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.

“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.

Years of No Lobster

EK_0003 For part of 1932, my grandmother served oatmeal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the only food they could afford. When the Great Depression ended and life got more comfortable, she had a hard time relaxing. That’s the sweet way to say it. Really, she ran herself into the ground for the next 30 years making sure she’d always be ready, just in case the universe crashed in on her twice in one lifetime.

She sewed all her own clothes, including suits. She stretched pea soup with just the promise of a ham bone, and used every scrap of paper on both sides. She and my grandfather walked to the bank at the end of every month to see how much interest they’d earned. Even as the numbers grew, nothing more than a cautious sigh ever slipped out of either of them.

So it was no surprise that she elicited a collective gasp at Sunday dinner when, at 59, she made an announcement that began, “I’ve decided to live a little.”

“A little” meant that she would continue to run her home as she always had, shopping at sales and never buying rib eye when flank would do just fine. But there would be one big change. She’d made a list of every swanky restaurant in New York City and intended to eat in every one, starting with the Four Seasons because she’d read that movie stars were often spotted there, so it seemed the logical place to begin.

“And I may even order a martini!” she added. Again, gasps.

My grandfather didn’t think life got much better than a frozen dinner in front of whatever western was on TV that night, so he was quickly out of the running as her dinner partner. She chose me. I was 12.

Two weeks later, my mother took me to the Massapequa Railroad Station for my first solo trip into the city. I would travel in the second car on the train, which my grandmother had calculated meant the fewest number of steps for her at Penn Station, which, in turn, gave us the greatest chance that I wouldn’t end up walking aimlessly and alone through the largest city in the world.

As the train rolled into the station, I said, “Please don’t,” to my mother, trying to look as mature as possible, hoping that she wouldn’t implore the conductor to keep an eye on me.

“Please keep an eye on my daughter,” she said to him anyway. “She’s never traveled alone before. Her grandmother will meet her at Penn Station.” I know in the days before cell phones, this was not crazy behavior on her part.

But it meant that after every stop, the fatherly conductor would pause at my seat and in a voice not nearly quiet enough, say, “Still doin’ okay, Sweetie?” and rattling every embarrassment bone in my body. And for anyone who has never traveled on the LIRR, I believe there were 109 station stops between Massapequa and my destination that afternoon.

My grandmother was right about the Four Seasons being a big deal. There were trees inside, and everything seemed angular and modern. There was a coat room because at this place you didn’t just hang your stuff over your chair. There was a maître d’, who did nothing to hide his disdain for children in the restaurant (he probably would have called it his restaurant) even though it was barely 5PM and no one who really mattered would have been there at that hour.

My grandmother brightened at the waiter’s suggestion of a cocktail, as if she’d just then thought of it, and ordered the martini she told us she would. My Shirley Temple arrived in a heavy etched goblet. She held her glass to mine in the air and said, “Here’s to living it up!” We clinked them together. I might as well have been Eloise.

“Anything you want,” she said as we opened the menus. Then in a Hollywood whisper she added, “Except the lobster.” She pointed to the words Market Price on the menu. “They don’t tell you how much it costs because then they can just make it up when you get the bill, and by then it’s too late. That’s why we’ll never order the lobster.”

The waiter treated us royally. I’m sure he hoped for a hefty tip, and I wished I could have told him that this woman who didn’t trust Market Price also thought tipping was invented to gouge diners out of their hard-earned cash. She complied, but just barely and always using her little pad and pencil to get it to the penny. Had he known, he might have paced himself and saved his fawning for the movie stars who were coming later.

At dessert, I whispered that I was pretty sure Cary Grant was sitting at the very next table. My grandmother turned and stared at the man for what seemed minutes.

“Nope,” she said, turning back, “but keep looking. He’s bound to show up in one of these places!”

My grandmother had grown up poor and without a mother, taking up space in a childhood that never rose from dreary. She then raised her own children in tough times, with only her tenacity to lean on. But here she was, at one of the best restaurants in New York City, and, for all we knew, she might be sitting next to a bank president or a movie star. And though it may have taken her many years to get to high tea at the Plaza, or a steak dinner at Delmonico’s, once seated, she didn’t waste a moment. She reviewed the food right down to the garnish. She’d point out art on the walls or remark on the freshness of the roses. Whether we had to go or not, she’d insist on a trip to the ladies’ room just to admire the wallpaper or rate the quality of the hand towels.

At the Brasserie, I learned that escargots were nothing to be afraid of, though they were also nothing to brag about. I tasted caviar for the first (and last) time at the 21 Club. I learned that no one, not even my grandmother, expected me to clean my plate at Leone’s. I ordered Baked Alaska as often as it showed up on a menu. In the seven years we ate dinner together, we never did see Cary Grant.

Tavern on the Green in Central Park was our last dinner together, though we didn’t know it that night. I was home from college, on winter break. It had snowed. The trees bathed in their twinkly lights were just behind her, the dark wood beams just above.

“Isn’t this just the life?” she smiled, as she sat down and took it all in. Then she looked over my shoulder, lost in thought. I was going to ask her what she was thinking just as her eyes came back to me. And then with a wink, always the inside joke, “Remember now, anything . . . except the lobster.”

My cautious and often worn-out grandmother decided to live a little and took me with her on the adventure. Only now that I’m a grandmother can I really understand how she felt. At the tables of New York’s finest restaurants, every time I discovered something that amazed me — like a napkin folded into the shape of a flower or the fact that I really did like steak tartare — I watched her joy being multiplied. I learned to trust the world from the woman who distrusted Market Price as much as she adored her granddaughter. So no lobster. Just lucky, lucky me.

I Survived the Boardwalk Restaurant

“I need to talk to you, in private,” she says. I hate that sentence.

“Have a seat,” I say, trying my best to pretend she hasn’t been crying. “So what’s going on?”

She is my daughter’s age and the best editor in the department. At the moment, though, she’s been blindsided by how hard it is to work here. Maybe hearing “good job!” too often when she was little set her up for feeling defeated this morning after a conference call that didn’t go our way. I think my generation forgot to tell our kids that jobs are hard. And there are no trophies.

After laying out everything that’s wrong with our company and throwing in a few suggestions about how I could improve things, she goes to the ladies’ room to splash some cold water on her face. Knowing the resilience of these young people I’ve hired, ten minutes will probably do it. I get my pep talk in place. I’ll compliment her terrific work ethic. I’ll talk about dealing with the pressures of our industry, which seem to mount with every merger. But it’s not what I really want to say.

What I really want to say is: “You think this job is hard? Try being a waitress for a week.”

I spent two summers as a waitress at the Boardwalk Restaurant at Jones Beach in the late sixties. All these years later, I still have the same response every time a server says, “Hi, I’m ____, and I’ll be taking care of you.” I picture the 19-year-old me, poured into my snug-fitting uniform, smiling anxiously, hoping customers would be kind, and petrified that I’d spill coffee on small children.

As soon as summer began, Josie, our boss, had only a few days to get the new crop of college girls up to speed on everything from clearing dishes to up-selling, and she didn’t waste a minute. She dressed only in black — blouse, skirt, stockings, shoes. She walked/ran at a pace that made me think the building was on fire every time she passed. And then to fully overwhelm me, Josie gave directions in a German accent so Germanic that I could understand only half of her terrifying messages. The rest I got from her body language, equally terrifying.

Let’s face it. The only thing the Boardwalk Restaurant had going for it was its location. Most times, if the fish was cold or the drink watered down, reminding people to take in the white sand and mighty surf right outside the wall of windows did the trick. It worked best with people who hadn’t been out of Queens or Brooklyn in a very long time.

In early August one of the dishwashers showed us a newspaper ad for a music festival upstate. For lots of Long Island kids, upstate was a place about as far north as Nova Scotia, but I went to college at Cortland, so I knew that New York state actually extended beyond Westchester. Bethel was only about 2½ hours away. The buzz increased as days went on, and my waitress friends and I began making plans. We knew if we didn’t, we’d be the only people alive under 21 who hadn’t made it to Woodstock.

We would call in sick on the morning we were leaving, but all with different symptoms so Josie wouldn’t catch on. I chose a mysterious, perhaps deadly, high fever. Then once we got to Woodstock — if it was any good — we’d find a pay phone and keep calling in sick for as many days as we needed to. Justine’s car held five people. We’d chip in for gas. We’d stop at the 7-Eleven for snacks on the way. As far as plans hatched in 1969 went, this one was ironclad.

Though it was true Josie had left her sense of humor back in Stuttgart, she did read the newspaper every morning. And she’d recently been rumored to be hiding in a stall in the women’s room with her feet up, picking up word of impending mutinies where she could.

She called an impromptu waitress meeting and said to the 30 of us who were by now all practicing our sick telephone voices, “Anyone who calls in sick tomorrow, I know you’re going to Woodcock, and you will be fired. No Woodcock! That is it.”

When we all showed up for our shift the next day, Josie refused to trust the time card machine. Holding a clipboard at the door, she checked off each name with a triumphant little snort. She was 30-for-30 at keeping her staff at work that weekend, which was, I believe, the North American record. We found solace where we could, getting a lot of mileage out of passing each other and saying under our breath, “No Woodcock!”

Being a waitress meant there were nights, half an hour before closing, when I was so tired I wanted to cry. And then a party of eight might come in and be seated in my section. They would already be drunk, but it wouldn’t keep them from ordering a round of complicated cocktails. And the bartender would be in a bad mood because his girlfriend had just broken up with him and tell me to garnish them myself. And that would lead me to put a maraschino cherry, a lemon slice, and some orange rind in a gin and tonic because I didn’t know any better. I thought a more colorful drink would be a nice touch. And even the drunk person knew that wasn’t right and would call me on it, loudly.

In bed at midnight, with my feet still throbbing, I’d be unable to stop replaying all the ridiculous conversations of my day.

“Are you sure this is decaf?” and the stupid little response we all gave with a forced smile, “I promise. Tell you what? I’ll give you my phone number, just in case it’s not.”

Or “These shrimp were caught today, right?” In my almost dreamy state I always answered, “These shrimp are probably older than you are,” and that would make me smile and get some rest.

I was sad to hear that the Boardwalk Restaurant was demolished in 2004 and that in the decade since, only an empty space marks the spot where it once stood at the Central Mall. It bothers me that it met such an ignoble end, I guess because I learned a few life lessons there.

I learned I had a knack for making grumpy diners less grumpy with a clever turn of phrase. I learned the customer is always right. And your first job is always hard. I learned how to stay on Josie’s good side and hoped she would never stop mentioning “Woodcock” because it helped me feel less tormented about not making it to the greatest cultural event of my generation.

The young editor is back now, slowly regaining some composure. She asks, “How would you feel if I just took the rest of the day off to regroup?” She gives me her reasons. She’s embarrassed. She’s tired. She just doesn’t see how she can keep up this pace.

Part of me thinks I should let her go home early. But I tell her, “No,” and I have my reasons, too. The dinner rush is just starting. I want her to learn to collect herself after she’s dropped a tray of drinks. I want her to know how great it feels to avoid spilling coffee on toddlers.

And, hey, I missed Woodstock.

St. William the Abbot, the Seaford Boys, and a Change of Heart

I was jealous of my friend, Brenda, and I can admit it now. We were sophomores at Massapequa High School, a year that was neither fish nor fowl for all of us, except her. She was athletic, could sing harmony and play guitar, and proved herself to be absolutely fearless in social situations. And on top of it all, she was Catholic.

I had been shuttled to Presbyterian Sunday School until my confirmation, and after that my parents seemed pretty much done with anything organized on Sundays. I must have been a fiction-writer kind of child — that’s all I can come up with — to explain how I loved to make up stories that supplanted everyday life. Maybe I loved mystery, too. I sort of fell into my love of a religion I knew practically nothing about thanks to weekend sleepovers at Brenda’s house.

Brenda’s mother seemed okay with my tagging along to Mass, but I sometimes got the feeling I was making her bend a rule.

She’d say, “Remember, Linda, you have to stay in the pew when Brenda takes Communion.” She’d remind me not to touch the Holy Water. And she insisted I wear a white borrowed mantilla, when I would have far preferred the more dramatic black.

I longed for all the have-to’s the Church required of Brenda. She had to go to Confession. There were things called Holy Days of Obligation, a phrase that let you know right off the bat that Catholics didn’t fool around. Before we could go to the movies, her mother had to look up the title in the Legion of Decency. She couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. She fasted on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In our house we had the Golden Rule, which was a disappointing second place to everything Brenda got to do.

I wangled an invitation to Mass whenever I could. I learned the Hail Mary and Apostles Creed, never saying it aloud, of course, but watching Brenda recite it with a confidence I envied. And then there were the occasional young priests or seminarians up in front, for whom I’d invent an elaborate back-story. My favorite was that they’d suffered a heartbreak for which there was no other cure. They had given their lives to the Church in an act that was noble and final, but always caused them to look pensive and wistful during the Our Father.

Earlier in my childhood, I’d gone through a period where I’d been in love with the Nun side of Catholicism, too. My mother had a cousin who had taken her final vows in her early 20s, and we would visit her a few times a year at the Convent. Her name had gone from Bonnie to Sister Mary Benedict in what was something of a jolt for me, as if overnight she had reinvented herself. She dressed in full habit with only her face and hands showing. I was enamored. She was graceful and paid attention to me. She seemed perfectly serene. She wore a slim gold band on her left hand, which she told me meant she was married to Jesus.

True to my bent for fiction and drama, when Vatican II came along and raised Sister Mary Benedict’s hemline and let us see her hair for the first time, these visits seemed to have less of an emotional pull on me. A few years later, when she left the Order entirely, her father blamed her decision on the changes that John XXIII had brought about — mostly her shrinking habit and the fact that she could now drive a car.

“Well, you know, you can’t keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree,” my uncle said at Sunday dinner. I nodded solemnly though I had no idea what he was talking about.

After she became Bonnie again, I would still see her at family gatherings, and she was still lovely to me, but it would never be the same. I wonder if Maria von Trapp noticed people treating her differently after she made the big move.

One weekend when I was sleeping over at Brenda’s, logistics demanded that we go to Mass on a Saturday night, so her mom said she would drop us off at St. William the Abbot Church, in Seaford. On the drive over, I tried to think of something Catholic to say because that always put Brenda’s mother in a good mood. I mentioned that I’d seen the Pietà at the World’s Fair two years before. It was pretty dated content, I agree, but it was all the Catholic I had.

“Wasn’t it magnificent?” she asked.

I said, “Yes,” but the truth was that the experience had left me confused. I had gone with my grandmother, a woman who loved art but was suspicious of all religion. It started out well, with Mary and Jesus lit up in front of the blue velvet curtain, and you got to pass the statue on a moving walkway, something I’d never seen before. But I started watching a group of old Italian widows in front of us, all dressed in black. They began making the sign of the cross and praying aloud. Overcome with the moment, I crossed myself, too. My grandmother’s purse grazed the side of my head.

“We don’t do that!” she said in my ear.

It was true. We didn’t. But I couldn’t see any reason why we shouldn’t.

On the way to St. William the Abbot with Brenda and her mom, I was relieved that my grandmother was at home in Queens and had no idea I was on my way to Mass, where I fully intended to make the sign of the cross as many times as possible.

Brenda opened the big wooden door of the stucco church, and the smell of candles and incense and the old wood swept me up. St. William’s was smaller, older, and somehow more Catholic than her regular parish church. We sat toward the back. The kneeling bench was sticky, and I had some trouble getting it down so I could talk to God about how much I wanted to be Catholic and getting to the logistics of how we could make that happen.

My eyes must have been open because I knew the moment the McNamara brothers strolled in. They were followed a moment later by the Fitzpatrick boys — all four of them like perfect Irish nesting dolls — in navy blue blazers, madras ties, and khakis. They knelt and crossed themselves in one fluid motion and then sat down a few pews in front of us. Then they nudged each other about something hilarious in the row in front of them. It was my first inkling that I had a “type,” and apparently most of them lived in Seaford and went to St. William the Abbot Church.

Just a few minutes before, I’d been thinking that maybe I’d given up prematurely on following in Bonnie’s footsteps. Though becoming a Nun hadn’t exactly dovetailed with my way of thinking lately as I practiced kissing boys in the mirror in my bedroom, perhaps it deserved a second look.

Two minutes after pondering a life of sacrifice and piety and chastity, the Seaford boys walked in. And by the time the Priest said, “Go in peace,” the door on that career had slammed shut forever.

Finding Gary Dush on Facebook

When my mother was 73, she said, “I want you to find Jonathan Pinsky for me.”

I knew Jonathan Pinsky’s face from photo albums I pored over as a kid, thinking it kind of crazy that my mother was once young. I knew about Jonathan Pinsky from her stories about him. He was the smartest kid in her class and won a full scholarship to Columbia. He always had a crush on her and would drop by their house with flowers. My grandmother loved him. My mother was so-so.

“What do you mean, find him?” I asked.

“You know, go on the computer and look around and tell me what became of him. I’m curious.”

Back then, having a home computer was relatively new for people my parents’ age, and, though they’d bought one the year before, theirs had already become a Free Cell Solitaire machine by the time she asked for my help. My mother realized that I used the Internet for its true intended purposes: stalking old boyfriends and diagnosing obscure illnesses. So she went with my expertise.

I tried for many hours but couldn’t find her old friend.

Being lost to the ages like that hardly ever happens to people of my generation. Say what you will about us — we do like to keep our names and faces out there. “Greatest Generation” or not, our parents just never had the chance to ride the social media train like we have.

Facebook has been a boon to people like me who are curious about whatever became of, okay, everyone I ever met. I love it when Baby Boomers talk about navigating Facebook as if we are really tuned into modern technology. We brag about uploading a photo or unfriending someone as if we’re Navajo Code Talkers. I will say, however, that it took me only 15 seconds to find Gary Dush’s profile when I went looking for it recently. But when it comes to people’s Internet footprints, you hit pay dirt with a name like Dush, so I’m not taking any credit.

Gary was an older boy from the neighborhood. I’d known his name my whole life, partly because of its indelicacy, but also because you knew everyone’s name back then whether you ever spoke directly to him or not. Until the summer day that he became a vivid memory, he’d always been on the not side.

My two best friends and I were hanging around Jill’s house, getting in her mother’s way as she cleaned. When she turned on the vacuum, we knew it was time to move. The Rexall Drug Store, two blocks away, was always a fallback in our effort not to over-exert ourselves. It had all the essentials: a clearance bin of 45s, nail polish, and movie magazines. We saw Gary and his friends coming toward us on the sidewalk.

I can see from his Facebook profile that Gary still looks a little mean, the way he did all through childhood. No boy in Massapequa could resist taking a verbal poke at him, and I’m sure his permanently crabby mood had something to do with being called Gary Douche his whole life. Jill, Brenda, and I questioned the nickname a few times. We knew it alluded to some pink rubber contraption with a hose that Jill said she saw drying on their shower curtain rod once in a while. It had something to do with being a married woman, but that was as far as we got.

We walked to a certain pedestrian rhythm. We would eye the group coming toward us, identify them without even thinking about it since we knew everyone, and then move a few steps to the right or left so each group could get by. I don’t remember what we were talking about as Gary and his friends approached on Broadway.

I don’t know if he rehearsed his little speech, or why he chose me over Brenda or Jill. But suddenly he stopped and pointed up at me, close to my face.

“You are so ugly! No one is ever going to want to make out with you!”

They passed us. They laughed until they were out of hearing range.

I didn’t obsess until bedtime, but then the parsing began. I was okay with his first sentence. I knew it was the truth. But the second part scared me because I really was planning on having a boyfriend someday. Did he think I would never make out with him, or with anyone? Ever? Had he already made out with some beautiful girl somewhere, and that’s how he knew? How did he know?

When Gary Dush said those words to me at 13, I took it as a final verdict. A boy had said something to me, about me, so it must be true. It took some years to uncover that it really doesn’t work that way.

Gary Dush’s Facebook profile only has one photograph, and I spend a long time looking at it. Maybe he doesn’t really look mean, I think to myself. Maybe he’s just squinting into the afternoon Arizona sun. I wonder if he’s still short or if he had a late growth spurt. I wonder if he’d remember my name.

Facebook profiles are often misleading, of course, so there’s really only one thing I know for sure. And that one thing makes me smile as I close my laptop. Gary Dush missed the mark at predicting my future. By a mile.

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.