Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Home Again, Gone Again," Ch. 7 of BUT...AT WHAT COST

“There’s Oma,” I told Randy as we made our way through customs. Our landlady in Germany had established “Oma” as my mother’s title. It stuck. To this day, it is what she is called by everyone in the family.

Randy was being his normal hyper self – pushing and pulling at me and generally being a noisy nuisance. The customs guy at Kennedy International Airport waved us through with hardly a peek. We fought our way to my waiting parents and celebrated. We couldn’t have been happier… or more excited. We would be a family again, at least for a while. Ash was due back in a few days, and we planned to stay with my parents until Ash headed back to school in January. We would be together for Christmas (a really big deal), and only a four-hour ride from home after that.

Ash found us a decent apartment in Endicott about fifteen minutes away from his alma mater, Harpur College (in Binghamton, New York), where he had been readmitted. We furnished it with everybody’s leftovers: Gram’s bed and dresser, Mom and Dad’s kitchen table and chairs, an old couch from someone’s basement. I don’t remember where it all came from, but we had a four-horse trailer crammed full of stuff when we moved in. A four-horse trailer is big; it holds a lot, and we lacked for little. Connie even gave us some of her paintings on burlap. Décor even.

We didn’t have much money, but we decided to have another baby as soon as possible. (Randy was almost three, and we didn’t want to have our kids too far apart.) So, we lived on Spam and eggs and the care packages we brought back from our weekends at home. We managed, but not without a lot of help from Gram and my parents. They were just as anxious to keep our future on track as we were.

Beth was born on December 17th, 1966, in Endicott. She was beautiful… and calm. These two kids couldn’t have been more different. Both were physically precocious (Randy walked – yes, walked, unaided at seven months, one week and Beth at 8 ½ months), but their temperaments were miles apart – from day one. I will allow that some differences are caused by environmental influences, but not these differences in temperament. Granted, I was an experienced mother – an adult, if you will, by the time Beth was born, but excepting the first two weeks or so after Rand’s birth (when I was a lost soul), he was just as thoroughly adored as Beth had been from the start. I didn’t think I’d had enough time to influence, let alone create, such extreme differences in attitude and behaviors.

At that time, the blank-slate theory was fully accepted; the nature/nurture debate had not begun… at least not to my knowledge. My conclusions were based on my personal observations, and Randy had provided many “off the charts” moments. Luckily, I didn’t know how “off the charts” he was at the time, because I didn’t know that many kids until Beth and some friends’ children showed me the normal model. Ashley’s Aunt Trudy (a pediatric nurse) had alluded to his rather extreme behavioral tendencies when she learned I was pregnant with Beth. She had said, “I didn’t think you’d be brave enough to have another baby after having Randy.” But, at the time, it didn’t register, I guess.

As I’ve said before, “normal” is what you’re used to… and I was used to Randy. I was used to his leaving broken lamps and dishes and knick-knacks in his wake. I was used to finding him on top of the refrigerator and making pancakes in the middle of the kitchen floor (with all the correct ingredients), and darting out in front of cars, and having screaming fits when I tried to distract him from his mission or remove him from danger. I simply didn’t know any better. He was Randy.

I know much of this sounds sort of normal, but these weren’t sometimes happenings; they were all-the-time happenings – and done six months or a year before average kids did them. I can remember beating my head against the wall to keep myself from losing it. What made him so difficult, I think, was the gap between his cognitive and physical abilities. According to Dr. Spock, who wrote the baby raising Bible of the era, Rand was only slightly above average in cognitive development, but way beyond average in physical accomplishments and co-ordination. The doctor’s charts didn’t measure “quickness,” but this kid could (and did) change directions in a flash. Everything he did was in fast-forward. He didn’t walk; he ran. He didn’t pick up something; he grabbed it. He didn’t put something down; he threw it across the room. This combination of behavioral tendencies – reckless abandon and unmitigated determination – put him in danger all the time. Randy climbed out of his crib before most kids could stand, but didn’t have anywhere near enough sense at the time to be careful. In the early days, keeping him alive was my only priority.

After a day of observing Randy (and my child-rearing practices with him) Trudy said, “He is one lucky kid having you for a mother. Anybody else might have killed him.” Ah, sweet confirmation from an experienced critic.

Beth was very easy by comparison. What a delight! She just rolled with the punches, cuddled (something Rand seldom did for more than a brief moment), and smiled, and smiled and smiled. She liked Randy despite all the grief he caused her. He’d steal her toy and she’d just go get another. Their adorable big-brother/ little-sister relationship didn’t last forever, but when they were about one and four, it was great. She was barely walking when Rand started dressing her up in a towel-cape to play Robin to his Batman. Beth, of course didn’t really understand her role, but she was game. I’d hear Batman yell, “Robin, get out of the garbage.” (one of her favorite places to explore at the time). She would obey and toddle off after him, and I’d put up the garbage.

I was immersed in motherhood and did little else. I still had no transportation or money or friends. I read a lot, but most of my time was spent marveling at the differences between these two kids. What I observed sent me on a life-long investigation of “why people act the way they do.” The more I read the popular child-rearing “experts,” the more I thought they were wrong. They blamed Mommy for everything from autism to zealotry -without any scientific evidence. It all seemed logical, but to me, most was pure conjecture. Few of their proclamations and little of their “advice” aligned with my personal observations.

Ash graduated from Harpur and we moved to Port Jervis, where he had gotten a job as a chemist in research and development at a cosmetics factory. We rented a nice brick house with an acre of land, installed our battered old furniture, got a horse and a dog and had a beautifully restored, 1952 Aston Martin in the driveway. We certainly presented as Yuppies. (I don’t know if “Yuppy” was a popular term yet, or not, but though we weren’t in an urban setting, we still appeared to fit the other criteria – a young, up and coming professional family.) NOT!

Ash cannot be considered a “typical” anything! And, by association, neither can I. I could easily have fit into a Yuppy culture, if I’d married a Yuppy-type guy. I could have gone in any direction and found a niche, I think. I’m just that kind of person. In fact, I often played the “what if” game – considering what my life might have been as Mrs. Whoever. It’s a fun game and shows how dramatically one’s choices can affect one’s future. Just as surely as Uncle Donald’s illness both limited and prescribed my Grandmother’s choices, Ashley’s atypical personality limited and prescribed mine – not absolutely, but critically. This is true for most people, I think.

Ashley’s getting an Aston Martin had nothing to do with “image” creation. He didn’t care then, and he doesn’t care now, what others think. His was a practical choice. The Triumph was too small for our family, and he found a good car he could make better. When he bought it for four hundred dollars (a new Chevy cost around $2400, then), it didn’t run, needed to be painted, and needed the seats recovered.

He did it all himself, with a little help from his motor-head friends. We used it as our only vehicle for a few years, and he was offered ten thousand for it a few years after that. We still have it in the barn, though – it’s his baby. We’ve never had a new car, and he’s always managed to trade up because he bought worthwhile wrecks and fixed them. Now that I think about it, we’ve never bought a NEW, mechanical anything. He’s always accumulated other people’s junk, and fixed the ailing components – often on the kitchen table. He could fix damn near anything before the computer age, so we never lacked for useful stuff – just “nice” stuff, excepting the cars he drove.

We lived very cheaply, with no pretenses. The lifestyle he was creating for us was not exactly what I’d pictured. I had pictured and hoped for a lifestyle of the Pat and Si variety, his brother and sister-in-law with the “perfect” house and kids, but that was not the direction we seemed to be heading.

Ashley was not a “family man.” In his mind, kids were clearly “woman’s work.” In the mid-to-late sixties, that was the cultural norm; men were the bread-winners, the car-fixers, and the lawn-mowers, and women took care of everything else. The traditional roles were beginning to change, but he was a real hard-ass about tradition, and I was a malleable subject. Few of the dynamics I saw in other marriages existed in ours. Other couples displayed a lot more give-and-take than we did. I had to adjust my wants and needs to suit his MUCH more often than he ever deigned to adjust his to suit mine. Now, I suppose, that’s one of those “eye of the beholder” things, but I have the consensus on my side. Everyone wondered how I put up with his idiosyncrasies. In other words, people noticed that he was different from most. They didn’t dislike him or think he was bad; they just scratched their heads a lot – at both of us, I think.

For example, Ashley had offered to truck a horse that our friend, Connie, wanted to buy. We drove four hours to her farm and followed her to the current owner’s place. Ashley examined the horse, discussed its shortcomings, and told Con she shouldn’t get it. Connie wanted it anyway. He promptly refused to truck it. Who does that? He wasn’t angry; he simply would not be a party to her making a bad deal. That’s how he operates – with anyone, about anything. There are hundreds of such stories. He’ll help any “needy” person, but only if he deems their project worthy of his help. If they are about to make what, in his mind, is a mistake (use the wrong building material, hire the wrong contractor, spend more money than they should, or do something he considers frivolous), he tells them whether he’s asked, or not. Neither is his advice always offered as a suggestion; he will just as often call the advisee an “asshole.”

I need to add a disclaimer here. I mentioned the horse-trucking event to Ash, Con, and Dick and none of them remembered it. Ash said it must have been a dream. So, take it as the truth or a dream. All I can assure is that the story (true or not) is representative of the Ashley I’ve lived with for over fifty years.

Spock was my favorite character in Star Trek; Ashley is my Spock – all opinions are arrived at logically, with little regard to touchy, feely considerations. I guess I got what I wanted, but man, is it hard to live with!

I think our choices at any given time and place are driven much more by our current circumstances than anything else. I learned to upholster furniture because Ashley wouldn’t buy a new couch. To wonder why he said “no” or why I decided to reupholster it myself is not particularly relevant.

Yet, in the late sixties, everybody who could afford it was searching for deeper, hidden meanings for ordinary choices. The days of the advice-mongers had arrived.

Ashley had a tough childhood: the early death of his mother, the entrance of the “evil” stepmother and two younger half-brothers, an aging and mostly absent father, and a dwindling supply of money. His defenders explained his eccentricities by alluding to his childhood. “He’s so frugal because he never had anything,” they’d say. It’s easy to look back and explain just about anything.

Whether such explanations are correct or not is irrelevant. So what! To my mind, there are far too many genetic, cultural, practical, and “of-the-moment” influences on any choice for even the best “expert” to predict what any momentary choice will be. So why bother? There is no legitimate excuse for bad behavior, no matter how deprived or even abused a person might have been.

As brother-in-law Dan once said, “It doesn’t matter why your tire went flat; you just have to fix it.” Likewise, it doesn’t matter why Ash is the way he is; I just had to learn to deal with it, if I chose to stay with him. And I did. 


We are serializing Judy Axtell's memoir, which I edited, now available from etc. and the publisher,
Outskirts Press.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Cell Mates, A Short Story

Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

In the springtime, a young man’s thoughts often turn to baseball, while a young woman is more likely to be thinking of romance.
Eduardo [“Eddie”] Gomez strolled down Highland Avenue with his baseball glove, bat, and ball, thinking about the game his team had almost won. They had lost, but just barely, 4-3. He played well at shortstop, got three hits, but they lost, anyway, to another team made up of eighth-graders like Eddie.

Tess Williams marched up Highland Avenue on this beautiful spring afternoon, with a few things bothering her normally cheerful self: she did not have a boyfriend, her cell phone was out of power, and two guys in a convertible had just driven by and made some wisecracks about her. Would they move on or come back and cause her more grief?

As Eddie and Tess approached each other, they smiled. They were not friends, yet, but were only a grade apart. They knew each other as schoolmates, but not as classmates.

Just then, the guys in the convertible came back and shouted something rude at Tess. Eddie was already about ten yards past her. He frowned and turned around.

“Shall I walk you home?” he asked.

“Yes, I’d like that.”

“We’re they bothering you?”

“A bit.”

“Do you have your cell phone with you, in case you need it?”

“Yes, but the battery is dead.”

“Not good. Not good. I’ve got mine, if we need it.”

The convertible came by a third time, but the two guys were silent. Perhaps they thought that a boy with a baseball bat was not one to be messed with.

“I don’t like this,” Eddie said, “I’m going to call my father.”

“Why? What can he do?”

“He’s on the police force here. He’ll tell us.”

Eddie called his dad and described the situation. Eddie had noticed the kids were drinking something from cans partly hidden in paper bags, and they sounded drunk. His father said not to hang up the phone until he finished walking the girl back to her home.

Just before Tess and Eddie arrived at her house, a police car came up Highland Avenue. The couple did not see where it went.

“This is where I live, Eddie.”

“Nice house. Do you have brothers and sisters?”

“An older brother, Rick, and a younger brother, Tim. How about you?”

“I’m the oldest of three, with two younger sisters.”

“Would you like to come in for something to drink?”

“Not this time. I’m expected at home soon. Why don’t you give me your cell phone number and I’ll give you mine?”

“Good idea.” They exchanged phone numbers and said good-bye.

That evening, Tess excitedly told her parents about Eddie and the kids in the convertible.

Mr. Williams added, “I know Eddie’s father. Good man. I just saw him an hour ago. I wondered why there was a cop car with its flashing lights and a convertible pulled over on Highland Avenue when I came home. I saw Sergeant Gomez talking to two guys in the car. Now I get it.”

“Eddie walked me home. Very nice. I like his looks.”

“Handsome is as handsome does,” her mother said. “You’re welcome to invite him here some time, if you want to.”

“Maybe he’ll ask me on a date.”

“Take your time, young lady. Slow but steady wins the race. What will be, will be.” Her father was in no rush to have Tess start dating.

That night, Tess entered a few sentences about Eddie into her diary. She noted that she and he were more than just schoolmates, they had exchanged cell phone numbers and were now “cell mates.” [Mr. W. would not have liked that term.]

Tess hoped for more. Eddie did, too.


One of our series of 50 instructive short stories for young readers.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Rich Men, Poor Men," Ch. 5, Axtell Memoir BUT...AT WHAT COST

It was a story-book meeting. My friend from work loved to ride horses. I had a car, so I drove her to the hack stable and rode, though not very well, with her. A half-hour after my first riding experience began, my horse ran away with me and the tall, handsome college man working there galloped up from behind and delivered me from certain death! What a start to a relationship! Then, he said, “How in heck (or maybe hell) did you let this horse get away from you?” So much for romance … the man has not one romantic cell in his body… but he did have some other qualities I immediately recognized. And, as they say, the rest is history – at this writing, fifty-two years of history.

He showed up at my door the next day, so I guess something had sparked in him too. I don’t know how he found out where I lived, but there he was. I asked him many years later what the attraction was and he said, “You had very good manners.”  Good manners?  Anyway, the chase was on. We were inseparable… and he did have a bit of the “romantic” in him during the courtship. Not much, mind you, but a little.

I had never met anyone like Ashley before… or since, for that matter. I know I said previously that my childhood experiences dictated my future beliefs… and they did to some extent, but Ashley (for better or worse) provided (actively and passively) most of the finishing touches. We started out with very similar values. We both have somewhat rigid convictions about right and wrong, but our convictions were not prescribed by religious dogma. We are atheists (or agnostics), and dismissive of dogma in general. If anyone can be honest to a fault, he is. I see many more gray areas than he does, but our underlying “truths” are the same. He NEVER lies – I will skew the truth a little to save hurt feelings, but both of us are ethical in the extreme… and always have been. This has been both a blessing and a curse for me. His honesty and his strict sense of “rightness” (almost to the point of self-righteousness) were both an attraction and a problem – especially when we had kids… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Dating Ashley deposited me into a wholly different kind of culture – a culture of the rich. Ash denied their wealth, and to him, they probably weren’t; however, to me, they were definitely of a different “class”… and something to be reckoned with! Sure, I had met educated “rich” people before, but never as an insider. His father, Silas Blake (SB), was a big time lawyer in NYC… and terrified me. When it first got around to him that we were dating, my parents received an invitation (issued more like a command) to appear at his home in Staten Island to discuss the futures of the children. “We wouldn’t want them to quit school and become common laborers,” he warned.

Ashley let my parents off the hook, but I felt obligated to obey. Maybe obligated isn’t the right word. In some ways, I was excited to comply. Prior to our going, I had received a large packet in the mail. It contained newspaper and magazine articles about his Supreme Court cases, his family’s history – notable achievements, and famous characters in his life…  it was a large packet! I was duly impressed, but appalled by his arrogance.

I was right to be afraid of the much-anticipated meeting; it was an inquisition. Upon our arrival, SB sent Ash off on an errand and told me to have a seat on the veranda by the pool. I could appreciate his concerns. Ashley had married previously at eighteen and that marriage had been annulled when he was twenty. Then, at twenty-one, he appeared to be ready to leap again. Yes, I understood SB’s concerns, but I found his manner quite deplorable. His wife, Betty, Ashley’s stepmother, tried to rescue me by offering some experimentation with an Ouija board… (WHAT?) Anyway, she said not to worry because nobody paid any attention to SB. (Where in heck was Ashley?!) For some unknown reason SB decided to quiz me on horticulture. I guessed I would pass the inspection only if I could name all the plants in the garden. There weren’t any roses or daisies, so I was cooked! I didn’t fare much better on any other topics he chose either. If he had asked about jazz artists and their music, I might have had a chance, but the words of the Kenyon College fight song were not in my repertoire.

I was eighteen when I arrived on that veranda… and at least twenty-five when we left. I learned a lot… I learned what wisteria looks like. I learned SB was “eccentric” and Betty was “crazy.”  And I learned I needed to save Ashley from this freak show. It back-fired, SB! I think you wanted to show me I wasn’t good enough, but instead, you showed me I was.

I had already met two of Ashley’s three older brothers and his two younger half-brothers. Hal (a lawyer), his wife Barbara (a teacher), and their daughter were a typical up-and-coming family. Ash had lived with them his junior and senior years of high school in Washingtonville, NY. Hal was a little scary; Barb, not at all. 

Dan and his wife, Sue, were the most welcoming. They were relatively poor and not at all intimidating. They lived in a small trailer on some of the farm property, and Ashley lived alone in the (unheated) farmhouse at that time. “The Farm,” as it was called, was 200 acres on Drury Lane, about seven miles from Washingtonville. The house, built in the late 1700s with an addition built in the 1870s, was quite run-down when I first saw it in 1960. I’m sure it must have been very beautiful when SB first bought it in the 1920s before the Crash, but by the time I saw it, the house was in major disrepair: the tennis court was unusable, the barns and out-buildings were losing boards and possibly their foundations, and the fields and riding trails were mostly overgrown. The glory days were definitely gone. 

As I learned later, SB barely survived the Crash, but fared much better than many of his colleagues. I’m told he took a couple of them in at the farm where they played “gentlemen farmers.”  The family has home films from that era, so I did get to see “the lifestyles of the rich and famous at the farm.”

None of the “names” SB dropped to impress me then would be recognizable now (to any but historians), but he did run for Congress in NYC, went on a diplomatic mission to meet Stalin, and was generally surrounded by the Who’s Who crowd. Neither was Ashley’s mother’s family a bunch of slouches. Not that my family were slouches, but I had NEVER met any people with these kinds of credentials. 

Ashley’s mother, Ellen, was an M.D., but didn’t practice medicine. Her aunt, however, had. Dr. Mary went to med school at Stanford, worked as a medical examiner in San Francisco, and then worked as a milliner to save enough money to start her own practice in NYC in 1903. She was an original suffragette and most of the pictures we have of her show her on a soap box… or at one or the other of society’s best costume balls. She, among others, initiated the law that eliminated the word “bastard” from birth certificates; only a birth mother’s maiden name was to be listed, so no stigma would attach to the child. Good for you, Dr. Mary!

Female doctors were nearly unheard of back then… yeah, she was quite the character! And quite the example – an example Ellen followed until she married SB and started a family.

From all accounts, Ellen was a wonderful mother – the perfect and necessary foil to SB’s brusqueness and eccentricities. But she died when Ash was six. Amo (Ellen’s mother) stepped in to raise the boys. She, too, was wonderful… but SB was a lot to overcome.

All agree Ashley suffered the most from his mother’s absence; he just didn’t have her long enough… and once crazy Betty arrived on the scene, he was a forgotten child, left to raise himself. Well, not completely; he lived with neighbors for a while and lived with friends in Mexico for a year or so when he was twelve. I don’t know many of the particulars because Ash doesn’t talk about those years much – certainly not enough for me to figure out the sequence of events. I do know Aunt Trudy (Ellen’s sister) wanted to raise him when Ellen died, but SB refused. I get the feeling he was shuffled around a lot and didn’t really have a place to call home.

There is no doubt in my mind: loneliness was the main reason he married so young. He loved Joan, to be sure, but he needed a family, and the Tuthills provided him one.  My mother warned me that might still be true. Ashley was brilliant and extremely competent in every chosen endeavor, but he was emotionally needy and too quick to anger. Watch out, Judy.

I had one more brother to meet – the eldest, ten years older than Ash. We were invited to Thanksgiving dinner. I didn’t know what to expect… another SB? A Hal? Or maybe a Dan? I didn’t trust Ashley’s assessment of anyone in his family. His take, at that time, was usually quite different from mine, so when he assured me I had nothing to fear, I didn’t entirely believe him.

Wow, what a house! It was a big old colonial surrounded by bigger and older trees. It was beautiful – even then at the end of November. As Ashley parked the car, he said, “They bought this as a fixer-upper. Si is doing all the work himself.” I was impressed. Every tidbit I learned about this family impressed me. I checked my hair one last time and hoped my little black dress was appropriate for the occasion. Butterflies fluttered wildly.

The door was pulled open as we stepped on the porch and a smiling Si greeted us warmly, “Come on in. You must be Judy…  Blah, blah, blah… This is Patty. Blah, blah.”  I muddled through the introductions with a frozen grin and a seemingly empty brain.

That done, I relaxed a bit and shadowed Ashley through the hall and into the living room. The inside of the house was as beautiful as the outside – straight out of Country Living Magazine. Well-oiled antiques dotted the rooms. It was like a museum, but cleaner and friendlier. Everything was perfect – a perfect house with two perfect parents and three perfect children. Even Patty’s apron was pristine. I figured food wouldn’t dare splatter on it.

The usual Thanksgiving hustle and bustle swallowed most of my discomfort. I listened and watched and on occasion spoke, but I never strayed far from Ashley’s side until it was time for dinner. We were seated at opposite ends of the longest table I’d ever seen. I forget how many people were there, but we all fit without touching elbows. Each place setting had too many forks, too many spoons, and too many sparkling glasses. Amazing. They were only in their early thirties. How in the world had they accumulated so much stuff? Auctions!

Bowl after bowl after bowl was passed around and I politely took a sampling of everything except the boiled onions. I don’t remember whom I sat between, but I guess I must have made polite conversation with them… that is, until I tried the green bean casserole. I had a mouthful of it, when I detected onion. I gagged. Oh my God. Oh my God. Please don’t let me throw up. Pleeease don’t throw up! Swallow; you’ve got to swallow! 

I couldn’t. This glutinous half-chewed mass lay in my mouth with nowhere to go. This can’t be happening… I pretended to sneeze and blew the blob into my napkin. My eyes were watering and I was still choking, but all seemed oblivious. I should have known – they had perfect manners too. The rest of the meal dragged on. All I could think about was how to get rid of my puke-filled napkin. God, could this get any worse? Well, it could have, I guess, but it didn’t. Between dinner and dessert, while they were busing the table, I escaped to the bathroom with napkin in hand. I scraped it clean; problem solved!

As often happens during dessert, everyone relaxed. Ties were loosened; jackets came off and postures slumped. The table wasn’t perfect anymore; it was filled with crumbs and spots of wine and gravy and cranberry sauce. Finally – a scene I could relate to. All formality was gone and conversations… well, they got more real too. I was starting to enjoy myself. I liked hearing about the problems and costs of house reconstructions from Si, and labor negotiations from Hal, and kids’ stories and SB stories. It was great… and it got even better. Barb went to the piano and said, “Come on, let’s sing some Christmas songs.” I was there in a flash. I was at home.    

Nothing in my nearly two years of college strikes me as being anywhere near as influential as meeting the Axtell clan. I was terrible at chemistry (slide rule and math difficulties), barely okay at history and good at everything else. The history professor once said, “You didn’t provide many historical facts or connections, but you wrote it so well, I passed you.”  So, seeing the writing on the wall, I changed from a medical lab tech major to an English major. The switch would require an extra two years of college, but it turned out not to matter. I got pregnant, quit school, married Ashley and moved to California in December, 1962. By then, Ashley had quit school to join the Army. There was a draft lottery at the time, so in order to be able to choose his MOS (military occupational specialty), he had enlisted rather than take his chances with the draft.

SB had died by then… otherwise, I doubt Ash would have been allowed to marry me. SB would have found a way – or at least tried to find a way to break us up. Hal offered an “out” (abortion, I guess), but Ash was, and is, an honorable man. Abortion was never considered by either of us. It was illegal, but available… and if I were a believer, I’d thank God every day we never considered it a reasonable “choice”!    

The older I get and the more society changes its rules and expectations, the more I treasure having lived in the good old days – a sure sign of advancing age. I enjoy the flights back – they are fond memories and they supply a perspective younger people don’t have or apparently want. That’s why I am writing this… I want to lend some added perspective to my grandchildren. They, after all, are growing up in a society in which college graduates believe they NEED to go to baby-bathing classes before their babies arrive. How did this happen? There’s a self-proclaimed “expert” waiting to give advice about darn near everything now. 

Astonishing…especially to those of us who have witnessed the accomplishments of folks left to solve life’s ordinary problems on their own. 


Judy Axtell's memoir has been published by Outskirts Press. It is available in paperback from OP, from, and

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Work is Love Made Real, A Short Story

Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

Father’s Day was coming. Mother’s Day at the Williams’s house had been sweet. What to do for Dad? The kids conspired.

“I’ll give him breakfast in bed,” said Tess.

“I’ll wash his car, “ said Rick.

“What can I do?” asked Tim.

“You could buy him a present,” Tess suggested.

“What does he want?” Neither Tess nor Rick had an answer to Tim’s question.

Rick said, “You’ll sign your name to the card we bought.”

Tim thought, that’s good but not enough. I want to do something special for him.

Mr. W. was out, working. Tim asked his mother. She suggested Tim mow the lawn for Dad. It would save his father the trouble of mowing on that week-end. He would enjoy taking a nap while Tim did the job his father usually handled.

“Will that be enough?”

“Yes, dear. Quite enough. It will show him you care, you appreciate him. He spends long hours away from the family, works hard, and goes out at some odd times, being an Emergency Medical Services specialist with the Fire Department. I wish he did not have to work so hard, but I thank him for it and so do the people he helps. I know he loves his family and he loves his job, so I fully understood him when he told me, ‘Work is love made real.’”

Dad received breakfast in bed, a touching card, a cleaned car, and a restful nap on a happy Father’s Day he never forgot.

One of our 50 instructive short stories, primarily for young readers.

Monday, November 17, 2014

KIDNAPPED TWICE, A Memoir by Seaman and Cooper



“The Lovely Shall be Choosers” is the title of a Robert Frost poem that tells of the unhappy life of a woman born beautiful. Our Kidnapped Twice is a somewhat similar story, a memoir of a woman born both well-off and pretty, whose early life so shaped what came afterward that only her exceptional strength of character saved her. Even now she is in some jeopardy.

I met Mary Seaman (her maiden name) after she answered the ad I had placed in our local, rural weekly newspaper. The ad offered to help you “tell your story,” write your memoir. Having written one myself– Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage, and Devotion– I knew how to do it, if not expertly, and how to get it published, though not for free. Mary had a life story worth telling; it was a match.

We met Friday afternoons for about two years. We discussed the book and we discussed her life; then Mary went home and wrote, writing longhand in two composition books we exchanged each week. I would read into my computer what she had written, do a minimum of editing, and return the book to her the following Friday, when she would give me the other composition book with her week’s new writing. Thus, using high-tech and low-tech, we got the memoir written, and Mary insisted I be listed as her co-author, giving me more credit than I deserve.

Originally, we jokingly named the book How Not to Live Your Life, as it tells how rotten early years shaped her mistaken middle years, which warped her later years. Only recently has she had a less clouded view of her past than when she started to write. Now nearly bankrupt, living on a farm under difficult conditions, she nonetheless perseveres, doing what needs to be done, enjoying her cats and her wildlife, keeping afloat so far.

If “the unexamined life is not worth living,” then examining where one has been and what one has done can add value even to very disappointing previous years. Such insight gives hope that one’s future can be better than one’s past. Where there is life, there is hope. Where there is hope, there is life.

For you, our readers, Mary and I wish that you will find this memoir interesting, informative, even at times entertaining.


You can contact us at:

Douglas Winslow Cooper, Ph.D.

264 East Drive

Walden, NY 12586

The memoir is available from and from its publisher Outskirts Press.

Until 30 November, free pdf efile of book will be sent to you by email on request.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Growing Pains and Gains," Ch. 4 of Memoir BUT...AT WHAT COST

My parents and I moved out to Hilltop Avenue in the suburbs of Newburgh when I was fourteen. Dad’s demons had disappeared (without therapy). We had a car and I (I’m ashamed to say) wanted to move. The old neighborhood was getting worse. A boy across the street was stalking me. To this day, I don’t know if he was dangerous or not, but he was creepy and I was afraid. There was also a new family around the corner – “the red-head” and her two teen-aged daughters. “Red,” it seemed, spent most of her time hanging out her window yelling in the foulest language possible.

I was in 9th grade then, and my circle of friends had changed from the daughters of laborers from the neighborhood to the daughters of professionals I’d met in junior high. I was embarrassed to let them see where I lived. I’m not proud of my selfishness, but I was a teenager with all those teenage drives to “fit in” with my new group.

As soon as I was in junior high, I had started distancing myself from the kids in the neighborhood. It wasn’t a purposeful divorce; it was a gradual separation caused by new exposures and my expanding interests and opportunities. I found new friends, and they provided experiences I’d never had before: an Easter sunrise service at West Point, Broadway shows, museums, and homes with maids. I sometimes got the feeling I was a pet project. I don’t know if I was or not, but these new families certainly expanded my horizons… and made me want to leave the old neighborhood.

My grandparents’ situation hadn’t changed – they had a new washing machine, but they needed as much help as ever. Our moving wasn’t good for them, but it was good for us – especially me. We remained “on call” and new downstairs tenants agreed to help – for money, of course. So, it was okay, I guess, but I really didn’t think about it much. I barely looked back. Life was great on Hilltop Ave. I finally got to know my parents, as parents. It was different; they and not my grandparents were “in charge.” Part of my revelations about them was a product of my coming of age, but I started to learn who they were, and about their dreams and expectations, when we moved. Dad was quite a thinker. We talked about books, religion (he was an atheist), and his music. He was a devotee of jazz, had acquired a huge collection of records, and knew darn near everything there was to know about jazz artists. Music filled the house – always.

My mom was not an “academic” thinker; she was a doer, a very savvy judge of character, and quite the enforcer of her expectations for me. She put me to work at the bobby pin factory where she worked, the summer I turned seventeen. She was determined to make sure I would want to go to college. It worked. Throwing hairpins up a chute for eight hours a day would not be an ambition of mine.

I worked beside another teen. Mary was sixteen and pregnant and we packed hairpins, not bobby pins. Believe me, there’s a difference. Bobby pins have a blob of lacquer on the ends of each pincer; hairpins do not. Hairpins are not pinched together; they are “u” shaped, made from skinnier wire, and are deadly sharp! Unlike a bobby pin, they can draw blood and drive up under your fingernails. (My mother must have been a closet sadist.) God, it was awful. Yeah, we had gloves, but there was not a glove in the world (or at least at the bobby pin factory) that allowed dexterity AND protected your fingers! The solid masses of intertwined little needles were delivered to us in huge drums. Our job was to separate them and pack them in boxes. The mechanism wasn’t very high-tech. It was an eight-foot slanted chute with a catch wire strung about half way up. Ideally, the hairpins would be caught by the wire on their way back down the chute and complete their journey to the packer. We took turns. One would throw and the other would pack until the thrower was ready to collapse; then we’d switch. My mother made her point… and my arms were well-toned by summer’s end.

I got a job at an ice-cream shop after that. Much better! Having been told my parents couldn’t afford to pay for my education, I got a part-time job as a waitress and worked twenty hours a week my senior year. “Thank you, Mr. Johnson!” He arranged all his teen workers’ schedules around our school commitments, so we were able to do it all! I was a busy, busy girl. I sang in three choral groups and sometimes with a small jazz combo and a quartet. I was a cheerleader too. I don’t know where I found the time. Well, one way I found time was to get up really early on school days to do homework. After football season, I usually had Sundays free too. In the fall, I cheered on Saturdays, so worked on Sundays, but after that, I worked on Saturdays and had Sundays free. I could do homework, practice with one group or another (or on my own), and date – whatever.

I was no longer a church-goer. That too, had freed a lot of time. I had stopped going to church when we moved… and never looked back. I was already an atheist, but NOT because my father was. My dad had been admonished by Mom to keep his mouth shut about God and religion – I was to make up my own mind. And I did (thanks, Mom). I had started doubting (without Dad’s pointing the way) when I was about twelve and a regular church-goer. Before moving, I went to Sunday school and youth group, sang in the choir and often went to Sunday dinner at the minister’s house. Church activities took-up the whole day, but by the time I was thirteen, these activities were more social than religious to me.

Remember my obsession with explaining inconsistencies? Well, I think that’s what made me an atheist. It’s a part of me that’s always been there… from “they’re riding ponies because the horses are sick” to “why would God let the children suffer?” Simplistic example, but nothing in the Bible ever made sense to me except as an allegory. I think some people just can’t “believe” – and I’m one of them. My brain won’t let me accept inconsistencies in logic. Neither could my dad’s. Genetic? Maybe. All I know is once I knew reindeer couldn’t fly, Santa couldn’t fit down the chimney, and there were too many kids in the world for him to visit in one night, I stopped believing in Santa Claus… and God, as a creator and a “hands on” manipulator of events seemed just as unlikely to me.

That is not to say all people who “believe” are illogical… they’re not; but, “believing” seems to require a willingness to accept facts not in evidence… and I can’t do that. Everything I “believe” MUST fit with everything else I “believe” – I don’t compartmentalize my beliefs; life is a big puzzle and each piece has to connect for the big picture to make sense.

Besides, some things are admittedly beyond my comprehension – God or the big bang? I can’t get my mind around either. Infinity is another concept I can’t quite get… or Einstein’s theory of relativity. Sure, I can define them, but can any brain actually conceive of something without an edge? For me there’s always that nagging perception that something must be on the “other side” of infinity. Maybe that makes me an agnostic more than an atheist, but I don’t think it’s possible for any human to fully comprehend the idea of God. I immediately think, Well, who created God? Another God? How? Where from? And on it goes. There are always more questions to be answered. So I settled on, “Who knows?”

I think the main events and experiences in my teen years that most influenced my beliefs were my employment at the bobby pin factory and singing with the band. At the time, it was just life – nothing notable or obviously important happened, but both experiences helped dictate my future world-views.

I, of course, had met many different “types” of people in junior high. I had been to the bobby pin factory quite often too, so “colored” people weren’t unknown to me. There was no hint of prejudice in me or any of my family except my father’s stepfather. He was pretty bad, but I can’t say I noticed at the time. It was not something I thought about… it was 1959 in Newburgh, New York, and no white person I knew (except Grandpa Newsome) thought about race. If they did, it certainly wasn’t a big topic of conversation.

The colored people I knew were just like me. I didn’t see any differences between their hopes and desires and mine. The women at the factory were a diverse group ethnically, but not economically that I could see. Most everybody was struggling… working hard to make as much money as they could. Most were on piecework, so they barely raised their heads! Mary, my 16-year-old, pregnant, colored co-worker and I were not paid by the pieces produced; we made a dollar an hour (thank God, because we weren’t very fast). I don’t remember Mary very well, but we got along and I recall having a baby shower for her at work (my mom’s idea). Looking back, it strikes me that race didn’t seem to matter at all – not to me or anybody else. Obviously, my recollections speak to my extreme naiveté! Or maybe not.

When I joined the band, I learned about racism… before that, I swear, I barely knew it existed… the clear results of being a self-centered, ignorant teenager! It took love (and conversation) to open my eyes… AND BOY, did they open! Within weeks of meeting Rod (the drummer, a college man, and colored), I became pretty much obsessed with racial inequality! I had asked him, quite innocently, why he always dressed so nicely. The guy was always in khakis and a button-down shirt. He said, “I have to look better to be treated the same.” He added that he didn’t swear, spoke perfect English and went out of his way to be accepted by white people… because he had to, to get ahead.

I was outraged he had to feel that way… and from that moment on was determined to make things right. My grandfather became a pariah to me… I hardly spoke to him. I fought with anyone who told a bad joke or said anything remotely racial, but, and this is a really big “but”, there were not very many overtly racist people in my circle of acquaintances. I don’t remember any incidents, but apparently, it doesn’t take very many incidents for one to presume there are racists everywhere when you are the brunt of it… or love somebody who is the brunt of it.

Anyway, I was on board… and set out to befriend every colored person I met. I cared! It’s embarrassing to think about how irrationally I behaved. Sometimes, I fear I was downright obsequious, not to those whom were already friends… but with strangers? Yeah, I think I was pretty phony! My heart was in the right place, but I made allowances for colored people I never would have made for white people who behaved badly.

Later, during the riots (in the sixties), I purposely went down to the dangerous part of town to prove I was in no danger from the rioters. Before that, of course, I was in no danger… I used to sing with some of these same people every morning in the auditorium at school. I had performed at benefits where I was one of nine or ten white people in a gathering of two or three hundred… but that was before… before the crime rates and violence soared. Race relationships in the North took a dive in the sixties. Some good things happened legally, but socially – well, not so much! It was a very turbulent time.

Had I not personally witnessed these social changes, I’m quite sure my political beliefs would have evolved very differently. I have a perspective that people only five years younger than I can’t have. They can’t because they weren’t there for the “before and after” comparisons. I was, and those experiences weigh heavily on my conclusions about race relations in America today. I’ll have much more to say about all of that later, but now, I must get back to my life as an eighteen-year-old.

My grandfather, Freddie, died at the end of my senior year of high school. My grandfather’s death affected me deeply; it was a wonder I managed to pass my final exams. It was sudden and emotionally devastating for all of us… not to mention the practical and logistical problems his death brought. Gram gave me Grandpa’s car, so I was able to stay with her when my mother couldn’t. Mom didn’t drive (not that unusual, back then), but I did, so with the two cars, we were all able to go to work and school and help Gram with her grief and with Pa and Uncle Donald. Her friends and neighbors helped too. The rest of that year is a blur. Pa got sicker, was hospitalized and died. I don’t remember when exactly, but sometime, in early ’61. Shortly after Pa died, Donald went in a nursing home and Gram came to live with us.

I couldn’t attend college immediately after graduation because I hadn’t saved enough money, but I worked full-time for a semester and managed to start in January, 1961. I lived at home and commuted to school. It was only the local junior college, but my family was very proud of me. I had done it and was the first in our whole family to have done it, AND, meanwhile, I had met the man I would marry.


From Judy Axtell's memoir, What Cost, being serialized here, published by Outskirts Press, and available through OP,, and other sites.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

How to Get Luckier

"Some people have all the luck." You've heard this said, and there is some truth to it. Not "dumb luck," not pure chance, but fortunate outcomes.

You cannot raise your chances in roulette or the lottery, but you can improve your fortune in life, by following principles described in Prof. Richard Wiseman's book, THE LUCK FACTOR, The Four Essential Principles: create and be alert to opportunities, be optimistic, follow your intuition, rebound from set-backs resiliently.

I discuss the book more at

Monday, November 10, 2014

Massage Message, A Short Story

Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

“Hi, Mom, how was your day?”

“Fine, Rick, yours?”

“Good, except I have a lot of homework. I’ll be back downstairs for dinner.”


It was the end of a week in May, the Friday before Mother’s Day, nearing the end of Mom’s long nine months of teaching middle school kids. Mrs. Williams was tired. Her feet were tired. Worse, her feet hurt. When your feet hurt, you can’t ignore them. What she needed– wanted anyway– was a foot massage…not the kind of thing you can easily get from your son who is a junior in high school. Even if you got it, how good would it be?

“Hi, Mom.”

“Hi, Tim. How’s everything?”


Tim wandered off. Mrs. W. did not even mention her tired feet to Tim. How good a foot massage could a fourth-grade boy give?

“Hi, dear. How was your day?” Her husband inquired as he came in.

“Fine, honey. Yours?”

“OK. I’m tired. I’ll take a nap before dinner.”

Mr. W. headed for their bedroom, removing another possible foot massager from consideration.

“Hi, Mom.”

“Hi, Tess. What’s up?”

“Nothing much.”

“Are you busy?”

“Not really.”

Things were looking up for Mom. She might be able to get a foot massage if she played her cards right.

“Would you like to earn a little extra money?”


“Massaging my aching feet.”

We will not go into the details of the rest of their conversation. A price was agreed upon, lotion obtained, feet massaged, relaxation achieved, a daughter enriched and a mother’s aches relieved.

“You’re looking relaxed,” Mr. W. said to his wife, coming into the living room after his nap.


“What’s your secret?”

“Tess’s foot massage. Excellent.”

Mom brought Dad up to speed on the deal she arranged with Tess.

“Next time you need one, please ask me. I’ll be happy to do it,” Mr. W. gallantly offered.

“Tess gave me a bargain price,” she teased.

“I’ll do even better.”

“How much will you ask?”

“Just a kiss…and my services will be free on Mother’s Day.”

That Mother’s Day Sunday, Mrs. Williams did get her massage, Mr. Williams got his kiss, even though he did not require one, and each got the other’s message.

One of our series of 50 instructive stories about life in small-town America.


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.