This story isn’t so much a story as it is … a memoir of my childhood in Brooklyn. It’s about setting, and place, which shapes you more than almost anything. Growing up in Brooklyn was probably the greatest thing that could have happened to anyone. I’ve never really felt as home anywhere. Some day, I suppose I could return, if I had the money, or if anyone at all that I knew lived there, but, well, life moves on. But, I have my memories.
I don’t know why everyone thinks you have to have a mom and a dad to grow up properly. I think you should have a village of people, a whole extended family. I think just one mom and one dad without all the surrounding family is part of today’s problem. Think about it. Two people trying to be everything to everyone and do everything for and with their kids. It’s rather ludicrous.
My childhood, on the other hand, was filled with people and caring adults. I didn’t grow up thinking, “oh no, my family is incomplete.” I grew up privileged. I lived with my gramma, grampa, aunt, and mom, and my dad came around 3 or 4 X / week. Not only that, I had aunts, uncles, cousins, great aunts and uncles, second cousins, and come to think of it, I didn’t even have any siblings until I was 12. No matter. I lived in Brooklyn where one block had as many houses as I have in my subdivision in suburbia now. I never lacked for playmates or companionship.
We lived in a 4 room apartment on the top of a 2 story, brick house. There was a porch in front where we sat whenever it was a nice day and watched the neighborhood. My grandpa smoked his one cigarette a day after dinner out there. There was a smaller landing near the street where everyone congregated. My house was in the middle of the block and we were the place, it seemed, where the neighborhood landed.
I think that I might be able to handle a small town someday because, really, isn’t living on a block in Brooklyn just like living in a small town where everybody knows everybody? Except that the trees grew out of the concrete and grass grew between the cracks. My landlord, Freddy, was a baldish, chubby man who was very congenial but kind of weird in that he liked to bark at the kids sometimes and make strange noises. He always got such a kick out of watching the kids’ faces when he would pretend to be a dog, but once you got to know him, he was a pretty cool guy. He helped us catch fireflies or bees in jars.
SCHOOL: My dad was a social guy; he could talk to anyone about anything. When I was a kid, he would pick me up from school – P.S. 208 (P.S. stood for public school; there were so many schools in Brooklyn, New York that they were given numbers instead of names – much more efficient). My school was a sturdy, brick building with numerous floors and metal bars across the windows; I’m not sure if that was to lock the students in, keep the riff raff out, or just keep us from falling out of the upper floors. Nowadays, schools are supposedly more efficient with their space, using one big room for assemblies, sporting events, and the cafeteria. If you ask me, paying janitors to clean it up every day and put the tables out couldn’t be that much of a savings. All the students sit on a hard floor every time they have to watch a play or see a presentation. Uck.
I prefer P.S. 208 where we had a real auditorium with graduated floors and real wooden seats that were screwed down, and a real stage. Every Monday morning, the entire school (grades K – 6) headed to the auditorium. Girls wore navy blue skirts with white shirts that had a big collar and a white dickey (a piece that tucked into the collar). It was a very big deal to carry the flag down the aisle to the stage and everyone wanted to get chosen. I can’t remember if I actually ever carried it, or it’s just a confabulation of mine that I got chosen; I think I did, but I’d need hypnosis to uncover the truth. No matter. Here are the memories I know are real: we sang all sorts of patriotic songs such as “My Country T’is of Thee (Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing…)”, and “America, the Beautiful” and “This Land is My Land, This Land is Your Land (from California, to the the New York island…). Come to think of it, we sing those songs every day in my classroom now. And, we recite the pledge, and part of the Declaration of Independence. I guess some customs really do endure.
I always loved school, which is probably why I became a teacher. I was always in the IGC class (no idea what that stood for, just that it was the highest academic class in elementary school, but it might have meant ‘intelligently gifted class’) and then I skipped 8th grade. My 2nd grade teacher was my favorite (Mrs. Rapkin) because she acted as if we were all her grandchildren and loved us and made mini-muffins which we got to eat if we did math with them; for instance, if you have 10 muffins, and subtract 4 muffins (yum, yum, yum), how many are left? My 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Gatti, was tall and lean and beautiful in a natural way with olive skin and dark hair; she was sophisticated and intelligent and made learning easy and methodical.
My 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Reilly, who had awful body odor and looked like she was ready to retire to an old age home, almost ruined school for me because she always screamed at us and threatened us by saying, “if you continue to do ____, I’ll give you 25 demerits!” She never offered to give us any stars for good behavior. In 4th grade, I was the 4th tallest girl in the class; soon, I stopped growing very much and remained at 5 feet 4 inches until I was about 50 when I appeared to have lost ½ inch due to spinal compression. This is one of the reasons I like the idea of changing teachers every year. What if we got stuck with her again?
My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Klasowitz, always wore her salt and pepper hair up in an upsweep (tucked in the back and pinned in). She was extremely emotional and also yelled, but we forgave her because she was an artist, and when she wasn’t absent due to illness (she was one year from retirement, so I think she was probably just burning days), she would do things artists did like fling a book across the room in a rage or something equally as intriguing. She didn’t dwell much on the normal academics, but instead, we did a lot of art and then swapped classes with her teacher friend where we wrote poetry and learned about haikus (5 lines, 7 lines, and 5 lines). Once, we had a substitute for about a week who was very creative. One day, she made us sing everything instead of talking. It’s not as easy as you think.
Now, at 63, I can’t believe the things that have come, and gone, in my own lifetime. When I was young, we had television, but the programs were only in black and white (and shades of gray, of course). I remember when we got a color TV. I was about 10 years old and we were glued to the TV. for a while. Our program selection was limited. My favorite comedy was “I Love Lucy” with Lucille Ball and Ricky Ricardo. Back then, the networks would not let them sleep in the same bed even though they were married. My grandma’s favorite show was the Carol Burnett show, and the Dean Martin Show – both song and dance and comedy variety shows, and the Fugitive about a handsome man who was running from the law, but who was innocent and trying to gather proof of his innocence (Harrison Ford made a movie years later about the same character).
We had milk delivered; it came in glass bottles which the milkman put in a metal box right outside our door. The soda truck also came each week to deliver seltzer (clear, club soda that came in blue tinted glass bottles with a spray nozzle) and various flavors of Dr. Brown’s sodas (cel-ray – my favorite – made of celery; cherry cola, and ginger ale, which my gramma always gave me if I had a tummy ache). We also had Coca Cola, which we got from the grocery. My gramma gave me pure coke syrup (without the fizz) if I was sick in any other way.
Gramma Lily was my mother’s mother; I called her ‘Ma’ and I called my mother ‘Mommy’. My mother was more of a big sister to me, always working or going out with friends, and occasionally playing with me. That’s why I always thought of my gramma as my mom.
Gramma Lily was brash and at times embarrassing, but what mom isn’t at times? I followed her around the kitchen, helping her cook and even helping her clean sometimes. She allowed me to do only the chores that I wanted to do, so it was more of a game than a chore. The funny thing is that I loved to dust and now I rarely ever dust; even tho I live in one of the dustiest states in the country. I never had to make my bed or do the laundry or take out the garbage.
Actually, even though we lived in a 4 room apartment, we had a black cleaning lady, Isabelle, who came every week to help my gramma clean. (now some people use the term African-American instead of black, but that didn’t exist in the 1960’s.) I used to play with her son while they both cleaned the apartment top to bottom.
As it turned out, I found out after, we were fairly affluent but my grandpa never wanted to buy a piece of property because he had no idea how to fix anything if it broke and he preferred to have someone else take care of those details; thus, the landlord. Every white family who could afford it had a maid in those days; it was a sign of affluence, and Isabelle worked for other members of our family and some of our neighbors. Between the money she made off the books as a maid and her welfare check, I think she was doing pretty well. I never understood how such a big, fat woman could do the kind of work she did, but I loved her like an auntie. Later in life, my mother would have a black cleaning woman named Norma who came to all the family weddings and other big functions. We weren’t rich and high-falutin’. Our slightly, upper-middle class families came from modest means so we treated the maids as equals – they were just people who worked for us and became part of the family.
Well, this Cameo doesn’t seem to have a conclusion. There’s more that I must share, but I will do so in my next installment. I hope you’ve enjoyed reminiscing with me. Namaste.