Sunday, November 22, 2015

Giving Thanks for Wonderful Memories

Until I was six-and-a-half, I lived in a house without running water, indoor plumbing, central heating, or a telephone. We did have electricity: a naked light bulb on a wire in the center of the front room and the kitchen (two of the three rooms in the house) and a third wire that went to the radio in a corner. It was one of those big wooden things, with a curved top and two knobs, one for the dial one for volume. We had a record player too. An elegant, tall mahogany thing with a windup crank on the side, and a box of old records—pre-vinyl. A good many of them were original Caruso recordings, but there were a few of more modern western ballads.
My great-uncle's bed was in the front room, along with his rocking chair, my great-aunt's rocking chair, and a third one for company. Underneath Uncle Bill's big iron bedstead were boxes filled with treasures. Toys from a couple of generations were jumbled together there, along with old magazines, a few hardbound books, and odds and ends too good to throw away but of no present use. Some of the boxes held pulp magazines, but most of those were stacked beside the record player. "Ranch Romances" and "Amazing Stories" are the two I remember best. Yaya (pronounced with long a's) taught me to read with those pulps.
Close to the center of the room was the stove, what I've since discovered was called a "parlor stove", black with shiny nickel-plated embellishments. It had a rounded top that could be removed, revealing a hot plate where flat irons could be heated or a teakettle could provide water for tea. We did occasionally use the flatirons, but I think it was more to teach me how than because we needed to, because Yaya also had an electric iron which she plugged into a socket on the side of the overhead light. It made the bulb grow dimmer, which might be another reason she heated the flatiron during winter's dreary days.
The kitchen was also Yaya's bedroom (and mine, as long as I lived with them), the dining room, and where we took our baths, every Saturday morning before going to town for our weekly double feature movie and grocery shopping. The big iron cookstove had a reservoir where water—brought in buckets from the pump on the back steps—was heated. Our bathtub was a galvanized iron tub, big enough for me, a child, to sit in but probably only enough for my aunt and uncle to stand in. I don't know, because they bathed behind a screen. Modesty was important, and it never occurred to me to peek.
We banked the fires in both stoves at night during cold weather, but they never stayed very warm. More than once I can remember it being my turn to leap from bed to stuff kindling into the kitchen stove, blowing on it until it caught, and dashing back to bed, shivering violently, to cuddle until the room warmed a little. After Uncle Bill died, we had to repeat the routine in the front room, but usually not until we'd had our breakfast. The kitchen stove burned mostly wood, while the other one burned coal. My job was to keep the woodbox and the coal scuttle full, as far back as I can remember.
Even after I went to live with my mother and stepfather, I still went to stay with Yaya on Sundays, and as often as possible in the summer. There I was happy, free of chafing rules and personality conflicts. It was the best of all possible places to be.
Perhaps another time I'll tell about my grandmother's upstairs, about the Big Ditch, the Sunday rides in the rumble seat of Uncle Bill's Model A, and all the other adventures of a childhood that to me in retrospect seems about as close to perfect as possible. For all that Yaya and Uncle Bill gave me, I am so very grateful.


Mary Thornburg said...

Beautiful! Although your early childhood memories are in some ways different from mine, quite a lot here sounds so familiar! The "parlor stove," the galvanized tub for the weekly bath, the wind-up Victrola and the Caruso records. (We had John McCormick singing "The Rosary," and on the flip side "Little Boy Blue," which still makes me cry.) And I was reminded very strongly of a Robert Hayden poem, "Those Winter Sundays" Thank you!

C.S. Fuqua said...

In accommodations, we have similar backgrounds at that age, though an indoor bathroom didn't come until age 12 when the parents divorced, followed by a move to another town. Your relationship with Yaya must certainly be basis for many characters and story ideas. Thanks for sharing...

Marilyn Levinson said...

I enjoyed reading about your childhood, Jude. So very different from my early days, growing up in Brooklyn in a 6-story apartment house.