A special family lived around the corner from us at our beach house. How were they special? There were three children when most other families had two children.
As a surprise to everyone, including the parents in the family, later on there got to be four children. That was one way they were special. But there were other ways, too.
Other families lived up the block and down the block but my mother and father were friendly with the mother and father of this family because they had higher I.Q.’s and were more intellectual. The father was a doctor, an obstetrician, and when we visited them at their winter house, the children of this family would take my older sister and me upstairs to their father’s study to show us secret medical books. There were illustrations, in color, of all the female reproductive organs, and they were thought by the doctor’s children to be something secret and wicked and hilarious.
When the obstetrician father found out about the sneaking into his library he said, “There’s nothing funny about medical facts and human anatomy.” He reprimanded his children for their immature and silly behavior.
It was at their summer house that we knew them best. We didn’t see them that much at their winter house in some hot suburb. There were two older girls — Elinor and Dorothy. Elinor was so much older that the hand-me-down clothes we received from her collection had been made right after the war. One of these hand-me-downs was a pair of thick cotton gabardine shorts with heavy zippers, different from the thinner and flimsier fabric and zippers we knew from the 1950s.
Elinor was in her own upper-teenage world of grown-up girls in college. She was studious as well as boy-crazy. She had a high, tinkling voice and was often laughing at this or that. She pursued some postgraduate doctoral studies — I can’t remember which — and she got married at a young age, then made the mistake of having a baby right away, as many in her generation did. This ended her studies and the fun of her marriage to a studious social-science kind of guy. He was tall and serious and he wore dark horn-rimmed glasses. My mother told us she’d heard that Elinor had said to her three-year-old child, “Your parents are young and want to go out, and you can’t expect us to be with you all the time. We have our own lives.”
This was thought to be a bad thing to say to a child.
The other sister, Dorothy, was taller and thinner than Elinor. She had an unusual look in the face area. Her whole face was the thing. It was like Joseph Cotten’s face. Both sisters had brown hair and brown eyes. In our family my parents and older sister had blue or green eyes. Elinor had straight, shiny hair and Dorothy had lighter brown, wavy hair. Since I had light hair I found dark hair to be fascinating. I thought that anything I had couldn’t be good.
Then there was the brother, named Richard, called Ricky, the only pleasant boy I knew. Pleasant and good-natured and kind until he lost his childhood chubbiness, his voice changed, and he suddenly became tall and handsome. Many girls fell in love with him. “All of a sudden he’s a heartthrob,” I heard mothers say.
At that time, after he had turned into the heartthrob, he said to me, “In a few years you’ll be a real knockout, and I want to be around then.” Since I wasn’t even a preteenager, I wasn’t sure what that meant. I could tell he meant it to be a good thing, but it caused a lurching feeling of anxiety.
There were two other older boys on the block, and they hung around with Ricky. One boy was bad — not bad enough to be what was known as a juvenile delinquent but bad in these ways: he shot at cats with a slingshot and thought shooting out garage windows with the slingshot was fun too. He was an only child, most likely because he was so much trouble that his parents couldn’t consider taking on another one.
But while Ricky was still an ordinary boy, we all did things together as if we were normal — we played outside and at the beach, climbed trees, played punchball on the little road.
The special family was more normal and happy than our family was. I thought that this was the case because the mother’s main occupation was family life. She seemed happy to be the mother. When she wasn’t screaming at her children she was laughing. She was happy with her husband — the kind, intelligent obstetrician — even though he wore something called a Cabana jacket, a white terry-cloth one, on weekends. He did this to cover his midsection, which was somewhat large and out of shape.
The mother was interested in her children and the fun life they all had together. My mother missed the glamorous fun life she’d had before as a witty, beautiful, artistic young woman who dressed in a most elegant way and was known for these attributes.
One year when we arrived back home to our winter house I discovered that a doll’s green dress was missing. The dress had come with a Toni Doll, a doll whose main attraction was that she could be given a Toni home permanent. She had a platinum-blond wig and came in a box with a booklet of four different hairstyles with directions showing how to set the wig hair to make each style. A doll’s home-permanent kit came in a smaller box with doll curlers and setting lotion. There were instructions showing how to make more lotion when this bottle of lotion ran out. The two ingredients were water and sugar. The smell of this on the doll’s nylon hair was delicious and otherworldly.
Later on, when I was twenty and setting my own hair with giant pink rollers and beer to make it puffier and even straighter, I found out that beer wasn’t sold in Massachusetts on Sunday. That was the law. I remembered the doll’s formula and mixed some water with sugar. I was on Cape Cod with a certain boyfriend and was in a crazed state of constant hair washing and roller setting, even on this beach vacation. I’d get up early in the morning while he was sleeping. I didn’t want him to see the plastic dryer hood in operation. I was surprised to find that when I took the rollers out, the most sugary top parts of hair broke off. I was panicked enough to let this boyfriend in on it. We figured out that the mixture was for nylon wigs and not for human hair. I thought I heard him say “Toni Doll” once or twice in an incredulous way.
Back at our winter house, in September, when we were unpacking the car after the summer away, a boy who lived across the street offered to help my father hand some boxes in through the side windows, a shortcut from carrying them through the front door. I had always liked this boy, who was named Edward, because he wasn’t as tough and crude as other boys. He was sweet and good-natured and when I remembered him some years later I took a guess that he was not heterosexual. The next incident made this impression in my mind whenever I thought about it, and I thought about it a lot. As he reached up to the window and handed me the Toni Doll in its original box he said, “Hey, this sounds interesting. What is a Toni Doll?” I explained it to him and showed him the booklet of hairstyles. He was so interested that he stopped and chose his favorites. I said I liked styles two and three and he said he liked four. He was really involved in those styles. He was emphatic about number four. I explained to him that four was the most elaborate and, when attempted, proved impossible to duplicate. We discussed it for several minutes.
For some years I wasted time with the classified ads in doll collectors’ magazines trying to find a red-haired Toni Doll — “mint in original box,” it was called. Then later on eBay I came close a few times but couldn’t spend $600 on this folly, even though I really wanted to see those four styles again. It is still a minor goal — to get that booklet and doll’s home-permanent kit.
My father seemed to think what a nice boy Edward was to help with the boxes. He said so. My father was smiling and having a kind of fun — the surprise of the fun of daily life. Both parents were amused by the discussion of the doll’s hairstyles through the window. This was before there was a world of non-heterosexuals. Or maybe my parents were silently observing and wondering.
It was always a big event on the block when we came back from our summer house and I spoke to my friends. A few of these friends were angry and said mean things like, “You missed all the new things.” When I asked what things I was told, “New games like Stuck in the Mud.” When they explained the games, they didn’t sound like fun.
Before I knew these girls, before kindergarten, I was often bored and complained to my mother that I had nothing to do. Instead of arranging activities, as other mothers did for their precious children, and especially the way those children grew up to do for their children, she’d be cooking, reading, or looking at some curtain material and she’d say, “Go play with those girls outside.”
I’d say, “But I don’t know them. Come with me.”
And she’d say, “Just go over to them and say, ‘May I join you?’ ”
It was impossible to imagine using this phrase. Even now. Does anyone dare to speak that way?
When we returned to our beach house the next spring something happened that seemed miraculous. I noticed a small green object on the little street. I went over to it and found it was the Toni Doll’s dress, dirty and run over and smashed flat, but intact, having been rained and snowed on still lying there all winter. That’s what the world was like. Summer-house streets weren’t used, garbage trucks didn’t travel down them — no trucks, no people, no wrongdoers, no crime, just air and wind and emptiness.
The little dress had lain there month after month. My parents were as amazed as I was even though they had lived through the Depression and the war and many other things.
My mother washed the dress and hung it outside to dry. She might even have ironed it. We put it back on the doll. It looked the same as ever. This was one of the high points of my life.
When we first went to look at the beach house my mother was in a good mood and asked me, “Do you think we should buy the house?” I was four at the time. We were going down the outside back steps from the porch, and I’d seen on the brick side of the steps an old metal fork stuck to the brick with something like putty or glue. It was a sickening color of gray — gray and a worse translucent gray mixed. This might have stayed in my mind during the tour of the whole house, which was old and dark and narrow. The month was March and the house was cold and empty. Maybe I said “Let’s go” a few times or a few hundred times. But when my mother asked about buying the house I was looking at that fork. It looked like rusty tin, not like the forks I’d known as forks — stainless steel, silver, or silver plate.
I said, “No.”
My mother was surprised. “Why not?” she asked.
“Because of that,” I said, pointing to the glued fork.
“We’ll have that taken away,” she said. She was laughing. “Then do you think we should buy it? We’ll have it all cleaned up and painted and wallpapered. We’ll have our things in it — curtains, furniture, our books, and your dolls.”
I couldn’t imagine that. The fork with putty stayed in my mind. How had it gotten there was the question.
“Oh,” I said. “I don’t know.”
The only time I remember her laughing that same way was when I was three. She discovered that my red sandals no longer fit. She was putting one shoe on my foot and said, “Oh, it’s gotten too small.” After getting over the disappointment of not being able to wear these sandals, I said, “Some night I want to stay up all night and watch all my shoes.”
“Watch them? Why?” she said.
“I want to see them get smaller.”
Was that a moment when she was glad to have had children? She laughed and said, “Don’t you know that your feet are growing and the shoes stay the same size? Children grow. Your feet grow, too.”
Other times she said or screamed a sentence that made it seem that she didn’t like us much. A screamed description of my sister and me was “One can’t get her nose out of a goddamned book, the other can’t get her head out of the goddamned dollhouse — what did I do to be cursed with these two good-for-nothing little bitches?” The sentence is quite literary in retrospect — part of an angry poem, or a dramatic line from a play, maybe from the mother in Long Day’s Journey into Night, or some character in a John Osborne play, or a play by some other angry-young-man writer.
Some years after the red-sandal incident she said, “It’s the antibiotics they put in the food supply. It’s making you all grow too fast.” She often quoted Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. How many mothers were so smart and wasted their lives on household chores? What kind of world was the 1950s and how did my mother fall into it?
My ideas of fun things to do came from my reading of Little Lulu comics. I remember the day my older sister suggested these comics for me and then ordered a subscription. This suggestion was made during a conversation in her dreary, blue-green-painted room at our winter house. As usual, she was reading, and I wanted to play a game of imagination and fun. My parents and my sister were always reading, but I preferred to play outside, or even inside, with other children.
One idea I got from the comic books was to go outside with a friend and set up a stand to sell lemonade. Although Little Lulu used real lemons, my mother didn’t want to deal with the mess of squeezed lemons — seeds, spilled juice — and she provided us with the frozen cans.
An unknown man came by the lemonade stand and said that five cents a cup was too expensive. He was a man working on a construction project down the road. I believed him because he wasn’t smiling and I took his criticism as a crushing blow. After he bought some of our product, he said it wasn’t cold enough. Soon he went on his way. Maybe he gave a few other criticisms too. But it was the high price he emphasized.
That night in our bedroom my sister asked about the lemonade stand. She was reading, but took a moment out. She asked what we did with the money we earned. She’d seen it in a Hellmann’s mayonnaise jar on the lemonade stand — an old bridge table my father had set up.
I told her that we went to Mary’s, the Italian grocery store around the corner, and we bought more frozen cans.
“So you reinvest the profits,” she said.
I asked what profits were and she explained. I asked her whether there was supposed to be money left over.
She said, “What do you think, people just sell whatever product they have and earn no money?”
I said I hadn’t thought about earning money.
She explained that there had to be money left over. Then she said, “That’s capitalism.”
She went back to reading her book. Whatever capitalism was it didn’t sound good to me. I wasn’t a child-communist. I just didn’t know about money. It was the dismal beginning of learning that things were not just fun. Business was involved. A bad note for falling asleep.
At our beach house, this boy Ricky was the best tree climber and could climb to the highest branches. Three branches came together and made a place to sit, a place that he named the King’s Seat. I guessed these boys got their ideas from the kinds of books they read, adventure comics, and TV shows. The other girls and I would never think of naming branches.
Another of the older boys I knew was not very happy. He seemed to be unhappy and sad. His parents were strict with him, although I never saw him do anything considered to be bad. They said his name in a critical, scolding way. Who knew what had gone on in his early childhood and babyhood? Maybe, as a baby, he had annoyed them. Maybe he was not a fun-baby. I didn’t think of this at the time. I sometimes noticed him on the steps of the screen porch tying his sneakers, looking down, or downcast, while being told by his mother what he was doing wrong, or had done wrong, or was not allowed to do. Feeling sad for the plight of other children was a big part of my life.
He had a little sister who was a playmate of mine, and their parents treated her in a different and better way. This girl had a headful of curls, something like the tiny tight wig curls of a Tiny Tears doll, but she had bigger and looser curls called ringlets. She was always happy. She had tan skin and brown eyes and looked like a large doll herself. Her parents treated her with love and adoration. They both smiled every time they looked at her. They spoke to her with the kindest words. The boy didn’t seem to mind. He appeared to accept this as his fate and didn’t show any resentment toward the little sister. Maybe he liked to tease her, but he was always smiling with amusement and love when he did.
The father was a Romanian doctor who had escaped to America before the war. People on the block were afraid of him. He wouldn’t allow his children to play with certain other children. My parents also discouraged association with and did not have a good opinion of certain families and their children. One family was extremely eccentric, but not in the way the British are eccentric: they lacked proper manners and household hygiene. Their house was in shambles inside and out. It was scary in there. Two families lived together, two brothers and their wives and children. The two wives were dressed in raggedy housedresses from morning to night. They were usually heard arguing and screaming at each other and their children. We couldn’t tell what the nature of the arguments was because both wives had speech defects of different kinds. One was a high voice with fast talking, the other was a low voice with muttering.
Another family was just not of the same social class as the Romanian doctor and most of the other families, including ours — not economic class, but by education and behavior. For example, the father was a butcher — that alone was horrifying enough — but he also wore Hawaiian shirts. The mother wore shorts with a top that exposed her midriff. This showed rolls of skin caused by her having given birth to three children and making no attempt to deal with the aftermath through exercise or diet. In her defense, there were no Pilates or yoga classes then. There was swimming, calisthenics, tennis, walking, and diet. And there were corseted bathing suits and figure-tightening nylon bathing suits. She didn’t bother with any of that.
Her hair was dyed a strange orange-red color. In addition to a permanent that left curled bangs and a curled edge all around her head, this mother, whose name I can’t remember, used a comb on each side to keep the hair back off her face. On her feet she wore gold or white iridescent sandals with big wedges.
She often stood on the sidewalk in front of their house. What was she doing? Joking with her daughters or telling them where something was — a beach umbrella, a beach chair, or one of their own things they couldn’t find.
My own mother didn’t like that style of talking outside the house on the sidewalk. She didn’t want to hear other people’s goings-on or want them to hear ours. I wondered how my parents kept a house in a neighborhood with neighbors they found to be so low.
The butcher father had a big, overweight midsection underneath his black, floral Hawaiian shirts. His hair was dark black and wavy and he wore it straight back without a part. I had never seen such a hairstyle or entire man.
There were three daughters with old-fashioned names: Blanche, Jeannette, and Florence. At age nineteen, Blanche married a handsome professional baseball player, then she had a baby and sat on the front steps chewing gum while watching the passing scene, which was not much to see. Her two front teeth stuck out, with space between them, and this made her chewing more visible. She could snap her gum in a really loud way and tried to teach the younger girls her technique.
My mother was against these lessons. “It’s a vulgar thing to do, snapping gum,” she said.
The second of the butcher’s daughters, Jeannette, looked like her father, with a large, flat moon face. She was preoccupied with her social life. “There’s no social life here,” I once heard her tell her father while sitting on her bed and crying about the situation. Her father was smiling. He seemed amused by his daughter’s complaint, but he wanted her to be happy. She was about fourteen at the time. One idea she had was to go away to Coney Island and walk on the boardwalk, maybe to meet some teenage boys.
Jeannette was sometimes called Jeannettie, and Blanche was called Blanchie. All three daughters were intelligent, but their intelligence was misdirected.
Jeannette was sophisticated beyond her early teenage years, but in a lowbrow way. Seeing no future for a social life in the neighborhood, she wanted to go to a low-class town, to a place called Sorrentino’s. She convinced my older sister that she should go with her for “pizza and Coke.” Then she invited me to go with them. And this is true: I had never heard of pizza or Coke. But we took a bus to the town, to this seedy place, and she ordered this food. It didn’t seem like actual food.
Jeannette tried to be friends with my sister but saw that she preferred reading and other intellectual pursuits. The friendship couldn’t go far. Walking the boardwalk at Coney Island was not my sister’s goal. “What’s the point of that?” she must have thought.
In addition to the trip to the pizza restaurant Jeannette also took us to meet an older cousin who, we were told, had gone on a date with Sandy Koufax. This was thought to be a great, great thing. Jeannette took us on a long walk to something called a “bungalow colony” — a clump of tiny shingled houses all stuck together on a piece of green yard. “This is where she lives,” Jeannette told us. When we were introduced to this young woman, we were surprised. She looked like a regular person.
The youngest sister in the butcher’s family seemed to be the smartest, or was simply an excellent student. She was considered to be somewhat homely, with a bashed-in nose like a boxer’s or a prizefighter’s. I overheard someone call her homely. I thought that she just looked different. She could not be called Florencie and had to be called Florence. She was a champion at the bouncing-ball game, A, My Name Is Alice. She always won. She was tough and an athletic ball bouncer.
I had the idea, a more refined precursor to the misguided makeover, that if I could fix Florence’s hair she would look better. I thought all girls should have ponytails and this would fix everything about their looks. I was wrong. She had the misfortune to have had a home permanent on her short, light-brown hair.
Home permanents were often the reason girls were absent from school for a day, since the results had to be remedied. One of the worst kinds of mistake was just a whole headful of frizz going out in all directions. This came from leaving the chemical-smelling permanent-wave lotion on for too long. The humiliation of this mistake took a toll on whole families. Mothers worried and tried all methods of undoing the damage. Fathers were sad and bewildered. Another kind of mistake was small, tight curls that didn’t look like curls but bunches of snails or caterpillars. A third case was no waves but just the original straight hair made to stick out everywhere. These styles are all acceptable now, yearned for by men and women, mostly performers in show business, or high-fashion models, or just very young people trying to look as crazy as possible.
I did see a British historian on the program Secrets of the Manor Houses and he narrated a few serious segments while his hair seemed to be intentionally set to stand up and stick out all over. He was nattily dressed in a houndstooth tweed jacket and dark-gray shirt with an olive-green bow tie. Nothing wrong with this, but what was he thinking? The British. I wish I understood them.
The most extreme examples of home permanenting involved two classmates I knew in third grade. They were best friends, the way my friend Cynthia and I were best friends: we were the smartest in the class; Joann and Loretta were the opposite. It would be mean to say stupidest, but their grades were the lowest and they were both slow and dim-witted. Joann was said to have what was known as a “glandular condition,” which caused her to be extremely overweight — though maybe not by today’s dismal standards. There were only a few junk foods in homes: cookies, potato chips, and soda. But who knew what went on at Joann’s house?
As for Loretta, she was normal size. Joann had what seemed to be naturally curly light-brown hair, but Loretta had one of those permanents gone wrong. Her own light-brown hair was still straight on the top of her head, but all around, including the bangs, was a ring of frizziness and scalded-looking fuzz. Loretta was one of those girls who came to school, still crying, after a one-day absence for the hair accident. She had a personality that allowed her to tell the other girls that this was the reason for her absence. She even cried as she told the story.
Both Joann and Loretta seemed oblivious to their low grades in every subject, although Joann did look fearful when teachers showed disapproval. Loretta was more resigned and is probably a happy person now. As my mother said from time to time, “Only stupid people can be happy.”
The most fascinating thing about Loretta was that she held her pencil, pen, or crayon between her third and fourth fingers instead of the usual way — between the thumb, index and third fingers. When teachers tried to correct her, Loretta would not be corrected. She just couldn’t do it. Since it was a public school, the teachers gave up after a few attempts.
Once when I stopped by Loretta’s desk to see what she was drawing or coloring, I noticed that it was a witchlike creature on a broom — it wasn’t even Halloween — but the witch’s hair was being colored with a yellow crayon. I asked what it was and she said, “A witch, of course.” I mentioned that witches had black hair and she said, “No, they have blond hair.” I just stood and watched her special way of holding the crayon as she colored in the hair, and then I went back to my desk. I didn’t notice any particular artistic talent in the drawing, but I did think it was interesting that she had her own strange ideas and style. She spoke in a high voice with garbled words and didn’t swallow frequently enough, so that there was always a lot of saliva in her mouth. Not that she was spitting or drooling, but there was just enough saliva to make her a most memorable specimen — one to describe to my parents and discuss with my closest friend, the very intelligent and critical Cynthia. Discussion of our classmates was a big topic for us. They were so interesting that maybe public school had this one good thing about it.
Cynthia liked to laugh at Joann and Loretta and talk about them in a mean way, but I felt sorry for both of them. They were a sad pair. The saddest case was Bruce — so sad it can’t be told yet.
The father of the family of the three girls was always smiling and seemed to be pleased and delighted with his daughters and his family life. In winter they lived in Yonkers, New York, which was pronounced “Yonkis” by all of them except the smart Florence.
Their living room had black wallpaper with very large orange and yellow flowers with turquoise leaves. I had never seen anything like it. Black wallpaper. There were Chinese bamboo stakes separating the room from the front sunporch.
Although my mother disapproved of the butcher’s family and their taste in clothes and home décor, it was the Romanian doctor who was most adamant that his children not be allowed to chew gum and blow bubbles. His children had been told, and then they told us, that the polio virus was in the air, that it could land on the bubble and then be sucked in, chewed, and swallowed.
The mother of the sad boy and the adored girl — the wife of the Romanian doctor — dressed in the style of I Love Lucy. The mother had that red hair, which was not quite right because her skin was tan. I believed all hair colors were real except for platinum blond.
When going out at night she’d wear flared skirts, white cotton half-slips with lace and ruffles, and an off-the-shoulder white cotton blouse with a ruffle. The most unusual item worn by the Lucy-style mother was a gold ankle bracelet with two hearts as the centerpiece and little pearls all around the chain. She did have well-shaped ankles and legs — not as long as my mother’s famous legs — and I thought this was why this one mother alone, out of all the mothers, wanted to wear an ankle bracelet.
When I asked my mother why she didn’t wear an ankle bracelet she showed disapproval without saying, “They look cheap.” She didn’t want her opinion repeated. I could tell this was the reason.
Tap dancing was another thing my mother thought was cheap. When I was five I said I wanted to take tap lessons, and she said, “Tap dancing is cheap.” As for ballet, she was in favor of this, but said, “You may be tall and thin, you may look like a dancer, but you have no talent for it.”
My goal was to master the tapping sound while walking and click around in secret with my friends.
This boy Ricky and one of the older boys had the idea of playing in the sand hills of a nearby construction project across the road. He and the sad boy had named the sand hills and environs Lost Creek. Maybe my sister participated in choosing the name.
My parents checked it out while we were over there acting out an adventure story. My father stood with his hands in his pockets jingling his change, pretending to be quite casual and simply interested in the fun of it. I could tell that his real reason was to be sure no one would be buried by a sand avalanche or fall into the creek. I had heard my mother mention these possibilities.
When huge iron pipes were left lying in the road, a fun activity for these boys was to crawl through them. My mother found out about this, and she strictly forbade the activity for us, saying we could get stuck and lie there for days without being found. No matter how the boys tried to convince me it was safe, I would never join them in the giant-pipe game.
This boy Ricky always knew about things we didn’t know about. He invited us to watch TV at their house on Saturday mornings. “You have to come over and watch this show” was the invitation. We never had a TV at our beach house. “Go out and play,” “Read a book,” and “Practice the piano” were our things to do.
This boy knew about TV programs and had seen Mr. I. Magination, a magic-science program, on channel five, when I thought there was nothing good on channel five. He had a recording of the opening song, “Meet Me, Mr. I. Magination,” which was mysteriously somehow like real music. These were the days of channels two, four, five, seven, nine, eleven, and thirteen. Thirteen was all black and white dots, called snow. Five, nine, and eleven had almost nothing at all on the screen. This was accepted as the way things were.
He knew of some horror-zombie programs, too. I was afraid to watch those and tried to leave. He laughed and said, “Don’t be scared. It’s only TV. It’s really great.”
In the back of the house was the girls’ bedroom with beds covered with chenille spreads. During this era summer houses were sold with bedspreads and towels and dishes and everything else. The girls and their mother had chenille bathrobes, too. Maybe those also came with the house. We would never have such things.
The house had what we called double-decker beds in one of the bedrooms. I had never seen this before. I thought they were just a fun invention, but my mother explained they were for small spaces with many children — nothing desirable. The top, she said, would be scary, the bottom claustrophobic and dangerous.
The mother of this special household was often screaming in a high voice at her own mother, who lived in the same house. This grandmother was tiny and hunched over a bit. Her hair was white and set in the style of finger waves of the 1930s, a style I knew to be one some very old ladies still wore. She was never dressed in day clothes but always in a silk kimono, black with colored flowers. Whatever she was saying — and I couldn’t understand because she had a strange speech impediment — it made the mother of the house scream at her, “Leave me alone! You’re driving me crazy,” and other screaming things.
At their winter house they had something I’d never seen before — a home freezer, and full of junk food too. It was a big white chest that opened from the top and was filled with frozen supermarket food like egg rolls and spare ribs. My mother cooked everything out of actual food.
Then there was Cora. Cora was the housekeeper who helped Ricky’s mother run everything. She was a member of the family, telling the sisters and brother what to do, chatting around and helping out with whatever needed to be done. I never saw anyone in the family tell her what to do. She was thin and delicate, and world-weary in the style of Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong in Shanghai Express. She was prettier than Diana Ross, Lena Horne, and Josephine Baker. Why was she a housekeeper? Those were those days.
She appeared to like the family. The family liked her. She was amused by their shenanigans. She took it all in. She understood their situation better than a family therapist, but she kept it to herself, with a little smile.
When the surprise baby was born into this family my mother was embarrassed for all of them. The baby’s mother was happy and entertained by the whole sequence of events. I heard my mother say it was not a good idea to have more babies after age forty. Not for health reasons, but for the shame of how the baby came to be born. Most things of a reproductive nature were embarrassing to her.
Once, in an emergency, she went around the corner to this family’s house to ask for something she needed. I wanted to know what it was and wanted to go with her. She wouldn’t tell me, and she didn’t want to be accompanied on the trip. That was the era of the “Modess . . . because” ads. Because what? I always wondered. Because the other product’s brand name was unmentionable. It made everyone cringe. The ad in Vogue magazine showed a model in an elegant evening dress — something Grace Kelly would wear. That was it: “Because we can’t describe what it is, we pretend it doesn’t exist. Pretend it’s just this model, this dress.” In any case, elegant women all used Tampax.
When we arrived, the mother of the family was pushing a stroller around the back yard with the new baby. The baby wasn’t that cute. He was kind of out of it, and who could blame him, born into that household? His older siblings found him an amusement — often laughing at his existence and amused that their parents had a relationship that produced this baby. The baby’s mother told my mother that she was so happy she might have another one. “Children like to have young parents,” my mother advised her.
My mother seemed shocked by the sight of this baby even though she liked babies. She didn’t like older children and teenagers. She didn’t like us, because we weren’t very young children or babies. I remember her standing back and looking into the stroller at the baby. She was wearing one of her elegant one-piece cotton corseted bathing suits, the kind with a plain little skirt showing her long, beautiful legs. The bathing-suit designer had a crazy-sounding name, Carolyn Schnurer. My mother didn’t know that everything she said would stick in my mind the rest of my life.
Her large bust was an embarrassment to my sister and me, and to all relatives and children we knew. We thought it was something to be ashamed of and we wished our mother were more like Audrey Hepburn. Dolly Parton was still a young, unknown teenager.
My mother was talking to the other mother, her close friend, who was wearing an old, stretched-out, faded black bathing suit — her figure gone forever — apparently not having a moment or the inclination to care about that.
The baby’s name was Ronald and he couldn’t pronounce it, calling himself Ronnin. This was also a source of entertainment for the siblings, who would ask him to say his name, then they’d laugh when he said it. There was a bit of “He’s so dumb” in the entertainment.
Once I realized that other families’ houses were not exactly like ours, I was interested in going to their houses as often as possible. One girl’s mother prepared a dessert called prune whip. My next-door neighbor at our winter house lived in a house with white and pastel figurines. I wondered what was the point of these figurines.
The one thing my mother did at that time — something that was not in her tradition or character — was to prepare these desserts:
(1) Three graham crackers piled up with applesauce in between and Reddi-wip — canned, aerosol, push-button-sprayed whipped cream — on top. The spraying action was the best part.
(2) One slice of canned sugar-sweetened pineapple with Marshmallow Fluff in the center — a product from a jar, a product still made. I recently saw it in a supermarket — even the label was the same. The sight reminded me of the inedibly sweet taste of the gluelike fluff. “What’s this?” we should have asked.
(3) Canned peach halves, one half per dessert, with Reddi-wip in the center where the peach pit had made a circle.
When I think of these desserts I wonder how we lived to grow up.
After I came home from my visits to the other houses, at the dinner table I would describe to my parents and sister what I had seen. For example, in other houses the furniture was like furniture on the few TV shows we watched. Some of it was like the furniture on I Love Lucy.
This is when they would laugh — not at the other people’s things, just at the idea of the noticing and describing. Those days seem more fun and real than these. Maybe these are terrible times. Except for caller I.D. I believe my life would have been different and free of many mistakes had caller I.D. been invented earlier.
The boy, Ricky, was the one who told me about rock and roll. He said he had a record that he wanted to bring over to our house that very night. He said one side was “Rock Around the Clock” and the other side was “Seventeen.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Seventeen, or 17? I knew about Seventeen magazine, but that was all. I was still interested in dolls.
The bad boy, the one with the slingshot, had already tried to inform me about the subject. I knew the boy was bad and I didn’t like him or trust him or pay attention to anything he said. I stood back whenever I met him on our little street. He had an evil-eyed look, as if he were always thinking about some depraved thing. Brown eyes close together and a smirk-like smile. Later, as a teenager, he grew to look like Tony Perkins. But it didn’t matter or counteract the creepiness of his character and personality.
He was all excited and tried to tell me that there was a whole new kind of music. He had heard a record on a radio show with the great DJ Alan Freed. Since I never listened to the radio — this was before Elvis Presley — I didn’t know what a DJ was and assumed anyone named Alan Freed was just a regular ordinary man on the street like a dentist or accountant.
I knew popular music was something to avoid — Patti Page singing “How Much Is That D? in the Window?” There were so many terrible songs, but that one is remembered by most music-loving people as the worst. The false sincerity and bad acting that went along with these songs were part of the awfulness. And later I heard that she might be a Republican conservative too.
Ricky and the sad boy kept their distance from the bad boy. When he was in college, the sad boy — still sad, but also angry, in addition — told me, “Everyone on that block would talk about how you were the most beautiful child, but I never agreed.”
“Well, it’s news to me,” I said. “No one mentioned it.”
If they did I assumed it was something said to all children. I thought we were all wonderful compared with adults.
The boy Ricky was a good dancer — he tried to teach me but I thought dancing should be left to dancers. Ricky was always clean and his white oxford shirt was washed with Tide, I could tell. This was before laundry detergent had chemical fragrance that could kill you. My mother and his mother both used Tide.
Both our mothers had their hair cut by Maurice the Great. Ricky’s mother had given my mother the tip on this guy. My mother explained that Maurice the Great cut into “natural hair,” then “pushed it into place with his hands.” I looked at her and tried to figure out the method of Maurice the Great. It didn’t sound so great. Only his name was great and they’d gotten past that.
It was only when my mother sent her house cleaner to help clean my first apartment that I remembered the effect of rock and roll.
“You still love your music,” she said, looking at a collection of LPs with one from the Band on top.
I asked her what she meant and she said, “You had that pink radio and you always had it on with rock and roll. After school, before school, all the time. I remember.”
Little Richard was one of my many favorite musicians, even though his appearance was shocking, with his combination of tweezed eyebrows, mascara, and thin mustache. One thing about Paul McCartney, as great as he is — vegetarian and musician and songwriter — is the way his eyebrows look tweezed. I always think of Little Richard when I see Paul’s brows. I’d like to give him this advice: Paul, let your eyebrows be the way they were when you were a Beatle.
During the years before rock and roll changed everything, Ricky’s two sisters told us about Shirley. This happened at the beginning of the summer. They were getting ready to go to summer camp and camp was not a choice for my sister and me at such an early age, or even later. My mother did not believe in camp. She said she didn’t believe in regulated activities and playing. Also hygiene and food were other concerns. Bad things happened to children at sleepaway camp.
We were standing at the top of the beach, near the jetty, and Dorothy said that their housekeeper Cora could not work during the summer unless she brought her little niece, Shirley. “She’s your age,” Dorothy said. “But she’s a real terror. You’ll see.” Then she laughed.
In a state of fear and anxiety since birth, I found this warning to cause an extra burst of the two conditions. What terror could this little girl do? I imagined it. All kinds of things with noise and tantrums.
Then one day at the end of June I was introduced to Shirley. She looked like a little cloth doll. I always wanted a black doll, never seen on the toy-store shelves with the white dolls.
Shirley had a beautiful, thick scar on her leg. The scar was two inches long and raised higher than the rest of her skin. I told my mother about it and she said, “It’s a keloid. Negro people sometimes get them.” I thought this kind of scar was a desirable thing to have, the way thick eyeglasses, braces on teeth, and plaster casts on broken arms were desirable.
When we played together, I never saw anything terrifying. Maybe her real other life was so wretched that it had caused a state of anger and misery during the rest of the year. But when she saw the beach, she became happy.
She had unusual ideas of what to build in the sand. Different kinds of sand pies and sand cakes I’d never heard of. “This is a mud pie,” she might say. “This one is even muddier, with seaweed and pebbles.” She didn’t know about drip castles, tunnels, bridges, and kingdoms.
Other children had come for short visits to the beach, which my mother called “an ideal spot.” Why did she think this? It was a mystery — she had such a high I.Q. and had lived in Paris before she married my father, who looked like a taller version of the Duke of Windsor. The house wasn’t even on the ocean but on some bay, near a part of the real ocean. When my husband first saw it he said, “This isn’t the ocean, it looks like some place where poor black people have to go.” To think, he said that and I married him anyway.
My mother meant that there was always a breeze. The water was good for swimming. The beach was beautiful, with a view across the water to the other side. What else? There was a big, green, open field across from our little street — the only thing there was an old abandoned building called an orphan-asylum school. Around the corner from our block was the Italian grocery store with fruit and vegetables and basic bad canned food and cleaning products of the era. The owners knew us all by name, not that they liked us. They seemed suspicious of us. We went there with our mothers, but the most fun of all was to be sent there to buy forgotten items: some fruit, some orange juice — something now known to be really bad for us — the dreaded quart of milk. We were told by my mother not to buy those frozen double ice pops because they were made with bacteria-filled water. Only Fudgsicles were allowed.
Once, an old friend of my parents’ came to visit. She was divorced, a shameful condition at that time, and she brought her daughter, Caroline. Caroline had waves and curls of red hair. She had the pure white skin of a person with red hair — even in those days she had to use extra sun lotion. But her ideas of games to play were more fantasy, or even phantasmagoria, than anything I’d heard of before. They had to do with a bakery and baking sand cakes and pies in pails and decorating them with drip flowers, shells and stars, and strange pointy designs. Then she became carried away — fairies came in the night and swooped down to steal the cakes there. The plot became more elaborate, with fairy-tale aspects and different factions of fairies, elves, pixies, and bakers trying to get the pies and cakes back. Even law enforcement was involved. I told Caroline that this plot was unrealistic, but she was insistent in a high-voiced, strange, excited way. I tried to be polite and followed her plan.
When this girl and her mother left at the end of the day, I told my mother that I liked Caroline and her red hair and wished she lived on our block. My mother said, “Well, she had a wonderful time. I’m sure her mother would have been happy to leave her for the rest of the summer.” That sounded sad to me. I asked why and she explained that because of the divorce, Caroline’s mother didn’t have many opportunities for them and she had to work and worry about what to do with her child for the summer. I asked why Caroline couldn’t stay with us and she said that we had a small house with no extra bedrooms.
I pictured this six-year-old child, Caroline, and her divorced mother going back to their city dwelling in hot Greenwich Village. I saw again that everything good had something sad or bad in it — something to drag you down and couldn’t be forgotten.
One day at the end of the summer, Shirley told me she would be leaving and the next weekend was her last time at the beach. At first I was surprised, but then I remembered something I’d been thinking about all summer:
“There’s one thing I always wanted to ask you,” I said.
She smiled and said, “What is it?”
“I always wanted to ask you — can I touch your hair?”
I knew “may” was correct because my mother was an English teacher, always correcting that error, but I never wanted to offend Shirley or other children with the correct word. People are still offended by correct grammar.
“Yes,” she said. She was still smiling. And I reached over and touched her hair as lightly as I could with only one finger.
My parents and other relatives must have been watching. That was when my uncle snapped a photograph, always famous in our family.
Then, to my surprise, Shirley said, “And can I touch your hair?”
I thought for a second. “Yes,” I said. “But why? My hair is normal. Your hair is different.”
“No, your hair is different,” she said. She was laughing.
I thought about that again for another second. I guessed I understood what she meant.
So I said yes and she did.
“That’s you in a nutshell,” my mother used to say when this photograph was shown. “Look at the hands.”
We built cakes and pies in the sand for the rest of the day and we never saw each other again.
If I thought I could find Shirley alive and well, she’s the one person I’d try hardest to find. There are other playmates, too. Sometimes we have found each other — usually a big disappointment. And the Toni Doll boy, Edward. What life has he led? And what about Little Richard? When I hear him singing on the radio at night in the organic-produce section of the supermarket I wonder what he might be doing now. I’ve heard and seen him talk about how he was cheated and exploited by the music business. It must be true. But what is he doing right now is something that just pops into my head.
Maybe Shirley and I could meet for tea and look at the photograph together. It would have to be a copy — we wouldn’t want to spill anything on the original. If technology didn’t ruin most of life, one of us could have it on an iPad. But that’s always a complicated kind of hell. Maybe we could try some other form of playing. What would it be? A string quartet with two other girls, but not Florence or her sister. We could tell each other our life stories. It might not be that much fun.