Good Intentions and Horrible Blunders on a Country Road

It’s hard to tell this story because it sort of breaks my heart. It was 1933, and my mother was five. She and her parents were driving along a country road at the eastern tip of Long Island, long before it was called The Hamptons. Suddenly traffic stopped, and cars began to line up and inch toward what they figured must have been an accident. They crawled along for a few miles, my grandfather running out of patience.

When they got to a fork in the road, they realized that a car had run out of gas just where the two lanes separated, and right there was a black man holding a gas can, his thumb in the air, hoping for a ride. My mother stood up in the back seat and watched car after car in front of them slowly go around the man.

“Stop and pick him up,” my grandmother told my grandfather, exasperated by the behavior of the drivers in front of them. I like this part of the story, of course — my grandmother so ahead of her time. But there’s another part.

As they got close to where the man stood, my grandmother glanced at the back seat next to where my mother was sitting. She took a newspaper from the floor by her feet and handed it to her small daughter.

“Spread this out on the seat next to you,” she told her.

“Why?” my mother wanted to know.

“Diseases.”

My mother did as she was told, and they stopped. The man, jubilant that this would end his humiliation, went to get in. My mother watched him closely. He saw the newspaper. His smile faded. He got in anyway. My mother remembered the sound his body made as he sat down on the paper designed to keep his “diseases” off their car seat. He took off his hat. He thanked them.

My mother told me that story when I was a young teenager, deep into my “Peter Paul and Mary Know the Answers to Everything” years. My reaction was harsh. How could my grandmother — my smart, kind grandmother — ever do such a thing? And why was my mother telling me this story with nothing more than a little frustration, saying, “Well, they did what they could do.” All I could see was that they were just another smack in the face to the black man who’d stood in the hot sun waiting for someone — anyone — to drive him to a gas station.

My mother told the story because all those years later, she still remembered the hurt look on the man’s face, and it haunted her. She told it because she also understood her parents’ actions in a way I refused to. Because the world evolves in fits and starts, brave take-offs and hard landings, good intentions and horrible blunders. She told me the story slowly and quietly because I thought I knew everything about the universe and how it worked. And she knew that wasn’t true.

And now I know it, too.

 

Can We All Just Take a Breath?

As scandals during my childhood in Massapequa went, this one had legs. I didn’t understand it completely, but I could tell by my parents’ tone it was bigger than the brouhaha about the Townsends refusing to pick up their dog poop, which had rocked Hamilton Avenue the summer before.

This one started the day my mother drove me to our family dentist — a man I’d known all my life — for my 6-month appointment. While we sat in his waiting room, I silently recited my usual prayer to the molar gods about no cavities. My mother immediately noticed that Dr. McGarrity had placed a copy of Barry Goldwater’s book, The Conscience of a Conservative, on each end table. And as if that weren’t enough, instead of the usual pamphlets about brushing your teeth after every meal, there were now red, white, and blue brochures explaining why people should vote for the senator from Arizona.

“And not just one table,” my mother told my father that evening, “but all five!”

“Did you say anything to him?” my father wanted to know.

“Of course not!”

We talked politics often in my house — the keyword being “in.” I knew that Goldwater was diametrically opposed to everything my parents held dear because they were liberals of the highest degree. If any of our neighbors actually believed in Goldwater (and undoubtedly there were a few on Hamilton Avenue), they kept their leanings to themselves. As did we.

And this — to put it simply — was the way the world worked before Facebook. It was a place where your dentist throwing his conservative beliefs out there on a table could horrify people who were just there to get their teeth cleaned. Long before Twitter came along and we realized how cleverly we could condense our opinions into 140 characters, my parents were aghast that Dr. McGarrity would want the world to know how he planned to vote.

Anyone reading my blog for the last year knows I’m not above hauling out parts of my youth and giving them nostalgic air time. And anyone who is lucky enough to make it past forty begins to see how “simple” life was then. Some of us pine for the past  — loudly and often — especially this year, when the world seems to be upside down.

I’m not one of those people.

Every time someone talks about the Fifties and how perfect they were, I shift to other thoughts: Separate water fountains. Polio. Gay men cheerfully described in their obituaries as “lifelong bachelors” by family members who didn’t know the truth. Or the unrealized dreams some women mourned when they signed up to become housewives and spent every day of the rest of their lives slowly disappearing.

This election cycle looks like it will get crazier before it gets better, and as much as social media is something I can’t live without, these days I feel like I’m drowning in it, especially when my fellow Baby Boomers are at the keyboard. In one corner, we miss the civility and quiet of the Fifties. In another, we’re generating memes and comments — about our candidate, our issue — at an astonishing rate. We need to feel right. About everything.

Maybe it’s time to take a breath. Which is what I’ll do. As soon as I update my Instagram account.

 

 

 

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.

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.