Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Growing Pains and Gains," Ch. 4 of Memoir BUT...AT WHAT COST

My parents and I moved out to Hilltop Avenue in the suburbs of Newburgh when I was fourteen. Dad’s demons had disappeared (without therapy). We had a car and I (I’m ashamed to say) wanted to move. The old neighborhood was getting worse. A boy across the street was stalking me. To this day, I don’t know if he was dangerous or not, but he was creepy and I was afraid. There was also a new family around the corner – “the red-head” and her two teen-aged daughters. “Red,” it seemed, spent most of her time hanging out her window yelling in the foulest language possible.

I was in 9th grade then, and my circle of friends had changed from the daughters of laborers from the neighborhood to the daughters of professionals I’d met in junior high. I was embarrassed to let them see where I lived. I’m not proud of my selfishness, but I was a teenager with all those teenage drives to “fit in” with my new group.

As soon as I was in junior high, I had started distancing myself from the kids in the neighborhood. It wasn’t a purposeful divorce; it was a gradual separation caused by new exposures and my expanding interests and opportunities. I found new friends, and they provided experiences I’d never had before: an Easter sunrise service at West Point, Broadway shows, museums, and homes with maids. I sometimes got the feeling I was a pet project. I don’t know if I was or not, but these new families certainly expanded my horizons… and made me want to leave the old neighborhood.

My grandparents’ situation hadn’t changed – they had a new washing machine, but they needed as much help as ever. Our moving wasn’t good for them, but it was good for us – especially me. We remained “on call” and new downstairs tenants agreed to help – for money, of course. So, it was okay, I guess, but I really didn’t think about it much. I barely looked back. Life was great on Hilltop Ave. I finally got to know my parents, as parents. It was different; they and not my grandparents were “in charge.” Part of my revelations about them was a product of my coming of age, but I started to learn who they were, and about their dreams and expectations, when we moved. Dad was quite a thinker. We talked about books, religion (he was an atheist), and his music. He was a devotee of jazz, had acquired a huge collection of records, and knew darn near everything there was to know about jazz artists. Music filled the house – always.

My mom was not an “academic” thinker; she was a doer, a very savvy judge of character, and quite the enforcer of her expectations for me. She put me to work at the bobby pin factory where she worked, the summer I turned seventeen. She was determined to make sure I would want to go to college. It worked. Throwing hairpins up a chute for eight hours a day would not be an ambition of mine.

I worked beside another teen. Mary was sixteen and pregnant and we packed hairpins, not bobby pins. Believe me, there’s a difference. Bobby pins have a blob of lacquer on the ends of each pincer; hairpins do not. Hairpins are not pinched together; they are “u” shaped, made from skinnier wire, and are deadly sharp! Unlike a bobby pin, they can draw blood and drive up under your fingernails. (My mother must have been a closet sadist.) God, it was awful. Yeah, we had gloves, but there was not a glove in the world (or at least at the bobby pin factory) that allowed dexterity AND protected your fingers! The solid masses of intertwined little needles were delivered to us in huge drums. Our job was to separate them and pack them in boxes. The mechanism wasn’t very high-tech. It was an eight-foot slanted chute with a catch wire strung about half way up. Ideally, the hairpins would be caught by the wire on their way back down the chute and complete their journey to the packer. We took turns. One would throw and the other would pack until the thrower was ready to collapse; then we’d switch. My mother made her point… and my arms were well-toned by summer’s end.

I got a job at an ice-cream shop after that. Much better! Having been told my parents couldn’t afford to pay for my education, I got a part-time job as a waitress and worked twenty hours a week my senior year. “Thank you, Mr. Johnson!” He arranged all his teen workers’ schedules around our school commitments, so we were able to do it all! I was a busy, busy girl. I sang in three choral groups and sometimes with a small jazz combo and a quartet. I was a cheerleader too. I don’t know where I found the time. Well, one way I found time was to get up really early on school days to do homework. After football season, I usually had Sundays free too. In the fall, I cheered on Saturdays, so worked on Sundays, but after that, I worked on Saturdays and had Sundays free. I could do homework, practice with one group or another (or on my own), and date – whatever.

I was no longer a church-goer. That too, had freed a lot of time. I had stopped going to church when we moved… and never looked back. I was already an atheist, but NOT because my father was. My dad had been admonished by Mom to keep his mouth shut about God and religion – I was to make up my own mind. And I did (thanks, Mom). I had started doubting (without Dad’s pointing the way) when I was about twelve and a regular church-goer. Before moving, I went to Sunday school and youth group, sang in the choir and often went to Sunday dinner at the minister’s house. Church activities took-up the whole day, but by the time I was thirteen, these activities were more social than religious to me.

Remember my obsession with explaining inconsistencies? Well, I think that’s what made me an atheist. It’s a part of me that’s always been there… from “they’re riding ponies because the horses are sick” to “why would God let the children suffer?” Simplistic example, but nothing in the Bible ever made sense to me except as an allegory. I think some people just can’t “believe” – and I’m one of them. My brain won’t let me accept inconsistencies in logic. Neither could my dad’s. Genetic? Maybe. All I know is once I knew reindeer couldn’t fly, Santa couldn’t fit down the chimney, and there were too many kids in the world for him to visit in one night, I stopped believing in Santa Claus… and God, as a creator and a “hands on” manipulator of events seemed just as unlikely to me.

That is not to say all people who “believe” are illogical… they’re not; but, “believing” seems to require a willingness to accept facts not in evidence… and I can’t do that. Everything I “believe” MUST fit with everything else I “believe” – I don’t compartmentalize my beliefs; life is a big puzzle and each piece has to connect for the big picture to make sense.

Besides, some things are admittedly beyond my comprehension – God or the big bang? I can’t get my mind around either. Infinity is another concept I can’t quite get… or Einstein’s theory of relativity. Sure, I can define them, but can any brain actually conceive of something without an edge? For me there’s always that nagging perception that something must be on the “other side” of infinity. Maybe that makes me an agnostic more than an atheist, but I don’t think it’s possible for any human to fully comprehend the idea of God. I immediately think, Well, who created God? Another God? How? Where from? And on it goes. There are always more questions to be answered. So I settled on, “Who knows?”

I think the main events and experiences in my teen years that most influenced my beliefs were my employment at the bobby pin factory and singing with the band. At the time, it was just life – nothing notable or obviously important happened, but both experiences helped dictate my future world-views.

I, of course, had met many different “types” of people in junior high. I had been to the bobby pin factory quite often too, so “colored” people weren’t unknown to me. There was no hint of prejudice in me or any of my family except my father’s stepfather. He was pretty bad, but I can’t say I noticed at the time. It was not something I thought about… it was 1959 in Newburgh, New York, and no white person I knew (except Grandpa Newsome) thought about race. If they did, it certainly wasn’t a big topic of conversation.

The colored people I knew were just like me. I didn’t see any differences between their hopes and desires and mine. The women at the factory were a diverse group ethnically, but not economically that I could see. Most everybody was struggling… working hard to make as much money as they could. Most were on piecework, so they barely raised their heads! Mary, my 16-year-old, pregnant, colored co-worker and I were not paid by the pieces produced; we made a dollar an hour (thank God, because we weren’t very fast). I don’t remember Mary very well, but we got along and I recall having a baby shower for her at work (my mom’s idea). Looking back, it strikes me that race didn’t seem to matter at all – not to me or anybody else. Obviously, my recollections speak to my extreme naiveté! Or maybe not.

When I joined the band, I learned about racism… before that, I swear, I barely knew it existed… the clear results of being a self-centered, ignorant teenager! It took love (and conversation) to open my eyes… AND BOY, did they open! Within weeks of meeting Rod (the drummer, a college man, and colored), I became pretty much obsessed with racial inequality! I had asked him, quite innocently, why he always dressed so nicely. The guy was always in khakis and a button-down shirt. He said, “I have to look better to be treated the same.” He added that he didn’t swear, spoke perfect English and went out of his way to be accepted by white people… because he had to, to get ahead.

I was outraged he had to feel that way… and from that moment on was determined to make things right. My grandfather became a pariah to me… I hardly spoke to him. I fought with anyone who told a bad joke or said anything remotely racial, but, and this is a really big “but”, there were not very many overtly racist people in my circle of acquaintances. I don’t remember any incidents, but apparently, it doesn’t take very many incidents for one to presume there are racists everywhere when you are the brunt of it… or love somebody who is the brunt of it.

Anyway, I was on board… and set out to befriend every colored person I met. I cared! It’s embarrassing to think about how irrationally I behaved. Sometimes, I fear I was downright obsequious, not to those whom were already friends… but with strangers? Yeah, I think I was pretty phony! My heart was in the right place, but I made allowances for colored people I never would have made for white people who behaved badly.

Later, during the riots (in the sixties), I purposely went down to the dangerous part of town to prove I was in no danger from the rioters. Before that, of course, I was in no danger… I used to sing with some of these same people every morning in the auditorium at school. I had performed at benefits where I was one of nine or ten white people in a gathering of two or three hundred… but that was before… before the crime rates and violence soared. Race relationships in the North took a dive in the sixties. Some good things happened legally, but socially – well, not so much! It was a very turbulent time.

Had I not personally witnessed these social changes, I’m quite sure my political beliefs would have evolved very differently. I have a perspective that people only five years younger than I can’t have. They can’t because they weren’t there for the “before and after” comparisons. I was, and those experiences weigh heavily on my conclusions about race relations in America today. I’ll have much more to say about all of that later, but now, I must get back to my life as an eighteen-year-old.

My grandfather, Freddie, died at the end of my senior year of high school. My grandfather’s death affected me deeply; it was a wonder I managed to pass my final exams. It was sudden and emotionally devastating for all of us… not to mention the practical and logistical problems his death brought. Gram gave me Grandpa’s car, so I was able to stay with her when my mother couldn’t. Mom didn’t drive (not that unusual, back then), but I did, so with the two cars, we were all able to go to work and school and help Gram with her grief and with Pa and Uncle Donald. Her friends and neighbors helped too. The rest of that year is a blur. Pa got sicker, was hospitalized and died. I don’t remember when exactly, but sometime, in early ’61. Shortly after Pa died, Donald went in a nursing home and Gram came to live with us.

I couldn’t attend college immediately after graduation because I hadn’t saved enough money, but I worked full-time for a semester and managed to start in January, 1961. I lived at home and commuted to school. It was only the local junior college, but my family was very proud of me. I had done it and was the first in our whole family to have done it, AND, meanwhile, I had met the man I would marry.


From Judy Axtell's memoir, What Cost, being serialized here, published by Outskirts Press, and available through OP,, and other sites.


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