Friday, January 5, 2018

"Prelude" to Red Apple Rest

     I have a note Scotch-taped to my Mac Airbook. It reads: "Everything on this computer is a story."
     My computer is my companion. It knows my innermost thoughts, what I make public and what I jealously hold close in my heart. It has fragments of conversations I've overheard in restaurant booths, restrooms, parks, and airplanes. It holds memories of childhood: a grandmother's hard-as-hockey-puck cookies; the exhilarating, yet scary feeling of riding a two-wheeled bicycle for the first time as my father let go and I sailed free; the lash of a buckle across my arms as my mother hit me with my father's belt for some small transgression; my grandfather teaching me to play Go Fish or walking me to school when I was little. Ordinary memories, extraordinary moments.
     When I was a child I had a diary with a tiny lock and key. When I was older I kept spiral-bound journals with stiff cardboard covers. I always wanted to be a writer. It was an impossible dream, but I was determined to make it happen. This is my story.
     It begins with my father. He was the bearer of gifts in our family, and my window to the world. At holidays and birthdays, and in times in between, he might bring home a special toy or a book. I loved to read. As soon as I was allowed to, at the age of nine or ten, I would walk alone to the public library every week, returning home with an armful of books. I had no real notion of how someone became a writer until I read the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace, published from 1940 to 1955. The books tell the story of three friends growing up in Minnesota, and begin when the children meet even before kindergarten. As the girls grow, the language of each successive book swells in sophistication, culminating in Betsy's adulthood when she becomes a writer and marries. As I matured along with Betsy, my own dreams became more vivid. Yet I saw no way to make them real. 
     In the sixth grade, for my twelfth birthday, I was given a Royal typewriter by my father. As with so many occasions, he was absent from the small birthday party but the gift was there: a used, but sturdy heavy machine with a spool of red-and-black ribbon. Intentionally or not, my father nurtured my dream and gave me a substantive, three-dimensional tool.
     We lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn in a neighborhood called Crown Heights. I could walk to Ebbets Field, where the Brooklyn Dodgers played baseball. I could walk to the large nature preserve of Prospect Park, with its lawns and woods, zoo and carousel, lake that froze over in winter for ice skating, and concert amphitheater. Or I could take a short bus ride to the main library at Grand Army Plaza, where I'd later get my first job, or to the Brooklyn Museum, where I'd later take life drawing classes, or Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, where later, when I was fifteen, in love for the first time with a boy who played trumpet in the high school band, we kissed in the rain.
     My father was a taxi driver, a man who read a lot, but dropped out of school after sixth grade. I thought he was brilliant, and I wanted to be like him. Free, independent, and a lover of life. On weekends he'd drive us into Manhattan, the "City." We'd explore museums, historical places, ethnic neighborhoods, cultural worlds beyond Brooklyn. New York City was a wondrous place in which to grow up, in that time, a place with riches that even people who weren't rich could afford to discover and luxuriate in.
     My mother was a housewife. While she had graduated from high school, my mother's role, like so many women of her generation and social status, was predetermined. She was economically dependent on and mostly subservient to her husband. She spent her time cleaning, cooking, shopping, lugging laundry baskets down to the basement washer and dryer in our apartment building, and ironing my father's undershorts, her blouses, and dresses for my little sister and me. I didn't want to be like my mother.
     My parents fought whenever they were together, which wasn't that often. My father worked late every night. He was never home at dinner time, mostly arriving after we went to sleep. My mother was angry all the time, short-tempered, anxious. She suspected that my father had affairs, and she was right.
     At sixteen, I was a senior in high school. I had completed all my required coursework in the fall semester, and by the end of that year, 1957, my friend Susan and I had completed all our requirements for graduation, and were done. We planned to apply for admission to Brooklyn College. It was out of the question for us to go elsewhere. Neither my family nor Susan's could afford to send us to an out-of-town school. Neither could most of our friends in that working class neighborhood, unless they applied for and received scholarships.
     When I told my parents about my plan to go to college, they were not happy.
     Why do you need college? Just get a job till you get married and have a family, they argued.
     No, I said. I wanted to be educated, I wanted to learn. I wanted to be more.
     Then become a teacher. You'll have summers off, they said. And get a job, they added, because you'll have to support yourself.
     Support yourself. The words rang in my ears. Yes, to be a writer is to be independent. To be a free woman is to be independent. I didn't know any independent women. But I was going to become one, whatever it took.

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