Christmas break 1961
Daddy promises to take me to the ice skating rink in Great Neck later. My little sister, Elka, is at her best friend Debby’s apartment in our 40 family garden apartment court, on top of a hill, at the edge of North East Queens. The crescent we live in has hundreds of families, and the development has thousands. All have kids. On our copy of Madeline, our father wrote the names of our friends on each bed. Then he made a list of the remaining friends. I have a first through 12th best friend. Lynda is my super best friend but I can’t stand not considering all my other friends “best.”
Lynda lives two doors down, but she’s away with her family, in their new Lincoln Town car with electric windows. My other friends are either away or they’re not speaking to me or I’m not speaking to them. I’m in sixth grade, and I used to be the first girl anybody would call or call up the window to. Now hardly anyone does. Near the candy store the other day I heard my cousin, Ken, call me a goof to a girl he was trying to impress.
Eleven is a very difficult age, I think as I look out the window at the deserted court. It’s almost never empty. No matter what the weather, parents sit on the park benches and kids play in the grass, but the snow’s really more ice than snow, and it’s freezing. Daddy’s such a slow, careful driver he can drive in any weather but blizzards. It’s around eleven AM. In our house that’s early for a weekend or non-school day.
There’s going to be a big football game. Daddy hates football, but he likes to make many charts showing possible plays. Then other men bet on it. Mommy says it’s okay.
Daddy’s special. He likes excitement. Other men, they bet the rent or the mortgage, and food money. Daddy saves money each month and only bets extra money. Daddy will make sure we always live well.
Uh, mommy, we live in a four room apartment. I have to share a room with Elka.
We moved to the garden apartments, (or up the hill as mommy and daddy call it) a huge community when I was four. We were supposed to live here for a year while my parents looked for a house in Great Neck. Elka and I love it here, but lately I really want my own room, and I let mommy know that at every opportunity. Elka’s half of the room is decorated with her own paintings. I had Fabian posters up but took them down for Warren Beatty ones. I can’t keep the house argument up. I know that they are seriously looking. We’ll probably buy a house when I’m away at college. Daddy likes to check everything out 200 times.
My parents take an hour to decide on what brand of toilet paper to buy. I’ve seen them fight over that. Then I watched them make up. I think that’s one of the reasons adults fight. Elka wants to crawl under the table when they make out in a restaurant but I like it.
I wish daddy would get ready.
I’m sure he will be ready soon, sweetie, your daddy loves taking you the rink. He wishes he could skate.
I’m not a great skater, but I love going round and round the rink while the loudspeakers play songs like “What’s your name?” and “The lion sleeps tonight.” I’m getting bored looking out the window, so I go to the bookshelf, where I take out a book I have looked at, but rejected, many times.
I take A Tree Grows in Brooklyn into my bedroom. Soon I’m in a world so similar and different from mine. Francie Nolan is eleven, and lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the early part of the century. Mommy’s from Greenpoint, which is within walking distance of Williamsburg, and was born later than Francie. Francie’s Irish, and our natural enemy, as we’re Jews, and the Irish and Poles in Greenpoint threw tomatoes and other things at mommy and her brother and sisters.
I love Francie. She’s lonely and bookish, but loves her family and I have never read a book before where the heroine thinks like me. This is the best book I have read so far. Mommy calls us into lunch. I don’t want to eat because the Nolans have just moved to Lorimar Street, which is right next to Greenpoint, and I want to see what happens next. I have forgotten that daddy’s supposed to take me skating. Mommy asks what I’m doing.
Reading a wonderful book. A Tree grows in Brooklyn.
Mommy’s all excited.
Oh don’t you love it? Isn’t it a wonderful book? What are you up to?
I’m confused. You don’t like Irish people.
This is different. Books talk about universal experiences.
Oh like how we’re all alike.
But Johnny, Francie’s father, drinks. Half the time he can’t even work because he drinks so much. Francie loves her father anyway. I wouldn’t love daddy if he drank.
That’s the Irish curse. Every group has its own problems. That’s why books are so wonderful. Girls love their daddies no matter what they do. Finish the book and we’ll talk.
Mommy smiles her big toothy smile. She’s five feet tall, with short curly brown hair, big brown eyes, a good nose, and is cute. Everybody likes her. I’m already taller than she is. My body grows each day. But I’m awkward and weird and want to look like mommy. I made daddy promise that if I continue growing so fast he will have my legs cut smaller when I’m thirteen. Mommy thinks that I’m very pretty and smart. But we fight all the time. She says that’s because we’re so much alike. I don’t think that I’m pretty, smart or at all like mommy. She just says that because I was adopted and she wants to make me feel good when we’re not fighting over my hair not being brushed properly and things like that.
Every summer right after my birthday Elka and I go to Camp Spring Lake in Barryville for six weeks. It’s a progressive Jewish camp where we donâ€™t really have to do anything except make pow-wow sites for camping, swim, have socials, and debates on Saturday morning at Oneg Shabbats. We learn about civil rights and how we are responsible for helping the less fortunate. Most campers don’t have a professional for a daddy, nor do most of the kids in Queens. I have to explain what an accountant does. I don’t even bother trying to explain the difference between an accountant and a CPA.
Bubbe Ceila, my mom’s mom, just died. She taught me about The Scottsboro Boys, The Triangle Shirt Waist Fire, and other important things. When mommy found out that she had just died, she went running into my arms. I felt special and remember being surprised about how much mommy needed me. I bet I miss Bubbe almost as much as mommy does, and more than her younger sisters Faye and Elaine, who are bohemians. When I’m angry at mommy and ride my bike through the huge back alleys I pretend that I live with my birth mother who is a real beatnik, lives in the Village, lets me grow my hair to my knees and walk around without shoes. Nobody told me this but I know it.
Mommy goes to get daddy. He hasn’t shaved, and his clothes are old and in tatters. I remember he’s supposed to take me ice skating and I pout.
Just give me an hour Pia, and I will take you.
We’re eating a Saturday lunch. Mommy makes tuna fish salad with celery, carrots, a little Miracle Whip and a lot of lemon. We’re only allowed to eat potato chips when we eat tuna fish. Mommy and Daddy have every issue of PM Magazine, and mommy knows all about the dangers of fat.
Max, guess what book she’s reading?
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
For the first time since daddy came in for lunch he looks excited.
Daddy reads accounting journals, each issue of Mad, and parts of four to seven newspapers a day, but he doesn’t read books. Mommy gets The New Yorker. I read them both. After lunch he goes back to his spreadsheets, and I go back to my room.
Mommy calls us into supper. Francie’s father, Johnny has just died. I want to finish the book. I don’t want dinner. I’m beginning to understand why girls love their fathers even if they’re drunks, and what mommy means by a universal experience. I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to read and think. I’m glad we didn’t go to the rink, but I have to remember to pout. Daddy comes into the kitchen.
I’m sorry Pia, I’m really sorry. I just got carried away.
He’s never said that he’s sorry to me before. I can’t let daddy know that I’m not angry. He broke a promise, and I tell him that.
I know, sweetie. How about if you watch A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the next time it’s on TV, even if it’s on the late show on a school night?
Christmas Week 1962
Last summer at camp my parents sent me a letter saying that we are going to move in October. Nobody has ever heard of this town on Long Island. It sounds biblical. We all think my family’s moving to the Middle East. I wonder if they have Special Progress classes so I can do seventh and eighth grade in one year like I was supposed to do in the city. I wonder why we are moving to the Mid East. The furthest we’ve ever been from New York is Miami where my father’s sister and family live. This doesn’t make sense. Spring Lake doesn’t allow phone calls so I have to actually write them instead of sending one of the pre-addressed post cards mommy addressed and stamped. I wish I could just call and find out why we’re moving some place so far away.
Our new town turns out to be fifteen minutes northeast of Queens. We had moved there the year that the expressway came out to it, and now the expressway is built, out to here, and there’s an exit just a few blocks from our eight room, four level house. It’s cheaper than Great Neck, almost all Jewish, and the parents are building a school district from scratch.
I hate our new town. When my records finally came they asked me if I wanted to be in the honor class. I was doing so badly I said no without even thinking. We change teachers but go from class to class with the same kids. My last name starts with S and I’m with the “A”s through”D”s. My life’s not fun. How could I have ever thought that eleven was a horrible age? Twelve’s much worse. I haven’t made one friend in school.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is going to be on the late late show tonight. Daddy said that he would wake me. Daddy stays up working until two or three in the morning most nights, but he doesn’t get up until 9:30 AM. I can’t wait to be an adult. I just reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and have decided that I will read it every Christmas for the rest of my life. Daddy wakes me before the movie begins.
Daddy and I go into his red burlap wallpapered office. He sits on his swivel chair next to his huge mahogany desk, and I lie on the red plaid wood framed couch. The carpet’s red with some black. The movie version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a hundred and twenty eight minutes long. It starts at two AM and won’t be over until almost five AM. Daddy’s been muttering all week about how he thought it would be on the late show during a school night, and how he’s only good until four AM these days.
We watch the movie in silence, only getting up when absolutely necessary. It’s a perfect night, and as Daddy and I twirl our hair almost in tandem, I think about how Francie’s father always makes promises that he doesn’t keep, and daddy doesn’t make many, but when he does, he eventually keeps them, always.
This is one of my favorite chapters from my book. Not really my favorite but one of the most polished.
There will be another version–how others perceived me. When I come home (see post below) I will get all the chapters and other stuff pertaining to the book into a page. A button too maybe!