The first house I remember living in was on Elmer Street in Springdale, Connecticut. Springdale is a section of the larger city of Stamford which at the time was a small bedroom community. It’s about an hour from New York City, and the New Haven train line ran commuter trains regularly. Dad worked right in town, unlike so many other dads, so he was often around and involved. Mom worked part-time as a nurse, but my brother and I always had one or the other parent around. If Mom worked nights, Dad would make sure he came home in time to take over. When we got to be school age, Mom started getting jobs during our school hours. We grew up in a neighborhood with gangs of kids running around. When not in school, we left after breakfast to play, came back for lunch and again at dinnertime. In the summer, we could stay out for a while after dinner too. We were all free-range kids back then.
I was very shy and afraid even of my own shadow. It was always hard work for me to cultivate relationships. It’s a skill that I’ve had to learn over the years. Mom was great at it. She befriended everyone regardless of their age, gender, orientation, ethnicity or position in life. Whoever you were, she wanted to know you. She was friendly and fun and usually the life of the party. I was more like Dad, who preferred to stay in the background quietly observing everything and enjoying Mom’s antics. They played with us outdoors with Mom teaching us how to double-dutch jump rope. Dad hung swings and rope to climb and swing on. They often played hopscotch or a game they called “Frozen Ice.” It was a race where you had vinyl sheeting cut into random shapes that you’d lay down on the ground, one at a time, putting one foot down then tossing the next and putting your other foot down and so on to the finish line. It was a race so you were supposed to go as fast as you could. All the kids loved watching Mom and Dad race each other bumping the other one to slow them down. Mom even insisted on trying out a kid's new go-cart and got stuck in it. She couldn't reach the brake and couldn't take her foot off the accelerator, so she rode around until it ran out of gas with its owner running after her yelling at her to stop. The whole neighborhood was in an uproar so Dad finally took us inside and closed all of the drapes.
Dad was also always good at showing us how not to do things. He was such a good sport but clumsy. I guess I also inherited that from him. One time he wanted to show me and my brother how to swing safely on a rope swing he had just hung in a big old oak tree. The tree was on the edge of a rise in the yard that Mom had terraced to help prevent erosion, which was a big problem. Dad explained that we would swing out from the side of the tree, swinging out over the yard and giving a big enough push to make it all the way around without crashing into the tree. Then he demonstrated. After he picked himself up off the ground, he turned to us and said, “That’s how not to do it. Now you try.” And we did, both successfully. We often learned safety lessons that way.
The Elmer Street house was a wonderful neighborhood but a weird house to live in. We lived in half of the large house. The other half was uninhabited and furnished with covers over everything. There were double glass doors with heavy curtains that separated that side from us. Sometimes I would peer through the tiny gaps in the curtains and wonder about it all. It was mysterious, and I was curious. I asked Mom but she either didn’t know or didn’t want to tell me. Every once in a while, Mrs. Fromm would come to visit the house. I have a vague feeling about her and can almost remember what she looks like, but not quite. She was as much of a mystery as the house, and I was too timid to even look up much. I used to make up stories about what must have happened. It had to be something tragic that she couldn’t face. That’s why everything was covered up and gathering years and years of dust. My bedroom was a dead-end in the upstairs. It was off my parents’ room. I liked it because my brother had no excuse to go in. There were other rooms upstairs. Our bedrooms were on one side of the stairs, and there was a hallway on the other side with rooms off of the hallway. There was one off of my bedroom that was behind a locked door. I peeked through the keyhole a few times, but it was creepy. At one point I stuffed something into the keyhole so that nothing could peek in at me. The window in my room was a dormer. Most of the time I loved being in my room, but on stormy nights when lightning flashed and the trees outside cast strange shadows on the walls, I would start to think about that closed off room.
Also in that house was a large screened-in side porch. The yard on that side wasn’t very exciting. From what I remember, it was mostly shaded and damp. We never played there. But the other side had a great yard. There was an ironwood tree. It was a perfect climbing tree. The branches were strong and spaced out just right. There was one closest to the ground that grew horizontally for a while then grew up and back out again. It was our “horse.” It was long enough that it would bounce but even a grownup could sit on it safely. I loved that tree. I often took a bunch of books up to the top branches and read for hours. I liked being away from everyone. As I said earlier, socializing was hard work for me. I was also scared a lot, so being up in the tree was ideal. I was safe and could see trouble coming before it reached me. The rest of the yard was large and sunny with a mulberry tree down in the far corner. We picked mulberries every summer and grapes every fall. Mom made jelly from the grapes and from red currants that she got from a friend.
The neighborhood was great. When we got old enough to go to school, it was an easy walk. There was a playground and a library next door to the elementary school. There was also a summer day camp at the playground that you could just drop in when you wanted. Halfway to the school was an old fenced in church lot. It was blacktopped so there was roller skating there and sometimes a church fair. A little past the school was Bill and Fred’s. It was kind of an early convenience store. It was a smoke shop, soda counter and candy store. We all went there, when we were old enough to go that far, to buy penny candy. We bought wax lips, wax soda bottles filled with some kind of sweet syrup, candy necklaces, candy dots on long sheets of paper and atomic fireballs. Those were my favorite. Bill and Fred were too older men who smoked cigars in the store. They were nice enough but not overly friendly which was fine with me. It always felt like I was doing something elicit when I went there. Maybe it wasn’t me doing it. Maybe I just sensed something off. Stamford was a very corrupt town. There was a thriving underworld that was quiet and kept to itself for the most part. But it was there, nonetheless.
School was a sudden disruption to my life. I liked being at home. I already knew how to read before entering kindergarten. Mom and Dad’s friends were all educated people. Dad was a newspaperman. He covered current events and the Republican side of politics. Later on, he wrote a weekly column. Mom was a Registered Nurse. I was surrounded by medical professionals, writers, lawyers and politicians. My parents did not believe that children should be seen and not heard. They included us in all of the adult conversations. We were encouraged to think and ask questions. We were also encouraged to voice our opinions but had to be ready for the aggressive counter arguments if we had different beliefs. Mom taught me science related things. We did experiments, gardened, identified birds, insects and plants. When I started school, I was on my own without a safety net. I had no tree to climb when I felt overwhelmed. There were all of these kids I didn’t know. No one from our little neighborhood gang was in my class. I was afraid, and I was bored to tears. I have a vague memory of having a nice teacher in kindergarten, but I made no friends. I don’t think I had a school friend until fourth grade. I spent most of my time working on my invisibility cloak and daydreaming. I hated school. For me, it was a wasted six hours a day. I could have spent that time reading and learning something of value. I don’t think it was the fault of my teachers. I think it was my own social anxiety and the fact that my own learning was way ahead of the curriculum. With my social issues, it would have been a disaster to move me ahead into a higher grade.
I was already musical when I was born. My parents loved to tell me that I sang before I spoke. They knew I would be a musician. I was singing sentences before I actually spoke words. I could sing a round by the time I was two and was soon singing descants and harmonies. Dad sang all the time. He had a song for everything. He was a frustrated musician. By that I mean that he loved music and wanted to play it but never seemed to pull it off. When he was a child, his parents, having paid for music lessons for their first three children, stopped providing them for Dad and his younger brother. But he didn’t give up. He was in musicals and chorales in high school and college, but then he didn’t pursue it. He bought himself a guitar for five dollars from the Red Cross when he was in the Navy and knew a few chords. He could also play a little on a saxophone that he owned and on the ukulele. He became a young father and main breadwinner with no time to take music seriously, but he still loved it and surrounded himself and us with it. When he wasn’t singing, he was playing records. He had mostly classical, jazz, blues and big band albums. Many of his friends played music, though. One of them, Sterns Woodman, could play any song on any instrument by ear. All you had to do was sing it to him. I was in awe of him, and there were others. I was so blessed to have grown up in that music-filled environment.