By Nancy Eder, a member of Get Your WordsWorth
The ocean laps the shores of Brooklyn. It is near enough to taste its briny salt spray on a warm June day in Manhattan Beach just east of Coney Island. In 1943 my parents and I lived on the last residential street of this unique peninsula jutting out into Sheepshead Bay on the north and the Atlantic Ocean on the south. While technically this is Brooklyn, no upstanding Brooklynite considered it so. . . too middle class. . . bordering on wealthy when walking west, as the apartment-lined streets turned into large private homes where the owners of Alexander’s department store lived. Too far from subway lines… a bus infrequently meandered down to our end of the peninsula, but to live here meant one needed a car. So, isolated from public transportation, in a city known for being large, impersonal and dirty, this idyllic area made Manhattan Beach a child’s paradise. This little island of homes within a small peninsula was seemingly untouched by poverty or crime. The scant few blocks from my apartment to school was a haven and the basis of some of my early childhood fondest memories.
My address was 131 Pembroke Street, the last street of a string of blocks beginning with the letter “A”. Our apartment was on the ground floor on a dead end street of two-story apartments, each building a link in a chain necklace to the next. Across from the clean black macadam asphalt the mirror image of our apartments would be almost identical. Only the splashy geraniums would be different. . . varied in color waving from wooden or pottery flower boxes. Most residents had aluminum chairs and chaise lounges out on the second story porches. Like small flags in the breeze, young maple saplings lined both sides of the street promising to be the shade umbrellas of the future.
Sidewalks were wide, clean flat squares of cement bordered with indented grooves clear enough to bounce a rubber ball square on the head of a penny. Clean enough for kids to make hopscotch grids or to play jacks. No paper scraps or glass bottles would be strewn on these pavements. No garbage was to be found on these pristine floors of our community. The streets were safe to run around on and play stick ball and running bases. Generally they were free from traffic with the exception of the occasional delivery truck. The package store for daily bread and milk was at the end of the street and around the corner, but I was too little and young to venture that far away by myself.
My social life was centered in the middle of the sidewalks and the one block long street in front of our apartment dwelling. Mothers wheeled their babies in carriages up and down while children played after school. But no parents supervised or organized our play. We made our own rules, settled our own disputes and generally played ball games in the street happily every day until the sun went down. Kids of all ages and capabilities were absorbed into our informally structured teams, accommodating the lesser able or younger kid into the games with acceptance. We were left to our own devices to organize into “sides” or play a solitary game of jacks. Jump rope included boys and girls. No kid on our block lacked the essentials: a ball and a bike. Parents were invisible as referees on the streets of Brooklyn as the days of organized play dates, soccer teams and other competitive sports were not as yet under banners and official scoreboards. Kids were kids and were left to their own imagination to live and create in the streets.
Pembroke Street was the center of my early training to get along with other children. I learned how to negotiate with older kids, how to throw a ball, how to play jacks and jump rope. Most significantly this little street is where I learned how to push off from the curb, how I learned to ride a bicycle, how I learned to soar.
It’s been a lifetime almost seventy years since I learned to navigate on two wheels, yet I remember the exhilaration and the reality of that moment with clarity. The day was crisp and cool. My dad, newly arrived and tan from serving in the Army, was home. My two-wheeler was a bulky-wheeled, blue and white Schwinn built with the conventional bar across the front connoting that it was, in fact, a boy’s bike. No training wheels for this generation.
In the fashion of the day, my dad, in an effort to speed up the learning process, ran up and down the block holding tightly onto the back of the bicycle seat while I with my skinny legs pumped away as the bike snaked side to side until I totally lost my balance and had to begin again. Over and over he ran with me holding onto the back of that cumbersome bike. I was very small and slight for the age of five, but I was determined to join my friends who all were riding by that time. Being slight and small on this clumsy, heavy bike was no small feat for a five-year old, but I was determined.
Finally one afternoon after several attempts over days of this repeated exercise I realized that I was riding. . . unaided. . . flying down the street with the wind at my back as my dad receded into the distance. No one was holding me up. The wheels were straight and I was sailing along unfettered. My shoulder length brown hair was whipping in the breeze as I now easily balanced the bike avoiding the curb and the parked cars. I was all grown up. I could sail smoothly on two wheels wherever I wanted to go. I was a bird taking off and flying. No one could hold me back. This was freedom. My little bike and I were one. I could do anything in the whole world now that I could ride. The future was bright with possibilities.
Eliza, you are just shy of seven (in two months). Until this week other games and temptations have claimed your attention. Running and skipping, talking with your friends, you’ve resisted the challenge presented by the clunky bike dragged down in the back with training wheels.
Eliza’s father has held onto the back of her two-wheeler finally abandoning the idea that she would learn balance using training wheels. Like my dad before him, Michael held Eliza’s wobbly figure as she attempted to balance on two wheels until finally she took off on her own speed. This past week Eliza has conquered one of childhood’s challenges. She has learned to ride her two-wheeler sailing off with helmet sitting squarely on her head; she is balanced and looking straight ahead smiling broadly with the joy of accomplishment.
Anya has just turned four. With her head of curly locks and huge blue eyes she is watching closely as Eliza circles the little island of plants and large maple tree in front of the entrance to our apartment building. A new and exciting skill has been acquired. One can read the envy in Anya’s eyes as she also wants to learn to ride. With her older sister in the lead, it won’t be long before she takes off in flight as well.
My hope is that as adults, Eliza and Anya, you still are as filled with the memory
of the joy and excitement as the day when you learned to ride your bike. Know that as you conquered this huge feat of balancing on a two-wheeler, all is possible. Know that you can do whatever you set your mind to. Have faith that you can be whatever you work hard to get. Let this be the first of the successful challenges which you will look back on when life presents itself with difficulties.
I still think that the world is a glorious place for the taking. Grab onto the flight of life. It is especially beautiful when you can recall the wondrous aspects of riding into the wind.