Soldier Brothers

My Dad was in the War, way back before me or Deanna were born, and way back before he met Mom.  His brothers were in the War, too:  Uncle Frank and Uncle Merle, and Uncle Glenn.  Uncle Ellis was in the Korean War.  Uncle Gerald never had to go because the President said Grandma had enough sons in the War.  Grandma said ‘enough is enough’, and even though that made no sense, I knew just what she meant.

Dad told me he was in the War way back before I was even a twinkle in his eye.  I don’t believe that one minute, ’cause I can’t imagine my Dad without a twinkle in his eye.  Same thing for his brothers:  blue eyes like the sky, that danced like they had stars, in broad daylight, if you can imagine that.

Dad and his brothers never talked about being in the war, except that Dad got a purple heart for getting his appendix out, and once Dad found a German shepherd dog that he kept around for a while and that’s how he fell in love with German shepherds.  I asked Dad if the War was scary, Continue reading

A Smart Head of Hair

Sometimes Mom let me stay overnight at her Aunt Pauline’s and Uncle Basil’s house, all by myself.  Aunt Pauline and Uncle Basil didn’t have any little girls, just one teenage girl, Joey.   Aunt Pauline and Uncle Basil were old like Grandma and Grandpa, so they always loved me up a lot when I was over; they were so happy to have a little girl around reminding them of the good old days when they were younger, and Joey was littler and smiled more at them.  Now she mostly rolled her eyes and smacked her lips together in a sideways frown.

Uncle Basil looked a little bit like Santa Claus:  a big round belly and rosy cheeks with a nose like a cherry, and eyes that laughed all the time, just like that poem.  But no beard.  Uncle Basil’s round face and head were all bare-naked, like my head was when I was born.  I saw pictures of me:  no hair at all.  Grandma said Uncle Ken was bald like that ’til he was over two years old, so she glued a piece of her own hair on the inside of  his bonnet, ’cause she was afraid people would think he was a moron.   I sure laughed at that one, ’cause nobody told me having lots of hair made a person smart.  Me and Uncle Ken both got lots and lots of hair, and we both were smart cookies, so being a bald-headed baby was a poor predictor.  I thought Uncle Basil was pretty smart too, anyway everybody listened to him when he talked:  he was super loud and threw his arms around a lot, and laughed like crazy with his thick neck bent back and tears running off his face and getting stuck in his ears;  he took a big white handkerchief out of his back pocket, wiped his face and head, and said, “ohhh, hheee,” letting his breath out in a giant huff, like laughing just exhausted him.  I wasn’t sure if he was as smart as Uncle Ken, but he was an awful lot of fun.  Uncle Basil smelled like sausage and cigars, not like cookies and cherry pipe tobacco like I was sure Santa did.

Joey was a little bit kooky, especially if my Aunt Annie and another teenage cousin, Bubbles, came over, then they got extra-kooky.  Joey, Bubbles, and Aunt Annie just giggled up a storm and whispered, and looked sideways at Aunt Pauline.  Sometimes they rolled their eyes at each other, but with the giggling thrown in it seemed nice, not mean, like when Joey did it at Aunt Pauline and gave that sideways lip-smack.  Bubbles’s real name was Apollonia, but everybody called her Bubbles ’cause she had really big eyes and she laughed so much her eyes just bubbled all the time.  Anyway, what kind of name is Apollonia for a girl, or for a boy for that matter?  Mom said Apollonia is a name from the Old Country.  Later on when Bubbles got married, her husband said nobody could call her Bubbles any more, so she changed her name to Anne.  Now that seems kookier than all those teenagers together.

Aunt Pauline was the best at loving me up.  She gave me cookies in the middle of the day, and a bubble bath at night; she even washed me in the tub, took me out, helped me dry me off, then laid me on her bumpy, white bedspread and put baby powder all over me, just like I was a baby.  Mom’s bedspread probably had white bumps like that a long time ago, but now they were all worn down, with just little tufts of thread where the bumps were.  I was really too big for all that fussing, but I never complained, ’cause it felt kinda good to be treated little for once, and it was really nice to get my pajamas on without them sticking to me all over the place, making it feel like I got them on backwards or put on somebody else’s by mistake.  Aunt Pauline acted like it was a real treat to have me over at her house; she sat down to have a cup of coffee with me, only my cup had milk in it, with a tinsy bit of sugar. I never ever got that at home.

Aunt Pauline had a great idea that’ll tickle your Mom pink.  “How ’bout we cut your hair?” she asked me, and her eyes got all big and happy, peaking out at me over he coffee cup.  “Won’t it just surprise her so?”  I had to agree with that.  “I’ll give you a D.A. haircut like Joey’s. That’s so much easier to brush.”  Joey’s hair was short almost like a boy’s;  she just put some Vitalis on it, brushed it back on both sides, and done.  My hair was long down to my shoulders, and always getting snarly.  Mom insisted that it be tangle-free every single morning; by supper-time it was snarly again.  I thought Aunt Pauline had a super-duper idea.

I hid behind Uncle Basil’s car when Mom came to get me, so I could really catch her off her guard.  She was so surprised, she said she thought I was someone else’s little girl.  That made me laugh.  She just kept saying, “Oh.  My.  Oh.  Look at that.” sucking breaths in-between each word, and touching my neck like she never saw it before.  Her lips were smiling, but her eyes looked more like the way someone looks when they get surprised with a punch in the stomach.  Right there, I knew that was going to be part of my memory until I was as old as Grandma, maybe longer.  There we were, sitting on the bumper of Uncle Basil’s white and deep-red car, the sun shining down all over the flower beds, Aunt Pauline standing on the porch looking so proud and happy, and Mom touching my neck with a smile on her face, but looking like she wanted to throw-up or something.

Years later I asked Mom about that haircut, and she remembered it as clearly as I did:  all my wavy strawberry-blond hair gone; Aunt Pauline looking so pleased about the big favor she did,  and Mom just standing there feeling sick. Mom said the damage was done, so no sense in getting angry.  Besides,  hair grows back, and hurt feeling sometimes last forever, so it was better just to let Pauline think she did something nice.  Whenever I’m shocked speechless, I consider it’s a special little gift. I have some time to consider the right words and the right tone of voice, without any eye rolling or sideways lip-smacking.  Or perhaps, I may even choose to say nothing at all.

When I was a Little Girl, I was Never Alone

In the beginning, I had my sister, Deanna and my Mom and my Dad.  But that’s not all:  We shared our huge drafty farm-house with my uncle and aunt and their three kids.  The families would grow and grow, until the farmhouse could no longer contain us all, but it the beginning it was just the nine of us:  Deanna, Mom, Dad, and I slept downstairs; Donald, Tom, Linda, Uncle Merle, and Aunt Lucille slept upstairs.  We shared the kitchen, dining room, the one and only bathroom – which was upstairs- and we shared the frontchroom.  The frontchroom was where we listened to the radio, sat on the davenport, looked at books, and played aeroplane with Daddy.   I should mention the wooden stairway between the floors.  Not officially a room, that wooden stairway, closed off by a door from the downstairs, was a playroom, a hiding spot, and a place where conspiracies brewed.  We also stretched ourselves physically on the stairway:  we raced up playing ‘slap the bear’, tried to skip steps, and challenged each other to see who could  jump the most steps down while someone at the bottom held the door open.  There may have been a few knocks on the noggin with that last game.

I know the upstairs was cold because Mom and Aunt Lucille laughed about the pee in the potty-chair freezing in the winter.  Back then they heated the place with coal.  There was a big coal-room in the basement; the coal went in through a chute on the side of the house.  Once Aunt Lucille and Mom were outside butchering chickens when the Coal-Man came with the winter’s load of coal.  I can remember them in their apron covered house-dresses, hair flying in the wind, cutting those chickens heads off with an axe.  One would hold the chicken’s feet, the other would wield the axe.   Both were always in some stage of pregnancy.  There was no money to pay the Coal-Man.  Still against what was surely his better judgment,  the kind man took one look at the kids in the yard, the chickens, some still running around with their heads cut off (yes, they really do that), and the two pregnant women covered in blood, and either he took mercy on them, or he was too afraid to cross them.  At any rate, he delivered the coal on credit.

Later on, Uncle Merle’s family got a place of their own.  Their new house was just a basement with a door above ground.  Over a few years time, the rest of the house was built.  In the meantime, we rented part of the farmhouse to my Mom’s cousin Valerie and her family, then  somebody else, whose name I can’t remember but who tried to trick me into walking five miles to the nearest store, and then finally to the O’Briens who stayed with us while they built a house next door.  The O’Briens were our neighbors all the rest of my life. There were only three kids in the O’Brien family:  Tom, Robbie, and Cathy.  Cathy had a room all to herself.   In the meantime, I got a whole lot more sisters and a few brothers.  Eventually, there was only room for one family, and nobody new moved in.  The closed-in porch served as a nursery for a couple of kid goats for a few months, and sometimes we’d have a dog spend a freezing-cold night inside on the rug by the door, but for the most part, just the nine of us kids, and Mom and Dad.

That big, drafty farmhouse had four bedrooms.  We were always sharing with someone.  There was little room for modesty with one bathroom.  Sometimes, there was two kids in the tub, one on the toilet, and someone at the sink.   The year I left for college, we re-modeled and added a little downstairs bathroom.  We knocked out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room and added the fireplace my Mom always wanted to keep her toasty warm in the winter.

Now that I’m all grown up, I realize  when I get right down to it, I’ve never been alone.  After I left home, I had roommates in college, then I had a husband and kids, then just kids crawling into my bed in the middle of the night, then another husband and the same kids adding more through marriages, and now a gaggle of grandkids giggle and joust at my feet.  There’s rarely as many people in my house as when I was growing up.

My youngest sister, Marcia,  lives in the farmhouse now.  It’s not as drafty, and it doesn’t seem near as big.  The house I live in now is at least as  big as what once was a farmhouse big enough for two growing families, and we now have three bathrooms.  Yet both houses have these things in common:  I’m never alone, and there’s always room for more.

I’ve been a student, a mother, a microbiologist, and Sanitarian, and a Vice President – in a company, not of a country.  If I could ask job candidates one question, and one question only, it would be:  How many people shared a bathroom when you were growing up?  If I could give parents one piece of advice, it would be:  Crowd your kidlings.  By living with so many people, I learned to share, I learned to plan, and above all else I learned to negotiate and collaborate.  In addition to all that learning,  living with so many people was a whole lot of fun, too.

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