Mean Girls. I knew them well…
I was an underdeveloped twelve-year old when my parents sent me to Calhoun for junior high, a small private all-girls school on the Upper West Side, that defined ‘mean girls’ before that became an urban phrase. My birthday was April 20, which made me a year younger than almost everyone. I looked it. I acted it. I was killed for it.
Calhoun was located in a brownstone in the 80’s near Riverside Drive. The head mistresses, Miss Parmalee and Miss Cosmee, resembled Mutt and Jeff and acted like characters out of Dickens. They never cracked a smile and would wait by the front door with a yardstick to measure the length of your skirt every morning when you walked into school and would rap your knuckles if it was too short. Every day, as I headed up the wooden stairs of the narrow brownstone to the seventh grade classroom I felt dread in the pit of my stomach.
At the top floor there were two homeroom classes of eleven girls each. Every day, the game was to gang up on one particular girl, at random. (It probably wasn’t as random as it felt but I wasn’t one of the ringleaders.) I would wait in the coatroom for as long as I could before going into homeroom, where the torture would begin. Gone was the safety of the public school I’d attended for elementary school. Gone were kids I could trust. Gone was a sense of a moral center.
At Calhoun, being smart was a no-no and to be popular you had to be dumb. I worked on that. Plus, most of the other girls had chauffeurs and used their parents’ credit cards at Saks Fifth Avenue or Lord & Taylor. Those weren’t my European-born parents’ values. I was in way over my head.
By the time eighth grade rolled around I’d learned how to be a ‘bad girl’ who got C’s and D’s. I’d learned how to shoplift. Thankfully, my mother managed to get me tested by an academic tester who proclaimed me a very intelligent underachiever (she must have bribed him) and, armed with that letter I was interviewed by Fieldston, a terrific prep school, where I was accepted.
On the first day I wore what had made me popular at Calhoun – a purple pleated miniskirt, hot pink sweater, purple shoes and purple eye shadow. I never lived that slutty outfit down. At Fieldston, you had to be smart to be popular. You had to wear Pappagallo loafers, twin sweater sets and circle pins on the Peter Pan collars of your oxford shirts.
I was desperate to be popular and learned to fit in, even when I had to shoplift to get the right wardrobe. Because the girls at Fieldston could be just as mean if you wore the wrong clothes.
– Linda Schreyer
I don’t remember a lot about our family traditions. I think that’s because we didn’t have a lot of them. But there is one that I remember with love and excitement and a feeling that it was done just right — birthdays.
The night before my brother’s or my birthday, we’d go to sleep as usual. When we woke up the next morning there would be a card table set up next to our bed, piled with colorful wrapped presents and a birthday cake. And it had all happened when we were sleeping. When I was little, I suppose I must have thought that gnomes or elves or birthday fairies had crept in and done it. But when I was older, I’d lie awake in bed waiting till my parents came in, willing myself not to fall asleep. Usually that didn’t work. But there was one time that it did.
It was late when my door opened quietly and a sliver of light from the hall shone in my room. I shut my eyes tightly as I heard my parents comes in, heard the creak of the metal legs of the card table as they unfolded it and the rustle of paper as they covered it with a paper tablecloth. I heard the sound of their tiptoed footsteps as they crept back out. Then nothing.
Through my eyelids I could feel the slant of light in my room. That meant they hadn’t closed my door yet. Did I dare open my eyes? Good thing I decided to keep them tightly closed, because in a minute they were back.
More rustling of paper as they put things on the table. Not “things,” I thought. Presents. My presents. I was tingling with excitement and dying to open my eyes. But hard as it was, I kept my eyes shut until I heard a strange noise. I could have sworn I heard giggling. I listened carefully. This wasn’t a sound I’d heard a lot from my parents. They were not gigglers. But there it was again, definitely giggling.
I wanted to open my eyes but I kept them closed, scrunching them up tightly as a rich smell began to waft my way. I knew what that meant and fought the tug of the smile at my lips.
There were some whispered words in German and more rustling of paper. WHAT were they doing? Finally, when I couldn’t stand it for one more minute, I had to open my eyes, the door closed behind them and they were gone. Silence. Behind my eyelids I felt the darkness settle back into my room. I waited a minute then opened my eyes.
In the darkness, I saw colorful wrapped presents of different shapes on the card table covered with a pink paper tablecloth; cards in white envelopes shone in the darkness; there was a vase of flowers that I couldn’t quite see, (often tulips because it was April) and, best of all, a chocolate Sacher Torte, decorated with pink roses and unlit birthday candles.
I sat up and peered at them all in the darkness as I fought with myself, wanting to unwrap the presents, read the envelopes and see who they were from, taste the cake. But I really didn’t want to spoil my surprise. So I forced myself to close my eyes again and fell asleep to the warm, rich smell of chocolate.
When I woke up the next morning, my parents and my brother came in, said Happy Birthday, watched me open presents and lit the birthday cake candles. Then, as always, we all had Sacher Torte for breakfast.
One year ago I spent Labor Day weekend proofreading Jeanne Goen’s manuscript. It was published two weeks before she died, feeling complete that her book, priceless stories of her life, was out in the world. Today I’m remembering fearless and effervescent Jeanne with love and the fondest of memories. We are with you.
Once upon a time I lived in Fishkill, NY, up a half mile dirt road in a white house with green shutters on 250 acres of rolling meadows, pine forests and a peach orchard. We planted a 40 x 40 ft garden that I grew from seeds I started in flats like these on the windowsill. I canned and froze all our veggies for the year. We kept bees and harvested 60 lbs of peach honey. We tapped our sugar maple trees and boiled the clear maple sap for a week until it turned into golden maple syrup. And the ceiling in the kitchen buckled from all that boiling. We heated our house with wood stoves and I taught at a Summerhill school before writing music for movies. Oh, and I grew a blue-eyed baby named Evan Sugerman, seen here in 1977, the baby bump in my overalls. My once upon a time life. Oh, how I loved it. #hippiestyle#evansugerman #onceuponatime #livingontheland
Our Bali granddaughter, our beloved Jazz came to Brentwood with me where I taught a writing class as she read and drew and thoroughly enchanted the class. Afterwards, we went out for ice cream. And here she is, almost 7, pure sweetness and beauty, sharing a moment of love with me. In six weeks, I leave for Bali to celebrate her 8th birthday in her home, where she was born in a bathtub of frangipani flowers, delivered into the loving hands of midwife Ibu Robin Lim. I was the first to hold her, after her mama and papa. When they handed her to me I was overcome with love. I’m still overcome with love for Jazz. I haven’t been with her since August and she says she’s waiting until I arrive to cut her hair. I’m waiting, too, Jazz. For the moment you’re in my arms again, always deeply familiar despite the months and the miles. That’s what love does. Keeps us heart to heart. Keeps us deeply connected. Always. Our beloved Jazz..
I was twelve when legendary Little Golden Books illustrator Tibor Gergely (Scuffy the Tugboat, Tootle the Engine, etc.) drew me, in his studio on Lexington Avenue in NYC, lost in my favorite activity. Now, decades later, today, I got to stand next to my likeness in the Platt/Bornstein Gallery at American Jewish University. Only this time I’m only pretending to read. smile emoticonThese days, all my extra time is spent on rewriting my family story (which many of you know as The Goldsmith’s Daughter.) As I excavate the past I’m struck by the extraordinary artists who peopled my life as a child. Tibor Gergely, my surrogate uncle (whom we called ‘Geri’) was my very favorite person. Thank you for then and now, Geri. Then and now. So very grateful