My father, who was born on a farm in the Catskill Mountains, was forever "exploring," as he called it, and we children were delighted with his finds. To this day I still love the city and the country and "exploring." Thanks to my father, I became just as used to picking blueberries in the woods in upstate New York as I was crossing the busy city streets going to school or falling asleep to the sound of the elevated trains outside my bedroom window.
My mother tells many stories about me from the first eight years of my life growing up in New York City. She says that when I was about two years old, she lost me in a big store and was frantically looking for me when she saw a large crowd by the cash registers. She feared the worst-that I had hurt myself. But when she reached the circle, she saw me in the center, dancing around and putting on a show. I must have thought I was at one of our family gatherings.
Another story she tells is that I loved going to the movie theater. In those days, the theater played the same movie over and over again, and you paid one admission and could sit there all day long. Once when I was around six, she had to send Uncle Lou after me to drag me out of the theater. I had sat through Elephant Walk about five times. It's no wonder that, to this day, I have a vivid image in my mind of a huge herd of elephants stampeding through a villa with Elizabeth Taylor looking on in terror.
When I was two and a half, my brother Robert was born. I must have been a bit jealous because there's a story about me squeezing cherry juice right into his eyes. Bert was born a few years later. For years I was the "big" sister, until Robert and Bert grew to be over six feet tall and I stayed a shrimp of five feet two and a half inches.
My mom read lots of books to us when we were little, and this must have helped give me my love of books. But I had trouble when I went to first grade where they taught reading by emphasizing sight recognition of whole words. As soon as my mother saw my very poor grade in reading, she took over and taught me to read using phonics, which emphasizes learning the alphabet, the sounds of the letters, and blending the letters together. I did much better in school after that.
Another memory I have of these years in the New York City apartment house was coming home from school and seeing fire trucks in front of my building. Immediately I worried that the fire was in my apartment. It was. A fire had started in the kitchen and smoke filled the whole place. By the time I arrived, my brothers were hiding under their beds and my mother was trying to convince the firemen not to chop up the furniture.
Sometimes I liked being the oldest child and sometimes I didn't. I liked being the one to get a watch first and go to bed later than my brothers, but I didn't always like being in charge of them. Robert and Bert could be a handful. Once my mother sent me off with Robert to try out the brand-new wading pool in the nearby park. It didn't take us long to find out, however, that the pool didn't actually have any water in it. Its cement cracks had recently been filled with a black tar which was still drying. Of course my brother Robert found the tar and smeared it all over his hair. When I brought him home, my mother had to cut a good portion of his hair off, and she wasn't too happy with me either.
When I was eight years old, my father accepted a job transfer to Philadelphia. Philadelphia was only ninety miles from New York, but it was worlds away to me. We moved midway through the school year, my third grade year. Besides leaving my extended family in New York, my school, and my friends, I suddenly found out that I was different. I was the new kid in the class, the school, and the neighborhood. I was teased and bullied because I was new and had a New York accent.
In fourth grade things improved. I had a wonderful teacher named Mrs. Chambeau who supplied us all with books from her own lending library. That was the year I really began to lose myself in books. We also moved to a house on a street full of kids of all ages. I roller-skated with them in the street, jumped hopscotch and rope, and swapped secrets. In summer, everyone moved outside. It was too hot inside in those days before every house had air conditioning. Parents dragged television sets out onto the stoop, the steps in front of our attached "row" houses. They watched favorite shows like Ed Sullivan and The Honeymooners, chatted with neighbors, and kept an eye on all the kids. We, the kids, played hide-and-seek among the bushes, jacks on the steps, bottle caps in the street, and ball bouncing games against the brick walls. We played until the last possible moment.
All the way through the twelfth grade, I continued to live on this same street in Philadelphia. I worked hard in school, "hung out" with my friends, and enjoyed my family. My father still took us "exploring," often to Pennsylvania Dutch farm auctions where we'd get stuck behind horse-drawn Amish wagons and eat shoofly pie at farmers' markets.
My mom, who had been a medical secretary, stayed home to take care of us. She made lots of cakes which never lasted long. She'd put a just-baked cake out on the kitchen table to cool, and one of us, most likely Bert, would eat a piece out of the middle, the moistest part. If Mom did get a chance to frost the cake, one of us would invariably come along and gobble up finger fulls of frosting off the cake, thinking that no one would notice.
The three of us together could be quite a force. We regularly scared away baby-sitters by teasing them and spying on them when they brought their boyfriends over. But we soon found out that baby-sitterless, we were also very good at scaring ourselves. When our parents went out at night, we loved to watch all those scary movies on TV. The tricky part came when the movie was over. We'd all three make a mad dash for the stairs at the same time, pushing and shoving. Not one of us wanted to be the last one to reach those stairs, because, by an unwritten rule, that person had to turn off the TV and all the downstairs lights, and mount the stairs in the dark!
During these growing-up years, I read all the time, but especially in summer. And went on endless walks to the library to replenish my supply, especially any book by Enid Blyton I could find. I loved her adventure stories. My mother would try and get me out of my room into the "fresh air," but if my friends were at camp or "down the shore," she didn't succeed.
I didn't really think of myself as a writer when I was growing up. I didn't write stories or poems except in school. But I loved to tell stories. I'd often make up stories in my head before I went to sleep. And when I baby-sat, which was very often because I liked making my own money, I figured out a way to get the parents to ask me back. I'd tell the kids a story, often an outer-space adventure, using the kids as the main characters, and leave it hanging in the middle. They would beg to have me as their sitter. I also loved writing letters, keeping journals, and doing my own research that had nothing to do with school.