My Friend the Fighter

The climb toward self-reliance was a bit steeper for me than most. In family movies, I’m five years old and hanging behind the crowd of family and friends as we trek toward a renowned sledding hill near my cousins’ house in Rochester—never more than two feet from my mother’s hip. She’d brought our new puppy, a Siberian Huskey named Pandi, on the hike leash-free. I couldn’t leave my mother’s side for fear that if I did, Pandi would pick that exact moment to run off and no one would be able to stop her. While the other kids careened down the huge hill in tubes, skis, and toboggans, I stood with my eyes peeled on Pandi and my astonishingly cavalier mother who continued to laugh and talk with the other adults while our new puppy could be just seconds away from a life fending for herself in the wild or annihilated by a passing Honda.

During a family vacation in Quebec City when I was eight and enjoying the cozy feel of the narrow, stone-laid streets, I began to skip ahead of everyone else. I overheard my father say to my mother, “She’s such a free spirit.” I was skipping, that’s true, but aiming my skips so that my back foot landed on only the dark-colored stones. If I didn’t, disaster would befall the rest of our Canadian travels.

Linda Jackman was a free spirit. In fifth grade she was everything I was not—tough and short. I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror imagining what I’d look like if I were born a Jackman. With a dirty blonde bob, half a head shorter, squinting my eyes so that they were wider and narrower like hers, adopting my best “been there, done that” gaze.

I couldn’t imagine her crying—ever. I went to her apartment one day after school. All the drapes were drawn, so it was cave-like but very alive. She and her sister passionately argued the perennial Good-Times-versus-Happy-Days debate. Her sister, a year older and a lifetime cooler than us, thought Good Times was far funnier and Happy Days was for babies. I agreed with Linda’s sister, although I watched Happy Days more, but didn’t say a word. Their passion intimidated me. At ages 10 and 11, they were sure of their own opinions in a way I’d never known.

Her mom was divorced, still uncommon in the mid-70’s, and did not sweat anything smaller than a broken bone. She later became my all-time favorite softball coach after I took a particularly hearty practice swing, conking the nearby Anna Marie Walton, solidly in the head. Ms. Jackman rubbed Anna’s head, saw the look of terror in my face, and said nothing to me. She was full of quick jokes and chain smoked. And I knew whenever Ms. Jackman was around, we were free to be ourselves. They were the real deal. “One Day at Time” without the fame, fortune and drug addiction.

I was a perpetual goody goody. Never so much as sneaked a pack of Bubble Yum into my coat, tried a cigarette, or played hookey from school with the other kids. This is why, I believe, Linda Jackman “called me out.”

To “call someone out” in 1970’s grade school parlance, at least in suburban Philadelphia, meant to challenge them to a fight after school. In our world that meant meeting after school at either the hill across the street or in a rundown local park—location to be agreed upon after the fight was accepted. The two fighters were shoved together by a self-appointed referee, typically the most aggressive and outgoing of the crowd. The shove was initiated to get the two in physical contact so the fisticuffs flowed forth naturally from that point.

I sheepishly said no, but then practiced punching Linda in that same bathroom mirror. If I could just practice my form enough times, maybe I could win. She called me out again. Again, I said no. “You’re such a Momma’s girl. You’re just afraid your mom will be mad at you.”

Of course, she was right. That and I was petrified of the unknown. Fighting was not my element. Linda’s was the first time I was called out, but it wasn’t the last. While I knew I was strong and could likely hold my own if I remained confident, I never accepted.

But Linda and I were still friends, and even arranged our sleeping bags next to each other at the fifth grade social event of the season—Josie Purcell’s slumber party. Josie was the girl most likely in a fight on the hill or serving as the referee. During our middle school years, her command not to talk to Lynn Richter, a girl on the periphery of the popular social circle, left Lynn with one or two friends until she moved away a year later. There was never any reason given not to talk to Lynn – just that Josie had given the order.

I’d known Josie since third grade and knew her in a way many of the other girls didn’t. Our moms were friends. We both loved to read, and she’d always found in me a particularly engaged listener when she spoke about her experiences with boys.

Josie’s party was shaping up to be the wildest of an already memorable year of elementary school slumber parties. She was inviting 20 girls and some that I did not know.  I hated these slumber parties but went to every last one. I was afraid to fall asleep because, if I did, someone would paint my face with mascara or put my wrist in warm water to make me pee in my sleeping bag. And then there were the séances to bring back the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, Jack the Ripper, or some such long-gone historical figure. The worst was the behind-the-back gossip about other girls, some who were at the party but presumed sleeping. This happened to me. A group of girls were trying to top each other with the weirdest best friend they had when they were younger. One girl said, “Oh, that’s nothing. I was best friends with Robin.” I closed my eyes tightly, counting the minutes until my mom picked me up.

What I liked about the slumber parties was returning home the next morning and sleeping all day, so thoroughly grateful that another one of these events was behind me.

We never made it to the séance portion of the evening at Josie’s. Josie had concocted a different game to play. Her friend DeDe Marigold, one of the girls that I didn’t know, was going to hide under Josie’s sleeping bad and Josie was going to dare DeDe to take her clothes off piece by piece. I stayed in my sleeping bag next to Linda, clear on the other side of the room. Nonplussed about the atypical striptease about to go down, Linda asked me, “Will you wake me up if someone mascara’s my face?” I said sure but hoped I’d be asleep by then, thereby absolved of any responsibility.

Linda slept like a baby while DeDe slowly took all her clothes off under Josie’s sleeping bag. The front door of the house flew open and in walked Josie’s dad. The living room was dark and covered with wall-to-wall sleeping bags. Some girls whooped in excitement at Mr. Purcell’s arrival. DeDe scrambled to make sure all of her private parts were covered by the blanket. Josie yelled, “Dad, DeDe’s naked.” Mr. Purcell groaned, smiled slightly and clunked his way up the stairs.

I looked at Linda. She was fast asleep. It was the middle of the night but jeez, someone was naked under a blanket, Josie’s dad just walked in, throngs of girls stood ready to paint your face with make-up, and soon there’d be a gossip fest possibly mentioning you.

Linda didn’t wake up until the next morning, complete with mascara freckles all over her face.  “They got you,” I said. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” she asked me. “I am so sorry, Linda.” I didn’t even offer an excuse for my cowardice. I knew without question that Linda would have woken me if I’d been the target.

During winter break of my freshman year of college, I saw Linda working at a local Bloomingdale’s. She was dressed elegantly in a black and white suite, her blonde hair grown out to shoulder length, with what I swear was a golden aura surrounding her head and shoulders. It startled me, as did a softness she showed. I couldn’t help looking back at her before I left the store. She was such a far cry from the scrappy young girl who tried to give me ringworm by touching her infected neck and then mine. I wanted to say something to her about how put together she was, but again my words and confidence were nowhere to be found.

Linda was killed in her early 20s, hit by a car as she was crossing a street. I’ll always remember her exactly as I saw her in Bloomingdale’s that day. And I’ll always believe that the golden shine was her halo.

I am Latchkey; Hear me Roar

After a succession of particularly mean first, second and third grade teachers, I was assigned the motherload of evil in one Mrs. Webster for my fourth grade at Round Meadow Elementary. She was a short, stout woman with horn-rimmed glasses and a red bouffant hair-do that seemed as petrified of her in its frozen stillness as her wide-eyed students. After receiving the news of my unfortunate placement, my mother, (imagine a cross between an angry Helen Reddy and Sally Field from “Norma Rae”) marched to the principal’s office demanding I be put in a class with a teacher that didn’t hit or believe in public humiliation as a teaching tactic.

Enter into my life the amazing Mrs. Miller. She was like no teacher I’d ever had. She oozed warmth, plus a whole lotta 70’s cool. I remember seeing her one day smartly dressed in a white turtleneck, dangling gold chain, and flared bellbottom slacks, and thinking I wanted to be her when I was older – although sans the stench of smoke that floated around her like Pigpen’s cloud of dust.

While I was in the fourth grade, my mom decided she’d had enough of a life that existed mainly within the four walls of 371 Oakwood Lane and re-joined the workforce. This filled me, already a fingernail-biting nine-year-old, with considerable fear for my future. With my mom gone, that would leave just myself and Pandi, our aloof Siberian Husky, to watch “Tattletales” and “Match Game 77” after school. I had no idea, nor did I care, just how desperate my mother was to re-start her nursing career. How could she possibly want to do something other than spend time with me, watching Gene Rayburn and pals on our small black and white TV in the kitchen while I ate my Peanut Butter Tandy Takes and drank my milk?

Until that point, it was just my dad who worked. And judging from his tense face, frequent cursing (“Jesus Christ, I hate my job” was a frequent refrain heard ‘round the dinner table), and litany of complaints about his “idiot” bosses, work was not something that seemed in any way pleasurable. It was to be endured.

As a nine-year old with an ever-present, PTA President mom, I‘d never been alone. As the youngest of three kids, I was the one always in the back seat while she drove my older brother and sister to the orthodontist, sporting events, birthday parties, and forever by her side at the supermarket, clothing stores, and trips to the bank.

Shortly after getting the news about my mom’s impending absence from our afternoon viewing ritual, Mrs. Miller discussed with great passion how independent kids become when both parents work. I suspected no involvement from my mom and bought into the premise hook, line and sinker. I would be that kid – the one who walked into an empty house, made tuna fish salad for dinner, and did homework without parental assistance. I would become what I hadn’t even cared about until Mrs. Miller deemed it so admirable – independent.

When we visited my grandmother that winter in Florida, she commented on how hairy my arms were. My grandmom had a superstition for everything. And regarding my hirsuteness, she said, “Hairy arms means you’ll marry rich.” I immediately shot back, “No, I’m gonna be rich.”

She looked out at me from over the top of her glasses and ducked her chin. “Well, good for you,” she said with a mixture of surprise and pride. As the oldest daughter in the early 1900’s, she’d been forced to quit school in seventh grade to take care of her family after her mother died from diabetes. She washed the floors of the house every morning, shopped and cooked all the meals for her father and four siblings, made their clothes, generally sacrificed her dreams to do what had to be done each day. She told me often how she was the fastest runner in her school and had been looking forward to joining the track team. To make up for her self-consciousness at her lack of education, she’d randomly insert large vocabulary words into a sentence regardless of meaning. My favorite was ‘cosmopolitan,’ which she substituted for flexible: “Whatever you want, I’m cosmopolitan.”

My grandmom, who was my dad’s mom, taught my mom to cook and lived with us on and off throughout the years. My mom’s own parents and all but one of her seven sisters cut off ties with her after she married my father, who is Jewish and apparently to be shunned like the devil. My mother tried to make peace with her father when I was eight years old and attending the wedding of the one sister we knew. My grandfather’s words, “I’ll never forgive you for marrying a Jew.” That was the last time they spoke.

My grandmom became my mom’s family and pitched in with all her might, just as she’d done after her own mother died. In later years, their relationship was strained, perhaps because my mother achieved something my grandmom never did – finding a place of her own outside of the home.

To me, my mom was, like Mrs. Miller, strong and cool. My elementary, junior high and high school friends always commented on my mom’s cool factor. She was engaged in her own life.

Those two women showed me at a very young age what it looks like when you love what you do, being a mom, pursuing your career, or a combination thereof. Mrs. Miller with her glamour and sincere love of children, and my mom whose career started with severely disabled children, then as a nursing home administrator, and later as a hospice nurse, gave every patient 100 percent of her attention and herself. She came home exhilarated and eager to talk about her adventures that day. With every dinner conversation she started, no matter how some of the more bodily topics repulsed my more lady-like older sister, she grew more and more vibrant. She was behind the wheel of her own car now, not merely along for the ride. In her confident stride and enthusiastic storytelling, she exuded the same new found independence I was finding as a proud, latch-key kid.


Helen: A Sight and Sound I’ll Never Forget

Helen 9 26 11


At 46 years old, staying at my parents’ home over the winter holiday, I wake up in the bedroom I’d grown up in that once had large Scooby Doo decals emblazoned on its walls with a heavy cloud looming over my head and a seeming inability to lift myself off the bed. I wonder how I’ll make it through the day surrounded by my parents, kids, nephew, sister, and brother with any semblance of normalcy.

The night before, our newly adopted hound dog, Helen, lunged on top of my five and a half year old son, Max, after he’d wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. Helen straddled him on all fours, bared her teeth and put them and her front paws on Max’s face. It was a sight and sound I’ll never forget. Max screaming and Helen growling and lunging so ferociously that if my sister had not pulled the dog off of Max when she did, Max could have suffered some serious bites on his face instead of the small discolored marks he now wears to remind me of what happened on the floor of my parents’ den.

I wasn’t in the room to see what provoked the dog’s anger, but up until that point our three months with Helen had been pretty uneventful. She pulls on the leash, barks loudly at passing trucks, and has escaped a few times from our fenced in backyard, but that seemed like typical dog behavior and didn’t affect my bond with her. She often sleeps next to me on my office floor while I work, follows me around the house, and had been making great progress in her weekly training classes. The trainer thought she had the makings of a great therapy dog.

Up until that night, she slept either in or on Max’s bed. When I pick the boys up at the school bus with Helen in tow, Max is the first to wrap his arms around her and give her a kiss. He comes with me to her training classes every week and loves to work with her on the new things we learned and reward her with treats. He relishes his role as “Treat Boy.”

Helen’s pacing in and out of my bedroom got me up quicker than I thought possible that morning. If my mom let her out in the backyard, she’d howl loudly at the Philadelphia suburb version of the “Bumpus hounds” next door, immediately waking up everyone in the house. So, I throw on the clothes I’d worn the day before, plop on a knit hat from the laundry room closet that barely covers the top of my head, and make my way down the driveway, through the streets I’d ridden my purple, banana seat bike with its purple and white streamers flying from the handlebars.

I watched Helen tip toe over the frost tipped grass and squat to pea at what felt like every other house. She stopped to smell debris on what used to be the immaculate front yard of Mr. Davis. The lines of his yard were cut with military precision, all the grass bright green and exactly the same height. When I was a young girl making my daily trek to swim practice in the summer I’d pass by Mr. Davis’ house each morning hoping he’d be there to chat with me, momentarily delaying the inevitable countless laps in a chilly pool. He’d offer me lemonade and listen to me complain about the pain of the freezing water and how the chlorine stung my eyes. I missed him and that time as I watched Helen pea where we’d both stood over thirty years ago.

She was pulling more than usual. I practiced what Allie, our dog trainer, had advised – have her sit and remain calm for a few moments before continuing our walk. Helen wasn’t keen on resting her bottom on the freezing ground, but she did succeed in hovering her rear end close to the sidewalk.

I stopped to pet and talk with her along the walk, as I normally do, but found I had less to say. She pulled more and barked louder at the passing dogs. When I looked into her deep brown eyes, I saw the sadness mixed with hope that she still had a place with us. I wished I could say yes but knew it wasn’t that simple.

helen and max in bed 11 11

A poem: The Leaders

The Leaders

I sit in my rocking chair, re-reading Where the Wild Things Are,

I look at them on the rug below

I wish I were laying down with them

But my legs shake and my mouth moves, and my brain blocks your words

They can hear you. Your stories reach their brains.

Their legs stay still, and they laugh in the right parts.

They get excited, raising their hands when you ask questions

I look at my hands and wonder will one ever rise?


They line up for lunch, pushing passed each other to be first

I look at my feet, wondering should I move them

In the noisy hallways, they bump their bodies into each other

I look for you. I look for your hand to hold.


Your hand reaches for mine

And now their hands do too


Your smile is there, looking back at mine

And now their smiles are too


Your love is always there to greet mine

So now their love is too.


With you, I belong.

With my friends, I belong.

In Classroom 19, I belong.


My smile is my gift to you. My friends are your gift to the world.