Letters to My Mother II
"Saturdays with Mum"
I hope this letter finds you doing well. As I sit here, today is a lazy pre-Spring Saturday, and other than the usual housework, which can always be done, I have time on my hands this morning and thought I would drop you a line. And speaking of Saturdays, that was always a pre-set scheduled day in our house, wasn't it? Dad would be working at the Barber Shop, black pants, white pressed shirt, Vaseline slicked hair. I remember how the five of us kids would wake up and come down stairs one by one, ready to start the weekend. Bowls of cold cereal and milk, and cartoons in the livingroom was how our Saturdays began. We would laugh and laugh as Wile E. Coyote got an anvil dropped on his head by the Roadrunner, and we'd root for Popeye, knowing full well after he downed that cold can of spinach, that pretty soon Bluto or Brutus was going to get his comeuppance! Mr. Magoo blindly walked across streets just missing speeding cars and trucks that were in his path, while Yogi Bear stole pic-a-nic baskets much to Mr. Ranger's chagrin. Usually, parents don't allow their young children to watch cartoons like this any more Mum, because they are too violent. I'm not sure why this is, because even though Yosemite Sam, Quick Draw McGraw and Deputy Dawg had a couple of pistols in the gunbelts that were strapped around their waists, I don't recall stray bullets going through someone's window from teenagers in gangs like they do today. Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird and Donald Duck all had speech impediments, but I don't recall any of my classmates poking fun at each other like the bullying they do in school today. Fred Flintstone bellowed a lot, but Wilma never needed to put a restraining order out on him. And although Dave made Alvin, Simon and Theodore perform at an early age, the show ended before we ever got to find out if Dave spent all of their earnings, like Gary Coleman and the rapper M&M's parents allegedly did. We'll never know if Alvin broke off from the group, became a superstar, got into drugs and later dangled his baby chipmunks over a balcony to screaming fans...so don't blame him Michael! Anyway, today they have "learning" cartoons like Seasame Street, Ni Hao Kai-Lan, Dora The Explorer, Dino Dan, etc... It's a good thing, but I just know that cartoons in our day did not make my peers and I kill, maim or even think about dropping an anvil on someone's head. Heck, I don't even know what an anvil is used for. And although Mr. Magoo with his near sightedness always avoided catastrophes by the skin of his teeth, most people know enough to use the cross walks, cross the street when you see the white blinking "Walk" sign, and that there's a Lenscrafters in almost every city.
Anyway, back to Saturdays. While watching toons, we would wait for you to call us individually into the kitchen where you were doing your bills, making plans for the day, and doling out our allowance. I know that we all started out with a quarter, and as each of us grew, so did our allowance. I don't know if you recall the trepidation each one of us had walking into the kitchen as our name was called. Sometimes you sat in the kitchen with your cup of coffee and Salem menthol cigarettes as you planned the day, and more times than I care to remember, you started your Saturday with a beer. On those Saturdays, the first child leaving the kitchen, allowance in hand, would forewarn the others that you were already drinking. Every Saturday for as long as I can remember, were visiting days. We would make the run to visit both Grandparents' houses and sometimes to an Aunt and Uncle's house. On beer Saturdays, we were so afraid riding in the car with you to Grandmother's house, because it was equivalent to riding with the Big Bad Wolf. You were all over the road and we knew that the drinking would only continue throughout the rest of the day and into Saturday night. It was scary, and we hated it. I know that you loved us all Ma, but today, you would have surely been stopped by the police and could have had us kids taken away for endangerment of a child - FIVE children!
Each Saturday was pretty much routine. We'd ride to town and we'd get to spend our allowance. Twenty-five cents went a long way back in the fifties and it was most difficult deciding on what to spend that quarter on. Ice Cold Coca-Cola in bottles came in three sizes: 8 oz., 14 oz. and 16 oz. The 8oz. Cokes were a nickel, but wow, just the sight of those tall 16 ouncers made your eyes sparkle. What to do, what to do? Do you buy a full sized Hershey Bar for a nickel, or do you buy a Sugar Daddy, not because the Sugar Daddy tasted good, but rather because it was made of hard sugary caramel and therefore lasted longer? Do you buy a large bag of penny candy or use the money for a toy, such as a wooden airplane, plasti-bubbles, or an army guy with a parachute attached? Sometimes Alan and I would pool our allowance together and buy a spice cake. Oh how I loved spice cake, with raisins in the batter and it's sugary sweet vanilla frosting. Swanson's had recently come out with the TV dinner back then, and once in a blue moon, one of us kids would buy a TV dinner, because it was so cool to have this little meal, with it's own dessert, sectioned off into a little tin tray. Decisions, Decisions.
After spending our allowance, we would start out on the thirty-five mile trip to visit relatives; five kids, one mother and one old Cocker Spaniel named Trixie, who was the first one at the door whenever she heard the words, "Kids! Get in the Car!" We never taught Trixie to lay down, beg, shake or stay, but she sure understood those words: "Kids! Get in the car!" Gas was cheap back then, I think around twenty-nine cents a gallon, and it's a good thing with as many sudden stops we made on our Saturday journeys! On the ride, it was the job of us kids to watch the sides of the road and yell, "Bottle!", whenever we spied a discarded Coca-Cola bottle. I remember how you would immediately pull the car over to the side of the road, and whomever was sitting by the door would jump out and retrieve the find. All Coke bottles were saved until the following Saturday in which the five of us kids took turns cashing in the bottles, which could up your allowance considerably. Again, with the 8oz. bottles bringing in a two cent return, the 14 oz. bottles were worth four cents and a 16 oz. bottle brought in a whopping six cents! If it was your Saturday to cash in Coke bottles, more than likely those were the Saturdays when you could afford to purchase a 16 oz. Coke rather than the 8 oz. one and you would still have money left over for other candy. Now in theory, this sounds like a brilliant idea in helping to keep our roadways clean by putting deposits on bottles, but that really wasn't the case. There were not a lot of cops or state troopers around back then. The ideas of "going green", "respecting the planet" and the slogan "Don't Be A Litter Bug" had yet to exist. Many cars had holes in the floorboards, and car trash was often dumped right through those holes when no other car was around to see it being done. Remember that Ma? Well, now-a-days you can pay a $250 dollar fine or more for littering. All babies and toddlers have to be in little carseats that get seat belted onto the regular car seat. And in most states (not ours), every passenger in the car needs a seat belt Mum. If you get caught by the police not wearing one, you will have to pay another big fine. Remember when Dad used to coach Little League and if the team won, he would drive the team down to the ice cream stand, with all of the "boys" in the back of the pick-up truck? You sure can't do that any more Mum, because there are no seatbelts in the bed of a pick-up truck. And just to add to the changes of which I'm sure must already be confusing and overwhelming to you Mum, it's not just little "boys" who play Little League baseball anymore. That's right, girls can and do play now!
Inevitably, we'd make it to Grammy's house first, (that's Dad's mother). She was never really friendly, but you still visited her Mum. She adored her seven sons, but could not care less about her three daughters, her daughters-in-law, or about most of her grandchildren. At Grammy's house, children were seen and not heard, and we behaved extremely well, if behaving well means daring not to speak, argue, ask for anything, be loud, or keep going in and out of doors. We sat in the house, we didn't ask for so much as a drink of water, nor were we ever offered anything. Grampy was different. A big hulk of a man who wore black horn-rimmed glasses, plaid flannel shirts with a white sleeveless t-shirt underneath or a thermal long-john top underneath, depending upon the season and his best accessory was his warm easy smile. Whenever we played outside at Gram & Gramp's house, which was preferable to just sitting in a chair inside, if Grampy was outside, he would pick us stalks of rhubarb from his garden. Even without sugar, the rhubarb was a treat. I think it was a treat mostly in part due to the fact that it showed a kindness in his offering of it. At least it acknowledged our presence. I don't know why, but one year- just ONE year, Grammy gave us all Christmas presents. Do you remember that Ma? Catherine and I got these very large plastic dolls (the kind with painted-on brown curly hair), and big doll carriages to push them in. I named my doll, Sally, and Cathy named hers Barbara. I don't recall your parents, Meme and Pepe, ever getting us "tangible" gifts, but I remember their love, their kisses and hugs, and always feeling welcome and joyful there, as a kid should feel at their grandparents' house! Isn't that kind of funny, that one should remember distinctly a gift from one set of Grandparents, because it was a sign of acknowledgement and perhaps some love, for once?
So after doing our duty- your duty, in visiting Gram and Gramp, down the road we would go to Meme and Pepe's house; a place where family gathered. For the most part, us kids played and romped outside, often times with cousins, while you adults were inside drinking coffee, or beer, playing cards, jabbering away in French Canadian, while the aroma of homemade pork pies wafted from the oven and pillowcases of homemade picallilly were draining outside as they hung from the clothesline. Pepe grew and sold baskets of strawberries out in front of the house and us kids were allowed some of the fresh delicious fruit. I remember Mum how you were the designated hair dresser and would often times give Aunt Yvonne, Aunt Bert or Meme a Toni Home Permanent. The smell of those chemicals on the hair was so pungent, and perms took so long, that on a perm day- us kids knew that we were there for the long haul.
Yes, there was a big difference between the grandparents' houses. And Mum, I don't want to embarass you, but really, there are no need for secrets now. No reason to pretend. In the "olden days" peoples' private lives were private. People are not so ashamed of themselves or their families any more. If a teenage girl gets pregnant now-a-days, they are not pulled out of school, or sent away to Convents, and they are not given kerosene baths to try to kill the baby, like cousin Terri was given. They are not inserting coat hangers up their vaginas in a desperate attempt to hide and end an unplanned pregnancy from their family and the world. You can go to legitimate doctors now to end pregnancies, or you can stay right in school, right up until you have the baby and after. I know that there were gay and lesbian people back when also Ma, but I'm not so sure that you know the term "lesbian" or know that the word "gay" has any other meaning rather than: happy and light-hearted. What those two words mean, is what we referred to as being a "Queer" back then. It's okay now to be lesbian or gay. Admitting and being who you are, is called "Coming Out of The Closet". In other-words, not being ashamed of who you are by keeping it secret, as one might keep old love letters, condoms, alcohol, or whatever else that is private to them hidden "in a closet". So, without meaning any embarassment to you Ma, I want you to be able to "Come out of the closet". We all know that for all intents and purposes, Pepe was your Father and Pepe was our Grandfather. But in a family of two caucasian parents and five caucasian siblings, number six - that would be you, did not look caucasian at all. I hope this doesn't hurt you Ma, because I know that in Northern New England in the 1920's - 70's, dark-skinned people were fairly rare, especially in small town New England. Yes, I know that you felt different and did not like it. Yes, I know that you know that us kids felt different, and did not like it. Please don't blame yourself, you are who you are. We are who we are. Us kids later learned what we found out you later learned, and that is that Pepe was probably not your biological Father. That Meme had fooled around with a very dark Portuguese man, and that you, the youngest child, was a result of their affair. Your skin color was obviously suspect and although Pepe wore glasses and had very little formal education if any, he certainly was neither blind nor stupid. Nonetheless, he treated you, and us kids, no different from his own. A rare bird. A man to look up to forever. Affairs like Meme's have been going on since the beginning of time as I'm sure they will continue til the end of time. Just because it goes on all the time though, does not make it right, and a lot of people can get badly hurt; like the hurt that Pepe must have bore in raising another man's child, a reminder of Meme's affair; and the hurt you must have felt in "being different" from your family, and noticeably so. In those days, you could not and would not even think of being so bold or uppity as to pose to your parents the nagging questions you must have had regarding your skin tone. I know that we kids weren't bold enough to in turn, ask you those same questions. Cousin Rita told us how you two girls would take trips with Meme and her sister, Aunty Emma, to visit this man (your supposed Father) and how the two of you were made to sit outside on the stoop, and were sternly warned to never tell Pepe where you all had been that day. The only thing with Meme as opposed to most cheating women and men like her, is that her secret affair backfired big time and wasn't so "secret" in so much as this white woman could not explain away this dark skinned baby girl. And so this secret selfish affair of these two lovers ended up raining down hurt on many people. Only an infant, yet you were the obvious exposing of that affair.
As day began to turn to dusk, you would pick up your purse and instruct us to say our good-byes as you along with five kids, and one dog, climbed back into the car and headed for home. Again, if you had started drinking early in the day Mum, the ride home could be quite scary, but somehow we always made it back.
With a quick Saturday night staple of beans and hotdogs, we would all settle in front of the televison to watch The Lawrence Welk Show. Oh how we loved watching those glamorous Lennon sisters sing, and loved watching those elegantly dressed ladies and gents dance while Lawrence Welk led the orchestra with his baton and a bubble machine sent slow moving iridescent bubbles floating across the dance floor in and amongst the dancers. It was wonderful! Dad would come home from the Barber Shop every Saturday night with 5 five-cent bags of Wise potato chips and five small Cokes he'd gotten from the Coke Machine that sat in the Barber Shop, remember Ma? Dad sold the Cokes and Chips in his Barber shop, so those were easyfor him to pick up, but once in a while, he would cross the street to The Fruit Store and buy five Hoodsies to go with our Saturday night cache of snacks. I still have that Coke machine Ma! I really do! It's right here in my house and I love the childhood memories that it invokes in me! We so looked forward to Dad coming home on Saturday nights, that is, if you were not drunk already. That's because if you were, we knew there would probably be a fight or trouble between you and Dad later that evening. The anticipation for us kids really sucked, so I "do" blame you for that Ma...I do. (And I can say "sucked", because that's a common term people use now-a-days instead of saying, "That really stinks!") Remember how Dad sat in front of the TV eating his supper? You always made fried potatoes for him at almost every meal. The rest of us ate boiled potatoes usually, but you always fried the potatoes for Dad, just the way he liked them. One of us kids would sit in the chair behind Dad and scratch his back or his head for a dime and another would get out the tin of black shoe polish and an old white sock used as a polishing cloth and polish his work and going-out shoes for a dime. You would be in the bathroom taking a shower and putting on your make-up before you and Dad went out. You loved "Chanel No. 5" Perfume and that is what you wore for going out. That was your extravagance. Your everyday scent was "Evening In Paris", bought at the Five and Dime/Woolworth's. I still remember that bottle Ma; cobalt blue with a gold colored cap, and the bottle shape I am assuming was made to resemble the Eiffel Tower, and I smile to think of it now, as it really didn't resemble the Eiffel Tower very much at all. They still have "Chanel No. 5" Mum, but they no longer have "Evening in Paris" nor do they have an F. W. Woolworth's. That one small bathroom in that house was so small, but with a family of seven, it was not unheard of to have two and three children bathe together, while someone was on the hopper, all while another person was brushing their teeth at the sink. Dad would lather up his shaving brush on a bar of Ivory soap and if one of us kids stood too close, he'd swipe us on the nose with that Ivory soap lathered brush, and we would just giggle and giggle at his swiftness and playfulness in "getting you". After you were all prettied up and everyone was fed, you and Dad always spent Saturday night at the VFW, dancing and drinking and hanging with your friends. Sometimes, you and Dad would come home fighting terribly, and us kids would wake up so scared from the yelling, yet much too afraid to come down stairs. Mike would always protect you Ma, but it was scary. Dad never could drink liquor without getting really ornery. On other Saturdays, most Saturdays, I don't think that you and Dad could ever accept the bartender's words of, "Last Call," and so you would come back to the house with three or four, or who knows how many other couples, who also must have had difficulty in accepting those same words of; "Last Call". You'd put your 45 records on the record player and continue to dance and drink until the wee hours of Sunday morning. Sometimes you would call upstairs for us kids to come down and dance with, or for, all of you. It didn't matter, we were young, curious as to see who was down stairs, and the music from the Victrola woke us anyway. Eventually, we all went back to bed and another Saturday went in a cloud of dust, making way to Sunday. Thank God for Sundays. We either did chores on Sundays or weather permitting, spent Sundays at the Beach. I didn't like Saturdays very much Mum.
Well Mum, I hope that this letter did not upset you too much. I know that it is hard to hear how someone feels or felt about you or a situation if that situation might not have been so pleasant to recall. But it's okay. You loved us, and you was a very hard worker, and you lived a hard life, and I truly think you did well. I can't say you did your best, I know that I haven't, nor have most people who are willing to be honest with themselves. I can say however, that I loved you then, I love you now, I appreciate you and I understand you. And my memories of "Saturdays with Mum", good or bad, are just another part of what makes me, me.
Got to go now Mum. Will talk to you later.
Yours Truly, Your Loving Daughter Anita