Works in Progress

Let's All Put On Our Thinking Caps, Shall We?

Life was pretty good until 1958, when I began to suspect that the small Queens, New York, world I inhabited was perhaps not as completely dedicated to my happiness as I took it to be. Existential unease started to manifest itself early that summer with the birth of my brother, a happy charmer with golden brown curls, who, unfairly in my self-regarding estimation, usurped all of the family attention I had previously enjoyed. My distress at having to share my mother with this little god was so acute that, on the first day of first grade, I forgot that I had lobbied long and hard for the chance to walk to school by myself and faked a back injury which I was sure would keep me at home. I stationed myself next to the easy chair, where my mother was sitting with my brother in her arms. I groaned pitifully and clutched my back with both hands, like the man I’d seen in a subway advertisement for Anacin. All that was missing were the little cartoon lightning bolts of pain issuing from my back.
     "I don’t think I can go, " I whined. "I better stay home. "
Surprisingly, my mother was not fooled by my virtuoso performance of a Soul in Agony and sent me out the door along with the Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox that had belonged to my Connecticut cousin, Steven, a former diehard Hoppy fan who, having just turned 11, decided that paper bags were a more sophisticated form of preteen lunch transportation. I had watched Hopalong Cassidy serials on TV and become dazzled by Hoppy’s silver hair, his dapper black cowboy suit, immaculately tied kerchief, and knightly manner; he was my first crush and I was glad to have him with me as I headed out the door for the two-and-a-half block walk to school.

I had made two test walks to the school over Labor Day weekend with my father, dressed in his vacation garb—a wheat-colored polo shirt and khaki slacks—following discreetly but attentively behind, puffing on a cigarette. At each corner, he called out just loud enough for me to hear, "Remember to look both ways, Hepzibah! " My father was often deeply quiet, a quality I liked because it made a welcome change from my mother and grandmother’s incessant need for conversation. He seemed emotionally distant, which our Alpha women put down to his being a traditionally phlegmatic New England male, and which I learned, much later, was partly due to flashbacks resulting from some particularly unsavory wartime experiences. Of course, that there were Alpha women in our house may have been a contributing factor. Still, at times my father displayed a silly, childlike side. He liked baby talk, odd names, and nicknames—flowers were "fatoos"; he had named our new kitten "Katzen-Ellen" after "Katzenellen-Bogen-By-The-Sea, " a popular song of the mid-1950s; and I had recently become "Hepzibah, " after the character, "Miss Mam’selle Hepzibah," a little French skunk from the gently satirical comic strip, Pogo.
    But my father was at work. Tant pis. My mother watched from the door as I went slowly down the brick walk, my head down and bent double. I was still trying to make a point. At the gate, I turned and looked back at her. She smiled, waved, and called out, "You’ll be fine. " Then: "Be a good girl. " She shut the door and I was on my own. The morning was warm and sunny, and, as I turned right onto 79th street and began my walk, I raised my head and began to enjoy the feeling of embarking on my first independent outing with my first lunchbox, in which was tucked away a peanut butter sandwich in wax paper and oreo cookies in a wax paper bag. My dramatic rendition had resulted in a late start, which meant that the girlfriends I might have walked with were long gone, undoubtedly taken to school early by their mothers. But I didn’t mind. I was a solo traveler, grown up, let loose on the open road, not needing my mother or father after all.
Then I came to the corner of 79th street and forgot which way to go. I looked left: row houses. I looked right: more row houses. I looked across the street: semi-detached houses with garages. It was deadly quiet: no people, no cars, no nothing. My only point of reference—Juniper Valley Park, which ran alongside the school—was somewhere in the distance. But where? Mommy? Daddy? Hoppy? Help!
     There was only one solution: turn back. Once home, my mother would have to let me stay there. By then it would be too late to go to school. I was about to make my move toward home and safety, when I heard a boy’s voice call out, "Hey! " I turned to see a red-haired, freckle-faced boy coming down 79th street toward me and recognized Danny Sherman, who lived across the street from me. Danny was ten and had a sister, Melanie, who was my age. Melanie was only an occasional playmate of mine; we 79th-street girls observed strict friendship boundaries that were determined by the street-long alleys in the back of our houses, where we all met to play. Danny was an exception. He had enough friends on our side of the street to prefer our alley to his. I liked Danny because he was nice enough to play with us "little kids" sometimes.
Danny caught up to me. "I called for yuh, but yuh mother said you’d just left. She asked me to look out for yuh." I noticed that he was He glanced at my lunchbox and whistled appreciatively. "Hopalong Cassidy. That’s neat. " Then he looked at his wristwatch and said, "We better hurry or else we’ll be late. Mom took Melanie to school already. Melanie wanted to be early. "
Well, goody gumdrops for Melanie.

   We crossed the street and down the next block and there it was: the park. Only last Saturday, my mother had taken me swimming there in the shallow pool that was reserved for kids. I could see the pool beyond the spiked metal gates that separated the sidewalk from the grassy, leafy confines of the park. It had been drained already and would lie unused, its cracked concrete bottom covered with fallen leaves, until next summer, whenever the New York parks department got around to filling it up again.

   Danny and I continued past the park to the schoolyard gate. When we arrived at the concrete schoolyard of the imposing red-brick fortress that was P. S. 49, Danny, who had been chatting about the Yankees’ chances against the Milwaukee Braves, shut up like a clam. In fact, every kid in the schoolyard was silent. "See yuh, " Danny whispered so low I could barely hear him. He headed off across the yard. I spotted the kids who had been in my Kindergarten class, several of whom were playmates from my street. Last year, our mothers had taken us right to our classroom, where Moms, kids, and our teacher talked with one another before class; this year it was clear from the start that there was a different arrangement. My fellow first-graders, lined up behind a blond, chunky, stone-faced sixth-grade boy in a Boy Scout uniform, were celebrating that difference by looking like prisoners waiting for a last cigarette, blindfolds, and a firing squad. I saw Melanie Sherman at the front of the line, Erica Getzoff at the back. I got in line behind Erica. She turned to show me her new Ginny doll pencil case. "Look what I got! " she said excitedly, prompting a sixth-grade girl heading the line of second-graders next to us to bark out, "No Talking! " Erica’s eyes widened in terror, her mouth clamped shut, and she abruptly turned away from me.

   A few minutes later, the bell rang and we obediently followed our Boy Scout through the big brown metal doors into the building and down the hall to our classroom. In the room was a middle-aged woman with short grayish-brown hair, dressed in a dark-blue jacket a matching straight, calf-length skirt the same color as the jacket, and black oxfords. She was busy using a long wooden pole with a curved metal point at the end to open the large, high windows that were a feature of New York schools. As we filed into the classroom, she propped the pole up against the wall, went to stand behind a big wooden desk, and smiled at us. "Thank you, Peter, " she said in a pleasant tone to the Boy Scout, who responded with a smart salute and replied in a voice that made it clear his days as a boy soprano were numbered, "You’re welcome, Ma’am, " then turned on his heel and marched out of the classroom, shutting the door behind him. After we had each settled behind a little brown desk that was bolted to the floor and had an inkwell, the teacher wrote an incomprehensible series of letters on the blackboard and pointed to it with her chalk as she turned toward us. "Boys and girls, my name is Mrs. Muriel Capwell. We will learn many things in first grade. Most of all, we will learn to read and write. And we will start today. So, let’s all put on our thinking caps, shall we? "
   Thus, I was thrust into the adventures of Dick and Jane, Sally, Spot, and Puff, not to mention the art of peewee calligraphy. This was exciting stuff, much less boring than making stuffed, plastic rabbits in Mrs. Schiff’s Kindergarten class ("Would you like me to stitch that up for you, Dear? "), and I knew I had a touch of literary genius in me, when, a month later, I produced my first piece of fiction, a lively masterpiece of brevity and painstakingly constructed upper-case printing only slightly dipping below the lines that featured Me, Dick, and Spot visiting "NEW YROK SOITY. GO SPOT GO. " I loved the way words looked and sounded, I loved my desk, and I especially loved kindly Mrs. Capwell; in my eyes she could do no wrong, and I was sure that she loved me, too.
   But the nature of childhood attachments to adults who seem to treat us better than our parents is transitory, as I would learn one cold, gray Monday morning in early December.
We had all lined up in the schoolyard as usual and as usual were escorted to our classroom by Peter the Boy Scout. Rumors had recently been flying hot and heavy among those of us who were learning to read at warp speed concerning the possible addition of a real "reader" to our steady but increasingly monotonous diet of Dick and Jane, so there was a palpable air of anticipation as we took our seats. I looked eagerly at Mrs. Capwell. Her head was bent slightly toward Peter, who was whispering something to her. She frowned and nodded; then she said, "Will these children please come to the front of the room when I call your names. "
One by one, she called out names, until only four of us were left sitting at our desks. I tried to maintain a blank expression but found it difficult not to look smug—obviously the kids up front had done something wrong and were, in street patois, "gonna get it. " But I began to feel uneasy when Mrs. Capwell looked at the four of us with a stern expression I had never seen on her face before. She finally spoke:
   "Peter has just told me that you children misbehaved in line before class. " A wave of panic swept over me. Misbehaved? Me? Not me! I was a good little girl who never misbehaved! I was the best reader in the class! A star! What did I do? There must be some mistake!

   Then I remembered: Seconds before the bell rang summoning us to class, Brian Nolan had tried to kiss me and I whispered to him, "Get off me! " And Big Ears Peter had heard it and reported me for violating the No Talking Rule, which is what happens when eleven-year-olds are appointed schoolyard monitors and endowed with the kind of power usually reserved for drill sergeants and prison guards. Peter, in fact, was standing next to the group of innocent kids, staring into the middle distance, his hands behind his back and his legs spread apart, like the M. P. he would no doubt become sometime after he was drafted right out of high school. Brian Nolan was standing right beside him.
    I gave Brian, who was now the possessor of the smug expression that had been mine, a death-ray look I hoped would vaporize him. He caught my eye and grinned at me.
   Mrs. Capwell went on with her admonition: "I am very disappointed in you children. I hope you have learned your lesson and will remember to obey the rules in line from now on." Then: "Peter, you may go back to your class. " And, finally, to the relief of the kids bunched up beside her who, except for Brian Nolan, looked very uncomfortable and by now were starting to fidget: "You boys and girls may take your seats." She picked up a piece of chalk, waited for the kids to shuffle back to their desks, and then began to conduct her class as if nothing had happened. I opened my Dick and Jane workbook and read the latest installment. Sally had knocked over a vase of flowers while chasing Spot around the room and Jane was scolding her. Sally had her head down and looked ashamed because Jane was disappointed in her. I knew how Sally felt.
   On the way home that afternoon, I banged Hoppy hard against any available iron fences and gates, denting the little tin lunchbox around its rim. This small act of lunchbox vandalism helped to turn shame into anger, and by the time I reached the red cement walkway of my house, I was royally pissed off. When I walked in the door, my mother, who was sitting on the couch giving my brother a mid-afternoon bottle feed, greeted me cheerfully and asked how my day had been. I was succinct: "Mrs. Capwell made a lotta kids go to the front of the room then she yelled at me! " On the word, "yelled, " I slung the lunchbox onto the sofa. Poor Hoppy.
   My mother looked both startled at my uncharacteristic display of temper and confused at what I had said, but she nevertheless zeroed in on the crux of the matter: "She yelled at you? "
   Me, indignantly: "Yeah! "
   Mother, sharply: "Why did she yell at you? "
   This was not working out the way I had hoped. I had expected maternal outrage on my behalf; instead my mother was expecting the facts, which meant I could be letting myself in for another scolding.
   There was a short break in the proceedings, as my mother removed the bottle, put it on the coffee table, draped a cloth diaper over her shoulder, and hoisted my brother onto her shoulder. She gently patted his back and smiled as he let out a good, solid burp. She lowered her head and looked at me, her mouth sliding from gratified smile to lips pursed together in displeasure.
   "Deborah. What. Did. You. Do."
    I thought fast. "Nothing! It wasn’t my fault!"
   Then she gave the knee-jerk response parents always assume will provoke a confession: "Well, then whose fault was it? "
I was desperate, but the will to survive was there, so I said in a rush, "Brian Nolan made me an’ that fatso Peter is a big-mouth creep an’ Mrs. Capwell is mean an’ it’s stupid. It’s not fair!" I hope my fast talking and naming names would confuse my mother so much she’d give up and let it go. But just to be on the safe side, I added in a small voice, with just the right note of injured why-are-you-badgering-your-poor-little-daughter plaintiveness, "Can I have my snack now? "
   My mother, no doubt realizing that the conversation had entered the realm of the nonsensical and that further cross-examination was pointless, sighed deeply, nodded, and said, with just the right note of worn-down maternal exasperation, "Yes, all right. "
   I headed for the dining-room table and began to dig into a plate of fig newtons. Feeling perky now that I was off the hook, I made a mustache with my grape juice, and, as was my custom, silently counted the cups and saucers, spoons, forks, and knives pictured on the brown wallpaper. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my mother put my brother into his playpen and pick up the dented lunchbox. She looked at it, shook her head, and sighed again. Then she joined me in the dining room, where she settled herself at the table opposite me. She lit a cigarette (A Pall Mall, unfiltered), took up my father’s silver Parker pen, selected a page from the blue stationary ordered from the Miles Kimball catalogue that was embossed with "Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel Felder," and began to write.
   I had returned to the wallpaper and was counting my tenth dishware ensemble when my mother looked up at me across the table and said, "I’m writing a letter to Muriel. "
Muriel? Oh, yeah, Mrs. Capwell. "Uh, huh, " I said disinterestedly, my eyes still on the wallpaper.

My mother went on in the same even tone: "Since you won’t tell me what you did, I’m writing to Muriel to find out and to apologize to her for your behavior. She must have had a good reason for scolding you. "
That got my attention. I stared at my mother, as she finished her letter, folded it neatly in half, and put it in a matching blue envelope. She licked the flap, wrote an address, licked a stamp, affixed that, took a deep breath and said in a satisfied tone, "There. " She looked over at me again and added, "Wipe your mouth, please. "
   I slowly wiped the juicestache off my mouth with the back of my hand. Forget about backtracking, telling the whole truth, and hoping for the best. It was too late. The worlds of home and school were going to collide. I was now in the middle of a parent-teacher conclave that could only result in me getting the business from both ends.
   "I’d better get dinner started, " my mother said briskly, getting up from the table. "Your father will be home soon. " She looked at her watch, which she always wore with the face on the inside of her wrist, and suggested I go into the living room to watch Ding Dong School.
   The star of Ding Dong School was Frances Horwich, a plump, motherly educator with a soothing voice and a gentle demeanor that held me and every kid of my generation in hypnotic thrall. For all I knew, Miss Frances might have favored fishnets, whips, and chains in her off-hours, or did something unwholesome with that big schoolmarm bell she rang to signal the start of her show, but for the half-hour she was on TV, she radiated a nonjudgmental benevolence that was tranquilizing and made this kid at least feel very good.
I sat on the floor in front of the TV, my legs crossed. On the screen, a smiling Miss Frances was suggesting that we get our mothers to buy Wheaties, the "Breakfast of Champions. " Then she went back to her show, which was usually a mix of singalongs, a puppet or two, and simple crafts. Today, however, Miss Frances sat on her stool, smiled at the camera, and said, "Boys and girls, today we are going to talk about telling the truth. " She was looking directly at me. "You know the difference between lying and telling the truth, don’t you boys and girls? Yes, of course you do. "
   Miss Frances’s soothing tone didn’t fool me for a minute. It was whips and chains and self-abuse with a bell after all. I got up, turned off the TV, and that was the end of Miss Frances. I never watched the show again.
   The week wore on. Mrs. Capwell’s peculiar brand of discipline had had the desired effect: all of us, the transgressors, the innocent, and even Brian Nolan, took a vow of silence in the schoolyard that would have impressed a cloister of Carmelite nuns. Mail moved fast in those days, and I daily expected a response to my mother’s letter, together with further admonitions from teacher or parent or both. But Mrs. Capwell was her usual bustling and smiling and helpful self, and my mother seemed to have forgotten her letter to Muriel. By Friday, I had forgotten about it, too.
Saturday morning was sunny and cold, with a slight dusting of snow on the street and sidewalk from the night before. My father and I walked over to Eliot Avenue, a main drag in Middle Village, where my father got a haircut and a shave at Salvatore’s barber shop ("2 Barbers, 4 Chairs, No Waiting! "). I sat cozy in a barber’s chair and watched Sal and his son, Tony, work their grooming magic on my father and another customer. Despite having been in this country for over thirty years, Sal maintained an Italian accent you could cut with a straight razor and Tony was only slightly more linguistically adept. But my father and the other customer seemed to have no trouble understanding them and the four of them chatted amiably away. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I loved being in the company of men who made a big fuss over me, loved the smell of Barbasol, loved the chairs that went up and down, the big shiny mirror, and the marble counter on which were neatly lined up all the tools of the barbers’ trade, including combs in blue water. When I got bored listening, I switched my attention to the magazines in my lap. Titled True and Adventure, these magazines celebrated the heroic he-man lifestyle presumably enjoyed by those men who wisely ventured into the wild equipped with whip, gun, and spear, not to mention a really good haircut and close shave. There were drawings of well-muscled men in sleeveless undershirts or shirts with sleeves rolled up high wrestling alligators and boa constrictors, and saving scantily clad full-lipped, pert-breasted women from lions and elephants and other African and Amazonian wildlife, some of whose relatives were enjoying a more secure, if passive, existence in the Bronx Zoo. I could only pick out a few words of the articles, but the pictures fascinated me.
    When my father was finished, he lightly caressed both cheeks, first with the front of his hand, then with the back, complimented Sal on a "fine job, " and forked over the royal sum of $2. I slid down from my chair, received a lollipop and a pat on the head from Sal ("You a good girl, honey"), and we headed out the door to enjoy a succulent breakfast at the Peter Pan Luncheonette two doors down (Daddy: fried eggs, bacon, whitefish, toast, and coffee. Hepzibah: soft-boiled egg, bacon, toast, some of Daddy’s whitefish, and chocolate milk). Walking down 79th street with my father holding my hand and with no need to talk, I was completely content. It had been a great morning, the best.
   After we had gotten home and my father had hung our coats and scarves in the hall closet and helped me off with my red rubber boots, he disappeared upstairs for his post-breakfast appointment with a cigarette and Look magazine in the bathroom. My brother was sprawled out asleep in his playpen, his mouth open and his curly head resting on his favorite Steiff lion. I was on my way to the TV to watch the last of the Saturday morning kids’ shows, when I saw my mother came out of the dining room holding a small sheet of pink stationery in one hand and a pink envelope in the other.
   "Well, Muriel finally replied to my letter. "
   Uh, oh.

   "Here’s what she says about you. "

Mother of Mercy, is this the end of little Deb?

I stood with my head down, like Sally, as my mother read from the letter: "’When
I remember the Kindergarten "babies" who walked in here at the beginning of the year, I am amazed at how much they have grown. I am happy to report that Debby has made outstanding progress in reading and writing. At times she can be a rugged individualist, a characteristic of Scorpio birthdays, I’m told, but no matter what incidents may come up, I am always able to count on a smile and full cooperation from Debby. She is a joy to have in class. ’"
   I waited for the "But, " the coup de grace; none came. I raised my head and looked at my mother. "What a lovely letter, " she said in a satisfied tone. "Muriel is such a wonderful teacher. " There was the sound of flushing and water running, and a moment later, my father came down the stairs. "Nat, listen to what Muriel says about Debs. " The two of them disappeared into the kitchen. I heard my mother reading the letter again and my father saying in his desultory fashion, "Very good, " and then asking if there was any coffee left.
By then it had dawned on me that Mrs. Capwell was not going to tell my mother why she had scolded me, would never tell, would keep the two planets of school and home rotating separately around the sun that was me. I turned on the set and settled myself in the chintz-upholstered club chair opposite. The station was playing an episode of Hopalong Cassidy—an extra bonus to the day. Hoppy was helping a poor widow save her small ranch from a greedy railroad magnate, who had sent gunslingers to force her off her land. Hoppy wasn’t going to let that happen. You could always depend on Hoppy.
You never knew about the grownups in your own universe, though. At six, I had suffered the first scolding of my school career; it would not be the last, but it was the most humiliating. My mother carefully glued Muriel’s Letter, as it came to be known, in my baby book and frequently referred to it over the years during dark times in school and beyond as a mother’s remedy to whatever humiliations and disillusionments I revealed to her. But she never discovered what I had done to deserve a wonderful teacher’s stern rebuke that cold, gray December morning in first grade.
    And that was just fine with a rugged individualist like me.