The summer of nineteen fifty-five in New York City was the season of the caterpillar. It was so hot they emerged from the ground like a slow moving army and advanced on the buildings, pavements, tree trunks, and cars. My mother, giving birth to me on a sweltering day in mid-Summer in the Brooklyn Women’s Hospital, could see them crawling along the screens of the open hospital windows. She watched them make slow progress as she suffered her labor pains and waited to be put under.
Allen Ginsberg was writing Howl as Disneyland opened and Albert Einstein died.
It was summer in East New York, Brooklyn, and kids ran back and forth across Montauk Avenue, dodging cars to play freeze tag or iron tag or Hide And Go Seek. Everyone’s mother was fussing around in an apartment, in a hot kitchen, making a bed. Old people dotted the pavement with their folding chairs. When you ran by them you could smell their Ben Gay and baby powder.
My own grandmother worked in a factory, sewing the trim on dresses. When she came home she gave me a piece of Bazooka gum. By seven o’clock we younger kids were called in for our baths and bed. By eight o’clock I was under the cotton covers sniffing the bubble gum comic I had saved, while I listened to the older kids’ voices drift in from the summer night, and watched the long slanted sunlight of dusk
My mother still had her natural brunette hair and my father hadn’t yet become a school teacher. He was still selling Venetian blinds and table pads. He called himself “the table pad man” and told jokes about “How to make a Venetian blind.” He was still playing his ukulele and writing songs like “Seymour The Clumsy Plumber,” and “Arthur Godfrey Stole My Ukulele,” funny, maddeningly catchy tunes with silly lyrics. I was too young to understand that he and his song-writing partner had almost signed a deal for the movie, “Gidget Goes To Rome.” Instead of my dad’s song, “Sing A Little Song Of Love,” it was “Ittsy Bittsy Polka Dot Bikini” that became the movie’s theme song. My father’s passion to establish a career as a songwriter fizzled out as the pressures of three jobs and three kids squeezed him. Still, he managed to be there when we went to sleep at seven o’clock and to spend a few minutes sitting on each of our beds, rubbing our backs and talking about our lives. I was going to be an actress like Ann-Margaret. I had her picture on my mirror (autographed) and had joined her fan club. My stage name would be Roxanne.
Growing up in Brooklyn in the late fifties and early sixties was paradise. The streets belonged to us kids. Camp was something for rich kids. Sleep away camp was something I had heard of but never actually knew anyone who went. The one summer my parents could afford to send my older brother for a few weeks was a fiasco. He was so homesick they had to go get him. It was the same summer Alan Sherman’s hit song, “Camp Granada” was popular, and I can recall being confused: Was he singing about my brother or was it my brother singing?
Most days, if it didn’t rain, I dug in the lot on the corner with a spoon. All done up in a frilly dress with a crinoline slip, I headed out for my day with the dirt. I was three or four years old and my mother didn’t care if I got dirty. It was other mothers who cared, and even scolded me, “You’ll get your dress all dirty!” as I headed to the corner, spoon in hand. Of course they were right, but my mother didn’t seem to care. She had a knack for understanding me even then. She appreciated that I liked pretty dresses and I liked to dig in the dirt.
My mother’s entire creative spirit was bestowed on her children and her home. She wasn’t itching for any career but housewife and mother. Later, when I got older, I learned that many mothers of that time were frustrated and depressed and often felt trapped. Not Winnie. She knitted clothes for my Barbie. She made construction paper hats for my entire class when it was my birthday. She hand-made our Halloween costumes every year. She redecorated my room as a surprise. She was organized and upbeat. She was doing exactly what she wanted to do: have a family and take care of them.
My father taught us all to read music and play the Tonette or Flutophone by the time we were in the fourth grade so we could play duets with him. We would climb into my parents’ bed on weekend mornings and stay there long after they arose, smelling breakfast being prepared in the kitchen. It was such a good life, idyllic actually, that I have often questioned my own memory of it. It ended when I was nine years old so I tell myself I was probably not old enough to really remember correctly. Yet, whenever I question the rest of my family or old friends, they agree. My family was a happy family. There were lots of friends and picnics on summer weekends. There were birthday parties and New Year’s parties and retirement parties. We got presents on Hanukkah. We walked to school three blocks away and came home for lunch to a mother who was glad to see us and feed us, and talk about our day. My parents were loving, kind and self-sacrificial. I had friends and a street life. My mother played paper dolls with me and colored in coloring books and taught me how to stay inside the lines. I had dolls and toys and once a year I got a new box of 64 Crayola crayons.
But somehow life wasn’t easy for me. I was a tense and overly sensitive kid. I was afraid of disapproval. I wet my bed. When I wanted something, I wanted it deeply, passionately, and couldn’t wait. I ground my teeth when I slept. My parents often had to give me my birthday presents early. I had nightmares. I took things very seriously. I was afraid of the dark. I was afraid to fail in school though I was a good student. I was afraid my mom would die or be snatched (like Anne Frank). I didn’t like a lot of the kids on the block or the popular movies of the day, but to refuse to play with the kids or go to the movies with them made me an outcast. Looking back I think I was suffering from some kind of anxiety disorder. Back then they just called me “sensitive.” Maybe both are right.
It was my mother I went to over and over again with my wants, my problems, my fears, and my dreams. I can still see myself walk into the large square kitchen where she was cooking or talking on the phone or doing the wash, and crying to her. She never criticized me. Never said, “Why can’t you be less sensitive?” or, “Be like the others.” Instead she was always squarely on my side. “You can’t be everyone’s friend,” she said. Or, “Water seeks its own level.”
In all my adult dreams and fantasies of making it “big” as a writer, fame never appealed. All my fantasies involved the sheer pleasure of sharing my work, of knowing that people would read and enjoy it. Of course I dreamed also of being paid to do it so that I wouldn’t have to do any other loathsome job ever again. The idea of “fans” never crossed my mind. It was a friend (and fellow writer) who pointed out to me that my mother had already fulfilled all my needs for a “fan club.”
Was it Tolstoy who said that all happy families are alike? Do all happy families laugh as much as we did? My parents were blessed with having a similar sense of humor. My dad liked to play practical jokes and once phoned my mother from the downstairs apartment where his father lived (we lived upstairs) and told her he had been arrested and needed her to come down and bail him out. She was frantic and terrified and rushed out the door and down the steps only to find him waiting at the landing.
On weekends we went out with other couples and their families. We drove all the way out to Eastern Long Island one summer weekend, to a place the adults confusingly called Shirley, Long Island. Were we visiting a person or a place? (It must have been when I was in my early twenties that I became aware that Shirley, Long Island was actually a town.) I remember the long days of summer, the barbecues, the adult talk and laughter. I remember the endless car rides home, stopping at Carvel, falling asleep in the back seat next to my brothers and feeling entirely safe and content.
Some time around 1960, when I was five, my mother’s mother, Fannie, moved in with us. Her bed was put in my room. From then until I moved out when I was eighteen, we were roommates. Fannie had been deaf for many years but had always lived in the same building with some of her family. When the last of the family moved out of Brooklyn, my parents took her in. She was only fifty-five years old, quite healthy and she was still working in the factory sewing “trimming” for ladies’ dresses.
Fannie would hang her ancient fur coat on our bedroom door each night and when I awoke to use the bathroom in the dark, I was terrified of the gigantic, furry creature standing against the door. I would try to convince myself it was just Gram’s coat, but it didn’t help. Ultimately the coat had to be moved. I would lie awake at night worrying about the stuffed toys my mom had washed that day (soaked with my own urine because I slept with them) that were hanging on the line to dry. I crept to the window, pulled the line in and rescued my teddy bear, hanging limply by its ears.
I spent many evenings lying on our sofa, strewn across Fannie’s lap, as she rubbed my back and hair. She smelled of Noxema. She would dot it on parts of her face where she had a blemish (or imagined she did) and leave it to dry out. It would harden there like grout. Years later I recall being surprised by the jingle that said “Wash your face with Noxema…” I had always assumed it was supposed to be used the way Fannie used it. I guess for some kids the piney smell of Christmas trees reminds them of a happy childhood, for me it’s Noxema.
As a young child I knew nothing of the relationship between Fannie and my mother. I had never heard them argue or even disagree. In fact, even my father liked his mother-in-law and his mother-in-law held him in a kind of reverence because he eventually went to college and became a teacher. To Fannie, an educated person was someone to respect. In her entire extended family the only person I ever heard about who went to college was one cousin who became a doctor. Everyone else worked with their hands as plumbers, factory workers, brick layers. One of Fannie’s uncles was legendary to us kids because he became a building inspector and was clever enough to take bribes, thus making it into the middle class and no longer having to work with his hands. He was adored for having paid for Fannie’s two children to go to summer camp exactly once for two whole weeks.
It wasn’t until after her divorce, when I was about eight, that I learned the details of my mother’s unhappy childhood. Maybe if I had heard these stories as an adult they wouldn’t have confused and overwhelmed me. But at the age of ten, with barely any history of my own, I internalized my mother’s. It would take thirty years for me to unweave the sorrow of her youth from my own understanding of my own life.
No one got divorced back in 1963. If they did, they sure as hell didn’t tell me about it. Which is how I knew that there was something very wrong with my family. It was a strange and uncomfortable feeling after a (short) lifetime of feeling perfectly safe and normal. Suddenly I was ushered into a world where my mother was no longer busily being the happy housewife and, instead, sobbed on her bed with me lying at her side. When I think back to my childhood, I compare myself to kids who grow up in bilingual households. Both languages feel completely natural to them and they can’t recall a time when they couldn’t speak both fluently. I learned my second language when I was nine: an alphabet of betrayal, a syntax of sorrow. I can’t recall not speaking it. I still dream in it.