When I was five years old, Mom went back to work; it was the year before she divorced Dad. On weekdays, I stayed with a lovely couple from church, Jim and Margaret. I enjoyed playing with their daughter Summer, who was close to my age, and the entire family treated me like I was family.
But after I completed kindergarten and began full-day first grade, one of our neighbors, Mrs. Sommers, told Mom, “I’ll keep Kim.” So every day after school, I came “home” to the house directly across from my own. Mrs. Sommers often prepared peanut butter and crackers for my after-school snack - two Saltine crackers with a not-too-thick layer of peanut butter between them. I’d wash it down with cold grape juice. I was introduced to several other luxuries at Chez Sommers, including soft drinks. Mom didn’t keep them in our house, which was okay with me since it was what I was used to. But I indulged when I joined the Sommers family on outings or camping - Shasta grape, strawberry, and root beer were reserved for occasions such as those. For years, into adulthood, I considered soft drinks a special treat.
Spending time with a family larger than mine was a perfect child-care setting. There was always something to do, and someone with whom to hang out. Mrs. Sommers never wanted payment for watching me after school, but Mom insisted. Often, Mrs. Sommers would send her youngest daughter, Lylas, on top secret missions; Lylas would return Mom’s money by throwing it inside our screen door, then slam the door and run back home. After which, I would sneak over to the Sommers’s house, throw the money back inside their screen door, slam it, and run home. Mr. Sommers, often reserved when I was around, never called me by my given name; I was always “Sweetie.” And Jack, Carly, Lylas, and Ringo were like siblings to me. I stayed with them until I started junior high, when I was then old enough to stay home alone after school. But throughout the years since, I’ve still regarded them as family. When Mrs. Sommers died in 1991, I was heartbroken that I hadn’t been to see her before she left. I’d planned to visit her on a Monday, but she died that very day, before I could get there. It took years to get over my regret. At her funeral, Ringo gave me a rose from her coffin spray, as he told me, “You were one of her kids.” It was a moment in life I'll hold in my heart forever. I still have the flower.
When old enough to sit on the curb of the street, we kids gathered under the street light to play hide and seek or freeze tag. But my favorite game was spin the bottle, the G-rated version, of course. There was no kissing going on, which was a relief for me since I had a crush on one of my friends under that light. We played the truth or dare version; we’d take turns spinning the bottle, and the person it pointed to when it stopped would have the choice of answering a question truthfully or taking a dare. I always held my breath, hoping nobody asked me to name the boy I liked.
Our dares were pretty harmless. Sometimes, we had to call a random phone number and ask something such as, “Is your refrigerator running? Well, you’d better go catch it!”
One night, the bottle pointed at me. As usual, I hoped for mercy with a dare that wasn’t too embarrassing. The group explained my task, then I proceeded to walk to my friend Gypsy’s house.
Still being somewhat shy at that time, my heart quickened as I knocked on the door.
Gypsy’s mom, Nancy, answered the door. “Hi Kim,” she said, unsuspectingly.
I swallowed hard. “Can I borrow a pickle?” I asked.
The most incredible part of this was that she said yes, and went to the refrigerator to get a pickle for me. It was dark outside. Did she think Mom sent me out to borrow a pickle? Had I been in her shoes, I would’ve been instantly suspicious, but she didn’t hesitate.
When she brought me the pickle, I took a bite out of it, then handed it back to her.
“Thanks,” I said, as I turned and briskly walked away. As I glanced back, I saw Nancy shaking her head and rolling her eyes. I’m not sure how I ever showed my face to her again.
Regardless of temperatures, we were outside most of the time. One amazing day in the early 70s, it snowed two inches in our area, and the snow stuck. The sled my brother had used in my family’s Maryland and Michigan days was in our attic. On her way to work that morning, Mom remembered it was up there, and called Mrs. Sommers. We dug it out of the attic, then took turns pulling each other around. We built snowmen. You’d have thought it was the first snow of a new Ice Age.
By contrast, the stiflingly hot Houston summers brought only one reprieve – the community pools. At that time, it seemed only wealthier families had pools in their backyards; no family on my street had one. When my friends and I couldn’t go to a public pool, we’d hook up the water sprinkler to the garden hose and jump through the spray, or hang the hose over the clothesline and use it as a shower – complete with shampoo. Our swimsuits were on, of course; we weren’t that close as friends.
Our first entrepreneurial endeavors were Kool-Aid stands, and we offered deliveries to customers’ homes. One day, Ringo and I began collecting rocks, and thought everyone in the neighborhood should own one. We went door-to-door selling them, and business was booming, until Mom found out about it. She shut us down, ruining a perfectly legit business. Ahead of our time, we could have been the world’s youngest millionaires; just a few years later, Pet Rocks were all the rage.
Often, Lylas and I would “camp” in her family’s travel trailer parked in the easement behind their house. Campbell’s Bean with Bacon Soup was the lunch specialty, and we ate it right out of the can, as we listened to Lylas’s portable transistor AM/FM radio. We spent hours playing board games and cards, and solved the world’s problems in that camper.
“I guess that trailer was the beginning of the She Shed fad,” Lylas said, recently.
Indeed. I’ve often wished for a little camper in my own backyard, where I could hide from the world for a little while.
As a rule, my friends and I could name all the families and their corresponding houses on our street. I was usually at one of three houses – Lylas’s, Magellan’s, or Gyspy’s. If I forgot to tell Mom where I was going, she knew where to look. If we were outside, she’d stick her head out the front door and yell for me to come in. Most memorable are the instances when she’d scream out, “Kimborooster” in a loud sing-song voice. Embarrassing at the time, but I’d pay a million dollars to hear her call me that again right now.
All my friends had pets, mainly dogs and cats. But Magellan also had gerbils. She got a Habitrail one year - a condominium for hamsters and gerbils. We watched the hairy little creatures travel through their rodent Disneyland, taking them out of their cage to pet them. I was braver then; you couldn’t pay me to touch a rodent of any kind now.
If I didn’t have a particular game or toy at my house, chances were a neighbor owned it. Lylas had the Game of Life, Magellan had Chinese checkers, and I had Which Witch, a game that was a big hit, but complicated to set up. But much of the time, Magellan and I played with Barbie dolls. Somehow, our Barbies ended up married and pregnant within the first 10 minutes of playing, skipping their career years in order to start a family while they were young. Comedy record albums were popular; at Magellan’s, we listened to Cheech and Chong; in my room, it was All in the Family. Listening to comics deliver lines, rather than watching them on TV, made their routines more memorable as I visualized what they described. To this day, I still picture “Sister Mary Elephant.”
When we visited each other’s homes, there were unwritten rules and understood situations. We never helped ourselves to others’ refrigerators; we dared not even open the door. Since we usually got together in the late afternoons, our play time was often a couple of hours before dinner time. If I got hungry, I waited until I went home to eat. If I got thirsty, I’d ask for a glass of water or something else to drink, never helping myself to anything in the kitchen. Being asked to stay for dinner was a huge honor.
But being invited to spend the night with a friend was the ultimate privilege. Once, when I spent the night at Gypsy's house, I was terrified of her antique headboard. The wood pattern in the middle looked like a monkey skull. I didn’t get much sleep that night. Gypsy’s dad kidded around with me, which was fun, and Nancy sold Avon, so she had little lipsticks we could use. If we had a snack there, we used TV trays, which I thought was posh.
In all of my friends' homes, the parents’ bedroom was a mysterious place - forbidden territory. The doors were usually shut, and I always wanted to see what they looked like on the inside. One day, I was able to sneak a peek into the Sommers’s room. I looked both ways to make sure nobody was around. The coast was clear. The door had been left open about five inches, so I was able to nonchalantly look in as I rounded the corner of the hallway. It was very dark because the curtains were pulled. They were heavy lined curtains with leaves embroidered on them. I thought they looked fancy. On the dresser and around the room, there was stuff everywhere, a result of having four kids who were in everything from church to scouts.
On another spying expedition made possible by an open door, I saw that Magellan’s parents had a bright room. But I didn’t see clutter anywhere, even though they had four kids in various activities, too. Perhaps the mom, Melody, hid everything in her closet.
On weekdays, Mrs. Sommers often took a break from her daily routine to sit and watch a soap opera. That, and having coffee with her next door neighbor, was her indulgence in the midst of raising kids, keeping her home, and volunteering. Melody didn’t seem to watch much TV, but she was always whistling a tune when I was there, and I’d often hear her singing worship songs. She never seemed to get her feathers ruffled. Even in her golden years, she seems the same - peaceful.
Mysteriously, I had a few invisible neighbors. I knew people lived in all the houses, but some of the people, I never saw. I mean never. It was spooky. One day, I was at Gypsy’s house, and finally got a glimpse of Mrs. Radley, who lived next to Gypsy. Mrs. Radley never cared for our roller skating on her driveway, but it was the smoothest on the block after they’d just had it resurfaced. We’d go over there when we thought she was gone; there was no car in the driveway. One day, as we skated on her velvet-smooth driveway, we suddenly heard her front door open. I froze. My heart slammed against my rib cage, jumped out of my chest, and skipped down the sidewalk back home. From beyond shadows came a voice telling us, “Get out of here.” It never occurred to me she’d parked her car in the garage. I never graced her driveway again. She might’ve been friendly otherwise, but my imagination had gone wild, and I steered clear rather than meet an early grave.
Of course, there were plenty of boys on the street. Having an older brother meant I sometimes got to meet older guys, some of them cute. I’ll never forget Fabio. He was the surfer/skateboarder dude down the street, who had beautiful long dark hair. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the boy next door, so I didn’t see him much. Doc was close friends with Starkey, who lived closer. Doc once sold a car to Starkey for $50. It had been Doc’s first car that Mom and Dad gave to him. I’ll bet Doc rode his bike for quite a while after that.
Of course, boys were also gross, so that presented other issues I had to endure. One day, after walking home from junior high, I unlocked my front door, but Doc and Starkey were blocking it from opening. I told them several times to let me in, and they finally moved out of the way. When I walked in, they were laughing hysterically. It took a minute for the smell to register. No, not marijuana...flatulence. For whatever reason, perhaps because they knew I’d be home soon, or maybe because it’s in their male DNA, they’d decided to create their own little green cloud that hovered by the front door. I quickly walked through the haze and straight to my room.
In spite of any grossness, my childhood was a good one. Through the years, I’ve been grateful for growing up with so many friends nearby, some of them still in my life today. It brought stability and consistency to my life, and helped Mom tremendously, as a single mother. She always had supportive friends a stone’s throw away.
Sometimes, especially lately, I miss that street and its simple pleasures. Those were the days, my friends - days of love, some of it unrequited, and laughter on the street where I lived.
In loving memory of my friend Carly. If there's a beach in heaven, I know you're there with your toes in the sand, as you watch palm trees sway, and chat with your loved ones. Of course, I'm sure you have the best tan in eternity. Save a spot next to you, for me. I love you forever.