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.

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.

11/22/63 in Massapequa . . . and 4/27/15 in Baltimore

Parkside Junior High School was a pretty buttoned-up place on November 22, 1963 at about 2:30 that afternoon. Another teacher knocked on our classroom door and motioned for our Social Studies teacher, Miss Foley, to come into the hall. From my seat I could see her. Her eyes went wide and she covered her mouth with her hand. This scared me because Miss Foley was not given to emotional jags of any kind. As far as we knew, she didn’t even have a first name.

I said, “Whatever it is, it’s really bad.”

There was the usual 8th grade speculation, which was never hard to come by. Craig Norton said, “I bet Russia dropped the A-Bomb.”

Then Miss Foley composed herself a little and came back inside. She abruptly handed out a ditto and told us the principal would be making an important announcement. Scary silence took over. She clearly might have begun sobbing at any second, yet no one asked what was wrong. Not one kid.

Our principal was a man of few words, and even this afternoon wasn’t going to change his style. “President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas this afternoon,” he said over the loudspeaker from the office. Miss Foley, already knowing the rest of the story, put her finger to her lips and closed her eyes.

“The bullet was fatal.”

I wasn’t sure what the word fatal meant, until I turned and saw all the crying girls and the boys hitting their desks with closed fists.

By the time that word had filtered down to us in that classroom, the president had been dead for an hour.

At home, my mother was ironing. Today, thanks to You Tube videos that show the news coverage as it was unfolding on November 22, I can see exactly how the word reached her in our living room. CBS was airing As the World Turns, and two characters were talking about their upcoming Thanksgiving dinner. Without warning, the picture changed to a black screen with the word BULLETIN stamped across it in white letters. There was a ruffling of papers and then Walter Cronkite’s unmistakable voice. The first details were in audio only — the shootings of Kennedy and Governor Connally, and that they had been rushed to Parkland Hospital.

Those facts took less than a minute to deliver, and then Cronkite said: “Stay tuned to CBS News for further details.” What followed was a commercial for Nescafé Coffee, a promotion for an upcoming episode of “Route 66,” and then back to the same two soap opera characters, who were still talking about Thanksgiving dinner.

In the next hour, broadcasters rushed to get on the air, some of them out of breath, all of them male and all of them white. Some of the anchormen wore rumpled shirts and crooked ties. They ran their hands through their hair and smoked wildly as they read from sheets of paper and talked on big bulky rotary phones to reporters in Dallas.

Sometimes my knees ache, and that makes me feel old. I just realized my oldest grandson will be 9 in December, and that makes me feel old. But watching this archival film makes me feel like I must have lived in the Dark Ages. Fifty years ago I sat in the middle of a news blackout  — unheard of today — waiting to hear what had gone terribly wrong in the world. And it took the media most of the afternoon to get the word out in any meaningful detail.

Compare that to this week when violence erupted in Baltimore, where I live, and all at once we were enveloped in every detail in real time. We could watch footage live from different locations at the same moment thanks to split screens. We had close-ups of it all, the tension, the anger, the fear. We could listen to debates — almost immediately as the situation unfolded — about whether these people were protestors, thugs, criminals, or high school students. Everything was broken down instantly, even semantics.

It’s good to have more information than less, I tell myself. It’s better to be able to access what I need to know instantly than to wade through those dribs and drabs that came in black and white from Dallas in 1963. We put up with the excruciating slowness of it all not realizing it was frustrating at all. And I can almost smile, even on this horrible day, to think that if anyone in Parkside Junior High School had suggested that someday we’d be watching live feed on our phones, it would have been a fast track for a visit with the School Psychologist.

But that’s not the whole answer. Watch the You Tube video of November 22, of  Walter Cronkite putting his glasses down and letting the words that the president had died get caught in his throat and swallow hard. Watch his eyes well up, just for an instant, before he gets to his next sentence. We may never see a moment like that again. The race to get it first is just too intense.

I sit at my laptop, and with a few clicks I see what has happened in Baltimore and in the world in the last hour. One hour — the same amount of time it took the scared kids in that classroom to find out what had upset their teacher so badly.

There are advantages to having one foot in each century, and I’m okay with that.

Feeling my Age at Panera

Whenever I eat alone in a restaurant, I bring a little notebook and jot down what I’m thinking. It helps me feel less awkward, as if people might be wondering why I don’t have a lunch partner. Sometimes I write down bits and pieces of what I’m overhearing, conversation I may use later in something I’m writing.

I read an Anne Tyler interview once where she said she takes her notebook everywhere and writes down what she hears around her — dialogue, inflection, words that lead with the famous Baltimore accent. So when I pull out the little notebook, I just pretend to be her. I’m always hoping someone will mistake me for her, too, like they’re thinking: Hmmm, maybe she grew her bangs out. Hmmm, she looks a little heavier than she did on her last book jacket, but — you know — that happens. As far as I can tell, no one has been fooled yet.

I had my notebook out one day last fall when a group of high school kids walked into a sandwich place in my neighborhood. They took three tables and slid them together and, as their first official act, plopped down their phones. Their talk kept getting interrupted by different customized ring tones and scores of texts going back and forth with other kids who weren’t at the table.

It felt exhausting to me, not being able to understand all of what was going on. And I’d had this exact feeling when I was a kid. Instead of technology, though, it was Italian that did me in.

Our neighbors across the street were first generation immigrants from Milan. Their niece, who was my age and bilingual, would come to visit from Brooklyn with her Italian-speaking parents. One summer she and I got to be friends and I was invited across the street often, where she acted as my interpreter.

In my mind, her extended family ate a lot, more often than my family did, it seemed. Maybe the dinners were just longer and louder. Conversations constantly switched from English to Italian and back again without warning, sometimes in the same sentence. My friend never lost a word of whatever the topic was, and I was jealous of that. I found getting half of any story frustrating.

One day I said to her, as if this would be no big deal, “I want you to teach me Italian.”

“Oh, it’s easy,” she said. “If you just try really hard, you’ll be able to understand everything my parents say. Just listen to e-v-e-r-y word.That’s what I do.”I know she wasn’t purposely steering me wrong, that in her mind that’s what she’d done since she learned to talk.

I, of course, continued to be exasperated that I’d get to the end of a story and suddenly the medium would change on me and I’d be lost. I must say that what these high school students were doing at the next table wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for old people like me either. A lot of questions seemed to go unanswered as their heads bobbed up and down from their phones, and their thumbs were in constant motion. They wore earbuds and went from listening to talking to reading without warning.

What really caught my attention, though, was when they started talking about the John F. Kennedy assassination. The 50th anniversary was coming up, and I’m sure there were hashtags involved, whatever the hell that means. For all their advanced technology, though, their facts were sketchy, and one of them — who kept showing his hand with words like Los Angeles and killed in the hotel kitchen — was talking about the other Kennedy assassination.

For a minute, I thought about gently leaning over into their space and setting the record straight, perhaps the old school teacher in me. I realized, though, that if I started talking in an I was there tone, they would look at me as if I’d been front row at Ford’s Theatre, too.Because when I did the math, I realized that, chronologically, they’re about as far from Kennedy’s death as I was from the McKinley assassination (about which I know nothing). I wisely stayed silent.

It’s easy to keep quiet when you realize that you came of age watching a black and white TV, and the kids at the next table have a good chance of somehow confusing that with Morse Code. Or Mamie Eisenhower with Mary Todd Lincoln. Or any number of mix-ups that would make you feel #old.

[Up on Thursday: “11/22/63 at Parkside Junior High School”]

“Plus You Have a Really Bad Accent”

As a college freshman in 1968, I landed in the middle of New York State and couldn’t believe there wasn’t a decent bagel anywhere. I was homesick for Long Island, the center of my universe. I’d never seen so many pickup trucks or people chewing (and spitting) tobacco as I did on Main Street in Cortland. It snowed on Halloween. I felt like I’d moved to Jupiter.

To counterbalance, I talked about Massapequa incessantly — how you could find anything you needed on Sunrise Highway, and how my high school had a championship football team. One day in the dining hall, I was in the middle of explaining to some girls why my hometown was known as “Matzo-Pizza” because it occurred to me that near-strangers were mesmerized by stories of my youth. (And here you’re thinking, she hasn’t changed much. You’re on to me.) Anyway, I was taking way too long in my explanation, figuring I had to go slowly because they’d probably never heard of matzo or stepped inside a real pizzeria.

Finally, a girl from Utica had enough.

She stopped me and said, “You know,” The City doesn’t always mean New York City, and The Island doesn’t always mean Long Island.”

I think I paused here, maybe with my mouth open a tiny bit, because she felt the need to simplify. “There are other cities and other islands in this state.”

Somehow, this was big news to me.

She wasn’t finished. “Plus you have a really bad accent.”

The first part amazed me, but as I began to look around I could see she was right. Who knew there were girls in the United States who had never stepped foot in a mall? Or that a town might have only one supermarket? Who knew that you could spend kindergarten through 12th grade in one building? For that matter, I don’t think I realized that people actually lived on farms. I thought they just hired people.

The second part stung. I didn’t know I had an accent, much less a bad one. Until I got to college and met people from Syracuse and Buffalo, I’d never heard a “flat a” sound in my life.

So I took a breath, and later that afternoon — being the deep thinker I was back then — I began to reinvent myself. I decided I kind of liked the way upstate people spoke. They sounded buoyant and hopeful. That’s what I wanted to be. I started with the word “cawfee” and went from there.

I also changed my handwriting because suddenly all the complicated capital letters in the ornate Palmer Method no longer suited me. I went instead with a print-like conglomeration that I hoped would say Linda is a simple, generous young woman, who does not overwhelm people with her large, loopy letters. If you didn’t know she was from Long Island, you might think she came from a quaint little hamlet on a lake with a population of 150.

After a few months, I stopped mentioning Massapequa every ten minutes like it was the cradle of civilization. By second semester, my accent — bad or otherwise — was completely gone, and my mother was complaining that my handwriting looked like a second-grader’s. When I graduated, I stayed in Central New York.

The first time I reopened my high school yearbook probably took five years. When I did, I read lots of this: “Never forget all the fun we had in French.” Or the laughs we had trying to conquer the uneven parallel bars. Or the day the lunch lady dropped that tray on John.

When the 10-year reunion happened, a time when I could have refreshed my memory about that gym class or poor John and the lunch tray, I couldn’t make it. I’d just had a baby, and if I’d considered traveling 300 miles to stand in a hotel ballroom with anyone, it wasn’t going to be when I hadn’t slept in four weeks and my breasts leaked milk every time I looked down at them.

The 20th reunion took place the year I was in a bad mood. We had moved to Baltimore. I couldn’t understand anything people said because they spoke in a thick dialect meant to throw Yankees off course. We had bought a split-level house — the type of home I swore I’d never live in. And my kids were a sloppy mess about how much they missed their friends.

Now our 50th reunion approaches, so clearly it’s been a while for me and the Class of ’68. I wonder how much I’ve changed, or I wonder if I’ve changed as much as I think I have. The older I get, the more I think that you pretty much are what you were when. Except for changing a few vowel sounds. And now we come with more stories to tell.

I think by 2018, our class will have long forgotten those singular, sweet and silly memories of high school that we inscribed in each others’ yearbooks. But we’ll be filled with the only bond that really matters. Massapequa will always be our “when.”

Maybe the day after the big party, we’ll have “cawfee.” And maybe I’ll even say it the right way.

Quick Requiem at a Red Light

After landing on Long Island and renting a car, I’m lost within ten minutes of leaving the airport parking lot. I didn’t think I’d need a GPS in my homeland, but apparently I do. One town just slides into another and looks exactly like the last one did. I feel like there used to be space between them that let you know you were changing zip codes. Okay, it’s been a while.

It makes me wonder how teenagers keep school rivalries going these days. In the Class of ’68, we referred to kids from Wantagh — three miles away — with a vague, almost mythical, curiosity as if they spoke a different dialect and worshipped at Stonehenge. I’m guessing that’s all over now because kids don’t actually have to see each other anymore to be BFF’s. Maybe kids don’t root for the home team either. Maybe they don’t chant at football games, or even go to football games. We shouted, “We are good! We are great! We’re the Class of ’68!” Our lungs got a workout back then. But we hardly ever used our thumbs the way kids do today.

I finally get my bearings by telling myself that when I get to the corner with Shoe Town on the right and Carvel up ahead on the left, I’ll know where I am. And then I recognize that I’m at that corner, but Shoe Town is gone. It’s a bank now. It’s probably been a bank for years. Maybe it’s not even the original building. I have no idea. When you haven’t lived in your hometown since 1973, things like this happen.

Shoe Town was one of the few perfect things in my pubescent years, and it seems right to mourn its passing as I wait at the red light. Before it came into my life and offered me the anonymity I needed with feet like mine, shoe shopping was a humiliating hell. Before the boxy store on the corner went up, all I had were smarmy salesmen measuring my foot and then sighing and saying, “I’ll see what I can do,” only to come back from that secret room in the back with one box instead of the five or six choices other girls got.

The summer before 6th grade, just before Shoe Town opened, my mother and I went on a fruitless quest to find something in my size (10) that wasn’t a patent-leather stiletto heel designed for a woman three times my age.

After one salesman measured my foot, he looked over at my mother and said, “Well, we don’t have any shoes that will fit her, but I could give you a couple of boxes to take home.”

She pretended to think it wasn’t funny, but later when I overheard her telling the story to my father, I could hear chuckles all around. This is what I was up against until I finally found a shoe store that made sense.

For one thing, Shoe Town was self-serve way before its time, so I could be my own agent. I could also walk there with my friends and spend as much time as I needed to try on every shoe in Size 8 or 9 that looked like it had any chance of fitting my foot and walking a few steps before I’d melt in pain in front of the full length mirrors they had in the corners.

Eventually I’d wander over to the Size 10 rack where I belonged and settle on a pair that didn’t embarrass me too much. Later, in my room, I would rub the 10 from inside the shoes until it was gone. Just in case. I took shoe size very seriously, as if it were a blight on my character.

When you come back to the place where you grew up, it’s all right there, sitting at a red light. Now you remember everything. How good it felt to buy your own shoes and carry them home. How the Carvel Flying Saucer melted in your hand all the way down Jerusalem Avenue. Opening your front door and knowing that roast chicken was for dinner. Your mother humming along to the Ray Conniff Singers on the HiFi. Running up the stairs to your room and trying on your new shoes. And thinking there was no way life would ever change from that day.

So you mourn the passing of a shoe store that was kind to you, and that’s not the weirdest thought you have at the red light. The oddest thing is that you still call this town home.

Oh, Jones Beach, You Were So Worth It

After eight months of thinking I should get this pesky spot on my face checked out, one morning I woke up and started to panic. I might have been watching too much Discovery Channel, but I went from thinking, I’ll get around to it one of these days, to calling a dermatologist as if my chin had just melted off.

“Is this an emergency?” the receptionist wanted to know.

It may have been my tone. I took a breath and told her my symptoms.

“I have an opening a week from Thursday,” she said. It always soothes me when the person answering the phone hears my story and still sounds as bored as she did when she first said, “Dr. Goldfarb’s office. May I help you?”

This spot near my temple — whatever it’s called — is all my fault. It’s not the kind of disease that lands on innocent people’s pancreases while they sleep, or attaches itself to one of your lymph nodes even though you’ve eaten kale and gotten eight hours of sleep your entire life.

If my skin is about to crust over and slide off my face, I did it to myself, starting when I was 16 and began spending my summers in the sun, lathering on the baby oil and cursing the clouds. Memorial Day would begin with a marathon bake that served as a base coat. My goal was to overcome the Anglo Saxon genes in my DNA and stay the color of medium toast through September. Tanning was my only sport, and though I didn’t have a prayer of beating out Greek or Italian girls, I gave it my all.

1966 had been good to me. The extra room in my bra was finally being called into action. Almost overnight, it seemed, my bony hips were gone, and fat deposits became my friend in a way they would never be my friend again. My mother gave me permission to use Summer Blonde on my mousy brown hair. It morphed into the shiny blonde of my childhood, hair I only knew in pictures. And — as if that weren’t enough — I lived in a place where Jones Beach, ten miles of pristine sand on the Atlantic Ocean, was all mine for a 35¢ bus ride. Now the only thing left to do was wreck my skin forever.

Dr. Goldfarb, whose waiting room is full of mauve chairs and concerned folks in their 80s, walks into the exam room as he is reading my chart.

“So what brings you in today?”

I explain the situation as if nothing about it is my fault, and — oddly — I think I can fool him. The first question he asks is about sun exposure when I was young. Apparently, he’s on to me.

“How long has this spot been there?”

I cut the time by two-thirds so neither of us will become alarmed. He stares at it. He pokes it with an instrument. He picks up my newly created file and jots something down.

“We can take care of that for you,” he says in my direction over his reading glasses.

Before he fixes me, though, he lectures me about the error of my youthful ways. And I’m thinking that unless he’s storing his time machine in the next room, this is rather a waste of our ten minutes together and a copay.

He says, “basal cell blah blah blah” and “dermis something something,” but since all immediate danger has passed, I’m now noticing that he doesn’t have a single wrinkle on his forehead. This probably comes in handy when you don’t want to look horrified in front of a patient whose skin might be full of pustules. His cuffs are monogrammed. And he has $1,000 worth of pens in his pocket. There is money in old people’s skin, and it looks like I’ve arrived squarely in the middle of his demographic although I don’t feel at all ready to be here.

I wince as he freezes the dry spot on my face. We have a discussion about SPF products. I make promises. He turns to write a prescription for salve, and I know he’ll soon be on his way to another post-menopausal former bikini-beauty who is waiting in the next room.

But he turns, and — for the first time — looks directly into my eyes.

“Do you have someone who regularly sees your back?”

Such a simple question. But it takes me by surprise.

“No.”

“Would you like me to take a quick look?”

“Sure!” I say, reaching for an upbeat tone. I’m trying to sound like I’m not embarrassed that I have no one to look at my back.

Then I pray that there’s not some painless carcinoma galloping across my shoulder blade that’s about to be discovered. If I had a person who slept with me every night, he’d have had ample opportunity to view me from all angles and — if necessary — shout out, “Holy mother of God, what is that purple thing hanging off your back?” But that hasn’t happened, so I don’t know if there is anything purple there or not, honestly.

I yank my sweater up in the back so he can get a full view. The sweater rides up in the front, too, and gentle rolls spread out in front of me even though I’m sucking in and holding my breath. I can’t remember if my bra is the black lacy one, which would seem so . . . unnecessary, and I have no idea why I bought it anyway.

“Looks fine,” he says, and reaches for one of his Mont Blanc pens to write (probably) “Back looks fine.”

I am relieved about my back, but I feel a little sorry for the rest of my skin because I know where it’s probably heading. I’m slated for veiny hands and more wrinkles and liver spots and probably a few more spins around the Ferris wheel with Dr. Goldfarb.

Would I have rather stayed in the shade? Ha.

Oh, Jones Beach, you were so worth it.

The Problem of our Mothers

Jill, Brenda, and I went everywhere together. And we had style, or, at least we had a style. Even if we were just walking to the candy store, we teased our hair and attached tiny satin bows to the point where our puffy bangs started because you never knew who might be on the corner. As soon as we turned 11, we started saying, “We’re almost 12.”

Our big problem was our mothers and their ridiculous 1940s ideas about how we should be spending our summer. They said things like, “Why don’t you girls go outside and play?” They told us how lucky we were that we could just walk out the front door and find exciting things to do.

“Like what?” That would be us, impatiently waiting for an answer we knew our mothers didn’t have. How sad they hadn’t noticed that living in Massapequa in 1961 was devoid of anything fun.

“Well,” one of them would say, “You could have races with each other. How about getting the little kids together and playing school? You could be the teachers. . . Oh, I don’t know . . . just do something for God’s sake.” They all had ideas about how we should be loving life.

Jill’s mother could speak French. Well, I think looking back, Jill’s mother had a few phrases under her belt, but in my mind she could have walked right into the UN and immediately been asked to translate into the headphones of Charles de Gaulle. She wanted us to practice with her since we’d started taking it in school that year.

“Bonjour, mès amis!” she would say as we came through the back door. She did it with such optimism, such hope that we would all chirp in unison, “Très bien, et vous?” What came out of us was a mumbled answer in a language so unrecognizable that she gave up by the Fourth of July.

Brenda’s mother had a plan to get us to lay our eyes on at least one book that summer. She thought it might be fun to take turns reading aloud from Little Women. When she took the book out of the bookcase, all I could think was, That book must have more than 100 pages.

“If we read for an hour every day, we could be finished by September.” Again, optimism in the face of total resistance. Brenda’s mom didn’t give up easily, though she did come to her senses, page-wise.

“How ‘bout if you walk down to the library so you can get caught up on your summer reading?” Hey, we were almost 12. We knew a fun-killing oxymoron when we heard one. And for good measure Brenda shot her mother a look as if she had just suggested selling the family dog. We were two for three.

My mother was a fan of Jack LaLanne in the morning. As a teenager, my mother had excelled at sports. Evidently, she could bowl perfect games and swim without ever coming up for air.

“I can’t believe what this man can do with a simple kitchen chair!” she’d say as she huffed and puffed all over the living room, following his instructions for an exercise that would give her beautiful ankles.

“How about we go jump rope and I’ll teach you some of the songs we used to sing?” We couldn’t decide which was more illogical. Girls our age jumping rope, or a woman my mother’s age taking the chance of falling and being paralyzed for the rest of her life. She was 33. For her own safety, we left her in the dust, too.

“Well, what are you going to do then?” our mothers would say as the screen door squeaked closed behind us, “You girls need something to show for your summer.”

It would be decades before cottage industries sprang up to keep kids competitive during the ten weeks of summer vacation, so here’s what we did instead. We sat in the living room and talked. It might have looked like we were idling, but we were planning for our futures with boys, sort of our own little fantasy league.

As far as we could tell, no boy had ever looked in our direction, even accidentally, thinking we were someone else. But we spent hours choosing which boys we liked the most and deciding that we needed to be smart, funny, and beautiful — like Tuesday Weld. We had a vague notion that big breasts somehow entered into this equation, but for obvious reasons we didn’t linger there.

We quizzed each other in current events. We retold jokes we’d heard on television, which gave a sort of Milton Berle quality to our sex appeal that we realized later wasn’t quite what we were looking for. The beautiful part was much more of an uphill climb for me, especially when it came to hair because mine had the texture of Brillo. As soon as the humidity index raised a percent, everything on my head puffed up like a blow fish. This caused me to sweat, which caused my face to become bright red, and knowing that my face was red made me nervous, which meant I was likely to trip over my Size 10 feet. I was a tragic chain reaction.

Tuesday Weld inspired us, yes, but it was from afar, either in movie magazines, or watching her drive Dobie Gillis crazy. Lucky for us, we also had a local role model. And Donna Goldsmith, wherever you are today, thank you. Thank you for maturing early and going with it full force. Without selfies, sexting, or a push-up bra, you were decades ahead of the pack.

Donna Goldsmith was as breezy around boys as we were clammy. When she giggled, a tiny breathy sound came from her lips, which always looked like they were ready to kiss someone. We paused near her whenever we got the chance, hoping some of her magic elixir would rub off.

Kids had basement parties that summer. We danced to records, drank soda, ate potato chips, and went home to bed, which, I know, sounds a lot like 1927. I was happy to join the arc of girls loosely surrounding Donna and her boyfriend, moving slowly to music, as if we were her backup dancers. She rested her head on his shoulder. He whispered something in her ear that made her laugh. How did she keep from sweating? Or blushing? How did she decide how close his hand could be to her bra strap? I was in awe of the way she mouthed  the words of “Town without Pity,” and looked into her boyfriend’s eyes.

I gave up being Donna in the summer of 1961. And honestly, it speaks to my resilience, in the face of bad hair and feet the size of small watercraft, because somehow Tuesday Weld and all her charms were still in the running.

On Long Island, We Really, Really Loved Our Lawns

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.

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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.

lawn  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.

“Where?”

I meant the 1950s.