One of my earliest summer memories is of a picnic in our front yard. (Wasn’t my mother creative in finding ways to entertain five small children?) I recall asking my then 28-year-old mother what things were like “in the olden days” when she was a little girl, asking her if she’d ever ridden in a Conestoga wagon, like the ones I’d seen on our black & white TV. (She was born in 1932!)
Later that eventful summer, our family dog finally killed my favorite kitten (the sweetest and most perfect out of 27 felines running around our house out in the country). My broken nose had been for nothing after all.
Other events, which I vividly recall to this day, were scattered throughout my earliest years. My father bought an old panel truck for parts & had it towed to our house, without anyone telling me about it—so, of course, I thought he’d had a wreck & been killed. My mother had all her teeth out for dentures—and again no one thought notify me (so I thought she’d look like my Grandma’s mom forever).
I had my tonsils out and had a couple of bad experiences following that: (1) I was tricked into waiting until after the procedure for the promised ice cream (when you absolutely, positively can’t swallow), and (2) I was so upset by number (1) that I totally forgot my “Jack & Jill” magazine (the first magazine I’d ever had at that point) and left it behind at the hospital.
I started first grade and, right off the bus, I dropped my brand new plastic, see-through pencil box and broke it. (Needless to say, I spent the first 30 minutes with my head in my desk, under the open top, silently choking back hot, unstoppable tears.)
To redirect my attention, the brilliant teacher asked who knew some nursery rhymes to recite. Always praised lavishly (by my sterner set of grandparents) for my excellent recitation skills, I quickly wiped away my tears and shot up my hand. The teacher’s ingenious plan had worked, with more far-reaching consequences than either of us could have imagined. For, as she busily collected and counted lunch money, and attended to the myriad other paperwork details inherent in the start of school, I ran through my repertoire of childhood rhymes, and even sang a couple choruses of, “I’m a Little Teapot” and “How Much is that Doggy in the Window?” for good measure.
However, still covered up in paperwork, the harried teacher looked up pleadingly and asked if I knew any fairy tales. “Of course!” I replied. And thus, the foundations of my later creative endeavors with the written word (which have spanned 50 years, so far) were cemented.
From that momentous first day, on throughout most of that first long year of school, I was called upon nearly every morning to recite. And when my trove of classics was exhausted, I began a journey into creative story-telling (making them up on the spot), watching for audience reaction with each spontaneous notion I tried out on my captive audience.
Oh, so much power for such a little girl!
Age 7-12: By third grade, I was chosen to be the emcee of the school May Day celebration, outside, around the Maypole (where else?). Again, I was filled with awe that an audience awaited my every word! I was powerful (“self-reliant” as my teacher had related to my Mom)!
That next summer, my power was devastatingly, and unceremoniously, stripped from me. I had my heart (and “audience-commanding little psyche”) shattered by the boy next door (a mile away), who broke the devastating news to me that I was his second-best girlfriend. Another day, I watched helplessly as my dad was almost crushed by a falling tree he’d just cut (& turned his back too quickly on). And I realized that I was, at least for those frightening few moments, completely powerless.
One evening that fall, my dad brought home a baby pony just for me, from a livestock auction. (He’d removed the back seat of his car to fit the adorable [but unrideable, due to its youth] creature). Dad, I later learned, had been in the dog house for his drinking, and had bought the pony (while drinking, again) as a sort of peace offering, trying to show his “See, I’m a good Daddy” side. Ohhh, I worshiped him!
Eating Shredded Wheat Won’t Make You into a Boy
I had learned early on (as “little ears” do), that the men who always congregated around my father, as he worked on cars around our home, were of the opinion that sons were a source of great pride for fathers. So, I had always tried to be the toughest little girl I could be: eating horseradish or hot chili peppers on crackers like my dad, and soaking my big, unsweetened shredded wheat blocks in hot water, and eating them with salt & pepper, like Dad.
Grade 4: My mother found me one evening, crying my eyes out as I frantically curried my patient little pony. When she asked why I was crying, I confessed to her that I had been awakened quite a few nights by shouting from my father, punctuated by her sobs and the slamming of the screen door, as my father would storm out to work on a car or leave to drink some more. I informed her that I was running away to join the circus, because I didn’t want to hear those things anymore. I think she comforted me with the idea that things would be better in the morning, and I went to bed.
The next day, my mother and her parents arrived at school and collected us. My parents were being separated, and we moved 85 miles away to the city (to my maternal & more lenient grandparents’ home), leaving my beloved father, and my treasured pony, “Little Luke,” behind. That night I cried for them, and for the bird’s nest I’d brought for “Show & Tell” and forgotten at school.
I began attending an all-French parochial school (at the time, possessing no discernible multilingual skills). A mixture of severe-looking and kindly-natured nuns ushered their little charges through lessons in grammar, reading, mathematics speed drills and rote recitations of multiplication facts, all in French, as well as Latin church liturgy. Knuckles were cracked by rulers if your eyes dared stray from the board or your desk!
As a type of elementary school rebellion, we students worked out a signal which, when given, resulted in the entire class dropping their rulers on the floor at the same time. Oh! We were such bad children! (What wouldn’t we give to go back to a time such as that, when there were no such things as shootings, or drugs, or sexual assaults of classmates in school.)
Ten conduct tickets were given out at the beginning of each week. That first week, I lost four, for turning to the girl next to me, for hints as to what we were being instructed to do. I was totally lost! That Friday, my face burned with hot tears of shame, as I had to stand up and announce to the class how few round white disks were left in my conduct envelope. I lost only one the entire year after that! Here, my impressive oratory skills were not being rewarded!
Nevertheless, not to be separated from my self-appointed throne (as “Regina, Queen of My Universe,”), I quickly acquired fairly strong (I thought) French conversational skills, and volunteered for “special assignment” in the nuns’ quarters on Saturdays, helping to grade papers, in an attempt to win over the strictest of my teachers. It worked: I was eventually able to earn her almost-impossible-to-be-won praise. Ah! The power of my tongue!
One morning, on my way to school, I was accosted by a sexual predator, and was saved by the stubborn persistence of a certain 4th-grade boy—who wouldn’t listen, when I self-assuredly informed him that I (who had held multitudes enthralled with my every syllable) could handle the simple request for directions from the stranger—and who hid in plain sight behind a telphone pole—and would not leave—until I, too, crossed had back over to his side of the street, and walked with him to the school building, a block away. (Even though I had had an uneasy feeling about crossing the street and helping this unknown-to-me, but ordinary-looking man, I didn’t realize until much later, how close I had come to who-knows-what abuse—or even to my own demise.)
One evening that following summer, my youngest sister was struck and injured by a hit-and-run driver, while playing ball in the street (as children did back then). “Call Daddy! Someone call Daddy!” I shouted, from the fourth floor landing of my grandfather’s tenement house, where I’d fled, to get away from the awful sight of my sister’s bloodied head and tire-scuffed body, as a stranger had appeared in our doorway carrying her limp, whimpering body. Daddy would know what to do to fix this terrible thing that had happened.
But, my Daddy was not the all-powerful god-man I had thought him to be, and my foolish, childish words could do nothing to fix this terrible calamity. I suddenly realized I was, indeed, a helpless, child, powerless to repair the crumbling foundations of my life.
Grade 5: My dad sold “Little Luke, breaking my heart with the news, during one Christmas visitation (not so much for the loss of the pony, but because it represented to me that my dad didn’t expect us to be reunited as a family again). Sometime that following Spring, my mother got a horrible phone call. Late the previous might, my father had been working on a car behind our house, (where he now lived alone) , using a front-end loader and a chain to hold the car up as he worked. Apparently, the loader had stalled, causing the hydraulics to fail, and the bucket to come down, as he had turned to reach for a tool, or had tried to get out. My dad had been crushed to death under that car. He died all alone, forever ending my little-girl world. I was eleven.
Grade 6: I don’t remember anything about my sixth grade classroom experience, except that suddenly we were old enough to use tabbed ring binders, to keep organized. (I think from that point on, I began an obsession with keeping everything about my life in order.)
Two Girls Face Two Whole Gangs and Come Out on Top
Sometime that year, I witnessed a gang fight on the way home from school. A girl that I walked to school with every day had been asked that morning, as we’d been heading for school, which gang she thought was better, “the Eighth Street Gang or the Mulberry Street Gang.” Her answer, “Neither; I think they’re both fruity,” was the reason we both had been stopped in our tracks, on the way home, by a fearsome and angry assembly of maybe 30 or 40 rough, tough-looking kids. Why were these two big gangs so affected by her words? (I told her later, on our way home from what we had considered our near-death experience, that at least she could be proud that her words were more powerful than both gangs put together. It had taken two entire gangs to confront her for what she had so effortlessly, and carelessly said that sunny morning.) And confront her they did, but not in the way you might imagine—which turned out to be another source of comfort to us on our walk home.
As all the boys, and most of the girls looked on, a few of the smaller girls walked up to our faces in a split-second stare-down. They told me to leave, that this was none of my business. I backed up a couple of steps, but stayed. They then proceeded to knock my friend’s books out of her hands and shove her back and forth between them, grabbing at her clothes. I debated internally, for the first few minutes, whether I should take up for my friend in her time of need. I was afraid, but I tried to imagine myself pushing back at them for her. My mom would be so proud of me (like she always was). But the two of us would be no match for two whole gangs. And so far, they weren’t really hurting my friend, just shaking her up, and tearing at her clothes.
I could see the fear in my friend’s face. She was several inches taller, and about 20 lbs. heavier than I was, and she had always lived in this city. So I considered that if she was afraid, I should be terrified. My stepping in could make the shovers decide to become the hitters, or worse: more gang members might be needed to keep the upper hand and save face.
So, I just stood there, with shame and fear, both taking turns making my face burn. My friend gave me a desperate glance at some point, but I just lowered my cowardly eyes in shame, because my fear-stuck feet wouldn’t let me move.
Finally, after maybe ten very long minutes of gang reckoning and perceived agony, they informed us that we could go. The gangs seemed suddenly a little ill-at-ease about their dealings with us, for some reason. Maybe they weren’t used to picking on people as pathetically weak as we obviously were. It made them look bad to have amassed such formidable forces for the likes of us. We gathered up her books in a rush, before they could change their minds, and hurried off.
I pleadingly offered to carry some of her books, in a feeble and pathetically late attempt to be of some small help to my shaken friend, so she could hold her blouse shut as we hurried away. It was only when we had reached a marginally safe distance that we began to go over what had surely been our narrow escape from the very jaws of death. I wanted to divert attention from my shame and her shame, and get her to stop crying. So, I tried to get her to focus on the fact that they were, in fact, the weak ones. They had formed gangs because they could not stand alone. And that instead of knives, which they could have used, they had only roughed her up, and hadn’t killed her. I fiercely wanted her to believe that she, indeed, was the strongest person, the hero, of the whole affair.
And we both went home, walking a little taller after that day, with the stunning notion that we had a type of inner strength, and that gangs were nothing but a bunch of small people banded together in the fear that they could not stand on their own. And we wanted to avoid any future dealings with them, just to be safe!
That same week, though, I found myself running for dear life, as I was being chased through a vacant, overgrown lot by someone with a blow gun, shooting pins (that I had imagined were poison-tipped darts, since I’d seen those in a Tarzan movie at the theater). So much for smug notions of bravery!
Later, during the long summer that followed that lost year, I rode an old pickup truck filled with rough & rowdy teenagers, and spent a long, hot Saturday, out in the fields outside the city, picking tomatoes and green beans. I felt like a child of the Depression, having the imagined responsibility of earning the keep of my poor, fatherless family. Disappointingly, my pace turned out to be so inefficient and slow as to make it barely worth the effort. and the few choice pickings I did manage ended up being stolen by the older kids, who probably were there to earn some of the keep of their families.
Near the end of that summer, I got an opportunity to go to a beginners’ drawing class for several Saturdays in a local college setting, inhaling the scenes and scents of the college and artistic environment (forever cementing my love of artistic pursuits, and a desire to one day attend college).
Still later, just before school started that Fall, my mother sent me to do the family shopping and bill-paying, entrusting me to carry the $200 funds. On that day (and on many yet to come) I tasted Fall River chow mein sandwiches, and sampled freshly-baked Italian and French breads, as I walked home from my errands, through the various wonderfully ethnic neighborhoods, just north of the gang-ridden south end of the city, once again feeling the headiness of responsibility and self-reliance.
Next: Chapter 3 • “Innocence Lost at the Lake” (See Autobiography topic at top of Home page.)