Moments from My Youth

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. 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

My Mother’s Sewing Machine

There are shelves in my garage that contain boxes. Boxes of my children’s artwork from their elementary school years. Boxes of old letters. Boxes of books. And, on the bottom shelf is a box that has been taped shut for years. I’ve never opened this box, as its power over me is still too strong and I worry I might fall to pieces if I do.

Inside is my mother’s sewing machine, the kind that has a mechanical foot pedal, which has to be pumped with your foot in order for it to function. Once, there was a time that it was in constant use. But, for nearly two decades, it has remained untouched.

I remember how my mother would sit for hours, sewing. Her worn hands threading the needle, using her best scissors to cut the material, then gently guiding the fabric so that the stitching would line up perfectly.  And, wherever you were in the house, you could hear the machine’s gentle hum, as her right foot pressed down on the pedal, again and again.

Coordinated dresses, courtesy of my mother.

Coordinated dresses, courtesy of my mother.

My mother could be on her feet all day long, preparing coffee for my father, ironing his shirts, making the beds, or weeding in the garden. But, after dinner, she’d steal away for a few hours of peace, and sew. That sewing machine became an extension of her, as she poured her secrets, her passions, even her sorrow into it, for her sewing machine gave her comfort when all else failed, and it gave her boundless joy.

Yet, she didn’t always know how to sew. She took it up when I was gone.  I was eight years old at the time, and sent to live in Venezuela, my parents’ birthplace.

You see, there was a time when my parents planned to move back to their homeland. They sent me ahead, so I could start the school year on time. I boarded the plane by myself, and traveled to South America to live with an aunt and uncle and their three daughters.

But in the end, my parents decided to stay in New York. I missed my mother so much, I sometimes would sneak into my bedroom closet, and cry, as I yearned, more than anything, to see her again.

My mother made this dress for the holidays. That's me at 14.

My mother made this dress for the holidays. That’s me at about 15.

I guess my mother missed me, too, for to fill the void my absence created, she poured herself into her sewing. She took classes, and soon was whipping up dresses, skirts and blouses for me, and even for my dolls. All the love she couldn’t give me because of the distance between us, she gave to the clothing she made and would send to me.

After a year, I returned, thrilled to see my family. Glad to be home at last. And, my mother’s passion for sewing continued through the decades.

I remember the last item she made. It was for my son. In second grade, he wanted to be a Teenage Ninja Turtle for Halloween. She bought a pattern, and went to work right away.

But, around this time, dementia started clouding my mother’s head, and she found herself forgetting how to sew.  She’d take out the fabric, her basket of brightly colored spools of thread, and her sewing tools. She’d look at them and feel frustrated, not quite remembering what to do. Finally, she reached out to some cousins, who also knew how to sew, and asked for their help.

I didn’t know this at the time, but later, at her funeral, the cousins told me how my mother had struggled with making that costume, yet was determined to get it done. Though, it pretty much took a village to finish it.

She shipped it out to me in San Diego, and that Ninja Turtle costume was the best I’d ever seen.  “Cowabunga,” as my son would say. He beamed with pride, wearing it in his school’s Halloween parade.

It was the last thing my mother ever sewed, and I still have the costume.  I cannot part with it anymore than I can part with my mother’s sewing machine.

When she moved to Florida, two years before she died, she and my father carefully packed her machine into a box and taped the box shut.  And, there it sits. On a shelf in my garage.

My son, second from left, in his Ninja Turtle costume.

My son, second from left, in his Ninja Turtle costume made with love by my mother.

Too afraid to open it. Too fearful of the recollections contained within. I imagine her fingerprints smudged on the balance wheel and the handle. A relic of another life, and a reminder of what I once had and will never get back.

All that remains are scraps of fabric, bits of thread, and the love my mother’s sewing came to symbolize. But, if I close my eyes, I can see my childhood home once again. And, I can hear the distant hum of my mother’s sewing machine.

A Queens Childhood 101

Now that I have 200 posts under my belt, I thought Id kick off something new. Which is why, today Im debuting an occasional series on a childhood in Queens. Any resemblance to my childhood is strictly more than coincidental.

My mother in front of our home, Feb. 1962.

Then, after you read the first installment, please check out my latest piece for the Huffington Post, because, if you ask me, there’s got to be a better way to elect a POTUS (for those not in the know, that means, President of the United States).

And, I think I’ve found it! You’ll find my essay in the comedy section by clicking here: We Need an Election Dance-off.”

Part 1: The Street Where I Lived

Hands down, the best part about living in Queens was being a kid there. And, yes. I know what you’re thinking. Queens? Why Queens?

I realize it’s not as shi shi as, say, Manhattan’s Upper East Side. But, when you’re a kid who doesn’t know any better, who tends to look on the bright side of just about everything, and who comes from a family that is trying to find its place in a new country, Queens was badass.

First, there’s the neighborhood. We lived in what must have been the toilet bowl of Queens, otherwise known as, Flushing. (Really, what kind of a name is Flushing?) On either side of the street, was a long row of brownstones, that looked like a series of shoe boxes stacked horizontally and then glued together, making us all very close neighbors, indeed. No one had air conditioning, so in the summer, when it was sweltering, sticky hot, and our windows were wide open, if anyone on the block lit a cigarette, we’d all know. It would waft through all our homes. On the flip side, when Mrs. Moskowitz, who lived six doors down, made her famous noodle kugel, I could tell whether she’d added apples to her recipe, just by the scent that made it through my bedroom window. I could even tell when it was out of the oven and ready for eating.

Our three-story, three-bedroom brownstone was second from the end, on the north side of the street. You could tell which one was ours just by looking at all the roses we had in our front yard, along the fence. Pretty miniature roses in white and pink. Caddy-corner from where we lived was an apartment complex with a small playground, to which I could run over and play. It had monkey bars, a see saw, and swings. In fact, that’s where I got the first bump on my head, when I fell off the swing and landed on the hard cement below.

Public transportation, whether the bus or the subway, was spitting distance from our home, as was anything else a kid could need. To get to the A&P supermarket, all I need do was walk two blocks to Main Street and turn right. I loved going there, because when you bought your groceries, they’d give you S&H Green Stamps, which you could exchange for valuable goods, including toys! Once you’d collected enough, that is.

If you crossed the street and headed north on Main Street, you’d hit the bakery, and eventually, the movie theater and the public library, which was in the same building as the Queens Savings Bank. The S&H Green Stamp processing center was also down that way, and the candy store was south, on Union Turnpike. Once, when I was running up the hill toward Union Turnpike, with my brother, Ralphie, I spotted a quarter on the pavement. Do you have any idea how much candy you could get with 25 cents? Well, my brother and I went to town on that quarter, buying a couple of bars of Hershey’s chocolate, a Chunky, and a set of wax bottles filled with brightly-colored, sugary sweet liquids that would leave a film of pink dew on your teeth. Cavity city!

I couldn’t have planned my neighborhood better. Even the Five and Dime was nearby. No one had to drive us anywhere. We had our legs and could run like the wind, as they said in the ads for Ked’s Sneakers. And, as far as I was concerned, some of the other places around the neighborhood, like the hardware store, the deli, the shoe repair shop, and the church, were necessary, but boring. Being a kid meant I didn’t have to give a hoot about those.

My parents came to Queens from Venezuela. They must have taken one look at the elevated trains, the grimy subways, the nonstop traffic on the Triborough Bridge, and decided they wanted in. Which is why, they settled in Queens. There were eight of us living in our brownstone, including my father, who was enrolled in a university in the city. I was glad of this, because it meant he was rarely around. When he was at home, he often had a temper so bad, it scared me. Like Ricky Ricardo, when he’d yell at Lucy in Spanish. That was my father. Only ten times worse, especially when he had his belt in his hand, at the ready. You wouldn’t want to be within a five-mile radius when he brought that out.

There was my mother, who was studying to get her cosmetology license, but soon became the first beauty school dropout I ever knew. Yet, while she was attending, I got all the free haircuts I could want and then some. I was her guinea pig, which explains why my hair was always uneven and short. Oh, and by the way, I hate pixie cuts.

I had four brothers who all slept in the room next to mine, their twin beds lined up in a row, leaving no space for anything else in that room. You’d have to crawl over the beds to get from one end to the other, and anything they owned, including clothing, had to be stored under their beds or in the closet.

Meanwhile, I only had to share my room with Carmen, who had come to live with us before I was born. She was 17 at the time. Carmen would take care of us while my mother traveled to Caracas, and believe me, my mother was gone a lot. So much so, that I took to calling Carmen, “Mommy.” She was pretty and energetic, made a mean melted Velveeta sandwich. Best of all, she’d shoot baskets with my brothers, and play Chutes and Ladders with me.

Yes, Queens was a kids’ paradise. We had the run of the neighborhood, and a bevy of kids around to play. We were young and full of adventure. And for eight years, this was the only home I knew. It didn’t matter that we were the only Latino family in our Jewish neighborhood. This was my block in Queens.

Welcome to my neighborhood! Now, what was your neighborhood like?