Saturday, July 5, 2008

Growing Up Greek Without A Bike, by Athena Taddei

My dad called earlier that afternoon to say he was bringing home a surprise after work. He rarely telephoned, unless to say he was bringing home fresh lamb or smelt for dinner. Sometimes he’d call for me specifically to say he was bringing home a bag of live snails, which I got to play with in the sink before they turned into escargot dinner.

“What kind of surprise?” I squealed.

“You’ll see when I get home,” he said.

I knew it was something bigger than ever; Dad was never that secretive unless he was lying to us, and that only happened when you asked him a pointed question; he never volunteered a lie.

“Is it a puppy?” I always wanted a puppy. “Is it a toy?” I didn’t get many of those, which explained why I played with snails. I never did get an answer from Dad. I paraded through the house for the rest of the afternoon announcing to my brother that Dad was bringing me surprise. I could only imagine it would be for me; after all, he never asked to speak to anyone else. My brother didn’t seem to be as excited as I was. I wondered if he was just pretending not to care.

It was the start of summer vacation. During hot afternoons, Mom wouldn’t let us play outside, something about a stroke. Even when my friend Theresa, three doors down had her plastic pool out, I still wasn’t allowed out of the house. I later learned that it wasn’t because of possible heat stroke, but because of pool germs.

“Please Mom … Oh please can I go to Theresa’s pool?” I jumped up and down with my fists held close to my chest, hoping she’d say yes. I needed something to keep me occupied for the afternoon while I impatiently waited for Dad to get home.

“No. What if the other kids pee in the pool?” said Mom as she raised her hand, threatening to hit me, which she never did, then or any other time.

It wasn’t a question I was supposed to answer, but I did anyway. “They won’t pee in the pool. My friends aren’t babies!”

Mom shot me a glare that I could not reciprocate. I didn’t understand why she would let me drink out of the same cup at church, but wouldn’t let me share the same pool water. Nonetheless, the answer was a firm no.

On snow days, rain days and hot, ‘stroke’ days, my brother and I remained inside. Sometimes we would play dinky cars and other times, games shows. That day was ‘game show’ day. We spent hours watching televisions, playing along with the ‘Newlywed’ game, laughing, pretending to know what they were talking about. But it was the ‘Price Is Right’ that helped refine our negotiating skills, and the candy on the coffee table that was the coveted prize.

Dad was usually home by four, so from three o’clock on I waited by the front window, restlessly moving across from one pane to the next, pressing my cheek up against the glass as safely as I could without breaking it. It was the only way I could see down the street to the right, the direction from which my Dad came home every day.

“Noulie (my Mom’s nickname for me), stop pressing on the window. You’re going to break it.”

It didn’t matter because I finally saw Dad come around the corner.

“Daddy’s home, he’s home!”

I ran out side and eagerly waved in my Dad, in case he forgot which drive was ours, while my brother followed, finally showing some interest.

Dad was barely out of the car when I ran into his arms to get closer look at the open trunk behind him.

“Hi Chupeche,” he said with a big smile on his face.

“What did you bring Dad?” I asked, running to the back of the car, and without introduction, Dad unloaded a brand new 3-speed, 2-wheeler bike.

My brother moved closer to the shiny blue bicycle; his face lit up. There was a silent conversation that took place between my father and brother that I did not understand, and after sharing several glances with one another, my brother swiftly mounted the bike to take it for it first spin down the driveway. I was very happy for him, but couldn’t wait any longer for my surprise.

“Where’s my surprise Dad?”

“This is the surprise,” Dad replied, preoccupied with watching my brother. “Get off, so that I can adjust the seat,” Dad said to my brother.

“Let me try too!” I cried. I circled the bike from all sides, trying to get close enough to place my tiny hands on it, but Dad shooed me aside.

“Dad,” I said. “Dad, that’s too high for me,” I continued even though the height hardly mattered, since I didn’t know how to ride a two-wheeler.

“When you get bigger you can use it,” replied Dad, with his, proud gaze still fixed on my brother.

Even at the age of five, I knew the bicycle was never intended for me and it would be years before I would grow into it.

I cried a lot that summer. All of my friends had tricycles of their very own, making it hard for me to keep up with any of their adventures. Theresa, Cindy, Sandy and Kenneth all had tricycles while Johnny had a small two-wheeler with a banana seat and monkey bars. I would have been happy with a three-wheeler. I looked at it as a communal pool of bikes, 5 kids to 4 bikes. I didn’t have a problem with sharing.

“Let’s have a bike parade!” proclaimed Theresa one day. “We can decorate our bikes with streamers, and noise makers and ride up and down the street.”

With everyone in agreement, I was left to join the parade on foot asking every so often if I could have a try.

One ordinary day that summer, Dad called again to say he was bringing home a surprise after work.

“What kind of surprise?”

“You’ll see when I get home,”

This time I waited on the front porch steps alone.

“Hi Chupeche!” Dad said taking me into his arms. “I have something for you.”

I closed my eyes, held my breath and stretched out my hand, expecting some kind of food treat, but instead, Dad picked me up from under my arms, swung me around and placed me on the seat of a rusty, red and white tricycle. Without excuse for its used, broken and abused condition, Dad explained how he was going to make it brand new again. At the time, Dad worked at a paint company in product development and was working on a new rust covering paint that he couldn’t wait to try out on the dilapidated bike.

Dad was definitely hard working and a real fixer-up kind of guy. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. He put extra holes in our belts, glued the soles back on our shoes, changed the light bulbs in the kitchen and could make a skating rink in our back yard. I couldn’t wait to ride my new bike.

It took Dad the whole weekend to restore the antique. In the meantime I knocked on Theresa’s, Cindy’s, Sandy’s, and Kenneth’s doors to ask them if they wanted to go bike riding later that day. I even suggested a bike parade, but that moment had already passed.

The rest of the time I hung out by Dad’s side, watching curiously how he was going to attach a seat and peddles to this freshly painted red frame. The wheels were disks and had no spokes to add noisemakers to, but that was fine, I had a bell. The bell didn’t ring as sharply as Theresa’s bell did, but so long as I called out loud while ringing my bell, those in line of my path would move. Dad had to add an extra connector to attach the broken seat, which made it quite high. The handlebars however could not be made higher, so when I rode, I had to spread my legs with my knees facing almost sideways to avoid bruising my knee caps. The bike had no peddles at all, but of course, Dad being the handyman that he was, made them out of old chunks of two by four that somehow he fixed on so tight, they wouldn’t even spin.

“Chupeche, your bike is ready!” Dad announced proudly admiring his handiwork.

My friends had already arrived to witness the unveiling and none of them noticed the idiosyncrasies of my new wheels.

“Come on, lets go riding!” Theresa said authoritatively.

Obediently, all of my friends hopped on their bikes and I too was happy to submit.

The gang got a head start and I trailed behind. It was difficult for me to peddle full circle with the fixed blocks of wood; my ankles didn’t rotate like that. I pushed as far as I could with each foot before having to step off the fixed peddles one at a time. The secret was to lift my knees and legs out to the side completely, so that the peddles wouldn’t hit my shins on the way back around. I learned that by the time we got to the end of the street. By then my friends already turned the corner, but I could still hear them say, “Hurry up!”

I cried even more that summer and was happy for snow to arrive and my shins to heal.

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