Friday, May 23, 2008

Memories Prompted by the Upcoming Memorial Day Weekend

When my dad was drafted into World War II in 1942, my mom went back home to live with her parents and her three younger sisters. Her three older siblings were married and had homes of their own. Then, when Dad finished his basic training and was scheduled to be shipped overseas, Mom met him in Tennessee to say good-bye. That's were I began.

Being almost three years old before Dad was discharged, my first years were spent living at Grandma and Grandpa's with my mom, three teen-aged aunts and, when I was one year old, my pregnant Aunt Sally when her husband, Uncle Win, was sent overseas. Mom worked an outside job as did most temporary "war widows" at that time, so Grandma and Grandpa were my primary daytime caregivers joined by the plethora of aunts and Mom at night and weekends.

Grandma and Grandpa's was a medium-sized house full of seven big people, two small children and constant bustle and activity. There was a livingroom, diningroom, small den, kitchen with pantry, one bathroom and one bedroom downstairs. The upstairs had two small bedrooms at one end overlooking the backyard. The rest of the second floor was an open, unpartitioned area referred to as Grand Central Station because you had to walk through it to get to the back bedrooms, and it was shared bedroom space for the three younger aunts who complained there was absolutely no privacy.

Aunt Jeanette was just out of high school working her first job, and aunts Shirley and Joyce were still in school. Mom and I had one upstairs bedroom; Aunt Sally and my baby cousin had the other. Grandma and Grandpa had the downstairs bedroom. The basement contained the old wood burning furnace, an area for the wringer washer (clothes were always hung outside to dry, year round), a root cellar and a small room Grandma called her fruit cellar where she stored her jars of home canned foods. There wasn't a hot water heater in the house when we lived there. All water for doing dishes, laundry, or filling the tub in the bathroom had to be heated on the gas range in the kitchen.

A wonderful front porch ran across the width of the house. It was screened in the summer, had an old-fashioned porch swing that hung from chains at one end and several mismatched wooden rocking chairs. There was no air conditioning in that day and age and often on hot, humid Illinois summer nights, my mom and aunts would drag mattresses out onto the porch floor and we would sleep there.

Grandpa had a huge vegetable garden across the whole width of the backyard and the south side of the house was landscaped with flowers, most of which he had propagated himself. There were two huge catalpa trees in the front yard that kept the front porch shaded and cool in summer.
I have so many fond memories of that house, many of them gained when I was older, certainly, but I do have distinct memories of a few things that happened when I was very young and lived there. Here are two incidents that I remember.

One night my two youngest aunts were babysitting me when everyone else had gone out. It was, apparently, a night they had decided to wash their hair. (Remember this was a time when shampooing your hair wasn't usually done more than once a week and there was frequently a night set aside for the chore.)

Unbeknownst to me, they had somehow broken the glass bottle of shampoo but had salvaged some of it which was sitting on the kitchen table in a clear water glass. Now, Grandpa was a beer drinker and would frequently "sneak" me small sips . . . and I liked it a lot! Do you know what that half glass of shampoo on the table looked like to me?

No one was in the kitchen when I spied it and decided to take advantage of a given opportunity. I had chugged a mighty swallow from the glass when I heard one of my aunts behind me scream, "NOOOOOO!!" The next thing I knew, Aunt Shirley and Aunt Joyce were both holding me over the small sink in the bathroom and I was vomiting volumes of suds. And suds. And more suds. I was just a little sick, but they were TERRIFIED.

A huge hunger is what I recall feeling next. I remember asking for a slice of bread with butter and Grandma's homemade grape jelly. I can almost still hear the debate between my two pale-faced and shaken aunts as they stood over me at the kitchen table. "Do you think we should let her eat something? Maybe it'll make her sick again." "But if she keeps it down, that'll mean she's okay and not gonna die." I don't remember them telling my mom about the incident, but I know they confessed sometime later. I still like beer but for some reason a nice tall glass with a foamy head on it often makes me think of shampoo.

* * * * * * * *

This next memory is the first that came to mind when I started thinking about Memorial Day. Parts of it I think I remember, but most of it is no doubt from hearing the story told at family gatherings over the years.

There came a day Mom received a letter from Dad somewhere in Europe with the best of news. His unit had gotten word that it was being discharged within the month and he would be coming home! They had been given no specific date but thought they would be transported to England and, from there, put on a ship to cross the Atlantic. This could all happen with only a moment's notice, and he was very excited. He said he would call as soon as they docked in New York. Then over a month went by with no communication from my dad.

One afternoon the front doorbell at Grandma and Grandpa's rang, and Aunt Shirley went to answer it. She opened the door to see a Western Union Telegram delivery boy standing on the porch. During those war years, hardly anyone in middle class America received a telegram . . . except for one reason: notification that a soldier had been killed in action.

Thinking my dad had been killed before being discharged, she immediately became hysterical, slammed the door in the messenger's face, and ran into the tiny bathroom where she locked the door sobbing uncontrollably. This brought everyone else in the house running. Someone finally noticed the delivery boy still on the porch and accepted the telegram which was from my father.

He had landed in New York but the lines were so long at the few pay phones available that he knew he wouldn't have time to make a call before having to board the train that would bring him cross country and home. So he had sent the telegram saying he was due home in two days . . . but it took a half hour to convince Aunt Shirley to calm down, unlock the bathroom door and come out!

1 comment:

Claire said...

Hi, Mama Pea! I just checked your blog for the first time today. I love it! You and your daughter are both excellent narrators. I don't know how you do it after all that gardening!!