It’s the end of March 2019, and I’m sitting in a little cold backyard garden with Francine, the big black and white cat.
This is the time when you can feel spring right underneath that dead cold, pushing up out of the dead underworld and into the yellow and the bright white. But the chill is still in the air. Remembering childhood backyards and making mud pies in the cold air. The air was cold. We bundled up.
My mother would chase us kids out of the house. “Blow the stink off,” she would always say. In snowy weather we took our sleds down Cherry Hill, the big hill on the corner that took up a couple of blocks and then some, ending up in an empty lot. It would get dangerously icy and slick and we would fly down that hill, sometimes coming home with frozen fingers and toes. My mother would warm us with hot towels and her hot chocolate.
In summer we picked blackberries that grew in mass abundance with the over grown weeds and trees on Cherry Hill. I remember losing my balance and falling backward in the thick and thorny blackberry bushes and getting completely scratched up. I was little, nine or ten. Older kids, the teenagers, had made a magical little path with wooden signs and directions leading you deep into the lots ‘til you got to a clearing in the center. Once I found a porn magazine there, with Agent 99 from the TV show Get Smart. Agent 99 does porn? Really?
Cherry Hill. Long gone. The dense lots us kids used to play in, gone. Now a big connecting highway and tons of new houses. Where do all the little kids go to play now? My mother used to call me and my sisters home with that whistle of hers. Through her teeth in three beats that we all knew. We would hear it and run home. We were like little dogs. Other kids’ moms had their own whistle that they knew. You could hear my mom’s whistle two blocks away and around the corner and deep into the lots. We had boundaries, but our parents also had no idea what we were up to all day, either. There was a certain freedom in an otherwise strictly controlled place.
I also remember the little green house that used to exist on the other side of Cherry Hill, owned by an elderly couple, and the man always sat out in front of his little house. Older kids, the teenagers, once told me he was really dead, and his wife, who had killed him, made him talk and move his hands and legs with levers and wires from inside the house. That was why she was never out there with him. And I believed them. The little green house is long gone; it’s now a massive highway.
Who else remembers the little green house? I remember lots of green in summer and tons of snow in winter. And the deep lots, and the forts we built of snow, and the snowball fights, and ringolevio.
I was terrorized one summer playing ringolevio when I was around ten or eleven. We were choosing sides, and the big overgrown lug of a six-foot redheaded retarded boy who looked like Frankenstein and who lived across the street with a big Irish family, got chosen for the opposing team. He stood up with a gleam in his eye and pointed to me saying, “I’m going to get her!”
At that age I wasn’t fully aware that he was retarded, but only a year later, looking out my front door I saw him outside pushing a wheel barrel backwards down the street and I thought, Oh no! what happened to him? And all at once I realized that he always had something wrong with him, and then finally I heard they had to put him away, he had gotten violent.
But for that entire summer, as a little kid, I lived in holy terror of him. One evening, after playing ringolevio all day, as it was starting to get dark, I had him, this monster, right on my heels. We were thrashing through backyards behind garages, and he was finally going to get me. In desperation I jumped up on a neighbor’s back step and busted through their back screen door. I cut through the neighbor’s house, tearing through from the back to the front. It was against the rules, so he stopped and didn’t follow me. I ran past the neighbors’ living room where the husband and wife were sitting on the couch watching TV. They looked up with astonished faces, and I called out and waved, cheery and friendly, “Sorry!”
It’s not as bad as it sounds. Their own kids were outside, somewhere, playing. Tag, Truth or Dare, and Red Light Green Light 1 2 3, swimming in neighbors’ pools and stick ball.
One summer day I was playing stickball with the little kids. I was around thirteen when all of a sudden one of them says, “Hey, Gina! There goes your friends!” Out of the corner of my eye I caught them, just before they turned the corner and I could only see the wave of shiny fancy dresses in different colors; blues, and pinks and greens, as they swished and rushed by. They had left me out. And I knew why. The week before they said, “Wear your favorite clothes and we are going to go out for pizza on the boulevard.” So I wore my favorite jeans and my lucky brown t-shirt. They were astonished. They were all dressed up in those shiny dresses. I said, ‘Well, you didn’t tell me dress up, you said favorite!” So they left me out this time, just as Joey from my junior high school class coming down the block on his bike stopped to say, “Hey, Gina!” And all of a sudden I was aware of my stupid brown t-shirt, my cheap green sneakers my mom got me in a basement sale, and playing stick ball in the street with seven-year-olds!
I was also all of a sudden realizing that Joey was a boy and I was a girl and I got intensely shy. ‘What’s with you?” he sneered. I quickly recovered. “Nothing, what’s with you?” I said. He shrugged, got on his bike and took off, a bit confused.
And just then, another friend from school, a girl, Cindy Laliberty comes down the block in a little Volkswagen driven by her eighteen-year-old boyfriend and stops to say hi, so calm and mature and cute and compared to me, standing there in the middle of the street with a big stick in my hands, sweating, with weird neon ugly green cheap sneakers and little kids running around and hanging off me! She has an eighteen-year-old boyfriend, she’s riding in his car and I’m playing stick ball with seven-year-olds?
I can still see today those shiny satin dresses glittering in the sun just catching my eye before they turned the corner and disappearing out of sight, and seeing and feeling life rushing ahead and leaving me behind.