Tuesday, November 05, 2019

I write about when I was a kid, part two, plus Trump leaves me exhausted

 By Fred Owens
Trump leaves me exhausted. I have tried manfully to grapple with the impeachment process, but I am fairly fatigued and bushwacked. I need a break. I need a day at the beach. All I can say is that I give my strongest energy to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She has to deal with this man. She has to confront him. She is not enjoying the process because this is a grim task, but the man needs to be deposed.
The Fire Next Time.
James Baldwin wrote this novel in 1963, The Fire Next Time. I read most of his novels back then, I should re-visit them. I only mention it today because of the fires in California. There were two small fires that got a lot of attention, one threatened the Getty Museum and the other came very near to the Reagan Library. With such prominent locations, these fires got a large amount of media attention. That's just the way things work. The Maria Fire in Ventura County burned 9,000 acres, damaging avocado and lemon orchards. Several homes were lost -- not a big deal  -- unless it was your home that burned.
The Kincaid Fire in northern California burned 75,000 acres and damaged vineyards and many homes as well. How do you say "less bad" than the fires last year? Like, it could have been worse. But please, if you don't live in California, don't send us any valuable tips on how to deal with all this.
Don't remind us that if you shut off the electric power to quiet that source of fire, then the cell towers go blank and cell phone service is not available to residents fleeing the blaze. If the gas station has no power, they can't pump the gas to fill the tanks of the fleeing residents. If the traffic lights go dark then people bang into each other. We need to re-think all this and come up with a better plan.
And homeless people are abundant, of course. You can thank us for hosting your discarded people. Homeless people come to Santa Barbara from other states because the weather is good and the people are friendly. That's just the kind of people we are -- we welcome immigrants too.
I moved to California nine years ago and it's the best thing I've ever done. It's like I wake up on another sunny day in Santa Barbara and I thank God I'm not being so stupid anymore. I get to live here. Local Californians welcomed me and now I am one of them.
Family Business. I've been making lots of phone calls to relatives -- my two children, my brother, my two sisters, various nieces and there is lots of news, most of it good but some of it not good. The clearest good news is from my niece Laura Maeve who lives in Monaco in France. Her baby is due in a few weeks and this is a great joy.
But rather than give you the current family news, I will post this long, very long, story about life with the Owens Family in 1956. So, if you're not too busy, get in your comfortable chair and let us return to days of old, in the Midwest, in the leafy suburbs of Chicago.

I write about when I was a kid, part two....This story is kind of long for an email, but if you have the time you might like it

There was only ritual and seasonal time and children growing and big old trees that never changed. There were no events. Everything was always the same, except some of the neighbors moved in or moved out. Almost every article of furniture was still there in 1996 when Mom died and we sold the house. The old green couch and the upright piano had been in the basement for thirty years – same with the old kitchen table, the toboggan, the ping pong table, a lot of the ice skates, all in the basement, not forever, but always there.
The first time I remember anything in my life was out on the driveway in front of the house. I was riding a tricycle. Mom and Dad drove up and got out of the car. Mom was holding Katy in a bundle. She had just been born. I was four years old. It was 1950.
We were seven in our family, and it stayed that way a long time. The children were Mary, Tommy, Carolyn, Freddy, and Katy. This was our house. Nothing could be more elemental. When Katy came home from the hospital it was complete and set for all time as far as I knew. We were us, the Owens family.
The house was big, white, square and stucco. The shutters were dark-green wood. Shutters didn’t actually do anything, they were just there.
The front stairs were wood and painted grey, broad for sitting and more than six feet in width – five or six steps with a cast iron railing on each side. Plain cast iron painted black and sturdy, not with a fancy pattern, but just a little curve at the end.
The outside porch light was a marvel of wrought iron hung on a chain. It balanced the street light directly in front, being six-sided as well, with the same mottled glass panes, but shaped like a globe, and with a spike that pointed downward from the bottom. It was very strong.
The front door was heavy and plain and very solid. It swung smoothly open and shut.  They never locked the front door, but sometimes I played with the lock because it was polished brass and clicked into place.
The living room had a wall-to-wall wool carpet of deep maroon, just slightly scratchy, just a little dusty, but you could roll around on it all the time, or lay on your stomach and elbows to read or play games. The radio and record player was at one end in a substantial cabinet and the TV was at the other end. We got the TV when I was about five or six. I remember going over to the Giambolvos house to watch it before that. I remember hearing Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio too, but the TV took over pretty quickly.
The living room was not too formal, but it was the living room with the good furniture and the couch. Dad had his chair, which was really big and dark red. He sat there, in a clean white shirt and dress pants and read the newspaper for hours. He had this peculiar way of folding the paper into fourths and holding it with one hand. He was quiet. He used to make this fritzing every once in a while when he moved his partial denture. He didn’t talk much, and when he did speak it was very slow. I used to be jumping up and down waiting for him to finish a sentence. His voice was deep and strong while he chose his words – usually about things that didn’t interest me or about ways that I was supposed to behave. That was discipline – he would bore us to death. But I liked having him around.
Dad moved slowly too, not being physically active. He had a big head and deep jowel on top of a slight frame. His torso was light above and with a paunch underneath. His hands were graceful and smooth. The back of his hands had black hairs, coarse and sparse and beautifully clean fingernails. This was where he did his work – with paper, at a desk. In the evening, when I saw him, he had a can of beer or a cup of coffee by the chair.
He was solid in his habit, having his own business a few blocks from the house where he published a fishing magazine. He came home when work was done, not by the clock, although it was always late afternoon.
The great thing about Dad in his living room chair was that he was never perturbed by the ruckus of children – he just kept on reading his newspaper and ignoring us in the nicest way. You might here an outburst once a month, “Damn it” or even “Damn it to hell” – which didn’t scare us.
 We got the Chicago Tribune in the morning and the Chicago Daily News in the afternoon. The Chicago Tribune called itself the “World’s Greatest Newspaper.” I was a bit skeptical about that. It had an editorial cartoon everyday on the front page – something about a guy whose head was a globe, I never understood it. The Daily News had much better comics. We got all the magazines too – Life, Post, the New Yorker and several others. Life and the Post  had good pictures and short stories. The New Yorker had cartoons although some of them weren’t funny.
There was a nice fireplace with brass andirons and a screen in front. We had fires sometimes in the winter. They would let me use the tools to poke the blaze, and they would have me clean it up the next day, by sweeping the ashes into square tunnel in the brick floor.
The upright piano was in the other end of the living room, next to the radio. Later we got a spinet, and put the old upright in the basement.
My sisters all took piano lessons, especially Mary, the oldest. She rehearsed for weeks when she played Malaguena for her recital in high school. Tom played the trumpet. I took two years of piano lessons in fifth and sixth grade. I liked playing the piano and I practiced, but then I got bored and stopped. Mom didn’t pressure me.
The dining room led off the living room. We had a beautiful crystal chandelier. The dining table had eight chairs and there was a matching buffet – a sideboard. They were a set, made of dark burnished cherry, with intricate carvings on the front, and finely tapered fluted legs. It was just the right size and proportions the way the dining table, chairs and buffet filled the room. During the week Mom kept a fitted pad on the top of the dining table and over that a regular table cloth
Mom kept her best china in the buffet. We had Sunday dinner in the dining room with the good china on a white linen table cloth. Dad sat at one end, in the chair that had the arms on it. Mom sat at the other end near the door to the kitchen. We used to have a roast beef, or big steak or something special like that.
We didn’t dress, we had already dressed that morning for Sunday Mass. It wasn’t too formal or fussy, but our manners had to be a little bit better. There was coaching on table manners during dinner, but nothing severe. There was a never a child sent to his room or anything like that. Nothing like an angry exchange, but a pointed reminder from Mom, and indication that she was watching at all times, and you might get away with something, but she did notice. Mom talked a lot about good posture and not slouching. Dad didn’t say much.
We folded our hands and said grace in unison, “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ, our Lord, Amen,” and then we made the sign of the cross, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen.” Bless us, O Lord was a good prayer – it made sense to me and it didn’t take too long. It was the same prayer every night, so it always went smoothly.
We passed the food around and ate and talked. I loved the food. Roast beef – Dad had a beautiful carving set with two long knives and a sharpener kept in a trim wooden holder. He had a fine carving touch. It was modestly ceremonial. He sliced it thin and made a very good platter. Mom made wonderful gravy and mashed potatoes. Then there would be a vegetable – peas, green beans, corn, or carrots. The good thing about Sunday dinner is that Mom would only serve those dishes that everybody liked. No spinach – she  didn’t want the hassle. No making a child finish his plate.
Dad had good table manners and the style of a gentleman, but he ate with extra gusto. He just enjoyed it too much. He tucked his napkin into his collar like a bib and dug in. Sometimes the juice would dribble down his chin, and Mom would  say “Father!”
“What’s for dessert, Mom?” I always wanted to know. She would tell me and then give me a look like it’s really not polite to ask that question. I was highly motivated about dessert. Of course I wanted to know what it was, and I wanted to make sure we would get it – not every day, because I never thought about tomorrow, but today, tonight. For Sunday dinner it might be pie or ice cream -- apple pie and cherry pie, most often, sometimes lemon meringue. She made a grape pie that was kind of interesting. And blueberry pie which was wonderful, but only in season.
After we finished eating dessert, we said grace after meals. This I thought was a bit unnecessary and the kids were losing focus and getting antsy, “We give Thee thanks, O almighty God…”
Being excused from the table was a firm rule. “May I be excused?” You had to say it, and you had to say it while you were still in your chair, but then you could dash.
Mom and my three sisters – whether they had a rotation or system I didn’t know – they cleared the table and washed the dishes. Dad gave a hand in the kitchen from time to time. I never heard anyone say that girls had to wash dishes and boys didn’t, it was just that way.
There was a swinging door between the dining room and the kitchen. First there was a pantry, with canned goods on the higher shelves, and tools in drawers underneath. Mom used to have me open cans on the wall-mounted can opener in the pantry. The tool drawer had a hammer and drill and screwdrivers. The other drawers held tablecloths and stuff like that which I didn’t care about.
Off the pantry was the downstairs bathroom. On the other side of the pantry was the door to the basement, and next to the door was the doorbell chimes. They were cool – two long brass pipes, one a bit longer than the other, hung from a slim framework. They gave a very solid, melodious ding-dong. The sound was so clear and present, yet so un-irritating. It was a marvel of technology to me that you could press the button outside the front door and get this nice sound announcing visitors. We didn’t have a lot of visitors, and relatives didn’t ring the doorbell when they came over, they just opened the door, kind of peeked their heads in, and then entered.
The kitchen was small and crowded. The cabinets were white enamel. We ate at the kitchen table. It was grey formica and chrome. Mom was in there a lot.  She was pretty and she had dark brown hair and good figure. I didn’t think about that because she was my Mom. I just knew she wasn’t fat or funny looking. I liked her. One time I got mad and told her I wanted Mrs. Giambalvo to be my Mom, because it was easier over there. I got a stern response, “Oh, really…” It was a passing thought anyway.
The Wolff’s house was messier with toys and comic books – more casual. Some other houses were stiff and formal – too clean. Ours was just right. I had chores – take out the garbage, not every day, but whenever she told me to do it. If I got to light a fire to burn the trash out in the alley, that was cool. But daily, it was set the table for dinner. That’s how I knew the number seven like it was the soul of my existence – seven plates, seven forks, seven spoons and seven knives, five glasses for the kids, two cups and saucers for Mom and Dad. Sometimes Dad was traveling on business, so there would be six. I checked on the count every night. Six was almost as much work as seven, so it didn’t matter, but sometimes one of the older kids was gone too, and it was five. Setting the table for five was easier and dinner time was less crowded. I had mixed feelings about this. I liked the crowd of seven, but five at dinner was a bit more spacious and relaxed.
There was more work and more rules than other parts of the house and there could be open conflict and scoldings in the kitchen. Mom got an electric can opener when I was twelve. I asked her why we needed such a gadget when the one on the pantry wall worked just fine. She said, “If you knew how many cans I’ve opened over the years, you wouldn’t be asking me.” She was very clear about boundaries like this. She loved me with a mother’s heart, but I was not welcome to discuss with her anything about her role. I was not her confidant. My job was to be a good kid, and a little gratitude was fine too. I didn’t ask too many questions.
I never heard her complain, or lament, or wish for things. If she had moods I didn’t notice. Angry – sometimes when I was small I would get a slap. This was not quite terrifying but it was bad. Her face contorted, she bit her tongue – it’s her face I remember more than the sting of the slap. She didn’t hug me or pet me either. There was a warm embrace of food always to eat and the kind I liked, clothes that showed up in my dresser drawer, all folded and clean. I knew she did the laundry, I was not to feel guilty about that. I was to feel that I was a good child and deserved these things. I deserved pie and dessert. The affection she showed me was never withdrawn, and never contingent, it was always there. It was not close, but it was constant. She never held the other kids up to me as an example. I never heard her make a comparison. So I never thought whether she loved Tom or Mary or Carolyn or Katy. I never thought whether she treated them good or bad. It never occurred to me. It only mattered how she treated me, and it was pretty good.
In the morning I had cereal for breakfast – Wheaties,  cornflakes, sometimes cream of wheat, but she had too cook it, and I didn’t like it that much. Pretty soon I settled into Cheerios with milk and sugar. For years I ate the same thing, but she always asked, “What would you like?” Breakfast was personal, for me. I didn’t know what the other kids ate. We didn’t play in the morning anyway, just getting off to school, so I hardly noticed them.
Dinner was the whole family. Being home in time for dinner was pretty important for the older kids. Dad loved to eat. He was poor when he was a child, so he told us, not with too much of the martyr, but he had a really wholesome gratitude for his full plate, and the self-satisfaction of knowing he could feed us all in pretty good style. Mom used to say something about “starving Armenians” but that was if we were gobbling and eating too fast. I had no idea who these people were.
Meat loaf, fried chicken, pork chops – everybody liked those dishes. Potatoes – mashed, baked, or boiled. Noodles with butter. Vegetables – peas, green beans, corn or carrots – still all clear. Then Friday was no meat. We had fried white fish, salmon croquets – I loved salmon croquets -- halibut, which was kind of dry and tasteless, shrimp, and sometimes lobster tail. You felt good about lobster tail dipped in melted butter. My Dad was not crass, like saying, “I worked hard to make the money to buy that expensive food.” He was not righteous or over-bearing, but we knew that he worked and that he was entitled. He could have said things like that. I’m glad he didn’t. I felt a little pride that we could have lobster tails once in a while. Fish sticks with tartar sauce – everybody liked those. Mom didn’t apologize, but she felt that fish sticks was not exactly cooking.
There were problem foods, vegetables we had too eat, number one being spinach. We were going to eat spinach when she served it. We were not going to leave the table or be excused until that small dab of spinach was eaten. Furthermore there was going to be a next time, in another week or two, when we were going to eat spinach again. She was unyielding, there was no mercy. You want to have a tantrum? You want to be stubborn? You think you can win? Dad backed her up. He had a pretty good presence, although he was a quiet man. I never, in my whole childhood, saw any wiggle room between those two. To play one parent off against another, this was something I did not even imagine.
So we ate the spinach. Broccoli and cauliflower smelled funny, but they were not too important. Mom kind of hoped that we could broaden our palates a bit, but we didn’t have to eat them. Liver was the same as spinach. It was good for us, and it would keep coming in the regular rotation, but here there was an important difference. I liked liver. Tommy and Katy hated it. They suffered. I smiled. I don’t think I gloated. I was even sympathetic in a superior kind of way.
Lentil soup was all right because Mom sliced up hot dogs and cooked them in the soup. I thought that was pretty smart of her. I fished the hot dogs slices and ate them first, but then I ate the soup, why not? Good for Mom.
Vegetable soup was a treat for Dad. Dad traveled on business. When he came home Mom fixed vegetable soup – you could see the pleasure on his face because it tasted so good to him and because with that meal Mom loved him the most. I understood that and I had no argument. Vegetable soup wasn’t awful like spinach, but it had parsley which was bitter, and funny looking pieces of meat. We ate it, but we sure didn’t look forward to it, and you could smell it ahead of time. We had corn on the cob in the summer and then Mom made bacon lettuce and tomato sandwiches which were really good.
Dad was back up in the kitchen. He made meat and spaghetti, which was ground beef fried with onions and bits of bacon in tomato sauce served over spaghetti. I loved it. Several times a year he made crepes, only we called them egg pancakes. That was for lunch on the weekend, and a bit ceremonial, pouring the batter in the frying pan, stacking the light little crepes, rolling them up with grape jelly inside, and then sprinkling them with powdered sugar to make a platter. They were great.
Mom and Dad liked to go out, to downtown Chicago for dinner and dancing or to a show – Dad in a suit and tie and Mom smelling good and coming in to the kitchen to tell us they were off. She had already made us creamed eggs on toast – a simple meal for just the kids. They were happy and we got them out of the house. We must have behaved fairly well when they were gone, I guess Mary and Tom were sort of in charge. I was asleep before they got home.
I was aware of a family system that was in place when I came along, being the fourth child. It was not too tight and not too loose. There was no time except for seasons. Dinner time, come to think of it, was always about six p.m., but it was like Dad’s work schedule – never by the clock. It was always “Be home on time for dinner.” The clock only mattered for things away from home like school and going to Mass, and then it did matter. Dad could not stand anybody being late for Mass. Impatience was rare for him, but here you saw him dressed and ready to go by the front door fidgeting, and you didn’t want him to be that way. It was half fear and half why put the old man out?
The hell room was in back of the kitchen. It was an experiment to put the TV in there and Mom left it a mess with kids and toys all over the place. Mom and Dad got a little more quiet living room time, and we could fairly bust loose in the hell room – once someone broke a hole in the wall – but it didn’t really work. We were a little too wild, and they didn’t get to watch TV. They moved the TV to the back porch and that’s where it stayed.
The back porch was off the dining room, and that’s where we spent the evening, watching TV. Older kids did homework on the dining room table or upstairs or made their phone calls. We might listen to records in the living room or play a board game or something. In the summer, of course, we were out, but most of the year we were in the back porch. The pack porch was heated and insulated. It had fourteen windows on three sides. I know it had fourteen windows, because I had the job when I was older of taking down fourteen storm windows in the spring and putting up fourteen screens, climbing up and down the ladder. But first taking them out of the woodshed in the basement, stacking them by the garage, scrubbing them one at a time with hot soapy water, and then rinsing them with a hose. This took all morning and then some, on a Saturday.
In the fall I had to do it all again – take down the screens and put up the storm windows and the storm windows were big and heavy, and I never broke one. I never felt fair or unfair about my chores. I just did them. I don’t recall what my brother did. I knew my sisters helped in the kitchen. Raking leaves was cool. Mowing the lawn was cool especially when we got the power mower. And shoveling snow – that would make me feel good because, if it was a light snow, it was easy. But if it was a heavy snow then I could be proud of all the work I did. We had a long driveway all the way to the garage in back, but they never put the car in there, so I only had to shovel the front half.
A few times every year, we had Saturday chores for everybody. Often this was raking the leaves and it was fun, or when I was doing the storm windows and other kids were washing windows or something. Then Dad made potato soup for lunch, which was very simple – potatoes peeled and boiled, then cranked through a strainer, adding a little butter and salt and pepper. I liked it.
I loved watching television. We had a rattan couch and some informal upholstered chairs on the porch. The rattan couch had a square on one arm where you could put a drink, although no one ever used it. The other arm had an opening for newspapers and magazines.
There was a small effort to keep us sitting properly, but usually we sprawled. We could watch cartoons and kids’ shows in the afternoon after school, and more cartoons on Saturday mornings. Our favorite shows were “Our Miss Brooks” with Eve Arden, “I Love Lucy,” Sid Caesar and “Your Show of Shows,” Jackie Gleason. He was pretty stylish with the June Taylor dancers and “a little traveling music…and away we go.”
Mom loved the Loretta Young Show. Mom thought Loretta Young was the epitome of glamour and always wanted to see what she wore when she made her entrance. Then Mom would comment to the children about how much of lady she was in the way she moved and spoke. Dad liked Lawrence Welk – it was hokey, but it was only once a week. “Dragnet” was really cool. Sargeant Friday was tough and fair and on our side.
Sunday night at seven we watched Ed Sullivan. It was a bit formal and Ed Sullivan was a stiff, but it had just the right tone to please all of us – comedy and juggling acts for the kids, and the singing for Mom and Dad. Ed Sullivan introduced stars from the audience. That show was an anchor, it had a ritual structure.
But there were huge fights over the other shows. I remember some real screaming and hot tempers over what show to watch, and Dad getting irritated, even shouting at us to pipe down. Mainly we could watch as much as we wanted. Nobody had homework in grade school, and there were always friends coming and going and things to do outside. Nobody got depressively attached to the boob tube. Mom didn’t watch the soaps. I do remember “Queen for a Day” though, where some tearful, pathetic housewife got a new washer and dryer and a bouquet of roses. Mom’s life was much better than that.
Dad never sat on the couch, but on a chair next to it. It wasn’t his chair, like in the living room, but that’s where he sat. He drank Budweiser from a can, and if I asked him, he would give me a sip. I always liked the bitter, cold taste. I liked to hear Dad go “Ah” after a good guzzle. He farted out loud too, big loud ones. It’s a good thing they weren’t smelly. One time Dad tried to watch TV in his undershirt, but Mom wouldn’t let him. So there were standards, he could fart all he wanted, but that was it. Neither of them smoked.
We watched sports on TV, especially the World Series, and the Bowl games on New Year’s Day. I like the Gillette song, “You look sharp, dah-dah-DAH-dah-dah. You feel sharp…” That was a rousing tune. Mom could get animated and shout “Go” in a close game. Dad never moved. He liked to watch, but he didn’t care about sports, except fishing. He never tossed the ball around with us or taught us anything, or encouraged us. We could just play and have our fun.
A lot of shows were just like our house. “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie and Harriet” – they lived in houses just like ours, same furniture, same Mom in the kitchen, same Dad in a white shirt going to the office, same kids. I was the irrepressible Ricky Nelson in “Ozzie and Harriet” because he was the younger brother. It all made sense. Jackie Gleason and the Honeymooners lived in that working class apartment. Jackie Gleason was a bus driver, and Norton upstairs was a plumber. We knew of people like that but not closely – people who lived in apartments or worked. That’s the way it seemed to me – they worked. The Dads on our block didn’t work, they went to offices and sat down at desks and that wasn’t work. It was important what they did, because they got a lot of respect. This puzzled me – because they didn’t actually work. The mailman worked. He carried the bag from door-to-door. The milkman drove his truck, and carried milk to the back door twice a week. That was job I understood. Well, it was no concern of mine. Mostly what grownups did was boring, although they were nice people.

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