Moments from My Youth

 

Infant Monica & Mama

I am 4, traveling to Venezuela with my father. It is an overnight trip and my mother and brothers are already there. As the plane begins its descent, my father takes a long drag from his Kent cigarette and looks at me quizzically. He realizes he hasn’t combed my thick and unruly hair. But he doesn’t know how and this upsets me.  I arrive in in the terminal flushed with embarrassment and when I see my mother, I bury my head in the folds of her dress, hoping no one will notice my hair.

I am 5 and I am bringing a flower to my favorite Kindergarten teacher, Miss Chantel, who is pretty and always wears pink lipstick. But today she isn’t at school and Miss Diamond, who is old and bony, sees the flower in my hand. “For me?!!” She cries with an excitement that seizes my heart and leaves me speechless. Crestfallen, I hand over the flower.

I am 6 and my best friend’s grandmother rolls up the sleeve of her dress which is the color of bluebonnets. “Look at this,” she says as she points to her arm. I see a series of numbers seared onto her skin. “It’s from the camp,” she explains. I have no idea what she is talking about, which makes her impatient. “The war.”  I know nothing of a war, so I smile politely and pretend that I do. It isn’t until years later that I learn about the Holocaust and the camps to which she was referring.

I am 7 and my mother has decided she’s had enough with my hair and orders her beautician friend to give me a pixie cut. I am mortified. I look like a boy. Later, as I walk down the street, someone approaches and tells me they took me for a boy.  I run home and burst into tears. To make me feel better, my mother buys me a Barbie paperback from the A&P. I read it voraciously, forgetting for the moment about the hair.

I am 8, boarding a plane to Caracas by myself. I will stay there a year, living with my cousins, and I am joyful with anticipation.

I am 9, crouched in the corner of my cousin’s closet and I am teary-eyed, missing my family in New York and wishing I could return to my life there. I am overwhelmed with an unbearable loneliness.

I am 10 and in a rare moment, my father takes us to Carvel for ice cream. I love their soft ice cream that swirls out of a machine. I choose vanilla, the flavor of sweetness and my mother’s apron on baking days. The scent of vanilla dances sprightly to my nostrils and I inhale with delight and sigh. The anticipation of the first lick—suddenly the ice cream leaps off the cone unceremoniously, smacking onto the ground. Not one lick. My father eyes me harshly and yells, refusing to buy me another cone or to explain to the clerk what happened. More yelling and I take a bite out of the dry wafer cone still in my hand. It tastes like agony.

I am 11 starting school in a new place. We have moved out of Queens and onto Long Island. Everything’s new and different here but at least now I have my own bedroom. A classmate asks me if I’ve received the invitation to her birthday party. Filled with delight at the thought of the invite I shake my head and say, “Not yet.”  She laughs and replies defiantly, “That’s because I didn’t invite you!”  Though later we will become friends, her words pluck at my heart. I go home and cry, telling my mother I want to go back to Queens.

I am 12. My legs dangle over the arm rest on the orange chair in the living room, and my head is deeply huddled into a book. It is summer. Hot sticky summer. We have no air conditioning in the house. The air hangs stiffly in the room, and the book is not just any book. It is “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith, and it is magically transforming me to the tenements of the borough. I feel a kinship with Francie and her love for books. I don’t realize it then but I will carry her story with me for the rest of my life.

I am 13, returning from Caracas, where the highlight was attending a wake for my mother’s aunt, Fufú, and my cousins taunting me by calling me, “Gringa.” On the first day back at school my English teacher asks us to write an essay about our thoughts on Woodstock. I am dumbfounded.  Having been out of the country all summer, I have no idea what Woodstock is. Later, after I do learn about the music festival, I feel as though the world changed while I was away.

I am 14 and it is New Year’s Eve 1969 about to become 1970 and I am crying for I realize now, however symbolic this moment is, I am, in essence, bidding farewell to my childhood.

I am 15 living on my own as a border in a widow’s home. I walk to the supermarket and buy a pack of cigarettes. On the way home, I take a drag and cough like crazy. I take another and I am dizzy. A friend comes over and I offer her a cigarette. Far more knowledgeable, she lights hers and then mine. I try again but fare no better. I cannot get the hang of it and so I stop trying.

I am 16 and we are reading “A Lantern in Her Hand” by Bess Streeter Aldrich for English class. I love the story of Abbie Deal, a pioneer woman who sacrifices her dreams as she struggles to raise her family in the West. I read the book aloud to my mother as she scrubs the kitchen floor and wipes a drop of sweat from her forehead. Later, as I drift off to sleep I wonder how many sacrifices my mother has made in order to raise us.

I am 17 graduating from high school and nervous about my future. Scared, really, because I’m not ready to grow up. My mother has sewn me a halter-top dress for the occasion. I go with her to pick out the fabric. Red with white polka dots. The dress is short, like the mini dresses of the day, and it is my favorite dress she ever made for me. Graduation, a flurry of activity, is held at a nearby college. I don’t remember much else except the dress.

Dear Readers, what moments from your youth do you remember?

 

 

 

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20 thoughts on “Moments from My Youth

  1. I don’t know how I missed this post Monica, but it sure unleashed a torrent of thoughts as soon as I read, recalling and smiling. I remember dancing in the rain after school, enjoying the cool water. My first dog, how much I loved him and watching him die as we sat with him. Reading on a tree, endless books on my bookshelf and visits to the used book store. Losing my grandma at a very young age. Moving to Australia, losing my dad and finding my place again.

    I have always loved your writing, you have it my friend, that ability to elicit an emotional response and keep your reader completely and utterly engaged. If you write that book… I am there, first in line to read, buy, support, promote – anything you need.

    • Aw, thank you so much, MM. Your words mean so much to me. Your memories sound so lovely and poignant. I hope you embellish and turn them into a post. Why did you move to Australia and how did you find your place again? I’m intrigued! Sending you warm hugs, my friend.

  2. Your memories transport me to my own childhood, though the occasions themselves are different. They capture your emotions so well – yearning, delight, anxiety, displacement, helplessness (not being able to control the circumstances) – these are what resonate with the reader, I believe. I wish my memory was half as reliable as yours (#MemoryEnvy here), but the few that I’ve managed to recall seem to have had the most emotional impact on me – separating from my grandmother at 10, meeting my mother for the first time at 8, flying back and forth between Antigua and Dominica, delivering my grandfather’s fresh-baked bread to customers every Saturday morning, witnessing baptisms at the river, and so on. Going down memory lane with you via this post forces me to do a better job of mining my own experiences (both past and present). I believe it has to be a deliberate exercise – a setting aside of time just to capture the memories, even to write what it is that I believe I’ve forgotten. Thank you, my writerly friend. (Yes, do write that YA or adult novel.) 🙂

  3. I think a middle grade novel could come from this. Your early teen memories were especially poignant and emotionally true. You have a wealth of memories to draw on and the difficult move to Long Island from Queens could be the problem that sets things in motion.

    • Thank you for reading, Judith, and also for your comment. One never knows how such personal stories will be received, so it’s nice to know I have support from my readers. I find it gratifying and also encouraging. Thanks so much!

  4. Gorgeous, stunning, memorable piece, Monica.
    I am transformed by the beauty of your words, memories, even sadness.
    So many adjectives for you, my dear.
    I shall use this format for one of my blogs. Do you mind.
    WOW. xxxx

  5. Monica, you’ve got a great list started. In fact, this is just the sort of thing I’d think would be ideal for anyone planning to write a memoir. You’re a writer, right??! Armed with a list of memories like this, you can create a compelling read. Think about it, okay?!

    • Debbie, funny but as I was writing this, I started thinking maybe this could be something larger. I could go into more detail, even though some of these memories are quite mundane. But I’m now going to go back and see what I can do with this. I have the outline. Now all I need is to flesh it out!

  6. Excellent post.

    I remember many things from when I was younger.
    Going with my mother on a cold winters night to buy fish & chips.
    Getting my first radio for Christmas at the age of ten, not then realising it would lead me towards a life time hobby.
    Getting my first bike, falling off and then getting back on and riding it successfully.
    Summer holidays at the seaside, exploring new places.

    The list is endless, perhaps I might just do a blog post on it.

    I always looked at things in a simple manner when I was younger, everything was so black and white with no grey shades in between.

    • Robert, it’s amazing how many memories start flooding you once you start thinking about yourself at a particular age. I initially began this as focusing on maybe just a couple of years. But then each time I thought of myself at a different age, a new memory popped up! It’s kind of exciting. Anyway, I do hope you post the memories of your own youth and hope you tag me when you credit me with giving you the idea! Just a thought… 😉

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