Return to the House on West 82nd Street
Memior by Frank Zahn
During those moments when the cares of the day hold the promise of tomorrow at bay, I return in my memories to the house where I lived with my family during the mid to late 1940s and early 1950s. It is the gray house with white trim that stood on the north side of West 82nd Street just outside the then southern city limits of Kansas City, Missouri.
Mom’s flowerbeds of red roses and geraniums, yellow marigolds, and multicolored zinnias and nasturtiums in the front and along the east side of the house come into view. The large, oak stump in the front yard is still there. I remember how persistent Dad was in his efforts to remove the stump by dousing it with crude oil and setting it ablaze almost every summer’s weekend.
On the west side of the front yard is a flat rock retaining wall. West of the wall at its base is the unpaved driveway that was never used because Mom and Dad never owned a car. If we wanted to go someplace, we either took streetcars or walked.
We took the Dodson streetcar north to Waldo, a neighborhood shopping area and streetcar turnaround for not only the Dodson streetcar but also the Country Club streetcars that we took to and from downtown Kansas City. For groceries, we walked up 82nd Street to the Hen House on Wornall Road, pulling my brother Henry’s red wagon so that we didn’t have to lug the groceries home in our arms.
Dad walked two and a half miles to his maintenance job at Boone School every weekday—and sometimes on Saturday. He left the house at six o’clock in the morning and didn’t return until six o’clock in the evening.
On weekdays during the school year, my brothers and I walked to our grade school John T. Hartman at Seventy-Ninth and Main Street. On Sunday mornings, Mom forced us to walk all the way up to Seventy-Seventh and Main Street where we attended Antioch Baptist Church and listened to Brother Whittaker pound on the pulpit and demand that we repent or face eternal damnation.
Most of the time, Mom went to church with us. When she did, we had to put the offering she gave us in the collection plate, but when she didn't, we used the offering to buy candy at the mom-and-pop grocery store midway between the house and the church.
* * *
I approach the house with anticipation and step up onto the concrete block stoop with its overhanging, green-and-white, metal awning. Opening the screen door, I turn the knob of the heavy oak front door and enter the living room. Mom and Dad had a contractor build the living room and a small bedroom for me onto the front of the original house during the early spring of 1947.
Inside, I smell the paste Mom used to paper the walls and ceiling. The ceiling paper is white, and the wallpaper is alternating white, wine, and gray stripes. White Pricilla curtains hang over the picture window that looks out into the front yard and across the street to the Osborne’s white stucco house with blue shutters. White Pricilla curtains hang over the west window as well. The curtains over each window are crossed and tied back with strips of ruffle and thumbtacks.
Mom’s houseplants on a rickety table in front of the picture window wait patiently for water and the return of the midmorning sunlight. Reaching over her house plants on a wrought iron stand in front of the west window, I part the curtains and watch the Dodson streetcar a block away bounce and clank along the tracks on its way to Waldo.
Mom’s rocker sits near the west window. I remember her sitting in it while crocheting a doily or sewing together patches for a patchwork quilt. I remember her rocking in it when trying to take her mind off her worries about how she was going to come up with enough money to make the mortgage payment or pay an overdue bill.
She would rock back and forth briskly, singing songs that were popular when she was a girl. Her favorites were “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” “When You and I Were Young, Maggie,” “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” and “Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet.” She also sang hymns. The ones she sang most often were “In the Garden,” “Old Rugged Cross,” and “Take It to the Lord in Prayer.”
Three of Mom’s doilies grace the back of the couch that sits along the north wall of the living room. On the wall above the couch hangs a picture of Jesus in the Garden at Gethsemane. A single doily graces the back of Dad’s overstuffed armchair that sits across from the couch in the southwest corner. A standing ashtray is perched precariously beside the armchair, and as usual, it is filled with Dad’s Lucky Strike cigarette butts.
The radio cabinet with spindle legs stands stately in its place between the front door and the picture window. The tuner and volume control knobs never worked properly. My brothers and I had to change the stations by rotating the tuner cylinder manually with our index fingers. And we had to sit close to the speaker in order to hear our favorite programs.
We listened to The Lux Radio Theater, Life of Riley with William Bendix and Fibber McGee and Molly on weeknights, along with George Burns and Gracie Allen, The Mayor of the Town with Lionel Barrymore, and Amos and Andy. On Saturday mornings, we listened to Let’s Pretend and The Buster Brown Show with Smilin’ Ed McConnell, Froggy the Gremlin, and Squeaky the Mouse. And we never missed The Shadow, The Green Hornet, and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons on Sunday afternoons. The other shows we never missed were Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch with Gene and his wonder horse Champion; The Roy Rogers Show with Roy, Dale Evans, Gabby Hayes, and Trigger; and The Cisco Kid with Ciso and his compadre Poncho.
Besides the movie theater in Waldo, the radio was my family’s primary source of evening entertainment. And besides the morning Kansas City Times and the evening Kansas City Star, the radio was Mom and Dad’s source of news about the economy; the wars in Europe and the Pacific; and when the wars ended, the occupations of Germany and Japan. Gabriel Heatter was their favorite newscaster because he rarely criticized President Roosevelt; the New Deal; and after Roosevelt’s death, Harry Truman.
During the evening when Dad wasn’t listening to the radio or making repairs around the house, he relaxed in his armchair, smoking a cigarette and reading the newspapers. I remember that my little sister Sharon liked to stand on a wooden box behind the armchair and comb his hair. When cigarette smoke drifted up into her face, she waved it away with a scowl and continued combing.
The large, oval rug that Mom had sewn together with braids of multicolored rags lies on the oak floor in front of the couch. Each Saturday morning after breakfast, she had me hang the rug over the clothesline in the backyard and beat the dirt and dust out of it with a broom. While I did that, Dad chased one of Mom’s younger chickens around the yard, and when he caught it, he chopped off its head and scalded it in a bucket of boiling water that Mom brought from the kitchen.
After picking off the chicken’s feathers, Dad removed the entrails, and Mom cut the chicken into pieces for frying the following day. Mom placed the pieces, along with the heart, liver, and gizzard that Dad salvaged from the entrails, in a bowl of water and stored them in the icebox on the back porch. Dad tossed the rest of the entrails into a nearby fifty-gallon, metal drum, in which we burned trash, yard waste, and garbage.
* * *
I linger for a moment in the living room and search for memories of something important I may have forgotten. Then I walk through the open doorway into the dining room. The first thing that catches my eye is the wallpaper. The colors in it are the same as those in the living room wallpaper, but the pattern is different—floral bouquets instead of stripes.
The second thing that catches my eye is Mom’s houseplants on a table in front of the west window. They looked very much like those in the living room—mostly begonias, geraniums, ferns, and sweet violets. Houseplants and flowerbeds remind me of Mom to this day because she nurtured hers almost as much as she nurtured Sharon, my brothers, and me.
Mom bought the dining room furniture at Denver Jim’s secondhand store. In fact, she bought most of the furniture in the house there—one piece at a time on layaway or credit.
The oak dining room table and chairs with needlepoint cushions sit in the center of the room under a frosted-glass light fixture. A floral oilcloth is draped over the table. On top of the oilcloth in the center of the table is a vase of white plastic daisies that is surrounded by a pair of salt-and-pepper shakers, an open bowl of sugar with a teaspoon in it, and a green plastic napkin holder stuffed with white paper napkins.
The oak China closet with a curved glass front and claw feet is perched along the south wall to the left of my bedroom door. Mom kept all but one of her treasures in it. The China tea pitcher with a scalloped, S-shape handle, and hand-painted, pink roses on it belonged to her mother—Grandma Abell—as did the pedestal cake plate, which might have been crystal; the eight pink carnival-glass water goblets; and the set of Havilland China. Among those treasures were the pressed glass plates, candy dishes, and salad bowls that my brothers and I bought at Woolworth's and Kresge's dime stores and gave to Mom as Christmas and birthday presents. I remember how proud my brothers and I were each time she placed our gifts in the China closet among her other treasures.
The oak buffet with three center drawers and a door at each end sits along the north wall of the dining room. On top of it is a bouquet of red crêpe-paper roses that Aunt Mary made for Mom, and hanging on the wall above it is a picture of Jesus with his hands folded in prayer.
I open the top draw of the buffet where Mom kept her remaining treasure, a forty-four-piece set of silverware. It was only used when we had company for Sunday dinner and Mom had replaced the oilcloth and paper napkins on the dining room table with her lace tablecloth and linen napkins. Mom bought the silverware, which was silver-plated, from the Jewel Tea Company's door-to-door salesman. I don't remember his name, but I do remember the look of relief on his face when Mom finally paid the set off after almost three years of irregular payments.
* * *
The west door of the dining room opens into the bedroom of my three younger bothers, Henry, the bold and defiant one; Ernest, the frail and quiet one with the nickname Baby; and James, the rebel who was often in trouble with his teachers and the school principal for fighting and skipping school.
The window on the far wall of the bedroom doesn’t let in much light because Mom kept the window shade down during the day as well as during the night. But I can see clearly my brothers’ narrow, flat-spring beds, sitting side-by-side with very little room between. On each bed are a cotton mattress and a lumpy pillow, and covering each mattress is a soiled sheet and a stained patchwork quilt.
The soils and stains were caused by my brothers’ bed-wetting each night until they were at least five or six. Mom used to remove the sheets and quilts from the beds each morning. She didn’t wash them. All she did was dry and air them out on the clothesline in the backyard and put them back on the beds each night.
* * *
Inside my brothers’ bedroom to the right, I open the door to Mom and Dad’s bedroom at the back of the house. I am blinded temporarily by the bright sunlight that is coming through the west window. Mom and Dad always pulled the shades to the west and north windows down at night but kept them up during the day.
A sheet and a colorful patchwork quilt that Mom tacked with red yarn cover the cotton mattress on Mom and Dad's double bed. I drop down on the bed, bounce up and down, and listen to the squeaking of coil springs under the mattress. Two down-filled pillows in embroidered pillowcases lay puffed up at the head of the bed.
Beside the bed is Mom’s oak dresser with a large beveled mirror. On the dresser is an oblong doily, and on top of the doily sits a small jar of rouge, a blue bottle of Evening in Paris perfume, and an open container of face powder with a large powder puff on top.
I gaze out the north window. Dad’s cherry, peach, and apple trees in the backyard are in full bloom. Beneath the trees and under the watchful eyes of Mom’s sometimes ill-tempered rooster, her mostly Rhode Island Red laying hens and younger chickens are scratching the ground for insects, worms, and anything else they can find to eat. When Mom could afford it, she bought scratch—a mixture of corn and other grains—for the chickens at the Waldo Feed and Grain Store on Wornall Road.
The tool shed, which also housed Mom’s chickens, and the nearby outhouse are half hidden by the trees. I remember that the shed and the outhouse always smelled to high heaven—the shed because of chicken sweat and manure and the outhouse because of human waste. I also remember that during the summer, the outhouse was a favorite hangout for flies and spiders, and during the winter, the cold from the snow and ice sent shivers up my spine and rattled by teeth as I raced out to it, relieved myself inside, and raced back to the house.
Turning my attention back inside the house to Mom and Dad’s bedroom, I look down at Sharon’s cot under the north window. The thin cotton mattress on the cot is covered with a sheet and another one of Mom’s patchwork quilts. At one end of the cot is Sharon’s rubber doll with its head resting on a pink satin pillow. On the floor at the other end of the cot is an orange crate, turned up on its end. Neatly placed on the top, middle partition, and bottom of the crate are several pairs of Sharon’s panties and white anklets, doll clothing, and the black paten leather shoes she wore to church.
Like Ernest, Sharon was frail and quiet. I remember I had to baby-sit with her a lot. And because I wanted to be a photographer for a while and had the only camera in the family, I dressed her up like a movie star; posed her; and took photos of her, using a sheet for a backdrop. She won a prize one year when I dressed her up for a Halloween party in a Marie Antoinette costume.
* * *
On the east wall of Mom and Dad’s bedroom are two doors. The one on the right is the door to the only clothes closet in the house. I open it. Clothing hangs over other clothing on wall hooks, and boxes of clothes, old photos, and Mom’s scraps of fabric for her patchwork quilts are stacked on the floor under the clothing.
My brothers and I steered clear of that closet. We were convinced a bogeyman was hiding in the attic, waiting to drop down through the opening in the closet ceiling and do bloodthirsty and vile things to us, similar to what Dracula, Wolfman, and Frankenstein did to their victims in the movies.
Back then, Bela Lugosi was Dracula; Lon Chaney Jr. was Wolfman, and Boris Karloff was Frankenstein. All three scared the hell out of us, but of course, we would never think of missing one of their films when it was a feature at the Waldo Theater on a Friday night or at the Regent or Palace Theaters in downtown Kansas City on a Saturday afternoon.
The other door on the east wall of Mom and Dad’s bedroom is the door to the bathroom. Inside and straight ahead, a sink with a medicine cabinet above it is mounted on the wall. A bar of Ivory Soap sits in the soap dish on the edge of the sink, but there are no toothbrushes in sight because back then my brothers and I didn’t know people were supposed to brush their teeth.
Under the widow to my left is a porcelain tub on legs with claw feet, but since there was only cold water on tap, it was rarely used. Once a week, however, each one of my brothers and I took a “spit bath” and changed our underwear—briefs in the summer and long underwear in the winter. A spit bath was what Mom called washing and rinsing our armpits, feet, crotch, and between the cheeks of our behinds with a washcloth and a bar of Ivory soap. She heated water for each spit bath in a metal washbasin on the kitchen range.
In between spit baths, Mom was forever telling my brothers and me to go outside and get the stink off of us. I never thought I stunk, but there was no question in my mind that my brothers did. At bedtime, especially during the summer, Mom often told us to get a wet washcloth and wipe the rust and toes jam off our feet. By rust, she meant the dry dust and dirt that collected on our ankles, and by toe jam, she meant the moist dust and dirt that collected between our toes.
* * *
I close the bathroom door behind me and sit down again on Mom and Dad’s bed. In the quiet of the room with the warm sun still coming through the west window, I feel very close to both of my parents with memories that may seem negative or not worth remembering to others but endearing to me nevertheless.
I remember things Mom shouted at my brothers and me when she was upset with us. "You kids are gonna be the death of me yet!" – "If I catch you doing that again, so help me God, I'll skin you within an inch of your life!" – "If you do that again, so help me God, I'll horsewhip you!" – "I've had all I'm going to take from you boys; you just wait till your Dad gets home!"
Taken literally, those are scary statements—even scarier in today’s world. But my brothers and I remember Mom’s threats with a smile. We knew she was all talk, and on the rare occasion that she whipped us with a switch she had cut from one of Dad’s fruit trees, it didn’t hurt all that much. It didn’t hurt all that much either when Dad whipped us with his bare hands. However, when he lowered his voice and took a couple of steps toward us, it felt like death was imminent.
Another thing I remember is what Mom always did when Sharon, my brothers, or I got sick. She felt our forehead to see if we had a fever and asked us when we had our last bowel movement. The latter question was humiliating.
Mom’s home cure-alls were aspirin, Ex-Lax, and periodic doses of Mother Wrigley’s worm medicine and Castor Oil. The aspirin tasted awful because she dissolved it in a tablespoon of water; the Ex-Lax gave us the runs; and the worm medicine and Caster oil not only tasted awful but ruined the taste of anything we ate afterward.
Dad went along with Mom’s cure-alls, but when we had a cold or the flu, he took charge. He gave us a tablespoon of cough syrup at bedtime and rubbed Vicks VapoRub around our neck and all over our chest and back. The cough syrup wasn’t so bad, but my brothers and I hated the smell and greasy feeling of the Vicks VapoRub.
I remember that Dad occasionally suffered from migraines, and Mom took a couple of swigs of a liquid medicine from time to time to settle her nerves. And I remember, my brothers and I had the measles, mumps, chickenpox, and our tonsils taken out, but I don’t remember whether it was before or after we moved into the house on West 82nd Street. I do remember, however, that on rare occasions when Mom took one of us to see our family physician Dr. Musey, she made us fill up a quart mason jar with our urine. She was never sure how much would be needed for a urine test.
* * *
I get up from Mom and Dad’s bed and return to the dining room. I open my bedroom door and stick my head inside. Mom papered the ceiling with white paper and the walls with my choice of paper—white with green leaf vines, spiraling up to the ceiling. The green plastic drapes I bought at Woolworths are parted at the two southeast corner windows.
My single bed with box springs and innerspring mattress on a Hollywood frame is in the place along west wall where I left it when I ran away from home at the put-upon age of fifteen. My wardrobe closet is also in the place where I left it at the foot of the bed against the wall. I bought the bed and the wardrobe closet with money I earned from sacking groceries and working behind the poultry counter for Buck Hinson at the Hen House. I made the long cabinet on the east wall out of scrape wood from the lumber pile in the backyard. At the time, I thought it looked as good as store-bought, but now, it looks uneven and not well made at all.
I walk over to my bed, reach under it, and pull out the cardboard box in which I kept my boyhood “stuff”—a World War II picture of General Douglas MacArthur that Dad gave to me one year for my birthday; my Brownie Hawkeye camera; photos of Sharon and the rest of my family; several statues of horses; three Superman comic books; and my favorite boyhood novels, Black Beauty and The Black Stallion Returns.
When Henry got mad at me for teasing him, he threatened to get into the box and tear up my stuff. That scared me, so when he got mad, I guarded the box with my life. I kept a close eye on Ernest and James as well because they always did whatever Henry did.
* * *
Closing my bedroom door, I walk across the dining room and enter the kitchen. The oak floor is covered with newspaper. Mom always spread sheets of newspaper on the floor after scrubbing it—at least until it dried. To the right are cupboards above and cupboards and drawers below a linoleum-covered counter. The cupboards and drawer fronts, as well as the woodwork, are painted white several times over, much like the woodwork throughout the house. Above a cold water tap and large porcelain sink in the center of the counter is a window that looks out onto three lots that Mom and Dad bought a year or so after they bought the house.
Henry and I used to play football in the lot closest to the house with some of the other boys in the neighborhood. One of my unpleasant memories was that it was always my job to block and tackle the biggest guy in the neighborhood, one-hundred-and sixty-four-pound Leonard Bunnell. Henry and I also played scrub—rotation baseball—in the lot, and when not there, out in the street.
On the far side of the lot is a long wire trellis, covered with Concord grape vines. Beyond the trellis are the other two lots. Each spring, Mom paid a farmer ten dollars to plow and harrow the lots so that she could plant her vegetable garden of potatoes, corn, bush beans, pole beans, onions, radishes, beets, carrots, tomatoes, green peppers, and cantaloupe.
My brothers and I handed tomato plants, onion sets, and packages of seed to her, and she planted them. We wanted to do some of the planting, but she always said that we were too young. Dad put the poles in place for the pole beans and tied them at the top with twine. He also dug the holes for the potatoes and corn with a hoe.
I remember that during August, my brothers and I loaded up Henry’s red wagon with some of the vegetables, especially the potatoes and tomatoes, and peddled them to people in the neighborhood. I also remember the time Mom spotted a snake while hoeing around the tomato plants. It was a harmless garter snake, but she dropped the hoe, screamed, and jumped a couple of rows of bush beans on her flight out of the garden.
My brothers and I, who had been playing in the lot next to the house, roared with laughter. Dad ran out of the house and into the garden in search of the snake, but by that time the snake was long gone. Dad said with a chuckle that the snake was probably more scared of Mom than she was of it.
Turning away from the kitchen window, I look at the gas range on the other side of the kitchen and the grease splattered on the wall behind it. Mrs. Hinkle, the principal of Boone School, gave the range to Dad when she bought a new one for the school kitchen.
Between the range and the back door of the house is an empty space for a refrigerator. One time, Mom bought an Amana refrigerator with a frozen food plan on credit. The freezer compartment was full of frozen food when it was delivered, but when we had eaten all the food, and there wasn’t enough money to keep up the payments, the company repossessed the refrigerator. Afterward, we went back to using the icebox on the back porch and relying on the iceman to deliver a large block of ice once a week.
* * *
The back door brings back memories of the time Henry took an ax to it. One day when I locked him, Ernest, and James out of the house and made faces at them through the door window, Henry got madder than a hornet and retrieved Dad's ax from the shed in the backyard. Repeatedly, he swung the ax at the door, breaking out the window and leaving the door in shambles. I thought sure as hell he'd get a whipping when Dad got home, but instead, Dad gave me a whipping for locking my brothers out of the house. I was shocked by the injustice.
I open the door and step out onto the back porch. The trap door in the floor once opened and led down seven steep steps to the basement. But Dad nailed the door shut after he had built an outside entrance to the basement with the help of my brothers and me.
I open the screen door of the porch and step outside. The screen that covers the lower section of the door is still rusty. It got that way because my brothers and I used to stand on the porch and pee through it during the winter rather than traipse all the way out to the outhouse in the cold. Sharon and Mom peed in a five-gallon bucket with water in it that Dad placed on the back porch and emptied in the outhouse when it got about two-thirds full.
* * *
I walk around the porch to the left and open the basement door. Once inside, I pull the chains on two of the three overhead lights. The massive, coal-converted-to-gas furnace sits in the center of the basement floor. Its large tentacles of piping carried warm air to vents in the floor of the house during the winter. Mom used to stand with her legs spread apart over the vent in the dining room and let the warm air blow up under her dress.
On the west side of the basement is a high retaining wall with two small, dirty windows above it. On the wall are boxes of nuts, bolts, screws, and nails; a couple of old motors; parts of lawnmowers and bicycles; and other items—junk mostly—that Dad told my brothers and me repeatedly to hold on to because someday we might need them. On the south wall are shelves that Dad built with the help of my brothers and me for the jars of Mom’s home canned vegetables, strawberry preserves, apple jelly, and both peach and apple butter.
The large opening in the basement wall to the left of the shelves provides entry into the dark and musty crawl space under the living room and my bedroom. My brothers and I steered clear of that crawl space the same way we steered clear of Mom and Dad's bedroom closet. We were convinced another bogeyman was hiding in the crawl space, ready to pounce on us if we came close to the opening. And there was no question in our minds the crawl space was infested with spiders and other crawly things.
Mom used to wash our clothes on the board in the basement until she bought a secondhand washing machine. Dad and the delivery man set the machine next to the ice box on the back porch where Mom and I took turns operating it on washday by moving a handle bar on the side of it back and forth. That movement brought into play a couple of gears that moved the agitator inside the machine up and down, agitating the clothes until they were clean. The wringer on the washing machine also had to be operated manually by turning a crank that rotated the rollers. Mom and I rinsed the clothes in a large, galvanized tub; ran them between the rollers of the wringer; and hung them out to dry on the clothesline in the backyard with clothespins.
Sometimes during the winter, the wet clothes froze on the clothesline—stiff as a board. So Mom brought them inside and laid them around on the furniture until they thawed and dried out. Needless to say, Mom and I were ecstatic the day the man from the Waldo Appliance Store delivered an electric Maytag washer with attached wringer and set it up in the basement. We still had to rinse the clothes in the galvanized tub and hang them on the clothesline outside to dry, but washing and wringing them out was a hell of a lot easier with that Maytag.
* * *
Returning to the dining room upstairs, I sit down at the table and remember the food we ate back them. Those memories are more important to me than any others, probably because I missed Mom’s home cooking, and too, food was not always plentiful back then.
Mom and Dad got up at four o’clock in the morning and had breakfast. More often than not, they had eggs that were fried in bacon grease; sometimes bacon, sausage, or ham; and either fried cornmeal mush, pancakes, or toast. They covered the mush and pancakes with Oleomargarine and drenched them in sugar syrup. They covered the toast with Oleomargarine and Mom’s home canned strawberry preserves, apple jelly, peach butter, or apple butter.
Both Mom and Dad drank coffee at every meal and always with sugar and the cream Mom shimmed off the top of the bottled milk. Back then, milk was not homogenized, which meant the top third of a bottle of milk was cream. The milkman delivered the milk twice a week and charged it to Mom’s more often than not delinquent account.
Sharon, my brothers, and I got up after Dad had gone to work. Once in a while, we had eggs that were fried in bacon grease, and sometimes, we had them with bacon, ham, or sausage. But most of the time, we had fried cornmeal mush or pancakes with Oleomargarine and sugar syrup, or we had oatmeal or Cream of Wheat with milk and sugar and toast with Oleomargarine and our favorite, Mom’s home canned strawberry preserves.
For weekday and Saturday lunches during the summer, we usually had Mom's homemade vegetable soup with crackers or fold-over Bologna or Pickle Loaf sandwiches with potato chips or Fritos. We usually washed whatever we had down with milk, sweet ice tea, or Kool-Aid, but sometimes we got lucky and had Coke, Dad's Root Beer, or strawberry soda. During the school year, we had a hot lunch with milk in the school lunchroom, that is, when Mom could afford to give us lunch money.
Dad and Mom got paid at the end of the month. Mom managed the money, and during the last week of the month, she usually “ran short,” so my brothers and I—and later, Sharon—came home from school for lunch with almost nothing in the icebox or the cupboards to eat. When the subject comes up now, my brother Ernest always says in a loud voice, “Almost nothin’, my ass! It was nothin’.”
Mind you, Mom and Dad did their best to provide for Sharon, my brothers, and me. While Dad was working fifty to sixty hours a week at Boone School, Mom was either working as a nurse’s aid at the Home for the Jewish Aged or sleeping in preparation for working the night shift at St. Luke’s Hospital. And sometimes, she picked up extra work as a waitress for Bill Attebery behind the lunch counter in the Waldo Waiting Station.
* * *
The best food we had back then were the food Mom prepared for Sunday dinners. My brothers and I thought those dinners were fit for royalty, especially when Mom prepared more of everything because Uncle George and Aunt Molly or some of Mom’s other relatives were coming for dinner. Dad’s relatives never came for dinner. I don’t think they knew were we lived. Dad always said that the best way to get along with relatives is to have absolutely nothing to do with them.
After church, Mom took the chicken she and Dad had prepared for frying the previous day from the icebox. Then she placed a huge iron skillet on the kitchen range, lit the gas burner under it with a match, and melted several heaping spoons of lard in it. Two skillets were required when Mom's relatives were coming because she and Dad had killed and prepared two chickens for frying the previous day.
I remember that Mom switched from lard to Crisco when she heard it was healthier and a more refined way of frying chicken. ·But whether she used lard or Crisco, she dipped the pieces of chicken in flower and crowded them into the skillet(s). Then she showered the pieces with salt and pepper and fried them slowly until they were crispy and golden brown, saving the drippings, of course, for cream gravy.
She prepared some of the dishes she had planned to serve on Saturday night, some before church on Sunday morning, and some while the chicken was frying. But when everything was ready, she laden the table with dishes of not only fried chicken and cream gravy but mashed potatoes, corn on the cob when it was in season, deviled eggs, stuffed celery, Waldorf salad, pea salad, her home canned green beans and pickled beets, Dad’s homemade Parker House rolls, and a huge bowl of butter. And at every meal, she served bowls of her home canned strawberries preserves, apple jelly, and both peach and apple butter. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, she served the same dishes, except that roast turkey, sage dressing, turkey gravy, and cranberry sauce were substituted for fried chicken and cream gravy.
After dinner, she, Dad, and the other adults, if any, drank coffee with cream and sugar. And everyone enjoyed Mom's homemade cherry, apple, or peach pie with huge dips of homemade vanilla ice cream that Dad had churned by hand in the ice cream maker and packed in ice and salt on the back porch.
We never had wine with dinner on Sunday or with any other meal. Mom was Baptist to the core, which meant drinking alcoholic beverages, including wine, was a sin. Although my brothers and I didn’t turn out Baptist, we still drink water—now with ice—instead of wine with every meal.
Sunday dinners were served early—at noon or a little after. But weekday and Saturday dinners, which were called suppers back then, were served in the evening and clearly not on as grand a scale as those served on Sunday.
Mom and Dad liked fried liver and onions, but Sharon, my brothers, and I hated it. A family favorite was spaghetti goulash that was made in a skillet with hamburger, garlic, chopped onions, Mom’s home canned tomatoes, salt and pepper, chili powder, and lots of boiled spaghetti. Another favorite was fried eggs and fried potatoes. Other favorites included boiled navy beans and salt pork, topped off with diced raw onions and catsup; stewed chicken and homemade egg noodles; macaroni and cheese; and fried round steak with mashed potatoes and pan gravy.
During the summer, Mom served dishes of fresh vegetables from her garden. She sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions and covered them with vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper. My brothers and I hated that dish, primarily because we didn’t like the taste of vinegar. Mom boiled bush or pole beans with onions, new potatoes, and a piece of salt pork. My bothers and I liked the bush beans, but we didn’t like the pole beans because they were stringy and chewy. We liked corn on the cob, however, which we ate with lots of melted Oleomargarine or butter, salt, and black pepper. We also liked cantaloupe, sprinkled with black pepper instead of salt—Dad’s idea.
Three or four times a year during August and September, Dad or Mom brought home a cold Black Diamond watermelon from the Hen House; cut it into huge wedges; and told my brothers and me to take a wedge a piece, go out into the backyard, and eat to our heart's content. Outside and seated, we bit off chucks of the watermelon, spit the seeds out on the ground, and wiped our mouths on the backs of our hands. While eating, we waved away the gnats and flies that swarmed around us in a persistent effort to steal a bite of our watermelon.
The only time we ate out was when Mom took us downtown to eat at the Forum Cafeteria on Main Street. I remember that it was a rare occasion and only happened on a Saturday. But more than anything else, I remember there was so much food that we couldn’t sample it all—fried chicken; roast beef; Virginia baked ham; escalloped potatoes; mashed potatoes with either cream or brown gravy; macaroni and cheese; all kinds of vegetables, prepared in a variety of ways; hard and soft dinner rolls; all kinds of salads; store-bought ice cream; and all kinds of desserts, including custards, cakes, pies, and cobblers. When we put more on our trays than we ended up eating, Mom said with a chuckle that our eyes were bigger than our bellies.
Although no match for the quality of Mom’s Sunday dinners, especially when we had company, our feasts at the Forum Cafeteria were clearly a treat. And if Mom took us to a movie afterward at the Lowe’s Midland Theater or one of the other nearby movie theaters on either side of Twelfth and Main Street, it was a perfect Saturday.
* * *
Memories of the Sunday dinners, the evening suppers, and the feasts at the Forum Cafeteria linger as I get up from the dining room table, leave the house on West 82nd Street once more, and return to the present. Memories of Mom and Dad, who were the heart of the house, linger as well, and more than anything, I wish they were still part of the present.
I see my brothers and Sharon from time to time, and we talk on the telephone and exchange emails. We have families of our own now, and we have provided them with very different sets of memories.
I hope my family—two sons and their spouses, a daughter and her spouse, two grandsons, and two granddaughter—have memories that come to mean as much to them as mine now mean to me. It will help if they hold onto the positives and filter out the negatives that do not endear—as I'm sure I have done. It's healthy, and it makes life in the present a hell of a lot more worth living.
Copyright © 2010 Frank Zahn. Published in The Writings of a Curious Mind: A Collection of Essays, Memoirs, and Short Stories, Vancouver Books (Smashwords and Kindle Editions) 2017.
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