Saturday, April 25, 2009

It's a Small World After All

I was four when my parents bought their first home. It was a 1 1/2 story frame structure built at the turn of the century which boasted six rooms. The heating system was an oil burning stove in the middle of the living room. An ornate iron grate above the stove allowed [minimal] heat to rise into the largest of the two bedrooms that I shared with my sisters and the stove's blower, activated by a pull-chain, helped move the warm air around the main floor; though the pipes in the cold, lean-to kitchen addition were in danger of freezing 7 months out of the year. The upstairs floor felt like ice when we rose before dawn each winter morning. My sister and I would race down the narrow steps to get the best spot in front of the stove's "fan," wrapping ourselves in crocheted afgans, and snuggling like puppies to get warm. On the coldest days our mother brought our clothes down and warmed them before we got dressed.

Our house, as most those days, did not have a basement but a dirt-floor cellar whose only access was a trap door in the bathroom floor. The cellar fascinated me, in theory only, with it's dungeonesque charm for it sported a host of spiders and a gas water heater that roared to life without warning. The few times I visited during storms, I'd have preferred to have remained upstairs taking my chances with a tornado.

There were no closets in our house, but we did have a single bathroom that was closet-sized. There was just enough room for a tiny sink, toilet, and a cast-iron tub that recessed partway back into a corner of the room--where more spiders lived. All the flooring throughout the house was floral linoleum--except for a piece of carpet that covered the center of the living room. There was patterned wallpaper on all the walls, and patterned drapes. I don't recall that the patterns matched and I don't remember caring. At least once a week I fell down the steep stairs, bouncing from wall to wall until I landed, bruised and crying, at the bottom on the floor where the carpet didn't reach. I remember the day that I realized I was too big to cry every time I fell down the stairs so I stopped, teaching myself to rub my wounds in silence.

The oil burning stove was the heart of our home. In the brief Minnesota summers, it was ignored, or used as a plant holder for trays of seedlings or folded laundry waiting to go upstairs. But in the long winters, it worked over-time. In the mornings, it was our sole source of comfort from the bitter cold. To this day I love the feel of warm metal and the sensation of hot air blowing on my face makes me sleepy. When I was sick, my mother would heat a glass bottle of camphorated oil and a clean cloth diaper on top of the stove. Then she'd rub my chest with the warm oil, wrap a diaper around me like a bib to keep the oil from my pajamas, and secure it with a safety pin behind my neck. I'd fall asleep with the smell of the scented oil opening up my sinuses. The stove was the first place we stopped when we came in from playing outside. We'd throw our snow-encrusted mittens on top of it and hear it sizzle as chunks of ice melted off and dripped down the grate while we crouched in front of the blower rubbing our red feet until the feeling came back into our toes. On the coldest days, we'd huddle by the stove to look at books or color or watch TV. Dad kept a metal pan of water on the stove all winter to add humidity to the air. The stove was our friend.

When summer came, we spent most of the day outside. Mom was always up early, hanging out the wash, but she made us stay on the steps until the dew on the grass dried so our feet didn't get wet. Sometimes she gave us bread crusts to crumble and scatter for the birds while we waited. Our entire block consisted of only three houses, one on either side of ours. The yard to the east had a fenced-in, overgrown garden we were not allowed to enter. I would hang on the wire fence with my bare toes and fingers, wishing I could play in, what I regarded, a genuine jungle. Our own [tamer] backyard contained a simple swing set and an old tractor tire filled with sand where I wiled away most mornings--always watchful for spiders, of course. We got so dirty Mom gave us baths twice a day--once after lunch and once before bed, I'm sure--to keep as much of the sand out of the house as possible.

In Ashby, you always knew when it was time to go inside to eat lunch (we called it dinner) because the fire whistle blew exactly at noon. I would cover my ears with my hands and all the neighbor dogs would howl. My dad walked across the street from his shop, "Al's Repair," and we girls scrambled in from the sandbox for soup and a sandwich. Sometimes, Mom gave us each half an orange for dessert. I'd suck all the juice first, squeezing it upside down into my mouth, then turn the whole thing inside out and eat the pulp. I thought that's how everyone ate oranges. I didn't know people were allowed an entire orange for one person.

Kitty-corner across the street from our house was the tall, brick school building for grades K-12. Before I was old enough to go to Kindergarten, I'd hurry outside after lunch to wait for the high school band students to come and practice marching on the street in front of our house. I'd parade up and down the sidewalk in my little red tennies, keeping time to the drum cadence and loudly singing the melody of the march. I'd wave at the big, grown-up teenagers in the band and watch them until they disappeared down the street. When they came back up the street again, I was waiting for them on the curb. My favorite part was when the director blew his whistle signaling the end of class and they all stampeded for the lunchroom--instruments and all. I couldn't wait until I was old enough to be in the band.

Afternoons were not so exciting as mornings. I napped until I started Kindergarten and sometimes it took awhile for me to fall asleep. I remember laying on the bed listening to "As sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives," droning from the TV in the living room. I'd pick my nose, pull lint out from between my toes, and eventually fall asleep.

The hours dragged on long and hot. I would lay on the living room floor in front of the box fan and let it blow my hair back from my face and giggle at how it distorted my voice when I sang. "Keep your fingers out of there or the fan will cut them off!" reminded Mom. Then she'd send me outside where I'd sit on the sidewalk and watch the ants build houses between the cracks. I gazed wistfully at the tall utility pole in our yard that had metal "steps" going all the way to the power lines. But the steps didn't begin until far off the ground. I pushed my trike over to the pole; stood on the handle bars, stretched as tall as I could reach for the bottom rung--but always came up short. Too would have been fun to have climbed that pole.

On the hottest days, Mom would connect the sprinkler to the hose and let us run through it. No matter how long you let it run, the water this far north never gets warm but stays a refreshing temperature just above freezing. We'd put on our bathing suits and dash through the icy water ever so briefly before retreating to our towels in the sun to shiver and warm up again. Some days, Mom would whack a Popsicle on the counter to break it in half and give one to Renee and one to me. It was always a challenge to see if you could finish the Popsicle before it melted off the stick and dripped down your elbows.

The best bonus of summer was the crop of dandelions that grew everywhere. We would take a dish of water and sit on the sidewalk with bunches of picked flowers, popping the heads off and swabbing pollen under each others' chins asking, "Do you like butter? Let's see..." Then we'd separate the stems into thin strands with our fingernails and watch them curl up magically as they hit the water in the bowl. Another of Nature's toys was something we called "chalk rocks." I was always on the lookout for soft stones that could be used to write on the sidewalk. Real chalk was a rare treat, but chalk-rocks were free--if you could find them. There was so much to learn those long summer days--how to play jacks and jump rope, how to snap your fingers, how to whistle, how to tie your shoe laces--and we had the time to do it.

Once each summer, a pickup truck would pull alongside the curb on our side of the street. We would run out to watch as two men used a big wrench to open the little red fire hydrant to drain the lines. Rusty colored water would gush out and fill the gutters in a torrent. We'd splash and play and float Popsicle stick boats all the way down to the Standard Station 100 feet "downstream." I wasn't allowed to cross the street but, lucky for me, plenty of exciting things happened on our side!

Sometimes, guests came to our house and I greeted each visitor with great enthusiasm. There was the meter man, the Culligan man, the paper boy, and the Avon lady--Myrtle. Myrtle had blue hair and smiling eyes behind her thick glasses. She would knock on our door and we would yell, "Ding dong--Avon calling," just like the commerical, and run to bring her in. She carried a large tote bag full of interesting things--colorful pamphlets and free samples of lipstick and perfume. Mom always bought Skin-So-Soft and Gram never wore anything but Occur! cologne. Renee and I had pink bunnies with fluffy tails that dispensed talcum powder that we got to use after our baths.

At 5:30 sharp every evening, my dad came home from work. His fingernails and the creases of his hands were always black, even when they were clean, from the grease and oil he worked with every day. As soon as he washed up, we ate supper. Dad usually looked tired at the table. He'd had to work in a hot cement building all day with no air conditioning. Some nights, he'd take us down to Pelican Lake and it was an especially Big Deal if he put on his own suit and came into the water with us. Other evenings he'd putter in the yard or garden with Mom. I remember watching them thin out baby carrots and radishes and throwing away the extras. I crouched on the grass feeling sorry for the discarded baby plants. Sometimes Dad just wanted to read the paper or watch Hunt and Brinkley on the news--even though it was very boring to me. Brinkley's first name was "Chet" and I thought that sounded an awful lot like a word I wasn't supposed to say.

My parents still live in the same house at 302 Main Street 44 years later. After many remodels and updates, it hardly seems the same place. The oil stove is long gone. So is the lean-to kitchen and tiny bathroom. The stairway was remade to be wider and not so steep and cushioned with carpet. The profusion of red tulips and unruly bachelor buttons in the front flower bed have been replaced by low-maintenance landscaping. The yard seems to have shrunk in size over the years. But what has changed the most is me. It's hard to believe I am the same little girl who skinned her knees on that sidewalk and thought it thrilling to roll down the neighbors' hill--which is barely even an incline. I remember a child who laid awake nights in the front bedroom watching patterns of light on the ceiling from the stove grate in the floor below and held a teddy close, rubbing its soft ear over her nose in a drowsy ritual. As I nestled there in my line-dried sheets, powdered and damp-haired from my bath, watching the curtains billow away from the open window I could hear the sounds of the TV downstairs and I felt safe. Sometimes, it's good when the world is small.


  1. Wow, so much in one post! I like this look into the life of Little You. At first I thought it was the same house G & G live in now, but so many things didn't sound familiar. It's amazing how much of it has changed! My goodness, you were a funny kid. I laughed out loud about what you said about the name "Chet." And seriously, your mom bathed you twice a day? I think my favorite part, though, was the part about the marching band - I could totally picture your little red shoes pounding against the sidewalk. Too cute. :)

  2. I love love this! I also thought the same about the house. I didn't know they'd remodeled that much. I love the picture of you waiting to fall asleep. It's so universal. It always took forever to fall asleep when you're little, didn't it? You are so good at writing. I love all these stories!

  3. what a heritage for your kids all of these eloquently rendered memories. they are my memories too and it is so funny for me to read from your descriptive pen what lives on in my head! cool!!! i can see a whole book taking shape here :) Love, KAT