Chapter One ~ “She’s never going to get married!”
Please understand there is humor of this particular memoir. An old expression comes to mind: All’s well that ends well.
We arrived in the United States from Vienna, Austria in August of 1938. For various reasons, we settled in New York City. Talk about culture shock to my parents! The initial introduction to New York City sent my parents into the deepest throes of refugee shock. Both of them bemoaned being deposited in what they considered “a different planet on every possible level.” Not surprisingly, the knowledge that it was impossible to return “home” led to dejection and a great deal of bellyaching verbalization.
In their native Austria they had assiduously and ardently pursued their various interests; America, they thought, would give them no opportunity to continue their recreational and cultural pursuits. The all-important “theater / opera problem” was almost immediately solved to their satisfaction. As the reality of New York City’s wealth of museums and soccer clubs and stadia sank in, the parents were almost ecstatic. “But what,” they said over and over to all who knew them, “are we going to do for bodily enjoyment?”
Almost immediately, Dad, a former national soccer hero in Austria, discovered street basketball. We lived in several of New York City’s boroughs, usually moving in August, and in each new location, he found he was welcome to play street basketball with the neighborhood boys and men. Dribbling was no problem for him. However, he also would toss a ball into the air and then kick it to other players. At first, the other players were totally awed when he scored one basket after the other by kicking the ball upwards behind him, and then, with a toss of his head, make a score. Soon, the cheered him on. This was not NBA, it was street basketball!
During Europe’s warm months, Mom had been a fervent gymnast, tennis player, hiker, and swimmer. Dad wasn’t interested in gymnastics or tennis, but he shared Mom’s other passions. Both my parents were also incredibly talented and admired dancers. As I approached my teens, they tried to teach me their skills, but, because of my lack of balance, I literally brought them down to the floor. During winter, ice-skating and skiing were their ardors. And, might it be said, they were near professional in these proficiencies, too.
I must confess I eventually believed I was not born to be a child of these athletes and proficient dancers. Much to my family’s chagrin, I was – and still am – clumsy. Incidentally, early in 2012, I was diagnosed with several unpronounceable genetic brain syndromes which were the root of those balance symptoms which plagued my entire life. It is simply impossible for me to have any balance. Even the podiatrist pointed out I was naturally pigeon toed, and one leg was shorter than the other. As this is written, I am pleased to report Physical Therapy is helping somewhat, but I will never attain the heights my parents saw for me.
My immediate 2012 reaction to the diagnosis was . . . ecstasy! I haven’t stopped smiling since the doctors told me what was wrong. After decades of self depreciation, I finally was released from my guilt. “I am born clumsy! I am born clumsy! Let’s hear it for DNA!” I chanted for days. At unexpected times during the day, I will chant it several times at a moment’s notice. What a beautiful mantra!
During my formative years, however, the entire family was increasingly ashamed of my inability to follow in their footsteps. By the time I reached the age of ten, Mom and my two grandmothers were convinced I would never marry well. Dad sadly agreed with her. From birth, it seemed that no matter how hard I tried, I could never be graceful or balanced. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I could do no gymnastics. To her great shame, I was kicked out of ballet school at the age of eight because the owner considered me “hopeless”. My mother cried out to him, a fellow Austrian, “She’ll never marry well, you know.” He patted her shoulder and nodded in stoic agreement.
It’s amusing in retrospect, of course, but let it be said I knew in my youth the entire family was appalled by my lack of grace. Swimming, hiking, sledding, skiing, and even ballroom dancing were completely impossible for this genetically un-engineered person. I would consistently fall, fly into the air before crash landing, slam into rocks, trees, people, buildings, automobiles – in fact, anything stationary – without warning. Be the terrain urban or mountainous, I would be out of balance. This ruled out walking a straight line, let alone undulations of an inch or more under my feet. This however, is another story, but the police decided I was sober.
I could barely master the art of swimming, and whilst under water, would not know which way was up. In the 1970’s I recall an incident off Florida’s West Coast. While wearing a snorkel I almost drowned in eighteen inches of water because I didn’t know which way was up. Again, it’s another story”!
On the ski slopes, well into my teens, I was the original Snow Bunny. For decades I could not graduate from the beginners’ slope. At the end of several hours of falls and tumbles, not only my rear, but my entire body, front, back, face, and head was covered with snow glued to me from spills, tumbles, rolls, slides, and falls. My family was mortified when I would manage to lose one or both skis on the beginners’ slope.
So time went on, and broken bones were just part of the picture. By the time I reached thirty, every toe had been broken at least twice. Sprains, dislocations, twists, and falls bruised my body. Believe it or not, until recently, I could not even walk without unexpected disasters tripping me up – so to speak. When the physical therapist put me through a series of tests during my first session, standing up straight before falling over to one side another lasted a mere two seconds. “Oh, you do have a balance problem,” he chuckled.
The lifelong list of injuries included bruises and sprains, as well as broken bones, teeth, and skin. As for my dancing, it moved both of my parents to tears. They and my grandparents were again convinced I would never marry well. “Who wants to be married to such a klutz? We shall have to resort to an arranged marriage!” moaned Oma Feld after I entered high school.
Believe it or not, I joined the volley ball team! Much to my teachers’ and friends’ delight, I was able to serve a ball with deadly accuracy. Serve after serve was was a guided missile which confounded the other team. Often, our side would get between a dozen and fifteen points until I tired. When I was playing with the team, other team members laughingly learned to protect me from falls, and themselves from collisions.
There were some things I could do well. I was able to develop a mean backhand in tennis during my late teens, although I would sporadically fall into the net and was occasionally was somersaulted onto the opponent’s side. Square dancing was another skill I acquired, which I suspect was because I had a partner to anchor me. Wearing tightly laced boots for trail hiking and rock climbing enabled me to become somewhat skillful.
To their dying days, my parents and other family members never recovered from the shame I brought upon them. “I hope your children are not as disabled as you!” was often said to me.
Chapter Two ~ Where it’s flatland and squishy swamp, there’s hope!
In August of 1942, when I was eight years old, my parents moved to the flatlands of southern New Jersey to become chicken farmers in Richland, New Jersey. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. There were no hills, which meant no skiing. In warmer weather I could go barefoot and be less disoriented. High heels worn “because all ladies wear heels”, capitulated me heavenward on city vistas as a I walked around exploring. However, the Richland venue, wearing farm boots or in my preferred bare feet, I was surprisingly stable. Then, I discovered that when I was in the woodlands, the thick forests enabled me to grasp trees and bushes to keep balanced as I walked or ran. Furthermore, most local public roads were unpaved dirt or sand. This means they were rutted, but, there were no curbs to trip up or down from. Miles of oak and pine woods were so overgrown with trees and vines I always had handholds. I could climb trees sprouting horizontal branches, and even though I couldn’t avoid falls, the relatively short trip down to lower tree arms or intertwined vines prevented many injuries. Additionally, a plethora of natural materials for improvised walking sticks existed, and I had quite a collection of favorite sticks and poles. By the age of ten, I had become an avid explorer whose only admonition given by my mother was, “Make sure you’re home for dinner!” ringing in my ears.
I still keep a collection of walking sticks, despite the progress made by physical therapy. As a side note, my favorite walking stick is made from Swiffer poles that can be carried in a Ziplock Bag in my handbag or luggage when travelling , and can be quickly screwed/unscrewed as necessity dictates.
The Richland area straddles New Jersey’s Inner and Outer Coastal Plains, and is rich with acres of fine sand, and those many sand roads. There are innumerable swamps and delightful cranberry bogs which were soft and squishy to walk in. Even if I did fall, no damage was done! Miles of thick oak and pine forests, covered with thick vines provided horizontal hand and foot holds, cushioning for falls, and hand holds on thick bark. It was heaven.
Recently, I revisited the location, and nothing natural has changed dramatically since the 1940’s.
As I approached eleven, my parents reluctantly came to the realization I was a menace on a two-wheeler, but soon accepted this unfortunate fact. They bought me a woman’s two-wheeler, and said silent prayers when they saw Frisco, my dog, and I set off on adventures. Actually, pedaling on back country roads without holding handlebars was more stable than the usual fashion of bicycle steering.
Even if Frisco wasn’t with me, my search for adventure took me into every nook and cranny in a geologically flat ten-mile-square area. Many shallow streams supported me as I explored old homesteads, long-gone commercial establishments, and other archaeological mysteries. Railroads were another means of transportation. The engineers and conductors knew me well, and would let me hop the slow-moving freight trains for trips over longer distances than a mile. My bicycle was safe at the pick-up point, and there was no problem in dropping me off on the return trip.
Do not imagine I was immune from injury. There were broken toes and ribs, teeth, sprained ankles, dislocated shoulders, neck dislocations, cuts, bruises. Some of these injuries were not reported to my parents, who did not take kindly to these events. Dr. Cleary, our family doctor, would just shake his head and once suggested my parents “get a shield. Then you can carry her here triumphantly.” He and I laughed. The parents did not.
Two episodes causing more serious injury come to mind. One involved jumping from the first level of a nearby high tension tower for the sheer adventure of it. I was bloody, bruised, and had a dislocated elbow. After two days, I told my mother when I had fallen, and she took me to the good Doctor Cleary. He fixed the elbow quickly with a quick shake and twist of his arm and commented, “Did you also get tangled up in the harvesting machine?”
I shook my head and said, “At least I didn’t fall into the neighbors’ pig pen again.” He just looked at me, shook his head, then cleaned up my wounds.
The other serious event I recall occurred when my friend Dickie, the neighbor’s boy, and I set up a sled run after a rare heavy snowstorm. We looked at his grandparents’ barn roof, which had a forty-five degree downward slope on its ten foot high upper roof, but only a thirty degree slope on the much larger lower roof. Quickly, we found a ten foot long, two foot wide plank, and began packing snow tightly under its lower end for a foot or so, to enable aligning the plank to the barn’s lower-roof angle. Then, carefully sprinkling water we built up the rest of the plank with a thin layer of ice. An hour later, we were finished and ready for flight.
Though common sense was not strong in our brains, we realized we would only have one chance before an adult caught us, so we finished our measurements, climbed the built-in ladders onto the snow-covered roof and made our way to the proper spot on the lower roof, dragging the sled. The alignment between plank and roof was perfect. The water had frozen, too!
Screaming with joy, we disembarked. Alas! Two children, sharing a weight of about one hundred and fifty pounds, were launched into space. Our sled hit the very end of the plank closest to the barn, as we had so carefully planned. Nothing was weighing down the other end, you see. It was just sitting there. Naturally, we hit the upper end of the plank, and this end crashed straight downward and hit the ground. The shock of our fall cracked all the ice and flung the pieces everywhere.
I had been sitting in the rear position, holding Dickie in my encircling arms for safety, so I hit the ground first, while Dickie became airborne and landed safely in a snow bank on the side of the plank. I wasn’t as lucky. The force of the collision smashed my coccyx as I hit the ground butt-first and h-a-r-d. Instantly I heard and felt the bones snap and break. Within a few minutes we picked ourselves up, just as his grandparents around the corner to the barn. I was in agony, so I didn’t get a spanking. But he did.
Dr Cleary shook his head, but said nothing. It was several months before the pain stopped.
Then, in April, I got my spanking.
No one said anything about my clumsiness about that traumatic event.
We eventually moved from Richland back to New York City in 1947. Although New York City was a great place to live, I missed Richland and the farm.
The city had no reachable barns.