“Plus You Have a Really Bad Accent”

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

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

Finally, a girl from Utica had enough.

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

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

Somehow, this was big news to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wasn’t it magnificent?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Requiem at a Red Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.