Union, New Jersey… that’s where my earliest recollection of life began… not even of the visual variety, but through my olfactory memory (Yeah, I said it.) comprised of malodorous scents in a house full of pets that at one time or another included dogs, cats, rabbits and a monkey named, “Jerry”… true story. I neither remember seeing nor knowing when he came and went, but was aware that this primate had existed by the smell of his cage… probably, why our exotic boarder might not have been there long.
I began to take note of the world through my eyes when introduced to my siblings’ Spirograph kit. This contraption that housed a slew of many little gadgets mesmerized me with vivid colors of red, black, green and blue, unleashed from pens that would create synchronized, swirling patterns onto paper, imitating residual track marks that might be left behind by figure-skaters in a magical world. I was enchanted by those hypotrochoids, before I knew their proper names or that they were linked to my eternal archenemy… mathematics. If permitted, I would have played, incessantly, with those addictive instruments for hours. Instead, I was steered away to other activities that included my daily dose of television where crime-fighter, “Courageous Cat“, would invite himself into my den to go “head-to-head” with the forever-crooked, Jimmy Cagney-like amphibian, “Chauncey ‘Flat-Face’ Frog”. Naturally, my required regimen of animation was never complete without a visit from “Mighty Mouse” who always showed up to “save the day”.
As the evening approached, so would “The Mike Douglas Show” and “The Streets of San Francisco” featuring Michael Douglas… a fact that freaked me out, knowing, there were two men with virtually the same name within my lineup of programs to watch.
Sometimes, while playing, I’d get a “Charley horse” and needed my brother, nine years my senior, to help straighten out a random leg that was uncomfortably locked with a muscle spasm. He enjoyed Yankees games so, would often tease me, while mending my leg or otherwise, by singing the famed baseball anthem, “Take Me out to the Ball Game“, exclaiming, “…and it’s ONE, TWO, THREE strikes, you’re out, at the ooooold baaaaalllll gaaaaaame!!!!” I would giggle then, become livid because I knew that he was counting out those numbers to imply, I was three-years-old when I was waaaaay more mature than that, as I had already turned four on my previous birthday. (Being from a family of “button pushers” made it easy for my elder to trigger me into yelling out, “Moooommmmyyyyy… Shurland keeps saying that I’m three when I’m not three… I’m FOOOOOUUUUR!!!!” This would be followed by my exasperated mother hollering out in a melodious, Trinidadian cadence, “Oh gawd, ooohhhh… leave da child alone na!“)
I was soon freed from membership of my brother’s captive audience after witnessing our family having a group discussion about sending me somewhere. I wasn’t clear about the destination or what was intended upon arrival. Amongst the chatter, I could only hear “Lincoln“, more murmuring then finally, “Washington“… “Washington Elementary“. What was an “elementary”? No clue… but I did quickly realize that I was being sent off to school!
My first day of kindergarten… not quite five-years-old when the school year began in September, but I would soon have a birthday on the 27th of that month. I was suffering from separation anxiety, and as usual, (even in the early years) on “island time”, running late, for what would be my debut in a classroom.
I remember being dropped off at the front door of Mrs. Costello’s class by my mother or a friend of my mother’s… not sure. All I know is, I was being stared down by this pasty, skeleton of a woman with a stern face and powdery-colored head of hair that had either been set in curlers the night before or bought that way from a beauty supply store as it resembled something that a “big-wig” solicitor would wear in a seventeenth century courtroom.
I cried, like an abandoned child, on entrance…
That’s when I encountered the meanest-looking girl in class who would end up being my life-long friend, Cheryl Bell.
This tough, little sprout and I began to bond because our mothers were both “right-off-the-boat”, Caribbean women (hers, from Jamaica… mine, as mentioned, Trinidad). Back then, it was far more obscure to be from such faraway lands… and impressive if anyone even knew where they were; Someone’s mother even asked me once if Trinidad was a city in Jamaica (COME ON!)
Our parents had the same sense of classic, outlandish style for clothing, amongst other things (That’s right, we had the plastic covers over our mustard yellow and tomato red, velveteen, living room furniture… don’t judge us.) It didn’t hurt, either, that she wasn’t bothered by the boiled eggs, my live-in, foreign cousin, Garvin, would pack in my lunch box that left an embarrassing odor in class (again, with the scents). Our similarities grew apparent to everyone else as we became known as “the twins” after several occasions of showing up to school wearing identical dresses that our mothers had bought from Sears (the hot~spot, back in the day). I loved, however, to pull rank by bragging that I was three months older than my playmate.
We were inseparable… We were sisters; Through the years, she and I would go as far as referring to each other’s mother as, “Mommy”. I even lived with her for a few months while my creator settled into a new job, located one-and-a-half hours away from Union, in the town that held our second house for weekend getaways, Pine Lake Park, in Toms River, NJ.
Our school years and summers were structured with programs and indoor, day camps to keep us occupied and away from trouble that might be appealing to we “latch-key kids” whose parents were still at work on our arrival home, and reluctantly, left us unsupervised. Well, that was the intention, at least, but not always accomplished, as destiny would have it. In the meantime, we were pretty well-behaved girls.
My biggest offense, at that point, was scaring my mother by not heading straight home from school, to a large, strawberry shortcake waiting for me, on my seventh birthday because I was hanging out with my best friend’s older sister; This lead to plain-clothed police detectives picking me up in their car after being discovered during my -behind schedule- stroll home…
The second strike out (personally) in the “offensive” department was signing up for beloved gymnastics (something I adored and hoped would make me an Olympic champion), only to be traumatized during an incident, at day camp, of suffering through a severe case of flatulence while attempting an exercise on the uneven bars… the sound effects in a silent room, along with snickers from miserably unfriendly group leaders, was a truly a priceless humiliation (only in “hEiDiville”).
Away from organized activities, my “make-believe sister” (as we called each other) and I were free to create our own entertainment… walking around with intentionally overextended bellies (convinced that the veins showing through the skin of our tummies meant that we were pregnant after seeing in the news that a 10-year-old girl had given birth to twins), running and racing one another (Cheryl always beat me), catching “lightning bugs” in jars, playing stick-ball in her backyard and scurrying onto the driveway where the asphalt lay on a steep hill next to her house that poured into the highly trafficked Vauxhall Road, a virtual “Dead Man’s Curve” for many of my sidekick’s cats who met their deaths, trying to outrun speeding cars. This would make the crazy, wicked, old woman who cursed like a sailor (and Cheryl had the misfortune of having as a neighbor), come out of her evil lair to yell at us with racial slurs and insults to NOT step foot on her pavement.
It was usually around such an occasion that we’d go inside of her house, plop our jelly sandals on the pile of shoes at the foot of her staircase and resume our fun with a game of Jacks.
Being at my Jamaican counterpart’s home was such a fun and cultural experience. Though both of West Indian decent, our regional cuisine was somewhat different. I really only remember the basic goodies that stood out to me like beef patties and a bizarre snack of toast with jelly and cheese. It didn’t take much to impress me… even watching her mother striking a match to light the stove was a fantastic event, in my book.
The highlight of my entertainment though was when my buddy and I would lie on the floor with our ears mashed to the speakers of her stereo as we jammed to Sister Sledge’s “He’s the Greatest Dancer”. Overcome by the music, we’d get up and do “The Wop” (the original, not the breakdance version [don’t even ask me to explain]) and create “Soul Train” dance lines (click this link to check out “ReRun” from “What’s Happening” in this video) to the sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” album, easily accomplished with the help of her four, older sisters of the seven children in the family… her little brother, Robert, being the only boy.
All of these great moments came to pass, simply from wearing budget prêt-à-porter frocks as virtual embryos, in Mrs. Costello’s class while “crushing on” pretty boy, Tommy Jones with his light-brown, bowl-cut hair and long eyelashes. We’d hope that he’d sit down next to us, in one of the miniature chairs for we tiny people and giggle at the thought of being his girlfriend then, make up wedding ceremonies in the school yard. Little did we… or rather -I- know that over 30 years later, my dear friend would be a bride and marry, but not a groom, another bride… the lovely Rene.
Thank goodness, she lived to see the day.
Cheryl showed her true dedication to me when months before our eighth birthdays, I told her that if she didn’t jump out of the second-story window of my house, first, I wouldn’t be her friend. Mind you, the plan was for both of us to do this for adventure, and land in my driveway without a scratch. Well, Miss Bell agreed and rose to the occasion, but quickly changed her mind… as she dangled outside of my brother’s window, holding on for dear life.
All that I could see were her knuckles as she clasped tightly, with both hands, to the ridge of the pane.
No worries, I had a back-up plan… all (I believe) 80 lbs. of me was going to drag the large mattress off of the bed, located at the would-be launch-site, pull it through the hallway, open the door and take it down two different, steep flights of stairs, outside of the house and haul it another 50 feet onto the driveway, right underneath the bedroom window for Cheryl to have a soft landing… all in less than one minute.
That idea didn’t work.
I quickly realized that I was only strong enough to lift the corner of the mattress before it would laugh at me and plop back down onto the box spring.
In the meantime, dear Cheryl continued to cry and scream.
Dread washed over me as I came to terms with the fact, there was no way of covering up the scene of my crime, emotional blackmail. I would have no choice but to alert my teenaged sister, Joanne, the oldest in the family, to come and save my friend from an uncomfortable “crash landing”.
It was quite impressive to see how an extra ten years and 35 lbs. could make the difference in being able to drag a seven-year-old back inside of a window, to safety.
Cheryl was okay and only suffered a week’s worth of white paint embedded onto her thigh, along with punishment that included a spanking and restrictions from all forms of enjoyment due to the consequences of her ignoring the adage about “not jumping off of a bridge because a friend said to do so”.
My own condemnation was inevitable. In contrast though, I took the “low road” and hid out, for hours, laying on my back, flat on the ground, wedged behind our upstairs living room couch and the wall where the picture window sat, above… my sister, oblivious to my presence as she knelt backwards on said sofa, gazing out through the glass to the neighborhood. This would be the same place where I would go for my future violation of spilling acetone-filled, nail polish remover onto my mother’s beloved, satin bedspread that burned a hole right through it.
Everything changed after that summer; My older sister graduated from high school and immediately went off to the army to get out of the house. The rest of the Rodney household moved away from Union and headed to Ocean County to make our pied-à-terre the family’s main address. As a result, the wacky escapades of “Laverne & Shirley”, a.k.a. “Heidi & Cheryl”, became limited to long, expensive phone calls, occasional letters and sparing visits to each other’s abodes… even less when my mother began to move up the ladder in her career and proceeded to relocate her clan (what seemed like every four years) to new locations throughout Florida.
My relationship with that tough, little sprout in kindergarten went from a sisterhood to the kind shared by distant cousins. Nonetheless, our reunions, to date, have always transported us back to the days of mischief and laughter found on both Augustine Place and Vauxhall Road. 🙂
© 2010-2011 Heidi Rodney-Nakanishi and ChocolateGeisha Spills the Sake! All images are copyrighted by their respective authors.