Friday, January 29, 2016

If You Can't Change a Light Bulb

I wrote this story years ago, and even posted it on my blog before, but I wanted to share it again today. Because a light bulb blew and I changed it all by myself! (You'll see why this is something to celebrate if you keep on reading.)

We always lived in apartments when I was growing up, but my father had big dreams.

“One day, kids, we’ll move to the suburbs. We’ll have a little garden. Maybe even some chickens.”

When my mother heard this she made that sound of hers. I can’t spell it. There aren’t the right letters in our alphabet to spell it. If I had to try, it would start with a ha sound. But it wasn’t ha. It was more disappointed than ha. It was ha with a sigh thrown in. And some exasperation, too.

My father didn’t like that sound.

“What?” he asked, ”what makes you say it won’t happen?”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You said plenty.”

Dad was right, that ha of hers did say plenty. It said we were never going to live in the suburbs. We’d never put our hands in the dirt of a garden. There would be no tomatoes or peas or lettuce to pick for dinner. There would definitely not be chickens to do whatever a person did with chickens.

And here’s why:

My father couldn’t change a light bulb.

If you can’t change a light bulb, you can’t live in a house in the suburbs with a garden and chickens.

If you can’t change a light bulb it means you have to live your whole life in an apartment building where there is a super and a super’s assistant — men you call up when the light bulb blows and they arrive within the hour, with a ladder and a flashlight and a new bulb. They carry toolboxes and they not only know the name of each tool but they know how to use them. They have wrenches and screwdrivers and they carry nails in their pockets and hammers hang from special loops on their belts.

My father didn’t know from hammers. He was entirely dependent on the super and his assistant. And not only for the light bulb situation but also for leaky faucets and running toilets and — God forbid — what if water comes in through the window when it rains? What if the thermostat breaks? What if a ceiling tile falls down? What if the refrigerator gets too cold, or too hot, or stops working completely?

Unexpected disasters lurk around every corner. Not everyone can handle them on their own. That is why my family was doomed to a life of apartment dwelling.

That’s what my mother meant by that ha of hers, that was so much more than a ha. Dad couldn’t change a light bulb. There would be no fresh-from-the-earth food for us; no eggs from a chicken; no milk from a cow.

Wait a minute, wait minute, who said anything about a cow?

Well, a girl can have dreams too, can’t she?

I learned that from my father.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Remembering Patty Play Pal

 I am re-posting a story from a long time ago, a bit of Family Fiction, because I was remembering the dolls yesterday.

The first rival for my parents’ affection was not my younger sister, Laura. It was Patty Play Pal, who arrived in our lives when I was eight and Laura nearly six.
At first we thought of Patty as our new sister. She stood halfway between us in height and we’d take turns combing and brushing and braiding her long, straight black hair. Both of us had short hair — Mom said it was easier to manage that way — but I still had a treasured stash of ribbons and bows, headbands and barrettes, from the days before the “practical haircut,” and took great pleasure in adorning Patty with every imaginable accessory.
We quickly re-named her Patty Rachel Shoshanna Play Pal, after our just-born baby cousin, and assigned her the role of teacher’s pet in the classroom we ruled over on Saturday mornings. Before my parents were even awake, Laura and I would convert our shared bedroom into a one-room schoolhouse, propping all our dolls up on our beds, stiff-backed against the wall. Posture was an important aspect of the curriculum.
There was Gladys and Mimi and Peggy One and Peggy Two and Squinty and Babette and Susie-Susie and Heidi. These were just your garden variety dolls. They weren’t especially pretty or bright. Sometimes, even, they were very, very bad and had to go sit in the corner as punishment. But Patty Rachel Shoshanna — at last, a pupil worthy of us.
Patty Rachel Shoshanna could spell, she could add and subtract, she had beautiful penmanship, a good memory for historic dates, and truly exceptional posture. She was without a doubt our star pupil, and if Mimi or Heidi hated her guts, well, they never said anything to us about it. If they had, they would have been punished. Envy was not a characteristic we encouraged in our school.
All went well for a number of weeks. Patty Rachel Shoshanna continued to get gold stars every Saturday morning; her hair was always neat and shiny; she looked adorable in her pleated plaid skirt and clean white blouse, and she never spoke without first raising her hand. Laura and I were in love with her.
Until we realized that our parents loved her as well. Maybe a little too much. Dad, a guy with a strong predisposition toward the literal, was impressed by how real she seemed. “Would you look at those eyelashes, how’d they manage to do that? And her fingernails! Kids, I’m telling you, it’s amazing what science can accomplish these days.” (You’d think NASA was about to send her to the moon.)
Mom, with her flair for all things fashion-related, was spending hours dressing Patty in clothes Laura and I refused to wear ourselves. We didn’t go in for the crinolines and stiff, lacy dresses Mom was always bringing home, and if we got within three feet of a woolen sweater we broke out in hives. But Patty didn’t mind any of this. She’d stand perfectly still while Mom pulled first one sweater and then another over her head. Sometimes we would just sit there on the floor, bug-eyed, at the appalling sight of our mother trying to decide which particular shade of green went best with Patty’s coloring.
At dinner, Dad would ask how Patty’s day had gone, and Mom wondered, more and more often, why we couldn’t give her some peace and quiet, like Patty did. Clearly, Patty was the good child; we were the little beasts.
We didn’t like it. Not at all. We no longer viewed Patty as a beloved sister. We saw her for what she really was: the devil’s child. We’d pass our Brussels sprouts to her and when she wouldn’t eat them we’d pinch her, hard, on her leg. We came up with really tricky math problems for her to solve, like: “What is 9 million, 2 thousand, 6 hundred and fifty-four times 15 billion, 4 quadrillions, a zilliontrillion and a half?” And when she sat there looking at us blankly, with her great big oh-so-realistically-constructed  brown eyes, we’d yell at her, “Stupid, stupid girl,” and make her go sit in the corner. Mimi was delighted. So were Gladys and Susie-Susie.
All this time my father was working two jobs. During the day he cooked at a neighborhood luncheonette, and at night he batched up bundles of the New York Times, preparing them for early morning delivery. He’d come home at dawn, bleary-eyed and exhausted.
One morning when he walked through the front door, there was Patty Rachel Shoshanna Play Pal, carelessly left in the hallway. Trust me, there was nothing premeditated about this. We were just kids, we left a doll standing in the hall, it was all a big mistake. Really.
Anyway, Dad bumped into her, knocked her over in fact, fell on her.  And in his over-worked, over-tired state of mind, he assumed it was one of his daughters. “Oh my God,” he yelled, imagining the very worst: a broken arm, fractured skull, etc. He scrambled to his feet, felt around in the dark — “I’m so sorry honey. What are you doing up this early?” — floundering, sputtering —  until he touched the long straight hair, the cold plastic hands.
“Shit!” he screamed. By this time we were all up and crowding into the hallway, Mom turning on the light, asking “Morty, are you alright?” and Dad saying “What the hell is the God-damned doll doing here?” Laura and I were completely silent for once. And if we were relieved, maybe even secretly ecstatic, who could blame us?

The next day Patty Rachel Shoshanna Play Pal was  given away to Dorie Kaminsky who lived in the apartment next door. Mom told Mrs. Kaminsky that we’d outgrown her. Patty went to her new home with only one outfit, and it was not her most flattering one. By this time Mom didn’t care if the green sweater matched her eyes or not, she just wanted this  doll, who had almost killed her husband, out of our lives forever.
By the weekend, Laura and I had our first Barbie doll. She never became one of our students in the Saturday morning class. Oh no. She was our teacher. Miss Barbie, we called her. She was strict, but fair. We did not chew gum in her class, we did not pass notes, and we certainly did not cheat when she gave us a math quiz. Miss Barbie helped Squinty and Babette improve their spelling and she uncovered Heidi’s hidden musical talents. Dad never asked about Miss Barbie’s day and Mom took no interest in her wardrobe whatsoever, adamantly refusing to sew any clothes for her.
We all liked it better this way.