My brother always made fun of me because it took me a lot longer to learn or do something than him. In particular, it took me forever to learn how to ride a bike. The whole process was incredibly daunting and the potential for harm seemed impending. And in truth, I did have some accidents.
Part of the problem was my learning field: the street. I was very aware that everyone in the neighborhood watched my slow progress, my fears, and my pathetic attempts to balance my body. Of course, I did learn and basically, my brother tricked me, as he ran behind me as though he was holding on when in reality I was riding alone. It worked.
But I would never say I was a comfortable bicyclist. Since my first bike was a little big for me, I hated stopping and experiencing that strong lean to the left or right to put my foot down. I tried to find a curb, but of course, that wasn’t always possible. So, the best thing was to keep going whenever possible.
The best part of learning how to ride a bike was the freedom it gave me to go places. Without a family car, both my brother and I were house-bound except for distances we could walk or the “kindness of strangers” to give us rides.
The most frequent trip I made was to visit my friend Gunta (and my brother, to visit her older brother, Karl). Her family and several other Latvian families had moved into this area, about a mile and half north of us. The homes were small but affordable at the time plus they were closer to the original Latvian Center (an old house on Central Avenue). It was all part of building community.
Unfortunately, this area was also in transition to poverty and began experiencing “white flight” in the fifties and early sixties (from both the blacks as well as the “foreigners.” The Latvians buckled down to stay, but the neighborhood changed all the same. Where our own neighborhood remained stubbornly “redneck” closer to downtown, this neighborhood became known as a black enclave.
For me and my brother, the last five blocks might include taunts, rock throwing, and chases. We were seen as interlopers and trespassers. One of the worst incidents happened when someone threw a bike fender into my brother’s front wheel and he went flying forward off the bike. He could have been killed. But still, we never told. We could not afford to lose our independence which trumped fear.
On the other side of our house, was a very similar home to our own except the porch was made with yellow brick instead of red. Both houses had wood siding and large, old-fashioned windows that whistled in the wind. The backs of our houses were different because of my father’s renovations.
Nonetheless, the house seemed to rotate families in and out of it, both from the top floor and the bottom. I’m guessing the house was a rental which would explain the revolving inhabitants. For about a year (maybe longer, I don’t remember), one of those families had a daughter my age. We played together as best we could, but she was not allowed to come over to our house when my mother wasn’t home during the day(my elderly father was my caregiver until he died and he was not deemed safe). As a result, she and I invented a number of games that could be played across the fence from catch, to a form of volleyball, and so forth. It worked out fine.
One day, we got into a different kind of throwing game that escalated into a battle of wills: who could aim and throw a rock over the fence and hit the other person. The game wasn’t created in anger but out of a typical argument of “yes, I can” and “no, you can’t.”
I watched the rock sail over the fence and I had plenty of time to move out of the way, but part of the game was holding still: a type of “chicken.” To dodge, whether struck or not, would be losing, yielding, giving in. That was not my way.
And so the rock, about the size of a fist, struck me solidly in the head at my hairline. We looked at each other in shock. We would be in lots of trouble. We ran, sobbing. She to the other side of the yard under a tree and me to the house.
When my father saw me, his nursing instincts did not manifest. Instead, he became angry and incensed that a neighbor child would hurt me. Blood poured out of the wound, down my face and onto my clothes. He grabbed me by thehand and we marched next door to show the girl’s mother the damage done. Since my father couldn’t speak English and I was screaming bloody murder, I can’t imagine what the poor woman thought or understood of what happened. There we stood at her front door, my father raving in Latvian, me hiccuping and crying while at the other end of the house, I could see through to the back, my little friend was splayed across their screen door screaming, “I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t mean to do it.”
The memory folds there. I’m pretty sure there was no hospital visit nor a doctor visit. Perhaps the girl’s mother did first aid. I don’t know. I had no lasting scars, except for the blood and tears that neither of us could explain to the adults in our lives.
There weren’t a lot of kids my age on our block, but I worked with what I had. When I played with them, we usually created soap operas: domestic life, school life, doctor’s office. We would have long planning sessions about the set up: where we were, who was who, what should we wear, what props did we need, and what was going on. This was the best part of “let’s pretend.” Anything was possible in the planning. But once we started, I forbade the use of saying, “let’s pretend.”
My little friends never understood it. Everything would be fine; we’d be doing a breakfast scene for instance, and suddenly my friend would say, “let’s pretend we have a dog and he wants to come in.” I’d snap, “just do it, you don’t have to say what you’re going to do.” And on and on it would go. Every few seconds, the others would add to the game by saying, “let’s pretend.” It infuriated me and stopped being fun; I’d call it quits for the day.
When I played my brother’s version of “let’s pretend,” they all revolved around Davy Crockett, Rifleman, and Lone Ranger (to name a few). I was pretty much relegated to the character who died, was captured, or jailed: the Indian, the bank robber, the black hat. That got old too.
In the end, I think I enjoyed my private play the best. Did I mention that I was a child control-freak?
I didn’t have a lot of toys but I made full use of what we did have. When I played alone, I was no longer interested in domestic scenes at all. There were no baby dolls. I had a couple of adult type dolls (before the days of Barbie), and I would dress them up in costumes and create sweeping tales of fantasy, war, and tragedy: sometimes as the damsel in distress, sometimes the heroine.
Perhaps my oddest form of pretend play was with marbles. Whereas most children use marbles to play shooting games, which I did on occasion with my less important orbs, I had one set of special marbles who each had names, and with them, I would create intricate worlds and stories. Usually, I laid out these scenes of complex paths, villages, and countries on my parents’ double bed. These stories were about challenge, survival, and conquest. To this day, I’m not sure how I was able to imbue marbles with so many feelings and personalities, but I did. Casts of thousands.