Point Pleasant Beach
By the end of October of 1955, Grandpa Mack was back from Mexico. Mack was Aggie's last husband. I loved Mack right from the start. Mack was a sweetheart and very nice to us kids. We all loved him. He was a child's dream for a grandfather, who paid a lot of attention to us. Mack worked as a fisherman and was out on the fishing boats for weeks at a time.
We didn't see too much of Mack, but when he was around, he was a lot of fun to play games and read books with. I can remember Mack swinging me in the air. He'd say, “I’m going to bang your head into the ceiling to see if you have any brains.” Mack was only kidding, of course, but it was a lot of fun.
I remember being in Aggie’s kitchen with my brother Ted. We were sitting at the table eating candied apples and singing to the music that was on Aggie's radio. When the song “Mack the Knife” came on, it was the first time I'd heard it.
“There’s a song on the radio all about Grandpa Mack!” I yelled out to Aggie and Mack, who were in the studio reading.
Mack came running into the kitchen and said, “Yes! My buddies wrote this song. It's about me when I'm out on the fishing boat, because I take my sharp knife and cut off the shark’s head with just one slice. Then I make fish burgers out of the shark. I can make five-hundred fish burgers out of just one shark.”
“I can cut off your heads and make kid burgers out of you guys, for I'm Mack the Knife!” he said, as he held up a huge sharp butcher knife next to Ted and me.
I screamed and Ted laughed. We knew Mack was only kidding. For years, I believed that song was written all about my Grandpa Mack. Mack was someone who was normal in my strange and unusual childhood.
By November, Aggie, Cathy and Shane were fighting almost all the time. Cathy figured it was time for our family to move on and let Aggie and Mack live in peace in their own house. The O'Neill family would have again been without a home, but Aggie helped us. She rented us an apartment in her name, because no one in town would rent anything to Shane or Cathy.
For a short time, we lived in that nice little apartment in Point Pleasant Beach. This apartment was much nicer than the apartments we had in New York. It was over a shoe store and in the middle of downtown Point Pleasant shopping. Right next door was a little Italian restaurant. Sometimes Maura and I would go into the kitchen and watch the cook, who'd give us some spaghetti to try out.
“Don't you think I'm the best cook in town?” he’d ask.
“No, you're the best cook in the world!” Maura would answer back.
We also tried to help the dishwasher with the dishes. He gave us a few pennies. I think we were in his way more than anything, so he'd give us a penny or two just to get rid of us.
I'd walk a few doors down the street to a little toy store and sit and gossip all day long with Mr. Kenny, the store’s owner. Sometimes, he'd let me play with some of the toys in his shop, if there were no customers. I also played with Old Tom, his large, black and white tomcat.
“If I didn't have Old Tom in my store to eat all the mice,” Mr. Kenny said, “the mice would eat all the toys and there would be none left for Santa to give to all the children.”
I started laughing and said, “Old Tom, you’re a very special cat. You save Christmas for every kid in the world, just by eating mice.”
I started kindergarten that year in the Point Pleasant Beach Grammar School. I loved going to school and I had a great teacher, Mrs. Jones, who taught me how to read and count. School was fun. I was learning all kinds of new things about the world around me, and at the same time, I was away from Shane when he was in a bad mood. I made a lot of new friends that first year of school.
The kindergarten class was only a half day, in the afternoon. I couldn't wait until the next year when I'd be at school all day, like Maura. At first, my mother would walk me to school in the late morning. I'd walk home with Maura and Mary, a girl in Maura's class, who lived in the old house that was behind our little apartment. By the end of March, I was allowed to walk to school by myself, and even cross the train tracks, but I still had to wait for Maura to walk home.
Sometimes I'd stop off on the way to school at my Aunt Budgie's house to say hello and play with her old dog, Topper. Budgie was my favorite aunt. She lived in a little cottage in between my school and the train tracks with her husband Fred.
A few years earlier, I stayed with Budgie for four days while the rest of my family went to New York to see my Aunt Gogo and my Uncle Bill and their new baby, Sarah. I wanted to go see Gogo and the baby, but I loved Budgie so much that when she asked if I wanted to stay with her, I couldn't resist.
I think I had a better time staying with Budgie than Maura had going to the city. Maura told me all about Gogo and baby Sarah, and also about Aunt Seon, who she also visited.
“There are so many books in Seon’s house,” Maura said, “that they cover all her walls and go from the floor to the ceiling.”
“Holy cow,” I said, “Seon must love reading books.” Then I said, “I had a great time, too. Budgie took me to the zoo in her new station wagon. We got to see a man eating tiger, but I didn't get very close to him so he didn't eat me. Then Budgie took me out for dinner and ice cream.”
Budgie had just bought a great Woody station wagon, and I thought this car was the nicest looking car I had ever seen.
“I should have stayed with you and Budgie,” Maura said. “On the way back from New York, Shane was smoking a cigarette, when some man complained about the smoke. Shane got mad and started a huge fight, till Shane got punched by the man and they both got kicked out of the train. Everyone on the whole train was looking at us.”
Maura and Mary
Maura's friend Mary was a very strange little girl. I can remember walking home from school with Maura and Mary and hearing a fire alarm going off.
“That’s an air raid siren,” Mary said, “and if the police catch anyone outside during the air raid, they can shoot them dead on the spot, with no questions asked. My mother told me if anyone is outside when the air raid sirens were going off, and an airplane flew over at the same time, it meant they were Russians and they were going to drop an atom bomb.”
“No they won't,” Maura said. “That’s just silly talk.”
But Mary really scared me. I believed her. Now I was afraid of planes and sirens, along with Shane near water, and man eating tigers.
When I was little, I hated seeing tigers. If I was reading or looking at a book and I saw a picture of a tiger, I'd turn to the next page as fast as I could, before the tiger saw me. I thought he could jump out of the book and eat me, because Maura once told me they could become real if you looked at them too long.
One night, when I was about six, I had a dream that I was walking with my pet cat around the block, by the edge of the woods, when I saw a tiger lurking in the trees. The cat jumped out of my arms, hissed, and ran off. I ran home and found the tiger sitting on the roof of our house, showing his teeth and growling. He sprung up with claws out, as he jumped down next to me. I thought I was about to be eaten alive, but the tiger rolled over like a great big kitten and started purring, rubbing his head on my leg, wanting to be petted. After that dream, I was never afraid of tigers again. Now I love tigers.
A few years after Mary told me about Russians dropping bombs, I was walking home from a friend’s house, and a fire siren was sounding at the same time an airplane was flying overhead. I was never more terrified in my life. I thought for sure it was the Russians in the plane, about to drop an atom bomb on my head. I ran as fast as I could back home and hid under the bed, where I stayed the rest of the day.
The spring of 1956 started out bleak. Shane had been in jail for a few weeks and my mother had been without any money for months. By the middle of April, we were so poor that we had no food in the house, except a large bag of black-eyed peas. For weeks, all we had to eat was black-eyed peas and all of us kids hated them. I guess it was better than nothing, but I will never eat a black-eyed pea again, as long as I live.
On a hot day at the end of May, I was out in the backyard of our apartment house, playing with Maura and Mary. Mary's mother came out with a pitcher of orange Kool-Aid and ice. After all the Kool-Aid was gone, Mary said, “I'm still thirsty. I think I’ll go inside and get some more.”
Mary went into her house, and Maura went into our apartment to use the bathroom. A few minutes later, Mary came back out with a pitcher full of ice water and a box of blue soap powder.
“We don't have anymore orange Kool-Aid,” she said, “but I’m going to make us some of this new blueberry Kool-Aid my mom just bought from the A&P.”
“That’s not Kool-Aid,” I yelled. “It's soap powder! What are you trying to do? KILL US?”
Mary laughed and said, “I know, but I wanted to play a joke on Maura.”
I thought this would be a good time to get Maura back for all the times she antagonized me over the years. Mary and I mixed the blue soap suds in the pitcher of ice water and waited for Maura to come back out.
As soon as Maura opened the door and started walking out, I yelled, “Maura, we made some blueberry Kool-Aid for you.”
“There’s no such thing as blueberry Kool-Aid,” Maura said, as she walked down the back stairs and into the yard.
“Yes,” Mary said, “blueberry Kool-Aid is the newest thing on the market.”
Maura was suspicious and said, “It doesn't look like any Kool-Aid I've ever seen before.”
I was trying my best not to laugh and give it away. Mary handed Maura a tall glass of the ice cold blue Kool-Aid.
“Thank you,” Maura said.
But before she took a sip, she smelled it, and then threw the glass across the backyard, breaking it on the back fence. It sounded just like Shane breaking a window.
Maura let out a loud scream, “Yuck! That’s soap suds! I hate you, Mary!”
I was laughing and Maura kicked me and said, “I hate you too!” Then, as she stormed up the stairs, she yelled, “I hate everyone in the whole world.”
Maura went inside, slamming the door and crying.
Our New Farm House
In early June of 1956, my mother inherited some money from Grandma Charlotte. Cathy decided to buy us a house with that money.
“I can buy a house and pay for it in full,” she said. “We will never have to be homeless again and we will still have some money left to live on.”
A few weeks before we were to move into our new house, Shane got arrested and thrown in jail again, this time for trespassing and disturbing the peace.
On a hot summer night, an old lady called the Point Pleasant Beach police, saying there was a strange man with wild looking eyes staring in her window. She said when she called out to him and told him the police were on their way, the crazy man swore at her and picked up a rock and threw it through her bedroom window.
When the police arrived, they found Shane in her backyard, sleeping in a pile of old wood. When Shane was questioned, he was high on drugs and didn't even know his own name or where he was. Shane picked up another rock and threw it at the police car. So poor Shane was once again handcuffed and carted off to jail, and this time he knew he had to stay a long time.
On a beautiful sunny day, I was standing on the sidewalk in front of our apartment house with Maura and Ted. We were watching the movers take our furniture and boxes down the stairs and onto a large van.
As we watched the movers, a garbage truck came by to pick up a lot of junk my mother was getting rid of. We watched as some of our old toys went into the truck, but we weren't upset, as they were broken and my mother had a lot of new toys waiting for us at our new house. That was until poor little Ted saw his beloved old teddy bear getting thrown into the truck.
“Teddy! Teddy!” Ted cried. “I want you...not the new one...please come back, Teddy!”
Ted was so mad, he threw the new teddy Gakie had just bought him across the sidewalk.
“I hate you,” Ted said to his new fluffy blue teddy bear.
The garbage man working on the truck heard Ted's cries and grabbed the old teddy, just as it was about to go under a pile of junk and be lost forever. The man hugged Teddy and said, “You are loved,” and tossed him back to Ted.
“Thank you, Mister,” Ted yelled. “I have my best friend back.”
I went over and picked up the new blue teddy bear and said, “Ted, do you want this teddy too?”
“No way,” Ted said. “If you want him, you can keep him.”
So I kept the new teddy. Now he had someone who loved him too.
That was only time I really felt sorry for my bratty brother Ted, and I was happy his old teddy was saved from the garbage dump.
Later that afternoon, Aggie took us out to lunch and we all talked about our new house. Only Cathy and Aggie had seen it so far. Maura, Ted and I were all excited about the house.
“Did you buy a red house with an apple tree, a swing and a huge yard?” I asked my grandmother.
“No,” she said. “The house is white, but it does have a nice, large yard, and there’s a big surprise in the back yard for all of you.
After lunch, Aggie drove us all over to our new house on Rue Ave.
The house was full of all kinds of fascinating things. As I entered the living room, I saw we had a matching mohair wool sofa and chair. As I continued running through the house, I saw a table and chair set in the kitchen. I flung open the cabinets, and they were full of dishes, pots and pans.
“We have dishes,” I yelled, “lots of dishes!”
Kathleen was standing in her playpen, watching me, as I ran in one door and out the next, yelling about all the wonderful things the people who sold us the house had left in it. Kathleen was only one and one-half at the time, but she remembers the first day in our new house. A few years ago, Kathleen told me all about the time I ran through the house yelling, “We’ve got dishes!”
I then ran outside through the yard, and into the barn.
“More dishes,” I yelled, when I saw even more dishes in the barn. “We have a red barn, too. Look, Maura!”
“You ran so fast, you didn't see the best thing of all,” Maura said.
I went back in the house with Maura, where she showed me a beautiful baby grand piano in the dining room. How did I miss that?
My mother also bought a lot of new things with the money she inherited from her mother. We all had new beds – bunk beds for Maura, Ted and I, and a blue plaid, screened-in crib for Kathleen. My mother thought the crib was something Kathleen couldn't escape from, but within a week, Kathleen ripped a large hole in the mesh, and was out. After that, Kathleen slept in the bottom bunk bed.
Gakie also bought us a swing set, monkey bars and a Slip 'n Slide. That was a happy time. We were living the American dream, even if it was just for a short time.
That wonderful summer, I found my best friend so far – Miss Goble. Miss Goble lived in a tiny shack behind our house. Miss Goble was ninety-three years old and a sweetheart. We'd sit on old rocking chairs in the far corner of her yard, under an apple tree, eating apples and drinking ice tea. I'd sit and talk with Miss Goble for hours, as she told me about the olden days or complained about her sister-in-law, who lived a few houses down the street.
Sometimes I'd walk to the grocery store with Miss Goble and her dog Brownie. Miss Goble went shopping every day just to get a can of dog food for Brownie. Miss Goble always made sure Brownie had his dog food, even if she didn't have money to buy herself food.
One day, my mother was making meatloaf and needed an egg. She sent me over to Miss Goble’s to borrow one. I got two eggs from Miss Goble and brought them home. But when my mother cracked one, all that was inside was powdered dust.
“Wow!” Gakie said. “These eggs must be twenty years old. They've turned to dust.”
Every year in early July, Point Pleasant police chief Bill Beecroft and his family had a pool party and barbeque. They invited all the children in the neighborhood. That year, Maura and I went with Aggie. We all had a great time swimming in the pool. That was my first time in a dug-in pool and I loved it. As long as Shane was not near me, I loved the water.
Aggie and Bill talked about when my grandfather, Eugene O'Neill, lived in the Old House. Maura and I met Judy, Bill’s daughter, who was about my age. We all became good friends. Eight year old Maura told me she was in love with George, Bill’s teenage son. It was just puppy love. George didn't know Maura was even there. He was busy talking with the other teenagers.
A few days later, my mother had a lot of house cleaning to do. Maura and I were out shopping with Aggie, and Ted was over playing at his friend Tommy's house. Little Kathleen was getting into everything and making a mess. She also kept running away.
My mother put Kathleen in her room to take a nap. It was very hot, so all Kathleen had on was a diaper and rubber pants. My mother was busy cleaning the house and didn't hear Kathleen sneak out the back door.
A little while later, Cathy saw a police car pull in at Mr. Tats’ house, our next door neighbor. Cathy immediately ran in the back bedroom where Kathleen was sleeping. Not finding Kathleen in her bed, Cathy was worried that something bad had happened to her baby. She ran outside and over to the police car. Then she saw twenty month old Kathleen sitting completely nude in Mr. Tats’ birdbath.
The cop was laughing and said to Mr. Tats, “You’ve got to be kidding.” The cop had received a call from Mrs. Tats that there was a naked woman in her backyard!
Shane Comes Back Home
Shane had been gone that whole summer, after being arrested for peering in the old woman’s window. The judge sent Shane to Marlboro, a mental institution, instead of prison. The judge said he thought Shane would benefit from the help he'd get at Marlboro, where they took people with substance abuse and sometimes made them better. Shane was sentenced to six months in the hospital.
By early September, Shane was ready to come home for the weekends. I remember how very sweet Shane was when he got back. He seemed like a different person. He also looked great. He gained twenty pounds and had a new, full set of teeth. That was the first time I can remember seeing my father with teeth.
That Sunday afternoon, Shane took us all to the Big Sea Day parade that Point Pleasant had every year at the end of summer. We didn't have to go very far. The parade was just down the street on Arnold Avenue. Shane bought us cotton candy and lemonade, as we watched the parade go by. After we came home from the parade, we all went out to eat at Vancarto’s Italian restaurant, also on Arnold Avenue, a short walk away.
That night, when Shane had to go back to Marlboro, for the first time in a very long time, none of us wanted him to leave. Cathy told us Shane would be home to stay by the end of the month.
Shane came home by the middle of October. He even got a job at the local hardware store and he managed to keep the job for a few months. That was a record for him.
On a cool day in late November, my mother was looking around up in the attic. I heard her yell down to Shane, who was in his room reading the newspaper.
“Shane, I just found an antique oil lamp.”
“Wow,” Shane said. “Bring it down and let me take a look.”
Then I heard a crash coming from Shane's room.
“What was that?” I asked Maura.
I heard Shane say, “Oh, my god, Cathy. Are you alright?”
“Well, yes, I think so,” Cathy said, and started laughing.
Maura and I ran into Shane's room, and there was our mother, sitting on a card table.
“How did you get down so fast?” Maura asked Gakie.
Shane and Gakie were laughing.
“Your mother came down through the ceiling,” Shane said.
I looked up and saw a huge hole in the ceiling of Shane's bedroom.
“Holy cow, Gakie,” I said. “Good thing you didn't break your neck.”
Shane acted just about normal that whole time, and we were one big happy family until just before Christmas.
On my seventh birthday, December 20th, after having cake at Aggie’s house, we came home and found our furnace smoking. The whole house and everything in it was full of thick black soot and Shane was pitch black. When my mother asked him about it, he said, “The furnace was broken, so I took it apart to fix it.”
“Shane, there was nothing wrong with the furnace,” Cathy said. “I ran out of oil, but the oil man came by today to give us more. What’s wrong with you? Now we’re all going to freeze.”
Cathy knew that Shane was back to his old self and high on Benzedrine.
Later that night, Shane was fighting with Cathy. He broke two windows with his fist, badly cutting his hands and arms. He then went off to bed, leaving the furnace in parts on the floor on a freezing cold night.
Three days later was Christmas Eve. My mother had been up for days trying to clean all that soot out of almost everything in the house. She also had to buy kerosene heaters to keep the house warm. We all helped wrap gifts and decorated the tree. Then Cathy sent us to bed so she could get ready for Santa.
While Cathy was trying to clean, Shane kept making more of a mess. He went outside in the snow and came back in the kitchen with his muddy boots, leaving mud all over the clean floor Cathy had just finished mopping.
“Shane, cut it out!” Cathy yelled. “It's two o'clock on Christmas morning. I've been cleaning all day and just mopped that floor. Now I have to mop it all over again. Your mother will be here ready to eat in just a few hours.” She took a long breath and yelled, “God darn, Shane, I'm tired. I have a headache. I haven't had a minute to think and now I have to mop the floor all over again. I still have to wash my hair. Shane, why do you do this?”
Shane picked up the bucket of dirty mop water and poured it over Cathy's head and said, “You want to wash your hair? There, now it's washed.”
It was very cold on February 26, 1957. We were all over at my grandmother Aggie’s house having a birthday party for my little sister Kathleen, who had just turned two. Everyone in our family was there, including Grandpa Mack and my aunts, Budgie and Barbara.
This was the first time I had seen my Aunt Barbara since I was four, when Barbara took Maura and me to the zoo. It was so nice to see her again. Barbara had given us all books. My book was The Cat in the Hat, which I loved and read over and over.
Everyone was busy getting ready for Kathleen's party. My Aunt Budgie made an apple pie, my mother and Aggie made a chocolate birthday cake with Kathleen's name on it, and Shane and Mack made a wonderful roast pork dinner with potatoes and squash. Shane could be a great cook when he wanted to. Shane made the best donuts I’d ever had. He also made some of the best pancakes and corn fritters. Maura and I made cupcakes with candy hearts on top, while Barbara and Ted took a ride to the A&P supermarket and bought some ice cream.
After the delicious dinner and cake and ice cream, it was time for Kathleen to open her birthday presents. She was so excited she couldn't stand still. Kathleen jumped and wiggled the whole time Gakie was getting the gifts ready.
Finally, it was time for Kathleen to open her presents. Budgie gave her a little rubber Kewpie doll. Aggie gave Kathleen a new dress. Kathleen's book from Barbara was Pickles the Fire Cat, which Barbara read to her as soon as she opened it, and then read three more times before Kathleen opened her next gift. My mother and father bought Kathleen some toys and a sailor dress and coat.
But the gift that Kathleen liked the most was from Grandpa Mack. He bought Kathleen a handmade wooden chair, which was high, but was not a baby's highchair. Kathleen loved it. The little chair was just the right size for little Kathleen, and she now had a chair or her own.
“This is my chair,” Kathleen said. “Ted, Sheila, Maura and Shane – keep off of it.”
Mack laughed and said, “Well, Kathleen, you don't have to worry about me sitting in your chair. I'm way too fat.”
Everyone laughed. Then my mother asked, “Kathleen, is it OK if sometimes I sit in your chair?”
“No! No way!” Kathleen yelled. “It's only mine!”
Little two year old Kathleen was very strict when it came to her chair. She did not let any of us anywhere near it. When Ted sat in it one day to eat his breakfast, Kathleen got so mad she bit him. Even Shane knew he was not allowed on that chair.
About a month later, my Aunt Budgie came over to have some coffee and cake with my mother. Cathy and Budgie were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and talking. Kathleen walked into the kitchen, then stopped in the middle of the room. She put her hands on her hips and yelled out as loud as she could, “You big fat bunny rabbit,” as she looked at Aunt Budgie.
Budgie was sitting in Kathleen's special chair. Then Kathleen put both hands over her mouth, thinking she had said a bad word.
Budgie jumped off Kathleen's chair and said, “Sorry, I forgot no one was allowed on your chair.”
Budgie and Cathy couldn't stop laughing. But Kathleen stomped her foot and said, “Stop laughing. It's not funny.”
She ran over to the table, grabbed her chair, and pulled it across the kitchen floor. She then climbed up on it and said, “Budgie, don't you ever sit in my chair again.”
Trying not to laugh, Budgie promised she'd keep off. After that day, no one but Kathleen sat on that little chair.
After that long cold winter, spring was here. I was on the swing with my rubber doll, when her head fell off. All the rubber around her neck was ripped. I took my poor doll into the house to see if my mother could fix her. Gakie said that the doll’s body was too badly damaged to fix.
“They make things like junk these days,” she said. “It you have another doll that has a good body and bad head, maybe I can put them together to make a good doll.”
I looked at all the old dolls around the house, but couldn't find any to fit.
My mother said, “Why don't you try going over to see if Miss Goble has any doll bodies to fit. I bet she has some doll parts at her cottage. She’s saved everything she’s ever had for years. I think you and Miss Goble can find something to fit.”
I took my broken doll over to my friend Miss Goble and asked her if she had any doll bodies. Sure enough, Miss Goble came out with a box full of broken dolls. We tried three or four bodies with my head, but none fit.
“Sorry, the only body I have that size is this one,” Miss Goble said, as she pulled out a black doll’s body. “I don't think you want a baby with a white head and black body.”
“But look, it fits great,” I said. “I don't care, as long as my baby has a body.”
Miss Goble fixed my doll and gave her back to me.
Later that spring, I was in the living room, playing with some matchbox cars with Ted. Shane came into the house with an opossum that he was holding by its tail. I jumped up and back into the next room.
“Yeeks! What’s that ugly looking thing?” I said, as I looked at the opossum spitting and showing its sharp teeth to us.
“He's an opossum,” Shane said. “I found him in the woods. The only way to hold an opossum is by his tail, so he can’t bite.”
As Shane was holding that ugly opossum by his tail, the opossum grabbed Shane’s arm and bit until Shane let go. I ran upstairs, followed by Ted, and refused to come back down as long as that ugly monster was on the loose.
© Copyright 2008 Sheila O’Neill. All rights reserved.
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