Secrets of the Home, Part I
Born in the late 1940’s, difficult times and desperation were the catalyst for who I am today.
Dad’s brother was facing the inevitable fact that he was slowly going blind. My bachelor Uncle lived in our home with the five of us children, our Mother and Father. As young children, my Uncle and Dad’s Father banged their heads together when they irritated him one evening. Soon after their Dad’s corporal punishment, my Uncle had a detached retina and Dad lost all but a faint amount of hearing.
Dad worked as a Car body repairman and my Uncle at Boeing. Dad would sometimes disappear for days, sometimes a week or so as a result of alcohol addiction. Bud’s portion of the house payment increased steadily as my Father lost employment over and over. It was a sad day for my family when my Uncle got married and moved out. Life changed as we knew it. One day Mother announced there was no money or food for dinner. Mother never worked outside the home, but had begun to sell a cosmetic line called “Cinderella” sold at home parties. I have no idea how Mother came up with the money to purchase what I assume was a startup package. Most of the cosmetics had found their way into Mother’s personal drawer. Cinderella had a room spray called “Fresh Air”. I took the only three cans of Fresh Air on her dresser to see if I could sell them door to door. It worked, we had hamburgers that night.
From then on, Mother began to line jobs up for Jill, my eighteen month older sister, and me. The two other sisters were too young to participate. One morning Mother informed Jill and me that we would be getting up at 6 a.m. and selling 12 dozen donuts each. The vendor included a free dozen with each delivery. This was a treat as we had been eating white bread in milk for breakfast since there was usually no cereal or sugar, and certainly no eggs and bacon. We scurried to each house in order to get to grade school on time. It was easy to sell the donuts; they were delicious with a fresh yeast scent.
Mother had us babysitting children as well as Mrs. Cherry who lived across the street. Her husband went on hunting trips and since she was afraid of the dark I was hired to stay with her at night. Being only nine, I wondered what good I would do if someone broke into her house. I was more afraid than she was! This phobia began when Mother decided to make Dad jealous by not being home at night. She checked on us occasionally through the night and claimed she was just down the block in the car. Jill and I slept next to a large window over the front porch steps. One night when neither of my parents was home, the window by our bed was open to catch the summer breeze. A man appeared in our window. I knew it wasn’t Dad because this man had a much smaller frame. He stood there for some time trying to get a good look at my sister and me. There was no one to scream for; I would only wake the other siblings. I lie there frozen in fear until he finally left. Mother didn’t leave us again during the nights after I told her my story.
Clothes were scarce in my grade school days, usually hand-me-downs. In order for one of us kids to qualify for a new pair of two for five dollar shoes, one of two things was required; either a hole in the sole or blisters due to growth. A lucky sibling got the other pair according to desperation.
Tired of all the problems, I tried to persuade Mother to divorce Dad so that she could find us a new wealthy Father. When Dad arrived home at midnight that night, Mother repeated what I said. She woke me up and said Dad wanted to speak to me. I was so tired, but my intoxicated Dad questioned me over and over asking me why I didn’t like him. All I did was sob and plead to go back to bed. They finally gave up on the interrogation and let me go. This happened several nights.
Mother had me answer the phone when debt collectors called and rehearsed me on how to sound like a poor sweet child who’d overheard their check was in the mail. I also used my sweet child voice when Mother wanted to find Dad at bars. She explained that a bartender would ignore a wife’s call but would make an effort to find a guy if their kid called.
Grade school was eight blocks away and even in bitter winter weather, dresses were required. It didn’t matter how cold, we walked. Mother made certain we had a lunch or it would be obvious to the teacher there was a problem at home. I remember five or six times a year I had extreme stomach aches and vomiting in the evenings. I often wonder if it was ptomaine poisoning from cheese or baloney sandwiches stored for hours in the heated cloak room.
Enter Christmas. Mother decided Dad was to take me shopping to help us bond since I mentioned I’d like to trade him in for a well-to-do non-alcoholic Father. Mother was going to take the other siblings. Shopping meant we weren’t buying anything, and the amount of presents Christmas morning proved it. When Dad was sober he was a wonderful Father so I was happy to go. The Christmas windows in the stores downtown were always beautiful. I could hardly wait to see them. My heart sank when our 1954 Chevy pulled up in front of a beer joint and Dad and I walked in with every eye shifting to me, and sat in the dark bar. Dad ordered a beer. Soon the bartender came over to Dad asked us to leave because some of the guys were unhappy that a young girl was in a bar. Dad took me to the car and told me to get on the floor while he finished his beer. I was afraid, it was dark and in a not so good part of town. Dad took me home and then left for the bar. I was left alone to wait for the rest of the family.
Mother landed cleaning jobs at the corner apartments for Jill and me. One day we complained the sweet old man whom we knew well, had a wall of Playboy magazine layouts hanging on his bathroom wall. Mother said to ignore them; we were only there to clean. Dusting the fireplace mantel, I took school pictures of us kids down one by one to dust under them and saw something was written on the back of mine. It read: “good looking and nice boobs too”. I panicked and ran home crying. We no longer had to clean his apartment. When I mopped a lady tenant’s floors and they dried to a whitish film, Mother went to see what I had done wrong. Because of the woman’s weight, she was unable to make it to the bathroom on time and the dried urine had a chemical reaction with the one-step clean/wax product. Another cleaning job gone sour.
Another apartment tenant felt sorry for Jill and me and took us to Macys and spent an astounding $100 on clothes. That was a lot of money in those days. We got five new outfits and tossed out the contrasting worn dresses we’d been sharing. Jill and I made a plan to share clothes so the five new outfits between us made it appear we had different outfits each week day. This wonderful tenant occasionally asked us to go to dinner with him at a restaurant called Sidmans. It was the first time we’d been in a restaurant so it was a BIG deal.
Life was getting better, the ability to make money made me feel empowered, but the hardships were far from going away.