tag or Statue, and we got really good at giving the Markowski’s yard a generous berth, even when running at top speed.
Lots of people in Massapequa were serious about their lawns, maybe because everyone had been transplanted from the city where the concrete in front of your apartment had been public domain. That could be unfortunate, especially when drunks peed on it or young love went bad late at night, and you could be awakened suddenly by screaming and reproach under your window. Once you moved out to Long Island, you actually owned this patch of luscious greenness. Dads mowed lawns with rigorous timing. When someone you were playing with did something to anger you, one of the best responses you had was, “Get off my property!”
For years on our school route home, a grandfather on Doris Place stood like a sentinel at the corner of his yard after school let out. If our feet veered in his direction, he would yell, “Get off my lawn!” For that reason alone, Mikey Gernhart made a point of his shoe going over the line Mondays through Fridays. This house was the only one in the neighborhood at the time with a built-in pool, which signified, of course, that the man was a millionaire. I vowed that if I ever had a million dollars, I would spend more time having fun and much less time screaming about my grass.
I spent my whole childhood figuring out the most efficient ways to avoid Mrs. Markowski’s lawn. I got pretty good at staying out of her way, using my Dodge Ball skills of always hugging the outer boundary when possible. When cornered by her, I became adept at her brand of small talk, which usually began, “Linda, I have a bone to pick with you,” and quickly got around to the latest time I stepped on her grass or made Claude bark. She didn’t spend much time outside, which was a good thing for us, and I have The Guiding Light, As the World Turns, and the American tobacco industry to thank for her disdain of the outdoors.
My mother was a big believer of being neighborly, so when she’d say, “You know, it wouldn’t kill you kids to help Mrs. Markowski carry in her groceries once in a while,” we did it reluctantly, though the inside of her house was always dark because of heavy drapes at every window, and the crushing smell of her Lucky Strikes and her husband’s cigars made us gasp.
Many years later, when Mrs. Markowski became a widow, I was long gone from Hamilton Avenue, with a husband and kids of my own. My parents began inviting her over for holidays because there’s just so much a poodle named Claude can do for you at Thanksgiving. So I’d see Mrs. Markowski a few times a year, and she got to know my own children in a way I’d been shut out of, meaning she didn’t yell at them or constantly worry about what they were doing to her lawn. She bought them little gifts she found at the Dollar Store, and they were perpetually charmed by that.
She still dyed her hair a shocking burnt-ochre color that gave way to a few inches of white at the part when she didn’t keep it up, which was pretty much never, not even for holidays. She still swore like a sailor after her first martini, but she also smiled more, usually after her second. Lawn care had been given over to a neighborhood boy who did “a crappy job” according to her, but he kept his job since she had cataracts by then and couldn’t see the bald spots and the crabgrass.
When she died, she had no living relatives and had outlived the last of the Claudes. By the time that happened, I was 47. I’d recently been divorced, had three teenagers, and was winging it financially. There’s something about the phrase winging it that implies there was a carefree section of my life that year. There was not.
A few weeks after her death, my phone rang at work.
“This is Lawrence Slezak,” a man said. “I represent the estate of Miriam Markowski.” The lawyer told me I was named in her will. She had left me more money than I’d made the year before. I had no inkling this would happen, and the lawyer was more than patient with me as I got my bearings. Really, I just babbled in his ear for a long time. I got up from my desk and started telling a friend what had just happened.
“And you weren’t related to her?” she asked.
“Not exactly.” It seemed a funny answer but the right one.
“You were related to her?”
“I guess you had to be there,” I said.
I meant the 1950s.