When I was 7th and 8th grades, we had home economics as one of our classes. Literally, it was a room with several kitchen stations that included a stove, a refrigerator, and a sink, plus a kitchen table. We were divided into groups or teams, maybe four or five, I don’t remember. Along the edges, there were sewing machines because we learned to sew in there as well. I made a skirt and of course, an apron, which I had to use for the cooking portion of the year.
It could have been a great experience except for one small problem: this was the school where I was attending as an accelerated student, along with a class of others. But Home Ec was a shared experience (like gym) with the regular classes. And whether we deserved it as a group or not, we were despised by the other kids. It felt like the animosity between local teens and college kids in a small town.
Of course, I was already an easy mark for my own “smart” classmates so it didn’t take long for the regular class kids to figure out I was easy prey. Fortunately, our food dishes were judged as a group, so there was no food sabotage, so their favorite past time was tearing up my hair net or misplacing my apron. Anything to get me a poor grade.
Back then, hair nets were hideous, but trying to get a ripped one on my head was absurd. These hair nets were a whole different kind of net, very thin, supposedly invisible, and more like working with a spider web than anything else.
We never know what humiliating experience will stay with us. Whether it’s wearing a Ho-Jo’s (Howard Johnsons) turquoise waitress uniform or being stood up for a date or having a party and no one showing up, embarrassment is a powerful agent for the development of a character. In today’s world, an array of disgraces might bring a teen to suicide or worse, a mass killing in a movie theater or a school.
What is degrading to one person may not bother another. The little things, they mold a life. I can see it looking back. It’s something to include in a key character soon.
Although I had planned to write about some of the foods I enjoyed as a child, my reveries morphed into memories of our kitchen; and whenever I think about that old kitchen, I am creeped out about the roaches–again.
Even if I see only one roach today, in a restaurant or while visiting someone, a sick feeling rises up. I loathe them. There are not many living things that bring out the very worst in me, but roaches are the exception. I see them as having no redeeming value. And, as a I child, they made my life a living hell in the kitchen.
Here’s how it would happen. At night, in particular, when anyone would walk into the kitchen and pull the string for the top light, there was a massive scattering. Brown shiny wings and waving antennas running, jumping, leaping, and even flying for cover.
My mother refused to get bug spray, first of all, because of the cost, and secondly, she was some kind of 1950′s environmentalist. This was poison and if it could kill them, it could kill us. Instead, we were expected to manually squash them. (At any point in this story, if you would like to say or think, “ewwwww!,” feel free.) Sometimes, I would stand by the kitchen door and throw things into the kitchen in hopes that the scramble would be over before I turned on the light. Never.
I got so sick of it, I would avoid the kitchen at night whenever possible. Sometimes, I would let my mother lead the way, who cursed the bugs in German and squished them with her thumbs.
Eventually, and after much disgust and complaints, my mother fumigated professionally. She didn’t have much choice when the vermin began spreading into other areas of the house. When the tenants complained, she acquiesced. We actually fumigated twice. The second time after the alley house burned down and all of their roach tribes re-distributed to other homes on the block, including ours.
Years later, when I lived in Chicago with a friend for a few months, her apartment became infested. All the memories of my childhood flooded in and it was hard to be there, to sleep there, to walk into the kitchen. I finally had to to move when the cat bowl was filled, not with crunchy cat food, but with a teeming, squiggling, roach army. No. It was too much.
They say, and this is probably urban legend, when and if we ever have an atomic war, the roaches will survive. Just let that first bomb drop dead on my house. I can’t do it again.
My mother called it the shack. It stood at the corner of the alley facing 10th street next to the green duplex. If that house would have been in Appalachia, it would have seemed more appropriate, or if it was on a farm somewhere, you could have called it the “old house” grandpa built. Instead, it was one of our neighbors. No one knew what really held it together.
I was forbidden to go inside the shack under any circumstances. My parents considered the family suspicious, dirty, and probably dangerous.
In the summertime, the shack was downright entertaining. All kinds of people would pull up to the house from hot rods to trucks to motorcycles. It was a loud house. People were screaming at each other all the time but it was never clear if it was out of anger or normal conversation. It was a drinker’s house and a smoker’s house. It was a laughing house.
I wish I could remember the name of the girl who lived there. It was something like Brenda or Sue or maybe it was a combination like Brenda Sue. And in her own way, she became my friend. And of course, I had to go inside. It was an adventure, another world: men in undershirts sat around the tiny black and white television, grandmas and daughters sat in the kitchen smoking cigarettes and drinking iced tea from Ball jars, toddlers walked around in dirty underwear and heavy diapers, while younger guys with slick greasy hair drank milk from cartons as they stood by the open refrigerator door or picked at a guitar on the stairs. There was always music playing, day and night, on the radio.
Brenda Sue was worldly to me. She wore make-up and she teased her hair and she wore curlers at night. She smoked cigarettes, used a lot of swear words, and listened to country music. She probably wasn’t more than three or four years older than I was, but she acted much more so. Brenda Sue soon became my source of information for all the dirty stuff and bad words I would ever need to know.
I don’t remember who ratted me out for hanging out at Brenda Sue’s. It might have been my brother or Gladys or maybe my mother just figured it out. I’ll never know.
The shack finally burned down. It was a miracle no one was hurt. Like putting a match to a very dry, dead pine tree, the house blazed and was gone in what seemed like minutes; then nothing was left but black timbers, a brick chimney, fluttering papers, and roaches. Every house on the block got a share of the shack’s roaches.
Later, as young adults, my brother and I would reminisce about the rednecks and white trash from our old neighborhood. We would tell stories of the fights and the brick throwing and the filthy graffiti. But there was another part of me that also remembered the people, the ordinary people, who had made a life in a ramshackle little house on 10th street.
I know there were other places before we moved into the old two story house at 1009 Park Avenue in Indianapolis. We have pictures of a basement apartment where my parents were janitors and one or two pictures of a rented house on College Avenue. But the only house that holds any memories for me at all, is the one at 10th and Park.
Actually, our house was the second building on Park because a solid brick church with three wide steps up to the front door and side basement steps down to the “deaf” dominated the corner lot. This church, from the front to both sides and around the back, held tremendous opportunities for play and mischief. Most churches back then were not air conditioned and this one was no different. And so, each summer, their stained glass windows would be opened to the fresh air along with the noisy children who frolicked next door, particularly on Sunday evenings.
There was a cherry tree between our house and the church sanctuary windows. And although this tree offered lovely shade for those within, it also provided us with an array of small missiles, from ripe to over-ripe sour cherries to handfuls of cherry pits. There was also a metal fence that played beautiful music when a stick was scraped across its sides.
Speaking of music, this particular congregation was one of the Church of Christ denominations that repudiated instrumental music in a worship setting. At that time, it seemed like the weirdest thing ever and we would help them along with our own toy instruments, home made drums, and operatic voices.
We were brats. But that church got back at us in the end.
I was nearly in high school and I hated living downtown, a constant source of embarrassment when I asked for rides home and mothers systematically locked the car doors when they reached my neighborhood. The church, however, wanted to grow and they managed to buy out the entire half block in order to build a large new building and parking lot. That is, except for our house. My mother would not sell.
They kept up the pressure for several years (I’m sure they were praying intently for God to soften my mother’s heart, which is a truly audacious leap of faith); and only after my brother and I joined ranks with the church in hopes of moving North where our friends lived, my mother caved in with one proviso: the church would promise to not cut down the cherry tree or the Maple tree that graced our front yard (a tree that provided the most luscious display of colors every fall).
They agreed; we bought a small bungalow some 5 miles away (actually they bought it and we made an “even exchange”) and we moved to our first wall to wall carpeting, washing machine, fenced in yard, grass, and oil heat (the Park Avenue house was heated with wood until the last three years before we moved).
Now, as I Google my old address, I am reminded again and again how those folks never did intend to keep those trees or the promise they made. To this day, the parking lot is a waste land that surrounds a functional church building at 10th & Park. When my mother saw the flattened land for the first time, she wept, and never returned there again. Somehow, this loss is a sorrow for me and a stumbling block to my memories.