Sick

My mother was, fiercely, and, unjustly, overprotective. Because my brother, Mark, had autism, which brought daily challenges to the household, my mother fought hard to maintain control in other areas. One of those areas was our physical health.  It was, constantly, on her mind, it was evident  in her conversation, and she was, forever, on patrol against the inevitable cold or virus.

When the ice cream truck came to the neighborhood, I was never permitted to have an ice pop.  My mother had herself convinced, that, even though ice pops were kept in the same freezer as the creamy items, they were, somehow, colder and would level me with illness. She was so far over the top with her obsession to keep us well, that a sneeze from a visiting friend would elicit a rude command that they, immediately, leave our house. Hot embarrassment would creep up my cheeks, as I, tearfully, begged friends to understand, and to, please, come back another day.

Despite my mother’s misguided methods to keep germs away, Mark and I, occasionally, contracted the, incapacitating and life threatening, head cold. This would send her into a tailspin of lining up doctors’ visits, compiling a serving tray of medications, and hauling out her, elaborate, array of thermometers. The green, glass vaporizer was boiled and sanitized. It stood, gleaming and ready, to moisturize our failing lungs.  My mother would pace and rant, while doing mental detective work, trying to pinpoint the exact moment of susceptibility.  Was it the button, maliciously,  left open at the neck of a jacket?  Could it have been a, devastating, draft from the, microscopic, space where the front door met the wooden trim?  Perhaps it was a stray raindrop boldly landing on an arm, creating a chill; thus compromising a delicate immune system. She blamed everyone and everything for the health crisis that she believed was, always, misdiagnosed as the sniffles.

Out came the sick foods. The risky,  mucous producing, dairy items were banned from the house; replaced by citrus juices, eggs and other proteins. Hot tea and toast with jelly was my mother’s snack of choice for the afflicted child and she monitored our intake and output with the precision of a neonatal nurse.  Sick time entertainment came in the form of being allowed to sit up in bed and read for short periods.  Scheduled naps were ordered for the purpose of conserving the strength that would be necessary to fight that, dangerous, stuffy nose.

Eventually, the flow of doctors parading in and out of our house would trickle to a halt,  My mother would be convinced that prayers had been answered and her sick child was, finally and miraculously, “out of the woods.” Normal life would resume with serious caution, lest there be a relapse. The end of the siege meant even tighter restrictions, going forward, and even less freedom upon our return to society.

As adults we might behave, either, very much like a parent or exactly the opposite. The route I took became obvious when my first child, Tammi, was in Kindergarten. One icy morning while she waited with friends for the school bus, the group discovered a frozen puddle. They took turns running towards it, and sliding on their knees upon the slick surface. Realizing  her legs were getting cold and wet, I thought about stopping her from participating, when something made me remain quiet. I knew that allowing her to be part of that  carefree moment of shared childhood experience was way more important than preventing a chill or even the actual, life altering, head cold, so feared,  by my mother.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Worst Thing I Ever Did

When my friend, Susie, turned six, all of the neighborhood kids were invited to her birthday party, at the good end of Sandra Place. It was an after dinner party, and as soon as the guests arrived, we sang Happy Birthday and had cake and ice cream.  Then is was time for some games.

First up was Hot Potato. The kids sat in a circle on the living room floor, while Susie’s dad played music on the record player. As long as music was playing, we were to pass a real potato to the child on our right. The faster you passed it – the better, because you did not want to be caught holding the potato when the music stopped. If you were, you would be out of the game. Susie’s father kept his back turned to the kids, so he could not pick who got stuck with the potato. The winner would be the last one sitting there and he or she would get a prize.

For a few rounds, the game went well. Three kids were, already, out and nervous excitement built each time the potato was pushed into our hands;  its, fleeting, weight a reminder of possible joy, or disappointment. Suddenly, seven year old, Michael, just threw the potato straight across the circle, hitting me in the face.

The game stopped, as I cried out in pain and shock. My right cheek and eye were very red and started to swell.  My parents were called and I was taken home with a hurt face and very hurt feelings. I missed the rest of the party and never got to see Susie unwrap the giant set of Color Forms I had picked out for her.

About a week later, I saw Michael, as I rode my bike around the neighborhood cul-de-sac . My training wheels had been gone for a long time, and I was feeling quite proud of my two-wheeled riding abilities. Feeling angry at seeing Michael, I decided to show off my skills. Around the cul-de-sac I rode,; turning the handlebar all the way to the right, then all the way to the left. This caused my bike to, almost, hit the ground with each turn.  I loved the feeling of having control over the risky tilting of my bike, until…my front tire hit a patch of gravel next to the curb. Wildly, my bike went into a skid and I fell down hard, hitting my head on the curb.

Someone must have called my mother, because the next thing I knew, I was in my bed and my doctor was telling her that I had a concussion. My mother asked me how the accident had happened, and without a second of hesitation, I told her that Michael had been bothering me. I reported that he had bumped his bike right into my back tire, making me fall.  I even said that he laughed when I hit my head.

Angrily, my mother called Michael’s mom. “He has gone too far this time”, she yelled into the phone, “Now, Bonnie has a concussion, because of YOUR SON.” She hung up the phone and came to my room, announcing that Michael was in loads of trouble. At that moment, two things happened to me; I was thrilled that Michael was in loads of trouble, and I was deeply sorry that Michael was in  loads of trouble.

An odd feeling plagued me for the rest of that day. I was uncomfortable, and it had nothing to do with hitting my head. My mind kept playing back the lie I had told and the words, “Michael is in loads of trouble”, kept banging at my heart. I had never felt this way, before, and I didn’t know what it was.

When I tried to sleep, that night, I found that I couldn’t. The lie took over all of my thoughts and would not leave me alone. It sat on my pillow, then wandered in and out of my head. It whispered that I was bad. I sat up in bed and tried to call out, “MOM”, but the word refused to leave my mouth. Hot tears came and spilled down my cheeks.

Because of the concussion, the doctor had told my mother to check on me, often, throughout the night. When she came to my room, she found me sitting there, crying. “Is your head hurting?” she whispered. “Not my head – my heart”, I cried. She sat on the bed and asked, “Why do you think your heart is hurting?”  “I did something very bad”, I sobbed, “and told a terrible lie about Michael.  I was so mad at him for throwing the potato at me, that when I saw him, today, I remembered that I, sort of, hate him. When you asked me how I got hurt, the lie just fell out of my mouth. I really got hurt, because I was showing off and not riding safely.” My mother asked, “What do you think we should do about this?’ I quickly answered, “Can you, please, call Michael’s mother and get him out of loads of trouble?”  “No”, said my mother, “That’s your job.  First thing in the morning, you are going to fix this, by yourself.” “Okay’, I whispered, “But, Mom, why does my chest feel so bad?’ “That is your conscience”, she told me, “It is the part of us that reminds us what is right and what is wrong. I am glad to see that yours is working exactly as it should. What you did, today, was awful, but I am proud of you for knowing that, and deciding to tell the truth. I know it wasn’t easy.”

My heart pounded with fear as my mother watched me dial the phone in the morning. When Michael’s mother answered, my words came tumbling out. I told her the truth and begged her to please, please  please, unpunish Michael. I told her I was very sorry for lying. “You need to tell all of this to Michael”, she replied, and handed him the phone. As soon as he said, “Hello”, I rambled, “I am sorry I lied and got you into loads of trouble.  I was, still, upset at you for throwing the potato, and blamed you for my accident.”  “I guess it’s okay”, replied Michael, ” It’s good that you told that to my mom, because I am still punished from what I did to you, last week, and, this, almost got me punished  for the rest of my life.”

Right then, Michael could have apologized for hurting me at Susie’s party, but he never did. I guess my conscience was working better than his.

 

 

 

 

The Path at Sandra Place

In the summer following my second birthday, like many families, mine moved, from New York, to the suburbs of New Jersey.  My parents found us a split level home at the top of Demarest Road, in Teaneck. It was the model for the sub-division, and it stood at the entrance to the neighborhood where I grew up. The house remains, and my childhood memories live there.

Sandra Place crossed the bottom of the Demarest Road hill. It was the last part of the neighborhood to be constructed, and it remained heavily wooded for a very long time. Four houses sat on the cul-de-sac at Sandra Place, and between the two on the right, was an extra space. It was a dirt path that led out of the neighborhood to a very busy street called Fycke Lane. The path was strewn with twigs and litter, and the woods were thick on both sides. Through the trees on the left, were a run down farm house, a small barn and a rickety  wire fence that caged four, ferociously, barking dogs.

When I started Kindergarten, I was the only five year old in the neighborhood to be assigned to the afternoon session. On cold or rainy days, my mother, who was just learning to drive, would flag down a city bus and ask the driver to drop me off at Hawthorne School. When the weather was comfortable, she sent me off to walk the whole way by myself. This involved the long walk to the bottom of the hill, turning left toward the cul-de-sac, taking the path to the main road, then heading far down Fycke Lane to the school.

Every day, I stood, terrified; at the edge of my neighborhood; the path stretching out, dark and endless in front of me. Hundreds of trees whispered in the wind; their full branches bending and creating moving shadows.  Bees buzzed, small animals skittered about and the dogs at the nearby farm sensed my presence. They growled, they shrieked,  they yelped; throwing their bodies, heavily, against the wire fence.

Breathless, with tears streaming down my cheeks, I counted to three, and ran as fast as I could.  The sound of my footsteps angered the dogs, causing them to howl, while trying to get to me. Imagining them breaking free, I cried harder;  praying that the fence was tightly locked. My little feet pounded the dirt all the way to the end of the path.

Relief waited for me when I arrived at Fycke Lane. I felt safer, there, as people drove past me in their cars, or walked on other parts of the sidewalk. My chest shuddering, I kept wiping my eyes, as I continued down the road.

My Aunt Ada lived a block before the school, and I was, often, tempted to ring her doorbell, just to tell her I had been scared. I knew she would hug me and sit me down in her pink kitchen. She would give me milk and cookies and remind me that I was safe. I believed she would have, even, walked with me the rest of the way.  But I never did stop, there. I couldn’t wait to get to school.

An afternoon in my classroom was my prize for conquering that awful path. I loved my teacher and the room full of kids. Building with the gigantic building blocks was my favorite part of playtime and I adored the stories my teacher read to the class.

Of course, I was worried about the walk back home, but my brother was’ always, with me for that. He hated the path, too, and I had learned that being frightened together was so much easier than being frightened, alone.

 

 

 

 

 

Casper’s Gift

A very accomplished gentleman was my father’s cousin, Casper. A professor of English, at Rutgers, he also wrote for the Washington Post. Our cousin was a tennis pro, who gave lessons to the students on weekends.  Cousin Casper laughed easily and had a warm and generous heart. He was beloved by our family.

Once, or twice a year, Cousin Casper would travel north, up the New Jersey Turnpike to visit with us for a day or two. Upon arriving in our neighborhood, he would pull up to our house in a huge white car and honk the horn. This was the signal for Mark and me to join him in the car.  Greeting our parents with just a smile and a quick wave, he put the car in gear and off we went. Our destination was Davis’ Toys, the most popular kid’s store, on Cedar Lane, in the center of our town.

Having no children of his own, Cousin Casper had little need to visit toy stores. Because of this, he seemed to enjoy the experience as much as a child. Every time we shopped, he would, laughingly, announce, “Pick out whatever you like.  Look around, carefully…you don;t want to miss the best toy in the store.”  With those words, my chest welled with anticipation.

Slowly, I made my way down the intriguing aisles of toys. I examined brightly colored boxes containing new and interesting board games.  I held baby dolls and Ginny dolls, and tried bikes and scooters and roller skates. There were dazzling striped hula hoops, building sets and dress-up clothes, and any of them could have been mine.

It was great fun, checking out all of the newest items, and they were all very tempting, but as Mark, always, chose a model of a large ship to build and add to his collection, I did what I did, each and every time Cousin Casper came to town. I, excitedly, asked for the giant coloring book and the big box of sixty-four Crayola crayons – the one with the built-in sharpener.

This gift came with months of potential within the coloring book’s countless pages and the rows of color coordinated crayons. Choosing a picture, then selecting the crayons I would use, was thrilling. Would I color with pressure, or use the side of the point; applying a light blush of beauty?  Would I outline the objects in a dark shade, then fill in the center with a paler version of the same color? I might even decide to embellish an entire image with nothing, but the, ever-coveted, metallics.  I loved the challenge of making these decisions, then executing them, as planned. It felt like an important job to bring vibrancy to a dull outline;  infuse life into blank space.

Cousin Casper didn’t have to spend a whole lot of money when he offered to buy us whatever we wanted, but every time he visited, his gift to me was an entire year of magical possibilities.

 

 

Tiny Thumbelina

When I was a child, it was rare for me to ask for toys. I was pretty satisfied with the dolls and games and coloring supplies I always had on hand and it never occurred to me to be a pest about an item I didn’t own. Of course, the commercials showcasing more and more realistic dolls were captivating , but still, I just didn’t make a habit of asking…until…the best doll in the world was invented.

Tiny Thumbelina hit the market and landed in my heart.  My dolls were stiff and rubbery, and basically, just sat there, but Tiny Thumbelina was different. Like a real baby, she was soft and cuddly. Her arms and legs flopped like those of a newborn. However, the most wonderful detail on this doll was the plastic disk on her back. If you turned it until it stopped, then placed Thumbelina on her stomach, she would move around, just like a tiny infant, upon awakening.

I adored babies, and I would always love my dolls, but once I saw Tiny Thumbelina on television, I was enchanted.  The more times I saw her in commercials, the more I felt that I had to have her. I knew I would take great care of her and adore her forever, if I could just find a way to make that happen. My sixth birthday was months away, and so were all the gift giving holidays. There was no reason for my parents to buy me a present. So, I quietly waited, hoping that my birthday would come quickly and I would, finally, have the doll, I already, loved.

One night, I decided to pray for Tiny Thumbelina, asking for my parents to know and understand how much she would mean to me. I didn’t know if praying for a toy would get God’s attention, but it made me feel batter.

The next morning, as I was getting ready for school, I said to my mother, “Guess what?  I prayed for something, last night.” She answered, “Really? What is it that you want so badly?”  I told her all about Thumbelina, and she was really interested. My mother had never heard of her, but I explained the many ways in which the doll was  like a real baby. She said that Tiny Thumbelina sounded wonderful and I went to school, happy that my mother agreed .

When I arrived home from school that day, I went about my normal routine. My mother had a snack waiting for my brother, Mark and me in the kitchen, and she sat with us as we told her all about school.  When Mark went up to his room to do his homework, I went into the living room to watch T.V.  As I turned to sit on my favorite big chair, I noticed a beautiful box on the couch. It was a blue and pink trunk with a carrying handle and a metal latch. Looking around, I saw my mother watching me from the kitchen. Smiling she said, “Go ahead.” Breathlessly, I opened the lid and peeled back layers of of fluffy white tissue paper. There, nestled inside, was my baby: my Tiny Thumbelina. Thrilled and relieved, I whispered, “Oh…thank you, Mommy.”  Then I picked up the doll, turned the disk, and melted, as my new baby snuggled against me.

 

The Thinking Chair

In the eyes of a six year old, my first grade teacher was scary. Her name was Mrs. Weisinger, and she was the oldest person I had ever seen.  For a grown-up, Mrs. Weisinger was very small. She was wrinkled all over, right down to the folds in her arms. A load of stringy, white hair covered her pink scalp, and her voice crackled like it was almost all used up.

My first grade classroom had desks that were lined up in three, horizontal rows. There was a whole row of kids in front of me, and my desk was in the middle of the second row.  In the corner, next to the classroom door was a small, brown child sized chair. It faced away from everyone.  Mrs. Weisinger told us the was “the thinking chair.”  If you misbehaved, you would be banished to that chair to think about what you had done.

I knew I would never spend a minute in that chair.  I was the kind of student who carefully followed directions. Receiving excellent grades was my goal and I loved learning. Mostly, I wanted my teacher to like me. I was not a troublemaker and I tried to become friends with other kids who behaved.

One morning, upon completing a reading lesson, Mrs, Weisinger said, “Okay, class…I need everyone to be perfectly silent for just a few minutes.” Immediately, Robby, the boy sitting in front of me, turned around to talk.  Clenching my jaw, I whispered, “Shh!”  The teacher heard that tiny sound and angrily crossed her arms while staring right at me. I felt shaky inside, as she spoke. “Now, suppose you march right over to the thinking chair”, she commanded.   Devastated, I opened my mouth to explain the truth, but her hand snapped up and pointed, harshly, to the corner. Fighting tears, I walked over to it and sat on the dreaded chair.

A few minutes passed and  right next to where I was sitting, the classroom door opened. My heart sank. There, seeming to fill the entire doorway, was the principal, making his morning rounds.  Looking at me, he shook his head in disappointment. I tried to whisper that I didn’t belong in the thinking chair, but he put a finger to his lips, telling me to be quiet. There was nothing I could do to prove myself, and even though I hadn’t done anything wrong, I felt miserably and totally, ashamed.

I was very quiet and sad until I got home, that afternoon. When I told my parents about the awful event, they explained that unfair things happen to people all the time, and that this was just my first experience with it.  It helped when they said they believed that I had not tried to ignore my teacher’s directions. My mother offered to call the school in the morning to straighten it out, but some time and passed and the sting of injustice had dulled. She smiled when I said that I didn’t want her to make that call.  Looking back, I know that by not letting my mother fix it, I was taking an important step toward growing up.

 

Snow Days

The scream of an early morning siren in the neighborhood announced the best news a kid could hear; SNOW DAY.
This meant staying in pajamas for a long time, having a weekend type of breakfast, watching television, and playing in the snow. However, before I could relax and enjoy any of those things, I had to feel the day.
The silence following the siren’s cry seemed extra quite. Everything outside was cushioned in heaps of snow, creating the chilled hush that waited at my front door. I went there and opened it, feeling the twinkling peace; feeling the day.
Because my house was at the top of a hill, Mark and I could watch from the living room window to see which kids were sledding down the street. When our friends would appear, it was time to go out. Scarves, gloves, boots and hats were pulled on, as we bundled up in a huge hurry. We grabbed our sleds and trudged up the driveway to the street, greeting friends and taking our places in the lineup of kids who were ready to push off and fly down the hill.
That first ride of the day was always a thrill, as we whooshed through icy air and falling snow. Smoothly, gliding past houses and friends, we would yell to those sledding nearby. Finally, the ride would come to an end as the hill became level. Rolling off our sleds into the snow, we would lie there on our backs, freezing and smiling; letting fat flakes sting our faces. Sometimes, we would stay there for a while, putting off the long haul to the top of the hill.
Our next trip might involve a race with a friend or doubling up, so two kids could share the experience. My favorite was the running start; guaranteed to add breathless speed to the glorious ride.
Of course, we would take a break from sledding to build a snowman or a fort. The handling and packing of snow always inspired a snowball fight. This was usually short lived, as someone would, undoubtedly, take a snowball to the face and end up crying. We all knew, at that point, it was time to take our soggy, frozen selves home for lunch. Icy jackets and gloves were put in the dryer, so they would be comfortable and ready, if we chose to spend more time outside. If not, we could remain indoors, bake cookies, play board games with a friend or watch T.V.
A snow day was a surprise vacation in the middle of what was expected. It was active, tiring and cozy. Everyone was home. Everyone was warm. Everyone was was safe. And I knew I was lucky.

Before The Neighborhood

Before the Neighborhood

Retrieving a childhood memory has always come easily. As a serious, creative and detail oriented child, I often viewed the world with a mind that was far beyond my years. Throughout my lifetime, many of my elders told me that I was born all grown up.

No cartoons for me! No fairy tales or comics, either. I had no interest in the world of make-believe. From my earliest days, my entertainment came from drawing, coloring, playing board games, and from stories about about things that were possible. I was so realistic in my thinking and so precise in the things I would imagine, that I had myself worrying about life’s “what ifs”, when I was as young as two and a half. Worrying even played a part in the earliest memory of my life.

Before we moved to Demarest Road in the neighborhood where I grew up, we lived in Queens, New York. My first couple of years were spent in a ground floor apartment with my parents and my older brother, Mark.

When the weather was warm, a unique truck would drive into the neighborhood. It was fire engine red with silver trim, and supplied the area with a happy, jingling type of music. It seemed to be a giant music box on wheels. The front looked like any other truck, but the back held a spectacular surprise.

On the flat-bed of the truck was a working merry-go-round. As it turned, it produced the joyful tones that could be heard for many blocks. Its colorful tent-like top was attached to long silver poles. Gliding up and down each pole was a grey, white or tan horse draped in a glitter flecked mane, and adorned in a blaze of flying ribbons. It brought a dazzling moment to the middle of an average day in the city.

The day I rode the merry-go-round, my mother held my hand and walked me to the truck. As we got close, the door folded open, like and accordion, revealing a ragged looking driver. “Welcome aboard”, he smiled; his parted lips exposing black spaces where teeth should have been. I shuddered and moved closer to my mother. She bent to help me up the steps and the driver stood up and told us to follow him.

Nervous, but curious, I squeezed my mother’s hand and walked a bit behind her through dark and narrow hallway to the majestic, gleaming horses. There, she told me to choose my favorite. Overwhelmed by their size and the fact that some of them were high off the ground, I picked the one that was closest to us. It was white, with a pink mane and a shiny gold saddle.

The man lifted me onto the horse, strapped a thin, worn out leather belt around my waist and handed me the reins. My mother gave him some money and, immediately disappeared back through the hallway. Panic welled in my chest as she left my sight. I twisted in every direction trying to find her. The ride jerked into motion, nearly throwing me off the horse. I grabbed its head for balance, while magical music flew into the air. Rhythmically, I was carried up and down and around in a circle, my eyes darting everywhere; frantically searching for my mother. Finally, I found her, standing on the sidewalk, smiling and clapping for me: waving and having fun. I waved back, and felt assured that she would stay there.

For a moment, I allowed myself to love the wind in my face, the song in my ears and the glorious dressed up horses all around. However, it did occur to me to worry about something else. I thought, “What if the driver forgets I’m here and drives away with me?”