Former renter in Greenwich Village, waiting out the turnaround in Manhattan's midtown. Working on a blog-to-book project about my NYC/NJ ancestors. Everyday I'm amazed by what I find with Ancestry and in old newspapers.

June 12, 2020

From my mother's manuscripts: a 1940's childhood worshipping a teenage aunt, longing for happier days at Lake Hopatcong

Doris at Lake Hopatcong
I was playing across town at Millie's house, where I had followed my aunt Doris. They were playing at the piano with two other teenage girls when all of a sudden they said, "Bobbie, you have to go home. You can't play here anymore."

I wanted to be with Doris constantly. She was sixteen and I was eight, and while she was my dad's younger sister, we had grown up like sisters next door to each other.

I followed Doris and her friends to school. I acted older, copied the way she dressed. It was more exciting to be with them than with third graders. To watch Doris dress for a date was a thrilling experience, like watching a movie star prepare for the cameras. I helped her put on her makeup but the climax was the anointing with perfume. Carefully holding the pink cut-glass bottle in one hand, she adroitly squished the satin-covered rubber ball with the other--squish, squish, squish. Apple Blossom. Soon her small corner bedroom became more heady than the apple orchards across from the fairgrounds. We couldn't breathe, and ran gasping from the room. Doris only laughed. "Well, that'll last through the movie." Especially at the Palace when the famers came to town on Saturday nights. "That's why it's called the horse-opera, Bobbie."

"Why do I have to go home?" I had asked the girls. . . .
But Doris and her friends ignored me and continued playing the piano.

On Mine Street the warm rain pounded down thick and heavy. Combined with hot tears pouring down my face, it was impossible to distinguish tears from the rain. I gulped in rain, then tears, then rain and tears mixed together. The late summer afternoon had turned into a dark night with the sudden black rainstorm.

My hair was wetter than when I washed it in the lake. It was so much fun swimming with Doris to the center of the cool spring-fed lake, taking turns pushing the floating cake of Ivory ahead of us. Then nearly in the middle, where it was too deep for the eel grass to climb our legs, we treaded water and rubbed the cake of soap into each other's hair until our white foamy heads looked like gigantic wigs from Marie Antoinette's court.

"Spring water is good for your hair," she said. Doris knew. Soon she would go to beauty school in Newark and become a hairdresser. We raced back to the dock and stretched out on the hard wood surface to lie in the sun and bleach our hair into glorious golden streaks. At times while out in the lake we could hear the start of a rain shower in the trees on the other side of the lake. We'd begin swimming wildly, trying to out-race the heavy drops to shore. At night, rainstorms coming across the lake swelled like an orchestra, the muffled roar becoming louder and louder until it clamored on the cottage roof like a million acorns.

On the steps of Annie's house at Lake Hopatcong

Some weekends, when Doris didn't bring a girlfriend with her, she let me sleep in the brass bed in her knotty-pine bedroom. I usually slept on a daybed on the front porch but I liked Doris's room better. The three front windows were so low they almost touched the floor. As we lay awake in the dark we could see over our feet clear across the lake to houses on the other side, a twinkling lilliputian village. Every so often a small red light from a boat moved swiftly across the open windows on its way up the lake to the amusement park. Mom said a woman's legs got cut off swimming at night once. Another time, at the park, a girl fell off the roller coaster. At the highest point she had stood up waving to her friends below then disappeared from sight as the cars plummeted to the bottom. An onlooker said it looked as if she had stepped out, just got up and left the car, her arms spread out like bird.

It was sad to think these thoughts but I couldn't help it and only managed to produce more tears.

The full sun slapped down on the wet sidewalks of Mine Street, white mist rising from the slates, swirling about my legs as I walked past Bessie's house. No one was home. The shades were drawn and no lights on. In a way, I was glad she wouldn't see me. She would have asked me questions about being wet and what in the world was I doing out in such a storm. I didn't want to tell her that Doris and Millie had told me to go home.

Fishing with Grandpop at Lake Hopatcong

Worms were crawling on the sidewalks now, washed out of the their homes. At the lake on Friday nights Grandpop would go out in the dark with his flashlight to search the yard for nightcrawlers. He'd grab them one by one as they snaked through the wet grass, and before they could slither back into their moist tunnels he'd pop them into an old coffee can lined with dirt and grass. "This is the best bait, Bobbie. See how I wrap them round and round the hook leaving just enough dancing for the fish to see." 

Grandpop and I would wake up before everyone else, before sunrise, and silently push the family rowboat off the dock. Our oars took small gulps as we stole through the knee-high mist lying on top of the water like a thick blanket, moving toward our favorite fishing grounds in a cove across the lake. The cove belonged to a very rich man but we never saw him; we didn't think he'd mind us fishing there.

The lake perch and sunnies began their brash search for breakfast. Where the water was low near shore we could look down and see them nesting here and there, hovering gently over their round sandy nests outlined in pebbles they had pushed into place with their feathery tails.

Doris never went fishing with us. She didn't like worms or fish. When we returned to the dock around mid-morning Grandpop cleaned the fish on the old picnic table by the stone fireplace. Annie cooked them for him. No one ever ate the fish we caught except Grandpop. At the table under the oak trees, he would eat them all by himself. Then he saved the fishes' bladders. After they were dried and varnished, he'd string them from the ceiling in the shed off the garage; they fluttered in the air like tiny white balloons. All his fishing gear was stored there. The ceiling looked like one big spider web with yards and yards of fishing lines crisscrossing overhead.

As I crossed Mine Street to Annie's house, all dark inside, I could see the outline of Grandpop on the porch reading, leaning back in his rocker with his feet up on the sill.

"Bobbie, were you out in all that rain?" he asked. "No, Annie's not here. She's in the backyard checking on her roses."

I ran around the side of the house. Across the driveway in Grandpa Snyder's yard a large limb had fallen from the old black cherry tree. It was lying right in the middle of his croquet game on top of the middle wicket, and had just missed pulling down the clothesline and electric light bulb with it. It would be easy now to pick off the large cherries, all swollen and ripe, almost the size of small plums.

Most of Annie's roses had been tossed and tattered by the storm. It looked as if buckets of petals had been poured from the sky and strewn about the lawn like bits of crepe paper. Annie wasn't there. The willows sagged, their heavy wet switches dragged in the pond and the birdbath had overflowed. The drain spout from the kitchen roof gutter continued flowing into the pond, exciting the fish who were more active than ever, zigzagging and bumping into each other as they burst to the surface gulping at any leaf or petal floating on top.

I hurried up the back walk, past the garage shed and small Victory Garden. Through the screen door, I could see Annie sitting at the kitchen table and Mom ironing.

"Bobbie, you're soaking wet. What happened?" Annie asked. "You walked home in that storm? Where's Doris?"

Mom raised an eyebrow and said, "They told her to go home. Now she'll learn to stay away from Doris and her friends. Go change those clothes. The kitchen floor is all wet now."

Annie looked at me and didn't say anything but could see I was crying as I went into my bedroom. No one understood that this wasn't how I wanted it to end.

Contact: Debbie Carter, VillagerExpat@aol.com, (212) 925-3721

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