Everyone who lived on my street had children, except for the Markowskis, our next-door neighbors, who owned a series of standard poodles and loved their lawn. They weren't fond of kids playing on their grass, which is to say the Markowskis weren't exactly fond of kids. So since there were no fences in the 1950s to show property lines, we just had to be light on our feet during games of Tag or Statue and avoid their little plot entirely.
Most of the people who had moved from New York City to Long Island were serious about their lawns. In the city, the concrete in front of your apartment had been public domain. That could be unfortunate, especially when drunks peed on it or young love went bad late at night, and you could be awakened suddenly by screaming and reproach under your window. Once you moved out to Long Island, you actually owned this patch of luscious greenness. Dads mowed lawns with rigorous timing. When someone you were playing with did something to anger you, one of the best responses you had was, "Get off my lawn!"
I spent my whole childhood figuring out the most efficient ways to avoid Mrs. Markowski's precious grass. I got pretty good at staying out of her way, using my Dodge Ball skills of always hugging the outer boundary when possible. When cornered by her, I became adept at her brand of small talk, which usually began, "Linda, I have a bone to pick with you," and quickly got around to the latest time I stepped on her grass or made her dog bark. She didn't spend much time outside, which was a good thing for us, and I have The Guiding Light, As the World Turns, and the American tobacco industry to thank for her disdain of the outdoors.
My mother was a big believer of being neighborly, so when she'd say, "You know, it wouldn't kill you kids to help Mrs. Markowski carry in her groceries once in a while," we did it reluctantly, though the inside of her house was always dark because of heavy drapes at every window, and the crushing smell of her Lucky Strikes and her husband's cigars made us gasp.
Many years later, when Mrs. Markowski became a widow, I was long gone from Long Island, with a husband and kids of my own. My parents began inviting her over for holidays because there's just so much a poodle can do for you at Thanksgiving. So I'd see Mrs. Markowski a few times a year, and she got to know my own children in a way I'd been shut out of, meaning she didn't yell at them or constantly worry about what they were doing to her lawn.
She still swore like a sailor after her first martini, but she also smiled more, usually after her second. Lawn care had been given over to a neighborhood boy who did "a crappy job" according to her, but he kept his job since she had cataracts by then and couldn't see the bald spots and the crabgrass.
When she died, she had no living relatives and had outlived the last of the poodles. By the time that happened, I was 47. I'd recently been divorced, had three teenagers, and was winging it financially. There's something about the phrase winging it that implies there was a carefree section of my life that year. There was not.
A few weeks after her death, my phone rang at work.
"This is Lawrence Slezak," a man said. "I represent the estate of Miriam Markowski." The lawyer told me I was named in her will. She had left me $25,000. I had no inkling this would happen, and the lawyer was more than patient with me as I got my bearings. Really, I just babbled in his ear for a long time. I got up from my desk and started telling a friend what had just happened.
"And you weren't related to her?" she asked.
"Not exactly." It seemed a funny answer but the right one.
"You were related to her?"
"I guess you had to be there," I said.
I meant the 1950s.