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?