We snuck out the side door of Public School #5 in West New York, another 8-year-old girl and me. Unfortunately, I got seen by a viejita who was there to pick her granddaughter up at lunch. She told my grandmother, a neighbor of hers, I was out when I should have been in.
Que lio when I got home.
But, we had not done anything wrong during that wayward lunch outing. We went to swing in the park and went right back to class after lunch. Pero, yo no tenia permiso to be out and my Cuban grandmother — and mother — were not happy with my escape. Quién sabe what could have happened to us, they said.
I spent a lot of time outside that 3rd grade year I lived in New Jersey. If I wasn’t outside with my cousins, and the other city kids who hung out in the street, we were hanging out the window, looking down the street, or yelling across the street to the other neighbors hanging out their own windows. If we were inside, we were watching Happy Days or Welcome Back, Kotter.
While the new school move wasn’t great for me academically, I loved that year of urban city life, it was wilder and bolder than Miami, where I could barely play outside without the Miami grandma wondering where I was. I think I felt free and kind of grown there. I liked the big buildings and the oldness of it all, too.
I liked to to walk down the street to la bodega to buy fresh-from-the-oven Cuban bread for my grandma, or Swedish Fish with my nickels, or sometimes a Charleston Chew. I tried not to peek into the corner bar as I made my way to and from my grandparents’ building. There were a lot of corner bars.
As my daughter prepares to change schools in her own 3rd grade year, I have been thinking about how different my 1975 is from her 2012. How much more unstructured my life was. Life was loud and you could smell the scent of sofrito and cumin and cooking oil and beef wafting out from under apartment doors. You could listen to 10 or more conversations escaping from open windows just by walking down the street.
This was Havana on the Hudson, West New York, Hudson County, N.J., back when bell bottoms were in and the year I was very pasty. (See image, above.)
My own 8-year-old lives in a little country town in Tennessee, in a house settled into big woods. Her mother does not fry. NPR is usually on the kitchen radio. (I know, I am so boring.) I don’t usually let her walk anywhere alone, and her cousins live very far away. She has an ebook reader, a game device and yet spends more time alone reading or drawing than I ever did at her age. It still shocks me she has access to technology I imagined only on The Jetsons.
Even my own childhood was so different from my mother’s, who spent her earliest years in a little town in Cuba, playing stick ball outside with her siblings and neighbors and learning to sit still at the table under the watchful instruction of a stern grandfather. My father, growing up poor in Cuba, made toy trains from sardine cans and string.
But this is what life is, no? A moving forward, like a river, deliberate and ever-changing. When I look back at my own childhood to compare it with my child’s I stop myself, scold myself into remembering that nada es igual. It isn’t supposed to be.
I have my story.
She has hers.
And, I’ll always have Havana on the Hudson.
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