Where is Penny Evans?
No matter the state of the New Jersey weather I walked the mile to third grade every day. Knee deep in snow or sloshing through oily marbleized puddles of spring rainwater I was expected to make this journey on foot without complaint. If it was a good day and the timing was right, I would meet my friend Penny Evans at the crossing of the “big road” for the final block to school. We amused ourselves by choosing a rock and then attempting to kick the same rock the whole distance. My mother hated this because it wore down the toes of my black and white saddle shoes which had to last until the next school year.
Mountain Lakes Elementary
The classroom smelled like schools did in the 1950s – old wood, chalk dust that reminded me of Milk of Magnesia, and the fusty odor of wet garments which we hung in the cloak room – a long narrow room with hooks to hang damp wool coats. The floor was lined with rubber galoshes fastened by industrial strength metal buckles which were nearly impossible to unclasp with fingers stiff from the cold.
When the school day ended it truly ended. Homework was a thing of the future waiting for me in junior high. In elementary school afterschool time and summer vacations were for making up our own activities. Building “boy forts” (no boys allowed, but sturdy like they built) in the woods across the street. Shooting toy bows and arrows. Climbing and jumping from the huge granite rocks in the back yard. Riding bikes to the ice cream shop to buy a ten-cent mint chocolate chip cone – with sprinkles. It was an idyllic time with freedom to roam as long as I was home by the time the streetlights came on.
We played at life situations with Ginny dolls (before Barbies with boobs) on the soft grass in the yard. At 8” tall, they had the body and look of a 9 or 10 year old girl, like ourselves. They had enviably shiny and smooth hair, and bodies without curves. “Designer clothes” could be purchased for them, however, in our frugal family, my grandmother mostly sewed the outfits for my Ginny. Nor did I get the fancy “fashion trunk,” instead, my doll’s clothes were stored in a shoebox.
At the end of the school day I couldn’t wait to change from my school clothes and skip-run to Penny’s house. Both our families lived in two of the humblest homes in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey – a wealthy enclave of immense homes within commuting distance to New York City. Moneyed families with names like Briggs & Stratton built mansions in the heavily wooded community. Stone pillars at the entrances to driveways were chiseled with recognizable names from business and industry.
Our modest ranch house was situated between two sizeable stone homes. Penny Evans’ family also lived in a ranch house but hers was perched on a hill. Theirs looked more imposing than ours because of its hillside location. Funny that I remember this detail. I thought of her family as economically a step above ours because their house was up a steep driveway, a location I associated with “rich people.”
At her house books were everywhere. The disorderly family room had floor to ceiling shelves of books. Books spilled from side tables and were haphazardly stacked on the floor beside the brown corduroy recliner. The atlases and picture books and other more literary volumes reminded me of my favorite place – my Grandfather Galt’s den which was also cozy and bookshelf lined.
Mealtimes were much more fun than at my house. Her parents, both professors, were unconcerned with enforcing proper manners. Children at the Evans’ table were encouraged to participate in debate and dialogue. I wanted to live there.
I even envied Penny’s long dark brown pigtails. Little frizzies poked out here and there. When the light was behind her it formed an aura around her head. My short straight hair cut in a bob with bangs, which my mother trimmed with tiny manicure scissors, was nothing like hers. Oh, how I wanted long hair!
In fourth grade our family moved away. It took me a long time to find a friend like Penny. We wrote letters for a while, but as we moved into our pre-teens we eventually stopped writing and lost touch. In spite of sporadic internet searches I never found Penny Evans.
I like when my mind wanders back to the mid-1950’s. I remember life then as blissful and carefree. I take a deep breath and try to shut out the chaos of the current world and experience briefly the unsophisticated and innocent ten year old me.