When Milkmen Smelled Exotically Like Vanilla Ice Cream and Cigarettes

By Suzi Lewis Pignataro

My name is Susan Maria Lewis de Pignataro.  Some of you will remember me as Suzi Lewis, others as Nancy, Barbara and John’s sister or Nancy and Jack’s daughter.  A few of you may even remember the year I was dubbed, “Suzi Breadmaker”.  I was born in Coronado in 1955 and lived there, in the home my father built, until 1973, when I traded palm trees and white sandy beaches for redwoods and rolling hills that half the year remind me of my beloved New Zealand and the other half the tawny backs of my county’s mountain lions.  I live in the town of Sonoma where I maintain a private practice in child and family therapy.  For the past twenty-five years, I have been treating traumatized children through the application of therapeutic play.  I have an Argentine husband, two sons ages sixteen and nineteen, and a fourteen-year-old Cocker Spaniel.  My son Thack is an art student living in San Francisco.  My son Hans is a junior in high school and is also an artist, as well as a very good cook.  He may be a superior bread maker, but as the only vegan in the house I am master of the bean curd.

I’ve traveled tens of thousands of miles – covering twelve countries and many of the States – and have accumulated hundreds of yarns to tell.  But some of the most important journeys and their stories come from my earliest years as a child running free in Coronado, with its doors and side gates opened invitingly to the precocious little chatterbox I used to be.  It was there that I developed the social barometer and geographic compass that I later put to good use navigating the globe and its different cultures.  It was the freedom from fear – the trust in the world as a decent and safe place filled with friendly and helpful people – that enabled me to be so bold in my adventures, both as a child and as an adult.

It is inconceivable to many of the children in my private practice that once upon a time a child could run wild without the threat of someone harming them – including their own frightened and overprotective parents.  I tell them stories of my youth, and it is as if I am reciting from a work of fiction about a paradise lost.  Even the absence of video games, iPods and computers fails to dampen their longing for a childhood like mine.

It wasn’t all ideal.  Losing my oldest sister, Nancy, when I was six and she was fourteen was devastating.  Like a piece of psychic shrapnel, her passing embedded itself deep within the body of my soul, a constant painful reminder that I survived while another died.  I felt her presence everywhere – from my bedroom, which once had been hers, to Graham Memorial Presbyterian Church, where I sang in the children’s choir as the bells tolled in her memory. But children are resilient and wounds scar over, allowing for their victims to carry on; and though I lost some of my bouncy chattiness and gained fears of ghosts and God’s “mysterious ways”, the very essence of my home town sustained and nurtured me through the next twelve years.

Someone once asked me, “What did you learn growing up in Coronado?”  I replied, “Milkmen smell exotically like vanilla ice cream and cigarettes.  Shells with critters still living inside of them will stink up your mom’s bathroom.  Never try to outrun a neighbor’s dog chasing you downhill.  Town drunks are not to be feared but rather helped onto a park bench.  Fighter jets rattle windows but never break them.  If you have chubby thighs, wash off the sand before walking home from the beach.  June bugs are scarier than water bugs. It’s comforting to have popular parents, but it can also be a pain in the butt.  The constant clang of metal against a sailboat’s mast will lull you to sleep, while the constant pong of a tennis ball will keep you up.  Waves are your friend – really. All kids are created equal – full stop.  You will desperately long for the scent of tar on pylons years after the ferries have disappeared.  Home is a beautiful garden isle floating on water; fully contained; safe; easy to explore, and hard to lose your place in.”

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