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.

 

 

 

For Ron Kovic, on Memorial Day

“I don’t like this,” my mother said as she set the dinner table. “It’s getting to be a bad habit.”

The rest of my family out-voted her. So my brother placed the portable black and white TV on a snack table in the corner of the kitchen.

It was fall, 1967, and I was a senior in high school. Between bites of dinner and sips of milk, my family watched the news unfolding from Vietnam. As a student who thought history was her best subject, I was interested in the logistics of it all, the politics. My ability to watch young men being ripped apart on a 16-inch screen and then say things like, “Please pass the potatoes,” evidently didn’t bother me.

Then Ron Kovic got shot.

Ron Kovic grew up one block over and two blocks up from our house. He and his friends were a staple of my childhood. For one summer I worshiped his broad-shouldered body as he played ball every day in the neighborhood. He was — as were many others — the older boy who never looked my way. For three hot and humid months that year, I made up a reason to walk past his house ten times a day. I hoped for a “hello.” I never got a nod.

I’d lost track of him when he graduated from Massapequa High School in 1964. I had no idea he’d become a Marine. His little sister was at our bus stop on Broadway, but by the rules that governed bus stop protocol, I couldn’t talk to her because she was younger.

And then one afternoon in January, 1968, I saw his sister sobbing on the bus ride home from school, hunched over in her seat. Her friends crowded around her, and I heard one of them say, “Her brother got shot in Vietnam.”

Starting that day, I had two images of Ron Kovic that I couldn’t reconcile. In the first, he wore his letter sweater with the blue and gold M. He had a crew cut and was tan and smiling. In the second — only a few years beyond that — he lay in St. Albans Naval Hospital, paralyzed from the chest down.

 

Ron

In 1976, when Ron wrote about his life in Born on the Fourth of July, he graced the front page of The New York Times Book Review. He was renewed, strong in his anti-war convictions, still handsome. My brother bought a copy of the book for me and walked around the corner to the Kovic’s house and asked him to sign it.

“He was very pleasant,” my brother told me. “We talked for a long time. I asked him, but he said he doesn’t remember you.”

 

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When you’re the cool kid on the block, you don’t recall the skinny 13-year-old in the shadows, even if she is adoring your every move. And that wasn’t the big role Ron Kovic was going to play in my life anyway.

January, 1968, my family stopped watching the Vietnam War unfold on the TV screen at dinner. I no longer needed Walter Cronkite to shepherd me through the Tet Offensive or the DMZ. Ron Kovic — that beautiful boy from Toronto Avenue who did perfect handstands — took over the job.

If I questioned what war was, or what it did, my answer was close by now. Two blocks away. At the bus stop. Every morning when I looked into his sister’s eyes.

 

And After I Was “That” Kind of Girl

Brenda wasn’t big on why her 7-month marriage ended while That Guy (or Poor Guy, as we started calling him) was trudging through the Mekong Delta. She announced it in a matter-of-fact letter that focused more on the logistics of shipping her clothes back to Massapequa and whether she was going to take a bus or a train home.

My vicarious thrill was over.

Once she got settled into college, she made Dean’s List right away. It was a sign that she would whiz past Jill and me in this forum, too,  even though we had a head start. College meant the three of us found new friends, something we swore we’d never need.

Brenda and I lost touch for a while after graduation. Then, in our early 30s, there were phone calls once in a while. She had finished graduate school on the West Coast and had PhD after her name. I had Mrs. in front of mine. I was the mother of three, and had recently been named “Worst Housekeeper in Buffalo, New York” for the second straight year.

They were chatty, catching-up calls. She talked about academic journals. I had a few things to tell her about toilet training. Brenda said things like, “Ugh. . .  I don’t know how you do it.”

I don’t think she meant that my life had turned into a minor Greek tragedy or anything, but even if she did, I could hardly blame her. When you have three kids under age 5 and you live in a place where it snows in April, you’re doughy, dry-skinned, and weepy for a while. You don’t want to be. It just happens.

Sometimes I felt she was calling from Pluto. I knew nothing about the majesty of the Palouse or the energy burst Downward Facing Dog gave you. Until she mentioned them, I’d never heard of The Green Party, a bodega, or going vegan. What I did know — the best way to get a kid to eat carrots — I learned to keep to myself.

In her mid-30s — wanting to be one step ahead of her ovaries going south on her — Brenda intentionally got pregnant. She was parenting her daughter alone. She traveled — to Africa and the Far East — where she took teaching jobs. There were still men.

Communication dribbled down to Christmas cards, filled with recaps of our busy year.  Then maybe just a picture of our kids and an upbeat one-line greeting.

And then the cards stopped altogether.

Our mothers still lived in Massapequa, and they still ran into each other. I didn’t put up a fight when they conspired a little reunion in 1993 when Brenda and I would both be in town.

When the day of our reunion at my parents’ house arrived, I worked my mascara wand extra hard and fiddled with my hair. I practiced a few anecdotes I planned to dance out as if they’d just come to me. I could hear my family downstairs, even my brother who remembered Brenda and was curious to see how she’d turned out. I heard car doors closing outside.

“Here they come,” my brother called up the stairs.

“How does she look?”

“Ummm … well, you probably have time to do a few more sit ups.” I sucked it in as I came down the stairs. But I stopped when I relaxed in her hug.

We sat on the back deck and ate lunch.  She had stories that made us laugh and made my father lean forward so he wouldn’t miss a word. He asked her about what she ate in Algeria. She talked about trying to fit into Japanese culture. My favorite story was a homogenized version of her latest romance, with a real cowboy in Wyoming.

At the end of the afternoon, Brenda and I wandered slowly to the base of my parents’ driveway, just the two of us. Right here, we had parked our bikes as kids. Right here, as teenagers, we picked out our children’s names and planned to live in houses next door to each other. And though we hugged, we were speaking different dialects now. And we knew it.

 

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We said our goodbyes with promises to meet again. We never did.

Last year I was poking around online, and I found a book of poetry Brenda wrote. The cover is a black and white photograph of a naked woman’s back. She’s holding up her long hair and turning her face just slightly toward the camera. It’s her. It must have been taken when we were young and our backs were strong and powerful.

I stayed on the page a long time, just looking at her crazy brave profile and its sweet shadow.

Before I Was “That” Kind of Girl

When Oliver Hardy would turn to Stan Laurel, square his jaw and then give his tie a little twirl, you always knew what was coming. “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”

Exactly.

Our friend, Brenda, thought anything she could do, Jill and I could, too. This was almost always not true. Brenda had made JV cheerleading, and she was sure we could all make Varsity together. Her overflowing confidence sometimes coursed in my direction, and I would  temporarily lose my mind.

That’s how I ended up at Varsity tryouts. Cue Oliver Hardy.

We broke into small groups with an actual cheerleader directing us. I had expected a few hours of explanation, maybe a film about cheer leading, or some diagrams I could study before I actually had to do anything. She spent a minute introducing herself. (As if we didn’t know her name. She was a cheerleader!)

And then without warning she said, “Okay! Now line up and let me see your split jumps, one at a time.”

With nothing available to stave off the impending humiliation, I jumped.

She said, “Okay! Now you’ve just got to work on getting it in the air.” Her turn of phrase made me question if my feet had ever left the ground.

Jill and I didn’t go back for the second day of tryouts. We tried out for Chiefettes instead, a kick line that performed during halftime at football games. Chiefettes got to link arms with each other and keep one foot on the ground at all times, which worked out better for us.

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Brenda continued to conquer new frontiers. For one thing, she had boyfriends. Jill and I had dates — the sweet, unsullied kind where you went to the movies and then you ate French fries at the diner — the kind of dates our mothers went on.

One night after one of these, annoyed at the persistence of a boy I didn’t like all that well, I got to use the line, “I’m not that kind of girl!” I threw it out there indignantly, the way I’d heard it delivered on television.

The boy (embarrassed, I know now) walked me home in silence. As I was putting my key in the front door, he yelled out his parting shot from the sidewalk. “Oh yeah? Well, guess what? You’re a cold fish!”

Was I a cold fish? It was impossible to know where I was on the sexual continuum when I hadn’t yet had any experience of any kind. I’d read about “How to Fine Tune Your Relationship” in magazines like Glamour and Seventeen, but those articles were deliberately vague and sometimes alarming. I was petrified of being frigid, something that got a lot of ink. But — from all I’d picked up — it only afflicted married women so I figured I was off the hook.

In every picture I have of high school graduation, the three of us and our parents are all squinting into the sun. Brenda won awards, engraved charms she would put on a bracelet. I graduated #304 in our class of 616, my goal of slouching toward middle-of-the-road now complete. Our cakes had butter-cream icing. Our parents gave us the portable typewriters we would take to college.

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And then, two weeks later, our phone rang very late and woke me up. I heard my mother answer it and say, “Oh, dear! Oh no!” Then I heard her coming up the stairs to my room.

“Brenda’s mother is on the phone,” she said. Do you know where she is?”

I didn’t.

“They just found a note that says she’s gone away with that guy. To get married!”

That Guy was the name we had taken to calling Brenda’s latest boyfriend. We didn’t think he was going to be around long enough to bother with his real name.

That Guy was someone Brenda’s brother had brought home on leave from the army. Her family had been letting him sleep in their family room until he had to get back to his base and then leave for his second tour in Vietnam. It was supposed to be a week, but now it had been a month and he was still hanging around, lounging on the couch with his guitar all day.

We could see that Brenda was crazy about him, but we didn’t get it. He hadn’t gone to college. He was divorced. He was old (26). Three strikes. And his guitar playing was pretty weak.

Brenda had eloped, just like in the movies but without the whooping and happiness and the old jalopy sailing down the road, with the words The End superimposed on the screen. Two days later, the new Mr. and Mrs. That Guy got up their nerve and resurfaced back in Massapequa, to retrieve her clothes and be on their way to his base in Texas.

Jill and I were invited over to say goodbye. We walked in the front door just as Brenda’s father was begging them to get an annulment. But Brenda was 18 and there was nothing they could do about it. And she was in love, she told them. After the first wave of hysterics subsided, Brenda went into spin mode.

“We’ll have a church wedding as soon as he gets back from Vietnam,” she said. “Tell Father O’Connor we’ll be in touch.”

Brenda had mastered this skill in junior high school. She changed the topic just slightly, adding charming little details to warm up her mother, who was alternately weepy and angry.

“Oh Mom, the Justice of the Peace was so sweet. He sat with us afterwards and told us that he and his wife have been married for 55 years.”

Brenda’s mom said, “Did you at least have flowers?”

“Yes! Of course I did!”

* * *

 

So that fall, instead of her first-choice university, where she already had a room, a roommate, and a challenging freshman schedule waiting, Brenda and her husband drove to Fort Hood, Texas.

Jill and I, now freshmen in college, gave Brenda’s letters a big dose of parsing. I guess we’d spent all those years discussing the ins and outs of what married life would feel like, she figured she’d make good on the investment.

Their apartment on base: “Luckily it’s furnished, and it’s mostly Danish Modern!” Her dinner menus: “One thing I’ve learned cooking for a soldier. Buy plenty of meat!” The part we were most interested in: “I can’t tell you how much I love my late nights and early mornings with my husband.”

We analyzed every line. And we had so many questions we didn’t ask. Did she wear her hair rollers to bed? Did she close the bathroom door? Did they have sex with the lights on? Did she let him see her without makeup? Or did she wake up an hour before he did and put mascara and lipstick on in the dark? (I’d read “Tips to Keep Your Man,” recently and thought it resonated.)

As intrigued as we were by Brenda’s letters, Jill and I just dug in deeper to the way we’d always been. Our goals hadn’t changed much since 8th grade. Pristine, virginal weddings (in June, of course). A college degree. A teaching job. And a house where we’d sew gingham curtains and never think of cooking a meal unless it came straight out of our Betty Crocker cookbooks.

Apparently the news that we were coming of age in the late 1960s had been kept from us until this point.

But not for long.

 

[Up on Monday: A Reunion When I Least Expected It]

Wild Thing . . . You Make My Heart Sing

My friend, Jill, and I found out about the 17/18 Sign at Jones Beach as we were eating ice cream called Mello-Rolls. It was the ice cream of our youth but not without its hazards.

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You knew you weren’t a kid anymore when you could peel the paper away from the cylinder of ice cream without having it land in the sand. When you were young, this happened all the time. Then you cried. Then your dad trudged back to the concession stand to get you another one.

We were 16 now, and we wouldn’t think of being seen at the beach with our parents. And we never dropped our Mello-Rolls any more.

We were just back at our towels when a boy named B.J. Farley sauntered over and plopped himself down on the sand by Jill’s feet.

“So, I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” he said.

We were flattered because this kind of thing wasn’t happening much yet. We also laughed a little because we thought his opening line sounded like something Dean Martin would say.

“Where are you girls from? I know you’re not from Seaford or I would have seen you around.” Apparently, B.J. had an entire repertoire of lines the Rat Pack had tired of, and they were now public domain.

B.J. Farley was from the next town over. He was one of the St. William the Abbot boys we’d spied at Mass the week before. He called his church “St. Willie’s,” all at once adorable and blasphemous. We sat up straighter and listened intently. I concentrated on not dropping my Mello-Roll.

“Why are you all the way down here?” he said after a while. “Come on over and meet my friends at the 17/18 Sign.”

Jones Beach’s creators thought of everything. A theater, a band shell, a little golf course, paddle tennis. There were even numbered signs to help you negotiate the acres of white sand. The signs helped old people who might get lost looking for their umbrella. They helped little kids from getting separated from their parents. All good ideas. But now the 17/18 Sign gave us a geographical focus for making our summer memorable. To the self-absorbed teenage girls we were, that was much more important than dehydrated old people or lost children. So thank you to the sign inventor.

 

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We arrived at the 17/18 Sign like it was base camp for the last good-looking boys in the universe. We recognized many of the boys from Mass the week before. I’d had the good fortune to tag along as a non-Catholic girl. Apparently, I was just in it for the boys in blue blazers and madras ties because I remembered their faces vividly.

We stayed there all afternoon. The Seaford boys played a card game called Hearts and sang along to the radio. They jumped in the ocean when it got too hot, and they thwacked their towels at each other. In other words, they were exactly like boys their age from any town on Long Island. Just not to us. There was something exotic about this bunch of (mostly) Irish Catholic boys who lived two miles away and had been forced to take Latin in school.

“Are you going to the dance at St. Willie’s tonight?”

That was one of the Fitzpatrick brothers, the group that had stolen my heart simply by walking down the aisle at church the week before. It would take some sorting out of names to know which one was talking — John, Joe, Kevin, or Brian — since they all looked like the same boy, just an inch shorter or taller.

Jill and I leaped at our chance for summer romance. We promised ourselves that once we got back to school in September, we would pay attention to Massapequa boys again. We had this discussion on the bus going home. We were perfectly serious about it, too.

The Beach Boys were our moral barometer, and they had been telling us for years to “be true to your school.” And we would. In September. Until then a few summer dances in another town wouldn’t hurt. Had we been given the chance to let the Massapequa boys know our decision, their response would have probably been, “Who are you?” Jill and I were working on our brand back then, still operating pretty much in obscurity.

The Nun at the door said, “Welcome to St. William the Abbot School.” She was smiling, but it seemed forced.

I felt at any second she would ask me for my card that proved I was Catholic. Then she shot a glance at my skirt hem, and I realized what she really cared about. Her face relaxed a little. I knew I had passed her short-skirt criteria for not tempting boys into a life of sin.

The Nuns were doing their best as the dance progressed, but let’s face it. These were not The Sound of Music Nuns, just waiting it out until a rich Colonel came and scooped them up. They were sensible-shoed, wide-faced women of God. I think they were wishing they were back at the Convent House watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. instead of being called on to supervise teenage lust.

Summer took on a sort of Lewis and Clark charm. By day we camped out at the 17/18 Sign, being charmed and doing our best to be charming. In the evenings, Jill and I walked around for miles, in the dark, in a sometimes complicated route — often barefoot because I thought my feet looked smaller that way. There was a lot of roaming involved.

My friends and I might get to the corner of Park Boulevard and Franklin Avenue after a half hour’s walk. And then as if we were in some sort of hormonal relay race, three girls we knew would give us the metaphorical hand off: “Gary Sullivan and Mark Doyle were just here and they were asking about you!” Heading off in that direction, we might or might not ever find them. And even if we found them, it didn’t mean we would necessarily talk to them.

Sometimes there was a final destination. It was called Hubies, a hamburger stand on Sunrise Highway. For reasons unknown, it attracted hordes of teenagers who swarmed the parking lot night after night. We acted like it was one giant coincidence that we all ended up standing under that neon. I don’t ever remember eating anything.

These summer nights got replayed a lot when I became the mother of teenagers myself many years later. I wondered how, in 1966, our parents ever trusted us to stand on the side of a 4-lane highway, flirting so vigorously that our heads were probably spinning, and then top it all off by walking home in the dark. They had no way of contacting us, which now seems unbearable. I wondered if they worried. That’s not true. I wondered how much.

Now my kids are parents themselves. I’m one generation removed from the nail-biting years. My memories of the summer at the 17/18 Sign and Hubies are all carefree now. And I remember the sweetest moments.

Like the evening someone turned up his car radio as “Wild Thing” was playing. We started dancing in the parking lot. Tommy Henshaw was my partner. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt that was much too big for him, and he sang along as we danced.

Jill and I walked home. In the dark. Giggling and chatting. No cell phones. No Sacajewea. I was home by 10. And I was sure I’d be young forever.

When Surf Was Up on Long Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilgo Beach Inn

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

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

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

What I Learned About Love, at 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why didn’t they get married?”

She sighed again, bigger this time.

“He was already married.”

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

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

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

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

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.