In keeping with my goal of tracking family memories, here’s another. Although this is drafted more like a personal essay, I may revise it into a narrative. For now, I wanted to set-up the setting, so that my children, nieces and nephews can get a glimpse into the neighborhood where my brothers and I grew up.
As a child of the sixties on the tail end of the bab-boomer generation, I grew up in a tightly knit neighborhood filled with friends that were my extended family. Like every strong community, we celebrated together and supported one another through challenging times. We even had an unwritten rule of referring to the adults as aunts and uncles, reinforcing that closeness. Most of the moms were home managing the house and tribes of children, while the dads went off to work either to the office or to the trades. No matter where we played, our community embraced a collective code of conduct, which was shared in our homes and churches.
For the most part, we entertained and refereed ourselves – riding bikes, climbing trees, hitting balls, playing tag, – pool hopping in the summer, and sleigh riding in the winter. We also wrote and performed plays, using old curtains as costumes and boxes for stage furniture. One year we decided to raise money, through a series of craft-making and show-making fundraisers, to rent a house for a week “down the shore.” With acres of woods behind us, plus a playground around the corner, there was always something to do and someone to play with.
One summer, we turned our attention to philanthropy and decided to run a carnival for Jerry’s Kids, an organization founded by Jerry Lewis to raise money for muscular dystrophy. The starter kit came complete with game ideas, signs, and tickets. The rest was up to us. Like everything else, we did it ourselves. We met weekly to organize the games, design the layout, gather materials, develop a schedule and create posters to promote the event.
Although I remember playing many games, the one booth that stands out in my mind the most was a raffle to win a kitten. It was a late addition, and the tickets were only 20 cents, but I was out of luck having spent all my money. Disappointed, I walked home to plea my case to my mother and ask her for the money. Although Annie T (the adult name my brothers and I gave to our mother) was uncomfortable in saying no, she refused my request immediately, claiming she was allergic to cats. Suspicious of her reason, as she was known for making up stories, and refusing to take no for an answer, I asked again promising to take complete responsibility for the kitten, to feed her, change her litter box, and comb her daily. With a quick “No!” she turned and left, leaving no room for a rebuttal.
Sulking, I ate my lunch in silence, playing with my food on the tray in the TV room. As I was finishing up, I noticed two dimes sitting on the side of the coffee table – beckoning me, teasing me, calling my name. I thought long and hard, knowing that if I took them, it would be stealing. I wanted that kitten at any cost – any cost. In one ear, I heard words cautioning me to do the right thing, while in the other I heard my own voice convincing me that I deserved that kitten. After a long pause, I snatched up the dimes, and headed back to the carnival, intent on getting a kitten, black-dotted soul and all. I’d worry about confession and penance later.
After paying the fee and entering my ticket, I had to wait until the close of the carnival to learn my fate. I bid my time walking around, daydreaming about that kitten. I planned on naming her Little Friskies, after the only cat food I knew. She would join my stuffed animals and rest on my bed at night. She would be the sister I’d wished for.
As luck would have it, there were only three entries and two kittens. The odds were definitely in my favor. As the carnival came to a close, and the winners were announced for the “count the gum ball contest,” and the Rock’em Sock’em Robots game, the ring master moved to the kitten raffle. I crossed my fingers and closed my eyes, hoping to be called. The first ticket was pulled out of the jar, “989124,” he announced. Not my number. OK, I have one more shot. He pulled the next one, “989147!” What? Not my number!! How could that happen? I was crushed watching those two little kittens get placed into the arms of others. Little Friskies would live in someone else’s home. After the shock and disappointment of losing seeped in, I realized my mistake. Crime really doesn’t pay… See you next Friday, Father Reilly!