My parents were private people, or at least my father was, and mom followed his lead. It was easier to control the world if it was kept very small. Control offered many things: mastery, power, and a sense of safety from the evils ‘out there’. Socializing was not part of our landscape, but the sense of safety within the boundaries of that small world was as solid as a tree trunk.
The surrounding 37 acres of woods was my father’s territory, but the house was where mom took control. The interior of our small home went through as many changes as she could accomplish with her own hands, using whatever materials were within reach. Closets had been deemed a waste of space by dad as they built the house – a few hooks sufficed his needs. Mom felt otherwise and proceeded to turn empty corners and hallways into closets by adding 2X4 frames, stray pieces of sheetrock or plywood for walls and broom handles for rods. It didn’t end there. Changes were as routine as flipping a page on the calendar – rearranged furniture, new paint, a new throw rug, curtains – depending on whatever was on sale, found at garage sales or manufactured through her own creativity. An electric drill appeared under the Christmas tree one year and a circular saw on another. I am certain Santa’s hands looked very similar to her own!
The basement was dark and damp through most of the year and I hesitated to descend those stairs unless mom was nearby. I remember the day a new washer arrived, with an automatic wringer to replace the hand wringer I had watched her crank as she feed it pants and shirts and sheets and towels. She was as excited as I had ever seen her. Bushel baskets of wet laundry were trudged up the back basement stairs to the clotheslines strung between two study posts where the lawn met the trees. Branches cut with a ‘Y’ at the top were used to prop up the lines of heavy wet laundry to keep them suspended above the ground. When rain and snow prevailed lines strung from the beams in the basement were used instead. It could take days for heavy clothes to dry completely.
Under the basement stairs were sturdy wooden shelves filled with a rainbow of labor in glass canning jars. Early fall found them laden with vegetables: green beans, beets, corn, peas and, of course, tomatoes in every form – whole, stewed, sauced, and juiced. And then there were pickles, all kinds of pickles: bread and butter, dill, sweet and my favorite made from watermelon rinds. Blueberries, blackberries and cherries were ready and waiting for winter pies and peaches, pears, applesauce and plums filled in the fruit section. Each glass jar marched in the parade from the giant blue speckled enamel pot on the kitchen stove, to the basement shelves, and eventually to the Syracuse china on our yellow Formica table in the center of the kitchen.
. The multitude of tasks mom executed to keep our home functioning did not generate an income, but without her efforts the money earned through my father’s hard work would not have been able to support us with the necessities – that sometimes felt like luxuries compared to others around us. I never remember feeling as if something material was missing from our simple life. The things that were in short supply were not up for purchase.
Mom’s refrain of: “Don’t tell your father!” seemed to accompany every action outside of his presence: “ Don’t tell your father I bought this, …we went here, …I let you do that, …wear that, …see that …” Secrecy and fear became synonymous with keeping the peace. Dad was predisposed to grunts and grumbles and sometimes louder explosions, but was her fear of his dissatisfaction actually related to the secrets so carefully guarded? Or was this a fear carried in her heart from her own childhood she rarely talked about? She was born in the middle of a line of six children. Occasionally she dropped a detail about her early life like a pebble into murky water, sinking out of sight quickly and never reappearing for discussion or elaboration. The fragmented scenario included that she did not get along with her father and left home at fourteen to work as live-in help; and that she was a tom boy when young – an image in stark contrast to the fearful woman controlled by my father’s grumbles that I knew. Photos showed her as slim and pretty, with the latest hairdo – and her older sister’s hard earned clothes that she confessed to sneaking despite the fight it provoked. She never talked about boyfriends other than my father. They had met in her mid teens. He was five years her senior. She acknowledged that she had little interest in school, and daydreamed about getting married. They became engaged before he left to serve in WWII, when she was barely sixteen. Her graduation picture captures her pride in the ring on her outturned left hand with fingers spread wide to be sure it was visible. They ran away to get married when he returned. Photos of the two of them together looking into each other’s eyes and tales of their early years together suggested deep passion and love – another image hard to bring into focus through the lens of conflict, underlying anger and fear that seemed to have been built into the walls of our home. Mom often seemed to be afraid of everything outside our constricted little corner in the woods. But as I look back I think her fears were for the safety of her children, in what she had experienced as an unsafe world; fear that grew from her need to protect in a way she had perhaps never experienced herself. So she did it in the only way she knew how.
To be continued……….