Sunday, October 25, 2015

"Daddy" from HOME IS WHERE...

         First will be Dad. He was born in 1906 and was 38 when he met and married Mom. They met at a camp run by Macy's, where Mom worked. They married on April 11, 1945, and moved in with Grandma Blake. Dad was 39 when he first became a dad. To us three sisters he was the best dad ever, taking us on hikes to the woods, even making me a skating rink because I was afraid of the pond.

         We knew my dad by four different names, but not actually knowing which one was his birth name. To people he was either Ernie, Ernest, Irvin, or Irving.  Many years later we found out that his name was actually Irvin Eugene Blake.

         I inherited from Dad his love of animals. In one bedroom was a closet with his clothes in it, and in the back of the closet there was a brand-new hunting outfit: coat, shirt, pants, never used. He never once went hunting. He said he couldn't bring himself to shoot anything.

         He did, however, go fishing, often taking us with him. We would walk over the tracks to the “ressie” [reservoir] to fish for sunnies. We must have eaten them, but I don't remember.

         Dad would also take us for a walk in the woods. He would stop and pick some berries that tasted just like wintergreen and a root that smelled like root beer. There was a stream by the path to the woods, where we would get a drink of cold water, the best-tasting water ever. Dad would pick a bunch of watercress that grew by the stream and bring it home. It was very peppery.

         Dad the jokester and storyteller would entertain us. One story he told was about going through the woods to the swimming hole when he noticed he was being followed by a ghost. He took off running, and, being tired, he stopped to rest on a log. The ghost, having caught up, sat down and said to him, "Get a good rest, because after this we’re going again." Our eyes would be as big as saucers every time he told the story.

         Dad on Sundays gave us our baths. Before we had indoor running water, the bath would be done in a washtub filled with heated water from the well. In the summer during a rainstorm, he would wash us under the drain spout. Mommy would curl our hair, and Dad would polish our shoes and make our lunch. We would buy lunch if they were selling a favorite.

         On Saturdays, Nancy and I would help Dad do the week’s laundry, hanging it out to dry, and do the housework. He would then get dressed up and walk uptown for a beer with his friends, always home in time to start dinner. One Saturday he came over the hill, with his shirt bloody, glasses broken, scratches on his face, and bruises.

         We ran out to him. “What happened? “ we asked.

         He answered, “You should see the other guy!”

         Three weeks later we found out that, being a little tipsy, as he crossed a narrow bridge over the stream, he fell off into the water.

         On one of his Saturday night trips, when he got home, he decided to make home-made cherry cough medicine from bark from the wild cherry tree. Dad put his material into Mom’s big pots on the stove, and they boiled all afternoon; then he put them in jars to cool. All Nancy and I could think was, oh, boy, can't wait for the first cough! What a surprise at the first taste: nothing like we thought, just awful.

         One Christmas I remember, we were still very young, and unknown to us, Dad had drilled a hole in the floor next to his chair and had the old bells from the horse's sleigh attached to a line and hidden down the hole.  We sat in the big living room, looking out the windows, searching for Santa.

         Dad said, "I think I hear him," and jingled the bells; we knew they came from Santa's sleigh going over our house, and immediately we went to bed. I don't know when we found out what he had done.

                 Daddy used to tell us of his childhood Christmases: always in the stocking was an orange and a penny. I don't remember his saying anything about toys or clothes other than socks and scarves.

         Dad also made us sleighs from the old tin roof, with the tin curled up on the ends. This went like greased lightning down the hill, almost to the railroad.

         After we got a car, Daddy drove it only twice. The second time, he drove it to take Doreen to a friend’s house, but someone ran them off the road. He never drove again.

         Dad was the only male in the house of five women. His only solitude was in the outhouse out back, but we girls would find him even there to ask for candy money or diner money.

         Daddy would give us piggy-back rides up and down the hall. Nancy and I would slide down the stairs on our backsides and run Slinkies down the stairs.

                 I remember one year Mommy wanted wallpaper in the downstairs main hall…and in the living room and in the two bedrooms. This was the old-fashioned wallpaper, with glue you put on with a big brush. We set up a long table in the hall, measured and cut and glued the paper up on the wall. It must have taken forever to do all that. It was up for years.

                 Daddy painted the kitchen every time Mom wanted a new color. Of course, this meant putting floor covering on the kitchen floor. The kitchen was so big, Daddy covered it in three pieces, with metal strips in between. Sometimes we would put holes in the floor with our high heels.

         Daddy had a garden every summer out next to the outhouse. When anyone would ask him what he planted, he would answer, "I've got two rows of tomatoes, two rows of onions, one row of cukes, one row of green beans, one row of squash, and two rows of footprints." This was because Nancy and I were always sneaking things out of the garden to eat, mostly when he would put in radishes and lettuce. We loved his garden. In the front yard one year, he had a really big garden, everything from melons to potatoes and much more. I only think he did this once.

         Dad had no power tools. Even the lawnmower had to be pushed, and the blades went around and around. Doreen was cleaning the blades once, and I pushed it, cutting her finger.

         Dad was an assistant blacksmith on the railroad. When the head blacksmith retired, Dad got his job. This meant he had to pick an assistant. Much thought went into this, and after much discussion with Mom, he made his choice: one of only two black men in town, James Stevens. Dad took much flak for this, but he stood his ground, saying James was the best man for the job.

         When we would head upstairs to Grandma's room, Dad knew there would be no school for us that day. He would ask what was wrong: two bugs and a locus or brown kittens in the Borax? This was his standard joke.

         We could never stay mad at Dad. Mommy worked Saturday nights sometimes, and Nancy, Daddy, Grandma, and I would watch television together, with popcorn and soda. We would argue who would get to sit by Daddy. He, like us, was an early-to-bed, early-to-rise person, in bed by 8 p.m., up at 6 a.m.; he would mow the grass, do the housework, and be on the porch with his Ballantine beer and a can of pork and beans or sauerkraut, eaten right from the can.

         When you looked my father in the eye, there was always a twinkle. He was constantly thinking of jokes to play on us. One of his favorites was to tell us he had a piece of candy in his jacket pocket. We would fall for this over and over again: when we searched in his pocket, we found he had in there one or two baby garter snakes, and we hated snakes.  When we went for the candy, the snakes made us scream, and he would laugh his deep-down-in-his-stomach hardy laugh.

         One man who lived a short distance from us used to call me “Erdie.“ He said I looked just like my dad. I couldn't think of a nicer thing to say, a great compliment.

         One thing about Dad was that he loved a party, a picnic, or just a get- together, and he loved camping. Dad told many stories of his childhood about going to New Paltz by horse and buggy to visit relatives. His dad would announce at night, “Tomorrow, Lizzie is going to The Paltz, so be ready early.”

         If you looked in the dictionary under “Dad,” you would find a photo of our father. He was the best of fathers, and one everyone would want. People were jealous of us for the father we had. He would do anything for you and give you the last dollar he had. In return, he didn’t ask for much, maybe to sit and talk awhile or to go on a walk to the woods with him. One thing I remember and didn’t understand was how he could get the best sunburn just sitting under a shade tree, when we would lie out in the sun and, at best, get a so-so tan. We could not figure this out. 


We are serializing Home is Where the Story Begins: Memoir of a Happy Childhood, by Kathleen Blake Shields.  This exceptional memoir is published by Outskirts Press, and is available from OP and from online booksellers including and in paperback format.

I am proud to have served as Kathy's coach and editor.

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