Summer Vacation 1950’s
Mother began working part time as a secretary for our family doctor but not until I began a full day of school.
Everything would change when summer arrived; I spent hours sitting on marble floors, listening to the whispers of my Mother to the Doctor who she worked for. I watched as patients in the waiting room became upset if the doctor took too long, and heard other parents yelling at their children to remain still. Inbetween I had my crayons, coloring book, and sisors.
The office was looked small next to our church. If I looked too bored Mother told me to go next door to visit Sister Marie. Our church was the biggest building in the city filled with statues with eyes that stared, high ceilings, triple doors, and row after row of red drapes. When you entered from the front you felt as if you were in a theatre, the floor sloped toward the altar, and everything was gold and red, like Proctors on State Street.
Most of the day I sat cross-legged on marble floors, scribbling in magazines, drawing hair on models, and cutting out my own paper dolls. I listened to my Mother on the phone with patients, and pretended the paper dolls were patients too. It took a few weeks when a change was made; Grandmother began watching me, at least I was home, with Grandmother who lived upstairs.
Grandmother never let me play alone in our yard, so I spent hours sitting next to her on her cold linoleum floor; a homemade cooling system, and stared at her feet as she pumped them back and forth on the black metal grate of her Singer Sewing Machine. I loved Grandmother, and her heart was as big as the entire city, she would give me cookies with stripes from Woolworths, make homemade cocoa in the morning, and both of us would dunk old Italian bread – watch – as the edges began to turn brown.
Quickly, before the piece of bread sank, we lifted it out of the cocoa with our spoon, and laugh. If we ever had leftovers Grandmother fed them to the black birds – standing at the window in the back porch, she waited until I climbed up on to a radiator resting on my knees. Grandmother opened the window and began squeezing the food with her hand’s then picked what she squeezed into small pieces because birds had small beaks. We had left overs everyday, and everyday I heard Grandmother’s call, “birds, come birds,” and the birds arrived, she would continue, “muncha, muncha birds.” I knew she was saying eat in her Sicilian talk. Once the yard was covered with black birds she would clap. Grandmother loved watching as the birds ate. It was usually stale bread from Jay Street. The type of bread you had to eat the first day because on the second day it would be hard like a brick. I knew that was the reason for wetting the bread, even I couldn’t bite into the bread – remember – we had to watch it sink. Our city had many Italian Bakerys, but her bread had to come from Jay Street – where two bakeries stood side by side, the owners hated one another.
And, the bread was different from great one day too great for about three days.
Together now at the window we began tossing out old Ritz Crackers, Dandy Oyster Crackers, yet never corn flakes. When the dish was empty she would go to the refrigerator and bring back last night left overs.
Mother felt safe with me staying with Grandmother, but her only concern, I overheard one night while I pretended to be sleeping; my bedroom was right off the kitchen, was I was not getting enough fresh air or sunshine. I think they felt guilty having her watch me everyday – so my parents told her she would only have me for two days not five. It wasn’t until morning I learned I was going to my Aunt’s house; she had five children, different ages, and everyone could play outside in a larger backyard. Mother told me it would be nice to have cousins around.
Their neighborhood was different; wider streets, bigger porches, and a museum only four of five blocks away. Oh, I cannot forget Suicide Bridge, where people would jump – I never wanted to even step foot on that bridge, so I lagged behind, they all laughed at me. Finally they forced me to follow them to the other side – I had no choice it was either stay with them or go back to an empty house.
At home I had rules, and Mother told me the same rules for my Aunt’s house. When I played with my friends in my yard or on our sidewalk I could not cross the street, go into the alley way alone, or cross over to the Market lot without her in our kitchen window. You see, Mother warned me about the Candy Man who took little children into his car and they never returned. One night I heard Mother on the phone with our neighbors, I guess everyone was talking about the car which was parked on Avenue A for most of the day, with a strange man inside. I listened as Mother told the other Mothers, “he never opened the door, never looked as if he was waiting for someone, you know, picking them up.” Not many people had a car so when one parked on the street, everyone was curious. I guess he may have been one of those Candy Men.
So there I stood on the sidewalk tilting my head up to look at Grandmother who was waving from her window, and my heart felt funny. I wasn’t thrilled about being at my Aunt’s house but when I finally reached her house everyone greeted me at the front door. When I was there we explored the neighborhood; it was new to me, and we were doing things my Mother would have had a fit if she knew. The only thing I recall my oldest cousin saying was, “we won’t get caught, don’t worry so much.”
You see, her Mother left the house, and so did we; crossing Suicide Bridge, getting lost inside a museum filled with monsters, and stopping at a park to eat those banana sandwiches on American bread. We even went to the public pool on hot humid days.
I never paid much attention to the whereabouts of my Aunt, assuming she went shopping or to the beauty parlor to get her hair colored and waved. She was a pretty woman but it must have taken a time to look perfect.
One afternoon, on our walk back from the Schenectady Museum, a dog leaped in front of me and bit my stomach. The owner came out of her front door and onto her porch, and started complaining that we hurt the dog, then she said “he doesn’t have rabies.”
What was rabies? I thought. No one seemed concerned, only the old squatty looking woman, her hair standing up straight, her voice – raspy, as if she smoked all her life.
“You have nothing to worry about little girl, nothing at all,” she started all over, “my dog, he doesn’t have rabies. My dog is clean, no rabies. Did you hear me, no need telling anyone since he’s a clean dog, and no rabies.” The seven of us all began to walk faster, but I was the only one hurting. I held the center of my tummy where the stomach is – then began to walk even slower to let the others be far enough ahead so I could look down my blouse. Right in the middle, all these teeth marks and a small amount of blood oozed from each one. I never cried in front of my cousins or their friends. My hand covered my stomach, in the center, as I noticed little drops of red blood on my blouse. When I entered their yard they all wanted to see, so I lifted my blouse far enough for them to stare at those little holes.
“You promise never to tell, never!” demanded my oldest cousin. “If you say anything we will all be in big trouble, and we won’t be able to go to the museum, so you have to say you promise.” Her face looked mean, her voice loud, all I could do was picture some parent yelling at me, giving me new rules.
“I promise never to tell, cross my heart, hope to die – but, do you know what rabies means?”
She stared into my eyes and never answered, instead, she dashed toward the back porch and called out to everyone, “come inside, white ice cream.”
Pure white ice cream was all it took for me to forget about some dog’s teeth. Only my Aunt had this stuff – it was the best white ice cream on the planet. I kept asking her where the ice cream came from, she never answered. She treated it as if she made it herself.
That night no one noticed the small blood spots, nor did I mention the dog bite since I promised. Promises had to be kept. I still wanted to know about rabies.
Every night at five I would be in the front seat of our car driving home with Mother, and right after dinner I would be back playing in my own neighbourhood. I would be on the yellow porch near the roses, Seven Sisters, where my paper dolls were kept safe in our metal milk box. I waved or said hello when a neighbor passed the house heading to Charlie’s Grocery store.
One night after dinner I sat and watched at the older girls across the street were squealing over this new thing called a hoola hoop. You had to keep it at waist level or even higher – up under your arms, and keep twisting your body so it would not fall to the ground. Mother surprised me one night when she picked me up from my cousins, there on the back seat was my very own hoola hoop. Well I struggled for hours to get the hang of it, moving my hips, feet, shoulders, and thought what looked like fun ended up a chore. I did not give up immediately; even Mother could twist it and keep it going, sometimes really fast. I couldn’t do that, I spent more time alone trying, so I decided I would ask if I could join my friend who twirled a baton for lessons, she went during the night and was an expert. She would toss flames on both sides into the air, bend her knees just a little, and catch it square and center.
I caught on pretty fast but I never would compare to her, but I didn’t care. The baton would fly toward the sky, twisting and turning as my eyes followed, and just in time I reached out, caught it, and began twirling it at the right moment; it was something I would never forget. I wanted to fly, but now I had something that could.
One of the best places to play during those long summer days and nights, was our alleyway behind all the houses on our block. Most of the time we played kick-the-can; some dented old Campbell Soup can, or green beans, we were not fussy. While we ran across loose dirt and small stones flew into the air with the can, here came the boys riding their fancy bikes, and disturb us their new bikes, circling us in a figure eight.
They busted up our game, ran over cans, and then took off with one of those Mickey Mantle cards flapping between the silver spokes of their American Flyer. As children we yelled at the boys, not knowing until later they were flirting. I detested it when their feet hit the brakes and splattered dirt over our clothes on purpose, then tipped their bike backward.
Boys loved to cause trouble: One night they decided to disturb a couple who were necking in the back seat of a car parked in the Market lot across from my house. Teenagers called kissing, necking. So the boys grabbed their bikes laughing so hard when they noticed all the windows steamed up, knowing it would be easy to sneak up on the couple. Just before they left each boy picked a couple of Grandmother’s tomatoes from her garden then left the bikes near the road and tiptoed to the car.
They told us they counted to three and all flung the tomatoes splattering the wind shield, and as fast as their legs could carry them they headed to the bushes surrounding our home on a corner lot. The car door opened, out came this hood:
A hood was someone who looked like Elvis but not nice people, they were the tough guys in the neighbourhood. Under the street light you could see this hood adjusting his pants, and then running his fingers through his hair. I am sure he was waiting for some sound. The boys grabbed their bikes, and took off like a bat in the night, hiding between the garbage shed and our yellow garage. I think it was the last time they tossed anything at a parked car.
Well, tomorrow I will be with Grandmother, and I think she said we were taking the bus down town. I laid awake in my bed wondering what she would buy me.
Even in the fifties working Mothers needed a place for their children, a safe place to play and enjoy the summer. Although not everything about the summer break from school is written here – this is part of my memoir written in two genres, a poetic memoir/ story format – and it is a true story from a child’s eye.