A few weeks ago my granddaughter, Emily, hit a milestone, thirteen. She is a teenager. It’s a time of life that brings the highest highs and the lowest lows. There is very little we can do to buffer either of these points except pray. We all had to go through them, boys and girls alike. Fortunately for Emily, and her brothers and sister, they are blessed with a Mom and Dad who are aware of the politics of teens and preteens. While that may help some, there are still many hills and valleys that kids must traverse to get to the other side of teen hood. But I digress.
Emily’s birthday brought to mind myself at about that age, actually fourteen to be exact. I came from East Harlem on Manhattan’s upper East side. It was a poor neighborhood filled with tenements and immigrants. Not a ghetto yet, but still what was considered a slum. Growing up there you didn’t know what the neighborhood was classified. People lived in their little apartments and scrubbed their linoleum floors, polished the windows clean, often at great peril, and took Saturday night baths. Money was scarce and the was no time for frivolous clothes or time to give thought with the raising of children aside from feeding them and keeping them warm at night.
I went to Our Lady of Mount Carmel elementary school which instructed students from first to eighth grade. The teachers were sisters of Charity, a tough bunch of women to be sure. During eighth grade you were required to take exams and apply to at least four high schools. You were accepted by ability not by your grades, which was a good thing for me because about that time I was caught up in the rougher side of city life, rock and roll, gangs and boys. Needless to say my grades were awful. I hadn’t picked up a book since the fifth grade and got by.
Surprise, surprise, when the acceptance or rejection letters filled the little brass mailbox I was accepted by all of the four schools I had applied to. One was Immaculata located in downtown Manhattan. For some unknown reason I decided to go there. None of my friends would be there, but I liked the uniforms and was somewhat aware that it was prestigious as it only accepted 34 boys and 34 girls from all of the five boroughs.
I am not telling this tale to boast about my accomplishment. It only took them two years to figure out I wasn’t going to put any effort in, but to bring to life how different the world was for kids living in Harlem, and those who came from downtown. Also, how a complete act of selfless kindness still resonates with me over fifty years later.
In the fifties there was a custom that I knew nothing about until I attended Immaculata. Young girls would celebrate each other’s birthdays by making or buying corsages for the honoree. To the best of my recollection it was a corsage of ribbons, bows and bubblegum for thirteen, dog biscuits for fourteen, lifesavers for fifteen, and it culminated in, of course, sugar cubes for sweet sixteen. No one that I knew followed this custom. In Harlem you marked passage of teenage years with other events.
On the day of my fourteenth birthday I attended school expecting nothing. By then I was aware of this custom having seen other girls with corsages, sometimes three and four, but I had not gotten very friendly with others who attended the school. I didn’t even think about it. It was a complete shock when a cherry, cheeked, fair-haired, blonde, presented me with a beautiful, blue satin, beribboned, and dog biscuit corsage. She pinned it on my blazer, kissed me on the cheek and wished me happy birthday. It was astounding.
To this day I can picture that young girl. I don’t remember her name. We had never hung out and I don’t know how she knew it was my birthday. Perhaps she did this for everyone, but that corsage of kindness was the sweetest thing. I often think of her and always I wish that life was at least that sweet for my flaxen birthday angel. You can be sure that when I was still welcomed at Immaculata I found out when it was her birthday and made her a life saver corsage.