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.

The Square Dance Unit. Or Why I Never Forgave Our Gym Teachers

I liked school as long as I was sitting down, and lucky for me there was a lot of sitting in those days. I excelled at raising my hand and keeping my notebook tidy. In music class, I could hum, eventually locate the melody, and blend in. In art, I learned early that coloring inside the lines often trumped talent. I was relieved to have been born a girl because I had to do far less to prove myself than a boy did. It let me lower my expectations and avoid disappointment. I was excellent at being a girl.

There were setbacks, of course. Because we lined up and walked the halls in Size Order, I was never able to forget for a second that I was freakishly tall. Three girls in my class were also named Linda, rendering me “Linda D.” until I got to high school. I spent a fair amount of time wondering why my parents hadn’t thought ahead before giving me the most popular name in the universe, or — for that matter — combining their towering genes to create a child who was taller than her pediatrician by the time she was 12.

It was harder to adapt in gym class than other quadrants of Raymond J. Lockhart School, but unless it was October, I did okay there, too. Hugging the wall, and shouting, “Yeah!” when my team scored, and “Ugh!” when my team missed a goal, I could pretend to be in the mix of a spirited crab soccer game without my foot ever touching the ball. I was an expert at losing my place in line when we were climbing ropes. By 6th grade I’d mastered all the non-participation tricks ever invented.

But October always arrived no matter what grade I was in. And October meant that our gym teachers would push a button to retract the sliding wall that separated the girls’ gym from the boys’ gym and make their big announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, next week we will begin our Square Dance unit. This is an important social component of physical education. You will stay in your street clothes.” They always made it seem like we’d be curing Leukemia starting the next Tuesday and that always bothered me. Also, who called them street clothes?

Our gym teachers were a married couple. We guessed their combined ages to be about 230. Mr. and Mrs. Tierney went with the Darwinian model when it came to Square Dance as they did for every game we ever played. To me, Square Dancing seemed very much like Dodge Ball except there was some curtsying here and there. I was always slightly disappointed on the first day of Square Dance when I didn’t wake up temporarily paralyzed.

“Girls on this side of the gymnasium, boys on that one. Line up, single file.” And with that, the choosing-your-partner humiliation began.

So here it was, another year when no miraculous change in the curriculum was going to save me. I began by checking to see if any of the boys had grown a foot or two over the summer. As always only Russell Oliver, whose parents were rumored to be over seven feet tall, was taller than I was. I silently yearned for other Massapequa families to be overtaken with whatever chromosome arrangement was lurking in the Olivers’ bodies. I saw no growth spurts.

“Kevin O’Hara!” Mr. Tierney announced. To the accompaniment of some hooting and hollering from the other boys, Kevin walked to the other side of the gym, sizing up the girls waiting to be chosen. He took his pick, and promenaded her to the center line. Then every boy, one by one, got his turn.

As the number of unchosen girls started to dwindle, I did what I did every year. I hunkered down for the long haul, attempting a casual pose, absently looking up at the rafters as if thinking, What is that exciting, important thing I’m doing later?

Sandy Palma and I usually looked at each other at about this point. I was too tall and she was too heavy, and it would come down to which one of us would be the last chosen. I was okay with Sandy getting chosen before me. Sitting down, I could blend in better than Sandy. When she sat down, there just seemed to be more of her. But, oh God, did I hate being the last one even if I was trying to be gracious to Sandy, who deserved it. Being last meant you had to endure the sound of the boys engaged in mock applause when the last boy had no choice but to pair up with you. And for reasons that probably died with them, the Tierneys always acted like they didn’t hear the din going up.

Russell was called third on this day, an enviable position if he wanted to pick a pretty girl, and why wouldn’t he?

Then, in a move that made no sense to anyone, Russell walked over and chose me. What? I may have heard a collective gasp, or maybe that was just the voice in my head. Life was mighty rosy from the center line when you’re not the last girl chosen.

I always thought Russell’s choosing me was a pure act of kindness. As the only boy tall enough to promenade me through the perils of 6th grade, I thought it was a conscious choice, meant to help me out.

About five years ago, I found Russell Oliver on Facebook and wrote to him, telling him how fondly I remembered this moment and thanking him for it. His response was gracious without overcommitting. Because I don’t think for a second he remembered any of this, which makes me think that I took things way too hard in my childhood.

When Baby Boomers Go Old School

I learned a lot about modern parenthood when I watched my brother’s kids for a week while he and his wife went on vacation. I stayed at their house in Massapequa, cooked the meals, and got their kids to and from school — Raymond J. Lockhart School — the same one my brothers and I went to. To claim the kids in the afternoon, I had to show a signed permission slip to a woman holding a clipboard at the door, who had a hard time letting go of her suspicions about me until the third day.

I got there early every afternoon and sat in the lobby with other people, waiting for the bell to ring. I noticed that when parents pick their kids up from school these days, they take apart backpacks immediately, before they even get to their cars, and this surprised me. Parents seem a little frazzled, as if there’s a lot riding on what’s in that backpack. There are questions and there is meaningful pointing to papers.

I pictured me in the last half of the 1950s, right here in this lobby, holding my book bag, walking down these steps with my friends. After a half-hour meander home — I’d say “hi” to my mother and eat a snack before going back outside to play. When she asked how school was I could say “Fine” without having to come up with any evidence.

There’s something transcendent about being in your old school after this many years have passed, and mostly it’s that the universal school smell hasn’t changed one bit. Of course everything looks smaller than you remember it, but not as disappointingly puny as the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History turn out to be, especially after you’ve already told your kids, “You won’t believe how huge they are!” As soon as I walked through those school doors, I could remember my teachers’ faces and the way they walked, even when I couldn’t remember all their names right away.

I was in the middle of 1st grade when Raymond J. Lockhart School was opened in 1957. Before that, the kids in my neighborhood had to be shuttled to class in rented space in Amityville. There were just too many of us, but there was a joyfulness about that, too. Our fathers had survived WWII, our mothers had welcomed them home, and now our parents were planning their futures in great detail, all the while procreating like champs. Now my friends and I could move into a real school with water fountains in the halls and linoleum floors that sparkled and smelled like fresh wax every morning.

For the first few days of picking up my niece and nephew, none of the other mothers said anything to me as I sat down. Mostly they stared at me as if I had Danger tattooed on my forehead and just spoke among themselves.

Then on the fourth day, when it seemed they were running out of things to talk about, one of them looked up at the stately portrait that hung in the lobby and asked the others, “Who was Raymond J. Lockhart anyway?” Before I could remember that no one was looking in my direction, or that Dr. Lockhart had been dead for about 30 years, I piped up, “He was superintendent of schools when I went here.” Maybe it’s just me, but I thought questions would follow, questions like, “So, what were kids like in the 1950s?”

Everything got quiet. Lucky for me the school day was over and the bell rang, and soon backpacks were being unzipped and papers were careening slightly through the air.

Here’s one answer.  We were children who did what we were told, and now we’re all a little embarrassed about that. Sticking a fork in a toaster would zip you across the room and result in instant death as you hit the wall. A pencil could (and would) poke your eye out no matter the speed or trajectory. I took it upon myself to be extra careful with chopsticks we got free from the Chinese take-out restaurant, and also with rulers, just to be on the safe side.

Oddly, along with all the household objects that could kill us, we were also swept up in the American Can Do spirit, and understood that somehow we could accomplish anything we set our minds to. This would turn out to be a handy way to think in our early 20s when we found out we were much smarter than our parents or than any humans previously born.

Massapequa. Ever heard of it?

For the last 30 years I’ve lived in a city I love, where people take a certain pride in swallowing the last vowel sound of every syllable ever invented. I’ve never gotten the hang of it, though I’ve tried, and even after all this time, I’ll be talking with a stranger here in Baltimore, and the person will say, “You’re not from here, are you?”

Sometimes I say, “I grew up in New York,” but when you say it like that, you get, “Oh, Manhattan?” People think it’s exotic to have grown up in New York City, where you never learn to swim or drive, and you’re all blasé when you see Robert Di Niro strolling around your neighborhood.

Answering “Long Island,” doesn’t always work out down here either. To people south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Long Island may or may not be an extension of New Jersey, and that’s the end of that.

We never really get over where we grew up, or at least I didn’t. I mention it a lot, even if I haven’t lived there since 1973. My hometown has become more and more wrapped in gauzy, rosy memories, and in my head it’s exactly the perfect place it always was.

I love where I’m from. Massapequa.

So imagine my excitement when a whole bunch of people from my hometown all got famous at once. Of course this happened in the late 80s and early 90s, and here I am still talking about it, so you might want to consider the source. I guess I thought all that fame connected to Massapequa meant something about me, which it decidedly did not, but I got a whole decade out of riding coattails and boring the socks off people who innocently asked me where I was from.

Jerry Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin (and his brothers) and Ron Kovic, who wrote Born on the Fourth of July, got famous. Steve Guttenberg and Peggy Noonan, the White House speechwriter who wrote President Reagan’s eloquent words after the Challenger explosion, also got famous. And here I usually take a breath and mention a couple more, but I try to make it clear that Jessica Hahn and Joey Buttafuoco’s fame was not exactly what Massapequa’s founding fathers had in mind.

So for a long time if people in Baltimore found my accent not to their liking, and there was even a hint that I should expound on my roots, I’d say, “Well, actually, I come from Massapequa,” just to see who was up on current events. Back then, most people wanted to talk about Alec, and I would go into my own little rehearsed snippets about any or all of the Baldwins.

And if it went too long, the person would interrupt with, “You knew him?” or worse, “You knew them?”

I had a number of ways of evading this question and going with the broader stroke, shall we say.

On a train to New York last year I sat next to a man who grew up in Huntington, a neighboring suburb, and as we got to talking about our hometowns, he said, “So . . . Massapequa. . . so many famous people from Massapequa, right?”

I perked up. I was delighted by his attention to detail, and wanted to applaud him for keeping up with fading news stories.

I started by telling him that Alec Baldwin’s father was my history teacher. (This has never been true. But saying, “He was my friend Jill’s history teacher” wouldn’t be the same, so I’ve always gone this route.)

And we all called Alec by his childhood name, Xander, I tell the man from Huntington. (I do recall seeing Alec as a little boy with his Dad in the high school parking lot. About 100 yards away. He was blond. Unless it was Danny, Stephen, or Billy, which it certainly could have been. Maybe I yelled, “Hey, Xander!” I can’t really remember.)

I can see I’m not as good at this as I once was. I’m a little out of practice after all these years, and I blame the Massapequa celebs who couldn’t keep it up and no longer needed a publicist by the millennium. And after a while, it got harder and harder even for me to keep the Baldwin brothers straight, except Alec — or as I call him, Xander.

“Carlo Gambino lived in Massapequa, right?” he asks. This man is really working out as a traveling companion.

It’s been a while since I trotted out all my Godfather facts, but I do my best. I tell him that Gambino’s summer house was right on the water in Massapequa, on Club Drive. The fact that I know the name of his street brings me closer to The Don, and apparently, this is the effect I’m going for.

“His house had no shrubs in front — nothing.” I’m not at all surprised that when I say the word nothing, I linger.

“So no one could hide in the bushes?”

“Exactly!” I say. This is going better than it usually does.

“And he kept a boat docked in Oyster Bay behind his house, 24 hours a day, with an armed guard on board.”

“Is that true? Really?”

“I think so.”

I’m not sure why I equivocate here, and right away I can see he was hoping I’d know more details. He seems disappointed that I never saw Gambino in person. Or that I don’t have details about the horse head scene in the movie. Or an answer to his next ten questions, when the best I can do is mumble, “Um, I’m not sure.”

By the time we pull into Penn Station, I feel like reminding him that no one famous ever grew up in Huntington.