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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Memory I'd Rather Not Remember

Saw this on Facebook today and it reminded me of one those painful childhood memories you lock away.  Mostly because you a) grew older and b) you moved away.

One the street to the east of ours in Lakewood, Ohio lived 3 girls that I was friends with in elementary school.  I can't remember their names and it's probably best in the long run. I know where the house is, I can see parts of the interior in my mind's eye still. It was right next to the lake (Lake Erie).  I learned to ride without training wheels in the driveway next to their garage. (To the left.)

I remember they had this really cool surrey with two seats that you pedaled.  This is a more modern version of theirs, but yes, they had a striped top too!  I remember that!  Funny, I can't remember shit from yesterday....The seats were wooden.  The had really great toys, as I recall.  The best F.A.O.  Schwartz had to offer!
Anyway, I digress, as usual.  
I can remember spending nights there and vice versa. I can remember the kitchen layout and that they had a piano.  Not as big as ours and the mom wasn't a concert-level pianist who had performed at Severance Hall as a teenager.  (Insert evil grin here.)

The mom was a Southern Belle; there's no other way to put it.  She was from "Ver-gin-nee-yah" Old Money. (Yes, THAT many syllables! And yes, with a capital M.) She was very proud that she was NOT from Ohio and that her "people" had been in  "Ver-gin-nee-yah" for generations.  I'm sure her husband got transferred much to her chagrin to the "Nawth."  (I think he worked for Union Carbide.) She had a lovely accent and like my mother, always wore dresses.  This was, after all, the early 60s.  Think "Mad Men." I really liked the girls, the middle one was my age.

Now, you must remember that my dad's home office backed up to my bedroom. My dad was a lawyer. My dad swore. A lot. He usually prefaced sentences with "Goddamnit." One word, run together. And "Jesus-s-s H. Christ."  He rarely used the F word but he did say "Crap." quite a bit, and often mumbled under his breath in combo with the other two or often as a whole sentence: "Goddamnit Jesus-s H. Christ Crap!" No commas. I always wondered what the "H" was for. 

So yes, I grew up with hearing cussing and sharing a bathroom.  I saw my parents naked and on the toilet.  We were not allowed to swear (rightly so), but I never knew that "crap" was in the Swearing Lexicon. 

When you are a geeky, gawky, nonathletic, dorky-looking kid with sunglasses and a bit of a vision problem (as I was) you feel like you have to come up with something that might add to your coolness.  Being able to draw does't exactly make you cool with your peers. Most kids start, I think, with cussing.  Especially with older siblings. You heard it, of course. And if your sibs did it, it MUST be cool, right?

My mother didn't swear, maybe an occasional "damn" here and there.  Ladies just didn't.  She left the serious swearing up to my father.  Oh, she could swear; I heard her in later years let go with a blue streak of vicious, cussing invective! Mostly on the phone to Dr. Ben Schneider.  I can't blame her for cussing at Dr. Ben.  He was a cheap-skate, a pompous pain in the ass.  

Yet, I digress.

One day, when I was in second grade, I went over to my friend's house to play.  Her mother, in her shirtwaist dress and pearls, greeted me at the door. I'm sure I said something like, "Can so-and-so come out to play?"  (I seriously can't remember her name. We'll call her Susie.) 

There are few people frostier than a Southern Belle in high aristocratic honk.  I'd rather face a Boston matriarch or the Queen of England any day.  You know they're going to be a bit stiff or stuffy or formal.  But this mother had always been sweet, fun and kind to me.  Not this day. I think that's why I'm suspicious of that whole "honey", sugar-sweet routine to this very day.   

"Ay-yam sorry, honey, but Susie caint play with you," in that sweet, smooth as silk, all-words-run-together upper crust Virginia debutante tone. 

 I'm pretty sure I asked if she was sick. 

"No, she is naught allowed to play-ee with you any-ee moor. Now-ah, ya'all go on hawm."  

My stomach lurched, I felt light-headed. I remember that feeling.  I'm sure I was equally astonished when she (very politely) shut the door in my face.  Naturally, I ran home to my mother, in gulping tears.  She was comforting and she said that she'd see what that was all about but for the meantime, if that's the way they were going to be, I didn't need them, now did I? (Good life lesson.) I felt pretty sure that Mrs. Ver-gin-nee-yah was NO match for Mary Louise.  I still believe that.  It would have been Lady-like Behavior She-Cats at 20 paces and I'd always put my money on Weez.

I questioned Mom later on as Susie had been avoiding me at school.  Not the nasty, pariah avoidance behavior, just more of a shying away.  She wasn't a bad kid, not by any stretch of the imagination.  But in those days, if your parents told you do something or avoid someone, you just did it.  Plus sneaking around wasn't an option. Everybody knew you and you'd get caught. I do recall going over to their house a few months later and Mrs. Ver-gin-nee-yah finally yielded said I should ask my mother and she just didn't want her daughter "associatin' with me."  OK, that's much more harsh then Susie Can't Play.  

When Mom finally leveled with me, I'm sure in retrospect, she must have been humiliated and embarrassed.  Apparently, my cussing with my friends got back to the parents and I was considered (for the first and probably ONLY time in my life) to be a Bad Influence. The Bad Words in question that Mom cited was "Crap" and "Damn." I think my mother felt bad in a wide variety of ways, for me and for herself too. She was honest but not in a nasty way, as I recall and I'm not romantizing it. I can see the room, remember the partly-sunny weather, see the air conditioner in the window, see the tree branches moving in the breeze outside the window, see the open closet door. 

I think that was the beginning of growing up. When you get that slap that makes you realize that you have to learn to play the game of life. You have to gauge your audience and watch yourself; filter and censor yourself if you want to have any chance of meshing and mixing with others. It was my first acting lesson. It's not a bad thing to know.  A Life Lesson.

A few years later, I went back to that house.  We were moving and I wanted to say goodbye. I also wanted to see how uncomfortable I could make Mrs. Ver-gin-nee-yah.  She and I played the Dance of Cordiality and Manners.  I was 12 or so and I had started to learn the life lessons that still have stood me in good stead to this day. That day was a minor triumph for a pre-teen still-gawky girl because she apologized to me for being "unkind" to me.  In that insincere Southern Belle way.  I hope it stuck in her friggin' craw. Susie and I did spend some time together but it was never the same.  It rarely is, trying to resurrect a friendship like that. The unsaid reason for its demise is always there, whispering in the background.  She knew, I knew and she knew that I knew.  Unspoken.  Stilted. 

I am pretty sure about one thing. Somehow my mother, while agreeing with her (probably very correct) veto of my mouth,  got Mrs. Ver-gin-nee-yah back socially.  Weez was very, very good at that game. And we Clevelanders had an aversion to folks thinking just because your name is Hungarian, Italian, German you are Less Than.  Unlike the rarefied air of upper crust Ver-gin-nee-yah, we were a city of immigrants.  Besides that, Mom's pedigree was probably as good if not better than Mrs. Ver-gin-nee-yah. Just without the Old Money part.

The only GREAT thing I can see about getting older is I rarely need that filter.  Truly.  Come on, I'm 58 f---g years old.  Yes, there are certain people I need to watch my mouth around: little kids, people older than I by 15-20 years, people from other lands.  Other than that, I only need the filter of kindness and remembering to take a breath and think. Trust me, I won't embarrass you at the Embassy Ball. Or meeting the Queen! 

This old fox still knows how to play The Game.

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