Wednesday, June 16, 2010

One of the Boys

The Schramm boys lived across the street. Jackie, the oldest and most mysterious to me, Henry, my brother David's age, and Alex, who was in my grade, but not in my school, because I went to Catholic school and he did not.

This was a sorrow to me because I was in love with Alex. Never mind that we were only seven or eight or nine. To me he was THE ONE.

Actually, I was enamored of the entire Schramm family. Their father, Jack, or, 'Mr. Schramm' as I called him 'till the day he died, was a loud man, who always seemed to be yelling, at either one

of the boys or his wife, Jean. It was only partially because he was often annoyed, and partially because he was quite deaf, even as a young man. I remember him standing right in front of me, smiling at my pig-tailed little girl self and yelling,"So! Lisa-the-Tower-of-Pisa!" This was Mr. Schramm's way of communicating affection. I thought he was great.

I also loved Mrs. Schramm. Although it might have seemed that she was somewhat long-suffering, what with being married to loudmouth, and being the mother of three rambunctious boys who always broke their Christmas presents by Christmas afternoon, she had a ready smile and a sharp wit. She was not cowed by her husband, or anyone. She and I had a special bond. On most afternoons, after coming home from school, I would sit and have tea with my mother. We would chat about the day and then I would go off to my room to do whatever. But every Tuesday afternoon, my mother would lend me out to Mrs. Schramm. I would have tea with her, as her surrogate daughter, a civilised afternoon she could never enjoy with her boys. We would chat and I would pet Archie, their English Bulldog. I was in heaven. Not only was I almost a Schramm on those days, I also could imagine I had a dog too. We were never able to have one, because stupid David was allergic to EVERYTHING.

Every summer, for a couple of weeks, my family would load up the Plymouth, push its gear buttons and trek upstate to the Catskills where my grandparents owned a summer house. It was a fairly big house, uninsulated, so you couldn’t use it in the winter, in a sleepy little artist-colony town called Palenville. I loved going there, loved the house, the musty smell of the basement, the lingering smell of gas in the kitchen, the smell of the straw rug in the living room. Funny how smells conjure up vivid emotional memories so instantaneously. It’s like when we smell a familiar smell – like musty basement – we get happy for a second, even before recognizing what it is we are recalling.

For a number of years, the Schramms came to Palenville with us. We would caravan the two-and-a half-hour trip, or try to. Mr. Schramm always drove very fast, faster than my dad was comfortable with, so usually they would either beat us there by a half hour, or they would stop, buy cool boy stuff, like new pocket knives or copies of MAD Magazine, get crew cuts, or new white Keds high tops. Mr. Schramm and the boys wore Levis and white underwear tee shirts as regular shirts. My father and brother never did anything like that. My dad always wore a button front shirt and, as far as I know, never owned a pair of jeans in his life. David wore dorky jeans from Penney’s with equally dorky striped shirts. I, being the girl, had to wear ‘outfits.’ This was summertime, so an outfit was usually shorts with no pockets and a matching sleeveless top that buttoned in the back. What sadist invented buttons in the back anyway? And who wrote the rule that said girls’ clothes couldn’t have pockets?

When we finally all arrived at the Palenville house, our moms unloaded groceries into the gas-smelling kitchen, the dads brought suitcases upstairs and we kids checked to see if the outside freshwater spring was running. The grass would be as high as my shoulder and we would be set to work with sickles, cutting paths to the cars, the tool shed and the spring. I loved it. Me and my brother and the three Schramm boys. It was as close to being one of them as I would ever get.

When we were all settled in, we put on our swimsuits (back then they were only called ‘bathing suits’) and walked down the road to the swimming hole, or ‘the creek’ as we called it. To get to the creek, you had to know exactly where to step off the road and into the woods, pushing aside branches and brushing through thick poison ivy. The trail would widen slightly and wind around into a clearing where the swinging bridge would appear. Now the swinging bridge was like one of those rope bridges made by African natives that dipped across enormous drops into crocodile-infested waters. To cross the swinging bridge meant bouncing and swinging and possibly falling through one of many holes made by missing floorboards. When we got to the middle, swinging and bouncing as much as possible, we would stop and synchronize ourselves into a massive side-to-side swing. Our moms were terrified every time. After the bridge, the trail continued down and down, until forest floor gave way to smooth creekbed stones. We would park our towels and belongings on a rocky outcrop and leap off the rocks into some of the coldest water I have ever been in. So clear. So cold. A little bit of heaven. The local boys, always in cutoffs, never in bathing suits, would leap off the high cliffs, flipping and chasing each other like Peter Pan’s lost boys. Only Jackie, who was a few years older than the rest of us, ever tried those cliffs. Once, a number of years later, I went back there with a group of campers I was taking care of. I actually went off that cliff then. I saw it, and I jumped. Didn’t stop to think about it. It was about a twenty foot leap, and you had to have a running start and jump OUT to avoid being smashed by the rocks jutting closer to the edge.

This one summer, with the Schramms, I brought the mask/fin/snorkel set I had bought with the Plaid Stamps I earned by doing shopping for my mom at the A&P. This set was a big deal to me and I was not sharing it with David or the Schramms, since they pretty much broke everything they touched. A man, a stranger came up to me there and asked if he could borrow my mask. I couldn’t say no to a grownup, so I handed it over. He put it on carefully and was swimming around in a kind of circle with his head down in the water. After a while, he swam over to me, thanked me for letting him use the mask, got out and, together with his family, gathered their things and began to leave. “What were you looking for?,” I asked. “My wedding ring” he sighed. “It fell off while I was swimming. I think the coldness of the water made my finger shrink.”

I took the mask back, and had a funny feeling all of a sudden. Strapping it on, I swam over to one particular spot in the middle of the creek, a spot I had seen the man swim past over and over. Looking down, I saw it. Right there next to a large rock, about eight feet down. I took a breath, dove down and came up quickly. “Hey! Wait!,” I called, seeing the man was already halfway up the trail. “I FOUND IT!” He turned, said something to his wife, and came trotting back to me. He thanked me effusively, almost tearfully and left.

I was feeling quite pleased with myself, not only because I had found the man’s ring, but because I did the heroic deed in front of the duly-impressed Schramm boys. I had proven myself. For that moment I was one of the boys. It was a beautiful thing.

Being one of the boys, however doesn’t spill over to bedtime. They all, including David, got to pile into the big iron sunken-in mattress bed wearing no shirts at all. I had to sleep on the hard cot in my parents’ room, suffering in my scratchy flowered pajama set, because I had gotten such a bad sunburn that afternoon at the creek. I could hear the boys whispering, laughing and poking on the other side of the wall. A wall that divided the boys from the non-boys. . .

I saw the Schramms infrequently after I grew up and moved away. Jackie married, had triplets and divorced. Henry married and had two daughters and a son and became a wealthy insurance agent. Alex joined the Air Force, married, divorced, married and had a son and a daughter. Mr. Schramm died of cancer in his late sixties. Mrs. Schramm came to my wedding and visited me a couple of times when I had just had one baby or other.

She came, along with Henry and Henry’s wife Pat, to my mother’s funeral last January. We hugged and cried a little. She looked frail and lost. Even so, even in that grief-stricken moment, time and distance disappeared. I sat with Henry and we reminisced about our childhood for a few minutes before it was time to leave in the limousine. “I remember Palenville,” he said with a sad smile. “It was like we were all one big family. All us boys and you. But then, as I remember it, you were really pretty much one of the boys.”

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