Sunday, April 20, 2008

Mother’s and My Trip to Visit Harvey in New York, Spring 1967

I wrote this piece in July 1992, with the following intro:

I have come to realize that many things about this wonderful trip are fading from my memory. Maybe I've worn out the scenes by accessing them too much. Harvey's photos have helped because they capture so many of our activities. Quite a few of my memories are things the camera "saw." The trip provides some of my few recollections of Mother and is in many ways my example of what a trip should be: interesting, well-paced (for a five-year-old's endurance), and paid for by someone else.

PLEASE SEE ACCOMPANYING SLIDE SHOW: http://picasaweb.google.com/sarahbowieme/NYTrip1967

***

I really enjoyed that childhood feeling of things seeming so big. A tall table is something to hide under, a playhouse. Everything is dramatically large, like stage scenery or action on a movie screen.

I saw few movies as a child, and the ones I did see totally absorbed me. To my small-town viewpoint, everything was new and exotic: what people wore, how they talked, even cars and food. I believed that every city was different and required special knowledge for survival.

I used to marvel at the way adults found their destinations on a car trip. My perception was that you had to know all the roads not to take; I didn't realize that you continue forward until it's time to make a turn. I was overwhelmed by the responsibility I thought adults must bear--constantly having to evaluate situations, making careful decisions. ("What shall we have for dinner?") I didn't understand the way most people really exist, coasting along. ("I'm too tired to go to the store, so we'll have leftovers.")

***

The trip to New York took place before I started kindergarten. I was five, but my birthday came after the school year began. There were few children my age in our neighborhood. Getting together with my friends required a drive across town!--really about five minutes away, but sometimes hard for Mother to squeeze into her schedule. I saw kids my age every Sunday, but in church school there wasn't a lot of time to connect. The little boy who most interested me spent half the hour crying for his mother and then sullenly played blocks alone.

I loved spending time with Mother, although I'm not sure what our activities were. I think I followed her around on errands--the grocery store, church (to organize her classroom or for organ practice), Aunt Martha and Ella's house (Aunt Martha made some of Mother's clothes), etc. Mother had her "to do" list and I had mine. Since I couldn't read yet, she would draw pictures for me: a broom, a mailbox. (I was considered too young to wash dishes.) Or she would draw a picture of things I could add to the grocery cart when we shopped--apples, bread.

I was excited to spend a whole weekend with Mother in New York. The only disappointment was that Mother was her usual practical self. She wasn't transformed into my playmate but remained the person who told me to brush my teeth.

***

Mother had a big pink carrier bag made of linen-like fabric. At one point she had to use a stain remover on the bag. The product was a cream that dried and had to be brushed off. Its color (on the pink bag) and flakiness made me think of medicine on a scab. Yuck! I was easily disgusted at that age.

We flew to New York on Delta and back to Houston on Braniff. I had the idea that Braniff would be the better airline, but Delta turned out to be more pleasant. I liked the sound of the name "Braniff" and thought it sounded fancier than "Delta". I don't think my prejudice was caused by anything I overheard. It certainly seems unlikely that my parents would discuss airline preferences.

I really admired the Braniff flight attendants' uniforms, red and navy plaid. (As most of my dresses were flowered, I considered plaid to be very grown-up.) However, the ladies weren't very friendly and the plane was crowded and stuffy. There was also a lot of turbulence, which didn't frighten me because I had so little conception of flight that air turbulence, to me, was like driving a car through ruts.

Mother had motion sickness on both flights. Her skin literally turned gray in the cabin lighting. I was impressed by the airsick bag. How did people know where to find it, tucked between the magazines? And wasn't that crimped/fold-down closure like the Chips-Ahoy cookie bag?

Mother had bought me several comic books for the trip. Timothy and David picked out action adventures when they went to New York with Daddy (a month or so earlier), but I had Baby Huey and Archie Comics. I believe that was my first introduction to Baby Huey. We didn't get very far with him because I couldn't figure out anything from the pictures and Mother was too sick to read aloud much. I thought Baby Huey was quite strange. I knew that animals don't really talk, and humans don't talk when they're babies, so...?

Better in-flight entertainment was embroidery cards. The "thread" was a cross between shoestrings and yarn, fuzzy wool with stiffened ends. The cards, a little larger than playing cards, had pre-punched holes you could thread the yarn through--no needle required. Of course half of my attempts got knotted up, but I always hoped that the next card would come out perfect. I didn't like that the yarn only came in yellow, red, blue and green, since my favorite color was purple. (I once left a purple crayon in the pocket of a purple-striped smock that went into the dryer--whoops! I don't think I was even drawing that day but had pocketed the crayon because I liked the way it matched the fabric.)

***

I always swore that I saw Harvey at the terminal window "as our plane was coming down." Of course Mother said later that this couldn't be. I may have seen him as the plane was taxiing to the gate--any plane movement I considered part of the flight. This is the intellectualization, but my image was the plane curving down from the sky and Harvey waving through the glass as we continued down below his level.

How was I able to recognize Harvey? I didn't know him very well, and I'm sure there were many smooth-faced men in beige raincoats at the airport. Yet even at that age I had a radar sense of "there's Harvey."

Ordinary motion seemed almost magical to me, since I couldn't even ride a bike yet and had absolutely no idea of how people made cars start and move forward. Our cab ride into the city was almost like flying or sailing. I saw rolling images as we moved, like the credits of "All in the Family" where the camera moves through the Bunker's neighborhood.

It was very different from car trips to Houston with Mother. Those were wild drives on the freeway. As I stared down from the busy overpass at office buildings and hamburger stands, it would occur to me to mention to Mother (with no convenient exit for several miles) that I had to go to the bathroom. Things were much flatter in Houston, so the sloping outskirts of New York, with stoops and stone walls, was exotic.

One of the first things we did was buy gifts for Timothy and David. Mother stopped at a little store with a cluttered display window. I didn't like the small, dusty store, being used to shopping in malls with the smell of roasting popcorn and disinfectant. I think Mother got Timothy and David a mechanical top, though I may have mixed up what she bought with the souvenirs they brought back from their trip.

***

When we got to the Hilton, our room wasn't ready. We looked into it briefly, and I saw the mussed sheets and towels. This disturbed me, the sense of "strangers were sleeping here." Instead of waiting for that room to be cleaned, we had a shorter wait for a different room. Harvey was disappointed that we had to give up our view of the Empire State Building.

Walking past the lobby gift stores, I saw something fabulous: stuffed-toy gingerbread men. These were shaped like cookies, almost flat with brown fur and glued-on pink yarn icing. (There was a bakery next to the store in Houston where we always bought our shoes. The first few times we went to the bakery I requested gingerbread men--it seemed the cultured thing to do, with gingerbread people in so many of my books--until it struck me that brownies taste much better.) The toys were arranged in groups by size. Of course I wanted the largest size, and I sensed that Harvey would have bought it for me. (It appealed to his sense of the dramatic.) But my mother or some other voice of reason prevailed, and I ended up with the next-to-smallest. Actually, it was a cute size and easy for me to hold. I tried calling him "Gingie," but that name revolted even me and I switched to Gingerbread Man.

The hotel provided Fun Packs for children, but we didn't get mine until the next day because of the confusion about the room. I had been eagerly anticipating it (Mother and Harvey should have never have mentioned its absence to me--delayed gratification) but was disappointed when it arrived with our room-service pancake breakfast--most of the games were for older children. I could, however, do the coloring-book pages and some of the "Find the Objects". Mother read me the jokes, which were about as comprehensible as Baby Huey.

Our bathroom must have had beige tiles, because I remember it as "gold." It seemed very clean and shiny, compared to our ten+-year-old bathroom at home. Our bathroom at home was long and narrow--the hotel's was a square, which felt much bigger. And there was an ice chute right in the bathroom. It was a real-life set for playing Princess, my favorite make-believe game. Mother had brought along her usual little packages of alcohol-wipes ("We may not find a nice bathroom with soap"), artificial sweetener and Koolaid. These were laid out with the hotel Woolite and soap packages. We had also brought some doughnut-shaped butter cookies (the only kind Mother would buy, because they were plain and cheap--and would have been hard to make from scratch), so it was also like playing house or playing kitchen. (With an adult perspective, I would say playing bartender.)

***

I don't remember watching TV at the hotel. Maybe Mother only had on news programs, which I found too boring to count as television. I have a very clear memory of looking in the full-length mirror our first night in the hotel, critically analyzing my appearance. I wore white Mary Janes with ankle socks. The socks were wrinkled, as always (it must have been something about my ankles), and the shoes were slightly scuffed. Mother had made me a new gathered skirt with crossed and buttoned shoulder straps. The fabric was small white flowers on a blue-green background. (I thought of them as Edelweiss, in honor of “The Sound of Music”.) With it I wore a white blouse that I think was also home-made, since it had the Peter Pan collar of Mother's favorite pattern.

Where my bangs met my longer, braided side hair, there were always wisps that sometimes required two sets of barrettes to restrain. Mother and I would try to match the barrette colors, and that night we had managed to find two white pairs: flowers and bunnies, or they might have been seashells.

I wanted to look sophisticated--whatever my conception of that was. (Mother was never sophisticated enough for me either, but I was used to being disappointed in her in that regard.) I remember being unhappy with my appearance that night. I thought my home-sewn clothes would be obvious to everyone, and I didn't like my chubby cheeks or my hair color. Mother had just started reading to me Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The young Laura despairs that her hair is mud brown, not golden blond like her sister's. When I heard "mud brown," I instantly visualized the potholes in our dirt driveway after a heavy rain. The wrap-up of the chapter, where Pa consoles Laura with a quiet "My hair is brown, too, Laura," didn't do much to restore my confidence.

Mother would always have a mad dash to finish sewing clothes before the occasion. (At least once she hemmed my new dress during the drive to someone's wedding, as I sat mortified in my slip.) I remember Mother measuring the shoulder straps and sewing on buttons for the New York outfit. I hated having sewing fitted, having sleeves and hems pinned. You always felt at least one pinprick. The good part of having clothes made was planning the outfit, but this was followed by a big letdown when I would realize that due to our choice of fabric and my figure and face, there was no resemblance to the illustration on the pattern package.

***

I have gotten dressed up to see Uncle Harvey’s off-Broadway musical, "The Fantasticks." (It had opened the year before I was born and ended up playing in the same theater for 42 years.) Before the show, we went to a little restaurant attached to a clothing store. There is a photo of me looking at racks of bright, pastel (60's colors) dresses and hats, with Harvey and his camera--captured in a mirror--skulking in the background. Mother supervised my ordering a hot dog and a chocolate ice-cream drink. Of course these items were not like they came at our (hamburger) restaurants back home. The hot dog was very large and had chili on it. Spicy chili, not like Mother made. (I used to be mystified by the concept of chili cook-offs--the hottest recipe wins--because Mother's recipe was ground beef, canned beans, salt and pepper, and a sprinkling of McCormick chili powder, weakened by several years in the kitchen cabinet.)

The chocolate drink came in a brandy snifter and was topped with whipped cream. In those days I considered whipped cream something to be scraped off (like the chili from the hot dog), but I did admire the overall appearance of the drink in the glass. Grainy with ice cream crystals, it was a lovely chocolate color, with a centered dollop of whipped cream and chocolate shavings. It had to be eaten with an iced-tea spoon. (Not like the drive-in version, which you just stirred with a plastic straw until it was soupy.)

I think it was at the same restaurant/boutique that Harvey bought me a little Merry-Go-Round, wooden horses that fit on a base. Painted wooden riders notched onto the horses, and the whole thing would revolve if you pushed it gently--if you pushed too hard, everything would spin off. The shapes were primitive and flat. I liked choosing which color riders to put on which horses. Sometimes I liked the pink rider on the red horse--another time I might feel that clashed and put it on the gray horse.

***

At age 24, on a return visit to Sullivan Street, I was amazed at the smallness--and dinginess--of the theater. At age 5 it seemed, like almost everything else in the universe, quite large. As at other stage performances I had been to (i.e., the Tomball Winter Festival at the high school auditorium), I couldn't see over the head in front of me. The darkness of the theater during the performance, or being in a strange city where almost no one knew us, made me bold enough to sit in the aisle. (Of course, I considered this being reasonable, not being bold.) I remember Harvey telling us that the cast had seen me and "played" to me. I was shocked that I hadn't been as invisible as I'd thought and felt rather guilty that they hadn't played to a more appreciative audience. I never had a clue what the characters in the play were so excited about. Now when I see the size and intimacy of the theater, I wonder that I could have felt invisible. I guess another part of that childhood feeling is considering yourself to be unimportant; thinking that if the adults do notice your presence, they will disregard you.

Going backstage was also wasted on me. "A lot of grown-ups in raggedy clothes" was my main impression. I was very surprised that the mute could talk, since I had been really pitying him. I was always disturbed when there was "something wrong" with people and tried very hard not to stare at them.

***

Harvey suggested we go to the Empire State Building after the show. Maybe he didn't understand about children's schedules and attention spans. I whined, "I'm too tired!", but Mother made me go. I sulked all the way there and in the elevator. It took a long time to go up so many floors, and I felt claustrophobic. However, I forgot all my irritation when I was hit by the impact of the view. Harvey held me as close to the guard rail as I would allow. The sky was beautiful, blue-black with yellow lights, and the air was humid and cool. Since nothing around the Empire State was near its height, there was a real feeling of openness. I think a part of me still believed people could fly from buildings, like Mary Poppins.

After this I got kind of a second wind and back at the hotel room was ready to play with my new Merry-Go-Round toy. Spin, spin, spin...pick up the fallen pieces and put them back in different places. For several years after our trip Mother would tell everyone, "Sarah said she was too tired for the Empire State Building, then she wanted to stay up all night playing!"

***

At FAO Schwarz either Mother or Harvey bought me a painted wooden apple. It came apart in halves, and inside were wooden cups, plates (painted with a red border and leaves), and a three- or four-legged table. The table was in pieces; the legs were pegs, and the round table top fit into the widest part of the apple opening. It used to drive me crazy that the cups and plates would just barely fit on the table. You had to place them on with very delicate fingers or they would slide off the edge. Sometimes one of the legs would come loose, the table would tip over and you'd have to start over anyway. Daddy suggested I glue the legs on, but that would have ruined the concept of coming apart and fitting inside the apple.

What I really wanted was a playhouse. FAO Schwarz had several models on display. I had immediate fantasies about making one my permanent home, in our backyard. I could get a mini-refrigerator and a little sofa and chairs... The item "Play House" appeared on my Christmas list for several years (to no avail).

***

For the first decade of my life I had a phobia about escalators. I would wait and wait, my raised leg quivering, for the perfect time to step. I had a bad case of that child's fear of getting sucked down somewhere below...as well as a real lack of physical coordination. Mother would have to find an elevator to use, or if desperate for time she would grab me up and place me on the escalator. Then I would have several seconds of terror till we got to the top, "How will I get off?!"

I don't remember much escalator fear in New York (because there were so many other things concerning and amazing me). There was a wide expanse of carpet between the Macy's entrance and the first-floor escalator. After walking across the carpet, touching the metal sides of the escalator (I was too short for the arm rests) gave me an electric shock--not just a brief one, but several long, painful shocks.

Macy's had displays of flower arrangements and centerpieces near the escalators. There must have been some kind of fad at that time for varnished fruits and breads as decorations. A braided loaf and several rolls had pieces bitten out of them. I asked Mother, "Wouldn't it taste bad?" (Not that I was tempted myself.) She warned, "It probably made those people sick, eating that shellac." (I knew the word "shellac"--it was what you used to decoupage Bible verses and pictures of Jesus onto wood blocks.)

***

The hansom cab we rode is linked in my mind with the Coach House restaurant (horses/coaches, etc.), although I'm not sure I experienced them on the same day. In its day the restaurant was elegant, but I remember it as the place where I had my first baked potato with condiments. What glittering style--the shiny foil on the potato, and the silver condiment tray. Because of the potato, I ranked the Coach House right up there with Still's Chicken Shack in Tomball, which opened a few years later. I always ordered Still's fried chicken child's plate, which came with a baked potato.

I know that we went to The Automat, but I don't think we ate there--maybe just looked around inside. I remember Mother and Harvey giving it a big buildup, but it didn't compare favorably with my favorite restaurant in Houston, the One's-A-Meal Sandwich Shop, where I would always order a grilled cheese sandwich. The One's-a-Meal grilled cheese somehow always tasted better than they did at home--something about the grease, or maybe the juice from the accompanying dill pickles soaking into the bread. I thought the Automat food looked kind of pale through the glass windows; I preferred my sandwiches fried.

I believe it was on our second day that we had lunch at another elegant place, where I ordered a ham and cheese sandwich. This sandwich was served unassembled with two little paper cups of sauce. I of course assumed the white stuff was mayonnaise and spread it thickly on the bread. When the sandwich became inedibly hot, Harvey realized that I had used horseradish and called the waitress over to bring me another meal. I was tearful and felt terrible that I had ruined my sandwich. Mother said, "No, Harvey, she can just have the part that's OK." But she did let me order another one when she realized there were few uncorrupted parts of the sandwich.

One morning we ordered pancakes from room service. As we only had them for supper at home, they were a treat for breakfast. I liked eating in my nightgown, sitting propped up with a pillow in a soft chair. In fact, I ate so many carbohydrates that I was sleepy enough to go back to bed after breakfast.

***

I admired the skating rink at Rockefeller Center but felt the view was spoiled by the surrounding buildings, being from a town where there were few things behind other things--a church would be in the middle of an empty lot, etc. Harvey bought me a book about the Rockefeller Center tree. I thought the rink looked better in the illustrations because the backdrop--the skyline--was simplified. I remember being a little disturbed by the gold statue. What was it?--a person wouldn't be that size. I had learned in church that God doesn't like pagan statues (golden idols).

Our trip to Rockefeller Center was the first time I saw a naked-boy fountain. I'm surprised in photos to see the brilliant, beautiful flower beds around the boy/cherub, because the statue was pretty much all I noticed at the time. (I realized it was not the only one in the world when Harvey displayed his "Parents in Europe" photos a few years later.)

The part of Central Park that Harvey wanted to show us was closed, but he lifted me so I could sit on the top of the brick wall. I remember a big rabbit--from Alice in Wonderland?--and miniature castles. I couldn't really concentrate because I was nervous about being held so high.

***

On our last morning we were invited to breakfast at Harvey's apartment. I didn't know the word "brunch," so if Harvey called the meal that, it went over my head. I was told, "Elaine Morfogen will be there!" Unfortunately, I didn't remember having met his artist friend Elaine before and didn't quite know what to make of her. Slim and elegant, she certainly dressed differently than anyone in Tomball--I had never before seen a woman wearing coordinating, accessorized beige separates.

I had also never seen a living room decorated in orange and purple. Harvey had set the table in front of the brown brick fireplace. He told us an anecdote about his maid rearranging the jars on the mantel. I considered that a pretty sophisticated problem to have. I thought his kitchen, too small to really use, was very glamorous, and I was also impressed by the pottery and linens, since we used scratched white plasticware and paper napkins at home. Harvey made tuna salad with lots of onions and black pepper, and he persuaded Mother to make sweet (cinnamon) rice. I created a sandwich with the tuna and a large round seeded roll. I expected great things from the bun because it was so large, but it was disappointingly dry.

***

We took a helicopter back to the airport. I was surprised that we went to the top of a building to board the helicopter. My thought was, if it's to take us up, why must we go up to get on it? I was also surprised how many passenger seats there were--helicopters look so tiny from the ground.

One of my favorite photos shows me with Mother at the airport eating Chock Full O'Nuts brownies. Mother is in her beige raincoat and I'm in my pink cloth coat. We both look very tired. I had been excited by the idea of Chock Full O'Nuts, which I thought was a store selling only brownies--but how boring, they also sold sandwiches and coffee. And the brownies did not measure up to what I thought brownies should be, what Mother's were. (Mother's recipe was one Daddy had reduced down from Army baking--it called for 6/7 cup of an ingredient. Those brownies were made with cocoa, kind of dry but perfect for eating with ice cream.) Of course I ate the Chock Full O'Nuts brownies anyway, though I was further disgusted that they got wadded up in the waxed paper. (Mother's brownies kept their brick-like shape, no matter how many of them you stacked together.)

***

On the return flight, Mother ordered a Coke for me. I dozed off before it was delivered, and Mother didn't wake me. I was really angry when the flight landed and I realized that I had missed my treat. (We almost never had Coke at home.) I guess I was in that fussy waking-up state, realizing that the trip was really over. I knew Mother had just let the drink sit there, getting warm and watery, until it was picked up by the flight attendant. Mother wasn't a Coke fan. When I "helped" her work at church (organizing her classroom or practice the organ), we would go to the vending machine and get a Coke or a Fanta for me and always a root beer for her. I thought of root beer as a drink for adults, like coffee, because it tasted so bad.

When Daddy met our return flight, he had my new (adopted) sister Rachel with him as a surprise for Mother. At the time of the trip, she hadn't been in our family very long. Only in retrospect do I appreciate how hard it must have been for Mother to leave a baby at home. I think we dropped Rachel off at Virginia Radeke's house on the way to the airport. (Virginia was a very nice lady who helped us with cleaning, ironing and babysitting. She made her own black velvet paintings from kits--my favorite one was Chinese coolies in a flower garden.)

I knew that it would be a long time before I left Texas again, and in New York I had all the benefits of home--i.e., Mother--and none of the drawbacks--having to share her attention with others. I was pretty sad to be home.

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