Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Work Boots

One of my earliest memories was waking up to the sound of Dad’s work boots clumping across the kitchen floor, accompanied by the comforting sound of percolating coffee. I was probably four years old. I grew accustomed to those sounds until I was old enough to leave home. Dad was a morning person – even on weekends he’d get up at the regular time to get the morning paper and a second cup of coffee. In my teen years Dad and I grew silent as Mom was not a morning person and in my Dad’s words came out of the bedroom with the “wounded elk” look. Mom didn’t warm up until she’d had her first cup of tea and a cigarette, followed by the oatmeal Dad made every morning (I refused to eat it), a piece of toast and fried eggs with wiry edges.

Dad worked in the Bremerton ship yards during the Second World War and prior to that, worked on tugboats. When he left the Bremerton ship yards he worked in various boat yards on Lake Union including Blanchards. His life and his work revolved around ships as did his paintings of tug boats and square-riggers with full sail on storm-tossed seas. Growing up we always had a dory or a skiff – I never learned to swim but loved to row around the bay owned by my grandparents in the 1950s (today the property is owned by my grandparent’s descendants – that’s another long story). Though it would have been impossible to fall out of the boat I was not allowed to row out of the bay unless I wore a heavy life-jacket. That life-jacket remains to this day a symbol of helplessness and a sense of being “different”. Everyone in the family learned to swim except me. As I reflect upon those days I believe that ancient life-jacket would not have saved my life anyway, it would have carried me to the bottom of the bay.

When President John F. Kennedy was shot we were living in Edmonds. After listening to the familiar scuffle of Dad’s work boots I was called upstairs to watch the morning news. In my somewhat over-protected world I found it hard to believe that such events could happen. My grandmother (the feisty grandmother who immigrated to America in the early 1900s) loved Kennedy and clipped out a photo of John F. Kennedy and Jackie – it was scotch-taped to the kitchen wall until it yellowed so much it wasn’t recognizable.

Before we moved to Edmonds we lived in Ballard on West 63rd Street. I’ve tried to locate that house in vain; the streets/houses have changed so much that finding it was a wild goose-chase. This was during the nuclear fall-out nightmare scenarios – in school we endured drills where we crouched under our wooden desks in a vain attempt to survive the potential doom. This made me anxious as it did many of the other children. My neighborhood pal, Alan, and I created what we believed to be “safer” hiding places, secret niches carved out of walls of blackberry behind an old shed.

A couple of other circumstances caused me to have a nervous breakdown when I was eight. Perhaps my nervous disposition started when I was about six – perhaps I was simply born “sensitive” as they used to say in those days. Mom had a nervous disposition and often took sedatives and long naps. Like me, she had a lot of fears and like me; she was born at the wrong time.

Born in the early 1900s she was a natural “beauty” and the most popular girl in Whitefish Montana where she was raised. Grandpa worked for the Great Northern Railroad in the round-house until he retired. Grandma was known for her victory garden and her canning abilities, skills that I never acquired or desired. Mom was an only child, I’m an only child and my daughter is an only child (we are approaching the end of our gene pool but that may be more blessing than a curse). When grandpa met my grandmother he proposed with these words, “Anna, I don’t have much to offer you but my hands will work for you the rest of our lives”. She accepted.

Mom married the first time after knowing her husband to-be only two weeks. They met at a dance in Troy, Montana. Troy and his dad operated a gold-mine (I have no inkling of where that mine would have been located). I have photographs of Mom standing near the mine, boot-deep in snow and stunningly beautiful. Mom’s husband went by the name of “Spud”, I don’t know his real name except his last name was “White”. Spud was good-looking – they made a handsome pair. Unfortunately Spud was no-good and would rather spend time at the dance hall and with other women than be at home with Mom. When she became pregnant she had an abortion because she knew he was “no good” and in those days she wouldn’t have been able to provide for a child on her own. Getting an abortion in those days wasn’t talked about in polite society; abortions were shameful and kept hidden. As for me, I was – and am still sad that I don’t have a half-brother as I hated being an only child. She’d been pregnant long enough she knew the fetus was a boy. I don’t know whether or not Spud ever knew. Over time Spud grew belligerent and mean – beating her up when he felt she needed it. She left him and moved to Seattle to work as a secretary at The Seattle Post Intelligencer. That’s where she met Dad but that’s a story I’ll talk about later.

I never got to know either of my grandfathers. Grandpa on Mom’s side didn’t like children or at least, they made him irritable and edgy. I barely remember him except as a curmudgeon sitting in their Whitefish house scowling over a newspaper or smoking a pipe. I was a little afraid of him he was so dour (it turns out he had good reason to be). Since grandpa worked for The Great Northern Mom had a lifetime pass to ride the railroad without cost. I believe Dad and I were also allowed to ride free but am not certain of that. I do remember riding on the train from Seattle to Montana to visit the grandparents when I was very small. I loved riding on the train (I still do). The seats were plusher than they are today and in those days the black porters were kind and gentle with children (who knows how those black porters really felt in the 1940s?). I even remember eating in the dining cars with their tablecloths and roses in vases and linen napkins. Once the Kootenai River flooded the tracks and we had to wait on the train until the river receded. It was spooky sitting on the railroad tracks surrounded by brown water; perhaps that’s where my lifelong nightmares about drowning began to occur. Then, the slow lurch of the train, as it finally began to move again through the standing water.

Sometime during that period I woke up in my grandparent’s house in darkness and saw Mom standing behind the woodstove weeping and sobbing. She was wearing a long white nightgown but I could make her out. I kept asking her why she was crying; she never told me or if she did, I’ve forgotten.

For reasons I will never know Mom grew afraid of being alone at night. When Dad got a night-shift job she had such a difficult time with her phobia that unbeknownst to me came up with a plan that changed my life. She went back to work as a stenographer (that’s what they called them in the 1940s) and booked a room at the YWCA (Dad was working nights). She didn’t know what to do with me (I’m assuming that she could not take me with her to the “Y”) so she took me on the train to visit the grandparents in Montana. Here, my memory falters but I know that I went into shock of some kind when I was told that Mom had gone back to Seattle without telling me. Later in life, Mom told me she thought she was being “kind” by not telling me she was leaving because I had grown so attached to her.

According to grandma I went into an immediate asthma attack (they thought it was a cold at the time) and had such a sense of loss (and fear) that I could barely function. Grandpa was trying to quit smoking and was extremely irritable and Grandma did the best she could. There’s much I don’t remember about those terrible days but I remember sitting on the floor in their living room and being allowed to play with grandma’s “button” box and cutting out paper dolls.

There is a photograph that grandma took of me standing in their garden; I am wearing a knitted scarf and trying to hide my face. I remember the sun was shining in my eyes so brightly that it hurt and did cover my eyes as the shutter clicked. In another photo from that time Grandpa and I are standing on a huge dump of snow left over from winter; I don’t look happy, neither does Grandpa. I also remember walking to the dime store in Whitefish with Grandma; something set me off and I had a tantrum. Grandma took me home and washed out my mouth with soap, a normal procedure in those times.

Eventually (the dates are lost) the three of us were reunited and we returned to the little house in Ballard. I remember my 8th birthday but not my 7th.

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