Since the weather has warmed up and school has been let out for the summer, it got me thinking about my childhood and where I grew up.
Summer’s were special when I was growing up. I never went away to summer camp nor did we always go on a vacation with my parents. My dad was working to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, so we never could afford to go on a summer vacation, so I had to make the best of it. It’s not like I think I missed out on anything because my parents weren’t rich. It is what I knew. We lived on a great block in Brooklyn, NY. Our house was in the middle of the block, where to our left, there were over 100 kids living in the houses, and from the right, it was all retired, older people. So, because our house was in the middle, it is where we would play slap ball.
Slap ball is a game like baseball, only the bases are the corners of the curb in between a driveway. Since we had a driveway separating our house from our neighbors house, we all seemed to congregate there. Not too many cars came through our street which made it nice to be able to play in the road without the fear of getting hit by a car. The pitcher stood in the middle of the street, and you would hit the ball, usually a tennis ball, with your hand. You had two catchers, one behind the player and one to catch any “outfielder” balls. Once the ball was hit, you would then try to run the bases.
Back then, Brooklyn hadn’t been hipsterized yet, however, it was a neighborhood which many immigrant families lived, or first generation Americans, which is probably the more politically correct thing to write. I can say there were no African Americans in our neighborhood, but we had plenty of Irish, Italians, Polish, Jews, and Germans up and down the block living their lives the best they could.
It was here where I made my first friends, learned how to ride a bike, had my first boyfriend (Jimmy), played stoop ball, played house, played school, learned how to swim, received my First Communion, and while walking to school, all us kids would kiss our crossing guard on the cheek “good morning” because we loved her and she smelled really good (Ms. Jean). I learned how to jump rope, hula hoop, and bubble gum was my favorite meal.
My family was one of the Italian families who moved on the block and of course, this caused the Irish families to be up in arms. What was their neighborhood turning into, they asked themselves. Soon other Italian families followed suit. We had the Venturino’s across the street, the Barbanos two houses down, and since the houses were two family houses, their relatives lived either upstairs from them or downstairs from them. The women, after doing their housework, would sit on their stoops in their cotton house dresses and enjoy each other’s company and watch as their kids all played together.
Every day the Good Humor man would come around and all of us kids would run in and ask our parents for money. We’d stand in line patiently, waiting our turn as we looked at all the goodies painted on the side of the truck, deciding at the last minute what we wanted. Once a month, Charlie Chips came by and my mom would buy a can of their potato chips and sometimes their pretzels. It was then, she would sit out in the driveway with Irene McCormick, mother of six children, and eat potato chips and drink a six pack of beer. This was a time where mothers stayed home with their kids while their husband’s went to work every day.
The summer time brought heat and humidity. I remember every night my mom would put the big fan in the window blowing the heat out of the house and another big fan in the hall way. Sometimes it took me a while to fall asleep because it was so miserably hot out. My parents had a window air conditioner and would close their door so they could at least sleep. My dad always left early for work and my mom liked to sleep in. We weren’t allowed to leave our rooms until we heard her in the kitchen. I would sneak out and grab the Sear’s catalog, take it back to my room and go through the pages. I would dog ear pages of things I liked and told myself when I got older, I was going to buy it.
I was raised Catholic and was very religious when I was younger. I went to a Catholic elementary school and went to Mass every Sunday. It was in Latin at the time and even though I had no idea what the priest was saying, it was like music to my ears. I loved listening to the words. I had books on all the saints and admired how they gave their lives for Christ. I listened intently to the priest as he gave his sermon and enjoyed the stories from the Bible. But it instilled a fear in me that took many years to overcome. Whenever I thought about God, I became fearful. He was a God who was vengeful, at least that’s how I took it as a young kid. Don’t mess up or else!
Every Sunday, summer or winter, we always got together with family. There was no bbq’ing on Sunday. Sunday was for pasta and meatballs and sausage and roast and potatoes and veggies and homemade crumb cake, after church of course. And always, bagels and rolls with cream cheese or butter for breakfast from a local bakery. A huge bottle of burgundy wine was at the center of the table at dinner and Uncle Al always asked, “How’s school, Lucy?” I got along great with my cousins, still do to this day, though we all live in different states now. We were always laughing, and even today, we still laugh a lot when we are together or through our emails to each other, all of us in our 60’s mind you.
Every summer the adults put on a block party only we’d do it at a local park and have a crab fest. We’d play volleyball, baseball, badminton and have huge vats of boiling water to throw the crabs in or mussels, or clams. A grill for hot dogs and lots of Kool-aid. And even though it was hot and humid, we didn’t seem to mind it. We still played outside, came in sweaty and thirsty. My dad would take us for Italian Ice or when the Carvel ice cream truck came singing down the street, he would flag them down. Fireworks and sparklers. Playing hide and seek after the sun went down, mosquito bites, the hum of the fan lulling me to sleep, lightening bugs, afraid to keep my foot outside the sheets in case someone was under my bed. I didn’t want them tempted to grab me and pull me under. Crabbing at Canarsie pier, chewing Doublemint gum because my grandpa always carried a pack in his shirt pocket, eating Chinese food with Henry, my dad’s taxi cab buddies, drinking coffee at the kitchen table, the cute older guys who hung out at the corner of Ryder and Flatbush, and no matter how hot it was outside, I never could understand why they kept their black leather jackets on, now I do.
I could go on and on about my memories of summer while growing up in Brooklyn. It is a time that only lives on in my head. What sticks out most to me isn’t the fact we were poor, or my dad worked 2 jobs and was going to school to better his mechanical skills, or that my mom was strict with us. What sticks out the most in my mind was the fact I felt safe and felt accepted, even though our ethnicity was different from our friends. I didn’t need to be entertained, I was able to entertain myself. I didn’t hang out with grownups, I hung out with my friends. I never thought I would hear myself say, “I miss those days.” Growing up in summertime Brooklyn.