When I was a kid in Newark, little changed on rainy days. On school days, even as summer vacation neared, we put on galoshes and maybe took an umbrella, and off we headed to school, came home for lunch, and then made the return trek. Mom assured us we wouldn’t melt. Dad, a strong believer that a bit of adversity served as a foundation to building character, wouldn’t even stop his car to give us a lift. It was a matter of principle for him. So I walked, along with my sister and all the kids from our block on Aldine Street. Mom was so right. None of us ever melted. I still cannot say whether Dad was right or not. I hope he would think we had character these 70 odd years later.
Parksville summers, though, were another story. There, rainy days simply were the best days. While the grownups huddled on the porch, trying to escape the torrent, we kids were usually sent to the movies in Liberty, five miles away. Our moms would chip in and hire Porky (yes, he was Jewish) who was a sort-of taxi driver. Actually he was an old retired man who lived across the road from the Bauman House. He rarely spoke but he had a nice big Packard that we could all squeeze into. No one knew a thing about seat belts in those days in the 1950s, so Porky could fit any number of kids into that car, and our mothers were all relieved because they wouldn’t have to deal with our boredom on a long rainy day. Our mothers were single parents for the summer, until Fridays, when the fathers arrived from the city — usually Newark or Brooklyn or the Bronx — for weekends. The moms were really on vacation, with some simple cooking and laundry as their only chores. Nothing too onerous. Childcare was not a big thing. Babies generally were not brought to our place. I don’t know why. We kids were pretty independent and so were our mothers.
On one trip to Liberty, a little girl named Rochelle actually fell out of the car onto the highway. She wasn’t hurt at all; she hopped back into the car and continued on to enjoy the movie. Porky drove so slowly that it would have been nigh on impossible for her to get seriously hurt unless she fell in front of another car. Luckily, other cars didn’t want to travel behind Porky on a divided four-lane highway since he never went more than about 20 miles an hour. Our mothers were happy with that, not because we were safer but because travel time would be longer and they’d have less time to have to figure out what we could, would, and should do next. Once the sun came out again we were on our own, independent and free!
Our mothers were not major worriers. They lacked all-news radio, so they couldn’t hear the constant reports of all the terrible things that could and did happen. Mothers today are constantly reminded of those things, but those days, except for major issues like polio, things were calmer. It didn’t seem like pedophiles and kidnappers and murderers and terrible diseases were always hunting down their children. Maybe my perspective is skewed, because as a kid, I certainly didn’t dwell on terrible reports on the radio either. I didn’t have a radio of a TV. But, unlike mothers today, my mother didn’t know my whereabouts 24 hours a day. She knew I’d be home in time for supper. And I didn’t walk around with one of these kid-trackers on the phone I wouldn’t have for another half-century.
Liberty was a lively town with lots of shopping, restaurants, and two movie theaters. There was the Liberty, the big one, and the Academy, the little one. But for the pittance our parents paid for entry, we got to see two features, advertisements, cartoons, and a newsreel. That was a whole afternoon’s entertainment and everyone enjoyed it. Porky was making some money. We were having fun. And we were busy on a rainy day.
Back at the Bauman House, the ladies would find their own activities. The regular mahjong players were undisturbed by the rain. If it was fierce they’d simply move their table closer to the wall and continue undisturbed.
Some would read and others would feel that a gray, rainy day entitled them to a long, delicious nap. Everyone was happy — except for Phoebe.
Phoebe was the best and brightest dog in the world, who really really hated to get wet. That applied to taking a bath as well, so the once-a year-immersion was like a nightmare to us and to her. She had to be tugged and hugged to the tub, and it took many hands to actually immerse her. She was quite chunky and also quite strong for an old girl. Water was anathema to her. Thus, a rainy day meant she would get wet ,and she didn’t like that at all. She invented a solution, clever girl that she was. She just wouldn’t do her toilette until the rain was over. She never remembered that even after the rain had stopped, the grass would still be wet. This did not breed happiness — but what’s a dog to do?
So rainy days were nice in Parksville and very cozy. It hardly ever rains in West Orange with the same violence that it rained in Parksville. There isn’t the same wind and thunder. A thunderstorm in the Catskills is something exciting to behold, crashing, thrashing, banging, blowing, with rain cascading. Powerful, and, if you’re a dog, very scary indeed. Phoebe was terrified of thunder, trembling and inconsolable.
These days those are all memories for me. My summers now are spent in West Orange or Israel, where there’s never rain until we recite “mashiv ha ruach.” And Phoebe had her last bath in 1955. Yet when I reflect on those long ago times, I am often brought back to my memories of the rather undeserved reputations of Jewish mothers.
Was it only a fabrication that Jewish mothers were the original and true helicopter parents? I learned in Parksville that Jewish mothers can be pretty negligent. Maybe it’s because of their lack of constant reminders. Or maybe it was a centuries-old myth that the mamas were something unique in the world, hovering all the way.
I can’t blame them for allowing us into Porky’s car without seatbelts. They were never ahead of the curve. How could they know that a few years later those flimsy baby car seats would be deemed menacing, and allowing children free rein in a car would be child neglect. Eventually it would be against the law.
But I had other experiences that gave Jewish motherhood a bad reputation. I was a day camp counselor at a Parksville Hotel. The head counselor didn’t work very hard. He told us the plan for the day and then disappeared. That’s where I got some additional insight into mothering.
In those days, the late 50s, I was in charge of a group of about 30 little boys, all four years old and all named Mitchell. OK, almost all! I had to be with them all day from breakfast until after dinner, when I’d return them intact to their mothers. For this I was paid about $15 a week.
One of the kids’ favorite activities was to go rowing on the pretty sizable, very deep lake. I was the rower. I would take six kids into a boat at a time. But there were several problems that no head counselor, no hotelier, and certainly no mother ever questioned, or more justifiably, complained about.
The first problem was that I was alone with the group, so when I had six kids in the boat, the others were playing near the water unsupervised.
Next was the boat itself. Of course there were no life jackets, and these little boys couldn’t swim. Equally problematic was that I couldn’t swim either. The potential catastrophe was abundantly clear. So these kids, out for a fun time, would enter those flimsy little boats with my threats of impending death if they as much as breathed too energetically. I would row them around for a few minutes, watching every motion as if it would be our collective end. They did not have fun. Nor did I. But I never lost a single one. Their mothers, meanwhile, were lounging at the pool or playing cards, having a lovely, relaxing vacation.
Then there was night patrol. Every hotel advertised night patrol. The small print in those ads was non-existent. What was night patrol anyway? This was a brilliant creation so that parents, often just mothers dancing with each other, could mambo or cha cha the night away at the pretty distant casino, or perhaps see a movie or play bingo, while their little innocents slept securely and safely in a collection of buildings that would best be described as fire traps, and at worst as kindling. It actually meant that about once every hour and a half the single counselor on duty would walk the perimeters of the buildings listening, not so intently, for the sound of a screaming child. Naturally there were nearly infinite possible harms that could come to those children but no mother, not a one, ever seemed to worry or question what night patrol was.
It was really amazing and totally remarkable that all of those little kids left their trips to the Catskills unscathed. I take absolutely no credit. I was 16 years old and had zero experience in childcare. My one redeeming feature was that I worked for practically nothing. That appealed to the hotel’s owners!
But at least on rainy days, there were no trips to the lake!
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!