Sherry Berlin

Sherry Berlin

Growing up in the 1960s in the borough of the Bronx in New York City, I lived on the second floor of a pre-war apartment building with my sister and my parents. My apartment boasted a sealed off dumbwaiter, a fuse box, and a makeshift clothesline strung between the living room and kitchen shamelessly airing our unmentionables. Gazing out of my bedroom window, I observed life. Boys played stickball in the street while seniors chatted away on lawn chairs. The parade of miniature brides dressed in white confirmation dresses, petite veils, and patent leather white shoes captured my imagination. At a young age, I envied them. But my grandmother explained, "Jewish girls only become brides when they get married." Various young, shirtless males pondered life on the fire escape for prolonged periods of time puffing on their cigarettes. I instinctively gathered that the teenage girl was entertaining men while her mom worked late hours. 
     When my head hit the pillow, a group of Doo-Wop wannabees serenaded me. Under the lamppost, they perfected their harmony by repeatedly singing, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by The Tokens. Drifting off to, "Aweem away,  Aweem away," proved comforting. For a while, I played outside with Cathy and Patty who lived in my building. But when their parents discovered I was Jewish, they no longer interacted with me. Instead, I amused myself by bouncing a pink rubber ball against the brick wall in the courtyard or roller-skating along the cement.
        As the last day of June approached, I ignored the stifling heat in my third-grade classroom knowing my summer of freedom was about to begin. Heading to the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, I left the sweltering sidewalks and headed for green utopia. Scrambling out of the car after that long car ride, I inhaled the crisp mountain air and sighed. I spent eight glorious weeks living in Himmels' Bungalow Colony, a self-contained community where everyone was your friend. The wide open space contained a pool, a small playground, open fields covered with tall grass and wildflowers, a convenience store, a laundromat, and a casino–a building used for playing Bingo and other entertainment. Small bungalows surrounded the Main House in a large horseshoe design.
      My family vacationed with a group of my parent's friends who lived together in the Main House. Each family had two children, one year older than me. Believing I wasn't as mature as the other girls, they purposely kept me out of their plans, but I pretended I didn't care. Besides, I felt all-knowing, because I learned how babies were conceived and I distinctly remember meandering around the colony counting the number of children each family had and surmising, "They have two children, so they did it twice."
      My summers were spent in a unique living situation. On the ground floor of the Main House, four individual kitchenettes were sectioned off along the walls in one huge space. The center of this area held long tables where the families dined together. Sticky fly paper hung from the rafters. Appetites were aroused by the overlapping aromas from the various ovens. Recipes and secrets were shared among the moms. When families were dining, passersby politely called out, "Hardy appetite!" Sarabelle, my mother's friend, chased field mice out of the kitchen with her corn broom while everyone else jumped up on the chairs, screamed, and grasped each other. 
     Every Sunday evening, all the men would reluctantly climb into their cars to head back to the city for the work week, only to return the following Friday night. My sister and I clung to my dad hoping to delay his departure.
     Each Friday evening, my dad would boast to his friends, Lenny and Norman, "It only took me two hours and twenty-one minutes!"
     Lenny would reply, "I made it in two hours and fourteen minutes. So there!"
     Norman would chime in, "Two hours and ten minutes! I beat you all!"
This banter continued weekly, and the men never grew tired of the ritual. On weekends, the scent of barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs enveloped the colony. Softball games for the men, excursions into the town of Monticello, and family outings to various points of interest filled our days.
     On Saturday evenings, when the comedians and singers completed their acts at nearby resorts such as: The Nevele, the Concord Hotel, or the Brown's Hotel, they entertained the adults for a late night show in our casino. As I grew older and taller, I caught the performance through the window. During the week, the women entertained themselves by playing mah-jongg, knitting, and gossiping. Without an organized day camp every day was a new adventure. If I wasn't hiking in the woods with my friends, or chasing butterflies in the fields, I was picking wild blueberries. My mom gently boiled the blueberries allowing any worms to rise to the surface. After skimming them off, they were ready to be consumed. Bordering the perimeter of the colony, the woods provided endless discoveries. "Clay Rock," was so named because if we spat on this huge boulder, pictures and words could be drawn on it using a small hand-held rock. The dirt trail behind the bungalows led to the Esther Manor Hotel, owned by Neil Sedaka's mother-in-law. Sometimes, Mr. Sedaka sang for the guests in the hotel lobby. They even named the teen room after him.
     Once a week, Mister Softee and the Chow Chow Cup trucks rambled onto the grounds. Enterprising businessmen also sold women's clothing out of the back of their vans. Since most of the women did not own a car, they relished the opportunity to shop.  When the "blouse man" appeared, the ladies were thrilled.
     There were times, however, when things did not run so smoothly. My friend, Sal, often lent me his bicycle since I didn't own one. One time, I spotted his wheels leaning against his bungalow begging to be ridden. I hopped on and merrily sped away. When I didn't return it, Sal's mother flew into our kitchen barking at my mother. In front of everyone, she blamed her for inferior child-raising, while pointing her finger at me and calling me a thief. I stood shamefully in silence knowing there was some truth in her accusations. I know my mom was more furious about how she was spoken to, than about my actions because I didn't get punished.
     At 11 years old, I developed a serious crush on an older fair-haired boy. I admired his diving proficiency and skillful swimming. Bearing red hair and freckles, he barely paid any attention to me except for an occasional smile. I was too shy to speak to him and I had no idea what to say anyway. But when I turned my attention to another boy who was closer to my age, he had his eyes on my friend, Jackie. Her beautiful long wavy hair was brushed every day by her mom while she sat in the reverse position on top of a closed toilet seat. 
     As Labor Day inched closer, my carefree days were ending. I will always treasure the gift of nature and the joy of freedom that was handed to us. When my husband and I bought a bungalow for our young family in the Catskill Mountains, I hoped to offer a similar experience for my children. Roasting marshmallows around a campfire, swimming in the lake, rowing and fishing were activities my children looked forward to. In addition, we planned family trips to National Parks, hiking and sightseeing in the great outdoors. A generation later, my adult children love nature and are sharing this interest with their loved ones. Mission accomplished!

Sherry Berlin is a former Special Education teacher with a Master’s Degree, who taught in the NYC public school system. After relocating to Florida, she continued teaching while raising her two children. Reading and writing are her passions.

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