Different Childhoods

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My children and I had different childhoods:
They had play dates. I played.
They wore knee pads. I skinned my knees.
They held sparklers. I set off cherry bombs.
They had training wheels. I fell off.
They wore seat belts. I hung out the window.
They played on the computer. I played in the dirt.
They got vaccinations. I had childhood diseases.
They had safety plugs. I got shocked.

When I was 4 years-old I broke into a house up the street with my 3 year-old accomplice, Patty Burke. Patty was a follower. Her face never looked clean and her mother was always taking naps during the day.
We decided to visit our friend Jenny. But, Jenny wasn’t home. Nobody was home but we walked in anyway. We clambered upstairs, turned on the faucets in the bathtub and skedaddled home. The bathroom flooded and the water seeped through the ceiling ruining the cherry furniture in the dining room below.
My father had to pay the damages.
This is what I've been told. I don't remember any of it but I do know I must not have been missed.

When my kids turned two, I built a fence in the yard for fear they might run into the street. They slept with bed guards, wore non-slip socks and didn't leave the house without 45 SPF sunscreen plastered on their faces. I cooked what they liked and forgot to make them do chores.

I had too much freedom. They had too much attention.
I followed my own counsel. They followed the rules.
Is there a right way to grow up?

Dancing with Flies

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I count my in German. "Eins, zwei, drei, vier, funf, sechs, sieben, act, neun, zehn . . " 
I’m naked with a fly swatter. Pauli is on the bed laughing. I flit around his tiny room, chasing flies, slashing air, squashing them, one by one. Swing, eins, swing, swei, swing, drei . . . .
I am dancing with flies. 
"You are beauty," Pauli says in broken English. 
Pauli lives on a farm in Austria. I'm an American backpacking in Europe. I don't remember how we met. Must have been Vienna? Pauli is tall, thin and bearded. His eyes are kind. I go home with him. He is twenty. I'm nineteen. We make love. He falls in love with me. I revel in it and can't wait to leave. The next adventure beckons. 
It is my nature after all. 
We take walks. One day we see the farmer yelling hard consonants and poking the tines of a pitchfork into a male pig, prodding him to mount a sow. The sow is so little to the male's huge and squeals over and over, trapped in it’s nightmare. We watch horrified and mesmerized and hysterical. 
Pauli is an artist. On a trip to Vienna, he sketches me while I sleep. He swipes a few lines of charcoal across a large piece of paper with a conductor's flourish creating a full-bodied, minimal expression summing up all that I am. He colors in the border of my blanket with bright red pastel. A final touch. I fold the drawing into a square and slip it in my backpack. I've kept it all these years. The fold creases are permanent. I don't mind. They show time passing which is as it should be.
The day I leave, Pauli presents me with a mug he bought for cheap at the Gmundner Keramik factory, a few miles away. 
"They sell it hundreds years," he says.
It’s white, with hand-painted green swirls racing around its perimeter. A spill of green paint drips down its insides underneath the shine of glaze.
It’s imperfect. It’s perfect. 
I carry the cup back home across the Atlantic and drink years of coffee from it before I drop it in the sink. A large triangular piece breaks off the rim. I super glue it back on and use the cup for two more years of coffee before it breaks for good. 
Pauli sends me letters. Inside one is the key to his apartment. I don’t write back and one day the letters stop. I still have the letters. Not the key. 
After I left my husband I scoured eBay for used Gmundner ceramics. I buy most of what I find. 
The crazed and chipped ones are my favorites.

Bird Watching

John J. Audubon, Song Sparrows. Image Public Domain.

John J. Audubon, Song Sparrows. Image Public Domain.

You could blow him over with a whisper or a shrug. That's right. He walked on his toes with feet like unstable springs planning to catapult him to a fall in an instant.
     A 10 year-old scrawny little thing, freckled and pale. He was nasty though, that Dennis. He called us homos when he was mad. All squeaky voiced and shrill. We knew it was a bad word though we didn't know what it meant. I don't think he did either.
     “He must have heard it somewhere," my mother said.
     Dennis was the last one standing when we picked teams for kickball. His team didn't try to hide their collective groan. I get it. He couldn't throw, he couldn't kick, he couldn't catch and he ran all funny like his feet didn't know which way they were going. Sometimes we threw the ball to him, but off to the side a bit. He’d shimmy and falter and we would giggle like we couldn't control it.
     "Homos!," he said.
     We woke up one day and Dennis was in a wheelchair. Just like that. He looked like a mini Dennis in that wheelchair. Like he lost some of himself when he sat down.
     My mother said, it was M.S.
     We agreed, "it is a mess."
     We never saw Dennis walk on his toes or run all crooked-like again. He became one with his chair. We didn't play with him. We didn't know how. We couldn't make fun of him anymore and he didn't get mad.
     My little brother though. My 7 year-old littlest brother. I think he was kinder than the rest of us. He pushed Dennis in his wheelchair even though he was barely tall enough to see over the back of the chair. He pushed Dennis down sidewalks, on paths in the woods. They went bird watching. They had guidebooks and binoculars and peanut butter sandwiches and they went to look for birds. The wheels on the chair acted as legs and my brother was the wind spinning them like pinwheels, fast and faster as they zoomed down the sidewalk; my little brother and Dennis going bird watching.

Staying in the Game

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I've been a gamer all my life; in the board game sense of the word. Games were what we did. Four brothers meant a dependable pool of opponents, even if it was just a 2-person game of War fought with three decks of mismatched cards.
Jacks were always wild.
Then the games stopped. Like dice, we rolled in different directions, creating our own wins and losses until, slowly,the family games started
up again, patching us back together, one round at a time.
That's why every time I deal a hand of cards and my mother says, "who dealt this mess?" I love it because I know that one more unfair, questionable, irreversible slight has been dealt with and forgotten. It's forgiveness on every turn and we all take turns dealing.
Now, when we win, we gloat and rub it in. When we lose we blame each other. When the game is over, we drink more wine and brag about our past successes. It's family therapy of the best kind. That's because it's not about winning or losing anymore. It's about staying in the game.

Playing School

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During the same years my daughter was still young enough to believe pretend was a place to visit, she would hurry home from school to “play” school. 
She was the teacher. I was the student.
We owned an antique oak and cast iron classroom desk. It took two people to lift. An inkwell in its upper right-hand corner served as a history lesson. Carvings of initials, illegible hieroglyphs really, marked time on its surfaces.
My daughter conducted class from that desk. She stocked it with her very, very important school supplies and spent an inordinate amount of time opening and closing the lid; rustling papers, foraging for the perfect pencil, fiddling with an assortment of erasers.
She was all busy-ness.
Finally ready, she’d sit plank straight on the edge of her chair, clasp her hands together on top of the desk, swing her feet and begin.
“Okay class. Please take out a piece of paper. We are going to draw a picture of a lion. If you need more crayons, raise your hand.”
She spoke in a high sing-song voice, enunciating each word, sounding close to condescending.
“Now. Does the boy lion or the girl lion have a mane?” She said. “Do you know where lions live? Do they eat grass or monkeys?”
She asked a lot of questions. I was a good student.
“Let’s see, where do lions live? Well, I know they don’t live in New Jersey. Maybe they used to, but not anymore. Hmmm . . . maybe Italy? Alaska? No, lions don’t like snow. I know. Africa!”
“You are right. Very good. You get a star. Okay, now we are going to do math. Please take out your rulers.”
Patience is not my virtue. I loved “playing school” … for all of ten minutes.
“I have to go soon,” I would say.
“But we haven’t had reading circle yet.”
“Next time. Mommy has things to do.”
“Did you finish drawing the picture of a lion?”
“I’ll hand it in tomorrow.”
“Wait, there’s homework.”
“If you want to play school with me, you can’t give me homework.”
Every day, for a too short time, my daughter hounded me. “Mommy you wanna play school with me? Pleeeze.”
Her eyes — blue pools of hope and worry — melted any resolve I had into a hug I’ll call heaven.
“Okay,” I’d whisper in her ear, “ but only for a little while.”
Her joy flattened me.


A Hollow Leg

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He was prepared for our date and I loved him for it.
We sat at the bar and he pulled out a list of questions. Fun questions like, "who would you rather be? Bert or Ernie?"
“Ernie, of course!”
He knew I loved games and we'd just met. 
He said he had a wooden leg - just so you know - while what he meant was a hollow leg and we laughed at that even though he did - have a hollow leg.
We sang television theme songs from our youth and corrected each other when we got the lyrics wrong and I nursed my wine while he drank his drinks and drank another and, just one more, and we got punch drunk for different reasons and I was happy and he was happy. Too happy. Close to out of control happy.
And, we left and we kissed and I never saw him again.

On Spare Change: Doc Cheatham

Doc Cheatham plays and sings "I want a little Girl.” (1987) Click on photo to watch a video of him performing.

I was a cocktail waitress when the varietals of wine sold at most bars were “house red” and “house white.” Triangle drinks and trendy craft beers weren't in the vernacular yet. No, I handed out the real deal. Grown-up drinks with masculine names like Stinger, Sidecar, Gimlet or Gibson. Up, on the rocks, with a splash or a twist. Drinking was a more serious pursuit in the 1980s. It was about picking your poison.
The restaurant I worked at featured live music on weekends. Jazz musicians stopped by before their gigs in New York City. One was Doc Cheatham, a well-known trumpet player who had lived longer than most. 
Doc had joy in his pocket and shared it like spare change. He was lanky and tall and walked with a happy purpose. Thick-lensed glasses nearly overwhelmed a face lined by a life lived. He favored plaid polyester suits. His hair was brown and suspect. I found out later it was a toupee. 
His was a bad one. 
Doc and I had a "thing." Not in the way you might think. I was eighteen. He was more than seventy. But, he flirted with me in a grandfatherly way that rendered me light. 
"You look lovely tonight beautiful darling. That smile of yours would make the angels sing" or "Well, well looky who's here. Now I know I'm gonna have a good night." 
I floated the rest of the evening, handing out drinks like a ballerina. 
Doc sat on a high bar chair on the small stage wearing his bad toupee like a crown playing magic through his horn. Sometimes he sang. Once he sang a song for me. 

I want a little girl, call my own.
She must be someone who's all alone now.
Say, I want a little girl 
To fall in love with me, oh yeah. 

The song swelled a Wawa in my heart and left behind a muted fullness that lingered. It was our song, though he didn't know it. 
I left that job. He kept playing. From time to time, I'd picture him sitting on that high bar chair wearing his bad toupee and playing magic through his horn.
I read he performed up to two days before he died, eleven days shy of his 92nd birthday. 

Musings of a Jersey Girl


Musings of a Jersey Girl is a blog of personal essays gleaned from observations from my life experiences and the world around me. Friends’ urged me to share my writing and this blog is the result. I call it Musings of a Jersey Girl because growing up here, living here, is so much a part of who I am.
Each piece covers a different topic but they all, at their core, grapple with the same universal themes all stories do: love and loss.
I suppose those are the themes that define our shared humanity. That it’s really that simple; we were born to love. Loss is just what comes after.
Thank you for taking the time to read my work. I hope some of it resonates with you .

Cathy

4 years-old with hat in Jersey.

4 years-old with hat in Jersey.