Lost in Coney Island

by

03/01/2020

Neighborhood: Coney Island, East New York

 

Each summer it was a requirement that my brothers and I attend summer school. We could not be idle. We must all do something to further our education. My mother, Dot, laid down the law. She was formidable—not standing more than 5’4”, she wielded the power in our household. My father, though technically present, was a “street man.” He was a native New Yorker and found the call of streets more enticing than family life.

I recall my mother telling me once that my father was not familiar with family life. No one had ever taught him how to be a daddy. His own father died when he was still a toddler and his mother had passed when he was just sixteen. He’d had to fend for himself until a friend’s family took him in and let him stay with them until he graduated high school. Right after that, Dad enlisted in the air force and did all of his growing up there. Being accountable to other people—perhaps a requirement in the service, did not sit well with him. He never learned, never really changed that about himself. But he was a good provider. We had what we needed materially. It was just everything else that was lacking.

We were signed up to go to the local middle school in East New York, which my older brother Fred, attended, for summer school classes. Each of us got to pick what we were interested in learning. One of the classes I chose was art. I remember the teacher’s name. It was Mr. Nash. He was young with curly blonde hair and wore bell-bottom jeans, sandals, and white shirts. He had a laid-back attitude and intense blue eyes. 

There were older girls from the neighborhood in my class. But older is the operative word. They wanted no part of me, and I was afraid of them. Being on the chubby side, I was shy and used to being picked on and being the last picked for anything. They stayed out of my way, and for sure I cowered away from them.

Near the end of the summer, Mr. Nash announced that we were going on a trip to Coney Island. I had gone once before with my family, but not to the part they called the Boardwalk. We’d gone to the beach with towels and lots of food. That, in fact, is the only outing we ever took as a family that I can recall.

Our class arrived at Coney Island in the morning. I had about ten dollars and spent it all trying to get a prize. Not for me. Not for my mother or even my little brother, whom I mostly liked. I spent every cent I had trying to win my father a gift. I finally got it. It was a silver lighter. He was a smoker. I won it by tossing a ring over a bottle.  I was so proud. And happy. I had something for him!

We were in a group and needed the bathroom, so the class headed that way. The other girls left before I finished, and when I exited, the whole group was gone. Instead of staying in place like we were instructed to do if we ever got lost, I went in search of the people I came with. I wandered. I ran. I cried. And by the time they found me, I’d lost the lighter. I cried more.

I remember Mr. Nash taking me by the shoulder and asking me why I was so disobedient. Why didn’t I follow the rules? I couldn’t answer. I could not even look into his eyes.  

On the train ride home, I heard the other girls sucking their teeth. They rolled their eyes and stayed away from me. I had no friends. I’d lost the lighter. I had nothing to give my father. I was miserable.

For weeks after, I thought about the lighter. To this day it pains me. That I wanted so much to give this present to my Dad and could not. This is only one of the stories whose prime impetus was my father. There are so many more. My first book—THE MIDDLE SISTER, was about the loss of a father. I poured so much love, hurt and anger into that book and thought its writing would exorcise his ghost. Address all the things a sixteen year old might want to say to an absent parent. It did not. Time may heal in some instances but in others it only forms an imperfect scab—still tender to the touch, still waiting to be healed after all these years. 

***

Bonnie Glover grew up in East New York and lives in Florida. She is the author of two novels, THE MIDDLE SISTER (2005, One World Ballantine) and GOING DOWN SOUTH (2008, One World Ballantine), and is working on a new book. You can find some of her recent essays and musings about her life, including an earlier version of “Lost in Coney Island,” at Bonnie and Craig’s Coffee Talk.

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§ 2 Responses to “Lost in Coney Island”

  • Bridgett Y Neloms says:

    I love it as usual and can relate to the daddy part so well.

  • JEANNE TAYLOR says:

    Beautiful. Thank you (tears in my eyes) for writing/ sharing this piece. #memories #feelings #childhood #family #Daddys #Mommies

§ Leave a Reply

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