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1945—Paper Dolls and Radio Shows

I am thirteen.

The rain streaks down the kitchen window. It’s midafternoon on Sunday, and it’s rained all day. Because it’s November, the short days make Sundays particularly gloomy. I wish the rain would change to snow, but there’s not much chance. Not until December. No one likes Sundays. It means the weekend is over, and it’s back to school tomorrow.

“Mommmm,” I whine. “I don’t know what to do. What can I do?”

First I get the standard reply. “You can clean your room, that’s what you can do.” Or some other distasteful chore.

No help from that quarter. There’s no one around to play with either. Except my little sister, Mary, and she’s mostly a pest.

It occurs to me that I haven’t taken out my paper dolls for a while—cutouts of glamorous movie stars such as Lana Turner, with her shimmering blond hair draped over one eye. Or the famous pin-up, Betty Grable. I have both dolls on little cardboard stands. I draw sexy evening gowns for them out of art paper and color them with Prang water colors. The paint comes in a long black box with a little solid square of each color and a brush that fits into a long slot next to the paint blocks. Sometimes I use colored pencils.

When a dress is drawn and painted, I cut it out carefully leaving little flaps at the shoulders, waist and hips to secure it on the doll. If I’m really into a project, I glue little sequins on the dresses. This effect is particularly striking on slinky black dresses.

After finishing my laborious work, I put on a fashion show using whatever outfits remain from previous times playing this game along with the ones finished today. The fashion show is actually somewhat of an anticlimax. Mostly it means I’m tired of the paper doll project for the time being.

Anyhow, by this time our favorite Sunday night radio comedies are on—Amos and Andy, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly. My mother, sister and I gather around the kitchen table and laugh for four hours. It’s one of the few times I see my mother relaxed and pleasant.

At thirteen I’m still a child. No dating yet. No running around malls. There are no malls. Movie magazines shared with a friend are the biggest thrills I get. On days when we’re shut in, my best friend Jackie Larkin and I pore over them by the hour, admiring Van Johnson, Guy Madison, Frank Sinatra, and other hunky guys. Sometimes we write dumb fan letters which provoke gales of giggles. Mostly we never send them.

The only real life thrill I get is catching Mary Jo Mackin, a  next door neighbor, kissing her cute boyfriend Tom Trettin on their back stoop. They don’t know they’re being watched from our living room window. He holds her face in his hands, while she closes her eyes. They’re pressed close together.  Drat.  I’ll never have such good luck. What would I do for a boyfriend like that!

1940—Fishing with Dad

I am eight years old.

My father is at the kitchen table fussing with fishing flies in his tackle box. The pull-out compartments are full of colorful baits and lures, hooks, bobbers, sinkers, extra fishing line and a jackknife. He’s agreed to take me fishing on Lake Keesus today. “Get your galoshes on,” he orders me. “We’re heading on out.”  I scurry to find them in the junk closet.

The day is overcast—perfect for fishing, my dad says. When the sun comes out, the fish won’t bite. “It’s chilly on the lake,” my mother says. “You’d better take a jacket.” She goes to the closet and pulls out a red and black lumberjack shirt. “Here, put this on. And here are some sandwiches in case you and your father get hungry.” Oh, good. That makes a true expedition.

Down at the pier, our rowboat bobs in the water. There are cushions to sit on, fishing nets, a can for bailing out the boat if it leaks, my dad’s casting rod, a knife, pail strung over the side of the boat for fish, and other odds and ends.

“You’re going to row” my Dad says. I feel important, elated. I’ve never been asked to do this before. I jump down into the boat onto the bench between the oar locks. My dad sits in the front of the boat, his casting rod in hand. His tackle box is open at his feet so he can change lures whenever he wants.

“All right. See that point out there? Head slowly for that point. Don’t make any noise. Don’t splash the oars in the water.” He stands at the helm, ready to cast. I concentrate on setting dead straight ahead, dipping the oars in the water gently. Soon he begins casting.

For 30 minutes or so, this is an excellent pastime. Then my mind starts to wander. I watch the oars plop in and out of the water, forgetting any noise I’m making. I don’t realize it, but as my mind wanders, so does the boat. I’m no longer headed straight for the point.

Suddenly I’m jerked back to reality. “Didn’t I tell you to head straight for the point? What in the hell are you doing? And the oars are making too much noise.”

In the next hour or so, my focus degenerates. I can’t seem to row in a straight line. Or I’m going too slow or too fast, or the oars are making too much noise. My father doesn’t appreciate the game I’m playing with the oars, trying to rile up some seaweed. After all, I figure I deserve some fun, too.

Rowing has become stale. It’s no fun anymore. The thing is, my dad doesn’t have anyone else to row for him. Grandpa will never do it. He won’t even ask my mother.

Before long my father is spending more time telling me how to row than he is casting his line.

Finally he barks, “All right, dammit. That’s it! I’ve had it. Head for home.”

The sun peeks out as the sky starts to clear. I probably won’t be asked to do this again.

1944—Laundry and Lambs in the Basement

I am twelve years old. The basement of my house on Garfield Avenue includes a fruit cellar, laundry room, workshop for my father’s carpentry, and furnace. The fruit cellar contains preserves put up by my mother and grandmother—mostly strawberries, raspberries and other fruit picked in season—and nonperishable produce such as potatoes and onions. The fruit cellar is dark, with dirt walls and sometimes the tiny scampering sound of mice. Spiders crawl over the walls.

At the other end of the basement, the laundry area has an electric washing machine with a wringer installed just above it. Soiled clothes and linens are delivered to the area by a chute leading from the kitchen to the basement. My dream is to take a death-defying trip down the chute to the basement. By the time I’m old enough to have the nerve, I’m too big to fit in the chute.

Like everyone else, we have no clothes dryer. We never heard of them. Everything is hung in the back yard on a line after most of the water is squeezed out by the electric wringer. On a sunny day, the clothespins can be pulled off the clothes after a couple of hours and the dry laundry brought inside.

Laundry day is always Monday.  My job is to strip the beds and force the sheets down the laundry chute. Laundry baskets in our bedrooms are emptied into the chute. In the basement the lid has been removed from the square, industrial looking wash machine, with mother pouring fels naphtha laundry soap in the water.  Next she pokes clothes deep into the water with a long stick and jiggles it around the be sure they’re distributed evenly. Once Mother is satisfied, she turns the rotor on. As I watch the clothes swish back and forth, back and forth, the water turns grey. When mother has determined that the laundry is clean enough, it’s time to turn off the rotary blade and turn on the electric wringer, installed just above the machine.

This is the part I like best. “Can I run the wringer this time, Mom? It’s my turn. Pleeeze?”

“Your sister hasn’t had a turn yet, Barbara.”

“But she’s too little, Mom. Let me do it. Please?”

“No, it’s too dangerous.”

Even at the age of eight I know something is wrong with her logic. It’s true, the wringer is dangerous. You get your fingers too close and they’ll be mashed. At least that’s what Mother says. It hasn’t happened yet.

Sometimes the basement also serves as a temporary shelter for animals my father or grandfather brings home. This is always a happy surprise event. We don’t get any forewarning. If we did, Mother would never allow it.

We once have three beagle puppies at a time, thanks to my grandfather, who can’t resist puppies. They’re housed in the basement and named Spottie, Tiny, and Smokey Joe. My mother, fearful of my father’s frightening temper, doesn’t say anything when the whimpering puppies are carried to the basement. After a few nights of nonstop howling and barking, it’s too much for her. She doesn’t sleep a wink that night. To my dismay, the puppies are exiled to the garage.

We keep turtles and frogs in the basement, too, but somehow they always escape during the night. I never figure out where they go, although I suspect my mother has a hand in it.

The most exciting pet is a newborn lamb. My grandfather brings it home from a fresh meat market next to his and my dad’s produce business on the waterfront. The lamb is only a few days old and has to be bottle-fed every two or three hours. The worst part is not the nonstop feeding, but the nonstop pooing and peeing on the garage floor. Clean-up is my job.

Sometimes I take the lamb for walks around the block. By this time he has a name—Curly. I love the sensation Curly causes in the neighborhood. Of course, he’s right on my heels because that’s what lambs do. One day, my parents and fifth grade teacher agree that I can bring the lamb to school. I am very popular that day. The glow lasts for a day or two. Then a kid brings in a snake.

My mother puts up with a lot, but a newborn lamb is too much. Luckily, our family doctor, Dr. Wheelihan, agrees to give Curly a happy retirement on his family farm. Every Christmas we get updates on the sheep’s health. He lives to a ripe old age, old enough so that by time I’m sent off to college, I’ve forgotten about him.

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1941—Attic and Basement Adventures

I am 10 years old.

I sneak into the attic sometimes to light matches when my parents are out. There’s a big box of kitchen matches by the fireplace, so full that no one will notice a few missing. I can’t resist the thought of the match scraping a sandy surface and springing to life. The flame blossoms almost immediately, blue at the bottom, yellow at the top. A sulfur smell reaches my nostrils. Too soon, the matchstick starts turning black and shriveling as the flame begins to lose its life and flickers dangerously close to my thumb and forefinger. I blow it out and throw it on the floor just in time. I use eight or ten matches before I quit—no more. I don’t want to hear my dad shouting, “Who in the hell took all these matches?”, something I know will bring down the house once a culprit is identified. Part of the appeal of this exercise is the risk.

As a matter of fact, I do get caught one day when my parents pull in the drive unexpectedly and come in the house calling my name. What can I say that I’m doing in the attic? Looking around at my future bedroom? That will never fly.

There I am, with a box of kitchen matches in hand coming down the steps as my father turns the corner. With the murder weapon in my hand and the smell of sulfur in the air, I’m caught dead to rights. My father’s wrath is quiet and chilling. “You! What in God’s name are you doing up there with matches?” He runs his hand through his hair and leans against the wall, as though weary. “How many times have we warned you about fire! Your own father is a firefighter, for God’s sake!” Go to your room.”

This isn’t the worst. I know that they haven’t finished with me yet. I do know that I won’t be lighting matches again anytime soon.

The other forbidden fruit is a 100-pound sack of bread flour my mother keeps in the attic for her frequent baking projects. I love to go up, open the string on the flour bag, and plunge my arms deep into the flour. The cool virgin flour welcomes my hand and arm without resistance. When I’m in up to my elbows, I wriggle my fingers and pump my arm up and down a few times to experience the lovely, clean, almost liquid feeling. I imagine that it’s just like mercury.  After a few luxurious plunges, I remove my arm and run quickly to the downstairs bathroom to wash the flour off my arm. This activity, too, is always done when my parents are gone. I never get caught. It will unleash my mother’s unholy wrath if I do.

I’m more afraid of my father than my mother, but Mother’s anger is more wearisome than scary. She makes me stand in the kitchen while she delivers a long harangue, usually at least 30 minutes by the wall clock. She outlines all my defects of character, including my lack of gratitude for my undeserved blessings and my failure to appreciate my kind parents and our beautiful home. I don’t catch many of the details of the lecture because I stop listening after the first 5 minutes or so, a fact my mother picks up from my glazed facial expression. “Did you hear what I just said?” she asks in a loud, sharp voice.

“Yes,” I answer woodenly.

“What?” she is now strident. That’s ‘Yes, Mother!”

“Yes, Mother,” I answer, putting as little feeling into my response as possible. It’s no wonder she gets angrier as we go along. I find the subtlest possible ways to grate on her nerves. If my father happens to be in the house, I hear him leave after the first few minutes.

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