Saturday, August 8, 2015

Into the Night

How did the boys coax me into their little prank? It was easy. I was the only girl not invited to Louise Alpern's sleepover. On that summer evening with the fragrance of lilacs in the air, my task was to knock on the door, get Louise to open up for me, and then step aside.  They'd do the rest - bombard the girls with water balloons. My little ping in the grand symphony was to simply knock on the door and step aside.

Later, Louise's mother would be livid, as the water had stained her carpeting, and Louise would demand to know how I dared do such a thing.

Water balloons were a huge part of our lives that summer. In assembly line fashion, we filled them, knotted them, and lobbed them at each other or at innocent passers by.  Late afternoons, we'd take pleasure in climbing up on a cement embankment and releasing our plump balloons down onto grocery shoppers rolling their carts out to the parking lot.

That evening after the boys had finished water ballooning Louise's hallway, they decided to go on a bike ride and asked me to come along.  I wasn't a tomboy, but I wasn't a sissy girl either - I'd spent time with my dad when he delivered his orders to the Mom and Pops. I'd seen him hoisting 100 pound sacks of rock salt up onto his shoulder and lifting fifty pound sacks of Jack Frost sugar without  a wince.  He'd give me something light to carry in from the truck. In imitation, I'd hoist it up on my shoulder and carry it across the entry.

I had inherited a super fine bike from my Uncle which had been lodged in my grandparent's basement for twenty years. I'd found it covered in dust and cobwebs, but I'd oiled it and polished it back to health. It had a wide open handle bar. It was made of heavier metal than modern bikes, but it was a racer.

So I took off with the boys, all five of them. I'd never ridden beyond the neighborhood. The sky was the shiny black of olives coated in oil, its darkness  interrupted only by a crescent moon. We rode past the grassy curves of Scheneley Park and up the hill to the Panther Hollow Bridge, guarded by the statues of two stone panthers. I was pumping hard, but not really sweating. A light wind blew against my cheeks.  We passed Phipps Conservatory and rode on into Oakland. At last, we headed back through the parks towards home. All the while, I kept pace with the boys.

There was one boy in the pack, a lanky Irish kid with freckles. He and his twin brother had been adopted by a Jewish woman whose husband had died.  When he was relaxing, he rode without holding onto the handle bar; for him it was like treading water. I tried imitating him, taking one hand off the bar, and then for a fleeting second, taking both hands off. He rode along side me for a while and we talked.  Then he'd go back to riding up ahead. My heart was open, and that evening I fell in love.

When I got back home, it was about 9:30. The little kids were still up as it was summer.  My mother scolded me for coming home late.  I'd told her that I was going on a bike ride, but hadn't given details.  It was my job to bathe the four little kids.  I remember hauling them into the tub, dreamily running the washcloth over them, and finally wrapping them in a towel one by one.

I had a pink diary with a little lock.  Later that night, I listed all the boys who had been on the bike ride and I wrote a few sentences about the lanky Irish kid.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Call From Aunt Becky

I often ask myself why my mother ever told me about the call that she received one winter morning from Aunt Becky.  Aunt Becky wasn't actually my aunt, she was Bonnie's mother. Bonnie was my friend who lived across the street.  I'd known her since I was four years old. We'd played jacks together on her wooden bedroom floor. I'd wait for her while she practiced the piano, and I'd wait for her while she finished dipping her last Nabisco wafer into her glass of milk, so that we could walk to kindergarten together. Now Bonnie and I were in fifth grade.

Aunt Becky said that she didn't know if she should actually tell my mother about it, but then she felt that it would be better if she did. The girls had been over at Bonnie's yesterday and she'd overheard  them talking about me. Actually, they were discussing a number of girls, and when they came to me, they decided that they didn't want me in their club. And she'd overheard one girl say, "Oow, she picks her nose."

Why, my mother felt compelled to tell me about her conversation with Aunt Becky, I'll never know.  But she delivered a word by word replay.  I shriveled into a ball when I heard. I knew that I picked my nose, but somehow I didn't quite realize that other people noticed. When I was little my Grandma Josie used to say, " Joanie, what are you digging for, gold?"  But that was kind of a joke, and besides I knew how much my Grandma loved me.

Well now the awful truth was out - even my Mother knew, though I suppose she too had known before on some level. Now what?  I was so shamed that I literally stopped my "secret" habit on the spot. But the damage had already been done. I would not be a member of their club and there was more to come.

I still don't know why Aunt Becky felt compelled to call my mother and report the whole sordid tale. And I still can't quite forgive my mother for spilling it all out to me that winter morning.

Monday, August 3, 2015

"Take Her to Saks."

If I hadn't been rejected by the girls at school, I might never have decided to enter a Bible Contest and spend hours, weeks, months and years studying selected books of the Bible. The grand prize was a trip to Israel. Each year there were different books to study. One year it was Genesis, Deuteronomy, Judges, Kings I, and Ezra.  The next it was  Exodus, Numbers, Samuel I, Jonah, and Hosea. I entered  three years in a row and eventually made it to the finals in New York.

With four little kids running around at home, it was impossible to concentrate, so I'd often trudge over to the temple to study. Temple Sinai was a private mansion which had been converted into a House of Worship. I'd found an attic room where I could be alone. In winter, I'd pull on my boots. Gazing up at the icy branches and  the forlorn sky, I'd wend my way over there. In spring, I'd practically skip along the sidewalks past the house with the velvet lawn and onward to the Temple gates. It became my refuge.

I felt the Bible stories deeply. There was Joseph who'd been thrown into a pit out of sheer jealousy. His brothers hated him because he was their father's favorite.  At the last minute, instead of leaving him to die, they sold him into slavery.  They dipped his Coat of Many Colors into the blood of a goat, so that their father would believe that Joseph had been killed by wild animals. Who could imagine?

Having won at the State level, my mom, and I flew off to New York for the Nationals along with Pauline Ostroff, the principal of our religious school. Pauline was a small parrot-like woman with an auburn beehive hairdo, very fluttery and self-important. She wore expensive suits and shoes. Sometimes she quizzed me in my attic cove, but she never took much interest in me. Basically, she didn't know me from borscht. She was a perfectionist and could be very picky. Maybe I shouldn't have blamed her. Her husband was suffering from Parkinson's and she was his sole caregiver.

That evening, the three of us went down to dinner at the hotel restaurant. When the waiter placed the bill on the table, it lay there like an unwanted baby in a basket. It was obvious to me that Pauline expected my mom to pick up the tab.
"Pauline probably thinks we're loaded," my mother told me back in our room. "She probably expects me to treat her all weekend. But I told her right away, 'Look Pauline, I want you to know that Jake has to work hard for every penny and we have a house full of little kids.'"

Our wealth or lack of it was unclear to me. We lived in a white brick house, "the only newly built house on the block," my mother was always quick to point out. My grandfather had built it. He lived in one half with his new wife and their children, and we lived in the other half. My dad was in business for himself because no one could work with my tyrannical grandfather. My dad worked hard and was extremely frugal.  I didn't know if we were rich or poor. I knew my parents acted as if we were poor.

The morning of the contest I woke up early; my right foot was shaking uncontrollably.  I simply could not comprehend why my foot would not stop shaking. It was impossible to eat a thing. Finally, we made it out the door and grabbed a cab to the building on Park Avenue. I calmed down a bit during the written exam; the orals would be that afternoon.

Blanche Bauman, my mom's second cousin, happened to be visiting New York from Beverley Hills at  the time and offered to come by to lend her support. My parents had met her when my dad was stationed in California during the war and my mom had tagged along as his new bride.  When Blanche arrived, all heads turned.  Blanche strolled in, crossed her long legs and gave the judges her full attention. That day, I managed to come in Third - no trip to Israel, no second place cash prize. I was disheartened, but at least the pressure was off.

After the contest, Blanche said to my Mom, "Jean, why didn't you dress her up more?"  I was wearing a black cotton suit with a little white blouse.  "If you'd dressed her up more, the judges may have taken more notice of her."

The next day, my mom confessed to Blanche that we'd traipsed around all afternoon, but couldn't find a thing for my upcoming Confirmation party. "What's the problem, Jean?" Blanche replied, "Take her to Saks."

For whatever reason, Blanche's words touched a chord in me. Blanche, in her silk dress and patent heels, was a woman who showed me something.  I never saw Blanche again, but she had advocated for me and had opened a certain door.