In my basement office where I do most of my writing, I have an eight-by-ten, color photo of my parents, Pete and Eileen LaBate. I love looking at that picture because they were such wonderful parents to my five sisters and me, and their almost 60 years together before Mom passed were a testament to their love and their commitment to one another and to us. (Dad passed about five and a half years after Mom.) As their children, we were truly blessed to have them and their extended families in our young lives. Sometimes, though, when I think about my Mom and Dad, I also think about three other families in our neighborhood, the three other families that helped to raise me.
Growing up in Amsterdam, New York, during the 1950s and 1960s was a classic slice of American life. Our dads returned from World War II, they found beautiful, young women to marry them, and every family seemed to have about four to six Baby Boomers, though they were just called “kids” back then. We lived in a section of town called Market Hill, and these four families all lived near the intersection of Bunn Street and Wilson Avenue. I honestly don’t know if the Borwhat family at 78 Bunn or the Dufresne family at 7 Wilson moved in first, but both were already in the neighborhood when our family arrived when I was about five in 1956. Then, I believe the Welch family followed at 12 Wilson about two or three years later. Those four families alone had 21 kids among them, and the rest of Wilson Avenue seemed to be equally populated. Life in that neighborhood was busy — and awesome.
I got to know Duke and Peg Dufresne first because they lived right next door with only a two-car driveway separating us. We could easily see into one another’s homes if the curtains and shades weren’t where they needed to be. Duke scared me initially because he was a big guy, he worked as a truckdriver, and he always seemed to be gruff when he disciplined his five sons and one daughter. Thus, I usually kept my head down and my mouth shut when he was nearby. Surprisingly, however, he often took the time to talk to me when I came home from my Little League baseball games: “Did you win?” he asked. “Did you get any hits?” One time, too, he surprised me and all the other boys nearby by giving us footballs, footballs that he pulled off the 18-wheeler he was driving that day and that he had parked in front of his house — an amazing gift that still mystifies me.
Peg, on the other hand, always appeared to be sweet and gentle and friendly, and she consistently demonstrated all of those characteristics and more. Unlike her husky husband, Peg was petite and always seemed to be frail even though I didn’t know the meaning of that word at that time. Later, I found out she suffered from serious medical issues that eventually led to her passing at an early age. If her illness ever bothered her, I never saw any evidence of her pain. Instead, I vividly recall her kind presence when she came out onto her back porch on blistering summer days with a fresh pitcher of Kool-Aid or a small cardboard box full of popsicles for all of us. Good times, indeed.
We met the Borwhats next, most likely because Mary Ellen worked with my mom at the telephone company, and Don, like my dad, was a blue-collar craftsman. Don worked with sheet metal, and Dad worked as a plumber, and they sometimes traded stories about local projects. During that era and in that neighborhood, we kids never spent much time in our friends’ houses — most likely because there were too many kids in those homes already — but the Borwhats always allowed us to hang out on their front porch. We spent hours there daily, either organizing our pickup baseball games or waiting for the drop off of the Amsterdam Evening Recorder, so we could deliver those newspaper to our customers. Periodically, too, if we behaved and didn’t get caught throwing chestnuts at passing cars, Mary Ellen surprised us with a plate of warm, chocolate-chip cookies. Do you see a pattern here in my memories?
By the time the Welch family moved in, I already knew half of their four kids; twins Bernie and Gail had been in school with me at Saint Mary’s Institute since kindergarten, and we all received our First Communion together. Their dad, Big Bernie, was a huge sports fan, so he encouraged the boys in the neighborhood to play rough and tumble games of basketball in his backyard. (Sorry, ladies, but this was long before Title IX encouraged females to compete as well.) Dolly, meanwhile, was a bit of an overprotective mom who didn’t want her boys, or anyone for that matter, to get too tired or injured while playing. In addition, Big Bernie attended just about every official game we ever played, so even when my parents couldn’t be there for one reason or another, I was always comforted and encouraged by his shouts reverberating through the local gymnasiums: “C’mon, Jim! Be aggressive out there. That’s it!”
I’m sure most of us have heard that African proverb that “It take a village to raise a child.” Looking back at my own youth, I would simply update and expand that proverb to say that “It takes a true neighborhood to raise almost two dozen children.” Fortunately, my siblings and I, my neighborhood friends, and my contemporaries who grew up together in “The Rug City” were truly fortunate and blessed to be raised by loving parents, surrounded by caring families, and nurtured by a generous community.