Friday, November 7, 2014

"Six Adults and One Kid," Ch. 3 of BUT...AT WHAT COST

I never liked the idea of my being an only child, but living in that neighborhood made it okay. I had plenty of kids to play with. And, believe it or not, living as an only child in a family of six adults of three generations was not all that bad. I was the light of everyone’s life. I suppose I was somewhat spoiled. I know I had more stuff than any kid on the block. But more than the stuff, I really appreciate having had the exposures that I never would have had in a typical family group.

To help the reader understand some of the dynamics of our atypical family, I’ll describe its members and my take of them: First, Dad. He was 26 when we moved to First Street. As an adult, I had a wonderful relationship with my father, but at that time, he barely affected my life. I know now, he was fighting his own demons. Dad drank too much. A World War II vet, he suffered from what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder, but was then called “shell shock.”

He worked, and I remember him as being available in emergencies, but he drank himself into varying degrees of inebriation just about every day. He had a job as a water meter reader, so if he hurried through his appointed rounds, he could start drinking at one or two o’clock in the afternoon. He was there in body, but his spirits and demeanor were often determined by the amount of alcohol he consumed. He was a happy drunk, so tolerable – even more than tolerable. To me, he was outgoing and funny, but the stories about his antics are legendary.

It was good his stepfather was a cop or he would have spent a few nights in jail. As one story goes, he traveled the length of Broadway jumping from car roof to car roof. It probably wasn’t the entire length of Broadway before the cops caught him, but I guess it was pretty far. Anyway, when they caught him and learned who he was, they called his father and the whole escapade was somehow swept under the rug. There were numerous bar fights and a time when he did a flip completely over the bar and crashed into (and broke) two shelves of liquor. Apparently, he had bet someone he could land on the bar top and went right on over it. I didn’t know any of this at the time. In the early years, he was just my happy-go-lucky dad.

If I had to choose one word to describe Pa, my great-grandfather, it would be “irascible.” I usually avoided him. He and his cane were a source of fear – not that he’d ever hit me with it, but I’d seen him threaten my grandmother. He and Donald bickered constantly. “God-dammit-Donald”, was an oft heard response any time Donald needed something. But Pa was in a pitiable position. He was completely trapped by his responsibilities to Donald and his own age-related infirmities. There could be no joy in his life… and I think I realized that even then. While he was still able, he’d go up to the 223 Club for a boiler-maker in the afternoon (where he probably saw Dad who probably bought him his drink). As far as I know, that was Pa’s only entertainment. The snapshots I have of him in my mind are usually of him struggling with Donald in the wheelchair or Donald in bed or Donald on the commode. I honestly don’t have any vision of him laughing or even talking much. Many years later, when he was dying in the hospital, is the only time I remember talking to him – really talking to him. He was crying and scared and we connected. I wish I had cared earlier; he was probably worth knowing.

Uncle Donald wasn’t really a person to me; he was his illness. So little of who he had been was left. I was told he’d been smart and handsome, but I hadn’t known him then. To me he was a physically and mentally devastated, but curiously happy, shell of a man in a wheelchair. I suppose I mourned his losses in some superficial or intellectual way (he was only in his early-thirties when he was stricken), but there was no emotional attachment for me to mourn. As in any family with a seriously infirmed person, his mere presence dictated (or, at least, influenced) many life choices for the rest of us.

Before writing this, I looked up the symptoms of lead poisoning, which was what I was told he had, and many other diseases I thought might explain all of his symptoms, but I couldn’t find any such disease or combination of diseases that could sufficiently explain what I saw. I think now that maybe we had exaggerated his apparent losses in cognition. It seems possible his physical deficits (lack of muscle control and strength) could have caused many of the communication problems which led us to believe he was a lot “slower” than he actually was.

He was child-like in many ways, but completely undemanding. He laughed more often than one might expect, but appropriately. He sometimes commented on television shows appropriately too. He was very hard to understand, but I remember his saying, “How’s that guy back on TV? He died last night on Gunsmoke. Now, that can be construed in two ways. He might have been unaware of actors and their roles, but he also might have been making a joke. He did laugh, so I don’t know. With the benefit of hindsight and more knowledge, I fear he might have been in there waiting to be treated as a mentally normal adult. God, I hope not.

My maternal grandfather, Freddie, was the breadwinner for the upstairs family. He worked as a hotel parking garage attendant. He also played poker – sometimes all night. “Did you win last night, Grandpa?” When he won, he always spent some of his winnings on me, so I always asked. He would buy me new shoes or treat me and all the neighborhood kids to ice cream. I loved him. He was a cocky (my father’s assessment) little guy, only five feet tall and on some occasions, a rather dapper dresser. I remember his wearing a fedora… not always, but often. No one else on the block wore a fedora except to church. He probably did feel he had something to prove. He’d only gone to the sixth grade in school and came from a family sprinkled with some real low-life characters and petty criminals. He watched me like a hawk when we visited his brothers and sisters and their families. I was always warned, “Don’t talk to Lonzo and stay away from Billy.” I remember being rather proud of having “outlaw” relatives… strange!

On his days off, Grandpa often loaded me, the two dogs (my dog Max and Grandpa’s miniature collie, Suzie), and as many of my friends as we could cram into his old Dodge, and took us on an adventure. We might go to a city park or to the wilds of the countryside to wade in streams. Needless to say, he was a popular guy with us kids and I was glad he belonged to me.

I loved my mom a lot, but like my father (though for different reasons), she didn’t influence me much in the early years. She had always worked long hours in some factory or other (even before we moved from Broadway), so she wasn’t around as much as my grandmother was. She sort of played the “father figure” to my grandmother’s “mother figure.” Mom was the disciplinarian. She set the rules and the expectations, but Gram was the one I turned to for nurturing.

I know now how much that must have hurt Mom. We did have our good times though. The week-ends were ours – much like the shared-custody situations of today. We’d walk down to Newburgh’s shopping district most Saturday mornings, and she’d always get me new paper dolls or something. I’d never come home empty handed. It was a big deal to her that I have really nice clothes, so we spent hours shopping for them in all the finest stores on the waterfront.

On every other Sunday, Mom, Dad, and I would visit my paternal grandparents or go on a picnic. Grandpa would loan Dad his car, so we’d usually go somewhere and do something. On the other Sundays, Mom and Dad stayed home so Gram and Grandpa could go out. Somebody always had to be home with Donald and Pa, so they took turns. I usually went with Gram and Grandpa on their “free” Sundays, too. Going for a ride was the main entertainment back then. You didn’t necessarily have a destination in mind… you just rode around and maybe stopped for an ice cream.

My upstairs world and my downstairs world were quite different. Though the apartments shared the same basic blueprint – two rooms running railroad style from front to back, then “the little room” and the bathroom, followed by the “back” room and the kitchen. The purposes of some of the rooms in the floor plans were different, though. The upstairs apartment also had an extra teeny-tiny bedroom for Gram and Grandpa over the downstairs hall.

The whole house was only 1,938 square feet, so we’re talking small rooms. I’m guessing the total width of the house was about twenty feet, and only the back room and the kitchen didn’t give up seven feet of space to the hallways and stairwell.

Downstairs, the front room and the next room behind it were combined to make one large living room (13x30 ?) where my parents slept on a sofa-bed. Next in line were the “little room” that served as a walk-in closet and dressing room and a ridiculously small bathroom. Completing the train were the kitchen and my bedroom across the back of the house.

Upstairs, the room in the front was the living room, and behind that was Pa’s and Donald’s bedroom. Next was a room that can only be described as an overflow space. There was a path, just wide enough for a wheel chair to get through; the rest was filled with Gram’s “stuff,” piled nearly to the ceiling.

Gram sewed, knitted, and crocheted, so her “little room” held the sewing machine and fabric and yarn and zippers and buttons and all the things she needed for her projects. There were boxes and bags and tins living in every nook and cranny of the room. Plus, it was the ever-overflowing laundry collection area and the ironing area. Next in line was the dining room. Instead of a bedroom, the upstairs space over my room was used as a dining room. It was the primary living space. Everything happened in the dining room – a room about 11 x 11 – but it was the hub of all family and extracurricular activity. The upstairs was a mess… and somewhat seedy, but the newly renovated downstairs was neat and sparkling clean, thanks to my mother.

Mom was probably the hardest-working, and least “catered to” person in the house. I didn’t sense it then, but I expect her position in this family group was the toughest to manage: with an often-drunk husband, and parents to answer to every step of the way…. I can only imagine the emotional “tug-of-war” she had to have endured sometimes.

While my mother struggled to be number one in my heart, I anointed Gram (by virtue of our circumstances) with the position. It was she who leaned out the window to drop bags of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cookies for me and my friends. It was at her knee that I learned how to read, knit, and sew, and in her kitchen that I learned how to cook and bake. She nursed me when I was sick. She helped with school projects and applied most of the Band-Aids. I was her main job.

But she had lots of other jobs too. She kept the household going; she did the laundry, cooked the meals, cleaned the upstairs (though not very well) and, of course, helped with her brother’s care while trying to sooth or evade the wrath of Pa. Her good humor was the glue that kept us together and on track.

Laughter is, indeed, the best medicine. Our dinnertimes together proved it. As Donald’s health declined and more and more manifestations of his disease became apparent, dinnertime got more and more hilarious. I’m not entirely sure whether we were laughing at him or with him, or if the laughter was a shared mechanism to avoid thinking about his plight. All I know is every time his fork missed his mouth or a spasm sent his food hurling across the room, we laughed.

And the more he laughed, the more out of control his limbs became. An arm might fly up and hit him in the face, or a leg would start ratcheting up. That was the weirdest thing… most of his leg spasms were in slow motion. When that happened, someone (usually Gram because she sat the closest to Donald) had to get his chair away from the table, fast! Otherwise, Donald’s leg would crash on the underside and cause an injury, and some major spillage.

The worst and the funniest was when his seat belt broke and he’d slowly slide down until his chin rested on the table or when a spasm would cause him to slide down until the belt caught him under his armpits. Attempts to stop the slide didn’t work – the chair back was too tall and he was too stiff, making it next to impossible to get a grip on him. So, we’d just sit there and watch him go. Donald found that one particularly funny. But, Pa didn’t. “God-dammit-Donald!” And Pa’s anger would, for some unknown reason, make us laugh even harder.

I know this must sound incredibly mean and insensitive, but family members simply can’t let these kinds of things get them down. Besides, Donald found these situations absolutely hilarious. He was past feeling pain. He could have been injured, I guess, but his body felt nothing. He always had burns in his shirts, because he couldn’t tell when the cigarette fell from his lips. He couldn’t feel it burning him either. Dangerous situation, but Pa was usually on it.

Even on a good day, one without significant spasms, or later when Pa had to feed him, it got pretty messy. But at dinnertime, all hands were on deck, and this finely tuned team could pick up, sweep up and wipe up in record time. My job was to get the broom or the mop, or a rag or a washcloth – whatever I was told to get. When necessary, Dad and Grandpa picked up Donald, belted him in again and re-adjusted the milk bottle (that served as a urinal) hanging from a rope around his waist. Gram cleaned Donald, and Mom cleaned everything else. Pa muttered and drank his tea and smoked his pipe. It was a good system. About that milk bottle… I think there was a time it was shielded from my view by a towel, but after a while, the “modesty” police (Mom and Gram) just gave up. Special efforts were made when company came, however.

It’s amazing what becomes “normal” after a while. It was “normal” for Gram to wash Donald’s bed clothes just about every day. He was often incontinent, or Pa couldn’t get him to the commode in time, and there were no Chux. There were no disposable diapers. Gram had made bed pads from our old blankets and/or rags given to us by friends and neighbors, but the mess didn’t always land on them… or stay on them. So, her old wringer-washer worked a lot of overtime, as did the clothesline.

For the uninitiated, a wringer-washer was a contraption which made doing the wash only slightly easier than beating clothes on a rock! Ours was (I’d guess) a 20-gallon tub on legs, with two parallel rollers suspended over the tub. It had an agitator, a pump, and some hoses like today’s automatics, but there was nothing automatic about the process. First, a user had to fill the tub with a hose from a faucet. Once the tub was filled, soap and dirty clothes were added and the agitator turned on. This part took care of itself, so one could leave for a while. When the laundry was deemed clean, the user turned off the agitator and moved forward to the wringing – my favorite part.

A competent operator would feed a wet item between the slowly moving rollers with one hand and catch the item on the other side and put it in a basket. Wringers worked very well – got all the water out very efficiently, but woe to the user who in her haste allowed her hair or dress or some body part to mingle with the item being wrung. Some readers may have heard the expression “being put through the wringer” or the somewhat indelicate phrase “tit caught in the wringer” and wondered where those sayings came from. They came from doing laundry in the 1940s. So, as a child, I was always the “catcher,” not the “feeder.” I caught the damp clothes and put them in the basket.

Then Gram would hook the big “exit” hose over the rim of the kitchen sink and turn on the pump. Now, this was a little tricky too, because our sink was quite shallow and the water flow was hard – I mean, it gushed, so somebody had to hold the hose in place or it would jump out of the sink and flood the place. Folks devised various means to cope with this problem, but a firm grip on the hose and a finger poised on the “off” switch worked best. Then the whole process had to be repeated to rinse the clothes. It took a long time. To speed things along, some people used the rinse water from the last load to do the next wash.

Anyway, this could be an all day job. I don’t know if folks today are familiar with the kid’s song “This Is the Day We Wash Our Clothes” (probably not), but the song was a literal representation of house-wifely chores. Monday, you wash the clothes; Tuesday, you iron the clothes, etc. And they meant “all day” excepting time out to cook meals and make the beds. Of course, weather played a role as to which days you did what, because you had to hang the clothes out to dry, but otherwise the song was quite accurate.

There were harder times to have lived – using washboards was certainly much more inconvenient, but technology had not yet substantially changed housework. Gram still had an icebox when we first moved… so the ice man “cometh” regularly. I don’t remember having a vacuum cleaner or any electric appliance except a toaster (that didn’t pop up when done) until much later. Lots of burnt toast back then! And lots of dirt!

Nana, my father’s mother, and Bernice, my father’s sister, weren’t members of my First Street family, but they deserve some mention. Nana was the Queen of Clean. She didn’t have any modern conveniences either, but spring and fall cleaning at her house was something to behold. Everything not nailed down was dismantled, moved outside and beaten with something that looked like a wire tennis racket.

Nana, garbed in work clothes and a kerchief wrapped around her head and face, beat the hell out of everything – mattresses, rugs, chairs, couches – nothing escaped her attention. All the walls and woodwork got scrubbed or painted or polished, every knick-knack got washed, every window got squeegeed with ammonia or vinegar, and every floorboard got oiled. During spring cleaning, my Nana, the ever reserved, always well-coiffed, impeccably dressed housewife, turned into a person I hardly recognized. That’s not to say she always seemed “proper” to others… there is a family story about her making bathtub gin during Prohibition.

Aunt Bernice is only ten years older than I, so our relationship wasn’t a typical aunt/niece one. Well, maybe it was in large families, but not in small ones like ours. Anyway, Bernice played the piano and sang. A match made in heaven – at least for me. Every sleep over at Nana’s was spent sitting at the piano. And later, it was Aunt Bernice who introduced me to Tampax. TMI, I guess!

Of course, one doesn’t miss what one never had, so as a kid, I never considered how physically hard life was back then, especially for Gram. Only when one compares the conveniences of today to those of earlier times can one fully comprehend how difficult it must have been to be a caregiver. They had no mechanical lift to transfer Donald from one place to another. There were no visiting nurses, no aides, and no medicine for bedsores that did anything except turn Donald’s butt, and anything that came in contact with it, purple. And I think his wheelchair was an antique even then. But, “normal” is anything you’re used to. The more I think of those days, the more I appreciate them. Living there and then under those circumstances showed me “hard work never killed anyone” and “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”


From her memoir I edited, What Cost, by Judy Axtell, published 2014 by Outskirts Press, available from OP and from and, among others.





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