Diggings: Level 2

One’s past is not recollected in orderly time sequence. It is a kaleidoscope of different times expressed often in colors, smells, sounds or sometimes in ancient black and white photographs that have succeeded in freezing in time some ordinary event that would probably been forgotten otherwise.

I do remember, in those years beginning from my first remembrances until the year I first went to live in Maryland, a constant of being enclosed in a cherished family group. Occasional upsets intersperse themselves in this otherwise typical middle-class depression-era family of quite limited means. The days of more lavish living during Mother’s and Daddy’s early marriage with cleaning ladies and frequent trips east to visit Robitailles and other relations having vanished with the worthless German stocks which Daddy was forced to buy as a prerequisite to advancement and of course, the arrival of the Great Depression.

We were never hungry, we ate simply.

Mother was frugal. Meats were bought at butcher shops. Chickens were sold with feet and heads attached. One of our favorite pastimes was pulling a tendon on the now-severed chicken leg and watching with terrible glee, the opening and closing of the chicken claws. Round steak was served more times that I wish to remember with, of course, mashed potatoes and canned peas. The potatoes always had gravy pushed down in the center and the peas were picked up quite easily with the forkful of mashed potatoes. Calves liver was .05 cents a pound and there was much gloom around the kitchen table whenever it made an appearance.

Fresh vegetables were available only in the summertime and we brought them from the local grocery store. They tasted great. No pesticides, herbicides or picking before they were even vaguely ripened. Tomatoes were nectar. Sometimes we took a drive (model T) with friends to farms just outside of the city. Farmland was just south of 79th Street and Western Avenue. We would pick a bushel or sometimes more and Mother would “put up” some tomatoes in mason jars to use in the coming winter. Mother’s favorite snack was a slice of tomato with salt and pepper and she always drank the juice on the plate. I realized recently that I am on an eternal search for a sweet, old fashioned tomato and have noticed that I snack a bit on them myself. Well…back to the past. In the winter, onions, potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnips, rutabaga were available in the grocery store, but we replied entirely on canned green vegetables, corn, tomatoes and of course the ubiquitous Campbell’s Soup.

Daddy told us stories about his childhood. These stories were always quite exciting and were told over and over again at the Sunday dinner table. We were given a splash of red wine mixed liberally with water which made me feel quite grown up. Sometimes, when I drink red wine (infrequently: headaches!) the taste reawakens those times and I can hear an echo of my father’s voice with its pleasing resonance and New England sounds. The voice which comes closest to sounding like his is Claude Rains’ with the timbre and accent.

We moved from apartment to apartment with frightening speed. Real Estate agents, unlike today’s variety, were quite accommodating and would drive Mother and/or Daddy around the neighborhood and “show” them the “availabilities”. Choices were often made based on style of chandeliers and the walls were repainted for each new tenant in the color of his or her choice. The average monthly rental in the 30s and 40s was 40.00 to 50.00 dollars. Many times we four sisters shared one bedroom. It was riotous. Two double beds and much hilarity. Wesie (Elise) and I were paired together and eventually our bed, finally giving in to years of jumping, leaping abuse, would collapse without warning. A traumatic event each time. I drew an imaginary 39th parallel down the center and forbade sweet Wesie to cross it. I told her stories in exchange for coveted possessions. Poor darling Wesie had an enormous cross to bear with the likes of me.

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