I’ve mentioned before that I am the youngest of three children, and that my father retired early in order to spend more time with his children. However, by the time he retired, my sister was pretty much a teenager and going off on her own, while my brother was in the in-between phase – about to be a teenager, but not quite. So that really left me.
As the youngest child of three – and I’m sure many of you can relate – I’ve often felt that I missed out on my parents’ prime years. My sister had the pleasure of our parents taking her to amusement parks, while I did that mostly with my friends. My sister is the one who frequently took me into Manhattan to visit museums and Central Park and do fun things like so, since our parents either worked or were tired or “old” and I don’t know, I just know she was the one who did those things with my brother and me.
Well, I don’t think this went unnoticed by my parents. When I was in high school – and ready to become a sullen teenager who hated her parents and hated life as I thought was normal (quick aside: no, it wasn’t normal; I struggled with depression throughout high school though it might be a good thing that I thought it was totally normal, as I had enough problems with not fitting in as it was) – I had issues with studying, grades, everything. I’d gone from a small Catholic school where I scored top marks consistently without studying or doing homework, to a large specialized public school where I was easily one of the dumbest kids to attend. (Okay, that’s a lie: there were plenty of stupid kids in my high school, but they were better than I was about doing their homework, taking notes in class, paying attention, studying, and just playing the game. I didn’t know there was a game to be played, and I couldn’t focus if you paid me – which my parents tried – so I floundered.)
My parents didn’t know what to do, how to handle their previously straight-A star student daughter gone to barely C’s. I wasn’t doing drugs, I wasn’t drinking, I wasn’t hanging out with a bad crowd (not until junior year! I swear! and that “bad crowd” was more interested in cutting class to play cards, so it’s not like I was even in a truly bad crowd!)… they simply didn’t know how to get through to me that school was important. I didn’t even know what I COULD do to get better grades – I simply could not understand how I’d managed to do so well in the past and now couldn’t handle what most people seemed to consider easy material. I was grounded. I was put on restriction. I was limited in time spent on the computer, on the phone, they took my contact lenses away from me (my father was convinced that I spent too much time talking to boys because I was sooo pretty – his words! not mine! – that making me “ugly” by forcing me to wear my glasses – yes, I realize how messed up that lesson is – would stop that problem; he even wanted to remove the mirrors from my bedroom!). They simply didn’t know what to do.
One weekend, I woke up and discovered both my siblings were not home. My parents asked me if I wanted to go to a street fair. I declined, but they seemed intent on taking me to this street fair in Manhattan that they’d just read about in the paper. “It’ll be fun, let’s go, get ready,” they told me. I shrugged and maybe I realized that I didn’t have anything to do if I didn’t go, so I agreed.
We walked to the subway together, and stopped by the bank. My dad had this habit of carrying at least $100 on him at all times – which saved his life once, but that’s a story for somewhere else, as it’s completely not food-related – so he withdrew a crisp $100 bill. I’m not sure his exact words anymore, but I do remember that he told me he wanted me to spend it today.
All of it.
I was nervous. I couldn’t figure out what that meant, why he would say something like that. In my high schooler’s eyes – and I can’t tell you for sure if this is true or not – I felt like my family didn’t have a lot of money. I felt like $100 was a lot of money to spend on a whim, on just me, at a street fair. I felt… what was going on? It wasn’t my birthday, I hadn’t suddenly gotten good grades, I hadn’t done anything worthy of getting special treatment.
I remember walking around that day, and admiring many things. Scarves, beaded necklaces, bracelets, hair accessories – I was really into hair accessories back then – and each time, my mother or my father would ask me if I wanted it. I had what amounted to carte blanche in terms of getting whatever I wanted.
I declined all of it.
None of it seemed worth the money. It wasn’t particularly expensive, but nothing jumped out at me as “MUST HAVE THAT NOW.” I know I talk about being spoiled, but given endless options with no restrictions, I chose nothing.
We walked around for a few hours, and I was happily browsing stall after stall after stall. My parents were probably amused. They looked at their share of items, but mostly, they asked me what I wanted. They told me to pick something, anything out. I couldn’t find anything that I really wanted, and ended the day empty-handed.
In a way, I wish I’d picked something out, if only so I’d have a tangible souvenir with which to remember this day. Je me souviens.
Finally, growing tired, hungry, and late, my father stopped and suggested we get something to eat. I wasn’t familiar with the food available – this may have been my first street fair, and my first sausage-and-pepper hero wasn’t until years and years later – and asked him to pick something. He chose a gyro, which I suggested we share. I know he thought this was odd, but I was hovering at 100 lbs. and 5’6 or so at the time, so not finishing my food was a frequent occurrence at the time. I think he got me my own though.
I remember taking the wax paper wrapped pita & meat from the vendor, and staring down at it. Tzatziki sauce oozed over the side; slices of gyro peeked out. Shredded lettuce, a bit of tomato, all wrapped tightly in this neat little package. I tilted it to figure out how to take a bite. Tentatively, I put it to my mouth and bit. And kept biting. I held it out, away from my body, so not to get any on me – much of that first gyro fell to the ground that day, as I stood on a street corner, near the trash can, eating the entire thing.
“That was so good!” I enthused. Tzatziki sauce encompassed many things I liked – creamy white sauce, dill, cucumbers – and it all worked so well together, with the juicy tomatoes, the crisp lettuce, and the “lamb” meat. I was happy, they were happy I’d finally spent some of the money they’d set aside for the day, and we all went home, happy.
Well, until a short while later, when I got royally sick and experienced my first street meat food poisoning experience. Sweating, cursing, angry, I stayed near the bathroom for the rest of the night and lamented my choice. I have no idea why I got sick – dirty vendor? didn’t wash my hands before I ate with them? not used to street meat? – who knows? I didn’t eat gyros for a while after that, but eventually I got over that, and I continue to love them.
Though I do try to eat them from more trusted locations than just any random street fair vendor…
I like to think that on that day, my parents were trying to give me the experience of what it’s like to be an only child. We didn’t talk about my siblings at all, and they focused entirely on me and only me. I don’t know if that’s true, but I like to think that was why they did all that. I felt loved, safe, and happy… and it’s my favorite memory of spending time with both of them.
What’s your favorite childhood memory?