Growing Up Jersey Style

Charlie the River Boy

chain linked fence

In the days before pre-school was popular, I learned my lessons on my mother’s linoleum kitchen floor from the coffee klatch. It was there a gathering of neighboring women and sisters would get together after the children went to school, the husbands went to work, and the morning housework was done.

I was the unexpected child that came to my parents late in life. While my sibling and the other children went off to school I occupied myself. I had no playmates until after three in the afternoon. To keep me busy while the women conversed, my mother would sit me down with my Betsy Wetsy, a Tiny Tears dolls and a dishpan, so I wouldn’t get the floor wet with my messy dolls. I would play quietly and listen while they chatted about everything. However on this particular late morning, their conversation made an impression on me.

On this day they were talking about Aunt Tillie. Aunt Tillie was my matron aunt who was never at the coffee klatch because she was working. They were saying that if Aunt Tillie didn’t marry soon she would have fruit flies on her cherry. Everyone laughed and continued to make fruit fly jokes. I didn’t understand why they were laughing. In my book there was nothing funny about nasty little fruit flies. I did a lot of hard thinking that morning about my marriage. After my nap that afternoon, I announced to my mother that I would marry my cousin Jimmy. He was in the first grade and seemed a suitable match for me. My mother crushed my hopes immediately. “You can’t marry Jimmy he’s your cousin.”

This was quite a dilemma for me since I had very limited prospects, because I wasn’t allowed to leave the chain linked fence that surrounded the yard. School was an entire year away and my social life revolved around my relatives. Though, by that afternoon the obvious solution came to me.

I did have one special friend. Each afternoon I would wait inside the fence to watch the big kids get off the school bus. All of them would ignore me except for Charlie, who was eleven or twelve years old. He was taller than most of the other boys, quiet, and usually walked alone. Our relationship was the giving kind. One day he handed me a pretty rock through the fence and the next day, I colored him a picture on both sides of the paper, and gave it to him. After that we always exchanged something every afternoon. He gave me bottle caps, interesting rocks and wild flowers, but in return, I had given him pictures, sculptures made of play dough, and small toys that would fit through the fence.

I saved my news until we had dinner that evening, since I wanted everyone to be present.

“I’m going to marry Charlie.”

“Charlie,who?” My dad asked.

My older brother Richard who was sixteen answered. “She means Charlie the river boy. The one who lives in that shack down by the Passiac river with his father.”

“Why do you want to get married pumpkin?”

“Because I don’t want fruit flies on my cherries like Aunt Tillie. Without a husband I’ll have rotten fruit daddy.”

My father choked a little on the mouthful of pot roast he was chewing. “Where did you hear that?”

“Mommy said it to Aunt Linda. Right mommy?”

My father glared at my mother. For the next couple of days all I could talk about was when I married Charlie we would do this or that, until my brother tried to burst my bubble.

“I bet Charlie doesn’t even want to marry you.”

I stopped dead in my tracks. That thought had never occurred to me. I spent that weekend making a special gift for Charlie to give him before I popped the question. I made a daisy chain for him to wear around his neck and glued a misshapen pink heart made out of construction paper to it. It seemed like Monday afternoon would never come. I wore the chain carefully around my neck so it wouldn’t get messed up. Finally the moment arrived, I carefully handed my daisy chain through the fence and Charlie gave me a pencil with no eraser. I blurted out the question as soon as our transactions were over.

“Charlie will you marry me?”

He was already walking away when I asked, but he turned around and said, “Sure kid”.

I was thrilled. I galloped into the house letting everyone know the deal was sealed. I put my hands on my hips and told my brother “I told you so.”

I went on and on about the wedding arrangements. I needed a dress like Cinderella’s. I bugged my mother to go shoe shopping. I wondered about the reception and pondered if I should put fresh fruit on every table? My mother couldn’t take it anymore.

“If you want to marry Charlie the river boy so bad I’m going to take you and show you where you’re going to live with him.”

I hopped in the car gladly. Finally I thought, my mother is getting on board with the plan. When we pulled up, I saw a small house with a porch. From the car window I could see two dogs on the porch, some chairs, a freezer and laundry hanging on the rails. My first thought was how great it would be not to have to go inside for Popsicles. As I looked around Charlie’s yard I saw wooden crates stacked together with mysterious things poking out, a few cats meandering about and a couple of cars that needed to be put together. It was paradise.

My mother asked, “Now, do you see what kind of house you’ll be living in?”

“Can I move in there before I get married?” She threw her hands up in the air exasperated.

“I don’t know whose child you are!”

I shrugged my shoulders. If she didn’t know I certainly couldn’t help her with the answer to that one.

That summer we moved away. I remember crying all the way to the new house. In the fall I started kindergarten and prospects of finding someone to marry me increased and continued to do so, until I married at the ripe old age of eighteen.

Today I sit here typing with my two dogs at my feet and the cats staring at me from the shelves that holds my various collection of dolls, stuffed animals, Fisher Price toys, marbles, And other assorted items – things I’ve crafted and board games. A collection that I think Charlie would probably have enjoyed. Sometimes it makes me wonder deep down, maybe I was really meant to be Mrs. Charlie the River Boy, all along.

Written by Rosemary Armel

© 2013 Rosemary Armel

Picture 1 folder 010Psykopaintedfield

Stolen Food

Driving down the road I kept an eye out for that spot where I saw all those blackberries growing on the side of the road. As soon as the purple/blue berries caught my eye, I pulled over, took an empty McDonald’s hamburger box and started picking the plump berries. A few minutes into my picking frenzy I realized I just became my mother.

A memory from my teen years came back to me. We were driving down a road very much like the one I was on today.

“Look Rosemary they have gagoots growing in that field.”

“I don’t see any gagoots Ma.” Not that I knew exactly what that was, but I knew it had to be something that looked like food and all I could see was tall grass and weeds.

“Yes sir that’s gagoots.” She slammed her foot on the brake, backed up a few yards and pulled over to the side of the road. Getting out she opened the trunk of her light blue Cadillac and took out a few empty plastic bags that she always kept for such an occasion. I tried to mention that we might be on someone’s private property, but she waved away my comment as we headed for the field.

At least we weren’t at Mount Vernon like the week before. When no one was looking she picked snow peas from George Washington’s garden and stuffed them in her pocket. I was worried about her being charged with a federal offence until we ate the evidence that night.

I wandered the field aimlessly looking for something that resembled food, until she showed me the leafy tops that hid the green and reddish stalks underneath. We both started picking and filling the bags as she reminisced about her own childhood.

“You know Rosemary when I was a little girl we were so poor my sisters and I would walk along the railroad tracks picking coal, so we could have some heat. In the spring and summer we would go to Mrs. Kuchek’s backyard and fill our bloomers with tomatoes, carrots and apples. Sometimes us nine kids would be so hungry that we would eat raw potatoes.”

As I picked gagoots and listened, I thought to myself that I was grateful I didn’t have to put vegetables in my underwear.

When we got home we stripped the leafy tops and boiled the stalks. As they boiled little white worms floated to the top.

“Ma I’m not eating those things. They have worms.”

“Don’t worry were going to rinse the worms off. The way I cook em your mouth will be watering.”

After we rinsed the stalks, we soaked them in cold milk and then rolled them in Italian breadcrumbs. Next we put oil in a frying pan and fried all the stalks. I can’t say it was my favorite meal, but I thought it wasn’t half bad. Years later I found out that gagoots is the Polish word my mother used for rhubarb.

When I came home with my blackberries I rinsed them. Next I took a little whip cream and lined the bowl with it, then I but in the blackberries and sprinkled lightly with sugar.

I sat back thinking now that’s really mouth watering.

Motor Boat Oil

coffee canIn today’s world electronic gadgets for children take up their minds and time. Let me take you back a decade or so to a time when entertainment wasn’t store bought.

I knew summer had arrived when the garage door was flung open wide and the tarp that covered the outboard motor was removed. My dad was the proud owner of the green outboard motor. We didn’t own a boat, just the motor. When summer arrived we would load the monstrous thing into the trunk of our Chevy Impala and head to the same lake that we went to every other weekend through out the summer.

“Frieda stays here with the boat motor and the kid, while I go rent the boat.”

Mom and I sat by the trunk and guarded the motor from robbers. While we waited for dad to return, I wondered how we would be able to stop someone from stealing the mammoth piece of machinery. After what seemed an eternity, my father returned and relieved us of our security duty.

Slowly he backed the car to the dock and struggled with the motor to get it of out of the trunk. Finally the moment I had been waiting for arrived. I watched without blinking as he took the Maxwell House coffee can and carefully mixed the gasoline and the motor boat oil. Slowly the mixture was emptied into the motor. When the can was drained it became mine. I would fill it up with water and within a few moments I had my rainbow in a can. How beautiful it looked with the sun shining down on it.

“Rosemary, were ready to shove off. Get in the boat.”

“May I take my rainbow with me daddy?”

“What are you talking about?”

I held out my can to him. “Look at the rainbow daddy.”

He scratched his head. “Yes you may take that can with you. Now get in the boat.”

My mother stuffed me in a life jacket that felt more like a straight jacket and a minute later we pushed away form the dock. My father pulled the cord on the outboard motor and nothing happened. He tinkered with the motor and pulled the cord again and again.

While he was busy trying to get us started I looked at my rainbow and asked it what it would be like to be a fish? Soon my mind took me to the depths of deep cool water and I swam the whole lake. I glided between tall seaweeds and avoided the bigger fish.

A loud noise jolted me from my daydream. The motor had finally started and we headed for the middle of lake. After about fifteen minutes the motor sputtered and stopped.

“When are you going to get rid of this piece of junk?” My mother asked father.

Dad went to the motor’s defense. “This is a Johnson JR-12, the best motor they ever made.”

“If it’s so great, why are we stuck in the middle of the lake? My father warned me I should never marry a crazy Italian.”

“You calling me a crazy Italian? Well, you’re just a dumb Pollock.”

“I should have married Stanley Sleshick.”

“Here few go again, you are still bringing up Stanley Sleshick. If you married him you would be living off of stuffed cabbage your whole life.”

“At least I wouldn’t be stuck in the middle of this damn lake.”

My father lifted the wrench and stated banging on the motor. I looked at my rainbow again and asked it what would be like to be a bird. Soon I could imagine flying high above the trees and racing along with the wind. I would soar into the clouds and watch everyone below me.

I snapped out of my fantasy when the boat started to rock. My father decided it was time to row the boat ashore. My mother shouted out a hallelujah and then they both gathered up the oars and started to row. Unfortunately their rowing was out of sync. The boat began swirling around and around in the middle of the lake.

I watched the beautiful panoramic view of the shoreline as we twirled and then I asked my rainbow what it would be like be a deer. My mind drifted into the deep dense forest that had a little sunlight peeping through the trees. I would run down the trails with my other deer friends. When I came to a clearing, I would secretly watch a happy family having a picnic and then a little girl would throw a delicious apple my way. When I pick it up I would prance back to my deer friends and we would all share a bite.

A bump on the boat brought me back out of my reverie. We were back at the dock. It was time to put the motor back in the trunk. I had to pour out the water in the can and let my rainbow run free, because I was told it was too messy to take in the car. I was sad to let it go, but I knew we would be back in another two weeks and I could go on another great vacation with my rainbow.

Written by Rosemary Armel

© 2013 Rosemary Armel

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