Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Beginning: Gramma, Tasha Tudor, & Me

The summer when I was 3 years old was momentous for several reasons. We were living in a little yellow bungalow on Orchard Street in Budd Lake, a tiny village in northwestern New Jersey whose population quadrupled every summer between the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Orchard Street was a long block away from the highway that skirted the largest natural lake in the state, and in those days, cottages and boarding-houses like the Quicks’ big house next to ours would be filled up by city folks from New York, Trenton and Newark (always pronounced “Noork”; New-ark is a city in Delaware).

But that long block from the lake took you to another realm entirely, of mostly small one-family houses on either side of a narrow macadamed street lined with gnarled old apple trees. Once the daddies left for work by 8 am on weekdays, that street was empty enough for the kids to wander across and up and down it at will, even one as little as I was, until the dads came home around 5 pm. Oh, there’d be the occasional repairman, Fuller Brush man, insurance salesman, cleaners delivery truck, and on Saturdays, Dugan’s bakery van, but everybody knew their schedules, even me.

In late May, when the apple trees were still in bloom, my maternal grandmother, Abigail Jones Dangler, arrived for her annual two-month visit. Gramma was my best beloved, the kind of grandmother who wore flowered housedresses under bibbed aprons in soft pastels, those clunky-heeled black lace-up old ladies’ shoes you never see anymore, topped by a cloud of wavy white hair. She had exquisite skin, deep-set multicolored eyes behind her thick glasses, a clear flexible voice and told the best stories in the entire galaxy. She was also blind.

We hadn’t lived there very long, and as soon as she realized that I could talk plainly, she decided that I was going to be her “eyes” to help her learn her way around. She never had a Seeing-Eye dog. In those days, guide dogs were always German Shepherds, and the family felt that she was too old and frail to manage one, there weren’t many of them—and I somehow suspect that some of my aunts and uncles weren’t prepared to deal with either a large dog or the larger mobility a guide dog would give her. After all, like my mother, Gramma had more than six times the normal amount of energy; her blindness curtailed it to bearable limits for her less energetic offspring.

Her training meant that I had to increase my vocabulary, especially adjectives, comparatives and contrastive words, like "bigger/smaller," "wider/narrower," know my colors and numbers and directions, as in “Go left three steps so you can pick up the green bowl.” I had to learn to observe details in order to describe something clearly enough for her to accurately visualize it in her mind’s eye. One of her fears was always of stumbling over something and falling, which is why I learned at an early age to pick up my toys when I was finished playing on the floor and to push in chairs.

My reward was in wonderful stories and music!

Welsh dresser; ours had 2 drawers apiece under
the top shelf & below the top, & 2 doors.
One morning, as she was putting away breakfast dishes in the bottom of the sideboard (really more of a Welsh dresser) in the dining-room (the kitchen was too narrow to eat in, and dishes weren’t kept in the summer kitchen at the back), I asked her to tell me a story.

“I hae tae earn ma keep,” she said firmly. If I was proud of helping her, she was proud of still being able to do some light tasks as her contribution to the household.

She is the only person I’ve ever known whose eyes really did change color with her mood. Usually, they were a faded brown. When she was angry, they became green. Sorrow  made them look like dark brown velvet. Joy lightened them to almost gold. And in her fey moods—and she could be very uncanny—they would be all those colors mingled together, thinly rimmed about with grey-blue.

When she turned her head in my direction that morning, I saw that her eyes were green with irritation.

Gramma always felt that the best start to her day was for someone to read her a Bible chapter…and once again, to her frustration, no one had had the time. She never had access to Braille or Talking Books, either, and while she had huge chunks of the Bible memorized, it wasn’t the same.

But then I saw her eyes begin to gleam; if we’d been in a cartoon, I would’ve seen a light bulb go on over her head. She sat back on her heels, and asked, “Hoo wad you like tae hae stories whenever you wanted, and no’ be dependent on ithers tae tellt them tae you at their convenience? Hoo wad you like tae learn tae read?”

Oh, BOY!

I was very curious about this mysterious grown-up activity my family enjoyed so much. It was unusual in the 50s for a preschooler to learn reading, although my family didn’t know that. Jeff had learned at four. Mother often said that learning to read for her was like learning to breathe.

Tasha Tudor & Corgi in her garden
Gramma consulted with her, and Mother took her shopping. They came home with an alphabet book, A Is for Annabelle, by Tasha Tudor[1], who also charmingly illustrated it in pen-and-ink and watercolors, with lovely borders. They also brought home an 8” Betsy McCall[2] doll; Gramma chose it because its knees bent, reminding her of the little wooden doll she had played with 70 yrs before, in the 1880s. I would immediately name her Abigail in Gramma's honor--athough later, whenever I dressed her in modern clothes, she went by various names as she portrayed different characters in whatever story I was playng. I was never a character in the stories, just providing voices, costume changes and movement.

This pink-covered book was just the right size for a little girl to hold!

A is for Annabelle, Grandmother’s doll, it began, with the first half of each rhyme on the left-hand page, and a bordered illustration of each thing on the right. Gramma, who learned the whole thing in no time flat, would recite it, and have me “write” each letter, upper and lower case, with my forefinger on her palm, to be sure I was on the right page.

Just to reinforce this, out of a big carton decorated inside to look like Annabelle’s bedroom, was the doll; that box (B is her box on the chest in the hall) and a doll’s suitcase containing every single item named in the rhymes, and at first I was only allowed to handle them during our lesson times. The rest of the time they stayed on top of Mother’s carved black hope chest in the playroom, which was Gramma's room when she visited. (We didn’t have a hall).

Annabelle was a 19th Century French fashion doll that with her wardrobe had been passed down in Miss Tudor’s family. In the time she was made, such dolls were used by fashion houses to advertise new designs for adults; they would be sent overseas to merchants who would display them for their customers to order full-sized replicas made to wear themselves. Judging by the illustrations of

            D are the dresses we want her to wear,

she dates from the mid-19th Century. My doll’s dresses were just like them, down to the full skirts over flounced petticoats, pantalettes, and with inset lace undersleeves. Later, when I was 9, Mother would give me a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, showing the same kind of dresses.
 In Annabelle’s book and the doll’s suitcase, I remember that

            M is her muff, so warm and so cozy

was a scrap of soft brown fur sewn into a muff on a blue ribbon, and that

            N is her nosegay, a bright, fragrant posy

was the hardest line for me to say without getting my tongue twisted. You try saying that fast three times, and see how you do! It was a tiny cluster of felt-petaled flowers, tied with a narrow strip of lacy ribbon.

            P is her parasol, all trimmed with lace

\was one of those little umbrellas used in fancy tropical drinks. Although it didn’t have any lace, you could open and shut it.

I loved

Similar to Abigail's but with no footposts
& dowels between the headposts
--& she had nicer bedding!
             Q is the quilt at the foot of her bed 

because Daddy made the bed from a cigar box with six round wooden clothespin tops for the feet and bedposts, with thin dowels between them creating the headboard. Mother covered the mattress (a block of foam) with the narrowest ticking I’ve ever seen, and sheets hemmed with impossibly tiny stitches, covered by a wee crazy quilt she and Granny pieced, a tiny bolster pillow with a matching frill, and a bed-skirt with an embroidered lamb on it, reminiscent of the blue lamb quilt on my own bed.

            For T is her tippet, the latest from France,

Mother knitted a white mohair shoulder wrap. When I was in college and she sent me my first formal gown, she included a tippet just like it—like wearing a white cloud!—that I still have.

            U’s her umbrella was a tiny plastic one, from an insurance company ad campaign.

            W’s her watch to tell her the time was a clock charm about the size of a dime.

            Y is the yarn her stockings to mend was echoed in a wee basket about the size of a large walnut filled with miniature skeins of very fine wool and embroidery floss, and a pair of knitting needles Daddy must have carved down from toothpicks.

   Z is her zither, and this is the end,

and there was a tiny wooden zither, strung with thread, very much like the one I had, complete with tiny music-sheets.

But of course that wasn’t the end. Very soon I was reading it for myself. Gramma started me on Proverbs, then Psalms, and then simplified versions of Old and New Testament stories, most of which I already knew from her.
I was so blessed to receive the great gift of literacy from Tasha Tudor and my granny. A Is for Annabelle was just the beginning!....

This is not Abigail, although she did have
fair hair like this doll. The zither's right, though.

[1] Tasha Tudor (1915-2008), American writer, illustrator and gardener. Her work spans 70 yrs! She also made wonderful dollhouses; I have a book about them.
[2] Betsy McCall dolls had their origin in the paper dolls in McCall’s women’s magazine. Mine was made by the Ideal company.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Dad's Terrible, Tragic Trouser Day

It's almost Father's Day, and summer family vacations, so here is a personal/family tale about my father, C. Richard Jacob.

 I always sat behind the driver.
See the USA
in a Chevrolet;
is waiting for you to call....

That was a hit single of Dinah Shore's the year before this happened, and it became our theme song that summer, especially because we had a new red Chevie station wagon.

When I was eight, my parents said I was old enough to go on vacation trips. The year before, my parents and older brother had gone all the way to the Grand Canyon, while I spent that time at my aunt Abbie's in Dansville, NY. I loved my favorite aunt and her family, but I'd never been separated from mine before, so I was very excited to be allowed to go too this time.

Mother loved traveling, maintaining that vacation trips would be educational and fun, and give us wonderful  family memories. Less interested, Dad said that the only way we could afford it would be to go camping, and to his surprise, she agreed. At once my father the Life Scout got enthused, and after some discussion,  they purchased an umbrella tent, air mattresses (that never worked after the first try at inflating them), a Coleman lantern, a portable gas cooker whose top folded down into a metal box, sleeping-bags, and for each of us grey sweatshirts. Down in the dirt-floored cellar at his workbench, Dad constructed a big box, partitioned it off in cubbyholes and plate-slots, hinged a door so it could serve as a work surface, and painted the outside red. This would be Mother’s equivilant of a chuck-wagon, he said, for her to fix our chow off the back of the station wagon at our campsites, just like the pioneer women did when they went West in a covered wagon. Mother stowed away a set of nesting aluminum cookware, a new set of plastic dishes, and utensils, and showed me my own little messkit and a clever little set of knife-fork-and-spoon that fastened together. I could also use them when the Brownies had campouts, but I would get to use it first Out West.

Jeff prepared for the trip by asking if he could have the old cooler that they had just replaced with a bigger one. Its chief flaw was that the lid sometimes came open at the wrong time. He wanted to be sure he had a supply of Coca-Cola out there in the wilderness, and he said that just being in the car we wouldn’t need to worry as much about the lid. After some debate, Daddy sold it to him for a dollar, cautioning him that he would have to pay for the coke and ice himself. “But I’ll carry it downstairs and put it in the car. It’s too heavy for you,” Dad said.

At the time, we lived in a second-floor apartment on Mountain Avenue in Hackettstown, with a bedroom on the third floor for Jeff. To go out, one either went out the apartment's front door and down the front steps and out the front door, (a route discouraged by the landlady, Mrs. Saunders, who was not too thrilled at having to rent  to a family with two kids and a dog), or took the back way.

That involved going out the kitchen door onto a narrow landing, turning sharply left and down a steep flight of steps covered in red-and-white linoleum to another even narrower landing, and another sharp turn to go down another flight that ended at a landing barely large enough for the outside door to open in on the left, and the cellar door to open on the right, down a few steps.

We took Frisky, Jeff's mostly black beagle/fox terrier  to be boarded at the vet, since our little dog got carsick if he even looked at the car, let alone got into it, and the next morning, were up bright and early to Pack Up. 

Daddy had already worked out where everything would go, had installed a rack on top of the station wagon, and was intent on checking his list of tools and gear and roping everything on it into place under a tarp; Jeff was supposed to help. Mother, still dazed from working until three a.m. as "night-owl" at the Dairy and having only a couple hours of sleep, was making beds, doing last-minute packing, washing breakfast dishes, sorting out groceries, answering my questions, and a multitude of other things. I was making sure that my favorite Ginny and Jill dolls and some new books were in the back of the station wagon, in easy reach of my part of the back seat, and observing everyone else.

That was why I was the only one who saw Jeff pick up his cooler. Daddy was outside, and Mother was looking for the first-aid kit. At fourteen, my brother was still very short and thin, and it was heavy with the icecubes and green glass bottles of Coke.

“Daddy said he’d do it,” I reminded him.

“Dad doesn’t approve of it,” Jeff answered. “He thinks it’s sinful or something.”
“He thinks it’s a waste. Everything in moderation,” I quoted, my arms full of a small suitcase of doll-clothes and three dolls.

He said stubbornly, “We’re going Out West. Remember how Maverick almost died of thirst in the desert on TV last week? I’m going to Be Prepared. Now get out of the way. It’s mine and I’m taking it.”

I gazed at him in awed admiration; I had never imagined that he would think of future dangers, just like a grownup. So I went down the steps to the middle landing, and turned to watch his progress.

Jeff did fine maneuvering through the kitchen doorway. But somehow he tripped on the linoleum on the top step, and fell forward. The heavy cooler went straight down, coasting on the edges of the steps, carrying my brother with it on his front—because he wasn’t letting go. The lid came open. I shrank  against the corner walls as their momentum carried them past me and around to the next flight, hurtling down to the landing just as Daddy was coming up out of the cellar. He was knocked backwards, landing on his behind on a dirt floor rapidly turning into mud, thanks to spilled Coke and ice.

The entire stairway was littered with broken glass and ice-cubes, awash in fizzing brown liquid…and some blood.

Mother bandaged Jeff’s cuts and soothed his bruised chin, cleaned up the steps,and tried to mollify Dad, who was not pleased about having to change into a different pair of chinos after he unroped the suitcase they were in from the rack. We were going to be Behind Schedule and were off to a Bad Start, he grumbled.

Finally we were all packed and in the car…and waited while Dad ran upstairs to use the bathroom one more time, in what would become part of the departing ritual of every vacation trip.

Jeff sulked on his side, and I excitedly watched the scenery for a long time, being quiet so Mother could try to nap while we were in familiar territory. Two hours later, she and Daddy changed places, and she drove. Bored with scenery,  I got down into the footspace in the back seat behind the driver’s side to play with my doll. This was before carseats and seatbelts, so no one thought anything of it. This was a warm new place to play, with a funny smell to it that I soon hardly noticed.

But after a while, I stood up and leaned over the seat. “Daddy, can I have a drink of water?” I wasn’t going to tell him that my stomach didn’t feel good, after being farmed out to my aunt’s family the year before, left out on the ridiculous grounds that it was too far and I was too little to go with them, and I wasn’t going to risk being sent home at that stage.

“Dick, did you give her that Dramamine?” Mother asked. “I think I forgot to, with all the fuss. There’s some in the glovebox.”

No, he hadn’t, and I had forgotten to ask for it. So Daddy got out a tablet, and took out his jackknife to cut it in half for my dose, put the rest away, and told me to hand him the thermos.

One of the camping things they had gotten was a metal carrier that had two long curved handles that fit over the back of the front seat; it had a place on either end for two big thermoses, and a rectangular part in the middle under a hinged lid for sandwiches and fruit and napkins. The whole thing was a cheeful red plaid. I wasn’t allowed to try pouring out from the thermos, so handed it to Daddy, who took off the top and unscrewed the stopper.

Jeff and I always had contests to see who could take a pill with the least amount of water. Mother didn’t care, as long as we swallowed whatever the medicine was, but Daddy was of the school that believed in washing it down with  at least a cupful if not more, so he filled up the red cap and handed it to me.

I sipped and tried to hand it back.

“Drink it up,” he said.

“But my stomach doesn’t feel good,” I told him. It really didn’t.

“DRINK IT ALL UP!” he commanded in the running-out-of-patience-so-no-backtalk-young-lady tone.

 I did.

 We went over a bump, and all the water, the Dramamine, and my breakfast were whoopsed right out of me and into Daddy’s lap, since I was still leaning over the seat.

 I was in tears, Daddy was using bad language, Jeff got smacked for laughing, and Mother pulled over and hunted out another pair of pants. Daddy changed behind a bush.

It was very quiet for a long time.

Mother and Dad had changed places again, and he grumbled when he saw a detour sign. He grumbled more as we drove along a recently-blacktopped road, with little pebbles pinging against the bottom of the car. “I just washed it,” he complained, “and now it’s going to have tar all over it!”

Suddenly there was a jolt and a hissing sound. Dad pulled over. “Flat tire! Damn it, what else today?”

“Dick, mind your language in front of the children,” Mother said. “Jeffrey, help your father.”

“Can I help too?” I asked.

“No, sit still,” she said.

 Jeff got out, and I pouted. My brother never wanted to help Dad; I was Daddy’s little girl, so I always did. It didn’t seem fair. I craned out the window on Jeff’s side to watch them change the right front tire.

Dad was moving awkwardly, trying not to get any tar on his pants while he squatted down on his heels. Jeff was at the back.

“All right, Jeff, give me the spare,” he said.

For the first, and last, time in his life, my unathletic brother actually hit something he was aiming at—the tire rolled straight and true, hitting Dad on the shoulder and knocking him off balance and onto his fanny into a sticky black puddle.

Once again in disgrace, Jeff climbed into the back seat while I hurriedly retreated to my side, and once again Dad unroped the rack to get at a suitcase to dig out a fresh pair—this time of shorts.

More quiet time passed, until Mother suggested that we stop and have some lunch. That was a good idea, so we pulled over on a nice stretch. Dad spread out the thick blue tarp that he normally draped over the seats when we were in wet bathing-suits. Mother, Jeff, and I sat on that while Dad stretched out on a soft green bank. Having eaten a hard-bolied egg, two sandwiches, a banana and three cookies, he was drinking some milk from the other thermos when he suddenly shot to his feet. The bank was crawling with ticks!

Poker-faced, brown eyes dancing, Mother dug out his swim-trunks and held them out to him behind the bush he had gone to.

“Don’t I have any pants?”

“You were the one who rationed out how much space we’d have for clothes,” said my mother, who hated using laundromats. “You insisted that we’d only need enough outfits for a week, and that you’d pack for yourself. I can’t find any more, except for your good suit trousers for church or in case we go out for a nice meal. I don’t know what we’ll do if anything else happens to you!”

“It isn’t as if I was doing all this on purpose, damn it!” he snarled, snatching them from her.

 Once changed into his trunks and hip-length red beach cover-up, and on our way, Dad’s temper improved, and he even joked that he’d have a headstart on the rest of us if we saw a good lake for a swim.

Partway through the afternoon, we stopped at a gas station to fill up the tank. Somewhat embarrassed by his attire, but reminding himself that after all we were on vacation, Dad got out to surpervise the attendant. He always got out to do that, even if it was twenty below in the teeth of a howling blizzard. I never knew why. Jeff made a beeline for a Coke machine he spotted, and Mother and I headed for the ladies’ room.

When we emerged, the car was parked over to one side, Jeff was happily drinking his Coke, and Daddy was nowhere in sight. Mother paused. “Where’s your father?”

“Went inside to get ice cream,” said Jeff, who was peculiar in his dislike of a treat the rest of us loved.

“Go help him carry them, dear,” Mother said to me.

I didn’t need to be told twice. Inside, I didn’t see him, and when I shyly asked the lady behind a desk, she gestured to a side door into one of the repair bays. Wrinking up my nose at the garage-smell of gas, oil, paint, rubber and other smells, I entered. In front of me was a sleek, unusual-looking car, and lovingly painting a fender was a young man in grease-stained overalls, talking unintelligible car-talk with Dad, who was sitting on a green bench that matched the car. Ignoring the ice cream dripping over his fingers from one chocolate and two strawberry cones, he was leaning forward, staring at the car with the rapt, slightly fatuous expression of a mother gazing at her firstborn child.

Dad's Dream: 1923 Cord Roadster. He wanted a red and white one.

“Daddy? The cones’re melting.”

He hushed me and didn’t seem to notice when I took the two strawberry ones. I took hers to Mother, and she returned with me to retrieve Daddy.

“Dick? Honey, we need to get going if we’re going to make it to the campground. They won’t hold our reservation past midnight,” she reminded him. "At the rate we're going...."

“Look at it, Dot! A 1923 Cord!” he said reverently. “If I’d had the money when I was young, that’s the car I would’ve gotten, only I wanted a red-and-white one! He’s restoring it.”

“That’s nice, dear. We need to go.”

 She prodded him out of the garage. As we walked to the car, he was telling me about them. Mother lagged behind a couple of steps, daintily licking at an errant stream of melting ice cream.

 Then she dissolved into peals of laughter.

 We turned around and looked at her, almost doubled over, in imminent danger of losing her cone.  

“Dottie? What’s so funny? C’mon, Dot, let us in on the joke,” said Dad, grinning because she was so convulsed.

 Tears were pouring down her face; she flapped one hand at us. It was several moments before she was able to gasp out, “Look—look behind you!”

 We turned and looked at the gas station, then back at her, mystified. Jeff was grinning.

“No, look—look at your—your—“

 I moved away from them and looked. I started to giggle too. “Daddy, look at your swimtrunks!” I said.

 He twisted; the back of his dark blue trunks were striped with fresh green paint.

Mother always maintained that the real reason we got lost and arrived late at the campsite was because Daddy didn’t want anyone to see him putting up the tent in his pajama pants in daylight....

May all vacationing dads have smoother times!