The Good Old Summertime

I grew up in a small town where everyone was either related to you or knew your mother or your grandmother. It was like the television show Cheers, but on a much grander scale. This gave all the parents a sense of security.

We could walk everywhere or easily ride our bikes from one end of town to the other with relative safety because sidewalks were on nearly every street. I don’t remember hearing about crime and I knew no one who owned a gun. It was a happy, carefree place to grow-up. Boonton, USA.

During the summer, you didn’t whine about having nothing to do. We played with our friends all day until we were called home for supper. We didn’t eat dinner growing up; it was always supper. There was hopscotch, jump rope, hide-and-seek, SPUD, bikes, the park, and our pool. There were no computers, video games, or infinite television on demand. We had to create our own fun.

Our town had a summer school program. It was located in “The Flats” at John Hill School, which was my school for seventh and eighth grade. I remember playing Chinese checkers, making plastic lanyard key chains, and creating a craft in wood shop, which was for boys and girls alike.

The most popular project was the duck. Everyone had one. We’d spend days sanding the little devil until she was silky smooth around the edges and then we would decorate it, bring it home, and hammer it into the yard. It looked like this:

Wooden Duck- Courtesy of my cousin Patrick Cooney.

Wooden Duck- Courtesy of my cousin Patrick Cooney.

We looked forward to Fridays when we would participate in themed competitions such as “hat day.” Everyone would wear a hat and be judged for the silliest hat, or prettiest hat, or smallest hat.

When we wanted to go on an adventure, we would hop on our bikes and head to the Dairy Queen in Denville. I would order either a vanilla cone with sprinkles or a pineapple blizzard, which was a very thick pineapple-flavored milk shake. There was something very special about a Dairy Queen treat, which tasted even more delicious after working so hard to get there.

The distance to the Dairy Queen was very long. I know that sometimes childhood memories distort reality, but when I mapped the route today, I was shocked to learn that my imagination was accurate. It was a round trip of over ten miles. There is no way I would have allowed any of you to take such a long ride at what I know was a fairly young age. But the times were different, the roads were less traveled, and nothing ever happened to anyone in my town back then.

Those summers were so long, or that’s how it seemed to all of us. As the days grew shorter and the nights cooler, we sadly realized the end of our carefree days were coming to a close. Grandma took us shopping for our school clothes, and we anxiously awaited the Labor Day Parade, Firemen’s Fair, and fireworks. We’d check out the rides, have some cotton candy, and meet the friends we hadn’t seen since June.

Those days are long gone for me, but as Labor Day approaches each year, I know the tradition of the annual Labor Day celebration continues in my hometown. Maybe someday I will go again.


Fading Memories

Grandmotherhood has lived up to all the wonder and hype, much to my surprise. It was not that I did not share the enthusiasm and excitement about our family expanding. I remembered our own feelings of joy before each of you was born. At the same time, the word “grandma” evoked thoughts of blue-tinted gray hair and housedresses. It meant “you are old and everyone knows it.”

Now that I have joined that club, I realize it’s not so bad. When my phone rings because my little man wants to come over for a hug, and then he runs to me at top speed and squeezes the stuffing out of me and says, “Grandma, I am so happy to see you”, I am in love. I teach him songs from my past that I worry may get him beat up on the playground someday. We race around the house playing hide and seek, and I take him outside in the stifling hot Carolina sun to watch a butterfly dart around the palm tree on my front lawn. He stands at the edge of the yard with Dad and loves to watch the golfers on the course.

Then I sit at my computer and drift down memory lane, deciding what story from my childhood I will tell all of you next. I close my eyes and think back to my grandfather, and no matter how hard I try, that’s as far as I can go. Three years old. Flashes of other people and places appear—Grandma’s friend, Mrs. Esthler up the street and her best friend, Aunt Weezie. I recall their homes. I remember that their houses smelled musty, but I just can’t pinpoint my age when I would go with Grandma to visit them. Was I younger than the three-year old me that Papa pushed on the swings? I just don’t know.

After he died, there is a missing year. My fourth year on earth is an empty void. I don’t even recall the transition from only child to big sister when Aunt Arlene came home. If they had taken her back, would my missing year return? I think I loved her, but did I feel that she was an intruder?

Arlene and Karen -Christmas

Now I am in kindergarten.  My teacher, Mrs. Denison, lived up the street. I would sit on the front lawn and wave shyly as she would pass by my house. I remember my cubby where I put the drawings I colored in class and was allowed to bring home to hang on the refrigerator. I loved drawing houses with a ghost in each window.

I remember the other kindergarten teacher, Miss Fox. She played the piano and we’d sing along with her. My first friend, Karen was also in that class. She made those ghostly houses, too, I think. She’s still my friend after all these years, so maybe she’ll help me dig up those dim flashes of thoughts from my past.

Then I think of my little man and realize that the days of chasing butterflies on the front lawn, and the smile on his face when we sing, “You are my sunshine”, or the way he giggles when he finds me hiding in the closet will only be my memories. We will make new memories together—older memories, but these two-year old memories will fade away like the brilliant colors of the morning sunrise streaming in my window each day as they turn from red to pink and then disappear.

Watching Golf with Grandpa

Watching Golf with Grandpa

Drills and Such

Remember all those drills at school? I can recall them as well. Sometimes the drills were scheduled, and our teachers would have us line up at the door in anticipation of the alarm sounding. We’d march outside in a quiet and orderly fashion, knowing there would be hell to pay if we talked or fooled around.

Other times, we would be sitting at our desks or dressed in our ugly blue gym suits– in the middle of a lesson or concluding our morning exercises–when we would hear the alarm and proceed to the exit, waiting for our teacher to indicate it was time to leave the building.

After the Columbine shootings, lock-down drills were added. Your teacher would secure the door, and you would all head to a corner of the room where you could not be easily spotted by a gun-wielding intruder. I know this is necessary, but as a parent, it always frightened me knowing this was now the new normal.

When we moved to Chapel Hill, a third drill was added to the mix: tornado drills. That really caught me by surprise. I guess I didn’t do my homework before we moved to North Carolina. Until the day you came home and told me you had a tornado drill that day, I thought tornados were something that only routinely happened in the middle—Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Oops!

Are you all aware of the air raid drills which were prevalent when I was a child? I know they happened over a period of time beginning in the fifties, but what I am able to recall happened when I was in second grade in 1962.

In the early fall of that school year, Soviet missiles were discovered in Cuba. Our country was poised for the Russians to launch an attack, which heightened the fears which had existed for years because of the close proximity of Cuba to our country. I recall being directed to the hall outside our classroom, where we were instructed to sit on the floor against a wall with our heads down and our hands behind our necks. In some schools, students were instructed to hide under their desks. The thought was that in the event of a nuclear attack, we should be away from the windows, sheltered from flying objects and broken glass. Looking back now, the idea that we would be protected in that way is ridiculous.

What I never knew until now was that a forty-six page pamphlet, “Fallout Protection: What to Know and Do about Nuclear Attacks”, was produced by the Department of Defense, explaining how to survive a nuclear attack. It included instructions on how build a shelter or how to outfit your basement with food and supplies. It was similar to the movie, “Blast from the Past.”  I am positive that Grandpa read this pamphlet, because I recall Grandma talking about having a “fallout dinner” one night after President Kennedy negotiated the removal of the missiles from Cuba with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. She got out a can opener and made supper that night. She joked about it years later, but I know, at the time, no one was laughing and was quite fearful that we were all in grave danger.

Now it seems there is no place to hide: schools, churches, movie theaters, and malls have us all thinking twice about our safety when something terrible happens. What would Grandpa say? My opinion is that we cannot crawl into a hole and hide or we really are not living. Take sensible precautions, but in the end, enjoy life.

And Out You Do Go!

I spent a lot of my childhood playing games requiring someone to be “IT”, as did all of you. There were no video games, no computer games or social media to fill our time. We all just went out after lunch and dinner and looked for someone to play a game. All yard games required a designated “IT”: Hide-n-seek, SPUD, and Kick-the-Can were the favorites. As you know, I had plenty of cousins to play with, but when they were not available, I would go up the street (crossing Wootton Street) and play with the many kids who lived there. I never recall being at a loss for playmates and never complained of “having nothing to do.” With some imagination and a bunch of playmates, we were always busy until dark.

As you know, I research everything, so why shouldn’t I research the methods of determining “IT” throughout my childhood. I realize that the reason I was not familiar with “rock-paper-scissors” is because that is a method of determining a decision between two people. Look at the size of our families. It was a rare occasion when there were only two of us—ever!

So we had a plethora (you will see this word often since it is one of my favorites) of methods to choose “IT”.  The most famous was probably “potatoes.” We put in our potatoes, i.e. our fists, and chanted “one potato, two potatoes, three potatoes, more, five potatoes, six potatoes, seven potatoes, more”. The leader touched each person’s fist as everyone recited the chant. The person whose fist was touched last removed that fist. This continued until one fist, remained, and this person became “IT.”

A different twist involved “putting in your feet” and performing some kind of elimination chant. We had “My mother and your mother were hanging out clothes. My mother punched your mother in the nose. What color blood came out?” The person whose foot was touched on the word “out” picked a color, and then another chant continued such as “R-E-D spells red and out you do go.”

Another classic was “Inka Binka bottle of ink, the cork fell off and you do stink, not because you’re dirty, not because you’re clean, just because you kissed the (boy or girl) behind the magazine and out you do go.”

Who can forget:

“Engine, engine, number nine going down Chicago line. If the train falls off the track,
do you want your money back? (You would pick yes or no and the word would be
spelled out.)  “N-O spells no and you don’t get your money back or
Y-E-S-spells yes and you shall have you money back.”

But my all time favorite was brought to you by my cousin Timmy. It is a real doozy. I can’t even spell it correctly:

“Eeny, Meeny,Pipsolini. Ah-ooh-bablini. Atcha-gotcha-babalotcha. Out goes Y-O-U.”

What do you all think? Did you girls do this? Are you jealous? We really did this, and I am sure I missed a few.These were truly memorable times!

Summer Hunting

When I planted the lantana under the palm trees in our yard, I never realized that those bright yellow flowering plants, which grow like weeds but look like sunshine on my lawn, would also prove to be so entertaining. It turns out they are butterfly magnets—a discovery which Bryce just made this past week. We spent over an hour in the hot Carolina sunshine chasing two butterflies around and around the tree, then pausing to watch it disappear into the back yard. Naturally, we had to follow it. Bryce did not grow tired nor did he notice the sweat dripping from his brow. He was having too much fun.

It reminded me of my childhood chasing lightning bugs on a warm summer evening, attempting to trap them in a jar so we could see what they looked like during the day. (They were usually dead by morning!) We never learned that lesson because we would continue the chase the next night and never consider not coaxing them into our jars.

Those were not the only creatures we would hunt, but those intriguing little fireflies were the only ones we could successfully trap. Birds were another source of entertainment for us. We had two methods to ambush our feathered friends, both courtesy of Grandpa (although my cousin Tricia also recalls being taught this by our grandfather. Maybe Grandpa learned it from Papa.)

The first approach was quite simple and required no props except a shaker of salt. It was so easy, was never successful, and was therefore sheer genius on Grandpa’s part, because it kept us happily entertained for hours.

As we grew older and wiser and finally realized how much time we had invested in a project with no rewards, we sought Grandpa’s advice on a plan to increase our odds at succeeding. The second scheme to a possible victorious hunt required constructing a trap consisting of a shoebox and some long string attached to a stick. What we did was prop the box up with the stick, insert some bread inside with a trail of crumbs leading up to it, and then wait very quietly for a bird to take the bait. We truly believed that a bird would follow the trail into the box, then curiously hop inside to investigate and voila, we would tug on the string to catch our prey.

Similar to hunting with the salt shaker, we spent many hours in the backyard, this time lying on our bellies trying method #2, which of course, never succeeded. But we were patient and we were believers. Looking back, it seemed like we were really naïve kids, but you know, it was just part of our lazy days of summer and kept us busy and out of Grandma’s hair!

Take Out; Eat In

Growing up, we had our weekly food rituals—take-out pizza on Friday nights from Gencarelli’s and Chinese on Sundays from Delicious and Best.  We always ordered one meatball, peppers and onions—the fajita pizza—and a second which varied. Sometimes it was a white pizza with broccoli; other times it may have been a chicken parmesan or meatball pie. Apparently no one else ordered our “usual”, because we never gave our name and they always handed me the correct two pies when I arrived to pick up our order. We were predictable.

Chinese take-out Sundays was a throwback to Dad’s childhood—probably the biggest connection to his Jewish heritage other than deli. Wonton, egg drop and hot and sour soup followed by dumplings were our staples, with a few entrees that varied each week. Invariably, there were six dumplings in the order, so bickering regarding “who gets the extra” always ensued.

In my family, the only time I ever recall hearing the words “take-out” was followed by “the garbage.” It just never happened. We had our Friday night homemade pizzas, which was a fabulous alternative to Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks or creamed tuna on toast—Grandma’s answer to meatless Friday’s until, thank goodness, she had an epiphany and began making pizza. Chinese food never crossed my lips until I met Dad.

Occasionally, the seven of us would pile into EVA-179 (our station wagon) for a night out on the town. We would go to either Paul’s Diner or the Reservoir Tavern. There were no toppings on our pies. No Siree! I’m not even sure if toppings were an option way back then. The dinner that was delivered to our table consisted of delicious slide-off-the-crust cheese pizza accompanied by a few pitchers of birch beer.

Before McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s stormed into the area, a little-known burger joint known as Wetsons set up shop on Route 46 in Pine Brook, situated on the present site of Wendy’s—across from Gencarelli’s. Wetsons served fifteen cent hamburgers and ten-cent fries, and although we did not go often, it was a cheap alternative, particularly when we went shopping in the area. I believe McDonald’s and Burger King were responsible for the eventual demise of Wetsons.

I recall one very special lunch with Grandma. I am not certain if it was to celebrate a birthday or possibly my acceptance to college, but I vividly remember the restaurant. It was, to me, a very fancy schmancy place called the Hearthstone Inn. It was located on Route 46 in Parsippany (a real happening place compared to Main Street Boonton) on the current site of Fudruckers.

The occasion was memorable because it was an outing with just the two of us, which was unheard of growing up in a family of five children.  But what made the luncheon a historic event for me happened when the server came to our table and asked for our drink order. Without skipping a beat, Grandma looked him in the eye and asked for two whiskey sours. I definitely was not eighteen yet, which was the drinking legal age at the time. I was no more than seventeen, but I may have been sixteen. I knew I had to act casual—no giggling or cheering, which could have revealed the deception. So I remained calm and enjoyed my first illegal drink. Grandma was a rebel!

Forsythia, Fruit, and Weeds

Forsythia, fruit trees and weeds—those are the plants from my childhood home that I recall most. Perennial, annuals, herbs and bulbs were foreign garden words to me until I became a homeowner. Peaches, apples, pears, cherries, blackberries, and grapes surrounded our home.

From my grandmother’s yard we picked those deliciously juicy white peaches. I did not recall that she grew white, rather than yellow peaches, until I accidently purchased the white variety one year. When I took that first bite, I was transported back to her house and recalled the abundance of fruit trees in our back yards.

A tire swing hung from our apple tree, which was adjacent to the white wooden sandbox which Grandpa built when I was little. While playing in the dirt was fun, I preferred navigating the perimeter more than playing inside. It was a challenge attempting to balance on the edges and walk completely around without toppling to the ground.

Once my great Uncle Pat passed away, two of his daughters resided in that house on the hill behind us. I don’t think they liked having five children living nearby, so we would have to sneak into their yard to grab a few of the ripened cherries or pears that had fallen to the ground before they would chase us away.

His grape vines were eventually removed, but I still recall popping a few of Uncle Pat’s special grapes. According to Aunt Marian and verified by Grandma: “Uncle Pat made his own wine from the grapes grown in his yard. One Sunday, with no one paying attention, Jean, who was only three, drained the bottom of the wine glass a couple of times. Mom was at home cooking Sunday dinner, and when Dad took us home, Jean slept for hours. Needless to say, Mom was furious and Dad was careful after that.” My grandfather was in big trouble!

When the summers grew to a close, the days grew shorter and colder, and the overly-aged fruit began to drop to the ground. Pee Yew! As they began to rot, Grandpa would rake them up and toss them away. The putrid aroma of decaying apple still lingers in my mind.

He grew tired of disposing those overripe apples and finally decided their days were done. So one day, our swing was removed and the apple tree cut down. It was the end of another era.