#9 OF BRASSO & BROWNIES: coming of age in the 60's
Image: Fred Waters
# Cherrygrove Road, Niagara Falls, Canada
It’s daunting to move into a new house and make it yours. A never before lived in house seems more than new as it stands before you, untouched, immaculate, strangely virginal. The difference between new and brand new can be an almost empty hollow feeling. No ghosts live within those walls. No child’s smudged fingerprints have been wiped away.
I was ten years old when we moved into our new house in Niagara Falls. We moved in the spring of 1963, the season of change in what would turn out to be a decade of change. In a house without history it fell to us to write the first page.
Our old house was a two story red brick rental in the part of town where chestnut trees lined the streets. It was a gloomy house inside, made darker still by the ancient maples outside its windows, leafy branches casting ghostly images against the fading floral wallpaper. A dark oak door outside my bedroom led to a musty attic, too scary to think about, let alone explore. When we moved to Cherrywood Acres, a new development on the outskirts of town, only the model home and a handful of new houses bloomed where cherry trees once stood. The paved road wending its way through the tract led nowhere; the sidewalk started and stopped in front of our house which sat on a half acre of hard frozen dirt. From my bedroom window I could see empty lot after empty lot marked off by pieces of red cotton tied to short wooden stakes, stiff little flags heralding the coming of progress.
Our new house was a modern split level, Number Two in the brochure, picked and built to order. An ordinary house really, but I remember my mother poring over paint swatches and samples of floor finishes for weeks before we moved in. I remember her sitting in the murky light of our old living room, agonizing over color choices like champagne, desert sand and pale mushroom. She chose finally a soft ivory for the walls.
On the day we moved in, before the furniture arrived, I sat on the stairs afraid to walk on the finished hardwood floors that gleamed throughout like freshly poured honey. Instead I sank my thumbnail into the pale blonde baseboard, making a tiny x in the soft wood. In the living room the huge floor-to- ceiling picture window let the sun come pouring in. My mother draped it with simple panels of burnt orange and replaced our comfy old chesterfield with a Danish modern couch in a nubbly chocolate brown that shone in the bright sunlight with flecks of some new synthetic miracle fiber. I hated that couch for its sterile lines and uncomfortable contours. Instead I chose to sprawl on the large rug we'd brought with us from Turkey. I could lie there for ages straightening the fringe into ladder-like exactness or tracing the rich pattern of the carpet's flowers and intricate geometric borders, a maze of burgundy and teal and gold. It was where I conducted exotic tea parties, pretending I was Shahrazad out on the oasis, pouring imaginary nectars from a fluted brass jug, measuring out sugar cubes in the shallow bowls of an Arabian brass scale I would slip from its nail on the wall. It was where, cozy in pajamas and dressing gown, my hair curled up in pink sponge rollers, I watched Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color on Sunday nights. And it was where I lay, chin propped in hand, trembling as the Beatles swept me away on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Besides the rug, there were other treasures carried over from the past, souvenirs of places lived in, memories of sights seen. Those were the things I loved the best. Colorful Turkish cups of glazed pottery, blown glass clowns from Italy and my grandmother's Motto-ware jug advising “Do the best you can and leave the results to time.” They all sat in happy disharmony on the built-in shelves that separated the entry hall from the living room.
From Libya, where we'd lived outside the American air force base in the late fifties, there was my mother's prized collection of brass plates etched with camels and palm trees shining down from the walls. Every year the advent of Christmas brought with it the polishing of the brass. My mother would line the Formica kitchen table with newspaper and we'd set to with the Brasso. I loved pouring it on, the pool of creamy gray liquid forming in the center of the plate, spreading it across the surface, taking the clean dry rag and rubbing it down into the grooves of the design until my cloth went black and the brass went milky. My mother would sing along to Doris Day, crooning “Que sera, sera” on the hi-fi.
“Use some elbow grease" she'd admonish between verses, and I'd buff and polish until my arms ached. The brass plates were dazzling when they were done and my mother would stand in the middle of the living room, hands on her hips and announce we should do it more often. Thirty five years later, though she's lived in many other places since, those plates still decorate my mother's wall, a reminder of the places my father too her in their life together.
Since there was no grass, my father and older brother rented the equipment to plant the front lawn themselves; a tiller to ready the soil, a seeder that they took turns pushing along as it scattered an even smattering of seeds, a heavy drum roller to tamp it down. During that first spring my father brought home half a dozen young poplars, wrapped in burlap, on the roof of his car. The sleeves of his white shirt rolled up but his tie still on, he dug deep holes and planted them along the back of the property. In a time of fall out shelters, I think he was comforted by the form of their tubular lines, as if he could mark off our property boundaries with an arsenal of rocket missiles.
The planting done, my father took off on one of his long business trips. It seems to me now that while my father was often gone, my mother was always there. If she wasn't in the garden, she was working inside the house, singing while she cleaned and cooked. Coming home from school I'd find her polishing the floors, applying the thick paste wax from a can and buffing them with the Hoover's polishing attachments or cleaning the picture window with a handful of newspapers and her own mixture of vinegar and water.
In a time when girls still went to school in pretty cotton dresses and boys wore fresh crisp button down shirts, there was always ironing to do. I was allowed to iron the simple things; my father's monogrammed handkerchiefs, the pillowcases, the linen table cloths, the dinner napkins. Although our dad was sometimes away a month or more at a time we three kids and our mother had supper in the dining room every single day. I set the table, proud of my perfect squares of wrinkle free cloth napkins, while my mother dressed for dinner, putting on a fresh dress and a fresh coat of lipstick. Slim and shapely enough to attend a neighbors Halloween party clad in a swathe of pale green sheet, she wouldn't dream of serving dinner without dessert. Blancmange, custard, Boston cream pie, pineapple upside down cake, scones with jam and cream, bread pudding, jelly roll steamed sponge cake with raspberry jam, German chocolate cake, angel food cake, Tapioca and rice pudding. And pies of all kinds. She taught me the secret to mouth melting crust when I was twelve. I like to think pies are still my specialty.
Most of that first spring, while my father was gone, my mother covered the ground with burlap, watered it daily and willed it to grow. It wouldn't and she couldn't understand it. Cherry trees used to flourish there, why not a simple lawn?
By the time my father returned, the lawn still hadn't taken, but I had made a best friend. Trixie lived in a little house on Dorchester Road, the main thoroughfare bordering the development. Our bikes parked in the driveway, we watched as a flatbed truck loaded with sod pulled up to my house. Inside my father stood sentinel at the picture window as the workmen unloaded the big rolls of brown and green and unfurled it across our yard like a carpet. A magic carpet, the lawn took.
Trixie and I spent most of that first summer rambling around the rising neighborhood. The foundations being dug, the cement block basements being built, the wooden skeletons of homes in the making; those were our playhouses. I don't remember seeing the workmen or hearing the din of hammer and nails, saws and drills, but their presence in our booming little development was everywhere. Rows of cement blocks, stacks of lumber, rolls of pink fiberglass insulation were piled beside the works in progress. We'd slide down the dirt hills created from the freshly-dug foundations or run along their high ridges playing king.of the mountain. We explored the dusky basements; narrow shafts of light seeping in through window openings, basements so new they still smelled of the earth and fresh cement mixed together with the dank odor of the mound of feces left by some workman in a corner. Those basements, dank and dark, were the places the growing band of neighborhood kids began to congregate. Fascinated by the cast off girlie magazines left in corners, we painstakingly peeled apart their rain-dampened pages for a peek at this new found underworld. When I was thirteen, my mother would give me a pretty pink booklet called 'On Becoming A Woman' but it was too late; I’d seen it all down in those basements the summer I was eleven.
By the time fall rolled around, our grass was green and our new school was ready. Cherrywood Acres School was as modern as the architectural sketches had promised, and by combining classes, there were enough of us to warrant its opening. It was my last year of elementary school before moving up to Princess Elizabeth and I chafed at having to share our classroom with mere fifth graders.
One cold autumn day the Vice Principal came into our classroom and whispered in our teacher's ear. As Miss Rice's hand flew to her mouth, we knew there was something more at stake than someone's bad behavior, the only reason the vice principal ever came to class. Miss Rice turned on the radio while we sat at our desks, horrified and embarrassed, as the tears fell down her face; a group of Canadian school children and their teacher listening with the world to the news of President Kennedy's death. My eternally singing mother was songless that evening, my father somber in a black tie and armband. I remember waking in the middle of the night to the muted sound of voices. Creeping out of bed and down to the kitchen, I found them sitting in the harsh light, cold cups of tea between them on the little Formica table. It was the first time I saw my father cry.
Houses and neighbors sprouted up around us. The Russell family on our left were the first to put up a real fence. On our right, Tony and Sue were newlyweds who smiled and kissed and barbecued a lot. Behind us, the Watson’s split level was the mirror image of our own. My mother was the one they all came to with their gardening questions. Her roses bloomed alongside the path to the front steps, purple Alyssa flourished in beds lining the driveway. In the spring, tulips, hyacinths and daffodils blossomed under the windows. Each year at the first hint of spring she was out there in the garden everyday; watering, weeding, digging, replanting. A beacon for the coming warm weather, her bare legs were eternally brown in short pink cotton shorts, a sleeveless mens shirt tied at the waist, nothing on her feet, a straw fedora perched on her head to protect her Clairol-endowed red hair. Only love can make you work that hard, and my mother loved her garden.
One night when Trixie was sleeping over, we'd taken over the downstairs den to escape my little sister and what seemed to me to be, my parent’s increasingly prying eyes. I know it was spring because the beds under the windows were alive with red tulips and yellow daffodils. We'd made Jiffy-pop and were in our pj's, listening to records, talking about boys. Trixie, copying a do in a hairstyle magazine, had just finished putting my hair in curlers and slicking curls to my cheeks with Dippity-do styling gel when there was a rattling at the window.
Randy, one of the fifth grade boys, was standing with his bike smack in the middle of my mother's freshly bloomed tulips - the bulbs special-ordered from Holland - calling my name in a loud whisper in the twilight. The front screen door banged open. I could just barely make out my mother's face, her nostrils flaring in the porch light.
“Get away from that window!” she hissed.
I didn’t know if she meant me or Randy but something in her voice, so foreign from her usual singsong, gave me a jolt and I moved back from the window quickly, pulling my dressing gown tight across my chest.
Backing his bike out over her flowers, Randy called out, "I never knew a girl with curlers in her hair could look so pretty," before he sped off into the night.
"Look what he's done to my tulips," my mother said. As if any boy who could trample her flowers simply couldn't be trusted.
"Nice boys don't go skulking around in the dark like common criminals," she added, making sure I got the message.
By the fall Trixie and I had stopped roaming completely. Our worlds moved indoors as a collage of Beatle pictures cut from teen magazines started spreading out on my pretty, pale, pink bedroom wall like a fungus. Even on sunny days we holed up in my room, playing Dave Clark Five and Herman’s Hermits records, poring over fan magazines.
It was a time when paper dolls made way for a touch of mascara, when my collection of Nancy Drew’s was put aside in favor of my mother's copy of Arlene Dahl's Beauty Book. A time when I threw away my stretchy hair bands and begged until my mother had her hairdresser cut my hair just like Twiggy's. A time when I turned up my nose at my plaid skirts and white blouses as mini skirts and poor boys took over my closet as surely as the fab four invaded our musical shores.
In the eighth grade, a high school boy named Laurie moved in across the street. He was from the states; the first boy in our neighborhood to wear shirts with patterns other than stripes or checks, he made Randy look like a kid. We'd talk on the corner after supper, about Hullabaloo and Shindig and the Monkees. One night he confessed he was glad his family had moved to Canada because he didn't want to go to Vietnam. In the arc of the streetlight, I could see he wasn't any older than my own big brother.
By the time we moved, I was almost fifteen. My dad's company were sending him to Puerto Rico. I didn't want to go, didn’t want to leave my friends, my school, but my mother said it was time. Our photos had gone from black and white to color, our music from Patty Paige to the Beatles. Our brand new house had weathered with the harshness of five Canadian winters. Cherrywood Acres had changed too. The empty lots Trixie and I had scampered through were full now, with bungalows, split levels and pseudo-Colonials. The cement block basements had been converted to rec-rooms where we had parties and made out in the dark while our parents chaperoned from a discreet distance, watching television one floor above our heads. The dark clumps of bare earth had been transformed into neatly trimmed lawns where we barbecued in the summer. Some of the neighbors had even planted cherry trees.
When my parents put our house up for sale, the real estate agent ran an ad calling our home immaculate. The description made my mother swell with pride. To me, it stung, as if the lives we'd lived within those walls hadn’t counted. I knew the real estate agent was wrong. Surely beneath the surface sparkle, the house still held traces of Brasso and brownies, of the commingling smells of paste wax and freshly baked apple pie, of lemon oil and cinnamon and sugar on bread, of laundry starch and steam ironed clothes and raspberry sponge cake. If nothing else, there was my x down along the baseboard on the stairs. Somewhere along the line I had gone from girl to young woman here, surely somewhere I had left my mark.
Thanks for taking the time to read this; I'm glad I'm taking some of these old pieces out of their file folders and shaking some of the dust off the pages. If you liked this but are in the mood for fiction, you might like #27 Last Dance. It's a short story but as is often the case with me, it was inspired by my life.