The Parklawnians

Tough Jeans!

I wonder at the tenacity which helped me through my life, and then I see old pictures like this.

This is my mother and her sister, Dorothy. I laugh at how tough they look. Cuffed jeans, barefoot, and the expressions on their faces.

My mother was from a house of five girls. The turmoil they experienced at this time in their lives was very painful. My mother always recounts the experience, being raised by her grandmother, while her mother, was living in the city. My grandfather, had a seven-year affair. My grandmother, tried to chase him down.

In the end, she won him back, but at what cost? My mother was hurt. She tells me that, “My mother never came to my high school graduation.” These are milestones. The lack of our parents, or loved ones, concern, inflicts hurt. I try to keep this in mind when my mother, fails to show natural affection.

This particular sister, of hers, had her own share of problems. She and my mother were, at times, close, and yet almost enemies. The rivalry, caused problems for most of their lives.

My aunt passed away, last year. I remember going into my mother’s bedroom to tell her. She cried. I rarely see my mother cry.

My mom’s sister’s couldn’t relate to her, when she was divorcing. She’d also lost my brother, and we were forced to move out of our home. My father stopped paying her and we were forced to move into a housing project.

The project was called, Parklawn. It was exciting to us. We were kids and it was just a new neighborhood. With all of the kids living right next to each other, it was a kids dream. Although my mother was experiencing so much pain, we seemed to adapt.

I had been extremely close to my baby brother. At the loss, I suffered as well. I watched my mother deteriorating, as I tried to hold myself together. In the end, when my mother had a break-down, I tried to hold myself together again. As her sister’s placed us in the Children’s Home.

We returned to our little home in Parklawn. It was in this place that we saw so much suffering, yet such a tight-knit community. It was the first time I’d ever heard the term, “divorcee.’ It sounded so, exotic. So French. I didn’t think it was supposed to be a demeaning label.

After all, almost all the mother’s in Parklawn, were, divorcee’s. They seemed so strong. So beautiful and courageous. In this I saw, the fabric of this place. The way all of them came together to help each other.

The married couples, had a strength as well. It was a strength born of the poverty, which was our common experience. Struggles, which drew all of us closer.

We were the children of these strong parents. Laughter was our medicine. The women would meet together for coffee and drinks in the evening. We would all go out and play.

The cast of characters was endless. I have fond memories of most of them. These are the people which I affectionately call; The Parklawnian’s.

The first person I met, was Wanda. She was from the big Phillipino, family, next door. We became close friends. She taught me how to braid my hair. Her mother took all of us in, when my mother was sick. Even though her family was quite large. It didn’t matter to her.

My mother’s sister’s, came to take us from her, and later placed us in the home. This is why my mother was so angry with them. She trusted a neighbor, more than her own blood.

I became friends, with Kathy. She lived across, the court. I would play at her house all the time. My brother hung out with two boys, named David and Steve. David had a huge crush on me. I was always shy around him, and he would just sit and stare at me through our screen door. Both boys were very cute, but I was terrified of any boys crush. Years later, I would still write to Steve, when he enlisted in the Marines.

There was a boy named, Johnny Leoconnel, across the court. Another friend of my brother’s. Once, I came home to find my Barbie, melted and hanging out my window, with G.I. Joe, hanging right next to her. I ran into the house and they were cracking up. At this point they had already grown bored and were now experimenting with my brother’s microscope.

As I came up the stairs, I saw my brother gagging and spitting into the toilet. Johnny was laughing so hard, he was crying. “What is going on?” I asked. My brother told me that Johnny placed a booger on the slide. After they were done looking at it, he held my brother down and made him eat it! I almost started gagging myself.

Johnny was the only person I ever knew, who started a fire in his igloo. We had a blizzard one winter, and he built his snow fort. A while later, we saw the fire department arrive and smash it up with fire axes. My brother and I were laughing so hard. “What an idiot!” I said. “How do you start a fire inside an igloo?”

Next to him lived a guy, we all hated. He was the Parklawnian, bully. His name was Robert Machesny. He would pick on everyone. Although when it came to playing, Chase, he was the best. But you couldn’t trust him. He was bigger than all of us, and his mood would change in an instant.

I remembered seeing him years later at a party once. He was now trying to be the nice guy. But it was too late. I knew too much about him.

Then my mother had a friend, Betty. She lived two doors down. She had two daughter’s. They were quite a bit older than me. One snow day, when we were off school, I went over to Kathy’s. “Did you hear the news?” She asked. “Betty died.” “What???” I was shocked. Betty had a heart condition and went to the hospital. She died. I had to tell my mother, who was in complete shock.

A story I remember quite well, was the rivalry between Betty and Mary. I didn’t quite understand, but I liked them both. Mary a little bit more, because she was so sensitive. She had two little children. When my brother, with special needs, was around, she always planned something fun for him. We would watch as she had him help her with different crafty projects. She would say, “No this is just for him. You can do something with me later.” I loved it that she singled him out to make him feel special.

Her young son had, cystic fibrosis. It was so sad. Then she went in to the hospital. She was planning her wedding. I was so happy for her. One day we received the news, that she died. We were heart-broken.

I will never forget Betty’s comment after hearing the news. “It couldn’t happen to a nicer person.” I’ve never heard anyone say something so cruel. I always wondered at this remark, as she died about a year later. Children draw natural conclusions, and mine was that of the harmful words returning to the mouth which had spoken them. It was more than a bit of irony.

Mary’s fiancée took her children. A year later, her son died. It was just beyond sad. Yet, having had all of this in my own life, I was already learning that life, is full of surprises and pain.

Next door to us, lived Michael. He was probably the first person, I ever knew that was openly gay. Well, at that time he was referred to as ‘a fem.’ He was in the color guard and he would practice his march and spinning his rifle all day long. He would march and march.He was fascinating to watch. His dedication was amazing.  His mother was fanatical about cleaning their little house. She would definitely be considered obsessive/compulsive by today’s standards.

She ran around with a dustpan or a broom, mop, at all times. Very little time for socializing when her home was constantly being invaded by dirt.

Later, Wanda, moved out. The next family moved in. Lois had four kids.  They were all older too. There was, Paulette, Cindy, Rick and Randy.  Their mother was Italian, and she was very good friends with my mom. She would put Iodine and Baby Oil on her skin and lay in a little kiddie pool, to get tan. I  always thought she was funny. Paulette, later babysat, for my cousins.

At some point, we found out that her son, Rick knew, my wicked stepmother’s son. This creeped me out. But it was the only nice child, my stepmother had. In fact, he had told Rick, that he had nothing to do with his mom or my dad. He made it clear that he didn’t like the way they treated us. And I believe he meant it, as years later, he was never involved with his own mother. We came over for many Christmases and such, and Earl was never present.

One evening I heard, Rick in our house. He was downstairs, and I heard him trying to kiss my mom. My mom kept saying, “Get out of here Rick, before I call your mom!” I couldn’t believe it.

Years later, when I started dating my ex husband, we were sitting with his friend, Donnie. We all seemed to know some of the same people. My ex husband’s mother, was a hilarious woman. But a big flirt. My ex and his friend brought up, Lois and her kids. They were the same age as Rick and they knew him quite well. I said, “Oh, he tried to make out with my mom!” At this they both looked at each other and started cracking up. “Oh my gosh!” My ex said. “My mom told me that he tried to make out with her and I didn’t believe her!” Apparently he had brought him over to hang out, and he tried to grab her. Because she was such a flirt, my ex just assumed she was exaggerating.

I couldn’t wait to see her. I said, “Hey Dorothy you and my mom, have a lot in common. Rick tried to molest both of you!” She finally felt vindicated. “I told you!” She said to her son.

There was Pat Packinella. I loved the sound of his name. He was the ‘hot guy,’ of our court. Yes, it sounds like a castle and the court, but this is how the project was divided up. When we were discussing someone, we would say, “They live in that court.”

Pat asked me to go steady once. I was very flattered. I was about 10 or 11. When I told my mom, she had a fit. My father was coming to visit. When he arrived she said, “Ask your dad what he thinks about this. Well, I thought, it can’t hurt. “Hey dad, a guy down the street asked me to go steady.” “What?” He said. “Go steady?” As if he’d never heard the term. “I’ll give you some, Ex-Lax, that will help you go steady!” Of course, I wasn’t too upset, since I didn’t really understand the whole, steady thing either. Some of the girls were way ahead of me in this department and I sure didn’t want to know about it.

We had a woman with a bunch of kids living at the end of the court. Their grandmother would come over to visit. She was just like a man. She was extremely masculine. I was forever grateful to her, as she taught all of us how to play baseball in the court. She showed us how to bat and field balls. It was kind of a change from playing, 500 off of the dumpster.

We would go to the park and there we learned how to play, Slap. There were long cloth strips, which one person would hold and the other would try to grab them, to being potentially slapped. There were guys there that knew how to do, The Hambone. I loved this.

We would jump rope. Double-dutch and pepper, was extremely fast. We had the hands down, best jumping rope, songs.

Joey and Marie lived on the other corner. Joey had cerebral palsy. He walked like my brother’s. I had a soft spot in my heart for him because of his disability. His father worked hard. He took Marie and Joey, and me, to the circus. He didn’t have much money but was so kind.

Marie taught me all the words to the song, ‘There’s a Kind of Hush.’ I loved this song and would sing it over and over.

Kathy and me, loved The Monkees. We would pretend we were them.It kind of reveals how young we were. We didn’t play their wives or girlfriends. We wanted to be them. She always chose Davey Jones. She could do that shuffle just like him. I would laugh, to watch her. I would be either Peter Torke, or Mike Nesbith. I did not want to be Mickey Dolenze. He was kind of like, Ringo Starr.  And on the rare occasion that my sister, or someone else was there, we would make her, play him.

Kathy and me entered a contest that Coke was having. I’ll never forget how we collected every cap, to fill the little sheet. Then when they realized they were going to have too many winners, they changed the game. My first experience, with game-changing. I began to realize that this is the way of the world.

It didn’t matter, we were The Parklawnian’s. Able to bounce back from any situation. Able to live in a world of suffering, and laugh in spite of our situation. We had the ability hold on to a little bit of joy, in the midst of it all.

I look at these pictures of my mom, once again, and see that this is the one trait in her, which I am the most fond of. She is a fighter. Toughness which, I had mistaken for weakness, many times.

Her ability to get back up. She passed this down to her children.


And I, in turn, have tried to convey this same fighting spirit, to my children. Whatever the obstacle, I remind them to get back up and fight. Use the humor to overcome the odds.

This is what life is about. “Fighting the good fight,” is what makes life worth living.

Still fighter's after all these years!