My mother’s parenting approach can best be described as laissez-faire – not the adjective one tends to think of to describe a mother. My brother says we grew up with a Jewish mother, just in our case it was our father. He was the one who checked to see if we were wearing a hat before going out into the cold. Although Mom’s parenting was not always a great fit for me as a sensitive and insecure child, she got many things right.
One muggy August night in 1975 I was tossing and turning, feeling nauseated, my heart pounding. As I lay sweating in my bed in my room the size of a closet, my thoughts were flitting from one unhappy topic to another; taking a mental inventory of everything that was wrong in the world. From the latest crime wave in New York City to more personal worries about Grandma being in the hospital with something serious, but as yet undiagnosed. Earlier that week my father’s friend, someone he had known and played poker with for more than 20 years, committed suicide because of gambling debts that no one suspected. I had also come home earlier that month from a job at a sleep-away camp because it seemed to me everyone on staff was getting high and I wasn’t. All in all I was feeling unmoored, the ground under my feet was shifting.
I lie in bed looking out my window at the bricks of the house next door and felt the world closing in. After trying to manage alone for a while, I woke my mother up.
At first she thought I might be physically ill, but after going over my symptoms it became clear that I wasn’t, so she took a different approach. She started a different kind of inventory – reminding me about the good things in my life. My brothers were fine, she and dad were okay, too. I was entering my senior year of high school and would be applying to college soon. Exciting possibilities awaited. Of course that was scary, too.
Mom had an idea to distract me. She suggested that we plan a sweet 16 party. I would turn 16 in early October. Between having a birthday late in the year and having been part of a New York City program that combined three years of junior high school into two, I was young to be a senior in high school. I had gone to many sweet 16 parties the year before and I thought people would be tired of them. As my mother talked I found myself getting excited in spite of my doubts.
“You promise people will come?” I knew it was a silly question even as I asked it, but I couldn’t help myself.
“Yes,” she said with assurance, “we’ll come up with something really great. Maybe a ‘mystery bus tour’? “
Hmmm, I thought, that sounded interesting.
Going out on a limb, she said, “I promise it will be a success. And, we’ll have fun planning it.”
She convinced me.
Fortunately, the rest of the summer passed without further tragedy.
We chose the off-Broadway show The Fantasticks as the destination for our mystery bus ride. Mom arranged to rent a yellow school bus. I could invite 20 friends. We would have fried chicken from Chicken Galore on the bus and make-your-own sundaes back at the house after the show.
We still had to find something for me to wear, no mean feat given my self-consciousness. After combing the aisles of A&S, we managed to find dressy corduroy overalls. Who knew such a thing existed?! I lived in overalls so it was perfect.
Now my main worry was about the party once we got back to the house. I actually explained this to my parents: at virtually every sweet 16 I attended, people left the house, went for a walk and came back high. I didn’t like the idea of being alone at my party waiting for people to come back stoned. Of course, if they did, they would be especially appreciative of the make-your-own sundaes.
My parents reassured me as best they could.
The big day arrived. Friends and family arrived on time. We boarded the bus and had a little contest with everyone guessing where we were going. The Empire State Building? A bowling alley? A museum?
Everyone managed to eat their chicken dinner without too much difficulty. I wasn’t wearing my dinner – a personal victory! We arrived at the Sullivan Street Theater in Greenwich Village. I remember worrying about the seating arrangements, but in the end just gave out the tickets and enjoyed the show.
Afterwards we piled back on the bus and returned to Canarsie. So far, so good.
To my surprise, the guy I had a crush on gave me the album The Divine Miss M by Bette Midler. He suggested we put it on. The song was Do You Wanna Dance. He asked me to dance! I had precious little experience slow dancing. But, I managed. It was awkward and thrilling.
Some people did disappear and came back high, but it wasn’t a mass exodus.
And, I was actually happy at the end of the night! Not all that common of an occurrence in my teenage years. I sat on the couch in the basement, reviewed the night with my mom and read the kind messages in the sign-in book and smiled. My mother made good on her promise.