In Memoriam: A childhood memory to let go

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Richie Jr with mom Carol and dad Sr.

When I was very young — probably not yet seven years of age — I had one of those lifelong memories emotionally glued to my soul forever.

We lived on a suburban block outside of Baltimore in a neighborhood that was a few blocks from the local elementary school. It was a neighborhood that had a transitioning demographic — from all-white when my family moved there (you could say we were the first ones to undo that), to multi-racial during my younger years, to all-black today. I was pretty much restricted to staying on our block — a long rectangle with about 15 houses on each side of the street. It seemed big to me, and was almost all I knew about the world for the first decade — other than a couple of trips and our relatives in West Virginia.

So, the number of “friends” I had was pretty limited. And further limiting the friends was that some of the homes had senior citizens in them, and some of the newer families were being occupied by city-smart kids who were pretty much off limits as far as playmates. But still, it was basically a suburban situation with lots of families in small homes — tiny by today’s standards.

We had a couple of local strip-shopping centers nearby: an A&P and a Pantry Pride market, a small restaurant, a Five & Dime, a High’s convenience store, a beauty salon I think, Shell gas station, mundane stuff like that. You could walk to what you needed and walk home — nothing “big box” about them back then.

I had one friend who was in the same grade as me. His name was Richie, a blond white boy with a nice smile. He lived in the middle of the other side of the block, at the top of the hill. I remember his mom but not his dad, he had a brother and little sister. And I remember pretty much nothing else about them at this time. For some reason I thought they had a video game system, but it seems too early for that. I wish I could say more about the family, but I just do not recall much about those days, about that neighborhood — other than what haunts me in my dreams.

Me in green and pink, Richie in dark blue, both in white shoes.

I cannot forget, though, the one thing that basically scarred me for life.

A big box store did arrive to the area — a kind of K-mart or Walmart of the 1970s. My mom used to take me there, and I liked going. They had lots of different stuff.

One day, I was at Richie’s house, and his mom wanted to go to the store. She asked if I wanted to go. And for some reason, I think she called my mom and said she was going to take me. And we must have gotten in their car and went. I get the vague memory of a station wagon, but not sure about that. It was his mom, Carol, and Richie, me and I think his brother. I can almost see and smell the entry way to the store. Bright and big and pretty sure there were a couple of coin-operated “pony rides” outside. There was a big parking lot.

I went about my regular thing of looking around the store at my favorite stuff. At some point, I went to the aisle where there were plastic flowers. I do not remember why I was so fascinated with them — pretty. And my mom had some at home. So, I thought they were just something that the store had — like part of my home was in the store.

Other people must have rummaged through the fake flowers that day before I got there with Richie. Because there were a few flower tops that had fallen on the floor. They were just small white dandelion-shaped flowers. They had like tubes instead of petals and a hole green base that was supposed to stick on top of a green stem. But they had fallen on the floor and I bet I was wondering where they were supposed to go. Because I’m like that — want to put things back in place. But I did not see where there was a match.

Richie was there, and eventually his mom came along to find us and told us to come with her. I think Richie showed her the flower tops that we had picked up off of the floor, and she looked at it and just said: “Put them down. Put it back where you found it.” She turned her back to walk away, and Richie threw his flowers on the floor. I did, too.

But they just laid there, trash that would get stepped on. Forgotten or thrown away. They belonged somewhere. I was enchanted by them.

So, I stooped down real quick and grabbed two and put them in my pocket.

We left the store. It wasn’t a long drive home. 8 or 10 minutes max. And while Richie and I were in the car goofing, I showed him the plastic flowers. And he got all excited and panicked. Because his mom said to put them down and put them back. His mom noticed and asked, “What are you two doing?” I dropped them on the car floor and pushed them under the seat. “What do you have?”

Nothing.

She went up the hill to the house and parked the car. I reached under the seat to grab the flowers. “There’s only one! Where’s the other one? She’s gonna find it and know I had it.” I delayed getting out of the car, reaching under the seat desperate to find the flower.

Carol was waiting and looking at me weird. “Are you coming?”

Ah, I found it. I stuck them in my pocket and hopped out — so relieved.

We went into her house. Miss Carol knew something was up. Richie and I must have been acting guilty or too suspicious with the delay and all. I kind of remember her taking Richie away separately to the kitchen. And then she came back and demanded that I show her what I had. I showed her the two little white plastic flower tips.

And she was soooo mad!

She yelled at me — me? She yelled at me that I was stealing! I don’t remember what happened after that. I don’t remember what happened to the flower tips. She must’ve made me leave them at her house. I was totally mortified. I went home. I think she called my mom. Pretty sure I was like six or seven.

And I’ve never forgotten that….

My mom called me yesterday, 45 years or so later. She said, “I was wondering about what happened to some of the people in the neighborhood. Do you remember a boy you used to be friends with on the other side of the block?” Really, she had to remind me of their last name. I remembered his full name, but not much else about their family. Except that terrible time she yelled at me.

Mom mom said that she Googled Carol, and that she had died. Oh? She said that they had moved away when I was young so I would not have remembered too much. She wondered what had become of my friend Richie — knowing that I’m a genealogical detective.

Well, I found Carol’s obituary — she died at age 68, almost 10 years ago. She lived in Maryland her whole life. She went to our family’s same high school. Did not know that. Hmm. She passed away pretty young. How unfortunate for the family.

It said her son Richie had “predeceased” her. Oh, wow.

I pulled out all my resources. None of the family had been documented in the genealogy sites. So, I put it all in there. Apparently, he was a Jr, and had died back in the 1980s. Age 21. In a mysterious car fire. There were a couple of news articles about it. Said he was the third to die in a car fire that year in that Maryland county. He’d been a construction worker, in masonry. The news articles said there did not appear to be any tire tracks or signs of an accident. He had died of smoke inhalation, and people had noticed the car burning “near a ballpark,” and after firefighters doused the flames, the police found his body inside. They could not determine if it was “mechanical failure” or other reason. How awful.

What happened to his parents is not so clear, but they seem to have split — there was some kind of legal action by her against Richard Sr. And then he remarried. And he died about 10 years after his son, and 13 years before Carol. Her obituary doesn’t mention her husband, and his obituary doesn’t mention Carol. So….

Anyway, I remember Richie took a liking to my older “middle brother” more than me. And my mom said he seemed more rough than I was, so that was probably why we didn’t remain friends. While that would not have been difficult to achieve compared to meek and awkward me, I told her that there was another reason.

Honestly, I never told my mom that story about the flowers. Because Carol had made me feel so terrible and so guilty about it. My mom listened yesterday, and didn’t have any negative reaction. “Really?” was about it. I told her it frightened the devil out of me at the time. She’s in her 80s now — why would she care? Believe me, she can easily make me feel guilty about something stupid like that still today. But even she knows it’s of no importance — a forgotten era gone by.

I laughed about it for the first time then. Really, it is a ridiculous thing — one of two “theft” accusations levied against me when I was a kid. And I never really got over either one. It was not entirely appropriate what I did — picking up the store’s junk. But it wasn’t my junk to pick up. She was right to say put it back, and maybe she saved me some future trouble by yelling at me.

But I really couldn’t get over it. And I never went back to their house again. My mom asked me a couple of times if I wanted to go over to Richie’s to play. And I can feel that same sinking emotion right now — how I was sad to lose a friend because I thought I’d done something so terribly wrong. His mom was so disgusted with me at that moment. I felt so much shame and guilt. They moved away from the neighborhood not long after that — most of the white families did around the same time, and I was kind of glad about it. I wouldn’t have to avoid going around that way after they’d gone. I never told my mom till now — so dumb. And perhaps most ridiculously, I had nightmares for years about not being able to find that second flower under the seat.

And now they are all dead — not his siblings as far as I know, but figuratively, the whole family is gone. And the only who knows that story is me. And my mom now — but she’ll forget. And … all of you. So, here’s some of my ridiculous pain.

I suggest you drop it and leave it where you found it.