By Jackie Bivins
When COVID-19 hit, life as we knew it came to an abrupt end. We shifted from a “go-go-go” lifestyle to a complete stand-still. With so much time at home while quarantined, worries and fears can be overwhelming. Will this ever end? If so, what will the world then look like? There is so much speculation about the “new normal.” But the reality is that it’s unknown; no one can define or predict what havoc or healing exists in our future. As a result, so many of us are seeking comfort in the past. We are looking to our memories for a sense of stability, joy, and reassurance. We are looking to the time when the future felt beautiful, unlimited, and full of possibilities. Remembering what it was like when we were safe in the cocoon of those halcyon days can allay that middle-of-the-night panic. It is, at the same time, a wonderful opportunity to share our stories, the very things that connect us with others.
This is one of mine.
As a child I had an imaginary friend named Jimmy Raspberry. I would picture him sitting next to me on the forest green sofa when I watched tv, or helping me arrange the brightly-colored food packages from my prized cardboard grocery store, or watching me as I played board games like Candyland, Checkers, or Parcheesi –all made for two, or at least more than one.
Jimmy was tall with curly, raven-colored hair. He smiled often and his hazel eyes always held a twinkle. He was never cross, nor was he ever too tired to play. He seldom argued. With Jimmy, I was less alone. I was bolder.
The fantasy I most enjoyed enacting with Jimmy started with us tiptoeing into my parents’ room. Jimmy would stand sentinel as I took my mother’s pale blue suitcase from the bottom of her closet then started to carefully pack a lemon-yellow chiffon cocktail dress, a long tan full skirt made of stiff and quite wrinkled cotton, and a lime green silky blouse. I loved my dress-up box full of Mama’s discarded clothes, and these were my most cherished items. Sometimes Jimmy would suggest I pack the camel-brown clutch bag or remind me to include the red wool jacket.
Once done I would drag that suitcase through our ranch-style home. Jimmy would offer to help but I always refused. I knew I was strong enough to do it myself. The game was to pretend Jimmy and I were embarking on a grand expedition. That meant going somewhere, anywhere.
The reality is that during my childhood our small family of three — Mama, Daddy and me — rarely ventured far from home. When we did it was to see the same old places. Vacation time meant driving from our home in Rockville, MD to visit relatives in and around Richmond and to spend time by what native Virginians always called “the rivah”, no matter which of the state’s five rivers it was. I never brought Jimmy along on these trips because they were too boring. Instead, I would spend those car rides day-dreaming that we were finally on our way to a destination that involved neither swimsuits and fishing rods nor relatives.
My mother was a typical housewife of the 1950s.
Monday was wash day; white fluffy sheets and pink and green striped towels came first, followed by a cavalcade of shirts, pants, pjs, and underwear.
Tuesday was ironing day; Mama would never miss a wrinkle as she skillfully maneuvered that shiny metal contraption around all the buttons on Daddy’s dress shirts.
Wednesday was dedicated to the kitchen; Mama routinely scoured every surface, washed down all of the appliances, and mopped the checkered linoleum floor, although most of the time none of these were in any need of cleaning. Wednesdays were also when Mama would reward herself with a whiskey and soda before starting to cook dinner.
Thursdays and Fridays were for the rest of the house, beginning with the den and the seldom-used dining and living rooms. Mama would drag the mint green Hoover canister vacuum from room to room, intent upon sucking up non-existent dirt. She dusted any surface she could find, arranged magazines on the coffee table exactly one inch apart, and scrubbed the bathrooms so hard the smell of Ajax lingered for hours.
Periodically Mama gave herself permission to deviate from that routine. On those days we would drive to Congressional Plaza, an L-shaped outdoor shopping center on the other side of town. Mama loved to visit J.C. Penney’s, or “the Penney’s” as she liked to call it. She didn’t care much about buying clothes, but enjoyed browsing, occasionally picking up towels, sheets, and other knickknacks for our house.
Woolworth’s was another frequent stop. Once there, sewing notions; hair products; personal care items; housewares; and, various “as seen on tv” gadgets vied for her attention. We would take a break at the luncheon counter for an ice-cold frothy Coke, or “Coca Cola” as my southern relatives called it.
The shopping trips ended with a visit to Cartwright’s stationery. Mama was always on the lookout for greeting cards. To her, maintaining good manners meant sending the proper card, whatever the occasion. Family members and friends came to expect them from her on holidays others would fail to acknowledge. St. Patrick’s Day? Mama was ready. Fourth of July as well. She loved Halloween, so that was when she excelled with cards funny or “scary”.
For Christmas, Mama would begin selecting cards in October. Shortly after Thanksgiving she would spend several hours a week at the kitchen table with the cards splayed out in front of her. She couldn’t just address a card and send it out, no! She had to write a lengthy, detailed note for each one. Mama wouldn’t have liked the current trend of standardized, Christmas letters. She would have found them rather cold and distant. She personalized the messages for each intended recipient.
Mama set high standards for herself, and she found security in maintaining her routines.
Most days Mama would start cooking dinner at about 4:30 in the afternoon. Daddy’s day at Washington Technological Associates, where he managed a large group of machinists, officially started at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 5:00 p.m., so Mama planned for a 5:30 dinner. I would help set the table and place the hot dishes down. Just as we were finishing, Daddy would drive his white and black two-tone Oldsmobile down the driveway.
Except on Fridays. That was a special day. Fridays we alternated between dinner at Howard Johnson’s or McDonald’s. To me the food at Howard Johnson’s seemed bland and mediocre, but Mama loved their clam rolls and Daddy always appreciated their ice cream cones. McDonald’s, newly opened and thus a novelty, was my preference, with its juicy cheeseburgers and salty fries. That was until the Italian spot, Luigi’s, opened downtown. On summer evenings as we drove by with the car windows rolled down, we could smell the appetizing aroma of garlic wafting out. My parents eventually expanded our Friday night rotation to include Luigi’s, with its red-checkered table cloths and wine bottles with colorful wax drippings. They also added Shanghai’s Chinese, where a tall golden dragon beckoned us to enter.
Just past my seventh birthday my parents decided that on Fridays, and Saturdays too, I could stay up until they went to bed, which was usually around 11 p.m. Determined not to miss a single thing, I would curl into the scratchy plaid La-Z-Boy lounger where the aroma of my Daddy’s Old Spice aftershave always lingered. It was comfy, too comfy. I would struggle to keep my eyes open, lulled by the sounds of the tv and my parents’ muted voices.
One Friday night was different.
I had changed into my purple flannel pjs and taken my usual spot. Mama was wearing her blue and white striped robe, and she’d settled into her favorite chair next to the tv. Daddy, in crisply pressed pjs, was in the midst of one of his nightly series of solitaire games.
Just as my eyelids started to droop, I heard Mama say, “I think it’s time we took Jackie to New York City.” What?
This startled me given our usual travel plans. Mama was also prone to having a shot or two, well maybe more, of Seagram’s 7 on Friday nights so I wasn’t sure if it was the whiskey talking or not. I had barely absorbed her comment when Daddy then looked up to say, “Okay, we can go next weekend.” What!
Once Daddy started playing solitaire, he glanced frequently at the tv but rarely talked. This made his acquiescence even more surprising. Whaaat???
My mother’s suggestion promised new horizons far beyond what my imagination had ever conjured up. Jimmy would definitely be joining me for this adventure.
Today Rockville, Maryland is a sprawling suburb. Back then Rockville was a sleepy southern town. The county courthouse, more than 150 years old, dominated the downtown landscape. The Villa movie theatre, our only nearby cinema, showed films that had long since disappeared from screens in more metropolitan locales. Pumphrey’s Funeral Home was the area’s fanciest house. It adjoined Chestnut Lodge, the mental hospital for the rich and famous. Both of Henry Fonda’s wives were treated there; so was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda. Whenever one of the patients escaped a siren blared so loudly it could be heard throughout the town. That was the biggest excitement Rockville proper had to offer.
Where we lived, about eight miles beyond the city limits, was even sleepier. Dairy farms dotted the rural landscape; horses and their riders would trot down the roughly paved roads; houses were set far apart; and, it was at least a thirty-minute drive to the nearest grocery store.
Before settling in Glen Hills, the name of our suburb of a suburb, we had looked at numerous homes, including several located in lovely neighborhoods that were at least within the “city” limits. While my parents found fault with the size of rooms, the workmanship, or some other aspect of these houses, I felt an immediate sense of belonging within their walls. I wanted so badly for my parents to say “yes” to any of them.
They had other ideas. When they discovered Glen Hills, they were seduced by the opportunity to build a home customized just for them and quickly purchased a plot of land there. When they told me of their decision, that we would be moving to the country, I wanted to throw a tantrum, but I silently cried instead. Even all these years later I can envision one of those houses I loved, nestled on one of Rockville’s prettiest tree-lined streets.
From as early I can remember, before I was a flower girl in my Aunt Joyce’s wedding, still so shy that the experience is almost obliterated from memory, I knew I wanted more.
Before I envisioned being a member of the Mickey Mouse Club and memorized all the names of the Mouseketeers, I knew I wanted more.
Even before I understood how letters formed words that told stories, I knew I wanted more than country life offered.
I wanted street lights, nonexistent anywhere around us, that could help me navigate unexplored pathways. I wanted sidewalks, squares or rectangles uniform in their symmetry, instead of having to make my way to the school bus stop through tall, itchy grasses. I wanted to visit my friends without having to ask my mother to drive me then waiting and waiting and waiting while she insisted on changing her clothes, combing her hair, spraying on perfume, and applying a coat of lipstick before we left.
I wanted city noises like the ones I heard on tv, the constant hum of traffic, the cacophony of accented voices, the squeal of horns, an occasional wailing siren that signaled mysterious dangers.
Most of all I wanted and knew intuitively but could not articulate in my youth was to feel the confidence that surges through my body whenever I encounter a vibrant metropolis. It’s where I can be the true me, the more intriguing me, the better me. It’s where I can don a cloak of invincibility.
A week after I overheard my parents’ unexpected agreement to venture to New York we packed our red leather suitcases, checked windows and door locks, and were on our way.
We left around noon with Daddy having taken a half-day off. He had shed his tie and rolled up the sleeves of the starched white Oxford shirt he had worn to work that morning. His thick black hair, which was freshly cut and tamed, was sleek and sat close to his scalp.
Mama’s shirtwaist dress reminded me of candy, with a plaid pattern of butter yellow and milky chocolate. She had slept in her pink foam curlers all night but you couldn’t tell now. That morning she’d sat at her antique vanity applying her makeup. She started with foundation, added a bit of rouge to her cheeks, and drew in completely new brows with an eyebrow pencil. She looked transformed in her signature Revlon “cherries and cream” lipstick.
I had carefully put together my outfit, trying to look more like the teen girls I had glimpsed in magazines than a chubby second grader. I wore a blue cardigan, which I had unsuccessfully tried to drape around my shoulders, a blouse of a similar hue, and a poodle skirt Mama bought me just for the trip. I thought I looked sophisticated, not like a girl from the country.
We stopped at the Maryland House, (a landmark I would later visit countless times) for a quick lunch. The Maryland House was known for its crab cakes. The secret was lots of Old Bay seasoning mixed in with the meat of the Chesapeake Bay’s succulent blue crabs.
When lunch was over, we returned to the Oldsmobile. We took off our winter coats as the heater hummed along. Daddy never liked to listen to the car radio so it was very quiet inside. Having grown up as one of six children, he enjoyed being able to hear his thoughts. Mama leafed through the stack of magazines she had brought with her, including recent issues of Life and the Saturday Evening Post. I sat in the backseat, no seatbelt, alternating between laying half-way down reading my book and sitting up straight to peer out the windows. Jimmy sat quietly beside me with nothing to do.
It was the longest trip in the world.
Maryland and Delaware were just miles of rolling countryside that looked too similar to home. Then it was on to the New Jersey Turnpike. My parents talked excitedly about its four lanes, the lack of traffic lights, and how the newly installed mile markers made it easy to track our progress north. As I halfway listened to their conversation, I realized that one of the reasons for the trip was to see this new marvel. It replaced the previous route, Highway 1, where travelers would have to frequently slow down as they drove through town after town. I wasn’t impressed by what I viewed as just another dull road. I was tired of being cooped up. I would have loved to get out and stretch my legs but I didn’t want to take the time. I was thirsty but stopping for a drink would have also taken more time. I wanted to get there already.
We rounded what’s known as the helix, so named because the road spirals down, round and round, from the cliffs of New Jersey to the Lincoln Tunnel that crawls under the Hudson River.
That’s when I saw it, the New York City skyline.
Night was falling. I stared, spellbound, as the tall buildings began to sparkle. I watched the tiny red lights of cars going up and down the just barely visible highway across the river.
Jimmy Raspberry and I had finally arrived. I let out a huge sigh. It was as if I had been holding my breath until this very moment. Deep within me I somehow knew that this was IT, a place where routines could be shattered and every street would lead to fresh adventures.
For over a decade, Jackie Bivins was a journalist who reported on the retail industry and interviewed many of its pioneers. She lives in the Coachella Valley, and is currently working on a memoir.
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