Bobby Murphy’s Initials Were Hilarious

Sixth grade in Mrs. Gleason’s class at Raymond J. Lockhart School meant a lot of laughing at you instead of with you. Sixth grade is a pretty snarky place to begin with, and the fact that Mrs. Gleason always seemed intent on teaching us how to diagram sentences or not to misplace the modifier meant that, for the majority of the day, her back was turned as she wrote on the blackboard. A perfect adolescent storm.

One bright spot was that we were allowed to go to the bathroom whenever we had to, not the twice a day group bathroom breaks we’d endured in 5th grade. I didn’t take advantage of the privilege, though I knew girls who did. Mrs. Gleason seemed unaware, which disappointed me a little. I thought noticing seven daily trips to the girls’ room should have trumped finding the past participle.

When you had to go, you walked to the blackboard and wrote your initials in chalk inside a small square she had cordoned off with masking tape. It had two sides to it, boys and girls.

Bobby Murphy was lucky. He was tall and affable and a whiz at dodge ball. This all worked in his favor when his bladder could no longer hold out. Because when it came time for him to put his initials — B.M. — inside the masking tape, it was an all-out laugh riot in Room 212.

Bobby tried his best to choose a time when all eyes were not on the blackboard. He did what he could, at his height, to be unobtrusive as he picked up the chalk. Mrs. Gleason never noticed the laughing — snorting really — because she was more concerned with the difference between adjectives and adverbs. When Bobby walked back in as stealthily as he could and erased his initials, we were reminded of how hilarious it had been the first time. Encore.

On the afternoon Mrs. Gleason announced the rules of the annual short story contest, I listened carefully because I felt I could be a contender. I got a little queasy when she added, “You will read your work aloud,” but I was still intent on the prize. It seems a little odd to me now to think I had such confidence in this den of daily indignation.

We were given the opening paragraph for the story, one that had sort of a Scooby Doo mystery quality to it, around which we had to construct a story with three characters.

Our mothers were invited to attend. Mr. Crouch, the principal, would be there, too, as one of the judges. That added a layer of importance to the contest since just seeing him in the hall once in a while was newsworthy.

I worked on my story every night for two weeks. I read it aloud to my parents so I could practice my delivery. On the day before the contest I heard Robert M. telling Robert T. that he hadn’t started writing his yet. Robert T. said he hadn’t either.

On the big day, once all the guests were seated in the back, Mrs. Gleason began with the obvious.

“I will call names in random order,” she announced. Random order was the norm that year because it kept kids on their toes now that the Russians were getting ahead of us in the Space Race.

Four people read their pieces before me. I wasn’t impressed with their silly plots or their weak character development. So I ticked off at least six kids (including the Roberts) that I would beat out.

Mrs. Gleason called out, “Linda D.”

Excited, I launched myself forward before remembering that I had entwined my feet in the metal rungs under my seat. When my upper body began to move, my legs stayed put. My knees hit first and the chair landed on my back. I have no memory of getting righted or walking to the front of the room. My embarrassment gene had stretched to its limit, which is saying a lot because it was huge when I was in 6th grade.

Had this been any other day, I would have usurped Benny Murphy’s place in the Annals of Comedy for all time. But a roomful of mothers and the principal meant kids were holding back and looking at Mrs. Gleason to see if it was okay to laugh. For once she was paying attention. Her stern look back at them was a definite “No,” for which I was grateful.

By the time I got to the podium, I was blushing, sweating, and my knees were killing me. My mother had a stricken look on her face that for a moment made my chin wobble. But I held that paper in my shaky hands and after all that, my driving thought was, I want everyone to hear what I have to say.

That’s when I knew I had to be a writer.

I won 3rd place. I always wondered if I got some sympathy votes. But I don’t care.

* * *

[I’m taking a week off, so I’ll be back here next Monday. Thanks to those of you who’ve been reading. I’m approaching 20,000 hits!]

My Memorial Days

On the Memorial Days of my childhood, I’d walk three blocks to Broadway and stake out my spot in front of Sparky’s Barbershop, waiting for the parade to begin. The booming sound of the marching bands gave me butterflies. I envied the girls who could walk and catch their batons in the air at the same time. My dad taught us to stand each time the flag came by, not just the first one.

And then we’d go home and eat hamburgers and potato salad. Second only to Christmas, maybe, Memorial Day was right up there for me.

By the time I moved to Baltimore in my late 30s, the excitement reserved for holidays now belonged to my kids. Christmas was still big, of course, but they hadn’t been to many parades. And Memorial Day meant the weekend our community pool opened, an event for my children that overshadowed anything else.

Our house was near a cemetery, which I used as a geographic marker for anyone coming to visit: Go up the hill on Padonia Road. As soon as you begin to see the cemetery on the left, hang a right.

My first spring there, I was working in the garden when I thought I heard a Sousa march. It was coming from the cemetery’s direction. I had some time on my hands, I guess, because I followed the music across the street and walked through the gates. It wasn’t until I saw the wreaths and the politicians that I remembered it was Memorial Day.

I was a little ashamed of myself about that. I was the daughter and daughter-in-law of WWII veterans, men, who though they rarely spoke of it, had both served proudly in the Pacific. Back in Massapequa, I’d always been the first to get to Broadway, making sure I had my spot to watch the color guard and applaud the veterans who would wave from convertibles. I should have thought of Memorial Day as something more than an extra day in the garden.

I took a spot in the back where I wouldn’t be noticed. I watched the wreaths solemnly placed, and — with what I hoped was the right amount of decorum, despite the slightly dirty knees of my jeans — I waited until the bagpipers filed out.

That was my first Memorial Day in my new city. There would be lots more of them — I lived in that house a long time — but none would ever happen again the last weekend in May. I  went back to the cemetery often. And I never left without learning something.

I found the grave of a man who sang in my church choir. I watched him — in his blue robe — carry the bass section single-handedly. His life was filled with tremendous accomplishments, personal and professional. The plaque that documents his life chooses to tell the world he was a WWII veteran. I never knew.

Another man’s grave is adorned with a commemoration of Iwo Jima. He had lived a long life and died at a dignified age. Now here he was, wanting us to remember that part of his story. So on an ordinary Wednesday, with no Sousa march, no honor guard, I did.

There is a whole section for soldiers who died in Vietnam — all men my age — who would by now have grandchildren and be looking forward to retirement. I could always tell when their parents had been there. In spring they had carefully manicured the little lawns that bordered their sons’ graves. They rearranged the flowers. In winter, they left tiny Christmas wreaths and jolly miniature snowmen they stuck in the ground.

Being there reminded me that these were ordinary people called to do the extraordinary. I don’t know how they mustered up the courage to charge a hill or hold a line somewhere far from home when they missed their families and feared everything around the next corner.

I only knew that when I was there, I was in the presence of those who figured out a way. Men, who like my dad, said, “Remember, we stand up every time the flag goes by, not just the first one.” Or men like the ones at rest in the cemetery.

It’s true that  little girl from Massapequa who stood cheering for the parade didn’t understand the meaning of Memorial Day. But she tried to make up for it on all the other Memorial Days when she lived in the house near the cemetery. On the afternoons when she walked through those gates.

The Other Rules for Writers

All the sage wisdom that begins with “Write what you know,” and ends with “Show, don’t tell,” is there for the asking. Here are some other rules you probably haven’t found in any writer’s handbook. Perhaps one of them will unlock that bestseller that’s inside you somewhere.

1. Let your wall inspire you. Furnish the wall near your desk with meaning. Frame or tack up little things your eyes can drink in when you wonder why you thought writing seemed like a good idea in the first place. My wall sports, among many things, my favorite New Yorker cartoon of a penguin flying high above other penguins, saying, “We just haven’t been flapping them hard enough.” It also has a framed note from Anne Tyler, telling me sweetly why she couldn’t read and critique my manuscript I had sent her. I keep that note to remind myself to be that gracious if I ever win the Pulitzer, and as commentary on my boundless optimism that I really thought she would read my stuff in the first place.

2. Make a negative list. Create a list of all the people who doubt you as a writer. If anyone has said, “Many are called but few are chosen,” put that person at the top. Same with someone who has used the words “writing” and “starving” in the same sentence. Give your parents a little slack. (After all, their job is to worry, so don’t include them.) When you’re finished with the list, fold it carefully and tie it with a ribbon before you throw it away.

3. Make a positive list. Make a list of 12 living people in your life, present or past. Choose one each month and write him or her a letter. E-mails, texts, and cards don’t count. Make peace with your old college roommate; tell someone why you’ve always admired them; make the day of someone who wasn’t expecting to hear from you. Good writing is about relationships, so resurrect, enhance, create or feed some of yours.

4. Don’t throw anything away. Keep a notebook and take it everywhere. After writing becomes your way of life, you may find you dream in already constructed sentences that delight you. Write down phrases and sentences that come to you even though they may have nothing to do with what you’re writing at the moment. And then never throw away your notebook.

5. People watch. Got to a ballgame, even if you don’t like baseball. Sit on a park bench. Give blood. Have lunch alone in a restaurant and listen to the way people really talk. It will help you in writing dialogue more than any workshop ever will.

6. Start over every morning. Let your accomplishments excite you, but don’t let them placate you. Let your rejections teach you something, but don’t let them paralyze you. A writer’s life is like that of any other artist — a composer, a painter, a sculptor. There is nothing there until you sit at your desk and create it. You’re in charge, and there’s no one in the world who can string words together the way you do at that moment, on that day. Now go. Create.

The Lessons You Learn from a Chocolate Pancake

pancakeOur friendship with Miss Susannah began five years ago, early on a Sunday morning, when she leaned over our booth and said what she says to everyone in her section, “What can I get you folks?”

I was new to the game of taking grandsons to restaurants. Austin was three and Brendan one, and I figured we couldn’t do much damage at our local IHOP, already a little worn around the edges. I was relieved when Susannah said she was a grandmother, too. I figured if some sugar packets got mysteriously opened or if we left the syrup bottles drippy from overuse, she’d understand.

I used to think the appeal for the boys was the restaurant’s go-to item for kids ─ a chocolate pancake made into a smiley face by chocolate chips, whipped cream, and maraschino cherries (the kind of breakfast only a grandmother would let happen). It must look a lot better than it tastes, though, because halfway through, Austin and Brendan usually push their plates gently to the middle of the table and sigh, “Ugh . . . I’m full.”

Even if I give them some alternative breakfast restaurant ideas ─ lots of places have fancy pancakes ─ they won’t hear of it.

“Miss Susannah!” they say in unison, every time.

On the drive over, the boys usually wonder aloud if she’ll be there (she is always there). If it’s been more than a few weeks since our last visit, they predict she’ll be surprised (she isn’t but pretends to be).

“Maybe she was thinking we wouldn’t come back,” Austin says, “and then she’ll see us and she’ll be all, ‘Where have you guys been?’”

Susannah may be in the middle of yelling at the cook, or squinting at her order pad, or rushing to get someone’s coffee to the table, but everything stops when the boys walk in. She hugs and kisses them. We never have to ask to be seated in her section. It’s the only place in my life where I’ve ever been a regular. I’m the Norm of IHOP.

“So, how is school going?” she’ll ask. “What do you think about this rain? Are you going to take swim lessons at your pool this summer?” They do their best to keep her up to date, sensing that somehow it’s important to her.

They’re too young to notice her age, probably 70ish, or that her work day started before sunrise, or that her tips are never going to buy her a retirement condo in Boca. They just know that the second she sees them, everything stops. She beams. They beam back. And for five years they’ve come here. For her, not the pancakes.

I try not to get ahead of myself about what this all means. I did that too much as a mother, always a few years in the future, predicting what every little milestone was telling me. When you’re a grandmother, it’s easier to live in the moment. No guarantees as I listen to their adorable little  boy voices, that I’ll ever get to hear their grownup ones. No need, as I watch them eat their chocolate pancakes and scan the room for their favorite waitress, to tell myself what fine men they’ll turn out to be.

They are kind children. That’s enough for today.

As we are leaving this morning, Susannah says to a couple at the next table, “They’ve been coming here since they were babies.” They don’t hear her, but I do.

As we pull out of the parking lot, it’s quiet in the car.

“She was really smiley today,” Austin says.

Then they lean back, and for a while we ride in a delicious, sweet silence.

When Surf Was Up on Long Island

High school Study Hall. Is there such a thing anymore? I’m guessing no, but I feel too outmoded to ask anyone. The other day I was talking to my college-aged niece, who asked for advice on a paper she was writing. I suggested she look at the microfiche files in the library. Her head tilted. I could see by her baffled look I had — once again — forgotten what century we’re in. I’d rather not feel that way twice in one month.

So for those of you who may have missed it, Study Hall was a period built into your schedule when you were supposed to crack open those books and get to it. As far as I could ever see, it was split right down gender lines. For boys, it was a chance to put their heads down on the cafeteria table and close their eyes until the teacher patrolling the room poked their backs and said, “Sit up straight!” Girls were better at using the time wisely. We spent a solid 45 minutes passing notes. And again, for those of you who may have been born after Richard Nixon resigned, passing notes was texting with paper. Slower but with better spelling.

And if you don’t know who Nixon was, I can’t help you.

Brenda and I sat across from each other, experts at writing quickly, then folding the sheet of notebook paper into a tight white triangle. When the teacher was looking the other way, we flicked the note across the table. As I recall, there was always a lot of punctuation involved in our notes. And lots of P.S. messages at the bottom.

In Study Hall one afternoon, Brenda shot me the first note of the period, and it came with exciting news: “Richie Valenti asked me out!!!” We didn’t know much about Richie Valenti, but the sketchy facts we did have were exciting. He lived on the water in the section of Massapequa called Bar Harbor, where all the cool rich kids lived. And he was a surfer, hence three exclamation points. Hyperbole was required with surfers.

Richie Valenti had all of the surfer prerequisites, while most boys had two or three. He owned his own board. He had a wardrobe of madras and sandals. He was blond and he drove a Mustang convertible.

Looking back, I think the part about actually balancing on a giant piece of fiberglass in the ocean might have been optional. Maybe surfing on Long Island was the beginning of my generation being all full of ourselves and trying to educate our dowdy parents with a universal truth we had discovered: Appearance is everything.

Gilgo Beach Inn

Since I didn’t have boyfriends of my own back then, I made it my business to take Brenda’s very seriously. Lucky for me, Richie invited Brenda to Gilgo Beach often to watch him surf, but her mother insisted I go along, too, because there were bikinis involved, and it made her nervous. The ocean still made me a little nervous, too. As a teenager, I went back to barely attempted standing in the ocean beyond my ankles. I was fearful what I’d witnessed happen to Susie Patterson’s bikini top in the rough waves would happen to me, and then I would have to move to a different state.

This much I will say for Richie’s timing. It was impeccable. Every single time, just as we arrived, he would manage to be wet and running out of the surf. He’d stick his board in the sand, slightly out of breath as if he’d just finished conquering the Bonzai Pipeline. Then he’d take a long time to shake the salt water out of his long blond hair. For the entire summer, we never actually saw him do more than that. But our adoration never faltered.

I’ve always hoped he found his way into advertising.

What I Learned About Love, at 12

On Saturday mornings in 1962, my mother would take the car keys off the hook by the front door, jiggle them a little and call out, “Who’s coming?” even though she knew the answer was only me. My brothers’ standing excuse — Quick Draw McGraw was about to start — didn’t seem like enough, but it always worked for them.

The nursing home we drove to was attached to Brunswick Hospital, where my mother had worked as a younger woman, the reason, I guess, that Aunt Bertha ended up out here, on Long Island. Bertha had never married, never had children of course, and had outlived everyone who might have more than a passing interest in her, except for my mother.

As a girl, my mother spent two weeks each August at her great-aunt’s third story walk-up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Aunt Bertha would take her annual vacation from being a secretary and treat my mother to some intense attention — devotion she might have directed toward her own daughter if she’d had one — all lovingly distilled into fourteen days once a year.

My mother would talk about those vacations sometimes on the way over to visit Bertha. The tone of her voice seemed oddly pleasant to me, since the visits included sweltering nights, having her hair braided several times a day, and choking down liver and onions for dinner. It didn’t sound like much of a vacation, but my mother said that from the time she was a little girl, she realized how much her aunt adored her. And at 12, I knew that being adored counted for a lot.

In 1962, Bertha sometimes took a few minutes to recognize us when we suddenly appeared at her door, and because she was easily startled, we always began our visits in the lowest gear we could manage. We moved in slow motion so we wouldn’t make her flinch. We spoke softly even though she was pretty much deaf.

“It’s me, Jeannie,” my mother would say. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn’t.

My mother performed the same duties each week. She’d reach for the lotion and squirt it between her palms to warm it, and then rub her aunt’s mottled hands, carefully maneuvering around her swollen knuckles. Even on days she didn’t know who my mother was, Bertha would let her confusion go with the first warm strokes on her fingers and just sit back in her wheelchair and enjoy it.

She used a baby’s comb on her aunt’s hair, so thin that a brush would have scratched her scalp. She took tiny scissors out of the drawer and snipped her chin hairs. She set Bertha’s false teeth in a glass of white fizzing liquid that was supposed to transform them from their putty yellow color. We’d wait for five minutes, watching the bubbles. Without teeth, Aunt Bertha’s whole jaw caved in. She wouldn’t talk again until my mother had rinsed the uppers and lowers in the bathroom sink and popped them back in.

Trying to give our visit the arc it often needed, my mother would say, “There, that’s better, isn’t it?”

Then she would take inventory of the metal bedside table to make sure everything was there, items essential to this life – as opposed to Bertha’s jewelry and mink collar circa 1930, safely stored at our house and waiting for her in case she miraculously got young again, I guessed.

We’d push her wheelchair to the Great Room after that. I held my breath down that hall because the floor-to-ceiling tiles smelled of strong disinfectant. My mother said whatever it was, it probably warded off staph infection or something equally deadly in old people. I silently vowed never to be old.

In the Great Room, people’s wheelchairs formed a circle of faux camaraderie. Some people nodded off and snored, others had visitors, and the only man in the whole place sat in the corner and chain smoked all day. Other kids were a rarity, so I can say — without swagger — that I was always in demand in the Great Room. Women awoke as if from a dream to reach out to me.

Sometimes Aunt Bertha would say to me, “I have something for you!” The first time she did it — her eyes all wide and expectant — I thought maybe it was something like a diamond ring or a fistful of hundred-dollar bills. She pulled the gift out from under her left thigh, wrapped in a dozen of the nursing home’s cheap one-ply napkins. Her body heat had made it warm. It was a roll she’d taken from breakfast. Maybe that day, maybe another. I would thank her and on our way out of the building it would hit with a thud in the trash can. Again, I’d make my vow.

One morning, just as we’d delivered Aunt Bertha back to her room and had our coats on to leave, she looked up and asked, “Where is Mr. Raffensberger?”

It was an insistent tone, like he was supposed to be in the room and she was demanding to know where we were hiding him. I’d never heard her speak in anything louder than a raspy whisper. “Where is he?”

My mother acted like she hadn’t heard the question.

“Let’s see . . . where in the world did I put my car keys?”

We were halfway home when I got up the nerve to ask. She never took her eyes off the road. She sighed a little, deciding how much of an answer to give me.

“Mr. Raffensberger was her boss. They were in love. He died about twenty years ago.”

“Why didn’t they get married?”

She sighed again, bigger this time.

“He was already married.”

When I was 12, I wanted to know everything there was to know about love, and I didn’t know anything yet. Aunt Bertha’s story became an unfinished chapter in my studies. So, she hadn’t always been old and crusty as I’d suspected. She’d been young once and in love, and for the whole ride home I sat in a confused silence trying to take it all in.

My mother, sensing she had said too much maybe, didn’t speak of it again. So the rest I had to make up on my own, something I was pretty good at back then.

Even years after her death, the scene went like this. Aunt Bertha cooking dinner in her sparse kitchen, waiting to hear him bounding up the steps. He had a big mustache on a plain, round face. He was a little balding, even in his thirties. He used a cotton handkerchief to mop his brow and couldn’t help talking about the humidity in August by the time he got to the third floor.

When she finished washing the dishes, he said, “You need to take care of these lovely hands, Bertha.” Then he rubbed them in his, with lotion he took down from the shelf above the sink. She relaxed in the touch.

To the New Mothers From an Old One

In 1978, when I was about to give birth for the first time, my mother-in-law and my mother were full of information I would never need. Motherhood had changed since their day, when babies were on strict schedules and parents believed that letting them “cry it out” was in everyone’s best interest.

We were the New Mothers, and we were reinventing the parenthood wheel. We had everything figured out by reading books, Lamaze breathing our way through labor, breastfeeding on demand, and raising children who might never know a critical word but would always have a room full of soccer trophies to call their own.

I know. I know. It’s a new day, and by now everyone knows that my generation didn’t make fewer mistakes than our mothers had —just different ones. Everything is again different when it comes to babies, and I wouldn’t dream of getting into a discussion about baby sign language or sleep training, because I’m just that far behind in baby trends.

But maybe there are a few things that never changed and never will. So because I can’t see any patent disinterest in your faces as you read this, here you go, New Mothers — truths from an Old Mother.

* You will be holding your newborn, maybe even your first day home, and you will have a flashback of yourself as a teenager. You’ll hear the exact vile words you uttered to your parents, and see yourself as you stomped out of a room, amazed by how truly stupid they were. When that memory comes to you, you’ll wish you could go back in time and smack yourself in your fourteen-year-old head.

* When you find yourself tacking a sign to the front door for the UPS delivery person: “Do NOT ring bell! Baby sleeping!!” you will recall all those conversations you had with friends that started with your saying: “Our lives won’t change after the baby.” You might wish you hadn’t been quite so specific about your plans to backpack through Colorado with your infant strapped to your chest.

* You will glance down at your beloved cat or dog, the one you bought Halloween costumes for and gave a pseudo baby name. Suddenly it occurs to you that it can’t talk. And it eats off the floor.

* Your baby will roll over or sit up for the first time, and you’ll say out loud, “That’s really early to do that, right?” You’ll search the Baby World Records Book to see if he is a contender. You will throw around the word “genius” more than once, even if it’s just in your head. The first Kindergarten parent/teacher conference might rein this in for you. (Okay, it did for me.)

* The word “poop” will grace nine out of ten conversations and you’ll wonder why you didn’t talk about poop more often before this. That’s how fascinating it’s now become. I am not kidding.

* Under oath, you will declare that you cannot possibly love a second (or third or fourth) baby the way you do your first. Then someone will place that new baby into your trembling arms, and you’ll realize that love can be divided in two without changing one molecule. It’s non-mathematical. It’s magical. And it will come over you that very first second.

* In the middle of the night with a screaming infant, you will long for that pregnancy heartburn you believed was the worst thing ever. And here’s a little sneak peek into the future: When your baby is seventeen and out somewhere driving with her friends, you’ll long for the nights she was in her crib, even if she was wailing away. In other words, there is always something coming.

* For the rest of your life, when you read a story about a person who has done something horrible — something despicable and beyond forgiveness — you will think, although maybe not right away, “That is someone’s child.” You will know at your core just what that sentence means.

* Some days will seem many miles long. But the culmination of them will whiz by while you’re looking the other way. Try to laugh as much as you can. It’s one of the few sounds your child will remember for an entire lifetime.

* You will ask, and you will ask this a lot: What did I do before this? How did I love before this? Why didn’t someone tell me?

You just couldn’t hear them until now. Welcome to motherhood.

Why I Don’t Throw Away My Parents’ Letters

When my parents were in their 70s, they downsized and decided on a sensible condominium. That meant leaving the house on Hamilton Avenue, in Massapequa, where I had grown up. They began getting rid of stuff, and my mother made it clear that I should make room in my car on my next visit to take some things back to Baltimore.

When I got to their house, five boxes with my name on them were stacked by the front door, my mother’s subtle way of saying, “Please get this crap out of here.”

Two contained books I didn’t read in college. Two more held clothes that might come in handy for a Halloween costume somewhere down the line, if I could ever fit into them, which would never happen. The last was a shoebox labeled, Linda’s Letters from College.

The box with the letters was unexpected. I didn’t know my mother had kept them, and knowing what they said, I wished she hadn’t. I considered just throwing the box away, unopened, knowing how embarrassed I’d be if I read them. Then I thought, “She saved them for 30 years.” So when I was back in Baltimore and alone, I opened each letter as if a hairy spider might jump out at me. They were every bit as bad as I remembered.

I can see I wrote every week of freshman year. I don’t know what got me the most — that I come from an era where people actually wrote letters, or that these innocent little envelopes contained such didactic drivel. Apparently, I had figured out everything by second semester away at a state college, and I felt the need to share.

I want to say it’s the letters from sophomore year in 1970 make me wince, but it’s worse than that. I’m ashamed of them. I was taking Sociology 101 that spring, which made me an expert on Vietnam, racial tension, and poverty. I had an epiphany in that class about my upbringing and, in those letters, hit my parents over the head with it, with lengthy paragraphs outlining their many mistakes.

They had given me a middle class childhood that I would now have to crawl out of because — really — there were few conditions worse than being middle class. Even I (who was practically a sociologist at that point) couldn’t think of anything worse. I lectured them on how they had bought into “the system.” They were materialistic. They didn’t understand oppression in America. If I had to label the tone I adopted, “How dare you!” would probably do it.

In 1950, ever the planners, my parents moved into our home a few months before I was born. Our neighborhood was just-planted maple trees, loose gravel on the road, and no sidewalks.

Most of the streets within a mile radius were named for American states and cities. But by the time they got to my street, Canada was suddenly involved with the street names Toronto, Ontario, and my street, Hamilton. I walked nine blocks to school, passing streets with names like New Hampshire, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Massachusetts, which gave me time to think about how the street-naming process should have been more organized. I wanted a street name that was American. I didn’t think it was too much to ask, considering the times and my patriotic heart. I took some solace in the fact that I didn’t live on the next street over from mine — Jerusalem — because I had no idea where Jerusalem was.

My parents wanted a house with a basement, not one built on a concrete slab, so Levittown was out. Ours was a two-bedroom Cape Cod with one bathroom. These houses also came with a garage, an unfinished basement, and an attic that, sooner or later, almost everyone would expand with a dormer for more bedrooms. Even when our parents looked at the tiny boxes these homes were, they were imagining the future.

The basement space came in handy for the rec room. I used to see ads in the Saturday Evening Post of families gathered around their ping pong tables, with trays of food behind them on a built-in bar. The lighting was always soft, and those rec rooms had carpeting. Some even had a fireplace and a piano with a dozen or so people arm in arm, belting out a tune.

Our rec room had trouble keeping up. It was at the bottom of our wooden stairs with those brown rubber pads on them so you wouldn’t trip. It had one tiny casement window, knotty-pine paneling that went halfway up the wall, and a linoleum floor in a pattern that looked like an accident of some kind. In the summer I’d make believe it was air-conditioned when we watched TV down there. In the winter you needed a blanket over you. My parents talked about mildew a lot. But at least our house didn’t sit on a slab.

My father signed up for the GI Bill and began college classes at night after his workday at Grumman was over. For twelve years, he commuted to Hofstra two evenings a week. The other three nights my mother worked the evening shift as a nurse at Brunswick Hospital, in neighboring Amityville. Those nights my father studied while taking care of me, and later, my two brothers. On the weekends they cleaned house, food shopped, and cleared the decks for the week ahead.

In the summers we took a vacation, but my father, a history buff and reader, was always partial to places like Gettysburg or Fort Ticonderoga, so even then I wasn’t having as much fun as other kids. Holidays involved the same cast of characters my whole life — aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors. Food, fun, and lots of noise. Imagine my angst.

That was the life I was up against when I took stock in 1970. Years and years later, I got over the embarrassing situation my parents had put me in, and began carving out — imagine this — a middle class life for my own kids. The only differences were that I worked half as hard and talked about it twice as much as Jean and Ed DeMers did.

When do you get far enough away from your childhood to really see it for what it was? Maybe when you get your first job and that alarm clock isn’t your friend, and it dawns on you that your dad did this every single morning while you were asleep in your cozy bed.

Maybe the moment you see your first baby. And that overwhelming love takes you by surprise. And only then do you understand how your parents felt the day they met you.

I think my mother knew exactly what she was doing when she handed me that box of letters. It was as if she was saying, “Someday you’ll see.”

And I kept them all. And I do.