When I look at my children, I often wonder what they will remember when they grow up. I hope that they are capturing some of the amazing moments of their lives and that they are etched in their brains for all of their lifetimes. However, I fear that the only things that stick are the very highs and the very lows. I fear that every bitter fight my husband and I have had in front of them will be emblazoned in their memories and will surface when they are adults and engaged in their own complicated relationships. I pray that they will also cherish our wonderful family vacations, the nights we sit in our house and laugh at the dinner table and the special times they spend with their friends.
My very first memory is from when I was 4 or 5. I was in my most favorite place on Earth – Montauk, NY – where my father’s parents lived throughout most of my early childhood. They had emigrated from Italy when my father was a young boy and settled in the Bronx where many Italian immigrants ended up in the 20s and 30s. When my father was a young adult, his parents bought property at the Easternmost end of Long Island in a community that was largely unsettled and he, his father and his brother set out to build a charming cape cod where my grandparents would live until their deaths decades later.
In my memory, my family is at the Montauk Motel – a place that we frequently stayed at while out east. My mother did not get along too well with her in-laws and did not enjoy staying at other people’s houses so we often rented rooms at what I would now consider to be a bit of a dive but, at the time, was paradise to me. There was a kidney-shaped pool with a waterfall that sat within a concrete patio and, when we stayed on the second floor of the motel, I would often hang over the edge of the balcony to watch the water cascade down. It was definitely during the summer because we only went there when the weather was warm and my mother, my older brother and I had probably been there for a few days and we were awaiting the other guests who would arrive for the weekend. At the time, my family was still pretty intact and my father would be arriving along with the others on Friday night. We often vacationed with our neighbors – my parents’ best friends, Evie and Billy -and sometimes their adult kids would join us for a visit too. My older sister, who was dating her future husband at the time, would also come out to visit for the weekend and it was simply sublime to have everyone I loved in one place and experience something that I can only equate to being pure happiness. In fact, I believe this memory stands out to me so much because it is the only blissful childhood memory I have.
On this particular day, I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of my parents’ friends and was standing up on that second floor balcony jumping around like an antsy child is inclined to do. I kept peering over the side of the rail to see if I could find their car pulling into the small parking lot on the side of the building. I ran in and out of our room at least a dozen times asking my mother when they would arrive. She had little patience for my impatience and, in between puffs of her cigarette, told me to go outside and look for them. My brother was off somewhere likely getting into trouble with the friends he made each summer. They would pull pranks on the little kids and I often wondered what type of secret activities were going on behind the motel.
Finally I spotted Evie and Billy’s white Monte Carlo pull into the driveway and could hear the rustling of the pebbles beneath the tires as they parked. I was jumping out of my skin and could not wait to see their faces. Billy, a NYC taxi driver and former butcher, was a bundle of sunshine. He was a jokester who lived to make people laugh. He often talked about how much he enjoyed entertaining the passengers in his cab and shared stories of celebrities he would chat up during their rides. As an adult, whenever I ride in a cab, I often wonder how Billy would fare today with his big moustache, thick Brooklyn accent and wry Jewish humor.
Evie played the straight man to Billy and, while she had a heart filled with love, she struggled to show it as freely as he did. Nonetheless, they were like second parents to me and my heart beamed when I was with them. I spent so much time in their house that they suggested that they should be able to write me off on their taxes. Later in my childhood when my days were very dark and I searched for a safe haven, their house was my sanctuary. Evie was a redheaded beauty and made sure that everyone knew how beautiful she was. Every Friday afternoon I would walk over to the beauty parlor by our house in Queens and watch her get her nails done. She and my mother were so close and so similar in many ways but, unlike my own mother, she had a lot more confidence about her looks and took every opportunity to primp and beautify herself. My mother went to the salon every week to have her hair done but never indulged in such luxuries as a manicure or pedicure. I loved watching Evie get her long beautiful nails polished and lamented as I looked down at my own chewed off nails that I only dreamed would one day be long enough to be manicured. It was one of the many aspects of my personal being that I was embarrassed about as a child. I was a chronic nail-biter – a habit my mother often tried to break me of using a variety of tactics, most unsuccessfully berating me and telling me how ugly my hands looked.
When I saw Evie and Billy make their way to the concrete surround of the pool and head towards the steps to come up to the balcony, I immediately burst into tears. I sobbed like a baby, so filled with emotion to see these two who I loved so much and whom I knew loved me back purely and unconditionally. To this day, this memory assures me that I was capable of feeling deep emotion before I became numb to what was happening around me.
I am often taken back to this memory, especially when I begin to explore the topic of vulnerability because I know, for certain, that I was raw and pure and unfiltered in that moment. I felt safe and secure enough to let my feelings show to these people who I knew, without a doubt, loved me and protected me. As an adult, when I reflect on this, I wonder how anyone could possibly recapture a moment, a feeling as pure as that. I am sure you can but it eludes me.
When I look at my children, I pray that they will be able to feel loved and secure enough to allow themselves to experience raw emotions not just at their tender young ages but throughout their lives. And I fear that life will simply get in their way.