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Posts Tagged ‘Childhood’

THE LADYBUG: PART 1

In Should I Even Be Talking About This?, The 60's on August 23, 2013 at 12:15 am

     

Courtney3

 

Me and Rob. I just won the tug of war for that book.

Me and Rob. I just won the tug of war for that book. And yeah- my hairstyle-it’s the ‘Eunice Higgins’

   

 

                       THE LADYBUG: PART ONE

 

    It was a Sunday. The sun shone brightly through the sparkling clean bay window, adorned in olive- green curtains with ruffles and matching cotton ball trim. The couch upholstery (presidential heads, covered wagons and old coins) was fluffed and pristine, the braided rugs freshly vacuumed, the coffee table lemon-Pledged.

My mother, Mary Jayne, worked the kitchen, replete in her cherry print apron, making h’orderves for the company that was set to arrive at any moment. The smell of vanilla and apple wafted from the oven. My brothers and I were in the Blue room (our den, named after it’s freshly painted sky-blue walls) watching ‘Casper: The Friendly Ghost’ (who I completely identified with as he struggled to fit in, but also envied because he could fly away at will and was barely visible…diaphanous in his ‘otherness.)

 My parents were having friends over on this crisp New England day in early May. Though it was still chilly outside, my father was determined to barbecue on his round charcoal grill, which he wheeled out from the cellar, cleaned thoroughly, then hoisted (along with a bag of Kingsford lump charcoal, and a can of lighter fluid) into the back yard.

  My mother filled the dining room table with platters of food- antipasto salad, deviled eggs, hard rolls, and two Lazy Susans-one with condiments: ketchup, mustard, relish and horseradish sauce- the other with finger-foods- black olives, green olives, baby gherkins, roasted red peppers. She’d also baked a ham, spackling it with brown sugar and pinning pineapple rings and cherries to it like badges. There was potato and macaroni salad in rooster adorned glass serving bowls and a vat of Boston Baked beans in a heavy, brown earthenware jug. I could always recognize a cooking-for-company frenzy by looking at mom’s two-tier wooden spice rack, the big gaps between the jars where multiple spices had been called to duty.   

  My Dad set up the drop-leaf rolling hostess cart with all kinds of liquors and mixes. There was a shiny silver ice bucket with tongs,  and a silver slotted plate with wedges of lemon, limes, maraschino cherries and cocktail onions. There were all of the fixings needed for Whisky Sours, Tom Collins and Martinis. He also filled a big white fishing cooler with beer (Rheingold, Ballentine, Schaefer) and ice. Waiting in the fridge was a colossal tray of hamburger patties, shaped and ready to go on the grill, along with links of kielbasa plus hot dogs for the kids. There was also a massive four pound steak, marbled with fat, a big bone running through its side that my father beamed at with loving eyes. 

    I was in dress clothes against my will.  A long sleeved white cotton shirt with a red Winnie-the-Pooh insignia on it’s turtleneck, red corduroy pants, white socks and black Mary-Jane style shoes, a black leather rose on each strap. (I was very impressed that my mother had a style of shoe named after her, but I wasn’t surprised. She was a very good walker!)  

My hair was painstakingly brushed (tangles ripped out in a hurry by mom as I wailed)- and held up by cherry-colored butterfly barrettes on either side of my face.  My two younger brothers had been scrubbed and shellacked within an inch of their lives as well, and were not very happy in their Ban-Lon shirts and dress slacks, cowlicks wet down, hair combed back. Not to mention the stiff, brown dress shoes they wore with the grace of tennis racket-shaped snowshoes, their slippery black laces constantly untying.

  Rob, who was five at the time, couldn’t wait to shed these clunkers for his faithful P.F. Flyers and sulked about the humanity of being forced to wear the stiff shoes. David, who was three, was far more honest with his feelings, and repeatedly pulled his off, hiding them under the couch cushions, then sitting atop them to further the ruse. 

   The visitors began arriving shortly after noon.  Some were familiar- neighbors from Muffin Lane, along with my dad’s work associates from his Insurance Company and relatives -including both Nannys (each bearing one beautifully frosted cake, and apple cake, respectively)

  My brothers and I were introduced to all of the unfamiliar adults and did our part being polite, putting on our ‘such good kids’ show in the living room, even though we were struggling with each other like the Three Stooges in the Blue Room. Pinching, slapping and wrestling over  jacks, super-balls and the tv guide, stopping abruptly at the hint of any bystanders. Eventually Robby’s friends, Johnny and Kevin showed up, and the boys went outside to watch Kevin’s older brother pop some caps and hopefully  ‘find some snakes’

    The company spread throughout the living and dining rooms, drinks and cigarettes in hand, the murmur of chit-chat cresting and falling, punctuated by squeals of laughter. About an hour in, while Frank Sinatra sang about a very good year, the front screen door opened with a screech, and in walked a girl about my age who was everything I was not.

   Her name was Melody, and she took my breath away. She had long, silky, white- blond hair that fell almost to her waist and big blue eyes, like puddles of turquoise. Her nose was small and upturned, her lips bowed. She wore a sky-blue velveteen dress, with long white puffy sleeves, lace ruffles and coordinating ribbon stitched into the wrist and bib, along with white frilly socks, and patent leather Mary Janes.

Her skin was golden, like she’d been kissed by the sun just so. When she smiled, I noted perfectly straight, white Chicklets, and cute dimples. Naturally, she was petite, like a fairy princess who slept in a walnut shell, using a flower petal as a blanket. To ratchet up the envy I was already feeling,  she was carrying a blue Kiddle Kase, swinging it from it’s white strap. 

Kiddle-Time!

Kiddle-Time!

   It wasn’t just me that was taken with her. It seemed like the whole room erupted in ‘oohs’ and ‘aaahs’ and the words ‘beautiful’, ‘doll’ and ‘precious’ were volleyed across the adoring crowd. I had only gotten a lukewarm response from all of them I now realized. Melody looked down as she was being fawned over- flattered, but obviously used to it, batting her eyes like Bambi and feigning shy. To me, the only thing missing from the reception was the offering of a sash and a crown.

  Melody was the daughter of one of my father’s business associates and it  didn’t take long before my father was fawning over her, too- congratulating her parents on such a beauty, complimenting her dress, curious about her Kiddle Kase and what was in it. (Never once had he asked me about my Kiddles or any ensemble I wore)

   If only I’d been born looking like her, I thought. How happy my father would be! There’s be no more ‘moo’s’, no more mean limericks, everyone would like me -my life would be perfect! 

  Could it be that this girl was the daughter my Dad had wanted instead of me? All of my dolls, all of the girls in my storybooks were pretty. Only the mean ones were imperfect. It reached beyond my family, beyond Muffin Lane and across the world. If life was a deck of cards, beauty was an ace. I wasn’t even a picture card.

  After several minutes the crowd reluctantly dispersed from around Melody. People did need to refill their drinks after all. Her father let her down  and she continued to be complimented, her head stroked here and there as she worked the room like a golden retriever. In truth, she didn’t really ‘work’ anything. All she did was walk by and exist. People were just drawn to her.  

  Meanwhile, my father had a grill to attend to, and in turn, men with open beers followed him out of the room like he was the pied piper leading them to the promised land.

  My curiosity got the best of me, and I approached Melody, asking to see her Kiddles. She sweetly agreed, and we sat at the bottom step of the stairs, where she struggled a bit to open the case. The zipper was caught, but after a good yank, it burst open. Kiddles sprung out,  falling onto the steps and the floor, where I quickly jumped to collect them. She had five- all good ones: Liddle Diddle, Greta Griddle, Bunson Bernie, Lola Liddle and Calamity Jane. They all looked new. But Melody didn’t seem concerned with the dolls, she was too busy petting a metal Lady-Bug, winding it up by spinning its wheels backwards, then placing it on the floor, where it flew into the living room, sparks flying. Melody giggled and chased behind it.

“This is Lu-Lu!” Melody announced when she got back, holding ‘Lu-Lu’ within inches of my eyes. I was busy admiring her Liddle  Kiddles, but  placated her by saying “Hi Lu-Lu!”in a monotone voice.

  This cracked Melody up a lot more than it should have. She stood up and again put the bug on the wood floor near the front door, aimed it towards the living room, and rolled it several times backwards with all of her might.

  She let it go, and Lu-Lu whizzed and sparked, careening into the living room, right through a set of panty-hosed ankles and pumps, and straight ahead where it hit the edge of the braided rug, flipped into air and rolled like a car in a cop show.

  Mrs. Phillips- whose legs had almost been clipped, jerked her head around to see who the culprit was, an annoyed look on her face. It also caught the attention of  my mother, who was standing by and looked at me  sternly.  But when  Melody scrambled over to pick up LuLu, she was being ‘oohed’ and ‘aaah’d again, Mrs. Phillips stroking her blond hair. 

“What have you got there?” she asked, sounding completely enthralled, and taking another puff off of her cigarette “Can I see it?!”

  Of course, Melody was only too happy to show off her bug, and soon a small crowd was again focused on the little girl with the sugar-spun hair. My mother made a pass by the stairs, where I sat with Melody’s Liddle Kiddles, examining them for flaws, of which there were none. Mom looked especially pretty in her light yellow pastel shell, a single strand of pearls, white pumps and for the first time all weekend- no apron. Her dark blonde hair was in a bun, her pretty face complimented by the style.

“You’d better be behaving yourself, missy!” she said.

  I squinted my eyes at her, scrunching up my face. What the heck did I do? Was it possible that Melody could break the rules and get me in trouble? Evidently it was: She ran Lu-Lu all over the house, and rather than getting reprimanded, everyone was delighted.

  Mrs. Jenkins, who lived on Sunlit Drive and sometimes yelled at kids to get off her lawn and away from her precious petunia beds, almost tripped on Lu-Lu as she navigated the living room. I saw her startle,  the familiar dark clouds moving across her eyes, and expected Melody would get her just do. Mrs. Jenkins could yell almost as good as my dad. But moments later-miraculously- Mrs. Jenkins was hugging Melody, and petting Lu-Lu.

   When she came back by the staircase I asked Melody if she wanted to go play in my room, but she said no, completely uninterested. I  was insulted. I told her I had 16 Barbies and a real Christmas manger hidden under my vanity (my mom would kill me if she knew, but the family crawlspace was through a door in my room, and stuffed to the brim with holiday fare. Last week I’d made several of my Barbies sparkly boas with silver garland for their imaginary trip to Las Vegas)

  I asked again a few minutes later and Melody still said no. I couldn’t admit to myself that even if she’d said yes, I was probably going to stick her with Tressy, and the old Barbie whose hair I’d cut with safety scissors, the one who had a wire coming out of her wrist inside a circle of green mold. 

Trust me-my Tressy could only aspire to look as nice as this one!

   It was right around this time that Melody’s mother insisted that Melody ‘eat a little something’. Of course, Melody was the kind of child who didn’t like to eat and had to be monitored lest she starve herself-perhaps wasting away on a tiny tufted satin fainting couch.

  A few minutes later,  my father had brought in a platter of hot-dogs for the kids, and we all gathered around, grabbing for them hungrily. Melody didn’t want hers, even after my father mentioned he cooked it ‘special’ for her. I checked mine to be sure it hadn’t fallen off the grill,  rolled in the grass or been nibbled on by a squirrel.  Because, obviously mine wasn’t cooked ‘special’.

You Can Do It, Honey!

You Can Do It, Honey!

   A few ladies lured Melody to eat with a tiny plate of choices:  two  olives on tiny plastic swords, a saltine, a petite orange melon ball and some left-over garnish. A crowd gathered around the dining room table to watch.

  It was an eating play-off of sorts between the plate and Melody. I decided to go get some tutti-fruity ginger-ale from the kitchen, and cut through the hall in order to avoid the clusters of company sitting and standing by, coaxing Melody, poor thing, to eat.

  That’s when I spotted her. Lu-Lu. Sitting by herself in the corner at the end of the hall.  Lifeless and unsupervised. Vulnerable. I looked behind me, and seeing no one in the hall, I approached the black-dotted  bug. I reached down and picked her up with what I thought was the intention of returning her to  Melody. I heard the phrase “what a good girl you are,  Melody!”and a spattering of claps (no one clapped when I ate an olive! Heck- I could eat like seven of those bad boys!) And just like that I put Lu-Lu face down in my front pocket and felt as she dropped down  to the bottom, out of sight.

Girlie6

    

The Lady Bug: Part 2 (of 2)

In The 60's on August 22, 2013 at 2:58 pm

 

This ladybug was short on good luck, no?

Not good Luck

 The beloved tin Ladybug was now burrowed in the front pocket of my corduroy pants. It created a lump by my hip, one I was sure would stand out and alert everyone, including the proper authorities.

  From the moment I plucked the toy up, I was overcome with nerves. And so it was shocking to me that no one noticed or paid any mind at all. I walked gingerly into the dining room- just as Melody was being rewarded for eating a single olive  (standing ovation! sold out crowd!) with a slice of Nan’s frosted cake, one of the prized pieces with a pink confectionery rose on it. Melody only ate the icing, whispered the adults- this news was passed around the table like Secret Service Intel. Evidently, it was not a known fact in the adult world that if they could get away with it-every kid in the world would prefer ‘frosting only!’ Melody was running a complete eating scam, and hers was cute and fascinating-unlike mine which got me yelled out and grounded.

Cakemix1

   I was even less than pleased that one of Nanny’s cakes had been targeted to soothe Melody. Nanny’s cakes were special. I had intimate knowledge of how my grandmother made those roses- the piping bags, cardboard cones and metal decorating tips and nozzles.

  I loved nothing more than ‘helping’ my grandmother with her cakes, standing on a wooden step-stool, wearing one of her hand-me-down aprons. I’d watch in awe as she placed a small square of wax paper on a small plastic spindle, twirling it with her fingers while dropping frosting onto it, spinning butter cream frosting in a halting but precise pattern creating beautiful roses, like magic.

  I was fascinated by her paint brush and little bottles of food coloring, how she could lay two or three colors at a time out of those piping bags. I loved how she’d ‘accidentally’ get flour on her cheeks and nose, sending me into fits of laughter. She’d always play surprised –now how did that get there?-and call me a little rascal for not telling her sooner.

  But the best part of the cake making was when she would open up her special case of cake decorations, which she stored high on a shelf in the kitchen. Inside, lay a treasure trove of plastic figures and novelties: pink ballerinas, seals balancing balls on their noses, cowboys, several renditions of Santa Claus, reindeer, jack o’lanterns, witches, bunnies- even a Cinderella Pumpkin coach and an Apollo spaceship. I loved the clatter as they spilled out onto the table, the examining and sorting, all that went into making and presenting the perfect cake. But I’d always assumed this labor of love was exclusively for our extended family- not strangers like Melody.

CakesOne

  Meanwhile, with the lifted item in my pocket, I was acutely aware of everyone in the house and tried to read their every expression, knowing I’d committed a crime and trying to sense if anyone was wise to it. I’d never stolen anything before, and I didn’t enjoy the buzz of adrenaline rushing through my veins that made me feel extra awake, extra focused on my discomfort.  

  Yet no one paid attention to me in the dining room, which seemed impossible -couldn’t they see the boulder in my pocket? I made my way around the house, in and out of rooms filled with guests and still, no one paid me much mind. I got a few  winks and’ hello, sweeties’ but that’s about it. I considered putting the Ladybug back in the corner of the hallway where I’d found it, no harm, no foul. But what if somebody saw me? I felt stuck with my racy decision. 

   It was right about then that I heard the shriek. I’m not sure if Melody was crying out ‘Bug!’ or ‘Dad!’ but either way, her tear-filled voice filled the hallway. I stood in the living room near my grandmother who sat on the couch chatting with guests. I froze. Though other conversations went on, and much of the company had yet to hear about the bug-snatching, my ears were trained on the distant voices of Melody and her parents, like a dog to a canine whistle.

  Within a minute or two her parents were helping her look for Lu-Lu.  Before long, an ‘official’ announcement was made, and almost everyone joined in, eager to be the hero that returned Melody’s toy to her.

  My grandmother moved to the side as couch cushions were checked, and lifted her legs for the under-couch inspection. My father and his friends scouted outside, asking the boys if they’d seen the toy, shaking bushes, peering under picnic tables and porches.

    I noticed my grandmother remained seated, calmly sipping tea, not joining in with the hunt, and  suddenly I craved her company. I wished we were back at her house, baking, and cleaning, and taking a break to watch a little ‘I Love Lucy’, having lunches of liverwurst, cottage cheese and dill pickles. I scooted up on the couch next to her, and leaned against her gently, careful of her teacup and saucer. She smelled heavenly, like baby powder and Sen-Sens.

   “Hi Honey!” she said “Aren’t you going to help the girl find her toy?” 

   “No” I said, wondering how sad Nan would be if she knew I was a robber. Tears came to my eyes, so I looked up at the ceiling, hoping they’d plop back in. Melody came through the living room, held on her father’s hip, all red-eyed and sucking her thumb, her silky hair disheveled.

   “She’s got a nice dress” I said to Nan, testing her loyalty. Maybe Nan liked her better, too. She put her cup on the end table and hugged me closer.

   “Yeah, well…..bully for her!” my grandmother said, rolling her eyes. “She couldn’t hold a candle to you” 

  I couldn’t have loved her more in that moment. Even though I pictured Melody literally burning me with a candle, and was glad to hear it was off limits, my grandmother was choosing me! She reached down and picked up her cream colored pocketbook from the floor where it sat. Unclasping it, she asked “Sour Ball or Sen-Sen?” I went with the Sen-Sen like a self imposed penance. I needed cleansing.

   Eventually, the interest in finding the Ladybug waned- after all- a child had  lost a toy- not a limb. More people returned to the living room, and my mother announced she was readying the coffee and dessert table.

  A big silver percolator, perched on the kitchen counter, safely out of the reach of children, began to bubble on top. I knew this because by now, I had wandered into the kitchen to test my mother’s reaction to me and my plight. Surely she would notice the bump in my pocket and save me from myself. But mom was busy, running around, carrying cakes and pies to the dining room, and setting out small pitchers of cream and milk,  white milk-glass bowls of sugar, harvest yellow cloth napkins, and fancy, gold-leaf dessert plates. When we made eye contact, she suggested I go outside and play- she’d call me for in for dessert soon. 

Mom had a show to run...

Mom had a show to run…

   “Do my pants look good?” I asked, pushing  my hip out at a weird angle in an effort to expose Lu-Lu. 

   “Oh for heaven’s sake, you look fine! Pretty soon you can change into something else, so please- just be a good sport about it!” Earlier in the day I’d scoffed at wearing the corduroy pants, and had wanted to wear dungarees instead. 

   Realizing that if my own mother didn’t sense my guilt or notice my bulging pocket, no one else would either, I decided it was time to take the real litmus test. I passed through the dining room, where I noticed all of the lovely desserts spread out like a picture in a magazine, except for Nanny’s rose cake- which already had a slice removed for Melody. The once perfect cake now looked like it was missing a tooth. What a shame.

  I exited out the back door, walked down the porch stairs and kept to the perimeter of the crowds manning the grill. I heard adult laughter, the clinking of ice, and the whoosh! of lighter fluid being poured onto the flames. I kept on through the backyard, and down the steep hill until I came to the stonewall.  I scaled the wall as I had a hundred times before and walked up to Jenni’s  back porch. The screen door opened with a screech, then slammed with a whack once I was inside. I knocked on the inner door.

   Jenni answered and I could tell just by looking at her that she going somewhere. She had a bow in her hair (which I knew she didn’t like) and was wearing a pretty flower print dress (which I knew she didn’t like), white tights (again, no like) and patent leather Buster Browns (these, we liked…the boy and his dog under our heels).  

  I’d been shopping with her and her Mom when she got them. Afterwards we went to Kiddy-Town and looked at all of the beautiful dolls behind glass-the kind of dolls you weren’t supposed to play with, as Jenni’s mom informed us- which made not a lick of sense to us. What’s the point of a doll you can’t play with?

  But this was weeks ago, back when I’d been a good girl- before I’d gone gangster. I’d probably play with those special dolls anyway if I had one. I was lawless.

   “Where are you going?” I asked, deflated that I couldn’t just cocoon myself in Jenni’s room and read books until everyone left my house. 

   “Old McDonald’s Farm” Jenni answered. Lucky! This was a petting zoo/amusement park/restaurant on the other side of town that Nanny sometimes took me to. They had a train ride, and lots of cute animals. Baby chicks and ducks, little turtles, ponies.   

   “You can come in till we leave” she said, and I wanted to hug her. We went to Jenni’s room, which was off the kitchen. I walked directly over to her window, glancing up the hill to my house, on the lookout for traces of the police. I could see gray smoke rising from the grill, and the boys playing catch with a football. Ah- to be my innocent like my brothers!  

   I turned to Jenni, holding my arms out at my sides, like a scarecrow. 

   “Can you see it?” I asked her. 

   “See what?” she asked, as she was packing up her Little People Bus for the trip. 

  “The Ladybug!” I huffed. I was beginning to lose my patience with everyone’s weak powers of observation. Jenni stepped closer and closer, squinting her eyes, scanning my sweater and pants up and down, and across.

   “Where is it?” she asked. I realized she was searching for a real ladybug, which was Jenni and my favorite bug, even though, technically, she’d called it first, on the day we played  favorite bug. I’d settled for dragonfly, reluctantly.

   I reached down into my pocket and pulled Lu-Lu out. Where once I’d seen an innocent red-and-black Ladybug, I now saw something sinister- like a spider atop a ticking time bomb. I quickly put her down onto Jenni’s glossy wooden Mother Goose reading table. Jenni reached over and picked her up. She immediately began revving her up, the wing-ding-ding sound painful to my ears, the sparks signaling the tempers that would flare once I was found out. She eased the spinning wheels onto the table, and once they gripped on, Lu-Lu raced across the table, flew off the side into the air, and landed right in one of Jenni’s Keds sneakers, sitting over by the radiator. She was face forward, back wheels still spinning. Jenni laughed and pointed, but I couldn’t take it anymore- I had to confess!

    It was then that Jenni’s mother opened the bedroom door, purse in hand, all dolled up in a yellow mini-dress with long puffy sleeves. She wore huge sun-glasses and looked like Marlo Thomas in ‘That Girl’. She greeted me warmly, then told Jenni they had to leave right away- Jenni’s dad had the car running, and was waiting for them in the driveway. I picked  Lu-Lu up, carrying her in plain sight, hoping Jenni’s mom would notice and question me, so I’d have to spill the beans. But she didn’t.

  Jenni gathered up her Little People Bus and carried it like a baby towards the front door. Her mom placed a dark blue knit poncho across her shoulders, insisting it was too chilly to go without. Jenni sighed, and we stepped out into the crisp air.

  The Jag hummed in the driveway, steam rushing from it’s tail-pipe, it’s shiny black-onyx paint gleaming in the sun .I could hear ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ from inside the car. I knew Becky would be squished into the back of the two seater, but her Dad loved that car too much to switch it out for the larger family car. He liked to go fast.

  I waved good-bye to them and looked back as I heard the familiar crunch of the pebbles on the driveway, as the Jag’s back tires gripped the gravel fiercely. The brake lights went bright red, as they reached the end of the driveway, where the car stopped short to check for passing vehicles, before  roaring off down the road, ‘Let me take you down, coz I’m going….’ still audible. I walked around to the side of the house and climbed back up the stone wall.  I placed my feet on the proper rocks (which I knew by heart), hoisting my right leg up and over, gripping Lu-Lu in my right hand.

The climb was harder than normal to do in patent leather. I shoved Lu-Lu back into my pocket once I was over the wall. Even though the party crowd was high up on the hill, I wasn’t taking any chances. As much as I’d wanted to be caught (just to get it over with!), I now had my preferences on just how I wanted be caught, and by whom.

I didn’t want to be caught by Melody, her parents, or my father. That would involve yelling. I didn’t want to be caught by my other grandmother, whom I loved dearly, but who was far more intimidating than Nanny C. In later years I would describe her as ‘Maude Findlay.

Jenni's mom's doppleganger

Jenni’s mom’s doppleganger

   I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but the situation had spun out of control- and it no longer had much to do with Melody. It was about me, and my perceived slights and assumptions about what other people were thinking.

  I would come to find out in later years that, indeed, my father and I had very different senses of humor. Whether it was malicious or not no one could say for sure, but through my own actions I had let myself become jealous and petty. I crossed a line- and it wasn’t going to change my father or Melody- it would only change me!  And not for the better.

   I  slowly walked up the hill, skirting the grill crowd- mostly my Dad and his friends drinking beer and flipping hamburgers, and a few tipsy aunts dancing to the a.m radio as it squawked out a tinny version of ‘Georgy Girl’. My Dad called out to me: “Hey Annie!” but I couldn’t bear for him to be nice to me now, and ignored him. He had no idea the burglar he’d spawned. He’d really be cheering for Team Melody once this caper was exposed. It was also inevitable I  would be seeing (and feeling) the Fanny Whacker before sundown.

   I climbed up the porch steps, and pressed my face against the screen door. My mother sat at the head of the dining room table, sipping coffee with my grandmothers and various lady friends flouting bouffants , flips,  pastel colored dresses and capris, as they willed spring to arrive via fashion. (The same thing the men did by breaking out the grills)

  A heavy, gold glass ashtray sat in the middle of the table, filled with lit cigarettes, their smoke intertwining, having a dance, then swirling towards the ceiling,  A few dirty plates sat off to the side, remnants of cake slices and pieces of pie put out to pasture. My mother glanced over at me, no doubt seeing my face imprinted against the screen door like a stocking faced robber (most appropriate) and demanded: “Lisa! Stop that!”

I pulled my face away, and slowly opened the door, plodding over to where she sat. I leaned against her and fidgeted, hinting for attention, but she was engaged in lively conversation with the ladies.

Spring has Sprung!

Spring has Sprung!

   “Mom?” I asked, full-on moping.  I turned and tried to rub my pocket against her leg. Nothing. I was now getting desperate. The bug was beginning to feel like a hot potato. I left the table and went to the front door.  I walked out and down the cement steps, grasping onto the scrolled iron railing listlessly, then slowly followed the slate path across the front lawn to the street. I walked down the hill, dejectedly kicking a small stone, head down in shame, to the bottom of Muffin Lane.

  I stopped when I got to the sewer grate. I peered down into the dark, muddy bottom. I pulled Lu-Lu out of my pocket and looked at her closely- for the first time noting her pretty painted eyelashes and cute smile. I felt awful about what I was going to do. I held her over the sewer, closed my eyes- and let go. I heard a loud ‘ping’ and opened my eyes just as she shot off the grate, then landed on top of it. I had to step over and nudge her into the abyss with the tip of my Mary Jane.

  My heart dropped as she fell. I assumed she would fall endlessly and out of site, but she landed in the mud about four feet down. She stood out like a flower growing up through a tenement sidewalk. She looked so pretty, so innocent- and now she was cold, frightened and dirty! I burst out sobbing. I was the worst person ever.

  I thought of God, and Mary and the lambs, and Nan’s ominous church- and knew that I was a sinner from now on. And not just that: Batman, Robin, Superman, Courageous Cat- they would all hate me…I was a villain. I was Dr. Smith! I was on the wrong side! How was I going to live like this? How long did life go on, anyway? I hoped not too long.

“Holy Ladybug, Batman! Look at that bad girl”

   Still bawling, I ran back towards my house, up the porch stairs and into the living room. Melody sat on her mother’s lap in a chair, still  red-eyed from all of her crying,still sucking her thumb but now looking exhausted as well. I blew by her and made a bee-line to my Mom. Once there, I buried my face in her lap and sobbed even more loudly. 

   “What on earth is wrong?” my mother asked, standing up and pulling me towards the kitchen, away from the crowd at the table. Once there, she crouched down and looked me in the eyes. “What is it?” she asked gently, wiping my tears away with her upturned thumbs under both of my eyes.

   “Mommy!”…. I said, in between big breaths- “I TOOK IT! I TOOK IT!” 

   “Took what?!” she asked, holding me by the shoulders, trying to find a lower angle and meet my down-turned eyes. I just couldn’t face her after I admitted what I did. Shame washed over me in waves.

   “Melody’s Ladybug” I said, then dissolved into tears once more.

   “Where is it?” mom asked, all business.

   “Outside!” I moaned. 

   “Show me!” she said.

   I led her to the front door.  The ink was barely dry on the confession, but the wheels of justice were moving swiftly. And so would the fanny whacker. I felt phantom pain on my rear-end as I walked across the front yard, leading my mom to the sewer grate. I pointed down into the sewer, where Lu-Lu still sat with her cute little smile, and fancy lashes. Smiling at her assailant! You couldn’t beat the nice out of this bug!

  “Oh, for crying out loud, Lisa Anne!” my mother said tersely, shaking her head “What in the world inspired you to do something like this?”

   I shrugged my shoulders, bit my trembling lower lip, and said “It fell” before breaking down yet again. Snot bubbles inflated then popped from my nose,  my turtleneck  damp from the succession of tears.  

   Of course, we had to tell my father, who- along with his  buddies, went to the end of the street, lifted the extremely heavy grate, and fished Lu-Lu out with a metal rake. I ran to my room, and continued to cry, occasionally checking on the progress of the rescue from my second floor window. Lu-Lu was brought into the house, cleaned off in the sink and given back to Melody with much fan-fare and some applause.

  I overheard my father downstairs alluding to a certain ‘walloping’ that was in my near future. I hid under my blankets, fully dressed, anticipating the punishment. I was unable to resist leaving the door to my room open though, to hear the buzz about myself and my fate.

  I overheard several well-meaning theories- that maybe I was just trying to roll the Lady-bug down the street, and since it was a hill,  it got away from me, landing in the sewer. The truth was much worse- I was a monster. And yet- even at the age of six, I  felt something I can only describe as relief…relief  that I had confessed, relief that I was no longer carrying the burden of guilt in the form of a toy in my pocket, relief that Melody would be getting her favorite toy back, and that cute-little Lu-Lu was okay, after all. Had I known the word ‘redemption’ I would have also been relieved to know that it existed, and that it would be offered up to me-eventually-, by my parents, and their friends, and my Nannys, and maybe even Melody, though I never saw her again. 

Cross2

 

  I don’t remember the fanny whacking or the punishment I more than likely got that day, but I’ll never forget the weight of the guilt, and how cumbersome it was to carry. I would remain a person who moved far more freely without the weight of guilt, and one who couldn’t rest until it was absolved. Which of course meant I would never become a great leader, performer, celebrity or politician, but oh could I sleep! I could sleep like a log.

Muffin Lane: The Basement Tapes

In The 60's, Writing on March 14, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Blurry and Snowy Backyard. On the edge of ‘The Hill’

The first house I ever lived on was situated on a cul-de-sac, on which sat ten similar ranch style houses, ours being built in 1964. Our house was painted gold with white shutters, had a concrete front porch with black scrolled railings, and a slate walkway leading across the front lawn. The house sat on a hill, which was excellent in the winter  because when it snowed (and it snowed often in the 60’s)  every kid in the neighborhood would gather at our house, sleds in tow, to ride the steepest hill in our backyard.

Bundled up in snowsuits, boots, scarves and mittens….and bringing a variety of different sleds: wooden, plastic, makeshift-many with exciting names: Red Racers, Flexible Flyers, Flying Saucers -along with the occasional staid Toboggan, and for the truly desperate: flattened cardboard boxes. They all came to ride the best spot on the street.

There was lots of laughter and screams of delight as we all soared down the hill (being careful not to hit the stone wall that sat at the bottom- though this could not always be avoided) We’d race down, then trudge back up-red-faced and frosty, breathlessly egging each other on- tossing snowballs, sucking on the enormous icicles we’d rip off the lower shingles of the house, sometimes using  them for swords, or as ‘baseball bats’ for snowballs. We’d never tire of playing out in the cold- wind, snow- snot bubbles be damned-it was a winter wonderland- especially when the snow had a smooth layer of ice over the top, which made for the best sled rides (and more than a few bruised noggins down at the stonewall)

I loved being the ‘boss’ of that yard in the winter, as my minions of tiny friends vied for my friendship by letting me go down the hill first, complimenting my style, and freely lending me their superior sleds, all in an effort to stay in my good graces. Even at five, I was drunk with power.

The bouncers up at the sledding hill.

In the springtime, my mother  had small gardens growing everywhere-colorful azaleas, violets and petunias and in the front yard, tomato plants on stakes next to lush, purple lilac bushes growing along the edges of the hill in the backyard. She cut fresh flowers and kept vases full of fragrant flowers around the house all through the spring and summer. There were always big, fat tomatoes sitting on the kitchen windowsill, tomatoes so delicious we’d eat them like apples.

Mom kept a clean and orderly house, all decked out in colonial style decor, which was fairly common in the mid-sixties. Oval braided rugs in shades of brown, olive green and burnt orange lay atop the shiny wooden floors, slipcovers depicting president’s heads, antique coins and stage coaches covered the couches, perfectly fitted with buttons on the seat backs, and pleated along the bottom. (Many a hot-wheels car would fly under those pleats, never to be seen again.)

Hobnail vases and  and lamps, clusters of creamy milk glass roosters,  were placed among the latest hardcover bestsellers (‘Portney’s Complaint’, ‘Valley Of The Dolls’, ‘Naked Came The Stranger’-which made me blush when I read the title from across the dinner table) There were lots of hutches and bureaus and credenzas. There was a life-size spinning wheel/planter combo, alongside various brass watering cans, which my mother used to water the ivy that grew up and around the wooden wheel. The olive green-or buttercup yellow- curtains were ruffled along the edges, with fuzzy fabric balls as fringe. The curtains were drawn up on each side like the barrettes that held the hair out of my eyes, and they let the bright sun in through the big bay window .

Copper colored tin plates were displayed on the walls, along with framed paintings of dour pilgrims and historical figures- mostly white haired men with rosy cheeks and wrinkly faces, wearing ruffled shirts under military style long coats and pantaloons. They were so stodgy, with their grim expressions and hangdog ‘vibe’ as they signed various documents with feathered quill pens. I disliked looking at them while I ate dinner- they were staid oldsters who looked like they never once had any fun in their life! If only they knew they hung above a book that talked about ‘Naked!’

The dining room.  I was looking at a pilgrim-emphasis on the ‘grim’ on the opposite wall.

In the living room, we had a black and white tv, with two dials and five channels: 2,4,7,9 and 11. Sometimes channel 13 came in, albeit fuzzy and dull of program, emphasis on public broadcasting and education (insert Bronx Cheer here) I don’t remember watching television much, until my father converted a downstairs bedroom into a den, which we called the ‘blue room’ after the paint scheme. (Incidentally- I recently discovered the holding room at Bellevue is also called the Blue Room. Make your own connection)

When my parents  bought a color television set for the den (solid state with walnut veneer!) they moved the black and white one upstairs into the room my brothers shared, which was across the hall from mine. I remember  placing a clear  plastic sheet on the screen of that old tv, and drawing ladders and stairs with special crayons, all in an effort to save Winky Dink from imminent danger. It was a flimsy gimmick, and didn’t work very well, but hey- we were legally coloring on the tv screen and couldn’t get enough of it.

Football Fever since the 1960s!

My father and his friends gathered in the ‘Blue Room’ on Sundays, to watch football together. Ballentine and Schaefer beer for all (Shaeffer…is the…one beer to have when you’re having more than one, went the tv jingle) cigarettes galore (my Dad smoked L& M’s) and lots of rowdy laughter, clapping and booing during the games- to me it sounded like the funnest place on earth. Names like Bart Starr, Guy Lombardi, The Green Bay Packers, The New York Giants…..I would sit at the bottom of the stairs and listen. It sounded so exciting! But anytime I would try and stroll in unnoticed,  mesmerized by the curtain of snow that seemed to be always falling during these games, I would be shooed away, to my great dismay.

If I was lucky- I might be asked to fetch a beer, or refill the clam dip or bust open a giant tin can of Charles Chips, but even I couldn’t stretch the task out to last through the game. I also honed my love of cuss words on gameday-who knew there were so many, and how interchangeable they were! It was here that my love of football sprouted, one I carry to this day.

Me, Mom, The Bouncer for all football games, and my brother.

Speaking of shooing away- my parents enjoyed ‘shoo-ing’ us away to whatever part of the house they weren’t in. If we were downstairs, Mom would say: ‘Go upstairs’ and vice-versa. Not that I blame either of them. There were three of us kids, all under six, and we were always asking for stuff, complaining, vying for attention or whining. Skirmishes broke out at the drop of a hat. Dirty looks were perceived (real or not), names were called and undercover pinching and slapping was rampant. If were my parents I would have left the house. In the car. Over the state line. But they stayed, and shoo-ed, and the best place for us to be was- in another room.

Outside was a great option as well. In fact, we spent most of our day either in school or outside, with all of the other kids, and with myriads to do. I ranked myself among the top players of such games as ‘House’ ‘School’ and ‘Doctor’, along with the more basic ‘Mother May I’, ‘Red Light Green Light’ and ‘Freeze Tag’.  

But sometimes the weather wouldn’t cooperate, particularly when it rained and that was when we were relegated to playing in the basement- especially if my Mom was doing her cleaning tour of the house (‘with stops in every room!’) and so, downstairs we would go. 

The backyard of our house right before we moved in. 1964.

The cellar was at best chilly, and at worst, freezing. It was unsettling to me- the dark corners, the damp concrete floors, the possibility of spiders. But, of course, like anywhere else there were adventures to be had. There was a washer and dryer in the back of the basement, on a small platform that raised them off of the floor. This could be used as ‘Safe’ during basement tag. A rope clothesline was strung across the ceiling diagonally, often with wet towels or clothes hanging from it by wooden clothespins. This could become an imaginary car wash- with us running back and forth through the towels and clothes. Several random chairs- lawn chairs with bent aluminum or ripped webbing, bar-stools with peeling upholstery were incorporated into our games, usually as ‘time out’ punishments, doled out for a variety of reasons, modeled after our own parents’ gripes (‘You need to settle down!’ or, ‘Sit down before I get the fanny whacker!’)

Miscellaneous boxes of junk were stacked up against the walls, and there was a little ‘room’ under the stairs, with my rickety old doll crib in it. I loved switching on the bare  bulb that hung inside, and putting my Thumbelina and various stuffed animals down for their naps in there. With it’s cold cement floor and cobwebs, it  would have been a great interrogation room. All I needed was a bigger shadow and a lit cigarette.

My Dad had fishing rods and nets hanging on pegs on the walls, rusty toolboxes and slip-shod cabinets alongside a thick workbench. The bench was covered in paint splatters and tin coffee cans (Sanka, Chock Full Of Nuts) bulging with stray nails, bolts and screws. Hammers, wrenches, even knives in leather protectors (used to fillet the bluefish and flounder my Dad would catch on his small boat on Long Island Sound) were in easy reach. I suppose we could have gone six ways to Sundays with tetanus shots, lost fingers and split skulls, yet despite the fact that ‘child-proofing’ hadn’t yet been invented, we somehow managed to stay alive.

Maybe it was because our parents weren’t worried, or that they assumed we had common sense, it turned out fine. Maybe they were just too tired to fight it and rolled the dice. Even if (and this was most likely) it was just plain luck-we emerged intact.  We collected the usual bumps and bruises from regular horsing around, but there were few, if any, emergencies. 

Thumbelina, moments before she was released into the wild.

Although we liked to play in the cellar, an object of concern was the big, churning furnace in the middle of the basement, which would startle the living bejesus out of all of us when it would roar to life after being dormant just long enough for us to forget about it. I hated the noise it made- a deep bellowing sound, that literally shook the ground, and caused the whole machine to shake and rattle. It was loud enough to hurt our ears and even when yelling- we couldn’t hear one another over the ruckus. After two long minutes of this serpent like fury, the furnace would finally settle down, and go into a calmer stage, more banging than roaring, then tapering off to a hum  and we could finally go back to playing ‘army’ or ‘let’s see if we can hammer this in over here’

What could go wrong?

I was even more afraid of the furnace one evening after the subject came up at the supper table.  My father warned us that if anything  got tossed into  it -an errant Super-ball, marbles, a balsa wood plane, or a badly dressed Barbie (all things that regularly flew through the air down there!) the furnace could (we heard ‘would’) explode, and cause irreparable damage and great harm to all involved. We three kids gravely looked at each other and gulped. There was no stopping the inevitability that toys would fly (we were far from fallible)-and nothing could be scarier after Dad’s ominous warning.  

I remember watching in almost slow motion, the first time (after ‘the talk’) an airborne toy (GI Joe)  flipped through the air, and began to descend…falling…straight into the belly of the beast. I was frozen in fear, my eyes wide, hands clasped on both of my ears- zeroing in on the terrified looks on my brother’s faces- heart pounding against my chest, Thump, Thump, Thump. I knew that at any second, the big, fiery blast would likely end my life and blow me to pieces, hurling me through the sky to my destination: a cloud, where even though I would have wings and play a harp, I didn’t want to go.

Thirty seconds in, I thought, matter-of-factly: ‘Welp! This is going to happen. Just like Dad said. And there’s no one to blame except my stupid brother Robby!’ For a moment I was actually calm; resigned to my fate and accepting of it. Oh, I’d miss Mom and Tiger and Christmas, but what could I do? Good-bye Cruel World!

“Welp… If the sh** goes down, I’ll be over here”

By then I realized  the ‘explosion’ wasn’t coming. Peeking through my hands, one finger at a time- glancing from one of my brothers to the other (both of them with covered eyes as well) the GI Joe by now deeply embedded in the bowels of the giant furnace- until – as if on cue, we snapped like mousetraps, springing towards the stairs. Racing each other to the top, balling like the ship was going down. (And who goes first, when there are only children? The strongest, fastest one- that’s who!)

“Mommy! Mommy!’ we screamed, a tangle of arms and legs, scrambling up the steps-each one of us hoping to be the lucky one, the survivor. (Who knew? my dream of being an only child might actually come true) My brothers were ten months and three years younger than me, respectively, but they could kick and bray like seasoned billy-goats. It was all I could do to try and poke their eyes out first.

Seconds later we were at the top of the stairs, and I managed to twist the door handle, which released the door, and deposited a pile of hyperventilating, feral brats onto the hallway floor. Red faced, teary eyed and relieved. “M-oooooo-M! Moooooom!” we cried, and heard her footsteps-like music to our ears- click-clacking from the kitchen.

She stood, towering over us. Much too casually, (and way too calmly, if you ask me) She took the scene in (did I detect a little eye roll? Are you kidding? She might have lost her three children in a fiery explosion? How would she carry on without us? Especially me?!) But, instead of being hysterical, she just stood there, in her cherry covered apron, drying a wet plate with a striped towel and asked: “What?… What NOW?” (Umm- what now you ask? Well, we were almost blown to smithereens- what’s the protocol? You tell us) Her complete lack of emotion, rendered us speechless and slowed  our tears.  We were reduced to intermittent sniffles and wet faces.

My mother assessed the situation for several more seconds, then shook her head and said ‘You kids really need to stop being so dramatic! Sheesh! And stop fighting with each other, or I’m telling your father!” And with that, she turned on her heel, and walked back to the kitchen. It was very anti-climactic. My inner Sarah Bernhardt was left hanging.

‘Awww cripes! What NOW?”

Neither my Mom or Dad rescinded the furnace story, and they never admitted that it wasn’t actually a death trap. The scene repeated itself several more times, even though we were extra careful about throwing stuff in the direction of the Beast. When I asked my father, years later why he didn’t tell us he was exaggerating, he snapped:  “Well, it kept you kids away from the damn thing, didn’t it?” and I had to admit he had a point.

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