The Spook House

In the woods next to our pink split level house on the cul-de-sac of Comfort Court was an abandoned house known to the neighborhood kids as The Spook House. Most of the children in the neighborhood were forbidden to go there. But many did. It was rumored someone had fallen through the second floor and legend was that more terrible things lurked there. The boys and girls from the closely set homes in our small sub-division had grown up together, playing kickball until our parents called us in for dinner, climbing the apple trees in our back yard, and building forts in the woods while avoiding the decrepit house that seemed right out of a horror movie.

I was ten years old when my best friend Jeanne and I decided we were old enough to go see it up close for bragging rights to our bravery. It couldn’t have been more than fifty yards from my house but it felt like we were Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion approaching the witch’s castle. We crept up the path tamped down by those who had ignored the warnings and we made it to the front of The Spook House. The house was boarded up except for a broken first floor window. The only color around the drab peeling house was a flowering purple lilac bush left by its long gone owners. Peeking inside I could see an ancient wooden wheelchair and some dusty books on the floor. My heart raced. I was a 50 pound sissy who slept with a nightlight. Jeanne repeated the tale her older brother, Rusty, had told her. He said a ghost lived in the house and that if we looked up to the second floor window we might see her waving. Knees trembling, I looked up and I thought I saw a pale, disembodied hand waving slowly up and down. I ran the whole way home wondering if I’d actually seen that horrifying apparition or if my mind was playing tricks on me.

Jeanne and I stayed far from that house after that. But the frights weren’t contained to the dark woods. They were right there in plain sight. As we all grew up I learned to be wary of other things. The rambunctious boy, Chris, who lived behind our house, pushed me down one day and I came home with bloody knees. I learned to stay away from him. When we were twelve and finally allowed to go to the bus stop alone, there were more opportunities for his torment. As I stood one morning with Jeanne, he and another rough boy from the development threw coins towards me. I stared at the pennies as they spun around and landed on the sidewalk. I had a bad feeling it was a set-up.

“Pick up the pennies,” said Stephen, a pale, freckled hooligan with a crew cut and glasses.

“Why should I? I don’t want them,” I said.

He looked at me with a mean glint. “Don’t Jews like money?”

My face paled. A few kids laughed. The bus pulled up and I got in and walked to the back. I slumped into a seat and tried to make myself invisible. I learned to fear the monsters at the bus stop. I dragged my feet to miss the bus or got stomach-aches and stayed home. I dreaded going to my locker at school where a group of bullies would find me and harass me about my looks, my friends, my religion. I stopped playing outside after school. Mercifully, my body summoned a case of Mono and I spent weeks at home recovering my health and my confidence. After only a month back at school my parents announced we were moving to another town. I’d like to think it was because of my problems and the anti-semitic neighbors, but in reality they were motivated by the horror of sharing one bathroom with three daughters. Nevertheless, I was glad for the escape route.

Several years ago, I was in the area and curious to see my old street. The Spook House was long gone — replaced with a white Colonial and green lawn. I am not haunted by that vision of a waving hand. I am sure I imagined it. I know I did not imagine the terrorizing of the real phantoms. It turned out the scariest things didn’t live in the crumbling empty houses. They resided in the pretty painted houses. I don’t like scary movies. But I’m not afraid of the dark anymore. Sometimes the most frightening things happen in broad daylight.

Boots on the Ground

I was wearing black Billy Martin cowboy boots, a sweater and leggings when I met my husband on a blind date. He wore a towel. I was trying to project nonchalant chic.  He was running late, but I’m pretty sure he was just boasting his biceps.  Boots and leggings are pretty much still my uniform, but I’ve since trained my husband to wear pants when answering the door.

Thirty-two years have passed, but when the leaves and the temperatures drop and boot season begins, I am reminded of that fall when we fell in love. Maybe that’s why I still love wearing boots.  Boots are comfort food for my soles. My feet have taken me through almost sixty years, twenty-five countries, fifteen years of work pumps, hundreds of runs in stiff ski boots, thousands of uneven subway steps, hours of parties in crippling stilettos.  I’ve worn shoes that would make Chinese foot binding feel like Ugg slippers.  My big toes have endured two painful surgeries as a result.   My feet have earned the right to be comfortable.

In NYC shoes are transportation. My favorite wheels are my worn-in, black, knee-high Aquatalia boots that have mercifully morphed to the topography of my aching feet.  They are low-heeled, waterproof, and rubber soled. They are an SUV for my feet – sturdy, reliable and designed for all types of terrain.  I zip them up like I am buckling my seatbelt and I’m ready to hit the road. I’m a superhero.  I feel like Wonder Woman — without the bustier and the gorgeous hair.  NYC is my territory.  In boots I can cover a lot of ground – taking in street after street of Chelsea galleries without getting a blister.  I feel powerful hopping on a Citibike and pedaling to Soho with my trusty treads and my foldable helmet. I have no fears heading to the Union Square farmer’s market with the confidence that I can stride back home lugging bags of apples, greens and a bouquet of zinnias.  The Lake Erie size slush puddles are no match for these boots as I conquer the icy mountains and melting pools that form on street corners after a winter storm.  I’m impermeable.

Each fall I head to Saks and Bergdorfs to hunt through the shelves of stunning shoes and boots.  But those shoe departments might as well be a shoe museum.  The pointy, high heeled styles are like a European sports car – sleek and sexy, overpriced, impractical and hard to get into.  At least a sports car is built for speed.  These are most definitely not.

I feel fast and safe and strong in my favorite boots. But it’s time for a change – so I’ve bought them in gray.  For too many years I chose style over comfort.  In my boots and leggings I have the best of both worlds.  I can truly be comfortable in my own shoes.

Snakes in the Grass – A Father’s Lesson 

I grew up the middle of three sisters in a pink house on a cul de sac in the suburbs of Randolph, NJ, in a neighborhood so idyllic our street was named Comfort Court. My sister Meredith was four years younger so she was either being ignored or tortured by my sister Lisa and me. Lisa was only 16 months older than me. We couldn’t have been more different. While I was always in girly clothes with a bow or headband in my hair, Lisa was a tomboy with horn-rimmed glasses and frizzy hair. I played with dolls…she collected all kinds of pets and insects. Despite our differences we liked to be outside exploring our neighborhood together.    

Across from our house was my best friend Jeannie’s house, and behind their house was a sheep farm. We liked to visit the wooly sheep and feed them carrots. To get to the pasture you had to jump over a small stream, scramble onto a large flat topped boulder the neighborhood kids named “Big Rock”, and hop over the low security wire fence onto the grassy field. One afternoon, we must have been about 10 and 11, and we were wandering in the sheep field when I spotted a striped garter snake wriggling among the grass. It couldn’t have been more than 8 inches long but to me it might as well have been a python. I was terrified. I jumped onto the nearest boulder as high pitched screams came from my tiny 60 pound frame. My sister calmly grabbed up the snake for her menagerie as my cries pierced the air. It was only a minute or too later that I spotted my savior — my terrified father running up Jeannie’s driveway sweating in a white undershirt and pants, looking stricken and shouting, “What’s the matter?! What’s wrong?!”  

“HELP! I saw a snake… Lisa caught a snake!!!” I shouted, knowing that I was about to be saved from this dangerous viper. Realizing that no one was bleeding, kidnapped or dead, and angry that I had caused him so much alarm, my father looked at me standing there knock-kneed and screeching. With relief and annoyance he chastised me, “That’s why you’re screaming like that?!” Before he even crossed into the field for my rescue, he turned and walked back towards our house. Somehow I managed to gain the courage to jump off that rock and run home too.  

Don’t get me wrong – my father is warm and sweet and loving. He’s also a war hero who experienced danger much graver than a harmless snake. At 18 years old, he left for WWII and earned a purple heart, an oak leaf cluster and a silver star for his brave actions in combat. He seemed to love being the only guy in a household of women, but he wasn’t about to raise a bunch of sissies. During the late 1960s when traditional roles meant girls couldn’t even wear pants to my school, my father taught us to be confident and strong. He taught us to draw, and grow pink roses and how to plant string beans and corn in our garden. He also taught us to shoot a bb gun into an old Clorox bottle used as a target hanging from the swingset in our back yard. He taught us to bait a hook, ski down a mountain, and change a tire. He showed us how to fix a broken toilet, and a broken heart.  

That day in the sheep pen my sister gained a new pet. I gained an insight into where my father’s patience for nonsense ended.

Meredith has forgiven me for the teasing. My sister Lisa has a farm now. She raises chickens and takes in neglected animals. I still like fancy clothes and accessories. But I also have my own power tools and I can patch sheetrock.  

 One thing my father never taught me – a love of snakes. Good thing I live in a city now.