When the Rivers Rage

Submitted into Contest #45 in response to: Write a story about change.... view prompt



It was the 60's. Or to quote Dickens, "It was the best of times. It was the worse of times". One can argue that this can be said of any era. But it was, especially for someone growing up in that time, a time during, about and, definitely, a time for change.

I grew up as one site on Facebook now calls it, a South Trenton River Rat. My home, rented to us by owners of the local Polish bakery, was attached to the bakery on the end and to other houses on the side. It was part of what were called row houses. The house was made up of what my mom called ice cream brick; brick made up of pastel colors. It was not on top of the Delaware River, but close enough to walk to it.

And it was close enough to still have dreams today of rivers flooding. Probably from memories of lying in bed at night listening to the radio and its predictions that the homes along the river would definitely be flooded again. I always knew we weren't close enough for that, but I remember walking with my older sister and other kids to check out the damage a week after the floods.

My neighborhood was not one of drastic change back then. Very ethnic American, we had an array of Slovak, Polish, Italian, Jewish and Protestant, and a lot of Catholics. My own school required that a child have Slovak ancestry. Of course, people in my family would talk about the Czech side speaking more like the Polish. And my mom probably turned over in her grave when my younger cousin on her side researched our family history and found her family came from Czechoslovakia and Austria Hungary. Hungarian was taboo! Even though our next door neighbor was Hungarian and went to the Orthodox Catholic Church. And we visited every Christmas in each other's homes.

Regardless we all lived and played together. The Jewish family a few doors down had a daughter a few years older than me. We'd talk and I'd go in her house and we'd play with her Boston terrier. When the dog died, I and the other Catholic kids assured her, Duchess was in heaven. Maybe dog heaven, but definitely in heaven. A married couple across the street were interdenominational. They lived above the corner store across from us, and I remember neighbors called the wife Abie's Irish Rose. It was not common back then. He was Jewish and she was a fiery red head Irish Catholic. At Christmas time every year she would put the menorah in the window and play Christmas Carol's for the entire neighborhood outside their window every night. I couldn't think of a more loving combination of merging the two religions.

Throughout the rivers that changed my life my faith always helped me. I never doubted as a child the promise of heaven. It was security, unchanging and dependable.

Each evening as soon as the weather got warm enough, neighbors would sit outside. I remember one little boy named Freddy who was black. Back then African Americans were called colored by the older people. But Freddy had a personality and a talent for dancing that he loved to show off. Whenever he passed our house, he'd stop and talk to us. Naturally he ended up dancing. At the risk of being labeled stereotypic by today's politically correct genre, Freddy did really love to dance and entertain. I don't know what ever became of him, but I hope he got his dream.

Walking was a big thing in Trenton then. We had playgrounds and blocks and blocks we could walk along as kids. Our school itself was across from the Trenton State Prison.One day we discovered a cute cottage type house way up the street. An African American lady named Harriet lived there, with her beautiful collie named Lady. We loved to visit Harriet and play with Lady in her backyard. She'd give us cookies and cold drinks in her kitchen. The first day we ran home to tell our moms about the beautiful Lady and her owner Harriet. It was innocence then. It was simplicity at its finest.

So my early childhood was spent among mixed cultures. I went through the usual childhood sicknesses of measles and chickenpox. We took a sugar cube to prevent us from getting polio. We were saved by the amazing Dr. Salk. One girl in my school however hadn't escaped the ravages of polio. She was always teased by the kids altough the nuns tried to intervene. Later I heard the students tried to become friendly with her in eighth grade. But the damage was done and her illness hurt more than polio. Someone told me she never forgave the kids. Back then schools didn't offer special education classes. No physical therapy or occupational therapy was given. Even for my own speech problems, the doctor told my mother I just had "a lazy tongue". Speech therapy was not given in little trailers behind the school then.

The river moved on and sometimes raged. We saw the first Irish Catholic President elected and we saw him assassinated on a Friday afternoon in a State far away from New Jersey. We watched as his brave widow and two small children buried him. We grieved together as a Nation. And two days after his assassination, on a Sunday morning, I watched as his alleged murderer was shot dead, live on TV in front of a grieving nation.

The river had flooded again with tears and change. The cold war was upon us, the threat from Russia and Cuba and other communist nations. Yetwe as a Nation carried on.

My own life changed again when I reached adolescence. I had to move in my final year of eighth grade and start in a brand new neighborhood, and a brand new school. That to me was the beginning of adolescence and what I thought would be the end of me. I was like the girl with the polio now. No more sisters of the Order of St. Dominic. Now there were Franciscans to deal with! But the sisters were ok. It was certain groups of boys who preyed on shy new girls. From that year through high school they were there.

Nice things happened though. I met a good friend across the street who was actually one of the popular girls, but nice enough to be friends with me. Her Italian widower father would cook pasta on Sunday. We fell in love with the Beatles and everything British. In high school I also met my best friend forever and although today I live in the North of Jersey and she lives down South in Virginia, we communicate daily, even texting good morning and good night.

But to paraphrase Bob Dylan, the times they were a'changing. A man called Martin was trying to quell the tension between the races. Another Irish Catholic named Robert, the brother to that first Irish Catholic President, would in a few years be campaigning for the Presidency. The generation that had taken sugar cubes to prevent a disease, were now dropping acid, aka LSD in sugar cubes, to expand their minds through a psychedelic experience.

And I was struggling with Algebra. I failed that class and was sentenced to summer school. Goodbye to our week down the Jersey shore. Sister said "she's smart and if she wants to continue with college prep, she has to pass Algebra". As I sat in class in downtown Trenton that day, I never knew I'd meet one of the nicest people in my life. And one that I regret to this day having to hurt .

Her name was Pat. She was a black girl who clicked with me immediately. She told me she loved blue eyes but could never say that to her grandmom, with whom she lived. Her dad had been white and blue eyes were never mentioned in her grandmom's house.

So daily we attacked the Algebraic Monster and talked and laughed like two teenage girls for two and a half months. We conquered the monster, passed, and on the last day I asked if she could come to my house that evening. She said she'd wait to be picked up outside her home in her neighborhood. I went home, told the good news to my mom, and my sister who owned the house. I was flatly told "No". She couldn't be picked up or come to our neighborhood. The neighbors wouldn't accept a black friend visiting. I pleaded and reasoned, but because it wasn't my mother's house, I could not have this friend over. We didn't have cell phones then. I had to let Pat know someway that I wasn't allowed to have her visit. And I knew in my heart she never would be allowed by her grandmom to have a white girl over. After all I had platinum blonde hair, and green eyes, not blue. I carried on and protested, but eventually the river between our friendship raged in from the banks of the divided races.

Throughout my childhood, I often went to Harrisburg Pa. We had two sets of friends there who were like family. Ironically they lived along the banks of the Susquehanna River. Floods threatened their homes all the time.

I loved spending summers or holidays there. In the summer the kids in this poor area were happy to play with a Jersey Girl. One year, in April, we were set to visit. We took the Jersey and Pennsylvania turnpike. On that day in April Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. I myself was a big Civil Rights endorser. That night in Harrisburg we went with our friends to Bingo. While we were getting out of the car, an older black man approached us. We thought "Oh my God was he going to get angry with us over what had just happened to Dr. King"?! It turned out, all he wanted was a cigarette. During those days older people of different races didn't argue. They kept it to themselves.

That same summer another idol of mine was assassinated like his older brother. Robert Kennedy, the new hope for our nation, shot dead at one of his campaign rallies for the Presidency.

The rivers had raged again. All three were lost. On my bedroom wall, I had three pictures of John, Martin and Robert. Our streets in Trenton went mad with riots. My brother was a police officer on the Trenton Police Department. Rioting raged in Trenton High School up the street from us and throughout the city. Even our high school was let out early. I remember stories from my older brother about being a police officer during the riots. Trenton was never the same after that. I was proud of my brother. He was an outstanding and respected police officer. He moved up the ranks and thank God was never killed in action, nor did he ever kill anyone without warrant or necessity. One of his friends commented that he was an honorable man.

That summer we visited Harrisburg and the one family we knew had moved. Next door to them, was a black family. The mom and my "aunt" got along together great. There was a girl my age named Gail. We always got along. And then, one daythat summer, we had planned on going downtown to shop. Unbeknownst to her family, or to myself, I was told by Gail, while waiting for our bus, that we couldn't sit together on the bus. Her black friends could never see her being friends with a white girl. I was shocked, but agreed. I don't remember if we even walked together that day, but it was the same thing on the way home. We couldn't sit together because she had to adhere to the code of her black friends. When I got back, I told my aunt who had a discussion with her mother. Her mother was enraged with her. She told her to apologize and never do that again. Things were never the same with Gail and I after that. The times were not the best, but the river ebbed on.

Finally, I graduated and we moved after my mom's death to North Jersey. During her funeral hurricane Agnes had flooded our friends' homes in Harrisburg. The one man came to Trenton for the funeral. His wife stayed home and watched the waters come up to the second floor. The street was compensated for the floods and they moved out.

In senior year the girls that were part of the in crowd tried to get me to give them answers for our final history tests. It was our final year and we should be friends they said. It sounded so familiar. I refused, because I wouldn't cheat for a friend and least of all for them. I got exempted from the history exam because of my straight A's. (A's as in Algebra. I had handled Geometry much better)

I had once again gone through a major change, leaving my beloved city. From South Trenton to the outskirts of the infamous Burg, or Italian section, and finally northern New Jersey.

I often think back on that city and my growing up there. It's forever changed. Like all of us. I now work with Special Ed students, specifically now with children who have autism. Schools now have occupational therapy and physical therapy and speech pathology. We have students who moved from other countries. We have various religions. Very new lifestyles.

But I'm afraid. I lie in bed at night and sometimes hear the river raging. Many times I think it's going to flood our nation and our world. I don't know if the houses we built will be strong enough to stand the tide. I don't believe our structures are built correctly. I wonder if the banks will overflow with hatred and anger. I worry that they haven't already been eradicated by too many waves of riot or prejudice or exacerbation by those who would see our nation washed away. Greed and avarice sometimes clash too loud and we can't hear the thunderous roar that would flood our house. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

And then I turn to the belief that bore me along the waters throughout life. I close my eyes and I pray. I float and think of a heaven on earth. I'm a child once again in the hands of a far superior being who promised that the world would never again be destroyed by flood. And I go to sleep, awaiting a brand new day.

June 09, 2020 01:46

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Pamela Saunders
21:54 Jun 17, 2020

I really like how you used the water imagery to connect the parts of the story. It's poetic and reads like a story rather than a history account. And it's all so human. With all the glory and shame that entails. So honest and so readable.


Cynthia Grove
16:10 Jul 21, 2020

Thank you so much for your comments. It makes me so happy that you enjoyed it. I'm happy to hear you found it both poetic and informative.


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Jessica X
14:47 Jun 15, 2020

Wow! Your story is really nicely written and very detailed! I loved how you explained the situations that were happening between different races in the past. Since your story is so detailed, is any or all of it is based real life experiences? That would be really cool! Really well done! :)


Cynthia Grove
18:42 Jun 15, 2020

It's all my personal true life experiences. Every word. That was life in the 60's!


Jessica X
00:14 Jun 16, 2020

That is so crazy! I've never tried writing a story based on my own life experiences. You narrated it amazingly!!


Cynthia Grove
13:30 Jun 16, 2020

Thank you. For me it's easy. Maybe you want to try it. Every day is an adventure.


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