The Impoverished Gentlewoman

A '60s woman lost in the woods.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


When my mother told me that we were moving to Florida I was not happy. In the small Pennsylvania town we were living in, I had friends and loved school. I loved the rented two story house with the wrap-around porch. They were nice distractions in a not very happy existance. But how much say does a child have? None. I was eight years old.

My mother bought me a book called "Sand in her Shoes". This is very memorable because it was the only book that was ever bought for me. It was about a little girl (like me) who was moving to Florida and not very thrilled about the prospect ( again like me). Anyway, her family had a very cool house on the beach and she met new friends and went on adventures. I believe a pirate's treasure chest was in there somewhere. And everyone lived happily ever after.

My mother & I went by Greyhound which was strange because we usually took trains (which I liked. I loved lying in the pull-out bed and peeking out of the shade to see the countryside rushing by). Of course she forgot I got car sick and I threw up on a hapless man while on my way to the bathroom. I remember he cursed at me and my mother cursed back at him.

My father was already there. We traveled alot due to my father's work and this was going to be our permanent home. We arrived in West Palm Beach and took a cab. The first words out of the driver were "A baracuda just killed a woman!"
"Whats a baracuda?" I asked.
"Its like a fish. A shark" he answered. All I knew of sharks was that they were in the ocean. The scariest creature in the ocean was akin to the giant squid in "Reap the Wild Wind" in my mind. The movie took place in the pre-civil war era in Key West. And thats in Florida, right?
"Is the baracuda still there?" This was getting interesting, I thought.
"Stop bothering the man, Vicki" snapped my mother. She was getting bored,obviously.
"Nah, its okay. No, they cut him open and found her leg. She was wearing a gold anklet." He turns around and wags his finger in my face,"Don't wear any bright things.That attracts em'". Don't worry, I'm thinking. Think I'll put off the beach for awhile.

The very next day, my mother hands me over to a strange man and his equally strange children for my "beach experience". Obviously my mother thought this baracuda was the last of his line. This was typical 50's parental behavior though. Until puberty (in my case) you ran free. In Pennsylvania, one of my friend's mother used to lock her & her brother out of the house during the day (even in the snow). The father (who was this guy?) wanted to teach me to see underwater. It wasn't too bad. Kind of cool actually-looking out at miles of nothing. But then I started moving very quickly away from all the legs and waving arms. I didn't fight it. I was confused, I think. Then I felt something grab my hair and pull me up. It was my tormentor/rescuer father. Someone told me later that it was an undertoe. I spent the next summer at an oceanfront hotel managed by my grandmother & took swimming lessons in the pool but never did take to swimming or pools or the ocean after that.

We stayed in West Palm that first summer and I didn't mind. It was a rented duplex,garden apt. Very pretty. I made friends with the girl next door and explored the neighborhood. Really hot,though. But lots of kids to fill the time. I was always a kid who liked the outdoors & went barefoot (despite my ugly toes) but the heat I always minded and a boy almost lost a toe in a water sprinkler head. And the sandspurs (Which were called stickers by those in the know)! So an outdoor state turned me into an indoor person. I was taught how to pick coconuts (before some awful blight killed all the coconut palms) and smash them on the sidewalk to open them. I loved the coconut meat & milk.

My father bought this weird house/business in Delray Beach. The house looked like it was put together as an afterthought, long and boxy with a flat roof. But the business I liked. While it lasted, it was a great distraction. It was a gas station and bar. My father had two men working for him that I remembered I hated for no particular reason. At night the bar would come alive and my mother would come in and cook meals at the grill. Mostly hamburgers for customers. But my parents would have to be nice to each other and therefore nice to me. My time there at night was limited. I ate dinner at the bar every night of course.One regular, always drunk, would come in,point to my plate and say,"I'll have what shes having". It was the standard joke. I loved the jukebox. I never had money but customers would give me change to play songs. We also sold chips and candy and had the most wonderful comic book rack. Archie,Katy Keene,Little Lulu,Sugar n'Spike. I usually got to keep the ones I wanted.
Before things went south and the business was converted to my father's welding shop, there was one experience that paved the way for what was to come. We used to frequent a restaurant nearby and I became friends with Jean, the French chef. I heard him screaming at an employee in the kitchen one night and because my parents were busy arguing about something, I went into the kitchen because well, I was nosy and there he was, waving a knife and all red in the face. I thought this was funny and started laughing. He started laughing too and we became buddies. When we went there I'd spend most of the time in the kitchen listening to his stories about Paris and the war.
When my parents found out he was gay (in those days,homosexual. probably just homo). They told me I couldn't be friends anymore. I didn't understand but when I said goodbye, we both cried.
I wasn't going to mention Jean but when you talk about someone you give honor to their memory in some way.
And distractions are important.