A BRONX GIRL (Growing up in the Bronx in the 1960’s)




        Mommy turned, pulled on my sister’s hand, and rushed us through the gold-framed doors and out onto the pavement. We walked three long blocks to a big park.

          We anchored ourselves on a park bench, our one overstuffed suitcase at Mommy’s side on the ground, the satchel on top of it. I started to read my Nancy Drew book for the third time sitting under a tree while my brother ran wild, disappearing for chunks of time in the bushes playing with boys that came and went from the park throughout the day.

      Mommy sat on the bench for hours reading her stack of newspapers, her head down, biting her lip. With a slim brown Knickerbocker hotel pen, she marked the paper, circling job ads. We had no breakfast or lunch that day. When my brother emerged from the playground and complained, Mommy said, “Save your appetite for later.”

       The sun started to go down. A dim streetlight not far from the bench lit up. The park was empty of people except for us. Mommy opened her satchel and gave each of us a packaged tootsie-roll and a small bag of potato chips. She passed a carton of grape juice around for us to have a drink. I held the carton for Pammy as she took a few sips. Ronnie pushed his Tonka truck around on the cement path with one hand, making vroom vroom noises, and held his crotch with his other hand. The restroom was on the far side of the park, the one we had used earlier in the day.

       “Linda, your brother needs to go,” Mommy said. “Take him to that tree.” She pointed a few feet away. “Otherwise, he’ll pee his pants.”

         Once finished, I walked back with my brother from the tree and returned to the bench, where I noticed that our sweaters were laid out next to my mother.

         “Okay, you three,” she called out, “time to cuddle up with me for a nap.”

         “We’re sleeping in the park?” my brother said.

        Mommy nodded. Ronnie shrugged, put his truck in the open suitcase, and curled up next to her on top of his sweater. Pammy sat in the dirt by the bench with her ragdoll, half lit by the streetlight.

        Mommy reached down and hoisted my sister up next to her. Without uttering a word, yearning to be back in the Bronx with Nana and away from my irrational mother, I sat upright at the far end of the wood bench, my arms folded on my chest. I remember falling off to sleep, the Nancy Drew mystery on my lap. When I opened my eyes in the dark, there was a tall, gray-haired woman standing in front of us, the wide beam of her big flashlight hitting the ground under the bench. She wore a dark skirt and white blouse and stood next to a policeman. A shorter man stood on the other side of the policeman in a suit and bright-colored tie.

        “Ma’am,” the policeman said, tapping my mother’s sleeve. “Ma’am, wake up,” he said. “You can’t sleep in the park, especially with kids.”

         Mommy jerked awake and tightly clutched my sister. Pammy started to wail.

         “Can we take you somewhere?” the policeman said.

         “No,” Mommy replied. “We’re fine right here. You can go.”

         “Where do you live, Ma’am?” the policeman asked. “Can you tell us that?”

         Mommy stared up at him. “We…we were in a hotel, but not anymore,” she said, her voice cracking.

          “I understand.” He nodded and glanced over at the tall woman.

        Mommy stood from the bench, Pammy still in her arms. She raised a hand in the air and smacked the policeman hard on the sleeve of his uniform, then made a fist and punched him in the chest. He seemed bewildered, off-kilter. He quickly stepped back.

         That’s when Mommy started to scream. “Get the hell away from us. Don’t you touch us. Sons of bitches.”

         The tall woman intervened, getting between my mother and the policeman.

         “Please,” the woman said. “I know this is a difficult situation. I’m sorry.” She stroked my mother’s shoulder.

         Mommy quieted and sat back on the bench. My sister buried her face in Mommy’s chest and whimpered.

         The policeman spoke more gently. “Ma’am, you may not like what I’m about to say, but these two social service people will take your children to a safe place while you and I have a talk. I’ll need some information from you.”

      My sister started to cry. The tall woman reached down to take her from my mother’s lap. Mommy pulled on the sleeve of Pammy’s frilly yellow dress but then gave up. The woman lifted my sister into her arms and patted her on the back.

        “Mommy, Mommy,” Pammy cried.

       My brother started to yell. “No, no, I’m not going,” he said. He went wild, jumped up from the bench, and kicked the short man with the plaid tie in the shins. The man pulled Ronnie to him and tried to comfort him with a bear hug.

         I stood up, tucked my book under my arm, and reached for the tall woman’s hand.

         Whatever happens next can’t be worse than staying with my loony mother.

      I wished Nana was there to help us, but she wasn’t. Mommy glared at me. I felt her eyes piercing through me like bolts of lightning. The shock and venom in her eyes at that moment would still haunt me years later. The man in the suit had already moved across the grassy lawn with my brother headed toward a white car parked under a streetlight. I could hear my brother’s protests fade as they got further and further from us.

        The tall woman knelt down on her knees by the bench to meet Mommy’s eyes. “We’re from Child Protective Services,” she said, letting go of my hand for a moment. She pulled a small white card from her pocket and held it out. “I want you to know that all three children will be safe and well taken care of.” Mommy pressed her lips together and shook her head refusing to take the card. The woman placed it down on the bench beside her. “Officer Diaz will let you know exactly where our group home is located.” The policeman nodded. “Please cooperate with him,” she continued. “Then you can arrange to come and see your children.”

        Pammy squirmed in the woman’s arms. The woman squeezed my hand and gave me a friendly grin. In a hushed tone, she said, “I’m Mrs. Klein. What’s your name?”

        “Linda,” I said.

        “Nice to meet you, Linda. You’re not afraid, are you?”

        “No, I’m not afraid,” I replied, feeling the warmth of her hand.

      My sister let out a shrill scream. The woman hugged Pammy tighter but kept one hand in mine. As she walked us across the grass, my sister wailed and, over the woman’s shoulder, reached her tiny hand towards Mommy, her fingers grasping at empty air until we were outside the park and headed toward the white car where the man had taken my brother.

      That was the last night I spent with my mother for the next two months. I felt guilty each bedtime in our group home, like a traitor, but also grateful, relieved, satisfied. I eagerly adjusted to group home life with over twenty other children to get to know, and I was able to see my brother and sister every day. But I missed my nana, and to be honest, I missed Bobby Schwartz, the boy I still had a crush on.