Friday, April 19, 2013

Shamokin: 1249 West Walnut Street

It is June and I have finished fifth grade.  My mother tells me we are moving.  The family next door has three boys, no carpeting and a loud radio next to the common wall. They play it a lot, especially at night, and we don't have to turn on "The Lone Ranger" because we get every word, loud and clear, in our living room.  It is driving my mother crazy.

I am upset but then the new house is only five blocks down the street and I can always come back and visit friends here.  I will be in the same school and be nearer to two girls in my class, Isobel and Phyllis.  I resign myself to the move.

Better yet, camp is only a week away.  It is my third summer at camp and I will be moved up to Room 3 for 11 and 12 year olds.  We can go early and I can get the best upper bunk, run downstairs to see if there are any new Judy Boltens or Nancy Drews in the bookcase and be unpacked in time to meet old regulars like Cecily, Franny, Randy, Irene or Sally Wilmot, the 'other' Sally.

When camp is over this year, I go home to the new house.  It is larger than our old place and stands all by itself just past a small vacant lot on the corner.  It is red brick and has a small front yard.  There are eight or nine steps leading up to the front porch.  Inside, the stairs go up from the front door and the living room and dining room are to the right. There is a swinging door into the big kitchen and we have a back yard and a cemented basement.

Upstairs there are three bedrooms, a bath and a sunny alcove in the front of the house that my mother uses for sewing.  My bedroom is at the back and is nice and big.  I like it.

We have a new dog, a black cocker spaniel named Tinker. Our old dog, named Timmy by my father, had to be put to sleep. My father named this dog, too.  Tinker is nice but a little nervous.

Next to our house is a little gray weather-beaten place with a family of noisy children.  Their name is Wherry.  We don't know what Mr. Wherry does for a living -- bootleg mining probably -- but he drinks definitely.

The oldest girl, Minnie, is fat and easy going.  She's in the eighth grade and rumor has it at school that she "does it."  I'm not exactly sure what that means but I think I do.  I always hear it discussed with giggles and whispers.

Down from the Wherry's a few doors, lives Mame Herr.  She keeps a spotless house and has her mattress hanging out the window to air every week.  She has jet black, marcelled hair which never seems to change or move.  It reminds me of the hair on Betty Boop paper dolls.  She is friendly to my mother.

Sixth grade starts and, suddenly, my mother, who has been nervy and weepy lately, goes to White Plains, New York to a hospital.  I'm not really sure why she's there and am uncomfortable when my father tries to discuss it.  What has she got?  Was it something I did?  My mother is 38 years old.  That's old, but not that old.

Mrs. Bramhall from down the street has come to clean and to make dinner for my father and me.  I like her.  She has a daughter, Jeanne, in the ninth grade and a son, Jack, a year ahead of me.  I go to their house a lot after school.  Mrs. Bramhall makes good spaghetti, something we don't have much.  Her kids teach me to like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  No one talks about my mother much.  When they do, I tune them out.  It's embarrassing.

My best friends, Isobel and Phyllis, live across the street from one another two blocks up from me, the one with all the row houses.  They come down a lot because they have big families and no place to play.  At my house, there is just me with my own room.

One fall evening, they arrive and say that we are going to roast potatoes outside.  What a wonderful idea.  I am to bring the butter because that's the most expensive item.  Fine with me.

We somehow make a fire in the gutter by the vacant lot with sticks and paper.  Then we push the potatoes into it.  They begin to cook or at least we can smell them.  We talk about things.

Isabel's brothers have trouble finding work in the mines and have to bootleg some.  Phyllis's father still has a job at the silk mill which is operating, but just barely.  Phyllis's baby sister is just a few months old and Phyllis and her younger sister, Doris, have to take care of her a lot.

Isobel is excited about having her first period or "falling off the roof" as we know it.  We are awed and know practically nothing about it except to me it seems like an awful bother.

This summer at camp when we were on a hayride someone told a joke about the cross-eyed seamstress:  "Why couldn't she get a job?  She couldn't mend straight."  I didn't get it and someone had to explain it to me.  I hadn't had a facts-of-life talk yet.

We talk about Ben Reynolds in our class whose uncle runs a candy store and who thinks he has a crush on me.  He brings candy to class.  He also calls me in the evening sometimes and, when my father answers, he hangs up.  I kind of like him but it's all confusing. 

We don't discuss my mother.  We finally decide that the potatoes are done and take them out of the fire with a stick.  We have to toss them back and forth to cool them.  Then we break them open, put on my butter and Isobel's salt and eat them.  They are crunchy in spots, but we don't care.  They are delicious.  It is a very messy and thoroughly satisfying meal.

We are invited for Thanksgiving dinner at the Henrys' across town.  Barbara and Patty Henry go to camp with me.  Our parents used to socialize a lot when my mother was home.  It's a little strange at the table but it's a change.  My father gets bored and lonely, I think, with just me.

A week or so before Christmas, my mother comes home from White Plains.  She seems to be all right, but a little quiet at first.  We go back to living like we used to.  I don't ask her anything and she doesn't talk about where she's been.  It's fine but I still visit the Bramhalls off and on. 

We have Christmas here in Shamokin by ourselves. My mother gives me a funny golliwog doll that she made during something called therapy at White Plains.  It's a good Christmas all in all.

Sixth grade has been a good year for me.  I like the teachers.  There is Mr. Sanders who is young and jokes with us.  One day he leans too far back in his chair and falls out of it.  We laugh uproariously.  There is no compassion in sixth grade.

Mr. Strauser is older and was gassed in World War I.  He has a kind of yellowish complexion and coughs sometimes. He talks about interesting things like the Lindbergh kidnapping and the Squalus, the submarine where men got trapped and played poker until they were rescued.  It was on all the newsreels.

We sang a lot of two part harmony in sixth grade.  I like that. The class clown, John Golden, has us look up words in the dictionary during spelling class.  They usually have two meanings and, when we girls find them, the boys giggle.

Boys are often a pain, but fascinating.  I am sorry to see the end of the year come because, in the fall, we must go to a little clapboard building in the back of the playground where seventh and eighth grades are taught.

We will have Mr. Mumley, who has a withered arm and he will teach us mental arithmetic.  There are no numbers in mental arithmetic, just words... if John sells five apples at two cents apiece and then buys three more, how much will he have.  I hate mental arithmetic.  I'd much rather do English and spelling and singing...interesting things.

One day my mother answers the phone and is white and shaky when she hangs up.  My father has been in Pottsville looking into a possible job at one of the mines.  He was standing near a shale bank with another man when it suddenly fell on them.

My father's hat tipped over his face and he had enough air to breathe until he felt the rescue shovel on the back of his neck.  He passed out then.  The other man died.  They have taken my father to the hospital for observation and my mother is going over to see him.

I don't want to go. I feel strange and scared and awkward about it and don't know what to say.  For all that our family love each other, we have a difficult time expressing intimate feelings, at least I do. I know I am mean and selfish, but I don't go. I go to Phyllis's house. He comes home the next day, none the worse for wear and life goes on.

When school closes, I get ready for camp. This year I celebrate my 12th birthday there. I am an old hand now.

After camp, there is another surprise. We are going to New England for a week. It's fun driving around and swimming in the ocean although it ruins the end permanent my mother had put in my hair.  My father takes my side when I say I don't want to wear a bathing cap.  I discover English muffins and beach plum jelly and have them every day for breakfast.  My parents are glorying in clams and lobster and fresh fish, but I want no parts of it. Tuna salad is fine with me.

School starts a few weeks later and we are truly in Mr. Mumley's class doing the dreaded mental arithmetic. I'm not happy about it. This isn't as easy as sixth grade.

My mother tells me we are moving again, this time to Pottsville where my father has gotten a job at the colliery. Again we pack and I must say goodbye to Phyllis and Isobel.

I promise to write.  I know I'll miss Isobel's mother's sauerkraut and our going to movies together. I'll miss playing the piano at Phyllis's house and helping to take care of Linda Lee, the baby.

It's only about an hour's drive to Pottsville, but it is another country. We leave in October and I have begun a new adventure.

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