Growing Up In the Rockaways
My family and I moved to Rockaway Beach when I was 11-years-old. It was to be a two week stay at this summer resort. We rented a room on 101st Street, owned by a spinster from Ireland. My mother, two brothers, and I had a large room with two double beds. When my father came for the weekend a cot was moved into the room. The bathroom and kitchen were shared units, and each renter had a shelf in the ice box for their food. A pan was under the ice box to catch the drippings from the slab of ice in the top section of the box. Our landlady always drank her tea in a bowl with condensed evaporated milk (a thick yellow substance) to save on buying sugar and milk.
I had never seen this concoction before and it made quite an impression.
The El ran at the end of the block and one could hear the roaring of the railroad and see the tourists descending down two flights of stairs to walk to the ocean. It was a two block walk to the beach and we were there every day at nine a.m., swimming in the waves, building sand castles, and getting as red as lobsters from the sun. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and washed them down with Kool-Aid, a sugar lover’s delight. At night all the kids would play stick ball. Exhausted and happy, we went to bed by nine p.m.
If the sunburn acquired that day was too fiery to sleep, my mother would apply cold vinegar much to my nostrils’ dismay.
Perhaps it was her love for the beach, or the fact that she grew up in Rockaway Beach, Oregon, but my mother decided to move us to Rockaway for good. Our years were filled with many moves every winter and summer, because the winter rentals were cheaper than those in the summer.
My mother was an aggressive renter, and always moved us to different furnished apartments. She would tell my father the new address, he would come to his new home after work, and dinner would be on the table as if nothing had changed. When I look back on these times I realize we were poor. I remember nights when we had to use coats for blankets.
Despite these times, I never felt that we were lacking.
I started fifth grade at Public School 44 on Beach 90th Street and the Boulevard. It was an enormous red brick building covering two city blocks with a big school yard bound by a high black fence. I still remember some of my teachers.
There was Mr. Sullivan, a tall and lanky man who taught Social Studies.
Miss Abrams, my English teacher, was a stern woman. She always wore black dresses and laced Cuban heeled shoes. She wore her hair back in a bun, intimidating her students.
I remember Miss Hogan, a bigbreasted Irish woman with black hair, blue eyes, and a commanding voice. She taught music and sewing. In eighth grade we had to make our graduation dresses of shirred rayon with a ruffled collar. That ruffled collar caused me many agonizing hours. It consisted of two rows of basting stitches that gathered to make a perfect collar. I can’t begin to count the amount of times I had to pull out the stitching and redo it again and again. Thank God for Clorox for bleaching the marks left from the stitching. By the time I finished the dress, I could have won the crown for Miss Clorox, 1944!
At the time our country was in the middle of World War II. At my young age I thought the time was quite fun. We had a victory garden by the school
Letters yard. We practiced air raid drills, where all the classes had to go into the hallways, crouch down, and put our heads between our knees.
After graduation most of the students went to Far Rockaway High School. I was fortunate enough to be encouraged by my home economics teacher, Miss Seisfelt, to take the entrance exam for Bishop McDonnell Catholic High School in Brooklyn. I consider my acceptance and attendance at Bishop as the turning point in my life. I will always be grateful to Miss Seisfelt for this gift. I took the bus from 108th Street to 116th Street, and then walk a block to take the bus to Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. From there, I took the subway to Franklin Avenue. I took this journey every day, all while I was only 14 years of age.
On one occasion the elastic in my underwear snapped as I rushed to the subway. I could feel it falling down. At the time “Meet Me in St. Louis,” was a popular movie.
I felt just like Jeanne Crain, one of the stars, who always lost her underwear. I remember thinking to myself, “this only happens in movies.” At the bottom of the stairs, my underwear finally fell all the way down. Without hesitation I stepped out of them, shoved them into my books, and made my train.
I loved high school. I made wonderful friends from all boroughs of the city, and enjoyed learning even though I was an oddity coming from a public school background. I even became an assistant editor of the school paper, ‘The Laurel.’ I treasured these days.