Growing Up Girly in Philly

Things, as we all get to know growing up, are not what they seem. Growing up in Philadelphia, PA, was weird; probably still is – I’ve been away for 40 years as of my recent birthday. But trust me, adolescence in Philly was always a YIKES! moment.

It was not all hot yummy oozy oniony cheesesteaks available on every corner in every neighborhood before the suburbs really took hold; ditto large, doughy soft pretzels sold in vendors’ carts, with just the right amount of salt; both washed down with Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak soda offered up as a Saturday treat when the parents went out for their weekly date out with other grownups. It was not bargain hunting at our favorite discount house for heather sweaters and delish matching plaid skirts, or buying preppy loafers to complement the total outfit…

Ditto, this City of Brotherly love is a dichotomy mirroring much of the rest of our magnificent country offering up a grand wisdom, a sense of true freedom and as I’ve stated in other blogs, this intrinsic feeling of what liberty meant to our forefathers, and what it should mean to us peons. Conversely was (and may still be) the great graft – the absolute corruption of the city’s local politicians.

Growing up female in Philly was no less a dichotomy though it took years for me to figure this out. This was true in the 1950’s but I surmise it was true way earlier in the 20th Century as well. Why? Row houses created neighborhoods by their decorative applications as much as differences of the people that lived inside them. Blocks were territories and marked as such. Philly is a city of immigrant neighborhoods much like other cities but our houses were mostly connected – row houses built to mimic the Londoners’, like much of Penn’s Woods were meant to mimic the parks and lush lands of England throughout this beautiful verdant state. Penn lucked out when he chose this property for his freedom. Philly was the original gang city; girl gangs existed because both genders fought their counterparts to prove their strengths; for the Darwinian preservation of their species. It is just human nature, I guess, to battle, though for the life of me I cannot/never have understood this reality.

I remember visiting my mother for a minor operation, taking the bus from the airport through South Philly directly to her downtown hospital. The standard green and white striped metal awnings affixed to typical brick row homes demarcated Italian neighborhoods, offering up sweet little pots of beautiful flowering plants that later ushered us into the streets where Italian markets of all kinds lined the narrow streets – butchers, bakers, sweet shops and more. I was entranced by my home town after many years of living away…But per the norm, I digress.

Being female in Philly was never about being a lady, though I was no less a lady – it just was never spoken to me as such. My mother never admonished my sister or me for behaving in an unladylike manner, though Mom may have laughed at the amount of make-up I used as a novice 14-yr old applicator:

“Do you really like all that stuff on your eyes…You look like a clown…!!!!” (Mind you there was never a moment for the answer between that paused statement-into-question.) But she never, that I remember, said aloud, “Ladies do not behave that way.”

Later in life I thought that living without a father in the house, as a child of divorced parents (Quel SHONDA!!;[Yiddish for SHAME]) was the cause of my lack of a so-called ladylike education. But my mother was never unladylike: as a matter of fact, she was always dressed to the nines; she was gorgeous, funny, and magnetic – in public. In turn, my sister (who admonished me more for my “bad” behavior than did Mom) and I were always circumspect in our behavior outside the house. All my mother really wanted was not be embarrassed by us in front of other people — though she had a hard time living with her divorceé reality, and her fatherless-in-residence girls were admittedly often unnecessarily hard on her acting out our stresses. Hence our best behavior outside the house – sometimes we were two chubby peas in the proverbial pod. Pictures prove this – even one in then 16-yr. old Sylvester Stallone’s semi-suburban house.

On reaching pubescence, no less a cute giggly girl than most, I too, had my dichotomy. I read voraciously. Most of my time was spent reading, often to the wee hours of the morning despite the sheer luck of having a guilty parent who early on provided me with my own personal TV. I was the kid who read Taylor Caldwell, Margaret Mitchell and the like before age 12 – relatively sophisticated adult books, romantic and otherwise – that fed me what being female, a lady, a woman was meant to be. “Little Women” was always one of my favorites based on the hardships the March girls braved, and the patient lucid role model Mrs. March made. I was awed by Alcott’s painful truths…I was also the kid who was sent to the movies with Sis to see “Autumn Leaves” – a heart-rending story of mental illness — while my parents fought over their “agreements,” at age eight or so. I understood every word, every nuance and still cry when I think of that day, esp. on returning home to see how distraught my mother was…

Like my mother, sis and I LOVED (still do) clothes. Not that Mom was shallow but I surmise she spent the better part of her life looking for the perfect outfits – for specific events and those just-in-case-life-moments– an ongoing useless quest which kept her moving through her pain. However, when Sis and I went to college she became our equal student insatiable for Hesse’s Siddartha, Plato’s Republic and all our other thought-provoking books.

I was friends with every group in my very large high school, a school I was recently reminded by sister Curl’s friend, was memorialized in Frederick Wise’s documentary film “High School” and where Tony Danza recently taught for TV. A Smart Kid, Artsy Kid, Fashionable Kid, and Smart-Ass kid I fit into a lot of areas – and could communicate with a very wide variety of people. I really liked other Smart Kids – the nerds as well as those social wonders who ran for office, the most likable folks you’d ever imagine and probably still are that way – sweet, charming and real. But as far from my Jewish enclave as one could get, though I had many Jewish friends then many of whom remain close in my life today. Some I’ve just reconnected with after 30-40 years…Digression: Zuckerberg has no real idea of what he started with Facebook. He’s too fucking young to get it.

The feminist movement later deeply clarified for me what society taught me more than what Mom did. Mom was, like my Bubba Bessie, a pioneer, living a life not of her choosing but in a world both of her own making, choice or not. My mother was a dichotomy of one, living her own private cold war. She was a helluva role model. Late in life her favorite saying was, “Old age ain’t for sissies.” She even bought the pillow.

End part one

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About Vendela Vents!

A natural born kvetch with a skill in writing, I've decided to start a blog to share my elemental reality, hoping to tap into some univeral truths.
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3 Responses to Growing Up Girly in Philly

  1. monica says:

    Hi Wendy, I loved this blog!! You made me laugh and cry. Very touching to me.

  2. Wait’ll you read the followup…LOL

  3. Eileen Mandell says:

    Finally read this. Funny and memory inspiring!
    Hope today went well and that the results are even better!

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