February 2012 -- On a New Mexico winter day that can't decide whether to shine or snow, I take my seat on the swivel chair in the guestroom and begin tapping on the keyboard of my Toshiba laptop. The Internet is available wirelessly one click away and so is a printer/scanner/copier machine in another room. My small slice of mountain view is shrouded in clouds and does not distract me.
Although my to-do list fills two pages, I can only respond to a compulsion to write about my life before the twenty years described in Voluntary Nomads. So many times I've wished I had diaries, journals, or letters written by my parents, grandparents, great grandparents to read and learn how they lived in long-ago times. It seems natural to write my memories in case my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren have the same desire to know what my life was like.
If you've read the excerpts I posted on the Voluntary Nomads blog (http://voluntarynomads.blogspot.com ) or, even better, if you've read the whole book, you'll recognize the many contrasts between the book's time and places and today's events and lifestyles. Read on and you'll find out how different everything was when I started out in 1940.
Gordy and Nancy
In my earliest memory I am a diapered infant held high in my father's hands for a snapshot. I remember the rasp of his landscape-laborer fingers and a too-tight grip around my baby ribs. Of course I had no words to express my thoughts, but I do recall having a mature, cynical attitude about the whole scene. In the photo my word bubble would have said, "Easy does it, Daddy -- I'm not that slippery."
During my infancy and toddler years, Daddy, Mommy, and I lived in a small rented cottage on a hillside in Spring Park, Minnesota. This home had electricity but no water. One of my mother's favorite stories about those times described a laundry day. Because there was no running water at the house, she had to ferry the dirty clothes, the washtubs -- and me -- halfway down the hill to our landlord's outdoor pump. On the occasion of this tale, Mommy bent over the washboard with furious concentration, scrubbing the grime from a shirt collar. When she looked up, she found her toddler daughter standing in the rinse tub, naked except for sturdy shoes and striped socks. "Were you mad at me, Mommy?" I asked when she told her story to the four-year-old me. "No, no -- I laughed at you," she said.
Nancy and Avis
My mother took pride in her varied repertoire of stories and adages. One beloved saying, often quoted and even immortalized on a decoupage plaque, went like this:
Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is full of grace,
Wednesday's child banishes woe,
Thursday's child has far to go,
Friday's child is loving and giving,
Saturday's child works hard for a living,
and the child born on the Sabbath Day is bonny and blithe and good and gay.
Looking back, I see how this ditty foreshadowed my life -- I was born early on a Thursday morning, and I did have far to go.
Cottage to Garage
My brother's birth should have happened sooner, as far as I was concerned. The long awaited event occurred at the Cottage Hospital, Watertown, Minnesota in the middle of a hot August night in 1944 three weeks before my fourth birthday. Daddy helped Mommy up the steps to the front door of the hospital. I stayed in the back seat of our blue 1937 Plymouth sedan with Aunt Birdie (Bernice, my father's sister who never married). After several hours I said, "Let's go tell that baby to hurry up. I'm tired of waiting."
A few days later, at home, I leaned over the plaid-covered daybed that served as our living room sofa. I wanted a better view of what went on when Mommy changed the baby's diaper. Of course he peed right in my curious face. "You can give him back now," I said.
Not long after my brother Gary's birth, Daddy received his draft notice and had to report to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for basic training. Mommy cried.
As soon as Daddy left, Mommy moved us to Grampa and Gramma Pogue's house in Long Lake, Minnesota. Grampa gave my folks the lot next to his and helped Mommy build a place for us to live until Daddy got out of the Army. My parents had a plan to put a real house next to it someday. The temporary dwelling would eventually be turned into our garage. The little three-room structure went up fast with the help of Daddy's brothers Vic and Otto, who were both skilled, experienced builders.
One day, after the walls were framed in and the roof on, Mommy and Grampa stood next to the front door discussing something important, while I watched a large spider spinning a web in a dark corner. When Mommy screamed, I thought surely a hideous monster must have attacked her. My cries might have been louder than hers. Mommy rushed to reassure me that everything was all right. She told me that she had felt something brush against her leg and assumed it was me, but when she moved her hand to pull me close, she discovered her mistake. She panicked when she touched the muscular, hairy creature -- our neighbor's huge black and white Great Dane -- that stood behind her. My childish brain attached my trauma to the large spider I had been watching rather than the big dog that startled Mommy, and I lived with arachnophobia from then on.
Avis, Gary, Nancy, and neighbor Jimmy
Once finished, our tiny home provided many comforts. A wood burning space heater kept us warm in the harsh Minnesota winter; cold water streamed from the single faucet in the kitchen; the bedroom offered a double bed for our parents and a wooden rack of bunks for us kids. On the west side of the house, Grampa put up a lean-to shed for firewood, and a few paces beyond squatted the outhouse, a two-holer. I liked to play Zorro on the roof of the woodshed, even though I knew a weasel lived in the woodpile. I preferred to avoid the outhouse. I dreaded every visit there, expecting to be attacked by a giant fanged spider.
The day Daddy came home from the Army, we picked him up at the train station in Wayzata. The coal-burning engine puffed clouds of stinky smoke, and I hid behind my mother's skirt. Daddy seemed like a stranger although he had only been gone ten months. My mother told me years later that she had flooded the War Department (renamed the DOD in 1947) with letters that described the hardships our family experienced in her husband's absence. Daddy had been sent to Ft. Lewis, Washington and assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers as a supply clerk. However, he spent most of his time in the hospital suffering from pneumonia and pleurisy. Perhaps the Army didn't find him useful enough to hang on to.
Daddy immediately shed his rough wool uniform when he saw that it caused an allergic rash all over Mommy's face and neck. He put on his civvies and resumed life with a new job as the gun operator in a puffed cereal factory. Poffit Cereals, like the Quaker Oats Company, used the motto: "Shot from Guns!" Sometimes Daddy brought piecework home on weekends to earn extra money, and he let me help wrap popcorn balls in brilliant sheets of colored cellophane or insert prizes into packages of caramel corn.
Even though Daddy had come home, WWII still affected our daily lives. Rationing applied to many everyday products like milk, sugar, butter, meat, and gas for the car; we treated the ration books with due reverence. To save ration cards as well as money, our family used margarine (we called it oleo then, short for oleomargarine) instead of butter. Oleo came in stiff, white one-pound blocks with an attached packet of powdered colorant. I took on the chore of putting the white blob into a bowl on the counter to let it soften and then mixing the colorant in with a wooden spoon. A more modern product that came out later packaged the white margarine in a plastic pouch with a capsule of orange liquid coloring. I thought it fun to pinch the pouch to break the capsule and then keep on squeezing to gradually turn the margarine a rich, buttery yellow.
We bought our milk in glass gallon bottles that had a wire handle on top. A gallon of milk in a glass bottle with a wire handle weighs enough to numb your hand and leave a mark if you have to carry it all the way home from the store. Mommy let me skim the cream off the top and put it in the cream pitcher for Daddy's coffee. Daddy didn't mind if I dipped my breakfast toast into his creamy, sweetened brew.
During the winter, when I came inside after playing for hours in the snow -- cheeks and wrists bright red from chapping -- Mommy always gave me warm milk and honey. I hated it then but now I think of that mixture as comfort food, especially if I wake at night and can't go back to sleep.
Childhood memories being as holey as Swiss cheese, I don't remember how my parents bathed. I do recall clearly that my brother and I took baths in a galvanized tub. Mommy warmed the cold tap water in a kettle on top of the space heater. As the oldest, I went first. My brother took his turn in my leftover water, warmed a bit with a kettle-full from the stove. My parents stayed united in their firm conviction that to bathe more often than once a week would count as wasteful and indulgent.
Just before bedtime every night, Mommy brought out a white enamel chamber pot for me to use instead of trekking out in the dark to use the outhouse. I'm sure I never told her how grateful I was for that luxury.
I didn't get to choose which bunk to sleep in; my brother was too little to sleep in the upper. After I fell out in the middle of the night, Daddy built a guardrail to keep me safe. With the ceiling so low and the guardrail a solid barrier, I felt like a prisoner. Did I complain? Probably not. By that time I was well on my way to being "the good child."
One June-buggy summer day, this good child watched Grampa stretch a chicken's neck across the flat top of a stump in his backyard. In a fluid move as practiced as a magician's, he chopped in one stroke with his hatchet and separated the body from the head. I recoiled from the gruesome spray of blood. When the chicken's body flopped and flailed across the yard in a horrifying dance of death, I ran wildly to the back porch and flung myself under Gramma's protection.
Gramma's arms encircled me and I pressed my face into her embroidered apron, inhaling her comforting aroma of talcum powder.
"Look now, Honey, it's all over, the bird is dead and still."
I did look up and saw my Grampa wash his hands in a spurt of water from the red pump near the stump.
"You can help me with the plucking," Gramma said. And I squared my bony little shoulders and marched behind her into the kitchen.
Gramma's kitchen was always as warm as her love. The big old iron cook stove burned wood and brought forth yummy smells all day long. Gramma's table could expand to serve any and all that came to eat. Although my dad complained that Gramma was a terrible cook, I liked everything she ever made, even, or maybe especially the fallen chocolate cake with a dense, sweet line running through it.
The kitchen's warmth and fragrance wrapped me in a welcoming hug. But the one spot cozier than Gramma's kitchen was Gramma's lap -- so soft and enveloping. How many grandchildren had she held in her arms? My dad was the youngest of nine, so the number of grandkids was higher than I could imagine. She held me with untiring tenderness as if I were the first. I stroked the silky, wrinkled folds of her upper arm while she sang to me or I read my Dick and Jane books to her. Safe and cherished.
Channeling My Six-Year-Old Self
I'm six years old and I go to first grade. This is my first year in school because there was no kindergarten last year. Today I learned something really important -- grownups don't know everything and they're not always right. That's a scary idea because I always trusted adults to be right and to know all. Now what? Now I think for myself, I guess.
Right this minute I'm very angry at Mommy, but I don't know exactly why. Anyway, I'm so mad I'm just going to go away and she'll be sorry when I'm gone. So I have my sweater and it's after supper and I'm just going to go. I leave and the screen door slams behind me and I look back at the house that has blocks of gray and black and I remember what it feels like to run my hand along the pebbly surface and look at all the shiny dots that make the pattern that looks like something it isn't really.
I walk down our cinder driveway to the dirt road that runs along in front of our place. The road goes past Jimmy's house and I take the shortcut through his yard and down the path beside the lilac bushes and over to the schoolyard. I stop to swing awhile. I know one thing for sure -- if I'm good enough, you'll love me. I guess I haven't been good enough yet because you don't really love me. I can tell. But now you'll be sorry because I'm gone.
The leaves on the trees are all colors of red and yellow and some have started to fall. My birthday party was so much fun and I got to dress up and so did my friends from school and have cake and ice cream and play games with prizes. It was a sunny day and we had the party outside and I was happy.
The swing stops when I quit pumping and I jump off to walk down the hill past the parking lot, across the bridge over the creek and onto the sidewalk in front of my cousin Viccy's house and the church. I look across Hiway 12 at the Buckhorn. I wonder what goes on inside. I'm not allowed in there but I've heard about the bar and the bowling alley. Aunt Hattie works there waiting on tables. The smell of hamburgers and french fries teases my nose and I wish I had eaten all of my supper instead of getting mad and running away.
The library is closed. I see the dark windows when I turn the corner and walk up the side street toward the railroad tracks. The railroad tracks. I've never walked across the railroad tracks before. That's been the boundary of how far I've ever gone by myself, even when Mommy sends me to the store to get milk or bread.
I don't know where I'm going. I ran away from home, but I don't have any place to go. So what will happen next? I know nighttime will come and then I'll be alone and lost. I'd better turn around and go back home.
And then I see Mommy and Daddy coming for me in the old blue Plymouth.
On any ordinary day, I'd probably go across the road to play with Jimmy, often with my little brother in tow. We liked to play hide and seek or cops and robbers or we would sit on the back steps and eat green apples with salt. That's what we were doing when Patty, one of the girls who lived up the road, came over.
"Your grandmother died." Her voice sounded false to me.
"That's not true. You're mean." I had trouble understanding why she would tell such a horrible lie.
"Go home and ask your mother if you don't believe me."
Mommy told me Gramma had died of a heart attack. Mommy found her dead on the bathroom floor. I knew Gramma was very old and that very old people often died. Gramma was 71, the age I am now as I write these words. I don't feel very old myself. I wonder if she did.
Gramma stands as my role model. I saw that she treated everyone with kindness and patience. She had a kind of dignified humility that might have come from her religious beliefs. She didn't often mention her church, but I knew she belonged to the Seventh Day Adventists and observed the Sabbath faithfully. I don't follow any dogma, but I do believe in the value of humility and dignity.
I try to be the best grandmother I can be. My three grandsons call me Nana. I hope they think of Nana as someone who treats everyone with kindness and patience. I know they feel my love as I felt Gramma's. I want to play a part in their fondest childhood memories as she did in mine.
Gramma and Grampa's 50th Wedding Anniversary
A year after Gramma died, on my seventh birthday, Grampa gave me my first bicycle -- a full-size two-wheeler from Sears. Red was already my favorite color, but my bike was blue. In those days only boys' bikes came in red.
I skinned my knees a few times on our treacherous cinder driveway, but I learned to ride that bike without the aid of training wheels (I don't think they were invented yet). It served as my reliable transportation for the next nine years until I got a driver's license.
I entered second grade this year too -- a new world. The second grade shared both classroom and teacher with the third grade. By finishing my own work quickly, I could then follow along with the third grade. At the end of the year the teacher wanted to promote me into the fourth grade, but my mother declined. She said she was concerned for my well-being. She had started school a year early and then skipped a grade herself, and she felt handicapped socially. Since many of my friends were older, I believe I would have adjusted, but I didn't feel hurt by staying with my peers either.
At Christmas I reached another milestone -- getting my first figure skates. I had learned to skate as soon as I could walk. Every winter Daddy flooded our lovely flat vegetable patch to make a smooth beautiful rink. The new skates were tools to fulfill a dream of twirling, leaping, and cutting figures on the ice. Now I could skate at recess on the flooded and frozen softball field at school. The first day of school after vacation, I tied the laces together and slung those shining white boots over my shoulder, careful to attach the blade guards first to protect their sharp edges.
We moved to our new house this year too, and our former home converted to garage/workshop. Gary and I finally had our own bedrooms. This grand home came equipped with hot and cold running water, and a complete modern bathroom.
I lived here all through grade school and high school. The original floor plan included living room, kitchen, and utility room on the ground floor with three bedrooms and one bath upstairs. By the time I entered high school my folks had built on a multi-purpose room and additional half bath that Daddy used in the morning to get ready for work.
When I visited Minnesota in 1999, the house looked the same as I remembered. I knocked on the door, hoping to have a look inside, but no one answered. I dream often about this house. My grampa's house appears in my dreams frequently too as does the Long Lake elementary school, which is now, how fitting, the Pioneer Museum.
Long Lake Elementary School
I wonder how many other children left a layer of frozen tongue on the iron railing here as I did? No doubt only a few could resist the temptation to lick the enticing frost that beckoned before the first bell rang on freezing winter mornings.
The Other Side of the Family
My mother's side of the family remains a mystery to me. Mom was only two when she lost her own mother to a brain aneurysm. Her German-speaking maternal grandmother took care of her until her father hired a housekeeper. The housekeeper had a daughter ten years younger than Mom, and Mom described herself as Cinderella-like in those days. Her father eventually married the housekeeper and they had a son the year after I was born -- it amused me to have an uncle who was younger than I. But the complications of Mom's relationship with her family kept a barrier between us. We called her father Poppa Johnson and her stepmother was simply "Mary." Although they lived less than ten miles away, we visited their farm only a couple times a year. I don't remember that they ever came to our home.
My maternal grandparents didn't attend my high school graduation, nor did we go to my uncle's. Our Christmas get-togethers were brief and unremarkable. As far as I know, there was no feud -- but there was a palpable lack of warmth. My most lasting memory of Poppa Johnson still stings. I was seventeen at the time. I happened to run into Poppa Johnson while shopping in the town nearest his farm. He didn't recognize me.
From first grade on, I played the roles of model student and teacher's pet. School was easy for me as a bright, curious child. When I finished my own work, I helped the teacher. Our school encouraged creativity and gave us opportunities to engage in drama, music, art, sports, and writing. Field trips to Minneapolis to attend symphony concerts sparked my life-long love of classical music. I also loved participating in plays. The teachers gave us a theme (like "Christopher Columbus") and we made up scenes and dialogue to tell a story. I remember playing Queen Isabella and bringing down the house when I adlibbed a hanky-wave to send Columbus off on his voyage.
Why was I such a model student? Perhaps because I learned from early mistakes. Yes, I found out that behavior has consequences. I swung on the forbidden chain link gate and still wear the scar from that mishap. On another occasion I joined a classmate in a lunch hour prank that used up all of the teacher's scotch tape. That afternoon I suffered the humiliation of a public confession. I saw clearly that the consequences of good behavior suited me better.
When my brother reached school age, Mommy got a job in the lunchroom. I liked that. For one thing, I didn't have to wait until after school to show her the prizes I won for poster art and essay contests or the still damp ditto run-off of our school newspaper that I helped to produce.
The school's new instrumental music program appealed to me. I imagined learning to play the flute like the ladies dressed in long black dresses at the symphony concerts. But my dad already owned a trumpet, so that's what I learned to play. By the time I hit junior high, the band had acquired a French horn and needed someone to play it. I enjoyed concert band, but not marching band. Nothing like a heavy brass instrument and sub-freezing temperatures to chill a musician's enthusiasm. Hauling the large case on and off the school bus wasn't fun either -- a French horn's bell bangs against your legs no matter what you do, and that first step up into a school bus is a long awkward one.
To Junior High and Beyond
The summer before I entered junior high school, Aunt Vida invited me to take a two-week trip with her, her sister Vi, and Vi's two granddaughters, Lola and Naomi. I had never been away from my parents for more than a night, but I knew I wouldn't get homesick.
We rode in style in Vida's forest green 1949 Ford. This was the same car she drove when she took us wild asparagus picking every Spring. The handsome green convertible carried us all the way across North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon. We spent a week at a beach cottage in Seaside, Oregon, digging for clams, swimming in frigid surf, and roller-skating at the local rink.
On our return trip we enjoyed a different itinerary that included skipping stones on the lake at Jackson Hole in the Grand Tetons and a scary embrace by a hungry deer in Yellowstone National Park.
I carried with me a brown paper bag that my mother filled with feminine hygiene paraphernalia, "Just in case." Although I didn't reach that particular milestone until weeks later, I did come home feeling like a young lady -- with bolstered self-confidence and a lasting appetite for travel. ###
Next installment, the Caterpillar, coming soon.