The Hill

We lived near the bottom of a long hill, a hill that kept going forever.

From the top of the hill came stories, evasions, mysteries that were never solved. I would sometimes look up the hill and wonder.

Our own house was embedded into the hill. We sledded down our side yard in winter, mowed sideways in summer. We were the blue house with the many front steps, a big old house where kids could roam but today it was summer. Day camp was over. I could hear the kids up on Prospect.

“Can we go up the hill?”

We heard the sigh so we ran.

We flew out the double Dutch door, my younger sister and I, sprinting down the flagstone path and up to Prospect St. We joined the argument. A Prospect boy had a kickball under his arm.

It’s hard to say who saw it first, but the road dust got quiet. I turned, and I took in a breath. We watched it park, its nose pointing down the hill.

I had heard it was up there.

Continue reading

Lily Dipping

It was the third week of our summer canoe trip.

Eva and I were making our way with eight 13-year-olds and two counselors, aged 16 and 17. We were living among the loons and Canadian lakes with a paper map and tents and red canoes, eating from the cans we carried on our backs during portages from lake to lake. There was no connection with an adult. Some kids didn’t change their clothes. Eva and I cleaned our Jordache jeans with Ivory against a large rock and were mocked for our diligence but our difference from the wilderness gang was never more apparent than when in the canoes.

“EEE-VAH, you’re lily-dipping!” shouted the girl with curly hair, from her canoe up ahead. The wilderness gang paddled on.

(Later that evening at bedtime, in our tent, Eva would call out into the dark night: “EEE-VAH, you’re lily-dipping!” Making us giggle and repeat it back and forth to each other. The campsite would remain silent until someone finally would shout, “Put a lid on it!”)

But right now, we were falling behind again. We were tired. Our sugar rush from the lunch chocolate was gone. The sun was round and strong and we had seen the map over the girl counselor’s shoulder that morning. We had a long ways to go before we found camp (and dinner) in the evening.

My cousin and I were quiet in our canoe, having already played “What would you eat if you were home?”

“C’mon, Eva!” I said, digging in harder.

Eva dug in.

In unison we moved us forward. Swoosh. Swoosh. Catching up was always hard.

I kept my eyes on the wilderness gang as I paddled, steering with my J-stroke so that the canoe was aiming directly at them. I watched their muscular paddling and wondered what they were laughing about. I admired their faded bandanas tied around their foreheads. My bandana was tied around my forehead, too, but the material was bright and crisp and uncomfortable, new. A costume next to their reality.

I stopped paddling and scooped lake water to drink. For a second, my drinking arm caught the edge of the shade coming from where pines leaned over the lake’s edge. I paused like a picture, keeping the cool on me, but Eva was trying hard in the front of the canoe – swoosh – so I had to keep moving, too.

The girl counselor looked over her shoulder at us and made a comment to the boy counselor in his canoe. He shrugged. They kept going.

Then we heard a motor – now that was a surprise! Eva and I shaded our eyes with our hands.

Lo and behold, it was the flannelled camp director! Now this was news!

Like Santa on retirement, with grey beard and stomach, he steered his motorboat over to our dispirited canoe. He said nothing and threw us a pile of rope.

As his twin-engine grumbled, he tied an elaborate knot onto the front of our canoe. Eva and I looked at each other gleefully.

He tested the knot with a tug, dragged his stomach back and shifted up, his engines whirling the quiet black lake. As he raced forward, we watched the pile of rope disappear.

When we lurched forward in delight, we screamed a little and grabbed onto the sides, my bandana falling over my eyebrows but I held on. We came upon the wilderness gang quickly.

Now had this been a movie set, my cousin and I might’ve used this moment as an opportunity, shouting in unison: “LILY—DIP—THIS!” while shaking our oars in the air, in triumph.

But we just smiled as we passed them, the breeze blowing our hair and the tips of our machine-washed bandanas, oars comfortably on our laps.

Lake Temagami

Swim Lesson

I jumped out of the car and ran across the driveway, my sandaled feet slipping over the loose gravel.

My Great Aunt Dotsie was taking down her stiff towels from the line. My Uncle Tommy was already counting for hamburgers and hotdogs, pretending not to see my younger sisters. The tiny yard smelled of charcoal and lighter fluid. The picnic table was set with a yellow tablecloth and a stack of paper plates.

“Aunt Dotsie!” I said.

“Carry these in, honey,” she said, handing me the crunchy towels. They smelled of sun and bleach.

Over the tomato plants, we heard Mrs. Halpern’s voice yell to her husband. Her front door slammed.

My Aunt Dotsie rolled her eyes. “Here she comes,” she said. “Run.”

I ran inside with the towels and put them on the couch. When I sat in my Uncle Tommy’s green TV chair, I saw my older cousin and her friends in the front yard, where we weren’t allowed to go. Beyond the line of pines, a car whizzed by with a trail of guitar, heading to the Tarrytown Lakes.

I went out the front door and stood with my cousin and the older girls. One older girl was leaning on a pine tree, looking at me and my rainbow bathing suit.

“Do you know how to swim?” she asked me.

“Sort of,” I said. “Yes.”

“Sort of!”

We all turned toward the voice.

It was Mrs. Halpern with a hotdog in her hand, wearing a visor. She had the head of a tan turtle.

“You don’t know how to swim?” she asked me.

My Aunt Dotsie came up behind her, holding a wiggly pink mold.

“Who wants mold?” she asked us, motioning to me with her head.

“Me!” we all said, and followed her into the front yard, where my Uncle Tommy was handing out hotdogs to my sisters.

I grabbed a paper plate and spooned my Aunt Dotsie’s macaroni salad and pink mold onto my plate.

“Amy doesn’t know how to swim?”

I looked up.

Mrs. Halpern was talking to my mother. They started to discuss something. I watched them for a second but then I ate the macaroni salad. It had little pieces of green pepper. I usually hated green pepper, but not in this cold macaroni salad I didn’t!

My mother came over.

“Amy, why don’t you go to the pool with Mrs. Halpern?” said my mother. “She’s a swimming teacher.”

I looked at Mrs. Halpern. “C’mon, get in my car,” she said. “You have your bathing suit on.”

She started walking toward her house.

I looked at my mother. She nodded. “Grab a towel off the couch and go with Mrs. Halpern,” she said.

Two minutes later, we were in Mrs. Halpern’s loud VW Beetle with hot seats, headed to a pool. I was sort of excited, especially when I saw the pool. It was enormous. It smelled my favorite smell, chlorine, and it was bigger than the Ardsley Middle School pool.

“Go down to the deep end,” said Mrs. Halpern.

I did. I took off my shorts and left them on the floor and saw how deep the pool was. It said “21 Feet” in red squares. I stood in front of the 21 Feet. My toes were touching the red squares, and wondered if the—

Hands were on my back and then I was in the chlorine air. I fell into the deep cave of the 21 Feet.

Under water my arms flailed. I came up breathing pool, frightened.

I turned myself around and looked up at her. I was treading water. She was standing with her arms on her hips. My hair was draped across my face like a curtain.

“See?” said Mrs. Halpern. “Now you know how to swim.”

I don’t remember much more of the lesson. We did do a crawl stroke at the other end of the pool and she put her hands on my head, twisting my head back and forth so I could learn how to breathe properly.

Later, in my Aunt Dotsie’s kitchen, I told everyone what happened. My Aunt Dotsie slapped her hand down on the counter.

“What?!” she said. “She walks around town sayin’ she’s this great swim teacher? She doesn’t have a bird-brain in her head!”

My mother was examining me with a look of distress and draped a crunchy towel around my shoulders.

My sister, Laurette, was tapping my Aunt Dotsie. “Aunt Dotsie, Aunt Dotsie, can I cut your hair on the couch?” she asked.

Aunt Dotsie was still talking about Mrs. Halpern’s bird brain but she stopped, and looked down at my sister. “Sure honey, go get the scissors,” she said. My sister ran for the scissors.

The kitchen cleared.

My Great Aunt Mary stood next to the green fridge. She was holding a Tom Collins, looking at me. She raised her chin in the air, and waited.

I raised mine.

“I see you survived,” she said.

pool water

Next up: ASK, on July 17. Please stop back and read! It makes my day!! 🙂

A Ghost Story

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single ghost in possession of a haunted house must be in want of a scare.

Block Island is the black sheep of the northeast Atlantic.

I grew up going there two weeks every summer with family and cousins. Leaving it after the two weeks gave my heart a freefall. I would cry alone in a ferry bathroom stall, but the emotion made me realize the island was my true home.

What made it home: the house we rented and the terrain.

During summers, the island coated me. It belonged on my skin and I kept it there. We stayed for those two weeks down a long dirt road that the island’s official map made dotted. I walked barefoot down that road, its soft dirt covering the nameless vegetation along where tires spat and my feet, sometimes my legs. We would climb down the Mohegan Bluffs and its dark clay dried between my toes, and I pretended all this island dirt got into my bloodstream, making me its child.

On days of all-sun I rolled down the warm dunes at State Beach and the black flecks of hot sand covered me with metallic heat. I swam underwater in the ocean’s shallow pockets looking for lobster and fished with my father on the Viking, collecting blues from the deep and eating them later from the grill with tomato slices and onion.
Because of these summers, I like to believe I’m a part of the island’s closed cycle of history.

The house we rent and love is ours. We don’t pay the bills or the mortgage and we’ll never have to replace the roof but we’ve been renting this old house for so long that we feel it knows us, and we sure know it. When I close the door each time we leave until another year, I always say “Bye Becks,” with a giant lump in my throat and heart, though I keep it together as an adult on the ferry, until I get home and do the laundry.

The biggest part of the house’s mystique has to do with its haunted stories.

There are several self-published books written by an islander who tells them well. In all honesty, there was a strong creep factor about this old house. If you happened to be alone, you’d wait outside, reading a book, waiting until somebody else got back. Most of the book’s stories, however, happened at night, as did ours.
Once, my cousin and I were up late talking and laughing in our back bedroom together. Our bedroom was down a long hallway with a wood floor held together by old square nail heads. We were probably around 13, 14. Everyone else had gone to bed and the house was quiet, lights were out.

We were on a hot streak with the laughter – don’t ask me what was so funny, I have no idea. But it turned quickly un-funny when we heard bare feet marching down the hallway.

Heel, heel, heel, heel, heel, heel.

It was fast. We knew it was my mother, but I was surprised she was so angry.

We jumped into bed and held the covers up to our noses.

The feet stopped in front of our door.

The door never opened.

PS After this happened, my cousin and I waited for the door to open. When nothing happened, we looked at each other, then turned out the light and went to bed. The next day, we asked the adults in the house if they had walked down the hall and stopped in front of our door. They didn’t know what we were talking about.
Another true story, current day: Various members of my family wake up in the middle of the night and hear footsteps walking in the attic. This past visit, something crashed in the attic in the middle of the night. When we looked to see what had fallen, nothing was out of place.

Southeast Lighthouse-Block Island RI

Jilda, the Dancing Nude

Our backyard was big enough.

It offered thick grass, a vegetable garden with chicken wire and a stack of firewood against the clubhouse. In the corner of the backyard sat a picnic table that sank into the soil on one end, a dog pen for John Doe and a tree stump with mint.

As we grew, the backyard went through several moltings. We called it the beach as teenagers and strategically placed Reynolds Wrap in front of our faces, especially if we were going out that night. On Sundays in summer we inhaled my father’s barbecue sauce on charred chicken legs while wedged in between each other and sitting sideways on the picnic table. As kids, we loved the clubhouse.

The clubhouse was a one-room house that the family before us took the time to build. No sink or plumbing, but a shelf area and a wooden floor on which we fought more than played. The clubhouse smelled of wood and dirt and suggestions. It changed along with us and became a rabbit hutch, a private nook for thoughts, a one-night sleepover experiment, a place to hide beer, but as children, we would sit on its front steps and decide what to do next.

Sometimes, great performances came from our thinking on the steps. “Let’s put on a play.” Chairs were dragged out but creative differences were the norm.

One particular day on the steps, when day camp was over, we couldn’t believe how hot it was. I wanted to swim under water with my eyes open and we had no pool. Our neighborhood friends had no pool either and we weren’t allowed to play on their rusty swings that went really high.

The hose? Nobody wanted the hose.

We slumped on the steps and pushed our sneakers in the dirt, making tic-tac-toe that nobody wanted either.

Then someone spotted Jilda over the fence. We peeked around the clubhouse.

Jilda was the lady who lived in back of us. She was putting out her sheets with clothespins. Ralph was her husband. All of a sudden, we realized their names were funny.

Somehow, someone suggested the word “nude.” We put those two words together – Jilda and nude – and it was a miracle!

We needed to laugh because we had no pool and it was so hot out and we were told to “entertain ourselves outdoors.” It was too early to play steal the bacon because we played that after dinner on Lincoln. So we started talking about Jilda being nude, and the words soon found music, and the music soon found new words!

And then we were off the steps and holding hands and dancing in a circle on the sunny grass, singing a song that made us laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh. Even John Doe got into it.

“Jilda the dancing nude! With Ralph! They’re playing our sonnnggg!”

We sang and sang! We skipped in our circle and it was so fun and funny!

“HEY!”

“Jilda the dancing NUDE! With RALPH! They’re playing our SONNNGGGG!”

Laughlaughlaughlaugh!

“HEY! HEY THERE!”

We trickled to a stop and looked over the fence, up at Ralph.

Ralph was leaning out the second story window, his jowls were long and flappy and his face was red.

“STOP THAT!”

We sang again.

“Jilda the dancing nude! WITH RALPH! They’re playing our SONNNNGGGG!!!”

At some point during our ovations my mother received a phone call.

We were told to come inside the house and sit down at the kitchen table. My mother sent the neighborhood children across the street.

There is no memory of the exact words my mother said, only the vibrations of her emotion that leave on me the meaning of kindness and manners. When she was finished, she looked around for something to give Jilda and Ralph. We found a new game called Boggle but couldn’t find wrapping paper so our mother said to use tin foil.

My sister and I walked up to Prospect and our mother stood behind us as we knocked on the front door.

Jilda barely opened the front door. I thought she would be happy to see us with a game! We held out the tin-foiled game and said sorry.

She took the game and closed the door.

Clothespin on white sheet

Up Next, on June 19: A Ghost Story