I am three years old in this picture and still remember that dress. It was red. I always insisted on wearing dresses, my mother tells me. But the star of this photo is the 48′ Chevy in the background..
For as long as I can remember, my Dad had the forty-eight Chevy. Every Sunday afternoon he would load us and our black cocker spaniel, Cookie into the Chevy for a ride to the park. Many times we got ice cream.
Every upstanding little girl must be fashionably dressed while digging worms.
Bathrobes were a must for little girls who were posing in the front yard with their brother and dog but boys will be boys.
We had a fence too, even a gate. At night our Dad would let our horse, Scout, out of the pasture so he could roam around in our yard. Many mornings I would wake up to see Scout’s nose pressed against the window screen. (we didn’t have air conditioning back then but I rarely remember being hot. How is that?) There’s nothing like being awakened by a sneezing horse.
Our Dad went to New Orleans while he was in Louisiana for the Fast Pitch Mens’ Regional Tournament but all my brother got was a cute little stinker teeshirt.
I find myself turning away from the news today, looking through old family pictures on our family’s internet site. My parents are holding on to all the albums of the past, treasuring them like rare jewels. When any of us manage to make off with a photo we have to promise to return it.
I’ve been thinking of our old homeplace for a while now. Like many neighborhoods, apartments were built down the block in the late sixties, nice at first but by the mid-seventies, attracting all the wrong sort. My parents bought another house the year I married but held on to the land and the little house.
This past winter they sold the land. The house had been moved out to the country several years ago.
So now, memories are all that is left of a happy childhood. (and photos) There’s no more picket fence, Scout the horse, or romping through the woods playing cowboys and Army. No more 1948 Chevy. Or bicycle races. The neighborhood has turned ugly, with slummy apartments full of neglected children and drug pushers roaming the streets.
Once we had few neighbors, only open fields, trees and a house on the end of the block with an elderly couple who befriended our parents.
I remember when our Italian neighbors, the Portas, moved into their newly constructed house. We became friends with their four children immediately. Mr. Porta was a generous man who would bring home leftovers from his restaurant to feed the cats, dogs and chickens who lived in our neighborhood. He liked to drive his car with the driver side window open so he could hang his arm out. He did it so often the paint wore off on the side, leaving an imprint of his arm.
When there was a death in our family, Mr. Porta brought over his wonderful hickory smoked beef with his delicious secret recipe barbecue sauce. The Portas were Catholics and through them, I learned about Catholic beliefs and customs. I watched Mrs. Porta pray her rosary faithfully when her son, Butch, was in Vietnam.
One day, my brother and I were invited to go visit the Porta kids’ grandmother, who was an immigrant from Italy. Being a widow, she always wore black and invariably seemed to have her rosary in her hand. Her house was very close to the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. She had lace curtains in her windows. I liked to listen to her voice; it was low and husky. Grandmother Porta was the wonder behind her four amazing sons, who all had successful restaurants. The aromas in her kitchen were wonderful. It smelled of delectable Italian ingredients: tomatoes, oregano, and garlic.
Mr. Porta’s restaurant was small and people sometimes had to stand in line to get a seat. Mr. Porta had a hand written sign posted on the glass dessert case. It read: “Duncan Hines never ate here. He couldn’t find a seat.”
The neighborhood lives in my memory and it’s sad that many children will never know the fun we had pre-Sesame Street. My sister and I loved to make mud pies. We perfected our “recipe” to the point that our mud cookies looked just like Vanilla Wafers.
One day, we took real Vanilla Wafers outside and were sitting munching on them when Ellen, Mr. Porta’s daughter, came over. We knew she could never resist a cookie so when she asked for one, my sister gave her the matching mud cookie. She took one bite, threw the cookie down, burst into tears and ran home.
Thus began, the Lucy-Ellen feud, which lasted about a week. Between our house and the Porta’s house was a large ditch about the size of a moat. Mr. Porta had hired an Indian man named “Chief” to build a bridge over the ditch. On that bridge, Ellen and Lucy would leave nasty messages to each other until they got tired of it, began to miss each other and made up.
Ellen was a bridesmaid in my wedding and a dear, precious friend. When my brother joined the National Guard, Ellen’s older brother, Mark, did too.
I introduced Mark to my best friend, Janie on our front porch. They’ve been married for thirty six years and have four children.
My cousin, Gary, practicing in our yard. Gary won a baseball scholarship to SMU and played in the minor leagues until his wife convinced him to quit. Next to him is Tommy Across the Street. My youngest brother, Guy is sitting on the ground. Try to find Santa Claus in the photo.
There were other neighborhood kids who joined our gang. One, we called Tommy Across the Street because he lived across the street and his name was Tommy. His mother was a single mom who worked hard at her job and doted on Tommy. He had been struck with cancer when he was three years old and his eye had to be removed. The doctors couldn’t replace his eye with anything because so much tissue had to be removed so he had to wear a patch over his eye. Tommy joined our neighborhood group and spent all of his time playing at our house. He was so comfortable with us he didn’t wear the patch.
When he was twenty-three years old, the cancer struck again. We lost Tommy. I was home from Germany at the time, expecting our second child and was too devastated to go to the funeral. My brothers were pallbearers. Tommy’s mother was so grief-stricken that she moved away. We never heard from her again.
The life we lived as children during the fifties and sixties can’t be replicated now. Too many restraints have been put in place. Families have fractured. Parents seem to have different expectations of their children and not enough time.
Our parents played with us, disciplined us, read to us and prayed with us. They let us run around the neighborhood as long as it was only next door or across the street. They were at every performance at school dressed to the hilt. I remember my mother going to PTA meetings in a dress with a nice necklace on. All the other mothers were dressed the same way.
Perhaps I am romanticizing our childhood but I don’t think so. The liberal culture hates the Ozzie and Harriet era but we lived it and it was good.
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