One version of my childhood is that I was half-raised by a British WWII nurse. Aunt Jill lived with us for only 3 years before she retired at age 72, and she is one of the only consistent players in the enterprise of bringing up the two children at 301 Rumson Road in Little Silver, NJ.
Once a single mother, Connie got a job in NYC. Yes, she longed to get back to her pre-children working life, but the city was where she could earn enough to cover the bills. Knowing she’d be gone most of each weekday due to the long commute, she placed an ad in The Asbury Park Press for a live-in caretaker. In walked Jill Tompkins with one suitcase in hand.
Jill became a fixture in the dry, mile-square town of Irish and Italian catholic families who had lived in Little Silver for generations. First of all, nobody had live-in babysitters. Secondly, her British accent made it such that anything she said sounded authoritative and slightly haughty, so people tended not to argue with her. And third, she got to work right away. With a skill level on par with Henry Higgins, she transformed my 7 year old brother Alex and 8 year old me from savages into people who could eat with a knife and fork. She taught me to make my bed with hospital corners, a skill I was pretty proud of and sure nobody else I knew possessed (nor did they likely care about, but I did). She got things running smoothly in our lives, and we were not the only ones to notice. Kids who weren’t allowed to come to our house to play when the news hit that my parents were divorcing were suddenly allowed once Jill was on the scene. For those few years, she provided a real stability as our two parents took turns moving in and out of the house every six months.
Even though Aunt Jill was as serious a hard-ass as we had yet known, she seemed to sincerely enjoy our company. She rewarded any good behavior with Certs (British-esque, patrician-type mint) or Mentos, and on special occasions, took us to McDonald’s. She loyally drank tea out of the pharmacy-bought, flowered teacup I gave her one year for her birthday, and when it broke, she glued it back together and still used it despite its slow leak. She even crocheted Alex and me elaborately sectioned blankets for our beds; mine in two oddly matched colors that weren’t exactly pleasing to the eye – a saturated royal blue and potent mustard yellow. I LOVED this blanket and my mother kept it for me through the years and various re-locations, and it now stands as a pretty singular relic of my otherwise pretty relic-less childhood.
The best thing about Jill was that she had a story for just about any animal we brought up, and I suspected her, after some time of regaling us with tales of personal run-ins with the most obscure jungle animals we could find in our encyclopedia, to be a chronic liar. But like many kids, I preferred a good story to the truth any day, and hers were engaging, colorful and action-packed. She had worked in Africa as part of the North African Campaign during the war and, for example, while walking from the commissary to the hospital, she once spotted an ocelot or a puma in a tree above, ready to pounce. In none of her stories did the animals ever get shot or otherwise perish, and she narrowly escaped possible attack through several clever displays of agility. Though once in a while, a (probably handsome) hospital doctor came to her rescue.
(I should add that in support of the liar theory, Aunt Jill’s real name, as we found out through letters that came to her at our address, was Lorna Tompkins. We soon discovered that we got in big trouble if we even jokingly referred to her as Lorna. So we didn’t.)
Jill was a widow, and we had come to know Eddie, her husband, as nothing more than a personality-less ghost, mostly through her notable LACK of stories about him, even when probed for info. On the weekends when my mother or father were home from work, Aunt Jill would drive 30 miles south to stay with her friend, Mrs. Rowlands, an elderly American widow. Occasionally she took us to Mrs. Rowlands’ cluttered but pleasant apartment for a weeknight dinner, where we learned that they shared the bedroom and seemed to have a gentle and knowing companionship.
If Aunt Jill was guilty of any crime, it was of being old-fashioned in the wrong way for my forward-thinking and extremely liberal mother, who had volunteered at Planned Parenthood in the early 70s and worked there again after she had retired from her NYC job later in life. One day Jill’s achilles heel got the better of her when I was splayed out on the couch reading a book and she practically spat, ”Sit like a lady!” It wasn’t the first time we’d had this “conversation”, and for whatever reason on this day I retorted (with attitude, I’m sure), “But I don’t WANT to be a lady!” and she smacked me. I don’t think it was on my face; I don’t really remember, and it didn’t hurt, but it did surprise me.
Connie did not have many rules, but there was definitely one: nobody was allowed to hit us. And that night after we’d gone to bed, when relating the tale of the day to my mom, Jill continued with, “And I think you should have Erika see a psychologist because she’s patterning herself after you.” Years later Connie told me this story, and how insulted she’d been. But after reading Jill some more refined version of the Riot Act, she didn’t fire her, because to start with, my mom is not a hot head, and also I think because she recognized that she needed Jill. We were in so many ways well-cared for. Jill could hang with my parents’ unorthodox custody arrangement, and previous babysitters couldn’t or didn’t because they were elderly immigrant ladies who led old-world lives; they didn’t want to live in the house during my dad’s tenure, not because he was threatening, but because he was a man who wasn’t their husband and their husbands didn’t want them living in another man’s house. Whatever the case, Jill was old, tough, indebted to no one, and she didn’t bat an eyelash at any of it.
After she retired, Jill left a vacancy. My mom was still working and we had a panoply of sitters that followed her, but there was never another who loved us, with whom we felt as comfortable, and whom we loved back. And strangely or not, I don’t remember what followed, but I think we saw Aunt Jill only a handful of times after her retirement. Jill had been in touch to ask if we would back-pay into the social security system on her behalf, which my mother did. After Mrs. Rowlands died, her family wrote Jill out of everything and she moved into an assisted living home on the Jersey shore. One Saturday about 10 years after her tenure in our house, Connie and I drove out to see her. Obviously older, she was tiny and vulnerable in a way I’d not known her to be, telling us in a small voice that she was living on a shoestring budget and could we help her out? She’d recently asked my father for money and he’d obliged, but that day my mother said no, that she didn’t have it. We stayed a bit longer and on our drive home I looked out the window while my mother assured me that Aunt Jill was being well taken care of.
That was the last time I saw her.
Recently, Connie told me a story. Two years after that visit, she’d received a message from Jill on the machine, asking for a call back. It was my mom’s last night in New Jersey, as she and her new husband had sold their house and were leaving for the retirement life in South Carolina. Connie deleted the message, and the phone was disconnected for good the very next day.
Three days later, my father died of cancer. And while everything bleeds into everything else, that is a story for another day.
As quiet and beautiful as it was, Little Silver invited me into its folds with an introductory tale of tragedy. It was like starting a friendship with a punch in the gut; if you get through it, you’re best friends for life.
I was 5 when I first stepped into our empty house with my brother and parents and the realtor. Holding my mom’s hand and looking down at the orange shag wall-to-wall carpet in the family room, I asked her in a whisper who had lived here before us.
She told me about the family of three. One night earlier that summer, the son, 17 years old, had been doing 360s in his car on a joyride on one of the high school ball fields up the road. The gas cap popped off with a thunk, and to investigate the situation, he knelt down to check around the car, lighting a match to get a closer look. The explosion followed, and he and his girlfriend were helicoptered to the Brooklyn Burn Center where they both died the next morning.
“But where did his parents go?” She told me that they moved down the road. A deliberate move, just to get out of this house.
We resumed our walk-through behind the realtor as my small brain ran that scene over and over. I tried to picture his parents. My thoughts returned to them often throughout the years as a totem of tragedy. What was their life like now? Did they talk to each other or did they live in silence? I wondered which house down the street contained their sorrow. A couple of years later when I sold girl scout cookies door-to-door, there were two houses that never answered in all the years I knocked. The brush got thicker and wilder as I neared those houses by the woodsy bird sanctuary and I crossed through lots of thicket to get to those doors with seemingly no-one behind them. But a car in the driveway, always.
Maybe they don’t answer the door to little kids. Maybe they can’t, I thought.
Our house that had been marked by tragedy continued on its protracted-tragic schedule, though never again as dramatically as in the manner to which I’d been introduced to it. My brother and I loved our ranch-style home, same as all the others on our street, and had lots of happy times there. But all lives have sorrow and secrets, and many of ours incubated in that house. My mother immediately named it ‘The Turning Point’; months before she would separate from my father, she announced a little too excitedly, “So much changes here!” It fell into some disrepair soon after we moved in, since we lived there for only a year before Connie left Atkin, and due to the lawyer fees and costs of separation and divorce, maintaining the house and renting an apartment, neither of them had the funds to fix much.
We loved it so much, we didn’t even notice. We were kids, we had circuitous hallways, we had a wild, overgrown yard to run around in, and we had the stories in our heads.
As we get toward this album’s release into the wild, I’ve been reflecting on our inspiration for the band’s name, the mile-square town of Little Silver, NJ, where I grew up in the 70s and 80s. Like everywhere else, it has changed. Little Silver is now crowded with New Yorkers who found a Jersey Shore haven for their families. The town has since widened its main streets and gained some traffic lights to keep up with its increased fancy car-count, but back in the day it was a sleepy, mostly working-class town that housed one gas station, one luncheonette, and was only 4 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
My parents picked the town in 1977, based on its proximity to the beach and because, as my mother told it, she loved the name. The story goes that in 1667, white settlers bought the town from the Native Americans for ‘a little bit of silver’. So pleased with their deal, the settlers decided to name the town after this victorious exploitation.
Still, we loved the name.
In the next weeks, I’ll be posting anecdotes about the characters in and around my family who lived there. Stay tuned if you want a break from the news and any other, perhaps more worthy passages of time.
Ok, good people, get your singing voices warmed up, tuned up, liquored up, whatever it takes, as we are having us a SING at this month’s Three Ring Bender. The Hoot will be in residence. And here’s a wobbly approximation, at best, of what might be sung, so that you may all come ready to join the chorus. Please suggest edits! Additions! These all link to youtube vids, so go learn some songs if you like. In no particular order:
Hard Times (the Gillian one)
Man of Constant Sorrow (ours I don’t think is the melody you know…)
I’ve lived in apartments Brooklyn for the last 20 years. For 16 of those, I was childless. Since then, I’ve had two children and my love affair with where I live waxes and wanes, as does everybody’s with whom I’ve ever had a conversation here.
In the spaces between working, caring for my kids, and playing music, I am often, somewhere on the sidelines of my brain, wondering about a place we might move to that won’t be as “difficult”. It will be naturally lush and wild, yet I won’t feel isolated. The winters won’t be unbearably long and gray, and I will not have to drive my car everywhere. This wonderland will be endowed with excellent public schools and rich in diverse, thoughtful, artistic, non-pretentious and funny people. It sure would be refreshing if it wasn’t full of only the privileged, too. Oh, and please let’s make it within two hours of the very city from which I wish to flee.
Though I ruminate on friends’ recommendations and pore over real estate sections and websites, I can’t seem to come up with any real life places that I have been convinced by or compelled to move to. As a matter of fact, the only places that meet my criteria – where I feel THAT FEELING – are in my children’s books.
I want to live in the places depicted in, yes, storybooks. And that said, the following are my top choices:
All the World (Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee)
I owe this to Marla Frazee’s fantastic illustrations of nature and community. I belong in this landscape (is it Hawaii?) and in this community of (make believe) families, complete with bounteous gardens, raw and undeveloped oceanside, a beautiful farmer’s market. I can smell the soup and fresh baked rolls in the town’s restaurant and I long to look out at the sea from their pier at night. I hear myself playing my guitar in their music-making gatherings. I admit I have a crush on one of the dads in the book, and I even like his wife okay. She seems nice, though I’m not sure we’d connect. But I’m married anyway, plus I’m no home-wrecker.
The Napping House (Audrey and Don Wood)
I cannot stop staring at the first page, the house in the rain. It reminds me of somewhere I’ve been, though I can’t seem to place it in any hard memory of my own. A quiet and almost – but not quite – melancholic feeling of wonder washes over me whenever I look at this picture, the spell that’s cast by arresting rain.
Before You Came (Written by Patricia MacLachlan and Emily MacLachlan Charest, Illustrated by David Diaz)
When I’m in the mood for a little psychedelia, I choose this one. The people are oddly a tad creepy, like those in a wax museum, but they’re colorful and the environment can’t be beat. Flowers, rivers and canoes, a sort of bitchy cat but a fantastic dog, and a guitar-playing father. They even have a hammock complete with sparkling lights where one can “read all day and sometimes into the night.” I must admit my mind immediately went to the mosquitos, but I figure when I start my new life I’ll get over that; after all, I’m currently still a city-slicker.
Spring is Here (Taro Gomi)
It’s the grass. It looks so lush. It’s the same landscape depicted throughout the seasons, and I definitely am most taken by “The quiet harvest arrives.” Heck, the girl is playing a recorder in that wheat field – we don’t do that in the city! (Nor would I ever in the country but that’s beside the point.) Gomi has another book, My Friends, in which a girl learns all kinds of emotional and physical life skills from a handful of wild and dangerous animals. Unlikely, yes – and definitely cool.
Pancakes For Breakfast (Tomie DePaola)
From this woman’s hairstyle to her lifestyle, I want it all. We wake up with her on a sunshiny winter day in what I think of as Vermont. No dialogue, but captivating illustrations of this happy widow’s simple desire to make a delicious breakfast. Her companions include her dog and cat, and in an effort to avoid being a spoiler, I’ll say the “action” of this wordless story takes her on all kinds of resourceful adventures just yards from her adorable, snow laden home. In this moment, I’ll say I could get used to her butter-churning, cow-milking way of life.
I am a Bunny (Ole Risom and Richard Scarry)
It begins, “I am a bunny. My name is Nicholas. I live in a hollow tree.” This book, I’ve decided, most evokes my current existence; the hollow tree is not unlike the one bedroom apartment I share with my husband, two children and cat. Nicholas has more space actually, due to his solitary lifestyle, and of course a way better landscape with larger-than-life butterflies, dandelion seeds, gently floating leaves and fluffed-out snowflakes. Needless to say, I spend inordinate amounts of time with each page of this book, and I do believe I would make the lateral move to that tree for the view alone.
Of course, I want the Goodnight Moon room. Who doesn’t? It has occurred to me that this COULD POSSIBLY BE an apartment, since you never see anything but sky out that window. But let’s face it – it’s probably not, right?
We try not to get too thick on the website here with details of our lives, per se. We’ve all got details, and lots of ’em. But there are two particular life-details which this post needs in order to mean anything: (1) our two and half year old daughter Hazel, who’s pretty amazing if you ask us, but who, like all kids who don’t have their driver’s license yet, is pretty much always around either one or the other of us, and (2) our dumb cellphones and computers, which for reasons that are harder to explain, are pretty much always around both of us.
We have a bunch of writing we’ve been wanting to do for a Little Silver recording this winter, and have been struggling to find the time. Right or wrong, we attribute this in no small way to Hazel, cellphones, and computers, though maybe not in that order. So this last weekend we made arrangements with Hazel’s kind grandparents, and with the kind cellphone-impervious mountains of Virginia, for a getaway from those things that largely order our normal lives.
I’d put preachy revelations about “self-actualization” in the same gooey category as overly personal blogging, and really, who needs either of them… But I will say this: the weekend, the rest, the writing, were all pretty great. I seriously don’t know what took us so long.
Here are some photos. We look forward to you hearing the songs soon!
You know how sometimes no news is good news? That’s tonight.
Steve and I had a two week flirtation with moving to our namesake town, Little Silver. (Actually, we’re the namesake, aren’t we?) We got wind of a house that we fell in love with, with a greenhouse attached. And we thought, shit, we’re going, we’re leaving Brooklyn. We may even have to change the name of our band, or – a close second – forever lie about where we live. But kick back with a beer and breathe a sigh of relief. We are still Little Silver, and we are still in Brooklyn.
It was not an obvious decision to stay, but we feel sure of it. We live in a pricey place (NY) with a child, in a one-bedroom apt. (This is not a plea to buy our records, though, heck – if you’re inspired, who am I to stand in your way?) We love the land over the water there, the house, the small monthly payment we’d pay to live in a four bedroom house with a music room. In the words of The Streets, “It was supposed to be so eeeeeeeaaaasy…” BUT, Hazel is asleep, Steve is out and I am currently on our fire escape watching a purple and orange sun that sets over NJ. (Sunsets are the one and only reason that New Yorkers look at NJ – or just above it – once a day, and that’s only if they’re not too busy.)
Truth be told, I am very happy to be right here.
We are playing two shows next week, opening for Hem in Philly and DC, and we are SO excited. You might think that because Steve is a member of Hem, this is a shoe-in, but it is not, so please join us for these super special shows… info here. We’d love to see you.
Steve and I have been crappy about posting, it’s true. We seemed to hibernate this winter, if that means writing, playing a couple of shows, taking care of family, and for Steve, releasing an album with Hem for the first time in 6 years. But it’s been blog-quiet.
Among that quiet, I read a friend of mine’s memoir through letters: Public Apology, In Which A Man Grapples with a Lifetime of Regret, Once Incident at a Time. Dave Bry and I went to high school together, in Little Silver, NJ. He was a year ahead of me, so I didn’t really know him until we sat next to each other in Physics class my junior year. We spent it just getting by, grade-wise, and writing each other vulgar notes. I don’t remember what we said, but it was an ongoing contest based on out-doing the last response. I remember feeling uber-clever, and I’m now quite confident that this too is worthy of regret. But thank god the evidence is missing.
I re-connected with him through an old high school friend, so we’d seen each other sporadically over the past 4 years. Then I got word that he was doing a few readings from his new book. So of course, I went.
I can’t really think of a better book premise – you mine everything you’ve ever regretted from your life, and then write an apology to the main co-star of each story. And I’ve never understood those who say ‘life’s too short to regret’ or something along those lines, when I am FULL of regret over ways I hurt others over some silly spur-of-the-moment comment or action. Or the worse stuff, those digs that I actually intended. I mean, what are people actually DOING while they’re busy not regretting? I need a tutor. But that’s an aside.
There are hilarious entries, including a letter to Jon Bon Jovi apologizing for tossing beer cans into his yard, while simultaneously demanding an acknowledgement of the weak-as-all-get-out lyrics to “Wanted Dead or Alive”. You can hear Dave’s building hysteria throughout the letter, simply in the punctuation. Brilliant. There are deep, cringing tales, like ruining a Bob Mould concert and getting publically told off by Bob himself before the encore. There are of course the cruel love apologies. There are the letters that open wide Dave’s teen-aged periods of self destruction and drug use, a result in some ways of the anxiety that accompanies the tragic desire to be accepted (as we all want in high school – hell, maybe forever -), and a diversion to avoid coping with his father’s terminal cancer.
I told Steve I couldn’t read Dave’s book before bed, as I’m vulnerable to stories of violence and the horrific things people seem to do to one another with regularity. I am basically a weakling. So I rationed myself to daytime subway rides. When I’d crack it open at night, Steve would gently ask me, “Do you really want to read that now? I mean, you said…” Right.
Would this book would punch the average reader in the gut the way it did me? I think so indeed. Dave writes with such honesty that you feel all the complications and messiness of being alive – how life is chopped up and uneven and there are some things you really never resolve. You just keep going. And maybe purge it all in a memoir. Then read it to everyone you know on your book tour, egad! Oh, and if I haven’t said as much, buy this book. Not because he’s my friend, though that does count. But because it holds the promise of side-splitting laughter. And it’s got its share of the dark side, as any self-respecting read should. I mean, I might have been able to write something like it. Except I’m pretty sure my letters would have closed with something like this:
So I’m sorry.
But you have to admit you were a total dick, too.
Steve and I trundled off the plane in Austin two days ago with a few suitcases full of clothes, pedals, cords and merch, our computers, a toddler and one guitar. Yes, only one guitar. I made the executive decision that I would rent an electric guitar down here from a local store because we had so much to bring with us, what with the kid and all. So last night my brother in law, Bruce, drove me across town to make my selection. I walked in, and a guy at the front desk asked what he could help me with. I told him that I was here to rent a guitar for the week. Here’s how that conversation went:
Me: I’m here to rent an electric guitar for the week.
Him: Ok, sure. For you?
Him: (Looking over my shoulder) Ok. (Pause.) Not for the guy in the Jeep?
Me: (I look over my shoulder to see Bruce reading The Onion in the front seat, his door open, one leg casually hanging out on the car’s edge. Longer Pause.) Uh, no. Still for me.
Him: Ok. How about you go pick one out?
He points to wall of guitars, so I proceed over there for a few minutes and choose a Fender Mustang. Mostly because Liz Phair plays one and secondly because it’s a gorgeous baby blue, and I haven’t played this color of guitar before. I’m excited. I return with it, they put it in a case, etc. and meanwhile, I’m asked to fill out their rental agreement. Name, address, band name, email, etc. Then… three personal references. Bruce is one of them, our friend Elizabeth, and I leave the third one blank since I don’t know anyone else who lives here. I mean, I know Patty Griffin lives here, but will she vouch for me if they call her? That’s the big question.
Him: Ok, we need three references, and one of them needs to be a relative. (By now Bruce has come in to hang out.)
Bruce: I’m a relative, her brother-in-law.
Him: (Ignoring Bruce, who, by the way is 6’8″ so it takes a practiced and professional eye to ignore him.) How about you put your mom down there?
Me: My mom? But she doesn’t live here.
Him: That’s okay. Put your mom down. That’ll be fine.
I really don’t remember the last time I had to list my mom as a reference for anything, but I guess the rental guy figures if I don’t get a decent reference from my mom, it’s pretty bad. Now I’m imagining him calling her:
Hello? Erika rented a what? Oh, I see. So why are you calling me? Mmm hmmm. Well, I’m sure she’s good for it. (Click.)
“Hello? What? Why are you calling me? AGAIN?!!? THAT LITTLE… you know, she’s been this way for years and at some point I just had to cut her off…. Yeah, good luck! She’s probably in Mexico by now… hey, throw her in jail for all I care! If you can catch her, that is. She has to learn but that’ll never happen if I keep bailing her out!! I’VE HAD IT!!!!! (click.)
Regardless, I put down my mother’s New Jersey address and phone number. As he’s running my card ($1100 deposit, $18.40 for the actual rental for 1 week) – he makes conversation:
Him: So, you here for the holidays and just want a guitar to kick around on at home for the week?
Me: Kind of. I’m here for the holidays and we have two shows this week in Austin and Johnson City.
Him: (Look of utter incredulity.) Oh! You have shows?
At this point I’m wondering if I look like an alien or a werewolf and nobody who loves me has had the heart to tell me. Though actually, aliens and werewolves are pretty rock-n-roll. Maybe I just look like a totally boring mom? Who rents guitars to play on the couch with her girlfriends? (Which sounds fun, by the way, and I’m not above it.) Is it so confounding to imagine that I might actually need a piece of musical equipment to play music, maybe even in public?
(Radio silence). Guy gets up, walks toward back of store, out of sight. New guy shows up, hands me the receipt and guitar. I thank him and leave.
Our friend, Julie – (and the partner of Little Silver’s bass and keyboard player, David), wrote a stark and beautiful depiction of her volunteer effort this weekend in Coney Island. It’s been living under my skin ever since I read it, so I’m linking it here.