Many years ago, I worked with children of holocaust victims in an after-school program at the Jewish Community Center in Toledo, Ohio. Our building and its adjacent playground were located in the inner city, and children gathered there after school to wait for their parents to pick them up after work. Most of the parents could not speak English.
They struggled to make a living at menial jobs that matched neither their skills nor interests. At night they took classes to learn English. In all my years working with children, I have never seen parents hug their children with such fierce and protective love as I did during that summer of 1948.
I remember two of the children in particular. Bella was an angry child who pushed the other children if they tried to join her at the sandbox or asked for a turn on the swing. In the months I watched over Bella, I never heard her laugh, even when her parents came to fetch her.
The other child I most remember was a tiny boy named Herschel who came to the playground each day immaculately dressed, sporting an iridescent three-colored skullcap on his head with a propeller on top. Jewish boys covered their heads in the old country and Hershel’s mama wanted her son to preserve tradition and still look like an American child.
Neither Bella nor Herschel, nor any of the other traumatized children on that playground, ever smiled. There were the sounds of scuffling feet, the whoosh of children plunging down the slides or swinging high in the air, metal lunchboxes opening and closing, dropped building blocks, and bouncing balls. But there was never any laughter.
At that time, my family owned a feisty wire-haired Terrier named Junior. My cousin Jessica had a Dachshund, Pee Wee, whose back feet seemed to trail two blocks behind his front paws, and the Kaplans had an ebullient Collie named Zeke. Susan Zarneke had a little Yorkie mix named Beverly who danced on her leash like a ballerina auditioning for Swan Lake. Down the street, Maureen Zeitz owned a white ball of fluff named Darlene. Maureen pinned a different ribbon in Darlene’s hair every night before taking her on a walk around the neighborhood park.
One spring afternoon I walked through that park on my way home from work. The lilacs were blooming and tulips and daffodils lined the paths. The fragrance in the air was celestial. I drank in this beauty, then dissolved into laughter at the antics of my neighbors and their pets, all out enjoying the lovely afternoon. Zeke was chasing Junior while Beverly leapt over and under them, and Darlene posed comically under a dogwood tree. How I wished my group of children could see this delightful panorama.
I called Jessica right after dinner and told her about the contrast between what I had seen in the park and the gloom that pervaded the Center playground. “I wish I could do something to make them act like children,” I said. “It seems as if they left one prison only to find another. There are no gardens in those tenements and none of them allow pets.”
“Maybe we can bring spring to them,” said Jessica. “I’ll get everyone here to help. If we make it all happen on a Friday afternoon, the children will have something nice to remember all weekend.”
That very Friday, I gathered all the children around me on the playground. “Does anyone know what season this is?” I asked.
They stared at me.
I cleared my throat. “It’s spring!!” I exclaimed.
I pointed to the street, where my aunt and Mrs. Zarneke were parking their station wagons. The doors of the cars swung open and out jumped Junior, his collar decorated with daffodils and jingling bells. He charged onto the playground and met Bella on her way to the jungle gym. Bella paused, amazed, and then she and our little Terrier began a spirited game of tag around the slide, under the swings, and through the sandbox.
Pee Wee waddled over to Herschel and licked his foot. The tiny child knelt down and stroked the Dachshund’s head. Zeke wore a plaid bandana around his neck; a tulip rested behind his ear and lace booties graced his giant paws. He romped over to nuzzle a solemn boy named Brendel Schwartz, while Beverly leaped and swirled in the air for everyone’s enjoyment, like the accomplished ballerina she thought she was.
“Look at dat!” someone screamed and everyone turned as the back door of our station wagon swung open. Out strolled Darlene, wearing cuffed bobby sox and white-and-brown saddle oxfords on every paw, a floral cape around her shoulders. A tiny tutu graced her hips and on her head was a red straw hat trimmed with daisies. She paused as all well-trained models do, surveyed her charmed audience, then strolled among the awed children.
The stunned silence was broken by a tentative trill of laughter and soon every child on that playground was giggling and tussling with the dogs and each other. I looked at this scene filled with so much audible joy, but I could not join in the laughter. My own eyes were blinded with tears.
Lynn Ruth Miller is an award-winning writer, actress, and visual artist whose stories and feature articles have been published in over 100 publications. Her three books and a spoken-word CD can be purchased through Amazon.com or via her website: www.lynnruthmiller.com.