No memoir of growing up in Queens would be complete without including some thoughts about the moms that were such a big part of my early memories.
Harlan was one of my first childhood friends. He lived next door and his mom and my mom were friends which is rare because adults often can’t stand the parents of their kids’ friends and spend years praying one kid will bite the other so the parents have a legitimate reason to end the friendship. Harlan’s mom kept a candy dish in the living room that actually had candy in it. And I’m not talking about sucking candies or mints. Harlan’s mom always kept Chunky bars in the candy dish because Harlan’s dad worked for the company that manufactured them. His mom also introduced me to chocolate ices, another food we never had in our house, and she taught me how to turn over the ices to get at all the frosty, sugary gunk at the bottom. She worked at one of the neighborhood candy stores and would let us pick out a candy or sometimes a comic book. We always felt like VIPs going in the store and claiming our treats. That Harlan was a keeper…I don’t bite the hand that feeds me.
Cha-Cha was also an early childhood friend who lived in the building. Cha-Cha’s mom was beautiful and elegant and could wear a potato sack and everyone assumed she was wearing something from some fancy designer. She played Turkish music, danced around, and screamed a lot when a song came on that she liked. The house was decorated with Persian rugs placed over the mandatory wall-to-wall carpeting everyone had in apartments in the 70’s and the house always smelled of exotic foods, nothing like the TV dinner being served up at my house. She let us have multiple pieces of fruit with absolutely no repurcussions and let us make as much noise as we wanted to. Cha-Cha’s mom nicknamed me Bar-bree and showered me with the same affection she showed her own kids.
Once I entered grade school, my circle of friends expanded. Laurie’s mom wore her hair in two long ponytails and had jeans in multiple pastel colors. She would pick Laurie up from school with their huge English Setter in tow and invite me over to spend time with Laurie. Laurie’s mom made cakes from a mix and let us frost them. She took us for ice cream and sometimes even a hamburger at Alexander’s restaurant. She was frequently the mom on class trips and always had my back on the trips with Mr. Nelson’s class. She threw tree trimming parties and invited all the holiday-challenged Jewish kids to help with the decorations. She invited me and a group of our friends to the house to work on a research project for social studies where we attempted to recreate archeologist Louis Leakey’s discovery of Zinjanthropus using homemade clay she helped us make. Our skull head looked more like the Pillsbury dough boy than a 1.75 million year old skull, but Laurie’s mom told us it was great and luckily our teacher, Ms. Rifkin gave us an A.
Jackie’s mom made us hot chocolate (from a mix!) after we returned from sleigh riding with red cheeks and frozen asses. She threw awesome birthday parties for Jackie where she would mimiograph copies of a Broadway play like the Makado and let us raid her closet and makeup drawer so we could perform the play with our scripts and costumes. I barely remember my own birthday parties, but Jackie’s were truly unforgettable.
Gaby’s mom was the youngest of all the moms. She wore bell-bottom jeans (maybe from Instant Pants?) and turtleneck sweaters with rainbow stripes. She always chewed gum and cracked it constantly Her house was spotless; the floors were shiny (this is the only apartment I remember without carpeting) and everyone was required to remove their shoes upon their arrival. Gaby once dared me to eat a piece of guinea pig food, which I did because I was stupid enough to do anything including putting toothpaste on my eyelids. Her mother found out and was not amused, but only Gaby got in trouble. Another time, a few of us went to Gaby’s house to work on a social studies project about the Pilgrims. We created a display on green oak tag that we were sure would earn us an A until Gaby called us the next morning to inform us that her little brother had thrown up all over the project the night before. Gaby’s mom scrubbed it clean, and while I noticed a few remnants of puke on the back side of the oak tag, Gaby’s mom saved us from getting an F.
Amy’s mom helped us make lemonade for our lemonade stand and gave us money to go buy some candy to sell with the lemonade. We sold the candy for less money than we purchased it for and while she might have questioned our lack of basic math skills, she was glad to see us having fun. I think she’s also the mother who tipped my mom off to the Hair So New product, but she was so nice, I will forgive her for that one.
And then of course there’s my mom. Once or twice a year, she made these special apricot cookies that were very difficult and time consuming to make. I learned every curse word while watching mom make these things, but in the end it was worth it. My favorite part was watching her and later helping her make the frosting in four primary colors. Today these cookies are only made when grandchildren visit and usually only for the ones that live out of town (not mine). So now my nieces and nephew are cursing up a storm and the traditional lives on. My mom took me every year to see the Christmas windows at all the big department stores (perhaps to make up for the whole Santa debacle) and to the annual Purim Carnival which must have been mind-numbing for her. She taught me how to ride a bike in Alexander’s parking lot, how to float on my back at the pool, and how to trace pictures using wax paper when I needed to decorate a cover for a book report.
I’m sure there were so many other wonderful facets to these women, but as with many memories, it always seems to be the little things that stand out. A kind word, an interesting mannerism, a special recipe, a different way of doing things…these are the memories that are indelibly etched in my mind.