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, in Beech Hills, a thousand family garden apartment complex up a steep hill in North East Queens.
My best friend, Lori, 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 come down and play with. Now the kids think that I’m weird. 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.
There’s going to be a big football game. Daddy hates football, but he likes to make many charts showing possible plays. Then 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, 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. 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 saw 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.
Daddy has friends who are artists, writers, and fashion photographers. Mommy doesn’t like it when they call late at night, and daddy has to drive into the city to bail them out from something called Alimony Jail. I think that it’s a large room where men go to play poker and get away from their current wives. Daddy thinks that’s funny. Mommy doesn’t, but she never says anything bad about daddy.
Sometimes I hear mommy yell about daddy exposing us to bad influences. Daddy yells back that we have to know about the world, and that some of her cousins are crazy crooks.
They try to yell in Yiddish, but mommy doesn’t know much. I know not to ask why mommy’s family is meshuganah, but daddy’s friends are acceptable. Daddy became a Communist because Bubbe Celia was one, and he adores Aunt Elaine. We don’t know mommy’s cousins because they are crazy, but we know daddy’s cousins, who are mostly gamblers, and one left his wife for another woman. They think that I don’t know all this but I do and am always confused.
On Thursdays when daddy goes into the city at night to take classes at The New School and play poker, mommy makes foods that he won’t eat like lobster. It’s our night to be girls together, and mommy gives us manicures. But we have to take the nail polish off because daddy’s convinced nail polish and nail polish remover will kill us. He thinks that most beauty products will kill us.
Mommy and daddy both belong to many clubs. They only go out together on Monday nights when they take dancing lessons at Arthur Murray, and come in exactly at Ten PM when Red Skelton is over. They go out separately one or two times a week at night They go out on Saturday nights, except when they have a party, every six weeks or so. Elka doesn’t like it because they go out more than our friends parents do. Ithnk they’re more like parents other places.
While we wait for daddy to reach a point where he can stop and take me ice skating, I wonder if I will be as good a hostess as mommy is. Though mommy and daddy don’t really drink they have a fully stocked bar, and ashtrays though they hate the smell of smoke. We don’t eat cake but always have some for unexpected company.
“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’s eleven, and lives in Williamsburg Brooklyn in the early part of the century. Mommy’s from Greenpoint which is walking distance from 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. This is the best book I have read so far. Mommy calls us into lunch. I don’t want to eat because the Nolan’s 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 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.”
“It’s different. Books talk about experiences that we share”
“Oh like how all our blood is red, and how we’re really the same under the surface, like Spring Lake teaches us.”
“But Johnny, Francie’s father drinks. Half the time he can’t even work because he drank 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 her. My body grows each day. 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 don’t really have to do anything except make pow-wow sites for camping, swim, have socials, and debates on Saturday morning at. 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 the garden apartments.. I have to explain what an accountant does. I don’t even bother trying to explain the difference between an accountant and a CPA (Certified Public Accountant). I’m not sure I really understand the difference. Accountants, I think, just do tax returns. CPA’s help people keep their money. When I told daddy what I thought, he smiled and said that many adults didn’t understand that.
Daddy’s no longer a Communist. He calls himself a Socialist like his father was.
I know that somebody who helps people keep their money is a capitalist, so this really confuses me. Daddy can only say that being a Socialist is an ideal not a reality. I know that he makes money on the stock market, because it’s my job to answer the phone when I’m home, and politely take messages or give my parents the phone when they’re home.
Daddy and I like to talk about politics and current events. Daddy can’t explain why there are signs saying “Bomb Shelter” with a yellow and black arrow pointing to the apartments basement that contains milk, soda, candy, and washing machines. At least we will have food and clean clothes. But that doesn’t make sense either. Nobody can live on candy, soda and milk, and how will we get the clothes down to the basement? Why is the basement safe just because it’s underground? My parents tell me not to worry. Like the drills in school where we have to get under our desk with our hands on our heads, it’s just practice for something that’s not going to happen.
I worry anyway. I read about people who have real bomb shelters with real food and clothes. Shouldn’t we have one also? When I grow up I want to be a spy for the FBI and find Communists in their cells like Nancy Davis did on Ronald Regan’s GE Theatre. But many people in my family are Communists and I love them. I can’t wait to become an adult so that I can understand this.
Bubbe Celia, my Mom’s Mom died the day before Halloween. 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. Bubbe Celia was a Communist, an incredible cook, and could see a dress in a department store window and copy it exactly. Mommy refuses to sew because all her clothes were made by her mother.
I bet I miss Bubbe almost as much as mommy does, and more than her younger sisters Faye and Elaine who are Bohemians. Elka and I can always spot a Bohemian because they wear peasant shirts, flowing skirts,and tons of copper bracelets. They have lots of orange furniture, butterfly chairs, and play folk music in their houses.
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, and would let me grow my hair to my knees and walk around without shoes. Nobody told me this but I know it. Beatniks write poetry, play bongo drums, sleep late and don’t have real jobs. Everybody is worried about my cousin Sandy because he’s a Beatnik.
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 know all about the danger of fat, salt, sugar and cigarettes. When I tell my friends they laugh.
“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 spread sheets, 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 people being alike. It’s more real than what we learn at Spring Lake. 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 on Halloween. Nobody has heard of this town on Long Island. It sounds biblical. We all thought that my family’s moving to the Mid East. I wondered if they have Special Progress classes in the Mid East so I can do seventh and eighth grade in one year like I was supposed to do in the city.
Our new town turns out to be fifteen minutes north east of Queens. We had moved to Beech Hills the year that the expressway came out to it, and now the expressway is built, out to X town, and there’s an exit just a few blocks from our eight room, four level house. X town is 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 want 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 “H” through “M”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 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. A tree Grows in Brooklyn is a hundred 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 Three AM these days.
We watch the movies 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.