See the USA in Your Chevrolet

My favorite Christmas present from Dad is both extremely geeky and incredibly mind-blowing. It is not much larger than a deck of cards but is capable of holding every photo I have digitally taken, my videos, all my research, the many versions of my two books, and all of my music. And after adding all this data to my new external drive, I have used only one per cent of its capacity. Whoa and Wow! Just try to wrap your mind around that.

While now organizing my digital life, I discovered an additional story about Grandma and Grandpa’s younger days which I’d like to share with you.

Grandma’s family never had a car.  When her dad worked at a local grocery store, he would take the kids for a ride in the country (Boonton Township) in the store’s truck while making deliveries or would borrow it to take the family on an evening drive. That was there entertainment.

Her first car was the Chevrolet Grandpa had when they got married, which was the car they drove to Texas together after their marriage in 1951. As I have mentioned, Grandpa was in the Army reserves, and was recalled to service during the Korean War.

They lived in a two-room apartment, and like Grandpa’s apartment in Russia, they had to share the bathroom with their neighbors—a woman from Texas and her spouse who was also in the army.  Grandma did not like her.  She said she was a typical Texan who thought everything in Texas was bigger and better than every place else.

One day, she told Grandma to come watch a house being moved.  Grandma, as typical of her wry sense of humor, told the woman it was no big deal, because in New Jersey she had seen whole houses, including the basement, being moved.  Furthermore, she claimed that she even watched the Empire State Building being moved to another location.

The town of Killeen, where Fort Hood was located, was very small.  There was nothing to do except go to the one theater located in town.  One evening Grandma went to a show alone and was followed home by someone who even shined a light in the window.  She screamed out as if she were speaking to someone, and the person left.  She immediately called Grandpa, who returned home and brought her back to the base.  She remained in the car until he finished work.

On Sundays, they would sometimes go to the base for dinner in the mess hall at a cost of $0.55.  She would pass her days with the bragger from Texas and another woman from Chicago. That summer was the hottest temperature thus far for that area.  In order to sleep comfortably, Grandma would sometimes put the sheets in the refrigerator to cool down. There were no air conditioners.

Fortunately, Grandpa’s service abruptly ended, and they returned to New Jersey in September after spending five miserable months in Texas. It was not a day too soon for Grandma, who missed her mother and could not wait to get back to Boonton!

See the USA in Your Chevrolet
See the USA in Your Chevrolet
Grandma and Grandpa's First Home- Killeen , Texas 1951
Grandma and Grandpa’s First Home- Killeen , Texas 1951

Part of Your World

You all loved watching The Little Mermaid and saw the video over and over and over. One Halloween, Jamie asked to be Ariel, so out came my beloved sewing machine so I could make the costume for her. She even had red hair in a can.

I remember the three of you and Carly dancing and twirling and belting out the tunes in our living room. Clearly you were all fans.

I wanna be where the people are
I wanna see, wanna see them dancing’
Walking around on those – what do you call ’em?
Oh – feet!

Now let me change the subject to a related one—vacations at the Jersey Shore. For several summers, prior to medical wastes washing up on the beaches (relocating our vacations to the South Carolina beaches), we rented that great beach house on Long Beach Island owned by Mona from Verona.

I am not certain of the exact time, but at least one year was 1995, because I distinctly recall the O.J. Simpson trial being broadcast. Most of our days were spent lounging on the beach, burying each other in the sand and swimming in the ocean.

There is no question that you all remember the story I am about to tell you, but this will be news to your children, who I hope will one day be familiar with The Little Mermaid. What I believe happened was that Aunt El and Uncle Jim were on the beach with the kids. A man nearby was busily creating a sand mermaid. When he spoke, his very deep voice sparked a certain familiarity with Aunt El. In Aunt Ellen style, she told Uncle Jim that he must speak with him. Uncle Jim clearly loves her, because he did it. He said something to the effect, “My wife thinks you are a crab.”  The man responded, “I am.”

It turned out the man was Sam Wright, who was the voice of Sebastian the crab in The Little Mermaid movie (Incidentally, girls, Mr. Wright was born in nearby Camden, South Carolina). He very graciously gave each child a personalized  autographed picture of himself. Maybe that was the beginning of Jamie’s hobby of meeting celebrities.

Mermaid 1        Mermaid 2

Laugh Track of Life

What if life were like a television show, replete with canned laughter and music? While watching one of our favorite sitcoms from the 80’s—Family Ties,which was Michael J. Fox’s big break—we noticed the abundance of loud, annoying laughter. It was the laugh track.

That got Dad and I discussing what life would be like if we could add bursts of giggles, chuckles, and full-out belly-shaking, eyes-tearing laughter to our own lives. What if we had an instrument the size of a key chain that we could engage on demand?

When you were little and amused by the smallest joke, the ability to ignite a burst of laughter would have caused you to laugh even more. You learned to play hide and seek, and our “inability” to locate you tucked behind a curtain with your tiny feet peeking out from the bottom would always invoke a tiny chuckle, which would be even better if only we could add the family laugh track. Dad says he would love to be able to signal the time to laugh with the special device when I just don’t get his jokes.

The laugh track is an obvious segue to background music. Girls mean drama. Casey even had a sign in her room signifying that—“Drama Queen.” Everyone with a daughter knows it’s true. When you were little and you all would come home and explain what mean or unfair thing had been done by a teacher or classmate, it would have been nice to be able to turn on a piano or set the violins playing.

Kelly created this scenario when she made our “Moving to North Carolina” movie. Our farewell party with our longtime friends from New York was accompanied by Billy Joel singing “New York State of Mind.”

We had a real estate agent that did not understand the meaning of the word “No.” While the moving company was at our house and every room was in shambles, she just showed up with two clients. I told her no, and went back to cleaning. When I took a break from my work, I discovered her opening closets and decending into the bowels of the basement. Kelly’s video showed me locking the door as “Evil Woman” played in the background.

As I climbed the rickety stairs to our attic, cleaned the bathrooms and chipped off layers of thick ice from the garage freezer, “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off to Work We Go” played on our sound track. The video continually flashed to scenes of Jamie and Casey lounging on the sofa. Really girls?

While Dad and I stayed late into the evening as the van was being filled with our furniture, our clothes, our memories, and our lives, the three of you were at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. You walked throughout the neighborhood accompanied by a live band (no need for the fake laugh track that day). Practice night for Boonton’s drum and bugle corps was that evening, so you all marched down the street to “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”

Aunt Ellen somehow talked her way into Aunt Marian’s former home, so you were able to show us where we had those Thanksgiving Dinners for twenty-five aunts, uncles, and cousin; the family room where the kids watched “March of the Wooden Soldiers;” and the living room where the aunts sang together after dinner. It was a treat reliving those days. No soundtrack needed there. The conversation was better without it.

As we approached the “Welcome to North Carolina” sign, “Carolina Girls” was playing as you all sat in the back of the car. Your lives as Jersey girls had come to an end. The move was real. We were on the road to becoming Southern Belles.

Dad pulled into the little village in our new neighborhood, and suddenly Belle, from Beauty and the Beast, was belting out “Little Town, It’s a Quiet Village.” I remember being excited at exploring our new home and town—Chapel Hill—but at the same time scared and incredibly guilty for making this move at this time in your lives.

The moving van pulled up in front of the house. The driver was a nice guy named Jack, so “Captain Jack” played in the background. This time, I put you all to work unpacking.

It has been over eleven years since leaving New Jersey. Three of us have stayed, but two of you have begun your lives in different states—Jamie in New Jersey and Casey in Maryland. I miss those days of being able to see all of you and our friends and family often.  So that song, is “The Way We Were.”

We don’t get to have the laugh track or the music in the background. But when you are with Dad or me, there is always the threat that something will happen which will make us break out in song because there really is a song for just about any occasion.

Sixth Grade Big Shots

Senior year at School Street School began in 1966—sixth grade for me. We were the big shots of the school, as Grandpa might say. There were two playgrounds there. The lower one was for the younger kids so it had the swings, while the upper did not because we were much too sophisticated. That year we did not get to enjoy the privilege of our segregation from the little ones because our playground was going to be the site of the new school and was closed during the construction. So we suffered the indignity of not having our own space but never got to enjoy the school with the cafeteria, new desks, and asbestos-free living. It did not open that year. My brothers and sisters all went to the new school.

Our teacher was Mr. Albano, who loved to travel to exotic places—a fact which led to his gruesome murder in Thailand many years later. I remember his pictures of the pyramids of Egypt, the Parthenon in Greece, and the tomb of King Tut. His stories of his travels to the Mid-East were glamorous and exciting and made history come alive for me.

As the oldest in the school, six graders were assigned certain jobs. My friend Karen and I had the task of helping the kindergartners get dressed in their coats, hats and sometimes their boots at the end of the day. Aunt Ellen was in kindergarten then, so I wonder if she recalls me coming to her classroom.

I also had the somewhat geeky job of running the school projector when other classes wanted to see a movie. This was a very ancient way to watch movies, pre-video tapes of course. Our job was to wheel the projector to the class requesting our services and set up the movie reel on the projector, which involved threading a thin film around the various nooks and crannies of the machines. It was an important job—at least I thought so—and got me out of class for a bit.

Sixth grade was also the year my fear of bridges developed. A woman in town—Miss Blanchard —committed suicide by jumping off the Reservoir Bridge. At one time, she had been our school librarian, and Karen and I helped her shelve books. That was when I became quite adept at the Dewey Decimal System.

I was quite traumatized by Miss Blanchard’s death, so from then on, I insisted that Grandma and Grandpa drive an alternate route when going to the Reservoir Tavern or other place to which that was the usual route. I must say that they were quite accommodating, but parents are just very awesome people when it comes to their children. That is indisputable!

That fear remained with me for forty-seven years until a man tried to drive off the Ravenel Bridge in Charleston. He lived, and for me, it was a sort of public service. I figured if he was unable to intentionally drive off the bridge, then the likelihood of me accidentally driving off any bridge was slight. So now my only major fear from my School Street School years is that of snakes, which is really quite common.

In September, I moved on to John Hill School, when my walk to school doubled from a half mile to one full mile. (Somehow it seemed so much longer in my mind.) I left my two sisters behind—Aunt El promoted to first grade and Aunt Ar to third. We would never be in the same school again.

Mom- Grade 6 School Street School 1966
Mom- Grade 6 School Street School 1966

Fun Times Back Then

Growing up in a small town in the thirties and forties was a much simpler life than any of you or I ever experienced. Another postcard to Grandma asked what she did for fun as a child—her memories of games, entertainment, and thoughts about radio shows they listened to as a family. During the early years, there was no television—only shows on the radio.

Sorry to be late answering your cards and questions. The “what did you do for fun” question was: outside games such as hide and seek, tag, kick-the-can, and swimming in the park. Also, sleigh riding when there was a good snow. We went from the top of Liberty Street, crossed Boonton Avenue (there was someone watching for the occasional cars), and then went all the way to the post office. (Back then, girls, the post office was on William Street.)

Every once in a while we would go to the movies if we could rustle up 15 cents. A couple of Grandma’s brothers (her uncles) were generous. My father’s brothers would give us some change. We’d do good at Christmas when they would come for a visit.

I think when I was about ten or so, we got a ten-inch television. A store in town would let you “have it,” and if you liked it, you could pay it off—like $10 a month forever! Our living room would be like The State Theatre.

Milton Berle was a biggie and Ed Sullivan, too. (Girls, they were both variety shows beginning in 1948.) Saturday mornings were good for kids’ cartoons. I especially liked one called “Let’s Pretend.” They would act out fairy tales. My father would “listen” to a ball game weekends and fall asleep and we’d keep lowering the volume until we could shut it off. I don’t know if he caught on. (Sounds like Dad, right?)

This is all for now. My brain is fried.

               Love you.

               Mom

Grandma-Grade 6- 1939 Family Gets a Tv
Grandma-Grade 6- 1939
                 When Family Got a TV

It was such a different world. They made their own fun–playing with their friends and family and happy with the simplicity of it all. I’m not sure if they even owned a board game, but I will ask. Back then kids played outside until dark, went to school, and came home. Crime like we see too many times today just didn’t happen. Mothers sent their kids to school, to the movies, and church and never once did they worry that their children would not come home. There is something very envious about those days.

Just Shoes, Socks, and a Smile

I will never forget that night. It was an usually warm Thursday evening in early March of my freshman year in college. I remember being in my room, when suddenly, I heard a roar from above me as the excited girls in my dorm ran at lightning speed to the windows at the back of the building. We heard the rumors that “tonight is the night,” but did not know for sure until that moment.

We all ran to the windows and peaked outside, and there they were–two hundred buck-naked streakers running around the building. I remember laughing, and cheering as they passed, and then we ran across the hall to glimpse them again as they circled around to the front. The group was composed primarily of men, with a sprinkling of a few women. The student newspaper which reported the article the next day claimed that six of the two hundred uninhibited revelers were women.

Most wore nothing but sneakers and a scarf. Most of them ran together, but I can still recall one lone male student, who got left behind as he tied his shoe. Was he as confident as the others when he was running alone?

Our school did not break the current record that night. Apparently, the Georgia Bulldogs of the University of Georgia claimed the record with 1543 naked students running around the campus under the watchful eyes of 15000 observers.

There were no punishments, as I recall. As long as they stayed on  campus, everyone just enjoyed the entertainment. Even the Oscars that year were surprised by a streaker. And then as suddenly as it began, it was over—just a memory of the spring of 1974.

Streakers- Rutgers University March 1974
Streakers- Rutgers University March 1974

Mommy and Daddy Take a Break

When you were little, we had our regular babysitters who watched you when Dad and I went out on a big date. When we lived in New York, your sitter was our neighbor Ann Marie, who Kelly referred to as “Ann Me,” and her younger sister, “what’s her name.” Grandma came up frequently, because it was her goal not to be a stranger despite the distance. I loved that she did it, but have to laugh knowing that she had to travel a mere 65 miles, while Mark’s parents travel 700 miles to visit their grandson quite often. But it was still a big deal and I loved her for doing it.

After we moved to the center of the universe, I did rely on them more often, but we also had a supply of regular sitters. I made sure we had great snacks and paid them well so they rarely said no. Going out was an extravagance for us then, but it was nice to have someone fun and reliable to watch you.

It was extremely rare that we ever went on vacation without all of you. In fact, I recall only one time, which was in March 1989 when we went to the Bahamas. Grandma and Grandpa moved in for a few days and let us have that time alone. I recently found the two pages of instructions I left them to survive those few days. You’re going to love it. You would think they were the parents of only one rather than a brood of five.

I learned that Jamie loved a breakfast of oatmeal with raisins, Kix, Lucky Charms (so unhealthy, I know) or waffles. Kelly was not so picky. She’d eat “whatever.”

Those were the “soup and a cheese sandwich” days. The soup was Progresso vegetable soup. I shared my vey secret sandwich recipe with Grandma: toast the bread, and melt the cheese in the microwave. Never did I cook this on the stovetop in a frying pan. No siree! Nothing but the best for my girls.

Jamie still napped, settling down at 1:00. She was very needy, requiring her music box, a sip of water, and cuddling. (all this for a nap!)

At bedtime Kelly slept with three nightlights, but Jamie was braver, needing nothing but the nightlight on her Big Bird lamp if she awoke during the night for some cuddling and a sip of water.

Looking back, I bet Grandma and Grandpa ignore my rules. They probably served an Entenmann’s coffee cake for breakfast, egg salad for lunch, and some of Grandma’s famous brownies as an afternoon snack. No peanut butter apples served by that grandma. She loved making sweet treats for her babies, and I bet you will always remember Grandma’s icing-topped brownies, specially made with the help of her friends, Betty or Dunkin.

Mother Nature Gets Angry

Mother Nature can bring us beautiful sunrises and sunsets, breathtaking mountain views, and flowers of every color. But she is not always our friend. I remember paralyzing blizzards and ice storms whose dazzle was breathtaking, yet dangerous. You were excited to have a day off from school. I was glad to have you home for some snow fun, except for the year when you were all home for an entire week. That was awful!

Hurricane Floyd came to town in 1999 and rendered us without power for days. Dad and I sent all of you to Grandma and Grandpa’s house to sleep while the two of us stayed behind. We slept in the basement to bail the water when the sump pump could not keep pace with the infiltration of water into the house.  As was our tradition when we lost power, we went to Boston Market for dinner. But the effects were temporary and life went on for us and all of our friends.

Jamie returned to New Jersey in 2011 and had to endure the wrath of hurricanes Irene and Sandy. With so many of our friends and family in the Garden State, my heart was with them all as they lived through both storms.

Now we are in South Carolina and it is not a hurricane, but the related moisture that brought in hurricane-like rain without the corresponding wind. Kelly had a wedding to shoot on Saturday, and while the brunt of the storm did not arrive until she was safely home that night, I still worried for her safety, knowing she would be traveling unfamiliar roads alone in the dark. Once you are a parent, you cannot turn off the concern. It is just impossible!

We have not been impacted by this storm as much as Floyd. Our pantry, refrigerator and freezer is always full; you laugh at us for that all the time. We bought extra water, boiled it as instructed, and cautiously stayed inside as we watched others venture outside ignoring the warnings to stay safe. Dad has been worrying about the safety of our nearby dam.

The news reports have been heartbreaking as we watch the floodwaters rise, the dams break, and see people losing their belongings and their homes.  Unlike Floyd, I fear that life will not go back to normal in the foreseeable future. I am saddened by what I see but hopeful as I watch the kindness of strangers and hope that our friends in New Jersey do not blame the legislators from South Carolina who voted “NO” for Sandy relief. I was embarrassed, saddened and ashamed when that happened here and thought, “When that happens here someday (and I knew it would), I hope we are not punished by the stupidity of a few.” I have confidence that this will not happen. I believe that most people–the cashier at the store, the police officer, teacher, and the stranger that I wave to as I pass them on the street–are compassionate.

Bryce is too young to understand how lucky he is. Our governor has a press conference, and the boredom puts him to sleep. He is forced to stay inside, and when the rain stops briefly, he is taken outside and says, “yea, outside!”

For the most part, I love my new state and hope we can rebuild. But for now, I am just sad.

Gym Class- Oh Goody!

During elementary school, I enjoyed gym class most of the time. Anytime athletic skill was not a requirement, I had fun. There was lots of fun in fifth grade when we learned to dance the German polka and several folk dances. The injury risk was low and no athletic competence was necessary, so Phys Ed was good. On days when throwing a ball or running fast was required, gym class stunk!

Once I was a seventh grader, we had to wear gym suits and get undressed in front of the other girls in class. This was the turning point for me. As a shy person, this was difficult, and as a fashion statement, well, this was simply fashion murder. See for yourselves.

Ugly high school gym suit
Ugly high school gym suit

In high school, I used my contact lenses to get excused from gym class. I would “lose” them, so we would all have to stop and look, thereby gloriously disrupting class for everyone. I was a hero for others like me. Once I “found” my contact (which was nothing more than popping it out and presenting it to my teacher), I had to go to the nurse to reinsert it, which sadly consumed the remaining class time.

During the gymnastics rotation, I had to resort to more drastic measures. I did not have the skill of Aunt El or Jamie when it came to flips, cartwheels and the uneven parallel bars, so I needed to be excused for the entire marking period until we moved to the dance rotation.

Before I explain my strategy, you must understand that I really, really hated gymnastics. I feared it would result in permanent bodily damage, or at least everlasting humiliation. It was not a smart plan, I know, but I had no choice. I know you will be rollling your eyes and thinking I was a wacko, but in that moment, it made sense.

Aunt Ar was like me. She said, “the only athletic ability I had was to wear that uniform and white socks. Otherwise I wouldn’t have passed gym.” It was clearly a genetic problem.

We had this square exercise thingy with wheels at home which I enlisted in my master plan. It looked like this:

Exercise Thingy

I put it in the middle of our bedroom, turned off the lights, and then ran across the room. My hope was that I would trip over it and break something thereby getting me out of gym class for the marking period. Sadly my plan failed, and thankfully, for Aunt Ar and Aunt El, they escaped unscathed.

So I somehow survived junior high and high school gym class. During college, I chose badminton and tennis as my Phys Ed electives. When we moved to South Carolina, I was briefly on a traveling tennis team, and now I play bad golf. That’s it. Now you know. Don’t laugh!

The Shy Bug

I have fought the shyness devil since I was young. When I was in kindergarten, our class put on their first play. The leading role was the rabbit. How I coveted that part! We also had human props, such as the two students who walked back and forth across the stage. They were the curtains.

When Grandma came to school, I was allowed to choose the part I wanted to perform when she came—any part. Did I choose my hero the bunny? You know I did not, I picked the part of a stupid bird who sat in the corner like a piece of furniture. Grandma said she was mortified. She said I looked like “Boob McNutt,” who was a stupid, klutzy, sad cartoon character. I was insulted when I researched who he was. How could Grandma compare cute little five year old me to Boob?

My bashful streak followed me most of my life. In high school, I wouldn’t wear red because I thought it would make me more noticeable.

Over time, I forced myself to overcome those feelings. Volunteerism helped tremendously. Moving helped me even more because it forced me to make friends, or else be alone. Living in the South, where striking up a conversation with random strangers is a way of life that made me realize I had to force myself to make idle chatter, or appear rude and unfriendly.

The turning point was my trip to England, where I was thrust, to a degree, into a mini spotlight at the ceremony to honor my long-dead first cousin-four-times removed, Louis Brennan. I had to stand up at a church full of dignitaries and say a prayer and get interviewed by Irish radio, Irish television, and two Irish newspapers. Once I was able to survive doing that, I realized I had won the battle. I was able to do a toast at Jamie and Geoff’s wedding. I am not outgoing, but I today, if Grandma came to see me, I am confident I would choose to play the rabbit in the school play. I have good company. Pope Francis admitted that he, too, was bitten by the shy bug.

Kindergarten Me- School Street School 1960
Kindergarten Me- School Street School 1960

Grandma came to see me, I am confident I would choose play the rabbit in the school play. But I have good company. Pope Francis admitted that he, too, was bitten by the shy bug.