Wine Before Five
Because Life is Good. And Sweet & Short
and sometimes the Ordinary really is Extraordinary
A Shady Neighborhood – Part Two
A Child’s View of a Mother’s View
My Mother’s world in the neighborhood where I grew up was a very different one from mine. By the time I was about seven, my mother was in her late forties, and had been a housewife for about twenty-five years. She had lived the life of the post-Depression era homemaker, cleaning, cooking, baking, canning and preserving, washing clothes on an old wringer washer and hanging them out on the line to dry, summer and winter. She ironed and mended and sewed for a family of seven. Life wasn’t so easy.
From her, though, I learned about the people she knew & those she noticed who lived there around that little block I considered “my world,”, and what she knew, or thought she knew, about their private lives. Now that I’m an adult, I can see her perspective was pretty interesting, and no doubt brought a little spark into her days of housewifery. Her view out the window and from the clothesline on Mondays was somewhat like a fascinating soap opera for her. Remember, this was the late ’50’s and early ’60’s, and my mother was a small town lady, exceptionally conservative and a devout Catholic. Much of the neighborhood, in her eyes, really was “shady.”
Her contact with the world revolved around the Catholic Church, just up the street from us, and phone conversations with her sisters, sisters-in-law, and I think sometimes first cousins and aunts. The black rotary dial phone sat on a library table beside the dining room window, where she could sit on her wooden armchair — tea towel tossed over one shoulder — and chat on the phone, watching all that went on to the west of our house. She had this same view from her ironing board in the corner of the dining room.
The Presbyterian Church was catty-corner across the street, the Fire Station half a block west, with a gas station catty-corner from that. Sirens from the Fire Station – “the Fire Hall,” she called it – meant I was to run down the street, wait for the trucks to leave, then step inside the garage and read the address of the fire’s location written on the chalkboard, then run back home to report. I was, of course, always one of probably 25 kids who dashed barefoot on a summer day down the street, and we all clamored to be the first one to read the address. Inevitably, from that address – no matter where it was in town – somehow my mother knew exactly whose house was on fire.
But let’s get to the good stuff.
There was an elderly couple – who I thought at the time were at least one hundred years old – both white-haired, exceptionally thin, and a bit bent over. Nice old people, pretty harmless. Aha! But did you know they had made four –four! – trips to the Courthouse steps, but never had the courage to actually go inside and get married?! All these years, living in that house together, and not married yet. The shock that an appearance in their back yard produced implied they should remain in that house and hide. They didn’t seem any different than any other neighbors to me, except that they were really, really old. They had old-fashioned first names, too, and I liked that. I think now it was past the time to worry about them eventually getting married. It’s not like any illegitimate children were about to pop out.
There was a woman who I’d guess was in her forties or so, who walked past our house on her way home from somewhere each day for lunch. “Poor thing,” my mother said each day at noon, shaking her head with a “tsk.” “She never married.” I wasn’t sure exactly why that made her a “poor thing,” but I knew I was supposed to feel bad for her. I have no clue what her name was, or where she walked to and from. She seemed okay to me. She always had on a nice coat in the cooler weather, and wore nice clothes, and seemed to walk with a spring in her step. I worked up some sympathy & felt bad for her, just the same, for whatever reason I was supposed to. I didn’t want her to think I didn’t care.
Then there was Mrs. Purple. I’m sorry, I can’t use any other name but that, and if you grew up or lived in my neighborhood, you know exactly who I mean. She’s long gone now, so I hope no one cares. She dyed her hair coal black, and pulled it severely back from her face, and best of all, wore only purple – lavender, actually – but we called her Mrs. Purple. Word on the street was that every room in her house was wallpapered in purple. “Purple! Every Room!” And, my mother said, she claimed that man who lived there was “a boarder.” He was a nice older gentleman, about the same age as her – probably around sixty or so. But she said he was her boarder. Well! Everyone knew the real story! He seemed like a nice enough guy to me; he always waved & said “hi” when I ran down the gravel alley, and we bought used televisions from him, so he must have been an honest person. I couldn’t quite figure out why he was called a “boarder.” I knew that carpenters built things, but I never saw this guy with any lumber, and if he used boards, why didn’t we just call him a carpenter or builder? Still, he was a “boarder,” whatever that meant, and in my mother’s world, that seemed to imply he was some sort of fake person. I’m glad I never let that bother me & that I kept waving to him and saying “hi” when I passed him working out in his garden.
A lady with beautiful long curly hair — that this little freckle-faced girl with the straight & ultra-fine auburn-almost-red hair envied – lived in a tiny house behind another, facing an alley. I didn’t see her too often; she apparently lived alone, and went to work each day. But a man showed up every Saturday evening and took her out for dinner! Shocking, just shocking! My mother announced his arrival, promptly at 6 pm, usually while she was washing dishes, just before sitting down to read the paper and watch Lawrence Welk at 7. I think there may have been comments about his questionable departure time, but I didn’t really care. I thought they probably drove a long way to get dinner, and it took a long time to get back. Mostly, I just knew that lady had great hair.
Looking back now, I realize how rather unusual it was for people in their sixties to nineties to be living together back in what was probably 1958. It’s kind of surprising to think they had the nerve to ignore not only society’s norms, but also small town gossip, which can be a wicked weapon. I think it’s kind of cool that there seemed to be so many of them right there on our short little block; there was a regular “love-in” going on! The California hippies of the next decade had nothing on my neighborhood. These were all good people, as far as I know. They took care of their homes, were pleasant enough as neighbors, never caused trouble or harmed anyone. But they sure did provide some entertainment for my mother.
And so, you see, we all lived in a Shady Neighborhood, but things seen through the eyes of a child can be so very different than those of a 1950’s housewife whose life consists of cooking, baking, cleaning, laundry day, ironing day, canning the vegetables. fruits and even the meat her husband got when hunting in the fall. To be fair, these people were breaking the rules in her eyes. But you know, life needs just a little spark sometimes for all of us. And sometimes you’re lucky enough to live in a pretty interesting neighborhood, shady and all.