The following was written years ago for a memoir exercise at The Writer’s Workshop in NYC. It has been edited and rewritten, for your pleasure…………
Insignificance is a disease rarely curable by anything but time, and then only in part by significance of memory. Some lucky folks are immune to it. The luckiest never get cured. The world spins and huge events occur, big deal. Try to be insignificant on purpose. Watch all the great things that happen.
Nights in our big old house at theJerseyShorewere a time for winding down, watching the news or more likely Nova on PBS, and smoking cigarettes. They hadn’t turned that bad for you yet so grownups could still do it in the house. Most of the parents were tired from the days work and subsequent commute from the city. Not the kids of course. We didn’t believe in winding down. It just didn’t exist in our world; which was still flat by the way, and ended just north of Philadelphia, as far north as Lake George, N.Y. and no further west than the Pocono Mts. The news was only relevant if a shuttle took off or exploded, or some country bumpkin let their kid fall down a well. Who the heck still has wells, and if you fell down one, surely all you had to do was call for someone to raise the bucket, or better yet wish your way out? We didn’t smoke yet. Our commute was a bus ride or short walk from school. There was only one more option at night then. It was time for chores, doing the dishes specifically.
Dinner had been burnt but eaten anyway. Plates of food were finished lest you ate the rest for breakfast. True. My cousin Tracy had the same bowl of mini-wheats for almost a week. Another time. Another option was to endure the story of the huge baby boomer families the grown-ups came from and how there wasn’t enough to eat and how lucky we were and if we wanted to throw food away maybe we should get jobs to buy our own and how this type of degradation and humiliation would soon be considered child abuse by less hardy individuals in our lifetime. They conveniently left that last part out always. After a little dinner conversation, or sing-a-long, it was the job of my two cousins: Chris, the oldest; Tracy, his younger sister, and me to the dishes. We had a huge porcelain enameled iron sink with two big wells. You filled the first with hot soapy water and let the dishes soak, and no it didn’t take an hour. The rinsing had to be fast. Wasting water was like wasting food and who did we think we were wasting etc…
Chores being what they are, a repetitive task with miniscule challenge and fleeting reward; and children being what we were, miniscule adults with fleeting attention, any and all distractions were welcomed. Aunt Diane’s or Uncle Augie’s voice, struggling over the volume of the television, calling from the living room telling us to hurry up, or quiet down, didn’t quite qualify as such. My mother never yelled about the chores. She hated having to do them herself. Conveniently for her she worked nights. She was a bartender, busy yelling at grownups. She and I lived with her sister’s family in an old house Uncle Augie, the husband, owned. The wind spoke through it on summer nights. Only the basement was haunted. The attic was awesome; you could see almost the whole town from its windows. You could target passing drunkards at night retreating from the night club
Over twelve years we lived there, sporadically. The big house in Belmar is what we all still call our childhood home. There was a short stint in a bungalow, followed by garage apartment- practically a lean-to in Bradley Beach, and a shorter one in Wall, again with the cousin’s. No time was as great as the time in this big old house. At one point we were the only two people in the three-story twelve bedroom house, with the biggest yard in the neighbor hood. The majority of the year our neighborhood was just a quite beach town. The waves tickling the sand and the jetties punching back were the only sounds from the out of doorsup the street, hitting them with pennies. Another time. It seemed huge as a kid. It seems like a pitiful loss of memories as an adult.
Fitting distractions were many, but the best ones were few. The sink was the hypotenuse of a triangle, just beneath two large windows facing west and south. Those are adult words for the sink was in the corner. I think there was a planter box behind the sink. We could look out-southward- into the backyard and see the apartment building behind our ivy and weed littered back fence, often
making up stories about the people we could see in the large picture windows each identical apartment sported. We could see the pastel pink glow from the bathroom window of Mr. A’s house next door- westward. Mr. A’s house was a little ranch in a neighborhood of big houses like ours. Mr. A’s wife decorated the bathroom pink, with pink ruffle-trimmed curtains which transformed the light for a few intermittent minutes at night. Mr. A’s side yard was a three foot wide section that butted up against and ran along our side yard until both reached the scorching hot slate side walks. If you never knew what so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk meant, you never spent summers in my neighborhood. Chris was obligated to mow that part of the yard for Mr. A. I still have no idea what the A stood for. Something in my mind says, “Alvarez,” but I would rather not be sure.
It’s funny how when all these messed up coins started surfacing, wine glasses started getting broken, and chair backs and drawer faces looked like they had been chewed on by My Pet Monster, no amount of interrogation could get any of us to crack and blame one of the others. That’s one game we didn’t play. We never snitched, much. The usual penance, at least for my cousins, was a smack to the legs with a Wiffle Ball bat. I digress. All of these little diversions went on while I did the dishes. You see, I took pride in my job. I did them the best. My older cousins told me so. They gladly conceded the title and subsequent privileges to me… I know. Taking advantage of the littlest, it’s a sin, but only I was practicing Catholic, so I forgave them. I was happy to make them happy. I was young enough to play dolls with Tracy, and old enough to know that Chris was cool. He even had his hair feathered. I wanted to please them.Once the dishes were scraped and piled, the left sink full of hot, hot, hot-ass-who’s-the-most-grown-up-and-can-stand-it water, we were ready to be distracted. Catching a slippery note from the rim of a wet wine glass would soon turn into an orchestra of multi-level filled red wine goblets. That counted as one of the best distractions. I think we got the beginning of Mary Had a Little Lamb once. Jingle Bells was my forte. The same note three times, twice. I was good. Chris was the best. Man, he could get a note going on a rim and keep it pitch-perfect for hours. It was probably a few seconds, but still. We owned Cutco knives, the sharpest and best knives around. The handle is comfortable in both right and left hands! You couldn’t and can’t buy them in a store. They are sold to you by representatives who come to your house. We were apparently on some knife credit program, because we didn’t receive them all at once, rather one a month. I remember the scissors could turn a penny into a corkscrew then still cut paper by simply running the sheet across the blade. I cut so many pennies. Did you know they are silver on the inside? I would cut spare change in half for fun, good thing I didn’t get in trouble, imagine the guilt lecture that would have been, actually destroying money. I feel I owe an apology even now. I actually became one of those Cutco reps in a later life, so many corkscrew pennies. We didn’t need infomercials then, and we didn’t need computers to entertain us. Handy, since neither were available anyway. Seeing which one of us could sink the blade of the newest, sharpest knife furthest into the back of a wooden chair or drawer or counter top, kid stuff you know, that was entertainment, better it was not the dishes.
One night, amongst the soaking pots and sudsy dishes, sometime after the “Whose Fingers are the Pruniest” competition, I won that too coincidentally, my cousins and I noticed the ants. Somehow, amid the three ring circus that a simple chore had become, or rather escalated into, the tiny black insects drew our attention. The ants were small and insignificant, but they managed to contrast their landscape. They too had chores. Unlike us, they were not to be distracted. They were precise, and in a hurry, also unlike us. In a single file line, they traveled from one undetermined point to another. Both were somewhere within the walls of our old bed and breakfast turned family home at theJerseyShore.
In our enthused young eyes this was not a detachment of soldiers bringing burnt crumbs to their children who would have to finish their dinners or eat them for breakfast. It was another distraction. Better still, it was a race! Outside they would have just been ants. If we were eating our breakfast they would have just been ants. But we were doing chores, just ants would not do.
We would each try to concentrate on one ant and cheer it on. This was like picking just one car on a speeding freeway or better yet the lines in middle of the road as you sped by in a car; soon it was out of vision or lost in the mix. Thankfully the supply was endless. There were probably hundreds of ants in that wall, how great was that? Racers forever.
The relentless little insects kept us busy for hours, in bug years. Their racetrack was a wooden molding, a trim that traced the space where the stainless steel tiled walls met the foam tile and metal grid of the drop ceiling. Burnt dinners and smoking mothers had turned the trim yellow and dingey. Time and indifference left it dusty. The ants didn’t mind and neither did we. They were racing and we weren’t doing the dishes. Every now and then a really big one would stand in contrast to the average. Chris got to pick that one. It wasn’t usually a particularly devoted sponsorship, unless it was making good time. Then as if he had trained the bug in a gym- weeks of conditioning and jump rope until the ant could take steps a whole flight at a time- he would take credit for the win, not that there was a determined end point.
I could imagine what the grown-ups thought, hearing “Go! Go!” “That ones mine!” “I got the Big ONE!” That doesn’t sound like doing dishes. If only they could see what we saw, and how we saw it.
As we rewarded our curiosity more acutely, we noticed that every now and then one would seem to jump. Hah, look at that, where, which one, it was impossible to determine but you know you saw it. The race would soon turn into a game of ant chicken. As a few ants having gotten the scent trail down, and returning, would travel in the opposite direction of traffic. We would bet on which little enterprising racer would win by climbing over its cowardly oncoming competition. It didn’t just separate the cool ants from the crappy ones, it gave us rank too. A small winning streak was all I needed to rise above the other two fans. I was already the best dish washer; add that to the most gullible, now the fastest ant fan. Triple Crown! Man that was the best part, aside from still being able to remember it. Damn the insignificance, full speed ahead!