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Good Times and Bad Times

I was in the backyard with Ted and Kathleen, when Shane came out and said, “Hey, kids, what about we all take a walk to the river?”

 

It wasn’t very long after that embarrassing summer day when my father Shane wore the old ladies bathing suit to the beach and made us go with him.

 

Not daring to look at him, I thought to myself, “No way!  Don't tell me he's wearing that bathing suit again.

 

As I looked over to Shane, I saw he had on his own swim trunks.  Thank god, I thought, and then said, “Oh boy, we’re going swimming!”  I ran into the house with Kathleen to get ready.

 

Kathleen and Sheila, 1958

“Shane, can I take the boat I made to the river with us?” asked Ted.

 

“We can take it along with us.  Now’s a good time to see if it floats,” Shane said.  “Boy, Ted, we’re going to have a lot of fun.”

 

Ted took off his shirt and said, “I'm ready to go!”

 

Within a few minutes, we were all dressed and on our way to the river.  This time, my mother was with us, but Maura was not.

 

When we reached the sandy shore by the river, Shane immediately jumped in and was out in the deep water, swimming by himself.  That was fine with me.  Anything that kept him away and busy was great, so I could enjoy the water too.

 

Manasquan River, 2007

Ted, Kathleen and I played with Ted's little boat, while Gakie read a good mystery story under a tree.  Shane was still way out in the middle of the Manasquan River, swimming around and under the speedboats, almost getting himself killed.

 

 
Shane and Cathy, 1953  

After awhile, Shane came and sat on the old blanket with Cathy, while Kathleen took a nap.

 

“I forgot to tell you that my mother invited us all over for dinner tonight,” Shane told Cathy.

 

“Shane, why didn't you let me know earlier?  It's already almost three o'clock.  You know how long it takes Aggie to get started.”

 

My grandmother Aggie would invite us over for dinner and insist we be there by four, because dinner would be ready and waiting.  But usually when we arrived, Aggie hadn't even started cooking the huge turkey.

 

“We’d better start calling the kids.  It's a long walk from here, and by the time we get to your mother’s it will be after five,” Cathy said.

 

Cathy called out to Ted and me, who were splashing in the waves.  “Sheila!  Ted!  We have to start walking back in a few minutes.”

 

“Can I take one more short swim before we go?” I asked.

 

Ted threw the little wooden boat he made into the river, hitting an old man in the back.

 

“Hey, cut that out,” the man yelled.

 

Ted started crying.  “Shane, you promised to play with me in the river with my boat.”

 

Shane jumped up and ran over by Ted.  “Sorry, Ted, I almost forgot.”

 

Soon, they were busy playing with Ted's boat, and I went back in the river and played around for a little longer.

 

Finally, Cathy yelled, “We have to leave now, if we’re going to Aggie’s.”

 

Ted and Shane were sitting in an old, abandoned rowboat, talking about the little wooden boat Ted had made.

 

“Shane,” Ted asked, “why can't we take this rowboat to Aggie’s house?”

 

Shane sat there thinking.  Then he yelled out, “Cathy!  Ted and I think if we can take this rowboat to Aggie’s.  We can be there in half the time it would take to walk there.”
 

Shane was so loud that everyone at the river must have heard him.

 

“Are you nuts?” Cathy said.  “That boat probably belongs to someone.”

 

“No, it doesn't,” Shane said.  “This old boat has been sitting in the same spot since Oona and I were little.”

 

“Wow,” said Cathy, “it must be all full of holes by now.”

 

Shane told Ted and me to check to see if we saw any holes.  We turned the boat over.

 

“I don't see any big holes,” I said, “but what if it has small holes we can’t see?”  Then I said, “Holy cow!  Look at all those barnacles.

 

There were hundreds of barnacles stuck to the bottom and sides of the old boat.

 

“I don't see any holes, but here’s a good set of oars,” Ted said, as he lifted some old wooden oars out from under the boat.

 

Shane, with help from Ted and me, pushed the old rowboat into the water.

 

“Hey, Ted,” Shane yelled out, “let’s see how this boat floats.”

 

Little Ted jumped into the old boat.  He sat there singing and holding his handmade boat, as Shane pushed the real boat in deeper and deeper.

 

“There’re no holes,” Shane said.  “It floats fine.  Cathy, get Kathleen and Sheila and get in.  We’re going to Aggie’s.”

 

I thought to myself that I didn’t want to get in that old boat with Shane, but I was very hungry and didn't feel like walking all the way to Aggie’s house.  I didn't see any holes and, unlike when I was two, I now knew how to swim.  So I got in and off we went.

 

At first, it was fun.  Ted and I waved to all the people we saw out on the river with their boats.  We had a great time getting wet, each time a speedboat passed us and made waves.  Shane was rowing and Kathleen was sitting on my mother’s lap, watching boats go by and the seagulls behind them.

 

We were out in the middle of the Manasquan River, about halfway to the beach near Aggie’s house, when Ted yelled out, “Shane, why is there so much water in the bottom of the boat?”

 

“That’s just water from the waves the speedboats made,” Shane said.

 

A minute or so later, I saw the water in the boat was now over my ankles.

 

“Eeeks!  Water’s coming in fast!  We’re all going to drown,” I yelled.

 

Suddenly, more and more water started coming into the old boat.

 

We're in trouble now,” Shane said, as he started rowing faster and faster.

 

“What the hell is wrong with you, Shane?” Cathy cried.  “This is about the stupidest thing you ever did.”

 

Kathleen was screaming, clinging to Gakie as tight as she could.  Ted and I were scooping water out with our hands, and Shane was rowing the old boat like a mad man.

 

“Shane!  Shane!  Shane!  Hurry up, before we sink,Cathy yelled at him.

 

 

The boat was now almost completely full of water.  I was too busy trying to bail out water to be scared.

 

The boat started going under just as we reached the beach near Aggie’s house.  The water was only about three feet deep, so we walked right out of the sinking boat.

 

My mother was so mad at Shane that she picked up one of the oars and chased him all the way to Aggie’s house.

 

Shane Missed the Train

 

On the morning of September 15, 1958, my father Shane had an important meeting with his lawyer in New York.  He had to be there by eleven thirty, so he would have to catch the eight thirty Jersey Central train out of Point Pleasant to be there on time.

 

Maura and I tried to get Shane up, before we went to school that morning.

 

“Shane, get up,” I yelled.  “You’re going to miss the train.”

 

Shane rolled over and said, “I'm awake.”  Then he yelled, “Cathy, make me a cup of coffee!”

 

Shane was up and sitting on the couch when I left for school.  Shane was a heavy sleeper, and sometimes he'd miss two or three trains before he finally got going.  There were times I’d yell at Shane and shake him, trying to wake him, and he wouldn’t budge.  So it was unusual that he was up and ready to go when we left for school on that September morning.

 

Later that afternoon, after school, I was playing over at my friend Cathy's house.  Her father, who was a lawyer and sometimes worked in New York, said, “Good thing they canceled my appointment in the city today, or I might be dead now.”

 

Cathy and I asked him why and what had happened.

 

“The train I would have been on ran a red light and crashed,” he said.  “I heard that a lot of people were killed.”

 

“Oh, my god,” I cried, “Shane took a train to New York this morning!”

 

I took off and ran all the way home, hoping it wasn't the same train Shane was on.

 

On September 15, 1958, the Jersey Central commuter train left Point Pleasant at eight thirty-two for New York City.  At ten thirteen, the train ran through a stop signal in Newark.  The train derailed and went through an open lift bridge over Newark Bay.  The engine and two passenger cars plunged into the bay and sank, killing forty-eight people.

 

When I walked through my front door, there was Shane, sitting on the sofa talking with Cathy.  They were both smiling, and Shane was eating a banana.

 

“Shane,” I cried, “you missed the train!”

 

“Yes, I did,” he said.  “Good thing I went back to sleep this morning after you left for school, because the train I would have been on fell into the water and a lot of people were killed.”

 

Shane said he felt sorry for the families of the poor people who were killed.

 

That was the one and only time I was happy that Shane was home when he should have been in New York.

 

A Cold Stormy Night

 

It was early December of 1958, and Shane was again in a nasty mood.  We were broke, with no money for over a month.  Our electricity had been turned off and our house was freezing cold.

 

My mother, Shane, Kathleen and I were walking to the corner store on a cold, stormy night.  Shane and Cathy were fighting over money.

 

“I had only three dollars,” Cathy said, “and you had to spend one of them on cigarettes.  How do you except me to buy supper for six people with only two dollars?”

 

“You smoke the damn cigarettes too,” Shane yelled.  “If you didn't spend so much money on the stupid cats, maybe we’d have something better to eat tonight.”

 

After yelling at Cathy, Shane threw the pack of cigarettes in the snow, and stomped them to pieces.

 

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Cathy cried.

 

“I should have married Irina,” Shane yelled back.  “She wouldn't complain like you do.”

 

“God damn it, Shane!” Cathy cried.  “Why don't you go to New York and move in with Irina, if you like her so much.  I'm sure she'd love to have you.  I know I would love to get rid of you!”

 

 

Kathleen was crying, “I'm freezing, Gakie.  Gakie, it's too cold.”

 

Pool little Kathleen lost one of her mittens in the snow, so I gave her one of mine.

 

“Kathleen, you’d better not cry,” I said.  “Santa will hear you.”

 

Kathleen stopped crying and said, “Does Santa see how Shane's acting?”

 

“Be quiet,” I said.  “Shane will hear you.  He's in a bad mood.”

 

Kathleen started crying again.  “I'm hungry, Gakie, I’m hungry.”

 

My mother picked up Kathleen and said, “We’re going to eat supper soon, sweetheart.”

 

It was ten o'clock.  We still had not eaten our dinner.  We hadn't even bought it yet.  It was snowing and the wind was blowing hard.  I could hardly see my feet in front of me.  But somehow Shane managed to find a rock under all that snow.  He picked up the rock, yelled once more at Cathy, and then threw the rock as hard as he could at a nearby house, breaking a window.  He then took off running, leaving my mother, Kathleen and I standing there to get yelled at by the homeowner.

 

My Friend Eloise

 

The long, cold winter was finally over.  It was early summer of 1959, and I was on my way to see my friend Miss Goble, ready to go to church with her.  But when I got to her cottage, she wasn't home.  Thinking she had already left, I was about to walk back home, when I turned around and saw a little red head girl standing on the porch of the old house in back of Miss Goble’s cottage.

 

The little girl looked to be the same age as Kathleen.  She didn't say a word, but just stood there looking at me.  A minute later, a tall thin boy, also with bright red hair, came out and stared at me.

 

“Hi, Allen,” I said.  “Did you move into this house?”

 

The boy was Allen Moody, who I knew from school and who sometimes played with Ted.

 

Allen didn't say anything, but the little girl said, “Hi, my name is Kathleen, and Allen is my brother.  What’s your name?”

 

“Sheila, I answered.  “I have a little sister named Kathleen.  She's four years old.  How old are you?”

 

“My sister Kathleen is three,” Allen said, “and my other sister Eloise is seven, and I'm nine.  We just moved into this house yesterday.  Where’s Ted?”

 

“Ted's off playing, but I don't know where,” I said.  “Maybe, over at Tommy's house.”

 

As Allen and I were talking, I saw another little girl standing in the doorway with an old yellow dog by her side.  She had long blond hair and looked small for a seven year old.  She seemed shy and was very pretty, with a beautiful smile.

 

 

“That’s Eloise, my big bossy sister,” her little sister Kathleen yelled out.

 

Eloise walked out the door and said, “Cut it out, Kathleen.”  Then she said to me, “I'm Eloise.  Would you like to be my friend?”

 

“A friend, wow,” I thought.  “Someone really wants to be my friend.”

 

A Bad Year at School

 

My first few years of school were fine.  I loved learning and I loved my teachers and had quite a few friends.  That was until I started the third grade, when everything changed for the worse.

 

The newspapers had unfavorable articles about Shane almost every week.  The kids at school were now old enough to read the papers or their fathers told them all about Shane and how he acted.

 

At school, Bobby, a boy in my class, asked, “Why does your father go out to get the mail naked?”

 

“No, he doesn’t,” I said.  “That’s a lie.”

 

Bobby kicked me in the back and said, “My dad's not a liar.  He read it in the newspaper.  Your father is crazy and you’re ugly!”

 

That same year I had a teacher who I knew hated me.  She was a witch of a woman.  As soon as I started her class, all the other kids suddenly hated me too.  They constantly teased me about everything.  They called me a stupid, skinny, retarded O'Neill.  Some said our family ate cats for dinner.  The kids always picked me dead last for games or sports.  Most of them didn't want me anywhere near them, and I never knew why.  After a while, I thought maybe they were right, and that I was nothing but an ugly, stupid, good for nothing kid.

 

The witch teacher made fun of the kids she didn't like when they weren’t there.  We had one black boy named Sammy in our class.  One day when he was absent, she said, “The reason Sammy is not as smart as you white kids is because he's a negro and they all have smaller brains.”  Then she said laughing, “Sammy and all of his kind are only good for playing baseball or football, and that’s about it.”

 

The kids laughed and started making jokes about black people.

 

I know she said horrible things about me, too, just by the way the other kids acted towards me.  A teacher like that should not allowed to be with children.

 

I was now out of that class and going into the fourth grade, but because of that teacher, most of the kids still treated me terribly.  They acted that way for the rest of my time in that school, until I moved away in ninth grade.

 

Adventures with Eloise

 

Eloise was a few years younger than me, and she was also from a poor family.  And she was also somewhat of an outcast from the snobby kids in that school.

 

“My cat just had kittens,” Eloise said one day.  “Do you want to come in and see them?”

 

“Yes, I'd love to see the kittens,” I said.  “How many kittens did she have?”

 

“Blacky had six kittens,” she said.

 

I went in the old house with Eloise to see the kittens, followed by her sister Kathleen.  I picked up one of the tiny little kittens and said, “They are so cute.  Look how little they are.”

 

Mrs. Moody came in the room where we were playing and said, “They’re cute, aren't they?  You can have one, if it's OK with your mother.”

 

We already had five cats, but I thought my mother wouldn't care if we got one more, so I would have a cat of my own.  I told Eloise I would take the little black and orange kitten as soon as she got a little bigger.

 

I did end up with that little kitten a few weeks later, and I named her Rosalee.   She was the best cat I ever had.

 

Eloise and I soon became good friends.  Everyone in the Moody family was friends with someone in my family.  Ted was Allen's friend.  Kathleen and Kathy were friends.  (That’s what we called Kathleen Moody, so we didn't get our little sisters mixed up.And my mother and Mrs. Moody were good friends.  Only Shane and Maura didn't have a friend in the Moody family.  Some of my fondest memories of that time were walking to the boardwalk with my mother, Mrs. Moody, Allen, Ted, Kathleen, Kathy and Eloise.

 

On a cold fall day, Eloise and I were on our way home from Aggie’s house, where we had helped Aggie rake her yard.  Aggie gave us each a dollar and we were on our way to the candy store.  After we crossed the bridge, there was a little garden shop that had the cutest little houses on display.  We looked at two or three of them, and then we went in a little white house with green shutters.

 

“Wow, this one is beautiful,” I said, as I walked in behind Eloise.

 

Suddenly, the wind slammed the door closed behind me.  At first, we were too busy looking around the little house to even know we were locked in.  But when Eloise and I tried to open the door to get out, we found the door was locked from the outside.  Now we were locked in.

 

Eloise said she had to be home by four, or she would be in trouble with her mother.

 

“Eloise,” I said, “you're small enough to fit out the little window.  I‘ll hold you up and you can climb out.”

 

We tried, but the window was also locked from the outside.

 

“Oh, my god,” I said.  “We’re locked in and we can't get out.”

 

We saw some teenagers walking home from school.  Eloise and I yelled and pounded on the door and window, trying to get them to open the door and let us out.  The teenagers looked over and laughed, and one said, “Some bratty little girls are yelling like nuts in that house.  I bet they’re some of the O'Neill kids.”

 

They kept on walking without letting us out.

 

“We’re going to be locked in here all night ‘till the owners come back in the morning,” Eloise said.

 

They will probably call the cops when they find us in this house,” I said, “and throw us in jail for trespassing.”

 

Eloise said, “We have to get out before it gets dark.”

 

The little house was held up with cinder blocks to keep it level.  There was a space under the house.  Eloise said, “I think if we can dig a whole under the house, maybe I can squeeze my way out.”

 

For an hour, Eloise and I dug with our hands in the near frozen dirt, until finally the hole was large enough for tiny little Eloise to squeeze out.

 

By the time we got home, our mothers were ready to call the police, thinking we were lost or had run away or maybe kidnapped.

 

Ted's Great Teacher

 

By the time I starter the fourth grade, Eloise and I were best friends.  We'd walk to school together every day.  I had a much better teacher that year, but the other kids in my class still treated me like garbage.  But now that I had Eloise, they didn't get me as upset as they did before.

 

Ted was in the second grade and he had the sweetest teacher ever, Miss Kramer.  On the first day of school, Miss Kramer fell in love with little Ted.  She thought Ted was the sweetest, best behaved child she had ever had in her class.

 

Was she thinking about the same Ted I knew?

 

One cool fall day, just before Halloween, there was a knock at our door.  When my mother opened it, there was Ted's teacher, Miss Kramer.

 

“Ted, you’re in trouble now,” I said.  “Your teacher is at the door.”

 

Ted ran to the front door as fast as he could, with a big smile, and said, “Hi, Miss Kramer.  How are you?”

 

He gave her a big hug and she hugged him back.

 

Miss Kramer told Gakie about how good Ted was and that she loved having him in her class.  I thought that Ted was a lucky duck to have such a nice teacher.  I hoped he didn't get that witch teacher next year, or he'd be shocked.  I also thought that Miss Kramer would have been a nice teacher for me to have.

 

Miss Kramer asked my mother if it would be OK if she took Ted and us girls to church with her on Sunday.  Cathy said as long as we wanted to go, it was fine with her.

 

The next Sunday morning, we all got dressed in our best clothes and went to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Bay Head with Miss Kramer.  And after that Sunday, all four of us kids went to church with Miss Kramer every Sunday.  Miss Kramer would sometimes take us to the Casey house, where we had orange juice and donuts.

 

I also went to Sunday school there.  I was with the second grade until I made First Communion.  The kids in the Sunday school class all loved me.  They liked me so much that they wanted me to be the Holy Mother Mary in the Christmas play.

 

Bay Head was a more liberal, open minded town than Point Pleasant.  The people in Bay Head didn't judge you as much.

 

We all became Catholics and good friends with the whole Kramer family.  That spring, Maura, Ted and I made our First Communion at the Sacred Heart Church.  Miss Kramer bought us girls our communion dresses, Ted his suit, and Kathleen a fancy pink party dress.

 

I wanted to save my communion dress, but Shane put it on himself and ripped it up trying to get it back off.  Shane walked around the house in the dress, talking to himself.

 

When I was twenty, I read Long Day’s Journey Into Night for the first time.  When I read the part about Mary Tyrone walking down the stairs, talking to herself with her wedding dress, I almost fell off my chair.  I had this eerie feeling that it was the same scene as when Shane walked down the stairs, talking to himself, wearing my communion dress.

 

The Donkey and the O'Neill Kids

 

© Copyright 2008 Sheila O’Neill. All rights reserved.

 

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