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Scenes from My Life On Hemlock Street: A Brooklyn Memoir by Arlene Mandell

Cherries in the Snow


I sit under the window fan in my bedroom with my skinny, suntanned legs stretched out on the brown linoleum floor. The fan whirs hot air, muting the sounds of stickball from the street below. My hair is pulled up in a messy ponytail; my fingers dip into a bowl of Bing cherries. I savor the cool slippery feel of the skin, pop off the stem and sink my teeth into the sweet, succulent fruit.

At the same time I’m curled over Little Women, absorbed in Amy March’s turmoil. She’s wearing secondhand, patched finery to her first grownup party. At eleven-and-a-half, I know all about hand-me-downs, neat and serviceable but not quite right—always too pink or too fussy.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my bedroom this boring summer of 1952, waiting for something to happen. Something almost did happen in July when I ran a 104-degree temperature and had swollen glands. I was sick enough for Dr. Scholnick, that “handsome old bachelor” with the black moustache and shiny black Buick, to make a house call. He’s the subject of whispered gossip among my mother and the other housewives who sit outside on folding chairs, fanning themselves.

“Sarah, the butcher’s wife, said his car was parked in front of that divorcee’s house Tuesday night and Wednesday morning,” hissed Nettie, one of my mother’s friends.

“A shanda,” my mother agreed, then saw me sitting on the front steps, carefully picking at a mosquito bite that had scabbed over. “Little pitchers have big ears,” she said, and turned the topic to the price of brisket. I wish she’d stop saying that.

Like I wasn’t supposed to know anything about sex till I was as old as them. I thought maybe my mother and the other neighborhood women were just jealous. Selma, the divorcee, worked at Lord & Taylor in New York City. She was a snappy dresser who wore the latest fashion, like high heels with rhinestones and pearl chokers. She didn’t spend her life sitting around with her hair in pin curls discussing whether to put chopped celery or chopped onion in the tuna salad.

The day of my 104-degree fever, July 5, I was sweltering in my bed. My neck was stiff and my whole body ached. I felt embarrassed when Dr. Scholnick pulled up my nightgown and pressed his fingers in my armpits and between my legs. “Swollen glands in the groin area, too,” he reported to my mother who was lurking in the doorway biting her lip.

Groin. What a disgusting word. His fingers were thick and smelled of harsh medicinal soap. I strained to hear their whispered conversation about sex glands and danger periods. “Total bed rest, fluids, soft foods,” Dr. Scholnick said. “Call me if anything changes.”

I knew what they weren’t saying aloud: POLIO! Paralysis and crippled legs and iron lungs. I had seen the pictures in Life magazine. But I was lucky; I just had the stupid mumps. A kid’s disease.

I slept a lot and ate Jell-O with square globs of fruit cocktail and wasted nearly two weeks of my summer vacation. Now I’m “out of danger” as my mother calls it, but still not allowed to go to the swimming pool or even the movie theater, one of the only places in our part of Brooklyn with air conditioning. I can still go to the beach because my mother says pool water can carry the infection but salt water can’t. Sometimes I think she just makes this stuff up to keep me a prisoner on Hemlock Street.

So now I have to wait and wait for the weekend when my father’s off from work. That’s when we pack bologna sandwiches and beach chairs and fruit punch that’s always too watery and too warm. And we drive out to Rockaway Beach in my father’s wheezing ‘37 Chrysler.

I’m too old to make sand castles and far too “undeveloped” to interest the lifeguards, those sun bronzed gods whose noses are coated with white streaks of Noxema. I see the girls parading past them in two-piece bathing suits, laughing together, pretending not to notice the lifeguards watching them. I hate my bathing suit, a muddy plaid with little rows of ruffles over the place where breasts are absent.

I comb out my dirty blonde hair, “straight as sticks,” my mother calls it, and fan it over my shoulders and down over my phantom breasts. Then I walk along the water’s edge, pretending to look for shells but just trying to keep some distance between myself and my parents who keep waving to me from under their rented umbrella. It’s so embarrassing. I’m not a little kid anymore. I’m not going to get lost on Beach 89th Street.

Until the weekend, I sit in my bedroom waiting for something to happen. Amy March is being taken in hand by a richer, more knowledgeable friend. She lends her a prettier dress, curls her hair and applies makeup. Someone asks Amy to dance.

I pick up a hand mirror and stare at my boring face, hoping my lips have grown fuller and have been stained luscious red with cherry juice. Only my tongue is red. Nothing else has changed.

Tired of Little Women, I flip through an old magazine my cousin Barbara passed on to me in the latest box of hand-me-downs. I stare at a model with cascades of bright blonde waves, dazzling white teeth, full red lips and glossy fingernails in the reddest red, Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow.

I pull the rubber band out of my hair, letting it fall over my thin shoulders. Then I toss my hair like a model and inhale deeply, willing my body to shift from angles to curves.

There’s a shout from outside as Vinny Parisi hits a home run down Hemlock Street. I stand at the window as he runs the bases, all sleek and loose limbed, as though the whole world, not just some mothers in house dresses and kids sitting along the curb, is watching.

© Arlene Mandell, 2009

 
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Go to SCENES:
Welcome to Hemlock StreetBlock PartyBuilding the Ferris WheelCrossing Pitkin AvenueThe KissInvisible BabyAunt Minnie's Second WeddingMurder Inc.A Real Italian DinnerSleeping with Nettie SachsDuke Snider Breaks Our Hearts • Cherries in the Snow • My Thirteenth SpringNo Room of My OwnDeeply in LoveHangin' Out and Makin' OutResolutions Made and Broken