Saturday, November 19, 2016

My Memories of Growing Up in Tonawanda

I have been sharing my dad's memoirs. Before I continue with his writing about leaving Tonawanda I want to add my memories of growing up in Tonawanda.

I had finished Fifth Grade and was still ten years old when my family moved from Military Road to Michigan. I really did not understand the implications of 'moving'. I spent three years resisting calling Michigan 'home', filled with nostalgia for Tonawanda and my friends and family left behind.

Childhood was a magical time, filled with the newness of discovery and the comfort of the known. I was surrounded by family, and their friends brought laughter and joy into our lives.

Joyce Ramer Gochenour and baby Nancy. 1952
I was born in 1952. My parents were very young, just 21 and 22 years old. Mom was tired of working at Remington Rand, and all her friends were getting pregnant, so she told Dad she wanted a baby, too.

I was supposed to be a boy and I was to be named Tom. It threw Dad for a loop when I turned out to be a girl! As the only son he longed for more guys in the family. Mom wanted to name me Nannette but her friends talked her out of it, saying, how would it sound calling out the door, "NANNETTE!" So I was named Nancy. Mom said she knew a pretty cheerleader at school named Nancy. I figured that was what she hoped for me, to be pretty and popular and coordinated.

I was a colicky baby, Mom was frazzled, and so we moved in with my Ramer grandparents for a while. Grandma helped relieve Mom.
Grandpa Ramer and baby Nancy. 1952. At my grandparent's
Sheridan Park Project home.

I was baptized in the Episcopal church. My grandfather Ramer was a deacon in the church. But my parents did not attend church. The few times they went and left me in the nursery I was terrified and cried.

I won Dad's heart with a smile. He was left in charge of my care and I smiled at him. After that, a daughter was OK. But he still wanted that son, Tom.

Nancy Gochenour baby photo
We lived in the upstairs apartment in the Military Road house belonging to my Grandparents Gochenour. My Aunt Mary, Uncle Clyde, and cousin Linda Guenther lived in the larger downstairs apartment, and my Gochenour grandparents lived in a smaller downstairs apartment. I was surrounded by family!
Grandma Gochenour with her daughter Mary and my Guenther cousins,
with a neighbor, outside the smaller apartment
Mom was always a night owl who liked to stay up late and sleep in. My cousin Linda was a year older than I. She would come upstairs and take me from the crib and play with me before Mom was out of bed. Other times, Mom would put me in the playpen and nap on the couch next to me. 

Mom made a fenced in area in the yard for me to play outdoors. When I was bored and cried she opened the window and threw me down a bag of crackers.
The play yard Mom made for me.
The apartment living room had high south facing windows covered with Venetian blinds. The view looked across Military Road at Ensminger Road toward the Niagara River. The other rooms included a small eat-in kitchen, two bedrooms, and the bathroom. There was a steep, long set of stairs. At the bottom was a laundry area, a door to the front of the house, and a passage way to the apartment where my cousins lived.

My earliest memories are of the sun coming through the Venetian blinds, lighting up the dust in the air. I remember Mom playing records. I remember the music and later identified it: Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White and The Poor People of Paris. I remember the 1951 television and being scolded for sitting too close. It wasn't until I started kindergarten that my astigmatism was identified and my vision corrected. My poor vision made me clumsy. I fell down those long stairs several times, and hit my head on the bathroom sink!

I remember watching Lassie, and Sky King, Romper Room, and the Mickey Mouse Club.

I do not remember when my Grandfather Gochenour passed in 1955, or my Great-Grandfather Greenwood passed in 1956. I do have a memory of an older man in a rocking chair, the light from a window behind him so I can't see his face. I don't remember when my Ramer grandparents moved from the Sheridan Park housing project when Gramps took a Chevy job in Detroit around 1955.

I do remember when my Ramer grandparents came back to visit!
Here I am about 4 years old, 1956
I would always run and ask what Grandmother Ramer had brought me. And my Grandfather Ramer would take me with him to visit his old friends in the Sheridan Park project. I remember visiting someone in the Project with him when I heard the kid's new record The Purple People Eater, which I loved. "It was a one-eyed, one-horned, flyin' purple people eater..." That had to have been in 1958.

Nancy, Stephen and Linda at a wedding
at the Tonawanda Baptist church
Following my cousin Linda came Steve in 1953 and Elaine in 1955. We four played together. There was a stone driveway to run up and down. Lilac bushes with a hollow spot that we turned into our own gas station. A big yard. A long porch to jump off. Willow trees whose long branches we turned into fishing poles, stripping off all the leaves but one at the end to be our fish.
Elaine, Nancy, Linda and Stephen. 
 I also went to the same church as my Guenther cousins and my Grandmother Gochenour, the Tonawanda Broad Street Baptist Church. I remember the shock of seeing a girl dunked into a tank of water and I remember the stained glass windows. Grandma taught Sunday School. I watched her preparing the class crafts. I remember singing before class and learning In The Garden. I remember coloring Joseph's coats of many colors.

I also had my second cousin Debbie Becker to play with, the daughter of  Dad's uncle and good friend Levant. Her parents were both redheads, and Debbie was as well. Born just a month before me, we played and rolled across the floor in laughter because of the 'laughing gas' that always got us giddy. We had so much fun!
Me, Mom and Debbie Becker at Christmas
When my Guenther cousins moved into their home on Grand Island, Military Road became a very empty place for me. I missed my live-in friends. I was lonely. Mom told me that the next year I would start school and I would meet kids and make friends.
Here I am in those cats eye glasses Grandma Gochenour is
at the sink. That table is still in the family.
School awaited on the horizon with all the lustre of untold hidden treasure.

Many years ago, after reading Ranier Maria Rilke's advice to a young poet that one can always tap into one's childhood for inspiration, I wrote several poems based on childhood memories.

The first poem is from a memory from before I was in school. We lived in the upstairs apartment. Mom and a man were talking business at the table, and I was playing, until I heard the man say the name John. I repeated it, which made him turn toward me to questions what I wanted. Was his name John? I don't know. I know I was embarrassed. I know I repeated that word to myself afterward. And that I later preferred 'J' names for my alter ego characters in my make believe play.

"In the beginning was the word"
     Nancy A. Bekofske

     Two figures seated at a kitchen table
     lost in the glare of unfiltered sunlight,
     shadow players, male and female,
     each with lighted cigarettes streaming blue smoke.

White light, white walls, and shadows moving
and talk about grown-up things while
     I played, pushing
     some wheeled toy across the floor
     into my parent's dark bedroom,
     into the nursery with its barred bed now forgotten,
down the narrow uncarpeted hallway,
into the slatted venetian-blind light of the living room
     the radio standing on the floor playing
     "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White"
     or was it "The Poor People of Paris," I've forgotten,
     back into the kitchen
where they sat, talking still, pushing papers about,
some business, I suppose,  
     when I heard a name,
     a word never before spoken for all I knew,
     and I longed to make its magnetic beauty mine:
     I stopped my play and mouthed that word
     like a sacred prayer recited in private,
     savoring it on the tongue, my ears
     ringing with pure response,
     that one word opening my mind to majestic possibilities.

"What did you say, hon?" Bending down, indulgent,
the man asked, and my mother, embarrassed
urged me to repeat myself, so they could understand.
     But I knew they would never understand
     the magic of that moment, even at, say, three,
     I could not utter that word, it would have been
     a misuse, like swearing with the Deity's name.

They returned to their conversation, dismissing me
a child, as having done a child-like thing
of great amusement to the wisdom of age.
     Only I knew the worth of the word,
     a sound so potent it could stop adult speech
     and demand their attention
     to listen to a child
    who had just learned
    the power of a beautiful word.

The second poem recounts how one day, jumping off the front porch with my Guenther cousins, I became afraid and lost my confidence, turned my ankle and sprained it.

What Happened on the Front Porch
Nancy A. Bekofske

Courage is not so much a matter of going ahead
as knowing when to stay put.

I adored my cousin,
she was older and so sure of herself.
She mothered me, I am told, the first one
to arrive at my crib mornings,
lifting me out to play.

And later, she taught and led
all our summer games: Red Rover,
Red Light, Mother-May-I?
And we hid between the lilac bushes
and raced up the wide gravel drive.
And we'd jump off  the long porch onto the grass.
I was afraid, but jumped too, landing
squarely on my feet, jolted by the impact.

The willows then were not very tall,
they did not give much shade on
a summer's day. The white wood fence
did not hide the old cars sitting
in the gas station parking lot in front.

Sometimes, we'd venture into the station
for an ice cold pop from the cooler.
I recall the smell of oil and gasoline,
the dark stains on cement and on the men, too.
They would be laughing and talking
in white undershirts with sleeves rolled to the shoulder,
some grease-monkey under a car on the bare cement.
We'd catch a glimpse of the lavatory,
with its girlie calendar on the wall.
This was our fathers' natural place,
with machines and men and oil stains.
He visited us now and then,
for dinner and lunch before returning
to work again. 

Between the two worlds
a fence and a row of iris.

For behind the station was our patchwork house,
walled into three apartments,
with a dreaded dank cellar
and a forbidden attic I longed for.
A Frankenstein built from other buildings--
wainscotting from a bar, a room tacked on
for a sunporch. 

And inside, my mother in the beige and turquoise living room,
ironing shirts, watching "Guiding Light" on TV.
The lamps had frills and sat on plastic doilies,
the tables were rock maple colonial,
the couch a scratchy nylon. 

Sometimes our mothers came out, for a BBQ with
roasted corn that was first soaked in a tub of water,
or to sit in the shade of the willow
while the children swam in a small pool. 
But their natural habitat was indoors, 
reading "Pageant" or cooking pork roasts 
or vacuuming and dusting.

We children ruled the rest of the world in between: 
the gravel drive, the old carriage barn, 
the trees to climb, the weedy yard, 
the swingset, porches, and crannies, all ours.

"Hold hands," my cousin demanded.
I was afraid. I knew I could go it alone.
But jumping together, who knew?
I wanted complete control, to jump
when I willed it, not tied to another.

I resisted, but she scolded me,
called me 'fraidy cat,
so I gave up my hand, jumped,
panicked, fell the wrong way,
leg buckling, my ankle turned.
My mother ran out, too late,
she could not protect or save me now.
I'd given myself over to another's will.
My father was called to carry me in.
The doctor arrived and said
my ankle was sprained.

It was the only hurt reaped in all my childhood. 
Later, when I understood life's risks, 
how we have a choice in this world
of going it alone or chance being hurt,
I understood I would always choose the risk,
the possibility of pain over safety.

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