Monday, August 03, 2009


This morning, as I prepare for a road trip to visit my hometown , I am thinking about the summers of my childhood.

Each June, when school let out, I would leave to visit my mother for six straight weeks. During the school year I saw her for one or two weekends per month. For a short while, when I think I was in the second or third grade, I was able to see her between four and eight pm on certain Tuesdays, but for some reason this didn't work out and I only have one memory of one such evening. We went to a restaurant that had a salad bar.

Each summer my mother lived somewhere new. When she picked me up I never knew where'd I spend the next month and a half and this always provided me a strange thrill. It felt wonderfully devious to me for some reason. Perhaps this is because my grandparents, with whom I lived the rest of the time, had lived in their home for forty straight years without ever changing a single thing. There was order there; schedules and time constraints. My mother was their polar opposite and I enjoyed this. With her, I could do anything. I had freedom. Sometimes I'd go days without wearing clothes. She never made me wear underwear. We did things like swim at night lomg past what should have been my bedtime. There were no schedules or rules.

The first summer, my mother lived in a mansion in Florida with a maid. She had just married my stepfather and they were in the music business. She drove a Rolls Royce and I got lost in her house. I had to fly in a blue Eastern Airlines plane from Baltimore to see her and I remember the meal I was served on that flight: roast beef and cherry cheesecake. That was the summer I lost my first two teeth. My mother made me king crab legs and banana-filled crepes almost every day. She bought me a pink record player with Disney records. I could sing along to all the songs from "Snow White" and "Mary Poppins."

The next summer, my mother and stepfather owned a nightclub at a beachfront resort town and lived in a townhouse. I fell in love with John Cougar and ate oreo cookie ice cream from the tub while they slept late because they'd been up working at the club the night before. My mother had a enormous palette of makeup. It had been an Estee Lauder gift set and had every color of eye shadow imaginable. While she slept I got into it. Sitting in the bathroom sink, I painted myself to look as if I'd been beaten and bruised. Pac Man had just come out. And Frogger. We'd go to the arcade and I loved watching my mom pop a quarter in the video games to play. She was really good. Her frog always made it safely across the highway.

There was the trailer in upstate New York, near the remote Canadian border. That was the summer a bat flew into me, the summer my grandfather was no longer with my grandmother and instead with a girl the same age as my Aunt Kiki, who was five years youngr than my mother. He had to have gotten her pregnant that July, because the baby, who would later be raised as my sister, was born the following April. There were horses near that trailer and sometimes we would fill our palms with sugar for them to nuzzle, but then the sugar ran out and we could only offer them tufts of grass. Late one night my mother and step-father took me to see Niagara Falls and I remember nothing but black railings, glistening and dripping wet. Everything shiny and black and wet like patent leather. Something happened that summer that I don't remember understanding. My grandfather came up and drove me back home a few weeks early. We stopped at a diner and I ate oatmeal. Later he spanked me and I don't remember why.

The summer after that, we lived in a rowhouse in the ghetto and all my friends were black girls. I was jealous that they had black Barbies who looked like them, while I had a peach-colored, blonde haired, blue eyed Barbie who looked nothing like me. I had a red bike that summer too and my tiny friend Lucinda was triple jointed, she said. I rode her on my handle bars. Down the street there was a corner store that had sanded wood floors and we'd buy cheap candy there. The black kids introduced me to a world of candy I had never known. I loved Lemonheads and Cherry Changs. My mother bought a small, above-ground pool at Ames and it took over a day to fill with the garden hose and before it was even ready all of the neighborhood kids were in it. They would pack in it so that there was no room to swim or to lounge, just stand. Standing room only in a swimming pool, and still there'd be a line to climb the ladder to get in and just stand. That was how much those kids in that neighborhood loved that pool.

I remember more about that summer than any other summer. It was the best summer of my life. It was the summer when we first heard of Nutra-Sweet and AIDS, when everyone knew every line to "Electric Avenue" and all the kids sang the words to "Our House" wrong. Our house. In the middle of the street. Our House. Smells like stinkin' dirty feet. Our house. That summer had the best music. I loved the Thompson Twins.

By the next summer it was the Eurythmics at a rented cottage on the brown, murky bay where you could walk along the muddy shore and pick up shells, sea glass and horseshoe crabs, but you couldn't swim. It was quiet and beautiful. The dogs played fetch up and down the beach. We crabbed and picked beach plums and a woman across the street had a magnificent rose garden. Our little house was all clapboard and screen and everything smelled like the sea. No matter how much you swept the sand still swirled over the floors. Before the six weeks ended my mother took me to get my ears pierced. This was the first summer that I didn't go back to my grandparents' house. My father, who had also lived with me at my grandparents' house, had just gotten married and he and my stepmother moved to a farmhouse outside of town. When my mother dropped me off there, he wasn't happy about the earrings.

The following summer I wanted bangs and clear jellies that reminded me of glass slippers. My mother got me both. I didn't like Michael Jackson, but was obsessed with Cyndi Lauper. My mother lived with my grandfather in a duplex that year. His second wife had left him with their toddler. My great-grandmother moved in as well. No one was happy that summer. It was unusually hot. I fried an egg on the asphalt and my grandfather got mad at me for wasting good food. Nothing went right. I didn't want to go back to my father and stepmother. This was the summer that I told my mother I wanted to live with her. But I had to go back at the end of July. By then my father had moved out of the farmhouse and into a brand new tract home. He was even angrier about the bangs than he had been about the earrings. I was grounded until Christmas and when the custody papers arrived before New Year's, he hit me, then stopped speaking to me.

The summer after that though, hairstyles and earrings didn't matter. He didn't matter. My stepmother didn't matter. There were no more court orders saying I had to be home by six pm, July 30th. Or else. When my my mother picked me up and drove me to New York, to our new house, a split level ranch in the woods at the edge of a lake, I knew I didn't have to leave after six, short weeks. There were no more court orders, no threats of legal action, no looming deadlines with the constant sense that time was running out. I lived with my mother now. I didn't have to go home before school started. I was home.


lottie said...

although i haven't commented for ages, i do still read and this, this lady, this is one of your best posts yet.

Nanci said...

Both the good and not so good memories make us into who we are. No wonder you are such a terrific woman inside and out! I can only remember bits and pieces of my childhood as I have blocked out much of it - so thank you for sharing a small part of your world with us. :)

JoeinVegas said...

I just have memories of things being the same, same summers, same house, same old stuff. You make summers really sound like fun.

Living in Muddy Waters said...

Loved this post. The songs titles were just the right touch.

The Fifth Sparrow said...

I loved this post!
Isn't it funny how much of our lives is defined by the songs of the day.

You're driving along and hear a certain song and, bam, you're 14 again!!

Bonne Belle Lip Gloss, Orange Crush, listening to the radio all day long just to hear your favorite song...

How's Mommom doing? And Canela?Please, just a quick little update.

Joy said...

It's funny, I was thinking about my childhood this weekend and remembered a lot of long forgotten memories. They included some vague things that I absolutely could not remember clearly. Is that they way is for everybody? Sometimes I wonder.

Great post. Thank you for it.

Anonymous said...

That was beautiful. You made me remember some of the characters and flavors of my "summmers past." ...the times in the above ground pool where all the cousins collected ... the long, long waiting for it to fill up (via one garden hose)... spending hot summer days in the shade at my grandmother's house and then staying up all night long watching old movies with her (and then Charlie Chan and the Slim Man after she fell asleep in her chair). When you bind up all these observations into a novel, this post would make a very nice introduction.


Eric said...

Nice story. I was picturing you and your mom in the trailer in upstate new york as the final shot in "A Handmaid's Tail"

Anonymous said...

lovely memories... your descriptions are brilliant. i felt as though i was there.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post!! I've been reading your blog for a long time, too. I'm a child of the 80s as well, I loved a lot of the same stuff you did.

About Me

Blog Archive