Saturday, April 20, 2013
My grandfather, born in 1864, was a doctor starting in the late 1880's. He had some formal training but did a lot of learning accompanying another doctor on his rounds in Ulster County New York.
Patients sometimes paid what they could in cash. Sometimes they paid in food and very occasionally in furniture. It may be apocryphal but the desk in my living room supposedly came to him by way of what must have been a very grateful patient.
I can never find the exact period of this desk in any antique catalogues but it is some kind of mahogany planter's desk with one large drawer in front and two smaller drawers on either side. It has long elegant legs and two doors which open on either side of the top section. One of them has twelve compartments or pigeonholes perfect for monthly statements or business papers. The other side has vertical slots for files or letters. In the middle at the top are two more little drawers. The flat desk opened at one time but now is nailed shut.
As a child I remember this desk sitting in the library of my grandparent's home with the picture of my great-grandfather who was wounded at Gettysburg on one side and a brass candlestick at the other. After my grandparents' death, the desk came to my father. Along with the picture and the candlestick and a little Tiffany clock which was one of my parents' wedding gifts, the desk moved to various houses.
My mother kept the household accounts and little brown envelopes with cash for rent and food and other necessities could fit in the twelve cubbyholes, correspondence and bills on the other side.
As an only child, all things came down to me and the desk now sits in state in my living room with the brass candlestick and Tiffany clock. Only my great-grandfather is not there but he is close by on the wall in a gold frame.
It’s almost impossible to remember the early houses and the things in them. In Easton, Pennsylvania at age three or so I have the memory of a cat, Bishop Yo-Yo, sitting in the window basking in the sunshine. There was impermanence in the early days…
The next house was in the country and was small but surrounded by fields and a quiet road. Violets grew nearby in the spring. The Tunkhannock house with my great aunt was the constant in my life – vacation place, residence, than vacation place for many years.
Furniture when I was in junior high school began to have a constancy also: the desk, pictures of both my great grandfathers, twin beds and tea service all came from my father’s parents when they died, and these things moved with us to Washington, into storage and out again as my parents moved from place to place following engineering jobs.
After marriage and our first apartment my husband and I bought a house. We have lived in it almost 38 years and the furniture: desk, pictures of great grandfathers, tea service and twin beds have come to me. My children will eventually keep or dispose of them.
The last payment on the Pennsylvania house arrived in December. It is no longer in the family. It is now a state run halfway house for deinstitutionalized people to learn to live in the community they will never know.
This is the house my grandfather bought and improved. It is the house where my grandmother bore six children, four of whom died. This is where my mother and father married. This is the house that I lived in for a year when I was five, that I visited endless summers and Christmases and school vacations. It is the house my own four children visited from time to time.
When I was very young, I remember the baths in the tub with feet - dressing over the hot air heaters - running down stairs past the picture of St. Cecilia playing the organ soulfully - going to the big black coal stove in the kitchen where we popped corn on winter nights. I remember the smell of a chicken being plucked, scalded and then stewed on a Sunday, the treadle machine in the bay window, home canned cherries from the dirt cellar for supper, reading Oz books or, later, Ann of Green Gables or Tess of the Storm Country in the front sitting room, rocking on the front porch in the summer, next to the Dutchman's Pipe vine.
(Photo: 130 East Tioga Street, Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, 1969)
The first Halloween I can remember was in 1932 in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania when I was about five-years-old. My great aunt had carved a pumpkin which had a candle in it and it sat in the living room window.
I was going to be able to dress up that evening and be someone else, different and grown up. I had decided (or was it my mother?) that I would be a gypsy. It was so exciting. I had my mother's scarf tied on my head, some earrings of hers in my ears, a little shawl, some sort of long skirt tied about my non- existent waist, some bracelets and beads and, best of all, rose-colored lipstick. Finally, I put on a half mask -- no one would know me!
I remember that it was dark and scary out and I saw other children going up and down the street. They were scary, too, in their costumes and fake faces.
My mother took me across Tioga Street to Mrs. Lott's house. She came to the door, exclaimed over my costume and gave me a piece of candy.
Back we went to Mrs. Skrynski's who lived next door to us. She came to her door and grinned. She gave me some candy and said: "Bye and bye come time for Santa Claus." I knew she was wrong. Christmas was a long time off.
We went to Mrs. Major's on the other side and then back on our porch where I took out my carved spool with a stick in it and string around it. I placed it on our front window and pulled the string. It made a spooky noise. Aunty, inside, pretended to be frightened.
Then I went in the house and told all about my Halloween adventure and showed my candy. Some other children came to the door and we gave them candy. If you didn't hand out candy, I reasoned, you would find pins in your doorbell or an egg thrown on the porch. Some people had their outhouses overturned. We were lucky because we had inside plumbing. In spite of everything, we had our windows soaped.
But it was all such fun.
Where would we be without screen doors?
Caged inside on a glorious spring or summer day, that's what. I am always happiest with open windows and doors so I can see what's happening in the world outside, smell the flowers, hear the birds and, of course, barking dogs, noisy cars and lawn mowers.
Only when the humidity and heat get too oppressive do I reluctantly turn on the air conditioner and seal myself hermetically inside.
My earliest memories of screen doors are the ones at my great aunt's in Pennsylvania which slammed wonderfully and which one hooked carefully at night. The front one looked out on the main street and the back one on flowers and the creek.
Later, during high school in southeast Washington, I could talk to some wondering neighborhood boy or girl friend and keep up with who was doing what -- all without letting the flies in.
In early married days in the house where I still live, screen doors allowed me to keep an eye on the kids and hear who was on the carport, who was fighting over whose toys, who was teasing the current baby in the play pen.
Later we had doors with movable glass which we slid up and down over the outer screen. My daughter's athletic Siamese cat could climb to the top of the screen easily but with a lot of meowing to make sure we were all watching. Our present cat plucks the screen like a harp to ask inside.
The beagle we had for almost a year (was it only that long?) could hear when the screen door latch didn't click and would disappear in a trice to run with his neighborhood doggie gang. This included Snowball-ginger-oof, the three-legged dog. We called him doggie-no-leg. He came from blocks away just to hang out with the guys.
I don't really remember the move to Shamokin from Tunkhannock, but somehow we were there in early October 1933. Our house was on the last block of W. Walnut in Shamokin township up near the woods and on the road to Cameron Coal Company.
Our block jogged slightly off the rest of W. Walnut and had (on our side) a corner store owned by Joe Knovich, two sets of duplex houses and a single house at the other corner.
On the other side of our duplex house lived the Lindemans. He was an undertaker and she ran a kindergarten class for five or six children in her home. I could sometimes hear singing through the wall.
There was no formal kindergarten in the Shamokin School system. I was in the first grade.
Our house had two cement basement rooms. Toward the front of the house there was the coal bin with its little window to the outside where the coal truck could bring our monthly delivery with all its splendid noise and dust. There was a covered cement porch at ground level which was perfect for hopscotch and there was a small backyard in which my parents planted their bachelor buttons, calendulas, snapdragons, larkspur, portulaca and zinnias.
The first floor was living room, dining room and kitchen, railroad style with front porch right off the sidewalk and back porch overlooking the garden. The space between the two duplexes had two walkways leading to the back and many iris or flags as the neighbors called them.
Up at the far corner of the block lived Freddy Wesleski, two years younger than I. His family were Orthodox Catholics, went to St. Stephen's rather than St. Joseph's. The most interesting thing was going to see Freddy's Christmas tree and presents and his Easter basket a whole week after our holiday.
In the next house down from us lived the Klicks with sons, George and John, who mined coal like their father, Olga, who was in high school, and Rita, two years older than I who went to St. Joseph's parochial school. Mrs. Klick kept a spotless house with lace antimacassars on the plush living room suite. They hardly ever used their kitchen. They had one in the basement so that the miners could clean up in the wash tubs and eat there meals down there. I sometimes ate lunch with the Klicks when my mother had a doctor's appointment in town. Mrs. Klick made wonderful and strange Polish Hungarian things that we didn't have at our house.
Next to the Klicks were the Cultons with grown daughters, Margaret and Ruth. They all attended the Evangelical Church and practiced hymns a lot on their piano.
Next to Knovich's corner store on the Woodlawn Avenue side was their house, a single home with more yard than we had. Their children were Dick, Connie and Lorraine who --Joy! -- was my age. We played together and made our first communion together even though she was "Catholic" and I was "Public."
Across the street and up on our block was another vacant lot on the corner. Our cocker spaniel, Timmy, would make a beeline for that vacant lot when he was let out. There was no such thing as a "leash law" in the 1930's.
Next to that lot lived a family named Lewis, also Evangelical, with grown children. Next to the Lewises lived the Bogarts with small children Billy and Peggy who was really only a baby. The middle duplex housed the Williams. There were a lot of Williams. In the third floor rooms lived Anna and Margaret, the oldest girls who were in high school and took mysterious courses in shorthand. Margaret sometimes babysat me when my parents went across town to the Henrys or the Norrises to play cards and socialize.
I remember sitting on the stairs once and telling Margaret: "You can't tell me what to do. You're not my mother!" Margaret's and Anna's brothers, Paul and Robert, slept in the other third floor bedroom. They were big boys, too, in the sixth and eighth grades. They played ball and run-sheep-run and mumblety peg with a knife. Sometimes they had us little kids write words with chalk on their tires which they rolled like hoops. They would spell these words for us and then laugh a lot. I never knew what was so funny until older girls told me they were "bad" words.
Mary Ellen Williams, the youngest, was on the second floor with her grandmother and parents in the other two bedrooms. Mary Ellen was two years older than I and took me to school for awhile when we first moved in. Sometimes she was fun to play with and sometimes not especially when she said my mother was not a lady because she smoked. I wanted to say her mother wasn't a lady because she did our wash, but I didn't.
I liked Mrs. Williams. If I ate lunch at their house instead of Klicks, we had baloney sandwiches and potato soup and she was always nice to me.
On the other side of the Williamses lived Joann Kuhn, aged five, and her parents. Mr. Kuhn worked for Monkey Ward and in the winter he revved his motor to warm it up.
The last duplex housed the Stokes family, Bobby and his parents. Mrs. Stokes was very sweet and quiet and Mr. Stokes was short, had a military stride and a great Welsh tenor voice. He sang in the Evangelical church choir. Last was Madelyn Lewis and her husband Morgan and their two cats. Ludie, as we called her, loved all of us kids. They had none of their own.
1728 Walnut Street was where I learned lots of outdoor games like Red Light and Statues. I learned to read and bought the new comic books, Famous Funnies and Action Comics. I got my own radio to listen to. I absorbed some of the Polish and Welsh values around us, acted as go-between in the great Klick/Williams feud over whether Mary Ellen Williams had "spanned" the jump rope and made Rita Klick fall and break her arm.
There were birthday parties, games, fireworks in the lot up from our block, a cat, Tommy, and a dog,Timmy.
Shamokin, Pennsylvania, 1933
My mother must have taken me to school on that first day after we moved from Tunkhannock. Maybe she walked with me and showed me how to turn the corner at Woodlawn and then go left on Arch Street for the four blocks to McKinley Elementary School. I can't get that first day clearly but suddenly I was at home at the back of the second row with my pencil, lined writing tablet and that first mysterious reader. I remember that first page: "Father rabbit went into the woods, Mother rabbit went into the woods, Baby rabbit went into the woods. They all went into the woods, hop, hop, hop." To master that was the key to unlimited paradise.
Miss Brennan was the first grade teacher. Slim, carefully curled hair, red fingernails (glamorous and exciting) and a take-charge attitude. She barked orders at us but was never really mean. Even when Joseph Poniatowski raised his hand to leave the room and she didn't see him in time, she wasn't mean. She didn't let us snicker at him or his damp pants.
What did we do in the first grade to take up the whole day? Miss Brennan had her work cut out for her. There was the pledge of allegiance (which had to be memorized), some sort of non-denominational prayer, and reading, of course, bit by bit. We had short sums (one and one equals two) and, of course, the Palmer method. This was a drill in letters and curlicues and up and down lines which was to guarantee that we all wrote legibly and well.
After a line of circles which looked like nothing more than a long horizontal roll of barbed wire, my arm was full of pencil smudges. I was a lefty and wrote that wonderful crabbed arm style. The other two lefties in the class had to learn to write with their right hand but my mother wrote a note saying, in essence, leave her alone. I guess I managed because I became neat enough to graduate to pen and ink for the Palmer method session.
Now pen and ink had to be done very carefully to avoid inky arms!
We sang songs and went home for lunch and back again for the afternoon. Miss Brennan had us put our heads down on our desks before afternoon session and there was always someone who had to be really wakened up.
First grade was a motley crew. There was John Heckert and John Fry and Mary Jane Long. There was Shirley Gottschalk who wore Mary Janes to school. I envied her. I didn't even have Mary Janes for Sunday. She even wore a different dress every day. Unless I got my dress dirty, really dirty, I wore it twice.
There were Philip and Joyce who were supposed to be twins but they didn't look much like each other. There was Lorraine Kurilla who dressed up in native Polish dress on Halloween and danced for us. There was Sarah Messina who had beautiful, thick glossy braids down her back. Why couldn't I have hair like that instead of a short bob with a barrette. Short hair, freckles, brown oxfords--I'd never make it.
When school was over, we would march out of our classroom by twos and out the front door of the school and across Arch Street, watched by four important patrols, vigilant, keeping back cars and coal trucks. I would cross the street and continue up Arch for those four blocks, then to Woodlawn and Walnut and home.
Some time during the year, I became aware of two big girls (third or fourth grade at least) who had come from St. Joseph's down a few blocks and who went home my way. They began to walk behind me terrorizing me with remarks or threatening to walk on my heels or some other torture. I began to run the last block or so when they tuned down Edgelawn and I up Woodlawn. I didn't tell my mother but began to dread leaving school.
One afternoon, poised to walk the gamut of the patrols and across Arch Street, I saw them, somehow grown to big and mean proportions, waiting for me and smirking. I turned and bolted back to Miss Breenan's room, blurting out my awful problem. She rose, fire in her eye, and took my arm.
"Come on," she said, "I'll fix them." We reached the street and looked across. They were gone, but we waited until almost all of the other children were gone. "You tell me if you see them again," she said, "Brazen things!" She crossed her arms and waited for me to go.
I nodded and ran, delivered from the afternoon terrors. To make sure that they weren't lurking somewhere up the street, I boldly decided to go up Walnut Street instead. I turned up the street into unfamiliar territory even though it was my street. Each block seemed more foreboding even though I kept walking in the right direction. I began to cry quietly, sure that I was forever lost. Housewives tried to approach me to see if there was something they could do, but I kept walking sniffling and forlorn.
Finally, I came to the block down from mine and familiar houses appeared, the Delaney's, Mary Lou Brennan's, the Helfricks. And then there was Woodlawn, Knovich's little grocery store and, beyond, my house.
I grew a foot that day, in my mind anyway. Now there were two ways to go to school. I never saw the menacing St. Joseph's girls again, but then I knew I could count on Miss Brennan. I heard later that she was going with someone who worked at Smitty's barber shop. That meant that she might get married and then she couldn't teach any more. I don't know if she got married or not, but she was "mine" for first grade.
Twice a day I walked the six blocks to school. I came home for lunch because there was no lunch room. Everyone came home for lunch.
The walk was never dull. That first year I walked mostly alone as the other children in my neighborhood were either older or went to St. Joseph's, the parochial school. As I grew older, I often walked with other children I had met in class.
I would leave the house and go past the Klicks, the Cultons and Knovich's corner store. I watched both ways at the corner for coal trucks or other traffic.
Sometimes there was a group of men repairing the street. These were WPA workers. Some grownups said that WPA stood for "We Poke Along."
The next block was a short one but I went quickly so I could get past the Delaney's house. There were a lot of Delaney boys who could make things miserable if they were in the mood. Their sister, Peggy, was okay. She was my age, but went to St. Joseph's.
My grade school years, Grades 1 to 6, were spent in Shamokin, PA. I lived in a semi-detached house in the last block of West Walnut Street. This last block joined a vacant lot, the dump beyond (which was full of treasures), the woods where we picked violets, teaberries and birch bark. There was a crossroad leading up to the mines owned by The Cameron Coal Company.
In the other direction. there were 16 blocks of West Walnut Street which ended downtown. Twice every day I walked five of these blocks back and forth to school.
I went mostly alone as the other children in my neighborhood were either older, younger or went to parochial school. In any case, my walk was never dull.
First, I would go past Knovichh's corner store, watching both ways on Woodlawn Avenue for coal trucks or other traffic. As often as not, there was a group of WPA workers repairing potholes. Adults referred to them jokingly as "We Poke Along."
I walked the next block quickly in order to pass the Delaney's house. There were quite a few Delaney boys who could make things miserable for the casual passerby if they chose. Peggy Delaney - my age - was the exception; but she went to St. Joseph's.
Two blocks further was a complete line of row houses, one front porch after another with two steps to the sidewalk.
In one of these lived my friend, Isabel Hoffman, who had me to supper on sauerkraut night. My father could not abide sauerkraut. Near Isabel lived Gloria Picarelli and 17 brothers and sisters. We all wondered where everyone slept. Near the Picarellis lived Joseph Poniotowski, a big shy boy who surprised us by singing "When They Cut Down the Old Pine Tree" very nicely in front of the first grade class.
Across the street was Phyllis Scholtz with her brother and two sisters whose father worked in the silk mill and they had a piano, joy of joys.
The last block before turning down Arch Street and arriving at school was special: a woman lived there who sold homemade taffy lollipops. They were big, chewy and utterly delicious. One could get three different toppings, coconut, peanuts or red hots. They only cost two cents. I used to have to cover them with tablet paper during school hours. This was a nuisance but could be borne.
If I missed the lollipop lady, there was always the candy store, conveniently situated across from the school. Sometimes I had up to 4 pennies to spend after lunch and I would gorge on greenleaves, Mary Janes, blony bubble gum with war cards, pumpkin seeds or Guess Whats complete with riddle and prize.
Thoughts of those walks to school are always filled with "sweet" memories.
It is a hot, still summer day. Butterflies flit slowly over the larkspur and zinnias in the backyard. Even the cicadas sound drugged. I am seven or eight and already I am warm in my shorts set and sandals. My mother has had the windows open but has now closed them and drawn the blinds against the heat. The tea is steeping in its cool water in the kitchen and eggs have been boiled along with potatoes for tonight's potato salad.
I am having breakfast. The shredded wheat box is separated into two layers by a cardboard divider which has pictures on it to color. I am already deciding which crayons to use. Timmy, the cocker spaniel, is sprawled in the corner where the linoleum is still cool. He has done his chores for the day - running down the cellar stairs when my father puts his coffee cup down hard on the saucer. Timmy comes up with one work boot in his mouth then brings up the other one. It's his only trick but impressive nonetheless. He is definitely my father's dog -- oh, he tolerates my mother and me, but gets all excited when the company Ford coupe pulls up out front in the late afternoons. He wags his whole backside then.
I am wondering what I am going to do on this hot day when my mother announces that it's time to clean out my toys and get rid of some of them. She doesn't put it quite like that. She says I'm too big for certain things and that, if I don't play with them anymore, they should go to someone who could.
I immediately start to whine and I feel protective of all my things. We go up the stairs anyway, my mother leading and me following reluctantly. She makes my bed, not too much work in the summer --two sheets and the cotton spread. Now we start to separate toys. There are things I haven't looked at in a long time -- baby books and some wind-up things, old blocks and a rag doll I was once fond of . I am sure that I love that doll.
"Dawn's little sister doesn't have much to play with and she would love to have these things," my mother says calmly as I watch the growing pile in dismay. "I'll get them ready and you can take them over this morning." She talks gently but I know she means it.
I stump downstairs and, in a few minutes, my mother comes down with a bag of toys. "Take them down now," she says, "before it gets too hot." "Come on," she adds with a smile, "you still have lots left to play with.
I leave with the bag in one hand and clutching the rag doll in the other. I see that there are also some shorts and skirts and a dress that are two small for me in the bag.
I go out the door, off the porch to the sidewalk and up to the corner. I turn down the road and go off into the woods a little way on the path to the Zerbe's house. Mr. Zerbe works for my father on the mine for the Cameron Coal Company. They have three children. There is Wayne who is in the fourth or fifth grade and Dawn who is in my room at school. She is very shy and quiet. Then there is her little sister who is going to get all my things. I am angry when I reach their house. Why don't they get their own toys?
Mrs. Zerbe greets me with a smile. "Oh, Sally, come in. Look, Jeanie (so that's her name) what Sally brought you." The little girl -- well, she's littler than me -- is all excited about the things in the bag.
Wayne is in the back in the kitchen and Dawn is smiling by the table. They have a smaller house than we do and I can see all of their downstairs at once.
"Oh, these are nice," Mrs. Zerbe says. "Would you like a dish of huckleberries?"
"All right," I said. I had just had breakfast an hour or so ago, but I never refused food.
She put a saucer of blueberries and cream in front of me and the sugar bowl. I sprinkled sugar on the berries and began to eat Everyone watched, smiling. Oh, they were good. I felt a little better when I had finished. I remembered to say thank you and left to go. They said goodbye and Jeanie waved, clutching the rag doll.
By the time I was a seasoned seven-year-old and in the second grade, I knew both routes to school, Arch and Walnut Streets. I knew where all the stores were that sold penny candy. I knew enough children now to walk to school with and I knew how to dodge the coal trucks crossing the streets.
In second grade, I had two teachers. One was older and motherly and the other was a tall young woman with chestnut hair. I remember them as good teachers, no temper tantrums like Miss Brennan in first grade. They drilled us in spelling and times tables, overseeing our laborious Palmer Method lessons so that we would have legible handwriting some day. They taught us songs like "In the Gloaming", "Flow Gently Sweet Afton", "Reuben, Reuben" and my favorite, "Mr. Frog He Did A Wooing Go." They read stories, coached our halting reading and organized plays like The Three Little Pigs which we acted out. They were firm but kind and overlooked our occasional whispering, giggling or our tablet paper sticky from taffy lollipops.
Most of the children in this grade I knew from the year before. There were Margaret, John, George, Lorraine, Catherine, Hilda, Bessie Mae, Harry, Mary Jane and Shirley. There were a few new children also.
We were an interchangeable group at that age, too young for boy-girl interests and too young for outright warfare. We mixed easily and were friendly as only seven-year-olds can be.
Near me sat Paul, freckle-faced and fun, whose last name began with the same letter as mine and we giggled and whispered that fall, passing an occasional note or piece of candy. He marched ahead of me in the Halloween parade where we went around the block in our costumes to the admiration and amusement of housewives, mothers and grandmothers who stood on their front stoops and commented as we passed by. We returned to class and had a small treat before we went home for the afternoon. Paul and I shared cupcakes.
One day in mid-November, Paul was absent from class and the teachers gravely told us that he was in the hospital. He had run into the street after a ball and had been hit by a coal truck.
We greeted this news with stunned silence. All of us had been warned about trucks and running into the street, but not many of us had heard this kind of news before about someone we knew. We were very quiet doing our lessons that day. Each succeeding day we would be told of Paul's progress.
His neck had been broken, the teachers said, and he was in very guarded condition. At first he was unconscious and then he was slightly better. We heard later that he was worse and, if he recovered, he would never walk again.
At Thanksgiving time they said that he had asked for some pumpkin pie. When his mother brought it, he could only taste it and spit it out. He couldn't swallow properly and had feeding tubes in him. This homey bit of news brought the enormity of it home to us and we were again sad for him.
A few days after this, we were told that Paul had died. The teachers carefully explained that we would go as a class to see Paul for a last time. If our mothers didn't want us to go that was all right, too. My mother thought I should make my farewell with the others, so the following afternoon we put on our coats and hats and marched soberly out of school, across the street and down two blocks to Paul's house.
Inside, in the dimly lit front parlor, was a small, open casket with a few flower arrangements near it. Inside the casket lay a sleeping Paul in his Sunday clothes, hands folded neatly on his breast.
He was too still. His family stood clustered in the back of the room and watched mutely as each of us walked past and said our silent goodbyes to Paul.
It was sad and strange and sobering but altogether normal, somehow, for the second grade to bid farewell to one of their own. We returned to school, still in silence, picked up our school books and went home.
We began to forget Paul as second grade went on and time went on. We grew older. Children don't do this sort of thing any more, too morbid it is thought, but I see it now as one of the very normal steps we took in growing up.
My six grandchildren, ages two to eight, visit from time to time though not all at once except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Fourth of July picnic. My husband has become the good grandfather and devotes himself to their entertainment all the time they are here. I am less gracious -- as the kids say now, "I need my space" although I am good for reading stories, jigsaw puzzles and the occasional game of Old Maid or Crazy Eights.
My husband, realizing he was only human, recently purchased Nintendo with many mind-numbing games and now we often get only a hurried "hello" as children disappear up the stairs to the arms of the Mario Brothers or Ninja Turtles.
Other families with older grandchildren tell of soccer practice, swimming, baseball and other sports for children all the way down to five-year-olds who have T-Ball. It seems these things continue year round and parents or grandparents seem to be constantly running a taxi service from one activity to another. There seems to be no time for just play.
My activities were different and seem to have relied more on imagination. As an only child, I had to invent things to do. At four or five years old, I had an imaginary friend named Rachel who roller skated with me. I had my own little radio with late afternoon programs like Little Orphan Annie, Don Winslow and the Navy, Jack Armstrong, the All-American boy and, on Sunday, The Shadow which scared me to death. While I listened, I drew pictures or doodled.
My mother sometimes indulged me in the evening with games of Russian Bank, Double Solitaire and Parcheesi. I even learned Cribbage and Backgammon as I grew older.
Outside, there was a neighborhood with children of all ages and there were good weather games at all times -- ball or Mumblety Peg, Run Sheep Run, Kick the Can for the boys and for the girls jump rope, hopscotch, statues, Hide and Seek and "sitting down" games like Lemonade in the Shade and Dummy school.
We wandered into the woods in the summer chewing birch bark, eating tea berries or huckleberries. We caught fireflies in the summer evenings and on summer afternoons bees in jars.
When all the activities ran out or when the weather was bad or when my mother put her foot down on people playing yet again in our attic, I had books to read and magazines like Child Life and Playmate. I could curl up in the living room or on my aunt's big front porch in upstate Pennsylvania or in my bunk at summer camp or in the children's section of the library and be in the Limberlost or with Nancy Drew. There is something in books that TV can never match and I had it.
We had an onion snow this morning. Big wet flakes fell quietly among the raindrops. They disappeared on the wet grass. Otherwise in the afternoon, it was just a wet April day. The tiny dots of green appearing on the trees combined to make it a George Seurat landscape.
It has been an odd late winter and early spring. The Bradford pears have not bloomed as they should. Instead of rows of trees in radiant white standing like debutantes before the grand march, they have half-heartedly budded and then produced their leaves hurriedly. The forsythia however has been bravely yellow and daffodils and tulips kept colorful appointments in the garden.........
As a renegade Catholic, I think the words, Sunday School, sound Protestant. We had Sunday School but it was only for children and was to instruct them in biblical and church teachings toward making first Communion and later so they could be confirmed in the Church. It was called Catechism class. In the old days (and perhaps today), Protestants used to be able to go either to Sunday School at 9:30 or Church at 11:00. Shamokin township Catholics, on the other hand, went to Mass every Sunday...rain or shine, winter or summer, come Hell or high water. And Hell beckoned if you didn't go.
Children like me who didn't go to Parochial school were "publics" and all of us children, parochial and public, attended the nine o'clock or Children's Mass each Sunday.
This was a mass where the old fire and brimstone pastor would stop the service to call out to some offending child, "stop fiddling with your purse" or, "stop whispering, you're in God's house!" If he wasn't saying the mass, he would patrol the aisles like an avenging angel saying: "Kneel up, you're not crippled!"
After the service and the words, "Ite, missa est," or "Go, the Mass is finished" were spoken, the parochial school kids, naturally sitting in the front of the church, marched past us in superior silence and out to freedom.
We publics then rose and filed out to the vestibule, down the stairs to the school area and down the long hall where we separated and went into various classrooms according to age.
When I was six and seven and was preparing for first holy Communion, I remember us standing by our desks as Sister came into the room. We would then fold our hands and recite the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be and sit down with our Baltimore Catechism in front of us.
The lesson always began with:
"Who made the world?"
"God made the world," was our chorused response.
We would then go on with the assigned chapters of questions and answers and Sister usually added a cautionary tale about martyrs and how we were never to renounce Mother Church even if we were threatened with death. This was always sobering information and I can still see Sister telling us little people all this in that old, chalky, damp classroom with its blackboards, crucifix and holy pictures.
At the end of the class, we would receive homework assignments and march out the door and down the hall, up the stairs and out to home, funny papers and Sunday dinner.
I made my first communion and still have a picture of me standing with my neighborhood friend, Lorraine, who was perfectly turned out with white dress, white stockings and curls while I, in knee socks, smiled weakly above my freckles. My Dutch boy bob hung straight under my limp veil.
Several years and many chapters of the Baltimore Catechism later, I was confirmed. This was a solemn occasion complete with a high mass, presided over by the bishop himself, and incense. It was our due, after all, because today we would become true members of Holy Mother Church.
After the mass, we were to march up to the front of the church and each in turn would give his or her confirmation name. I had chosen Mary -- or perhaps my mother did. Mary was short and safe. In return the bishop would give us a light ritual slap on the cheek, reminding us to renounce the devil, and then formally welcomed us into the church.
The little boy in front of me, apparently having much experience at home, neatly ducked the slap. The bishop didn't miss a beat, but went right on as if nothing had happened. In due time, we were recognized and welcomed and were now grown up members of the church--well, sort of grown up.
When I moved to Pottsville two years later, I continued to go to religion class as it is now known. I attended St. John's, one of two Catholic churches in town and nearest to my house.
It was a beautiful old church, vast and quiet, with banks of flickering votive candles on either side of the alter. This was the German rather than the Irish church. Our religion teachers were devout, semi-cloistered German nuns and our particular teacher was a tiny, unworldly soul who took her work very seriously and, when she came to the word "devil" actually whispered it.
When I reached high school age in Washington, there were no formal religion classes. I think they tried to start up a social club of sorts for "publics" but by then I had sophomore and junior years at St. Cecilia's so I was beyond instructing!
All through my life, I had many Protestant friends and went off and on to their Sunday schools with them. I liked the services because even though I knew these people weren't in the True Church and probably weren't going to go to Heaven, they had proper Sunday Schools which taught Bible stories and sang neat hymns. Years later, my kids went to what was now called CCD. So we Catholics have had catechism class, religion instructions and then CCD, but the Protestants truly have Sunday School.
My maternal grandmother, Theresa Gilmartin Loftus, died in the winter of 1907. Her five- year- old daughter Hester, my mother, had gone sleigh riding down the hill in the back yard, had gone over the creek bank and through the ice of the Tunkhannock Creek, an offshoot of the Susquehanna River. My grandmother must have panicked when the other children brought her the news. Five years before, she had lost a son in that same spot.
She raced down the bank, threw herself into the creek, hoping to avoid a second death. The icy water, terror and a congenital heart condition led, instead, to her own death.
My mother was brought to shore by rescuers only a few houses away and suffered no lasting ill effects, but my grandmother's body floated down the creek toward the Susquehanna and was recovered near the woolen mill further uptown.
My grandfather, John, called from his livery stable nearby, must have been devastated. Now he had lost not only four of his six children, but his wife as well.
Into the breach stepped one of the last Gilmartin girls, Margaret. She lived at the other end of town, near the river, with her widowed mother and her youngest sister, Kate, who taught school. Margaret, called Maggie, was a short, slightly plump woman, patient and good humored.
With a lack of suitable Irish Catholic beaux in a largely Anglo Saxon Protestant community, she must have long since resigned herself to spinsterhood. Now here she was at age 34, the instant surrogate mother of a ten-year-old nephew Willie and a five-year-old niece, Hester, and housekeeper for a grieving brother-in-law.
I must say here that there was no instant or slowly developing romance between John Loftus and Maggie. He had lost four children and a wife and was left with the spirit knocked out of him.
I have little information on the early years when Maggie took over the reins of the household. There would have been little time on her hands. There was the great black stove to feed every morning with coal, ashes to shake out, food to cook, clothes to wash outside, first in the tubs and in later years, the wringer-washer. They had to be hung on the wire clothesline that stretched from the back porch to the end of the yard.
There was hot breakfast, dinner at noon for my grandfather and the two children, then again supper at five o'clock or thereabouts. There were beds to make, dusting and cleaning the rugs with the carpet sweeper. Ironing, what there was, had to be done with several flatirons, heated in turn.
My mother, at five, would have started to learn the household chores. She would feed the chickens, help with the dusting, run up the street to the neighbors to borrow some "starter" to bake bread with. As she got older, she would be able to get oysters uptown when the barrels arrived on a Friday. She would put out the sign for the iceman just as I got to do when I was a little girl visiting. She would help with the cooking and cleaning after school.
Life, for Maggie, would have settled into a routine in a year or so. She would still go to mass at the Church of the Nativity, up the street one block. Her mother and sister would come and visit and she could take Willie and Hester up to visit their grandmother in turn.
Tunkhannock in the 1900's consisted of perhaps two thousand people, mostly descendants of the English settlers who had arrived from Connecticut after the Revolutionary War. There were a number of Polish and Lithuanian people and Irish families driven out by the potato famines, who settled in and around the town, farming, working with horses like my grandfather, working on the various canals and then the railroad. Maggie's only brothers, Willie and Tommy, worked for the Lackawanna Railroad and lived in nearby towns.
The town was prosperous and busy, being on the river and the railroad. There was the Keeler House, the important hotel up at the corner of Tioga and Bridge Streets, where the salesmen, or "drummers" stayed. There were the Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Baptist churches, mostly up at the other end of town where the large old Victorian houses were. There was the courthouse in its own little square and two blocks away there was the new moving picture theater. There was a tiny library and a number of shops. The main street went northwest to Buffalo, N.Y. if one wanted to go that far, and southeast to Scranton, Stroudsburg and then on to New York City.
Maggie's cousins, the Madden girls, would come and visit occasionally and friends from church, Nellie Boyce or Eliza or Annie Harrigan. It was a busy life.
As the children grew older, they were more help around the place. Willie (or Leo depending upon which relative spoke of him) became good at the gardening chores. Hester could do both the dinner dishes at home and then run up to Grandma Gilmartin's to help her at the school noon break.
Somewhere in time - after Willie had graduated from Tunkhannock High School and had gone on to Penn State - my grandfather's mother, Mary Dunleavey Loftus, came to stay at 130 East Tioga Street. Facts are few about the stay except she was in her later 70's or early 80's and not well. Had she come from Staten Island where her other son, Bernard, and her married daughters lived? It is unclear, but one fact stands out. As she grew older and in poorer health, she was difficult to live with, staying mostly in her room and sending out orders for things which either my mother or Maggie would be obliged to get.
World War One was drawing to its close when Willie enlisted in the Army. After a stay at Fort Dix, he got as far as England before the Armistice was signed. There is a letter to him in England from Maggie telling him of his grandmother Loftus’ death. "She was filling up fast and had the pneumonia that old people take," she wrote. Maggie also said that the Staten Island people "neither came nor sent word and would probably have some kind of excuse when they did write."
At the same time, Maggie wrote of Eliza's death. Eliza had had a big bruise on her head and there was a mystery about her death. Maggie surmised that she must have got drunk and fallen down. No secrets in small towns.
When Willie returned after the war, he did not go back to Penn State but instead went to New Jersey and New York for various jobs. My mother, Hester, finished high school and went a year to Marywood College in Scranton. She enjoyed it there but apparently was a little put off by the nuns' insistence that the girls look hard for their hidden vocations!
My grandfather John, by this time had retired from work, due in part to age and partly because with the advent of the automobile there was less and less need of livery stable services. He spent a great deal of time up at the taproom in the hotel, tired and saddened toward the end of his life. He encouraged my mother to spend a year at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn where she could study and indulge her penchant for style and design. She stayed for the term, but then, terribly homesick, returned to Tunkhannock and Maggie and her friends. She got a job at Greenwood's furniture store and funeral parlor.
In 1923 Maggie's mother, known as Grandma Gilmartin to Willie and Hester, died at the age of 84, leaving six of her children to survive her. The old house on River Street was sold to another family. The following year, John Loftus, driving on an errand to the Billings farm outside of town, apparently had a stroke. When found, he did not respond to any medical assistance. I have no record of whether the "Staten Island people" (his brother and the two married sisters) responded at all.
Next came a happy event, the wedding of Hester and a young civil engineer, Parker Dawes, from New York State who had been doing highway construction in the area. The couple was married in the front sitting room of 130 East Tioga Street, as the church did not conduct mixed marriages in the church proper. The wedding announcement said that it was a pretty marriage scene, the bride was beautifully gowned and, after a wedding supper, the bride and groom departed on the Black Diamond express for New York City. It also mentioned that Miss Loftus was an orphan and resided with her aunt. Now Maggie was alone in the house. Perhaps she was pleased at the lessening of the work load but, then again, perhaps she was lonely. Having been raised one of eight children perhaps the silence was difficult.
I first remember Aunty when I was four or five. I had been visiting her off and on since birth. The summer that I was eight I got to go to Tunkhannock and stay with Auntie all by myself. She had raised my mother and uncle and so she was really like my other grandmother, but she was Aunty to me. My uncle and my mother called her Maggie. My mother and father were on a short trip by themselves. My mother was joining me later.
Tunkhannock was an adventure. I loved visiting there. It was a small town and the house where my mother had been born was big and full of all kinds of things. Besides there was Aunty, not big on long conversations but comfortable to be around. She invariably made big sugar cookies which I secretly wished were smaller and thinner. It always took a whole glass of milk to get one down.
In Tunkhannock, there were always the familiar things. First there was the house on its big lot-and-a-half on main street. There was the wide front porch and the Dutchman's pipe vine covering a trellis near the front door and my aunt's rocker. There was the swing in the side yard hanging from the big catalpa tree. There was a little side porch leading into the new dining room. It was the big old country kitchen which had been recently divided. There was the back porch with the wringer washer standing by the door and a washboard hung up by the clothesline. Oh, and more trellises and flowers.
Then there was a small barn in the back yard-- another world, with its collection of firewood, lumber, tools, and piles of old newspapers and magazines. There were also unfinished chairs hanging from the rafters waiting to be caned, wheelbarrows and wagon wheels and a workbench by the dusty window covered with glass jars of nails and nuts, bolts and screws. Inside there was the heady, musty smell of damp wood, oil, metal and bags of black walnuts stored there.
There was a grape vine down one side of the yard on the property line, a cherry tree and an apple tree. There were currant bushes growing near the barn and a sloping path past the barn next to the vegetable garden to where there was a level shady spot with tall trees and bushes overlooking the Tunkhannock Creek, a branch of the Susquehanna. People threw old leftover things down the creek bank and there were cans and broken glass among them. I was never to go down the creek bank. It was fun to stand on that flat grassy spot and watch the shallow creek flow past. Occasionally a train would go by on the other side of the creek, gathering speed, whistle blowing importantly as it rolled past the town on its way to Wilkes Barre, Sunbury, Harrisburg and points south.
I had my own room upstairs across from Aunty's and near the bathroom. The front room on the left was rented out. Aunty had a big white sign out front toward the street which said "Tourists." I remember different people coming and going, but I didn't pay too much attention because I was busy.
I had two friends in Tunkhannock. There was Shirley who lived across on the next street. I could get to her house by looking both ways and then running across Tioga Street, past Mrs. Lott’s house, through the gas station, down the tracks for a few feet, then up the bank into Shirley's back yard. Or I could walk on the sidewalk past the gas station up Pine Street then turn at Second and go three houses.
Shirley was my age and her mother let me pound on their piano almost forever. Then she would say "Sally, I think that's enough." Shirley and I could ride our bicycles, play games and go up on the next block and see Katharine who was also around our age. She had just come with her mother and sister from Persia. I didn't know where that was really, but she had red pigtails and blue tennis shoes. She had a piano in her house, too, and a swing in her barn. We would all go to the library together and borrow one of the Twins books and sit at the little children's table and laugh at the Goops.
The days therefore could stretch out magically to the sound of cars going by on Tioga Street and the cicada in the trees counting cadence in the heat. Then there were the owls and whip-poor-wills in the evening. There were snowball bushes in the side yard big enough to hide under, cherries to pick from the tree in back and the occasional sound of green apples falling from the tree in the side yard on to the tin roof of the side porch.
A week or so after I arrived that summer, I had done all my things. I had cereal every morning. I had explored the house and barn. I had listened to Aunt Jenny's True Life Stories at noon and Uncle Don in the evening on the little radio in the living room. I had gone uptown for Aunty and stood in Rosengrant's meat market looking at the sawdust on the floor, savoring the smell of raw beef and sausage while waiting for my package of pork chops or hamburger. I had gotten penny candy uptown, too, and gone as far as Henrie's drugstore to get Dixie cups in the afternoon. These were special because they had little flat wooden spoons to eat the ice cream with and they also had a movie star's picture on the inside lid. You licked carefully and there was Kay Francis or Jean Harlow or Claudette Colbert smiling at you forever. You could collect lids.
This day I had decided to go barefoot and I wandered around the backyard. The grapes on the vine between Mrs. Skrynski's house and Auntie's were still green. The barn was boring and I wandered down the path to the back creek bank. I stared at the gently flowing, shallow creek for awhile. Then I saw something shining down the bank among the rocks and grass and bits of junk. I thought, well, just once won't hurt and I climbed down to inspect. I felt a sudden sharp pain in my foot and saw that I had stepped on a piece of broken glass. My foot was bleeding and I climbed back up whimpering -- up the path, up the back steps to the kitchen where Aunty was finishing the noon dishes. "Oh, Sally, I told you not to go down there!" she said sharply. Then, clucking, "Sit down." I sat on the little kitchen chair by the cellar door. She brought a basin of warm water and put my foot in it. Then she put some disinfectant on the cut which was not long but fairly deep. It stung.
(It would appear that Doris Sanford combined two separate stories, a remembrance of Auntie and a recollection of her Tunkhannock childhood. - SFS)