My Mother’s Basket

Upstairs, in my daughter’s room, on the second shelf of her bookcase, there is a small, hexagon-shaped woven basket, with a red ribbon decoratively tied to the lid’s handle. I’m not sure how old it is, but it has been … Continue reading

Every Two Minutes: Part I

Every Two Minutes: Part I

Every two minutes someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted.

Every two minutes.

This is the true story of one such case that happened 25 years ago this week. It is about Carmen, her rape and attempted murder, and how something so disturbing helped her become an advocate for other victims of sexual assault. Continue reading

Lightning in a Jar: My She Was Yar

Chapter 9:

Anxious. That was me. I was on the phone with George, and the clock was ticking, as I was supposed to meet up with James and Sam at Eisenhower Park in less than an hour. My plan had been to get an early start, so by now I should’ve been on my bike, halfway there.  After all, it was six miles away and I didn’t want to show up all sweaty and out of breath. I needed time to compose myself, and here, one phone call was threatening to derail everything.


Eisenhower Park today looks very much like it did then.

George was being his usual, persistent self.

“Who the heck is James?” He’d repeated his question, a question that startled me out of what had been my quiet reverie and anticipation of seeing James soon.

Who the heck is James? His intonation made the name sound more like a contagious disease than someone for whom I was feeling a growing attraction.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure I owed George any explanation. After all, it wasn’t as if he and I were going steady or anything. We’d just dated a few times and after the third date, I did all I could to discourage him, short of demanding him to cease and desist.

For the first time, someone was daring me to explain what I was not prepared to reveal, all because of a slip of the tongue. My slip. What could I possibly say that would make any sense, when I, myself, hadn’t figured out what James was to me?

James was my secret, hidden from prying eyes. Partly because I was embarrassed to admit I liked him. Partly because there was something so different about him. Nothing like the other guys I knew. James was like an orchid requiring extra care from outside pollutants, and I worried letting others in would spoil it. They’d draw their own conclusions and judge unfairly. I’d told no one about my friendship with him and Sam. Not even my closest friend, Liza. Not a soul.

So why bring him up now, especially to someone like George? In all likelihood, he’d run and tell Jake. Not that he’d care. The two of them would probably just have a good laugh over how, after being dumped by a senior, I was dating a measly sophomore. Which, wasn’t true, of course, but soon word would be all over school as if it was. Yes, I cared what people thought. Opinions of others mattered. Which is why I decided to ignore George’s question, and instead focus on the purpose of his call.

“Hey George, what’s up?”

“Okay, if you’re not going to tell me, fine. I’m calling to see if you’d like to go on a bike ride today, and maybe stop at Friendly’s?”

Was this his way of saying he was on to me?

“Um, don’t think I can,” I said cautiously.

“Why not?”

Think, think. “My mother needs help with a sewing project?” I said the first thing that came to mind, more like a question than a statement. Which was dumb. Most people knew my travails with Home Economics and sewing. If my mother did need help, I’d be the last person she’d ask, on account I couldn’t sew a stitch.

He was quiet for a moment, which should’ve been my in to say goodbye and hang up, but instead, I asked, “Is there anything else?”

He took a deep breath. “Well, I was calling to see if you’d like to be my date for the prom.”

The prom? As in the senior prom–the one that I had hoped to attend with Jake? Somehow, the idea of going with George felt like it would be a consolation prize. George, with whom I didn’t have a thing in common or felt an iota of spark. And yet…

Yet, I had to admit, the idea was tempting. It could be my last chance to remind Jake of what he’d given up, and make him pine for me in a way he never had before. This thought made me waver, though, when I thought of going to the beach with George, and making out, I wasn’t as sure. I’d sooner swallow fistfuls of sand.

“Hmm.” I paused, then added, “Let me get back to you on that.” I needed time to think this through. Time that I didn’t have right then. The clock was still ticking.

“Okay, but let me know soon. ” He seemed disappointed.

“I will. Promise.” Click. Poor George. I was sure he deserved better.

Looking at my watch, twenty minutes had passed since the time I had originally planned to leave. With the half hour it took to get there on bike, I wasn’t sure I’d make it on time.  I needed to make haste. I bolted out the door and hurried to the garage to get my bicycle.

When we first moved to Long Island, I didn’t know how to ride a bicycle. I never had one in Queens. It’s not that I was deprived. I did own a tricycle, which I used until the age of five, but a bike didn’t seem a neccesity in Queens, where you could get just about anywhere on foot or by public transportation.

But soon, after moving to Jericho, my brother, who’d figured out how to ride a bike on his own, offered to teach me. I was 12. From then on, there was no pinning me down.

My, she was yar. I’d heard Katharine Hepburn say it to Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story, about a yacht they once owned together, and the sentiment sounded perfectly apropos for my bicycle. “My she is yar,” is what I’d say when anyone asked me why I spent so much time on my bike. Purple and shiny, I could give a little upward flick to the kickstand, climb onto the triangular seat, and be off in one fell swoop.

I’d go anywhere. I knew all the short cuts and back roads to get to school, the library, and the parks. I could ride my bike to the mall, and to neighboring communities, through Hicksville, Westbury, Mineola, East Meadowbrook, and even all the way out to Jones Beach.

My, she was yar.

There was no greater feeling than the one of riding your bike at top speed, along traffic, weaving in and out as I pleased to get where I needed to go. I even rode along one of the highways, and through lush winding roads dense with foliage, as well as through corporate parks and along railroad tracks. Just me and my bicycle, free to be me. I’d astound myself by how far my bike could take me before I’d turn around and head home.

Now, I was pedaling as if my life depended on it, and maybe it did. I’d been so miserable, these last few months after the breakup, that I didn’t realize until now how much I needed this. How much I was looking forward to it. Yes, there it was again. A yearning deep inside, beckoning me forward. To him.

As I reached the appointed spot for our assignation, I eyed James and Sam right away. James looked up and I could see his face immediately relax. Sam made a face and said something about it being high time I got there and what took me so long.

But I wasn’t listening. My eyes were on James and his on me, and my heart was full.

We were magically entranced, until Sam broke the spell by making a big deal about getting on his bike. James and I followed suit, and soon the three of us took off down a trail that led deeper into the park.

Just James and me–and Sam. There would be no more talk of prom that day.

(To be continued.)

Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the page, Lightning in a Jar: High School Years.

Devastation in the Land of My Childhood

I was planning to write something light and frothy today. I was going to tell you about all the shopping I did while in Europe, and show you some of my photos of shopping hotspots, things I bought, things I wanted to buy, if only my budget had allowed, and things that were way out of my price range. I actually started writing that post and who knows? Maybe some other time I’ll finish it.

But, today I am sad. My achy, breaky heart is tormented by what’s going on along the other side of the U.S., otherwise known as the east coast. Particularly, New York, my home, my birthplace. I could cry just for my city, alone. I could sob for Queens and all it has endured. I’m sure Long Island, where I spent my teen years, didn’t fare much better, though I don’t know for sure.  All that is going on right now is hard to fathom for those of us not there and for those of us who have never experienced anything like it. Let’s hope we never will.

For that Hurricane/Cyclone Sandy sure was a menace. She wreaked her havoc on everything she touched, and slammed all that was in her path. Like Queens, where 100 homes burned to the ground, just like that, and not a soul could do anything to stop it.

But then there’s the New Jersey shore. I think of the summers I spent there, in Atlantic City, and even once wrote about it in a post called, My Boardwalk Empire. For many years, Atlantic City was the vacation spot of my dreams. I still hold that place in high esteem and shudder at the pile of heap that it is now, after just a few hours of stormy mayhem.

How many times I skipped along the boardwalk, waving with a flick of the hand, to Mr. Peanut, as I whizzed by. Memories of buying a fist-load of saltwater taffy and breathing in the salty air mixed with the scent of Belgian waffles. All the sights and sounds of vacationers by the sea, echo through time, reminding us of that which was once there.

Yes, Atlantic City. This was the place to be. After the storm, when Governor Chris Christie surveyed the damage, he reflected how anyone his age, who’d spent time there, is devastated, knowing so much of the Jersey shore has been lost, and the coast, itself, will never be the same again. I can certainly relate, stricken with grief as I am. Heartbroken for the loss and the destruction suffered by so many.

Fires, floods, pummeling winds, power outages, and even snow. Sandy brought it all. What a terrifying combination, somehow reminding me of the Ten Plagues that the Lord brought on to Egypt–pestilence, frogs, boils, darkness, etc. There were casualties, too, but early preparation was key in helping to keep those numbers down.

Yet, all the damage in the world can’t stop the faith and belief in the goodness of people. Of people helping each other through simple acts of kindness.

Nor can it stop the will to go on. In the face of hardship, resilience is a powerful thing. People will walk miles, jump through hoops and bend over backwards for a ray of hope, and the promise that this, too, shall pass.

And, while the storm is over, the rebuilding begins, as insurmountable as it may seem. How long will it take? The folks in charge seem to think it’ll be mere days for the subway system to be up and running. I wish I were as optimistic. Patience is needed, something those of us raised there have in short supply. It’s going to be a long haul.  Luckily, folks there have grit and tenacity. They will survive, they will rebuild and they will be stronger for it.

For now, being so far, there’s not much I can do. I’ve been in touch with my friends and family and know they are safe. I’ve made my donation to the Red Cross. And, next spring, I plan to go back and visit. For I wish to see it again in all its brilliance. I need to see it again.

Life goes on, after all.

A Latina’s Memory of Halloween

Growing up in Queens, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. Heck, it’s every kids’ favorite holiday. The mountains of candy. All the planning that goes into choosing and creating a “spooktacular” costume. The hayrides and visits to the pumpkin patch, in search of the biggest, orangiest, most perfect pumpkin, then taking it home to carve.  Gathering around the fireplace to listen while your father reads aloud Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, and fills your head with ghost stories, guaranteed to scare the bejezus out of you.

Wait. Almost forgot. My family didn’t do any of this stuff.

Don’t forget, my Latino parents were new to this country and didn’t have much. Which is why there were eight of us living in a tiny brownstone in Queens. Besides, they’d never heard of Halloween before.

So, in my house, we were lucky we got to do Halloween at all. And, it was done on a shoestring. There were no Halloween decorations, no carving Jack O’Lanterns, no spending weeks and weeks making an elaborate costume.

My little sister and I, getting ready to go trick or treating. I’m wearing my Cinderella costume for yet another year, while my sister is disguised as a little girl. Very clever, Regina!

We didn’t buy any candy except for that which we were giving away. It would sit in a grocery bag by the door waiting for the trick-or-treaters, and God help the kid in my house who’d try to snitch a piece before the festivities began.

And, the only pumpkins in our house were the cheap, plastic kind that you could buy at the Five and Dime store. They were supposed to be used to collect your treats in, but if you ask me, the black handle was so thin and flimsy, it would often break off before the night was out.

On Halloween day, my teacher would give each of us little boxes, reminding us of the importance to collect pennies for UNICEF. “Trick or Treat for UNICEF,” was what we were supposed to say, though, half the time, I forgot to do so.

I had the cheesiest costume. Back then, costumes came in boxes that had cellophane covered lids, so you could see the mask. There was always a mask, made of hard plastic with a thin piece of string around the back to help you hold the mask in place. Wearing the mask made it hard to breathe or see. Plus, that string could snap, and fall off, causing severe pain in the process. My mask broke the first time I ever tried it on. Ouch!

Not being able to afford the cost of a costume, my mother bought one for me when I was five, in a size way too large, so that I could wear it year after year, all the way through fifth grade. Of course, what I picked to wear at age five, a Cinderella costume, was embarrassing to wear by age 10, and, no matter how I wore it, there was no mistaking it: I looked like a dork.

But, that didn’t matter, because Halloween night in New York was generally very cold, and my mother would make me wear wool pants under my costume dress. At first, I wore my coat under my dress, but when that was no longer possible, I had to wear it over the costume, making said costume no longer visible. Which, made me look just like any other dumb kid freezing to death.

In sixth grade, when I finally had the chance to be something else for Halloween, I decided to be a French painter. Why French? I don’t know. I wore a beret, a red and white striped smock, and carried an artist’ pallet and brush. But, my accent was all Queens, which is why no one could figure out that I was supposed to be French.

At the end of the night, my brothers and I would dump our candy stash on the floor and separate the wheat from the chaff. In other words, the good candy from the stinky.

The Good:  Almond Joy, Snickers, Mr. Goodbar and just about anything else chocolate. Sugar Babies and lollipops were keepers, too.

Stinkers:  Mary Jane’s, Tootsie Rolls, Good and Plenty, waxed lips, and black and orange taffy.

In junior high, Karen, a classmate, invited the whole class to a Halloween party. It was my first such party, replete with bobbing for apples, spooky music, and pumpkin carving. The only thing missing was a hayride, but we lived in the suburbs, for crying out loud, not on a farm.

A friend and I were 14 years old the last time we went trick or treating. All it took was for one adult to answer the door, size us up, roll his eyes, and say, “Aren’t you kids, too old to be trick or treating?” That was the year I hung up my beret for good.

Flash forward many years:  My son was three the first time I took him trick or treating. It was wonderful to see the excitement in his eyes, and the joy from getting more candy than he could ever possibly eat.  At the end of the evening, as we were walking back home, I said to him, next year we’ll start out earlier.

Which made him stop in his tracks, turn toward me with utter shock his eyes, and exclaim with utter euphoria,

“You mean this is going to happen again??”

So, tell me. What are your childhood memories of Halloween?