Tag Archive | "Brooklyn"

The Deep End of the Pool

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At the tail end of July, as the temperature creeps toward the 100-degree mark here in New Jersey, and the A/C system in my office continues to taunt me and the other residents of this building, temptation rears its cool little head.  I’m thinking of purchasing a pool, but I’m stalling … probably because of the memories I have, all wrapped up in slimy pool liners and chlorine-flavored water.

When I was a kid, I never had a swimming pool.  There simply wasn’t room for one, unless one of our family members was brave enough to dig up my grandmother’s amazing roses, herbs, zucchini, and prized fig tree.  No one was that brave, not even my grandfather, who had fought in World War I and had the scars to prove it!

So, before my two best friends Kim and Billy got their pools, I once made the long trek into another neighborhood on foot, in search of a public pool. Known as Farragut Pool, it was located deep in the heart of the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York. My friend Anita, whose family had more money than mine, had snagged a season pass to this pool, as had her brother and sister.  “Your mom is great!” I exclaimed, withering inside and secretly wondering if my own mother loved me less than Anita’s. What had never occurred to me then was that Anita’s mom probably thought she gotten off cheaply by buying season passes for her three kids and thereby getting them out of her hair on those long, hot Brooklyn days when air conditioning was still an amenity for the truly wealthy.

Anita sang the praises of this pool as if it were a Roman mineral bath laden with special healing properties.  Thus, I bugged and bugged my mom until she eked out enough dough to get me into the pool for a single, expectantly blissful day.  I packed my towel, bathing suit, Coppertone sunscreen lotion and headed off for my maiden voyage to Farragut Pool with Anita, Kim, and our other good friend, Laura.

The pool was large and brilliantly blue; under the white-hot sun, diamonds danced upon the inviting water.  Gaggles of children and harried parents dove in and out of the pool, splashing everything in their path and batting around inflatable beach balls.  The tempting aroma of grilled hot dogs and burgers wafted upon the humid July air.   My friends, all strong swimmers, slid into the deep end of the pool.  But me, I had to be content with the kiddy area of the pool, a rather embarrassing situation for a nine year old dying to fit in and frolick with her friends.  Not having the financial resources of Anita’s family, and possessed of a mother who screamed bloody murder each time I came within ten feet of the surf at Manhattan Beach, I had never learned to swim.

Once out of the pool and onto the blistering cement surrounding it, I hot-footed my way toward the cabana, stepping by accident onto the towel of a teenaged princess wearing … you got it! … a teeny weeny polka dot bikini.  Said princess cussed me like a sailor every which way to Sunday, thus adding insult to injury (blisters were indeed forming on the soles of my feet).

Inside the cabana, which smelled of other people’s sweat and stuff I’d rather not mention, I stripped off my sodden one-piece suit just as another patron hauled the door open, exposing me to one and all within eye-shot.  Needless to say, I never again patronized the Farragut Pool.   A few years after this incident, the public pool was demolished to make way for a Pathmark, the first supermarket in a neighborhood dotted with small, family-owned grocery stores.

Bowing to pressure from their four children as Pathmark’s foundation was poured, Kim’s parents bought a large outdoor pool from Sears.  It was supposed to have been the summer’s respite for those four kids, their two cousins with whom they’d shared the same roof, the friends of those kids, including yours truly, and various and sundry neighborhood strays who always drifted down, somehow, to the sounds of delighted splashing and children’s laughter.

But, still I could not swim, and still, Donald haunted that pool.  Kim’s older cousin, he was already six feet tall at the age of fifteen and my nemesis.  Young and innocent, it never occurred to me that I could pretty much cripple Donald if I chose to grab a certain part of his anatomy as he dunked me and held me under the water — as he did invariably on every visit to Kim’s pool.  I exacted my revenge upon Donald in other ways.

At the end of that first summer with Kim’s pool, the pool had to be cleaned and Kim and I were conscripted for this task.  Funny, but all those other kids who’d enjoyed the pool with us were nowhere to be found that day or for the rest of that week.  If you’ve never manually cleaned an outdoor pool, a pool drained of its water, you have no notion of how utterly disgusting a task this is.  It was putrid.  It was stomach churning. I vowed never to step a foot in that pool again if it meant cleaning it, and I kept my word.  And sweltered!

The following summer, Billy’s family got a pool for their backyard.  But with five kids, three of them boys, it was more like a feeding frenzy in a shark tank.

The summer that the Billy’s pool arrived, I’d taken a little job teaching English to an 8th grader whose mom was desperate for her to enter Catholic high school, my high school, via better grades.  So I tutored the pretty blond girl, received my wages, and got a bonus in the form of a red bikini whose top had obviously been engineered for Mattell’s Barbie and not skinny lil’ ol’ me.  But, I had grown a few curves in my freshman year of high school, and my frugal parents had taught me never to waste anything.

So, I donned the bikini and innocently stepped into Billy’s pool.  Whereupon, his little brother Johnny, who’s probably doing time in Sing-Sing now, lunged for me.  Without warning, he pulled down my bikini top to get a good look at what lay beneath it.  It happened in the blink of an eye and Johnny, apparently, liked what he saw, even though I was nowhere in Barbie’s league.  In fact, the look in his eye was akin to that of a little boy finding a long-hoped for present beneath his Christmas tree.

This behavior and rapid-fire remarks as to my feminine pulchritude, earned Johnny a black eye from Billy.  In the screaming match that ensued, whereupon I was looking for that hole going down to China that I can never find when just I need it most, I slunk away with my arms over my chest, leaving the bikini top floating blithely between the two warring brothers.  It was the first and last time I ever visited Billy’s pool.

Years later, my boyfriend got a pool for his backyard.  He also had a young German shepherd who adored me … a pooch, not a strapping young man!  …  and the feeling was mutual.  That dog (honest) used to pee with joy whenever he saw me coming down the drive.  My boyfriend had to hose down the driveway every time I visited.  That sweet dog just couldn’t get enough of me, and I loved him to pieces.  But when the pool went up, the dog went in — to be close to me.  He would not take direction; he wanted to swim with me, who could not swim … still!   But dog hair in the pool, the smell of moist dog, and impromptu showers from said dog shaking the water off his fur put an end to me going into the pool.  My guy had chained the shepherd up one day so that we could enjoy the pool in peace, but my heart broke for the poor, whimpering dog.  End of that!

So, as cool and inviting as thought of my very own outdoor pool may be, I think I’ll stay put on dry land.  Or maybe not.  I wonder how big of a glass I can find for a nice, cool raspberry margarita. Maybe I can take a dive in that! 

In Grandma’s Garden

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When my grandmother was thirteen, she was yanked from the place of her birth, a lush island off Italy’s western coast, a stone’s throw from Amalfi, to immigrate to America.  There, she had a rude awakening.  Not only were the streets not paved with gold, as a young teen, she was forced to become the sole support of her family of eight, toiling seven days a week with but an hour off to attend Sunday Mass.  Many years later, when she’d purchased her second house singlehandedly, after my grandfather became disabled, she cultivated two beautiful and very distinct gardens in the little patches of land front and back of that house.

Now that I look back on the love and care that she poured into those gardens, I wonder if they were her way of reconnecting to her homeland blessed with volcanic soil, abundant produce, and all manner of luxuriant flowers.  When I was a child, however, I simply enjoyed the gardens.

The front garden boasted tulips, daffodils, deep blue “snowballs” (hydrangea bushes), two small evergreens, and her signature roses.  Although my grandmother never showed any of her blooms formally, they would have snagged First Prize in any competition.  She used no Miracle Growâ„¢ or store-bought fertilizer; all she used were table scraps for compost, along with time, effort, and the magic ingredient: love.   The flowers were so huge and so gorgeous that, when she allowed me to take a few to the nuns in school, the good Sisters of Mercy assumed that they were fake — they were that perfect!  Mortally offended, I set the nuns straight.

However, no such problem existed with my grandmother’s show-stopping roses grown in sherbet colors of candy pink, cherry red, lemon yellow, and tangerine.  Wafting their heady scents, the Sisters understood at once that these were genuine. Whether my grandmother’s talent was a reflection of her given name, Rose, I’ll never know.  Despite the bounty that the nuns and my family enjoyed, many of the roses were grown for no human nose, and woe betide us if we attempted to sniff those on my grandmother’s watch!

My grandmother was a deeply spiritual woman, spiritual in a practical sense.  She was fully convinced that her unwavering faith had interceded to save the lives of not one, not two, but three family members.  In manifesting that faith, she reserved the very best blooms for a statue of the Blessed Mother, not in the garden, but in the house.  The more roses she cut for the Blessed Mother, the more grew to take their places, somehow even more stunning than their predecessors.

Eventually, my grandfather must have gotten a bit miffed with my grandmother claiming all the glory of that garden.  He took himself down to his workshop in the basement one day, and using a drawing he’d asked me to sketch as a guide, fashioned a little wooden donkey drawing a cart.  Into the cart went, you guessed it, some of my grandmother’s flowers.  Neighbors and strangers alike often stopped in front of the garden to admire the teamwork and handiwork of my talented grandparents.

The garden at the back of the house, however, was a different story.  While this was not totally wild, it was a lot closer to an English garden than the carefully manicured plot in front of the house.  Red roses of a more plebeian variety climbed and twined profusely about a white wooden trellis that my granddad had constructed and erected at the garden’s entrance.  My grandmother didn’t care if I picked these, or the others, creamy with a near-pink center, nearly obliterating the back fence from view.  The only thing that made these roses plebeian was their size and form.  They were smaller than the show-stoppers, and the petals looser.  Freely, they opened their fragrant heads to the sun, displaying golden stamen and serving as playgrounds for the bumblebees, which were frequent visitors.

I hadn’t remembered how very profuse those everyday roses were, until my parents unearthed a photo just this past weekend. The roses were everywhere, dwarfing little old me.  But somehow, in that small patch of earth, my grandmother also found room for a large birdbath, a fickle fig tree, some herbs, and squash.  Although every inch of soil was maximized, I never really knew what that garden would yield.

The deep yellow-orange flowers of the squash, my grandmother dipped into a secret batter and fried.  They were the most delicious snacks on warm summer days.  Sprigs of mint growing in the little herb patch went into iced tea (the real, brewed kind), baked fish (yes, and it was superb!), and sautéed squash with garlic, oil, and vinegar, served cold and scrumptious.  The figs were the best, when the tree cooperated.  Their plump dark skins were but masks for the bright, sweet, moist and delicious fruit!

Brooklyn, New York is not known for its wildlife, but whatever was wild staked a claim to the garden.  Once, I spied a cat chasing a squirrel that was, in turn, chasing a bird.   The squirrels were clowns and my parents tore their hair out over my antics with them.  I’d feed them, you see, and coax them to run along our clothesline until I’d toss a peanut butter sandwich down below, or a handful of walnuts that always seemed to be in our pantry.

Once, I attempted to feed one of the squirrels by hand.  I borrowed one of my dad’s thick leather gloves and laid out a trail of nuts leading directly to me … to where I crouched, motionless, with another nut in my outstretched hand.

Over the course of weeks, I repeated this ritual, nut in hand, hand in glove, and squirrel just out of reach.  It was always the same squirrel; I grew to recognize him.  He came so close that I could count the hairs in his gray-brown coat, but he never trusted me enough to snatch that last nut out of my palm.  Maybe it was a good thing he didn’t.  I did not understand, then, that it’s not a good idea to tame a wild animal, for too many two-footed animals abound that take pleasure in harming the four-footed.

The gardens are long gone now.  I paid a visit to my childhood home about ten years ago, and Tom Wolfe was right: you really can’t go back again.  However … after I had moved to New Jersey and buried my beloved grandmother, I dreamed that my family — including my grandfather, who had passed on many years earlier — was gathered in our front garden.  My grandmother was not on the scene, and yet, we all sensed her presence and her love.  The blooms were even more colorful and fragrant in dream land than they’d been in waking life.  And the sense that I got was that my grandmother was asking us all to take care of her garden.  Not the physical garden, but the garden of spirituality that had yielded so many blessings for a once poor immigrant Italian girl. 

The Christmas Co-Conspirator

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When I was a child, my dad had a habit of conscripting me into small conspiracies that always put a smile on my face.  The fact that he always left my sister and mother out of the equation made every secret rendezvous all the more thrilling.

Before I’d entered the first grade, I’d developed a problem with one of my eyes that, if not corrected, would have required surgery.  Every Saturday morning, one of my parents took me to my appointment with a gentle ophthalmologist who, in a dark room, shone a penlight into that eye to see how it was faring.  The minute my mother had waved us off, my dad hailed a big yellow taxi and ushered me quickly into it.  My mom didn’t believe in cabs. Considering them unnecessary luxuries, we’d wait on the street to board two buses whenever it was her turn to take me to the doctor.

The ophthalmologist’s office was situated in Brooklyn, New York, toward the tail end of Flatbush Avenue — directly across the street from the Prospect Park Zoo.  After every appointment, my father would swear me to secrecy as we entered the park and walked the long incline down to the zoo.  We’d clap back at the seals honking and frolicking in their watery enclosure.  We stood back from the polar bears’ cage and eyed the huge beasts with respect, for one of them had amputated the arm of teenager foolhardy enough to stick that arm through the bars.  We munched Cracker Jack from red and blue cardboard boxes, where the prize was always buried too deep for my sticky little fingers.

Long before the problem with my eye had emerged, my dad had already introduced me to this verdant area of Brooklyn.  The front entrance to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens lay on the same side of the street as my doctor’s office.  One Easter Sunday, when my sister was four months old and I, two and a half, my father took me straight from church to the Botanical Gardens.  I hunkered down at the lily pond, my dad explaining how the plants grew in water.  I think I was more mesmerized by my reflection in the pond.  I remember the tiny white straw handbag that I carried, adorned with small faux violets.

Years later, when my sister and I were teens, my family walked the entire length of the Botanical Gardens and it was quite a walk.  Characteristically, my sister grumbled all the way and my mother muttered about the housework that was going undone as we communed with nature.  My father and I ignored them and walked on, enchanted, in particular, by a dirt trail running beside a tree-lined brook.  Here were no carefully manicured flowers or shrubs bearing small metal plaques with their Latin names.  Here was only what God had made.  And so, my father and I stepped lightly, reverently through His works.

When we broke free of the brush, we came upon an open field where cherry blossoms were in full bloom, their soft pink petals a gorgeous contrast against the rolling emerald green grass.  Just beyond them lay Eastern Parkway and the Brooklyn Museum, where my dad had tried many times in vain to stop me from ogling the 3,000-year-old mummies nestled, like Russian dolls, in their wrappings, their sarcophagi, and their glass cases.  He didn’t want his daughter exposed to death, but I’d been born on Halloween and gravitated to things that went bump in the night.

The Christmas that I was five, my dad made the mistake of dressing up as Santa Claus.  Let me amend that.  He made the mistake of smoking one of his signature White Owl cigars before donning the red suit.  Santa did not come down the chimney; he walked up from the basement … redolent of cigar smoke.  I looked up at him with his face obscured by the snowy beard and cracked, “You’re not Santa; you’re my daddy!”  “Why, little girl, what makes you think that?” Santa cried.  “You smell just like his cigars!”  If the cigars didn’t tell the tale, his laughter did.  My sister was too young to get it, but my dad never took a chance again.  That year was the first and only time that Santa deigned to pay us a visit.

A year later, on a night approaching Christmas, he whispered to me to bundle up; he said there something that he knew I’d like to see.  I don’t remember where my mother was, but I do remember sneaking quietly out of the house, for she would not have taken kindly to her child being exposed to the chill night air.  All along the avenue we walked, past our neighborhood and into my Aunt Connie’s, and then, past that.

The air was crisp and quiet; we huffed just to see the breath dance before our faces.   Little traffic passed us, for on such a night, most people were snug inside their homes.  In the dark, Christmas lights glowed within and without those homes — simple, teardrop shaped lights that burned in red, blue, green, and yellow.  In the early 1960s, elegant electric icicle lights had yet to be invented.  There were no pink or purple bulbs, no overblown plastic Santas or snow globes on front lawns, and no houses so wired up they could be seen from Mars.  All we had — all anyone had — were those simple red, blue, green, and yellow bulbs strung on pines trees and wreaths and draped around doorways.  The colors alternated along their wires and never deviated: red, blue, green, and yellow, red, blue, green, and yellow, red, blue, green, and yellow.

That night, it seemed as if my dad and I had walked for hours.  It was cold and my little legs were tired.  I don’t know how many times I demanded to know where we were going and when we were going to get there, but my dad just said patiently, “Soon, soon.”  Finally, we turned off the avenue and onto a side street.  Our destination was a house decorated, miraculously, with blue Christmas lights, just blue.  There were no red, green, or yellow lights, and the blue was a different hue than the usual bulbs.  Click the font color option in Microsoft® Word, select the brightest blue, you’ll have a notion of what that color looked like.  But even Bill Gates and all his geniuses couldn’t do that color justice.

Around the doorway and windows of the otherwise darkened house, the rich blue blazed.  And on the front lawn stood a large stone grotto with a statue of the Blessed Mother in her signature sky-blue robe.  Blue lights arced over the grotto, glowing like embers in the dark.  So unexpected, so beautiful, and so peaceful was that scene that my whining tongue stood still.  With our hands jammed into our pockets, my dad and I exchanged not a word.  Time seemed as frozen as the air.  It was he who finally asked if I were ready to go home, for I could have stood there all night, soaking in the most amazing color and the utter serenity in what was then the fourth largest city in the nation.

On every private outing before and since, it had been just the two of us: just my father and me.  But that particular night, we shared with a co-conspirator.  We shared a silent, spiritual moment with the soul who, in humility, ducked backstage the moment that a long-promised Savior entered the world.  We shared that moment with the woman chosen from among all the women on Earth to bring Jesus Christ to a world long awaiting peace. 

The Cryogenic Tongue and Other Fourths of July Past

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There is no moral to this story.  Neither does it contain a caveat or even a philosophical issue to be pondered.  It is simply the indulgence of a writer casting her mind back upon the sweet and innocent Fourths of July of her youth, when time seemed to stand still as it can only for the young.

Stevie Wonder was sending me into ecstasy each time My Cherie Amore floated out of my little transistor radio.  Whenever that radio cranked out the dirty bass beats of the Stones’ Satisfaction or Paint it Black, my mother made the Sign of the Cross (oh, why couldn’t her eldest daughter follow those clean cut boys, The Beatles?!?).  The Stones were the least of her worries, at least until I hit my mid-teens. Had she known that my grandmother was sneaking me fat, juicy peaches marinated in red wine out the side window of her kitchen — a forbidden, summer-only treat — my mother would have said a novena!

In those long-ago summers, my kid sister beat every other kid on the block with her hula-hoop feats: she could do more than 200 gyrations without breaking a sweat and she performed them with utter grace.  Roller skates — real metal ones with four wheels — were all the rage, and God help you if you lost your skateboard key!  The forest that had once carpeted my neck of the woods in Brooklyn, before my birth, was gone.  But my neighborhood still clung tightly to some pleasures of the past while welcoming innovations like color TV (which my family could not afford).

The milk man still made deliveries, and every morning, my grandfather fished two fresh bottles out of the aluminum box on our stoop: one for him and my grandmother and one for my family, who lived on the floor above them.  On summer mornings, the bottles were sweaty and the elixir within them cool and sweet.  Just after sunrise, before the sun climbed high in the sky to bake small children and the patience right out of their mothers, a horse-drawn cart clopped beneath my window.  A man behind the reins sung out cheerily, “Strawberries, blueberries, ch-her-heries!” Long before the Internet was invented, this was a much simpler way to have goods delivered right to your door. “Stop him!” my mother would cry madly, and my sister and I would holler down to the man with the horse that our mother wanted to buy some fruit.  The other ladies on the block all congregated around the wagon, too, trying to wheel and deal a bargain.  Looking down from our second story windows in the early morning light, the bed of the truck appeared as a pile of jewels, each variety neatly housed in wooden cartons: green striped watermelons, pale netted cantaloupes, ruby cherries and strawberries, dusky blueberries, and all manner of fresh vegetables.

Hailing from a small island off the coast of Naples, my grandmother, a magician on many levels, had transformed our tiny backyard into a lush urban farm.  The fig tree was the central figure in summer, and if you have never tasted a ripe, juicy fig plucked fresh from its tree, I pity you.  Herbs and zucchini also grew there, and we ate the deep yellow flowers of the squash (delicious when batter dipped and fried) as well as the vegetables.  The entrance to the backyard was a wooden trellis, crafted and painted white by my grandfather. Over this, my grandmother had trained what I came to call her “wild roses” (the roses in the front yard were genuine showstoppers).  With every waft of a warm summer breeze, my little backyard was perfumed with the scent of pink and red roses climbing all over that trellis, as well as the small cream-colored ones spreading profusely over our back fence.

With all of this vegetation, our yard was too small for even a kiddie pool.  So I took full advantage of Kim’s pool.  Kim was my best girlfriend, and on a hot summer day, I’d brave that pool even though I knew that Donald, Kim’s cousin and my nemesis, was waiting to drown me.  At least it felt like that, as he’d hold me under the water long enough so that I was sure my lungs would burst and I’d soon come face to face with Davy Jones in his locker.  Born a Scorpio and no dumb bunny, I’d plot my revenge and lie in wait for the best time to exact it, which was usually the Fourth of July.

Kim lived around the corner and down the block from me, but she may as well have lived in a foreign land.  Although she had four children and a paying job in the days before women burned their bras, Kim’s mother spared no effort pulling out all the stops for her kids, her family, and her friends, particularly when it came to the holidays.  Her Fourth of July fetes were her pieces d’ resistance.

Because I liked to cook, I was allowed to help out in the kitchen.  Every Fourth, I’d stare fascinated as Mrs. J. injected one fat watermelon, over and over like a hapless hospital patient, with medical syringes.  Those syringes contained vodka.  She’d carve a symbol on that particular watermelon to distinguish it from its non-alcoholic brother, put it aside to marinate, and fix me with her eye. “For the grownups,” she’d drawl, and then add conspiratorially, “I’ll sneak you a little piece later, okay?”  I’d brew the iced tea, from scratch, cut up the lemons and oranges to float within it, and pile Mrs. J’s endless homemade salads into serving bowls.  Donald, who lived one flight below Kim’s family, always had to be chased from the kitchen as that good-looking devil filched the goodies and wrecked mayhem upon the cook and, of course, the cook’s helper.

On a hot Fourth, the climb up and down the long flight of stairs and around the big house into Kim’s backyard, to cart and replenish the food and drinks was hell on the adults.  Or so they said.  I became their “angel”, offering to take charge of that particular chore.  Donald was invariably lurking in the shadows to pester me, and on a few Fourths, I caught him with his tongue stuck to the ice cube compartment in Kim’s fridge.  It was hot in the backyard, Donald’s middle name was Trouble, and the frosty icebox too much of a temptation for him.

While the adults reveled in the sun, growing happier and happier with each swig of their Tom Collins’s, my nemesis and I were all alone in that kitchen.  Whatever Donald was blathering at me with his tongue stuck to the icebox, I couldn’t rightly decipher.  But I got the gist of it, all right.  He wanted me to bail his sorry ass out.  Standing small beside him, I looked up him with gleeful murder in my eye as I told him not to move and I’d be right back with some boiling water … to pour over his tongue.  In whatever junkyard that old fridge now rests, DNA testing will prove that a certain Donald K. of Brooklyn, New York was intimate with it.  Rather than suffer my brutal ministrations, Donald ripped his tongue hastily off the icebox, leaving many a taste bud behind.

Prior to these Fourth of July bashes that culminated in fresh strawberry ice cream hand-cranked by us kids and the biggest and best fireworks display for miles around, there were some very lean and trying years in Kim’s family.  Those years, my family had to be content with grilling hot dogs and burgers on a little hibachi in our own backyard.  We sat on Adirondack chairs that my grandfather had brought back from yes, the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York.  The striped, Joseph-coat fabric on those chairs was already faded when I was a kid, but they were sturdy, and my sister and I were so small, we needed help getting out of them.  We all drank lemonade out of tall, bright aluminum cups the colors of jewels.  And after the dogs and the burgers, we’d enjoy slices of sweet watermelon and honeydew, with the juice running down our chins.

Long before Mayor Rudy Guiliani outlawed fireworks in New York City and its boroughs, my parents were terrified of the dangers that would befall their daughters if we tarried with fireworks.  My mom had grown up with a kid stupid enough to put his eye to the neck of a bottle that contained a rocket, a kid who wound up losing that eye.  And my mom had shared that story with my father.  Fireworks, therefore, were the tools of the Satan!  But, my sister and I managed to cajole my dad into buying us sparklers. So that’s all we had, sparklers bought from the candy store in those long red, white, and blue cardboard boxes.  As soon as the sun had set, my dad would light the sparklers and my sister and I would hold them up and write our names in the sky.  They were magic and beautiful and sometimes, we’d get singed slightly by the flying sparks.  But we never told, for that would have been the end of the sparklers!

One Fourth, my Uncle Steve swung by the house, asking where were the real fireworks “for the kids.”  When we explained that we didn’t have any, and why, he jumped right back in his car, drove to the other side of Brooklyn, and returned loaded for bear.  I don’t know what was more fun, watching my dad throw a fit or watching my uncle laugh his head off, and delight in our glee as he set off mat after mat of firecrackers and tossed those little exploding balls down on the ground.

One year, I was lucky enough to have three or four Roman candles. The secrecy surrounding those Roman candles must have rivaled that with which the CIA guarded its carefully culled intelligence.  Into this caper, I conscripted my cousin, Joe D.  I’d been blessed with great boy cousins, and Joe D. was my all-time favorite.  The son of my mother’s sister and her husband, Joe was a sweet, extremely bright kid a little more than two years my senior.  Unlike Donald, Joe did not seek out trouble (well, most of the time, anyway) but trouble seemed to dog him nonetheless.

One summer day, with the Fourth of July approaching, Joe told me about the Roman candles that he and his buddies had set off the year before.  When I asked what Roman candles were, his dark eyes grew as large as saucers.  He was floored.  I’d never seen a Roman candle go off!  I hadn’t lived!!!  The way he described the Roman candles, they put every other firework to shame.  They were gorgeous, miraculous, spectacular!  Joe then deemed that my ignorance of Roman candles had to be rectified, and soon — but how?  He couldn’t invite me to his house to set the fireworks off there, for he’d be nailed by his parents.  And he couldn’t set them off in front of mine, for he’d be nailed by my parents. We conspired, then, or perhaps I’d twisted his arm, to meet around the corner and up the block from where I lived, for there were no grown-ups there who knew us well enough to rat on us.

I don’t remember what I told my folks about where I was headed for a few minutes.  God knows what Joe had told his.  Once we rendezvoused, my cousin drew the verboten items, with reverence, from a rather ordinary looking brown paper bag.  They were small, narrow tubes that looked not only innocuous to me but pretty dang boring.  Casting furtive glances around him, Joe stuck the first candle into the ground, lit it, and jumped back, hollering for me to do the same.  I prayed I would not lose my eye like my mother’s childhood friend. I prayed I would not be incinerated as a penance for my disobedience.

As I watched with delicious anticipation, three tiny colored balls of fire shot out of the tube: green, blue, and red. They reached the astronomical height of about four feet, maybe five, and then immediately fizzled. Clearly, I was not impressed. Joe lit another one and the same thing happened.  Ditto with the third and the fourth.  The look on his face told me that he’d let me down, and I didn’t mitigate it any.  Finally, I said, “Don’t worry about it.  Uncle Steve will be by later with the noisy stuff, to tick off my parents.”  “Oh, the noisy stuff is cool!” Joe agreed enthusiastically.  Truth to tell, I’d forgotten this little story until I began to write this article

My Uncle Steve has passed on, as have both of Joe’s lovely, funny parents. My grandparents are also gone.  My grandfather, who wasn’t supposed to have made it out of World War I alive, reached the age of 80.  My grandmother was 93, en route to party at the local senior citizen’s center (no lie; she was a party animal), when her heart finally gave out.  Joe moved way down South, landing in the city that gave birth to my favorite musician-singer-songwriter even before that musician had been born.  Joe’s eldest child, my beautiful second cousin, will take her wedding vows this October.  I have no idea where Kim and Donald are now. I know that God was just in Kim’s case by sending her a handsome, loving doctor to marry.  I met him once.  I hope they are very happy.

I do know that Uncle Sam nabbed Donald as the Vietnam war reached its zenith.  He returned unscathed, at least physically, even better looking than before and yet, very much changed.   We met once, briefly, and I sensed that he was interested in me, and not just romantically. I think he’d wanted to share something with me, maybe open up a bit about what he’d seen and done in a jungle so far from home. I think he knew that his cousin’s childhood best friend, who was no longer pug-ugly and who had finally grown some curves, and who’d been feisty enough to outlive his torture, could take whatever he needed to tell me.  I think he sensed that, in return, I would offer him some honesty.  Perhaps all he really wanted to do was apologize to me for those childhood pranks. But Scorpios have long memories and I was not quite ready to forgive him.  So he sped off in his little yellow Carmen Gia and I never saw him again.

Looking back, I’m sorry that I didn’t blow off my part-time, college-tuition-paying job that day, go down to Coney Island with Donald, put our feet in the surf, and talk.  While Vietnam was changing Donald, other forces were at work, changing me profoundly — more than the usual forces confronting every normal adolescent.  But there hang other tales.

Each year, I find that I change a little bit more.  Each year, those sweet, gloriously simple Fourths of July spent on a Brooklyn stoop and a friend’s pool move a bit farther out of my reach.  Thank God for my memories.  They are as bright and welcome now as the sparklers on which my sister and I wrote our names in the sky.

Can You Go Home Again? (And if so, who’s waiting there for you?)

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Several years ago, I decided to test the theories of authors Thomas Wolfe and Thornton Wilder.  I wondered whether Wolfe, who’d postulated that no one can ever go home again, was a cynic or a realist.  I also wondered if my return home would be as painful for me as it was for Emily, the ghost depicted in Wilder’s play, Our Town, who insists upon revisiting one special day in her past.

Pulling up to the house in which I’d been born was a bit jarring.  I’d assumed that things would have changed.  But in my heart of hearts, I’d also assumed that the new owners would have maintained the gift that my grandmother had left them: meticulously tended roses growing lush and fragrant in our front yard.  To my chagrin, the beautiful rose bushes were gone, but something new had been added.  Against the dangerous element that had crept into the neighborhood, there were bars on every window of the ground floor of the house.

Depressed by this discovery, I headed a few blocks south to my old church. Along with my old elementary school, it comprised an entire block.   It didn’t surprise or disturb me that Jesus hanging on the crucifix at the side of the church, along with young John the disciple, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene had been painted midnight black.  I thought, “In China, Christ is yellow, in Latin America, he is brown; here, he is black.”  The thing that really rattled me, though, was my old schoolyard.

The grounds where I was castigated by the nuns for simply breathing, where I’d jumped many a rope, and where I’d allowed a few boys to chase me in the name of puppy love were, in effect, gone.  The land of my childhood memories had been transformed into a bustling open-air flea market, with no respect for the church that shared the same space.   Immediately, I thought of Jesus overturning the tables of the moneylenders on the steps of the temple.  But these vendors were not on the actual church steps … just a few yards beyond them.  Everything I’d left behind was gone.  Wolfe, I reasoned, was correct and so was Wilder.  Perhaps it was best to let the past lie as nothing more than pleasant memories.  Inside my own head, I could examine the past with fondness, as I do with old photographs.

But the journey home put new wrinkles in my brain.

If the younger, more carefree part of me had for all intents and purposes died when my family left the old house, if souls revert to pure energy when our bodies expire, and if structures retain energy, as physics and metaphysics heavily suggest — then who and what remains behind in the places that we loved, and in which we were loved?

Somewhere in an alternate universe or perhaps this one, in a simultaneous time continuum, do our younger selves still exist, blissfully unaware of our darker futures?  And if so, is it possible to tap into that bittersweet energy and time?  These were dangerous thoughts, I reasoned.  After all, Wolfe insisted that memories of happier days live only in our hearts, and Wilder warned us against revisiting those places that brought us such joy in our youth.

Whether it was some demon or some angel that prodded me to test these theories on my own mother, I’ll never know.  I only knew that, this past Mother’s Day, I thought I was helping my mom relive happy memories when I decided to take her back to the old home in which she’d grown up during the Great Depression.

Set in an area of Brooklyn, New York half gentrified and half stuck in the past, I’d assumed that my mother had grown up in one of the neighborhood’s gorgeous old brownstones, as had other members of her family.  The gentrification efforts in this neck of the woods seemed to respect the lovely old character of the brownstones and their front gardens, flowering profusely on that windy spring day.  But my mom directed me down a short block that had never housed brownstones.  We pulled up to a tiny narrow house, attached on both sides to other houses.  Still clinging hard to its original design, the house was in obvious disrepair.  Still, I was shocked when my mother yelped, “Oh my God, it’s a dump!

For a long moment, an uncomfortable silence reigned.  My mother has spoken often and longingly of her youth, so I’d assumed I was doing a good thing by taking her back there.  But perhaps the sight of her childhood home, once treasured and now dilapidated, was like a knife in her heart.  As we both gazed at the little house in silence, I realized that although I had not been born in that house, as my mother had, I was looking at our ancestral homestead.

This was the first place that my grandparents had settled after they’d gotten married.  Here, they’d birthed four children and here they were forced to stay for too many years; due to my grandfather’s illness, my grandmother became the sole support of the family.  In an age when women of her generation, culture, and social background were kept “barefoot and pregnant,” my mother’s mother had attained — solely on merit and guts — a middle management position.  With her blood, sweat, and tears, she single-handedly bought and made the payments on the well kept, two-family home in which, years later, I would be born.

As my mom and I sat and stared at her old house, images flitted across my mind.  They were not memories but glimpses into the past.  Suddenly, I saw my grandmother as I’d never seen her in life: as a young, bone-tired woman making her weary way up those steps after a long hard day’s, year’s, decade’s work.  I saw her dropping that weary face to greet her family at the end of each workday with smiles and hugs.  I saw her burying everything she must have confronted day after day, an immigrant woman in a man’s world, and an economically struggling world at that.

And then a new wrinkle appeared in my brain.

Fast-forwarding to the year 2010, I wondered if times are as hard now as they were in my grandmother’s day.  Older and hopefully wiser than the kid who grew up in that nice two-family house, I have a deeper appreciation for what she’d endured in order to give her family, including her grandchildren, a better life.  That’s when the new wrinkle bloomed.  Maybe home is not so much a structure.  Maybe it’s not the bricks, the wood, or the roses.  Maybe home is a state of mind.  And maybe, unlike the Wizard’s Dorothy, we don’t need a pair of ruby slippers to get us home again.  All we need is love. 

A Christmas Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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Christmas Tree in Brooklyn

Most kids anticipate Christmas with a growing sense of wonder and glee.  I wasn’t one of those kids.  Very much aware that my parents did not have much money, I dreaded the inevitable Christmas mornings when I had to appear at my friend Kim’s house to exchange presents with her, awed as her mom’s hot pink carpet was lost beneath a sea of glittery paper and ribbon (not a trace of fuscia carpeting to be found!).  I hated walking into certain sections of department stores, knowing that the gifts I’d longed and asked for would never appear under my Christmas tree.  Most of all, I nurtured a not so small horror over the thought of having to line up outside the Church the first Sunday after Christmas with my schoolmates (a mandate of the nuns), compare what we’d all received for Christmas, and get taunted for yet another year.  I’d sooner have plummeted down the proverbial hole leading to China.


Now that I am an adult with a so-called disposable income, I would trade nearly any one of my grown up Christmases for a single one from my childhood.  Tom Wolfe told us that we can never go home again, but I think Tom was a bit off the mark.  If memories live vividly in our hearts, we can return again.  And at this time of the year, I return often, to the modest house I shared in Brooklyn with my parents, sister, and grandparents.


For cleaning the entire house as best we could as children, my sister and I received a weekly allowance of 50 cents.  The sum was so paltry, I just lied to my friends, telling them that I got no allowance whatsoever.  But in those days, 50 cents saved up over the course of weeks and months bought a lot at the Five and Dime.  They bought shiny pins and earrings for my friends, greeting cards with the sweetest-faced angels (I have kept one, all these years, for her face touches me still and recalls those days of innocence).  My meager allowance also bought bright wrapping paper, glittery ribbon, and small seasonal corsages for my mother, grandmother, sister, and myself: de rigueur accessories of the day on every female’s coat.  


I always got a little frisson of fear whenever I bought a new corsage, for the very first corsage that I remember met a most untimely end.   My mother had bundled little three year old me into her winter coat and had pinned the corsage to it, explaining what it was and wishing me a good time.  My dad took me by the hand and we walked around the corner to the Lutheran Church, for the Lutherans were either richer or more resourceful than we Catholics.  Every Christmas, they hosted a live manger scene outdoors, replete with animals such as goats and sheep.  One of the goats thought my corsage looked like a tasty little morsel and as I bent over the fence from my orange crate to pet him, he plucked the thing right off my coat and crunched it down his gullet!  I wept piteously, wondering how I might explain its loss to my mother, for it had been a gift, while my father laughed so hard and so quietly, tears coursed down his own face as well.


Snow of any significant depth heralded not a day off from school but an afternoon of work.  My sister and I were pressed into service to shovel the snow, along with any and all handy adults, and we were expected to do it right, so that the sidewalk was clean after our handiwork.  We actually enjoyed this chore and oh, the follies of youth!   One year, my sister, who was deemed the non-creative kid, built a solid and freestanding little igloo and invited me in.  I thought it an architectural marvel.    After what seemed hours of shoveling, my dad would brew us up a special hot cocoa and pour it into the little mugs my aunt had given us, bought from John’s Bargain Store on the avenue.  The cocoa was special because it was decorated with colored marshmallows or little candy canes, the latter of which turned the chocolate all minty.   We’d stare at the candy canes, watching in fascination as the red stripes disappeared magically into the hot milk.


The only real Christmas tree I remember was in my very early childhood.  It smelled wonderful but dropped pines all over the place so that my mother, the neat freak, found herself vacuuming daily.  Most years, we had an artificial tree, but it was a nice one as were the decorations lifted carefully and lovingly out of their compartmentalized boxes.  My parents had met in a fine department store, where they had both been sales clerks, and with their employee discounts had purchased beautiful ornaments made in Germany.  There were the Seven Dwarves, angels with pastel wings and stiff, golden lace skirts, and my favorite, the gold-glitter ball that screwed open to hold some small surprise that my sister and I took turns finding and secreting there.


The baking that took place under my roof bore no resemblance to Betty Crocker or even Fanny Farmer.  It came straight from the boot of Italy, on recipes brought over by my grandmother and recorded nowhere but in her heart and head.  As she and my grandfather had embraced Equal Opportunity long before our government adopted that term, we all pitched in, “all” being my reluctant mother and sister, who detested the kitchen, yours truly, who grew to love it, and my grandparents.  Heaven cannot possibly smell better than my house did just before Christmas when we made struffola and creamy semolina grain pies from scratch.  The struffola had to be made production line style, for hundreds of them were made.  They starred at our table on Christmas Eve, mounded like small golden Christmas trees.  Each of my mom’s three siblings and families took home their own tower of these confections, along with the cream pies, as did my family, to our apartment above my grandparents’.


Stuffola are small, light balls of dough deep fried, then drizzled with honey infused with lemon and orange peel, and decorated with almonds, colored jimmies, candied cherries, and citron.  I got the job of rolling out the dough, and from my grandfather’s exhortations against overworking it, learned early on the secret to making a tender dough.


As I rolled out the long strands of raw dough, using my hands as a rolling pin, I’d watch my grandparents at the stove, moving in an un-choreographed ballet, their backs to me, my grandmother in her faded printed apron, my grandfather ever proper in his trousers and long sleeved shirt rolled up to the elbows.  There was no bickering between them; indeed, there was a rustic kind of precision, as well as a rhythm and a quiet joy.  The snow was falling softly outside and the wind blew cold. Inside that small kitchen in Brooklyn, the oil bubbled and the honey steamed fragrant upon the stove besides pots of chocolate and vanilla cream born of dark chocolate chunks, long black vanilla beans, and a drop or two of rose water from its little cobalt blue bottle.   If anyone could bottle that scent, they’d have a best selling perfume on their hands.       


One Christmas season when I had just begun high school, and had long since begun my perspective as a cynic, I came down with a very bad case of bronchitis.  I’d been sent home from school.  Too weak to change out of my Catholic school uniform, I had collapsed on the couch in our living room, which opened directly onto our dining room.   Medicated to the gills with some lovely codeine-based elixir sent over by the pharmacist, I’d fallen into a deep sleep from which I roused myself groggily at the sound of a sweet, strange voice.


Rolling over, I spied a beautiful young woman at my dining room table, a girl a few years older than myself and totally unfamiliar to me.   Drugged, I murmured a “Hello, and who are you?”  I sensed that she was truly a stranger, for her manner was refined and her voice bore not a New York accent but the barest trace of the South.   “I’m Lindsay,” she explained.  “I’m in my first year of college and am selling magazine subscriptions to earn my tuition. I’m from Maryland,” she added brightly, thus solidifying the fact she was indeed a stranger in a strange land.   Scornfully, I laughed, “Forget it, Lindsay; my mom’s not buying any.”


And so, my mom did not.  We did not have money for such frivolities, and Lindsay badly needed the sale, for she had gone door to door all day long without a single subscription sold. But perhaps my mother had given Lindsay something better that Christmas, as she did me, when I realized what had happened.


Our little Brooklyn neighborhood was besieged that day by a nasty winter storm.   I’d gotten pelted with hail and soaked by a thick wet snow, just walking the four blocks home. Lindsay had rung the bell during my stupor, peddling her magazines that no one wanted and no one could afford, so close to Christmas.  My mother had taken one look at that girl and ordered her to get upstairs, as she’d catch her death of cold.  My mom had then brewed the girl a cup of tea, placed some cookies in front of her, and had draped her wet coat atop one of our warm radiators.   Beside the radiator she’d laid Lindsay’s boots, as they had gotten water-logged in the storm.


And then my mother, the anal-retentive woman who had a part time job, two kids, a husband, and never enough hours in her day, sat with this strange girl and spoke with her about what she was studying in college (nursing, I recall), allowing the girl to share her dreams aloud.   Lindsay left bereft of a sale but a lot warmer than when she’d crossed our threshold.  When I think of Christmases past, I am reminded again of my mother’s small kindness and what it must have meant to a kid peddling subscriptions nobody wanted, door to door to door, as Old Man Winter raged outside.  Along with the tea and cookies, my mother had given this girl, whom we never saw again, a little hope.  A ray of light in the cold and darkness.


And that, after all, is what Christmas is really all about.

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