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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—The Jungle

I am twelve years old.

Our back lot line on Garfield Avenue is bordered by trees and shrubs, tall and thick enough that you can’t see through them or over them. We call this strip The Jungle. One beauty of the Jungle is the dense foliage, with enough sturdy low tree branches for climbing. They make excellent watchtowers. In the winters, the Jungle lies fallow when plants and trees lose their leaves, depriving us of privacy and camouflage.

The Jungle is our playground during polio epidemics and quarantines in the Midwest.  Over the back of our lot line lies the property of our quarantine playmates Bobbie and Tootie Stevenson, ages 10 and 5. Bobbie, Tootie, Mary (my sister age 5), and I can’t leave our yards all summer lest we fall victim to the poliovirus, which, we are told, kills or cripples thousands of kids during epidemics.

The Jungle hosts dark rituals, ancient battles, holy rites, and burials. No costumes are required. One end of the Jungle is devoted to an animal cemetery: dead birds, deceased squirrels, and fish that have floated to the tops of our aquariums. Anything below the vertebrate level is not eligible for burial.

During burials, everyone plays a role. Bobbie is the priest because he’s the only male. Being the eldest, I qualify as the grieving wife or mother. Props are always welcome if available—a white table runner for the priest, black slip as headgear for the mother or widow, key chain for an incense pot, and so on.

Mary and Tootie are either pallbearers or acolytes, depending on their willingness to collaborate. Their cooperation is more likely if they’re given props.

Elements of Catholic ritual, learned from my grandfather, are often used. He is a lapsed Catholic, attending Mass only at Christmas and Easter visitor. We sneak his rosary from his private effects as needed and return them when we’re done. Suffering from early dementia, Grandpa never notices the thefts.

We have no traditional music available, so we chant homemade liturgies suitable for each ceremony.

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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