They say if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there. But I do and I was – albeit watching the fun from the sidelines while attending elementary school. One of my earliest and most vivid memories concerns the day John F Kennedy was assassinated, when we were still living in the neighbourhood of Queens unfortunately named Flushing.
This story, however, takes place a few years later, out in Stony Brook, on the north shore of Long Island (roughly equidistant between the big city and the salubrious Hamptons), where we moved in the winter of 1965. I was a Brownie, so that would make me 7 or 8 years old. The weekly meetings took place in a glorious old wooden house complete with a wraparound porch, musty smells and big echoing rooms. I get a pang whenever I see houses like these, and haven’t abandoned my dream of inhabiting one.
It was December. Our Brownie troupe leader passed out blank hand puppet forms cut from red cotton. Take them home to decorate, and next week we’ll share the results, she said. Well I was off like a shot, my vision crystal clear in my head. I was all about the zeitgeist, and the zeitgeist was groovy.
Back home I glued a mass of yellow yarn to the puppet’s head, giving her long, flowing locks. I cut the silver paillettes off of a winter hat belonging to my mother – it was actually uglier than the one pictured below, so you can see why she donated it so cheerfully. I affixed them across the lower half of the puppet to create a sequined skirt. I gave her a happy face. Job done, I spent the rest of the week gazing upon my hippy puppet with self-satisfied delight.
The next week we were instructed to keep our puppets hidden until the big reveal. We formed a circle, each girl with her hand jammed up her puppet’s butt, holding it out of sight behind her back. The troupe leader counted off. One. Two. Three!
Forward shot our hands. There, in a perfect circle, were 17 virtually identical Santa Claus puppets. And one sequined hippy.
I was mortified.
Mom was ecstatic. One of her lifelong mottos was “Don’t be a sheep.” But when you’re a kid you want desperately to baa with the flock. Different is dangerous: it leaves you vulnerable. I felt I’d failed childhood. December. Red. Santa. DOH. How stupid could I be? How could I not get it?
Well doh indeed. For a start, I didn’t get it because my family was Jewish. Rabidly atheist Jews, to be sure, but Santa hadn’t been much of a player in my life to that point. On the other hand, I’d encountered a fair few hippies. Laugh In was regular family viewing. My mother had a huge crush on Jim Morrison, so there were Doors records in the house. My father was a university professor, and when we were kids my brother and I were often on campus. I also remember Janis Joplin on the Dick Cavett talk show, barefoot and braless, though Google tells me her first appearance was in 1969, well after the Great Puppet Debacle. Still, you get the drift, and some sense of how my childhood played out.
As those hands shot forward in a great cloud of cotton balls and a small swish of sequins, I realised, perhaps for the first time, that life behind our closed doors didn’t match what was happening elsewhere.
It’s a turning point in any childhood, don’t you think?