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LIFE FOR OUR OLDER GENERATION WAS TOUGH, BUT THEY DIDN'T RESORT TO DRUGS AND VIOLENCE

In my left hand, I held a photograph I had just received from my daughter -- in the right hand, the TV remote. The flood of pleasant memories triggered by the photo was interrupted by the newscaster. The TV station I just flicked on was in the midst of a leading story.

The on-scene reporter spoke breathlessly of a drive-by shooting and a suspected crack house. He announced the address -- a street name and house number on the East Side of Buffalo.

The TV cameraman did quick shots of the front of the house, followed the reporter along the side of the house to the back yard, scanned it, then went into the house. There the camera panned the interior.

All of the images stayed with me long after the news reporter had gone on to another topic. The connection -- the link -- lingered. The crime scene was in a house once as familiar to me as my own -- next door to the home where I grew up.

In my house in those childhood days was the kitchen set in the photo I now held. The table, two benches and cupboard were built by my grandfather, and later the set was passed down to my daughters and granddaughters.

My daughter Kathy lovingly refinished this set for her granddaughter. Now Alex plays at the table with real and imaginary friends, and she places her tea sets in the cupboard just as I did long ago.

As I looked at the photo, the kitchen set pulled me into the memories of the house and my neighbors, and the TV crime report jarred me into comparisons to the present reality.

In the summer, our kitchen set stood on the front porch of my old house -- porches were part of our neighborhood. I played with the children next door. Now their old porch was rotting and riddled with bullet holes. The back yard, where the scent of roses and lilacs had tickled our noses, looked like a dump site.

During the cold weather, my kitchen set stood in the corner of the large kitchen where I felt warm and safe. There my small hands helped my mother bake and cook, as other little girls in the neighborhood did with their mothers. The kitchen I saw on the TV crime report was a shambles of peeling wallpaper, broken windows and grimy floors.

The bedroom of the house looked like a decrepit shelter for the homeless. Shabby blankets and other bedding were strewn around. And on this mess huddled two small, bewildered children, perhaps 3 and 4 years old. Did their mother pray with them and tuck them in? Or was she responsible for the holes in the walls and cracked windows?

I felt resentment and a deep anger. How could anyone neglect those children and expose them to such filth and drugs? How could anyone allow this deterioration?

Then this feeling yielded to another at the final scene. A blanket-draped body on the ground, the victim, barely out of her teens, and her sobbing mother holding an infant. I empathized with that woman and then wondered about her support, her husband. Most of the spectators were women and children. One woman pointed out that such tragedies were frequent in her neighborhood; that life was tough; that there was discrimination and few work opportunities.

Memories mingled with the situation I had seen on the screen. The hurt in my grandparents' eyes caused by ethnic slurs and mocking laughter. The rampant discrimination where job opportunities were available.

My father searching for 50 cents -- his share of gas money so that he and five friends could cram into a friend's car to go hunting in the country. I thought we ate chicken prepared many different ways until I found out it was rabbit he had shot on those trips.

My father and grandfather walking, in shoes because they couldn't afford boots, six or eight miles to work in the winter. Dad working two jobs, street-crew laborer, whatever he could find, and sleeping odd hours. Both men coming home dead tired.

My mother and grandmother canning vegetables and fruits to economize -- stretching leftover stew with more potatoes. I have often thought that they could have written a cookbook entitled "100 Ways to Cook Potatoes."

They all scrimped, did without and recycled clothes. Yes, life was tough. But we were together, and our lives centered on family, church and school. The library was a blessing and visited often. There were movies, but these were occasional treats.

But my parents and grandparents made it. Slowly, they improved their way of life and paved the way for me. My parents opened doors and expected me to go out and look for opportunities. They made it without drugs, without violence, without outside assistance. Was it the times? Was it the people? Or was it the love we shared, the caring?

Like our family, the kitchen set was cherished and taken care of and has stood the test of time.

Thomas Wolfe wrote, "You can't go home again." There is no home at that East Side address, only a house that has not stood the test of time.

HELENE R. LEE now lives in Lockport.
For writer guidelines for columns appearing in this space, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Opinion Pages Guidelines, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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