I never had a lot of toys and games when I was a child. It may have been a priority to me — but it wasn’t to my parents. My father was of the opinion that an empty cardboard box could entertain little kids as much as something he paid for. I suspect he was correct.
And, of course, Mom always agreed with Dad.
I can’t remember what entertained me as an infant but I’m sure it did not include flashy musical mobiles or colorful stuffed animals. Maybe I had a little doll. But, then again, maybe I didn’t. What I can be sure of is that I had more than my parents had in their own baby days. They most likely had nothing.
My father, one of a set of twins born in Poland while his own father, Zayda, already was in New Jersey attempting to make his fortune, leaving the two newborns and the three older kids who were pretty much mere toddlers, to my grandmother Rifka’s care. And she was not racing in her minivan to Target or some fancier toy store in suburban Bialystok. She was lucky to have enough food for those kids. They all survived, Dad until he was almost 98.
My mother’s mother, Peshka, another fierce and determined Jewish mama, likewise was not keeping busy buying toys for her three offspring. Mom was born in a Brooklyn hospital, which in itself was quite an avant garde happening in 1914, and thence moved to a cold water flat in Brooklyn. Toys were not a priority.
Mom’s middle brother Charlie probably played with his first real toys as a dental student at NYU, where he named and counted teeth and learned to remove them, and then replace them. A cool game for sure! Her brother Dave, the eldest of the three, undoubtedly was totally toy deprived. Maybe that’s why Dave’s son Leon, his “Lazerel,” eventually was so incredibly showered with possessions, much to my own acute and unrelenting jealousy! More about that soon.
My own toys growing up were of the minimalist variety. Each was well used! None were merely piled high on a shelf and ignored.
My favorite pretend and play activity was to go to the children’s section of the Newark Library on Osborne Terrace and burrow into books that lit my imagination and provided vast entertainment. This was, and remains, a building with its very own sensuous fragrance of old books, new books, and warm, friendly, sweet-scented librarians, mixed in with the various emissions of all the kids in the neighborhood, none of whom ever saw the purchase of books to be a worthwhile investment. Why buy it when you could read it and return it, all for free?
Not only was I an avid reader from about age 4 on, but so were all of my friends. That filled a lot of our spare time. It still does, although we’ve now, as veritable and verifiable living antiques, migrated more to large print grownup books, often on the Kindle.
But, yes, I also did have some toys and a single game. The game was, of course, Monopoly, a game of great pleasure, often consuming endless amounts of time. I like to consider myself strictly a Boardwalk or Park Place kind of gal. You may think of me as more Baltic Avenue! But that game in its cardboard box never sat idle for very long. We loved it in our house. It never disappointed.
I had other items to entertain me as well. Most were shared with friends in the neighborhood.
There was that pink ball made by Spalding that sold for about 15 cents at any neighborhood candy store, or at Woolworth’s. They were known as high-bounce balls and we did endless things with them — tossing them back and forth; bouncing them to various games like A My Name is Alice; playing stickball, which required a broomstick to be used as the bat and was more popular among the boys; and never tiring of games like Russia and stoopball, which Zayda had made possible when he built the Aldine Street house with the perfect stoop.
I also owned a jump rope and we played many games with it. I remember supplementing by using clotheslines when there were many players. Today’s kids probably don’t even know what a clothesline is, but in those days they were long ropes where our mothers hung laundry to dry. In nice weather Mom used a line attached to a window, which then traveled circuitously to a telephone poll. This was a device called a pulley, so Mom leaned out the window and continuously pulled (hence pulley, or at least that’s what I thought then) the rope away from her until all the laundry was hung. That menace to all mothers needed something called clothespins to actually hang the items on the line. I, always a notorious worrier, feared that my mother would fall out the second-floor window when she was hanging the clothes on the line. She, on the other hand, inhaled the fresh smell of the line-dried clothes as if it was ambrosia. Of course, on rainy or bitterly cold days she resigned herself to using the lines strung up in the cellar. She never boasted of their fresh smell! Nor did she ever fall out the window.
Playing cards was another way to keep busy.. Cards had two purposes in those days. We used to trade them, like kids still do with baseball cards. For the life of me, today at almost 83, I cannot fathom what I enjoyed about gathering single playing cards and trading and accumulating them. Yet I did it for years, always convinced, as were the other traders in the neighborhood, that some cards were more valuable than others. They weren’t.
I also often got ensnared in a gin rummy game with my cards. Zayda would put down his sfarim, his holy books, and ask in Yiddish if I wanted to “shpil a bisil.” Play a little. He loved to play cards and believe me, he never let me win. He always played a cutthroat game to the bitter end, grumbling mightily when he lost. We did a lot of this and it wasn’t because he wanted quality time with a grandchild. Not at all. I was the competition, not the progeny.
I always had a box of chalk. One of my favorite games, which could be seen scrawled throughout the neighborhoods of Newark, was hopscotch, played on the city sidewalks. It was one of the most inexpensive games but also the most fun. Every one of us loved it! Today’s kids don’t seem to play hopscotch anymore. Their loss.
Zayda also considerately built a large garage behind our house, perfect for a basketball hoop. At my fully grown height of 5 feet tall, I actually became a competent basketball player, always playing against Marty, our downstairs neighbor and my lifelong friend. Similarly, when the weather was bad, which it often was, Marty and I would descend to the gloomy, dank cellar where some unknown beneficent person had set up a ping-pong table. We played endlessly, and both of us became very accomplished. Over six decades later, in Modi’in, at my great-nephew Amit’s bar mitzvah party, I challenged the father of one of his friends to a game. This former IDF soldier, at least 40 years my junior, looked skeptical. Play against an old lady?
Without offering him a graceful way to decline, we played. I won. Big smile!
Roller skates and a secondhand Schwinn bike were constantly used until I got an actual driver’s license.
I never felt deprived unless I visited Leon!
Leon lived with his parents, Aunt Fannie and Uncle Dave, in a single-family house in Queens. Dave was my mother’s eldest brother, a successful businessman, and the epitome of the doting father. Whatever I lacked, Leon had. Think tape-recorder, Lionel train set, stacks of boxes of games and puzzles. A microphone. A movie projector. Endless. Endless. Endless. A full basement devoted to Leon’s longings and whims, and possibly to Dave’s as well. Since our two families got together every single Sunday, I had ample time to stoke the fierce jealousy that burned in my soul! Why did he have so much stuff? Why didn’t I?
It’s not as if I wasn’t usually satisfied with what I had. I was having fun. Constantly. It’s just that it didn’t seem fair that Leon could also have fun and have so many more things to have fun with. I didn’t understand then that life is complicated, and we can’t always have everything that we want. I’m not even sure I understand it now.
So here was Leon playing happily with all his acquisitions and there was I, 30 miles or so to the west in New Jersey, with only the basics. Of course I was jealous. Are you kidding?
But I write this now with the perspective of an elderly woman who really does understand that the important things in life are not your tape recorder or Lionel train set. What’s important is the health and well-being of those you love most in this world. Leon was, truthfully, very high on that list of mine. He was one of my best friends ever, and I loved him. He has been missing from my life for several years now, and of course he couldn’t take his possessions with him. Somewhere amongst his stuff, he learned stoicism and bravery. His was not an easy passing, but it was gallant and heroic.
I don’t know whether he left his wife and three sons and four grandchildren a Lionel train set. I do know that he left them a legacy of abiding love. May he rest in peace.
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!