The rooms in the house I grew up in were used and they were used hard. That’s what happens when you cram eight kids and two adults in a two bedroom, one-bathroom house. The single-story home was built by Grandpa and his three brothers-in-law, none of which had ever hammered a nail. Completed in time for Grandma to birth Dad in the front bedroom it, along with every other room in the house, was worn out before I was born.
The cracked-down-the-middle concrete front porch, sagged toward the dirt road that passed in front of our house. Every time a car drove by, layers of dust billowed our way.
I spent warm days swaying to and fro on the paint-peeled porch swing and counting the number of dusty licks it took to get to the middle of a Tootsie Pop. Due to a severe case of motion sickness on my part, only a limited amount of to and fro-ness was allowed. If a brother or sister wanted the swing to themselves they only needed to give the swing a big push and off I’d go, to tattle to Mom about the unfairness of it all.
The house was built with two front doors within six feet of each other. One entered the living room and one the dining room. Mom declared the living room door should be nailed shut and tugged a bedraggled brown sofa in front of it on the INside. Not the OUTside because only poor white trash did that. Never mind the grimy white chickens roaming through our front yard.
Once a year or so, when Evil Grandmother Nellie came to visit, Mom assigned a kid the task of removing all the books and dusting the shelves of the two bookcases on either side of the fireplace. The last time my sister did it, she found a snake living behind a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. My snake story involves stealing big brothers velvety soft sheepskin coat, stuffing eggs in the pockets, spotting a snake and then face planting on the concrete floor attempting to escape. Turns out sheepskin and cracked eggs don’t go together so well.
For many years the fireplace chimney tilted drunkenly away from the siding. One summer Mom rescued a pregnant cat from “town” because the twenty-two barn cats roaming around weren’t enough. The kitty climbed up, and then down, between the two-by-fours and gave birth to a large litter. Unable to get back out she wailed for hours, until Dad ripped enough exterior boards off to
yank out rescue her and her kittens. The next day, she dragged them all back in again. Immediately upon depositing the last kitten, the cat began her mournful cry.
Which caused Mom to begin her mournful cry. “Lewie, do something!”
His “something” involved pulling down the entire chimney. The cat and her kittens moved on, but the hole in the side of our house stayed.
A table the size of a Plymouth, proudly purchased on long-term credit from the furniture store in town, dominated the dining room. Instead of holding meals, this landing strip held clothing. Hundreds and hundreds of pieces of clothing. In the wee hours of the morning, Mom gathered up the dirty clothes, kept on the floor of our rooms, and when washed and dried, deposited them on the tabletop.
The rules required me to pick out my clothes, fold them and return them to the dresser in my room. That never happened. Once in a while, when evil Grandmother Nellie headed our way, Mom screamed and merrily said, “Clothes Folding Party!”
We kids sat in a semi-circle around the massive table. Mom held up a ragged pair of cut-off jeans. “Mine,” I’d shout. And the shorts would sail my way. By the end of it, my entire wardrobe sat by my side in a teetering tower. Trying to save myself an extra trip (ten steps down the hall) I’d balance the tower in my arms. At least until a little brother did a run-by shove and then,
after I tattled to Mom about the unfairness of it all, I’d haul the pile of clothes to the back bedroom where I would stuff them into the two bottom dresser drawers assigned to me.
The cramped kitchen with its chipped and worn brown linoleum floor was built around an electric stove large enough to feed three families – if both ovens and the burners had ever all worked at once – and it ran almost non-stop. Walking through the doorway I always wished some mouth-watering aroma would engulf me, but Mom was a terrible cook. A pot large enough to bathe a small child in, sat on the biggest burner and just about every meal came from it. Boxes and boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, industrial sized packages of spaghetti and something we called goulash that involved pasta shells and ketchup. An entire childhood of bland food including my favorite, a mayonnaise sandwich, which was served to us when every other item of food in the house had been consumed and there were still two days until payday.
Shoved up against one wall was a formica table designed to serve two comfortably. We managed five at a time, with meals eaten in shifts or not at all. The rickety table sported a set of rusted chrome legs that – due to the frequency of shifting the table right or left every meal, required reattaching a few times each month.
Tired of seeing dirty dishes stacked to the ceiling, Evil Grandmother Nellie purchased a dishwasher for us. Dad never hooked it up permanently so this elephant-sized appliance sat in the middle of the room. For a few months we took the trouble to attach the hose to the kitchen faucet and run the thing, but after a while, the top became a new surface to stack dirty dishes.
In one corner of the kitchen, by the back door, there was a line of crooked nails. Installed to handle Dad’s farm coats the kids eventually commandeered them. Overwhelmed by the number of sweatshirts, jackets and egg-stained sheepskin coats, the poor nails gave up and the coat rack became the coat carpet.
People often ask about our sleeping arrangements with all those kids and only two bedrooms. I imagine there was a lot of shifting as new members of the family were added but I don’t really remember. I do know I shared a bed with my sister and in the corner of our room was a crib where one brother slept until he went to kindergarten. Several brothers slept in the front bedroom and Mom and Dad slept in the living room on … this is where the story peters out. On a sofa? On the floor? Where did Mom and Dad go at night?
Your memories are now roaming around in my head!! And I see you right smack in the middle of it all!!
I like roaming around in your head, it’s pretty cool in there.
I love this description of family chaos – such great snapshots of childhood!
Thanks, Sharon. Your friendship has made it possible for me to grow as a writer. Thank you.
Your story reminds me of a book I read recently. It’s “The Glass Castle.” Here’s the link to it. I think you should write your memories into a book. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000OVLKMM/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?ie=UTF8&btkr=1
What a great compliment, Sally! Thank you. I have read (and re-read) The Glass Castle. I am working up the bravery to write my story in memoir form and am using this blog as practicing my courageous truth. Thank you for the encouragement.
Go for it, girl! You have such a funny bone in your writing it blesses people.
I grew up poor too but our family was only four. My sister and I worked in the fields and had lots of chores around the farm because there were no males except my dad.
Maybe your folks slept on the floor or out on the porch or on a make shift cot.
Even though my parents were liberal, the boys worked the farm and the girls cleaned and cooked. I think the girls got the better end of the deal.
I think we had the same dishwasher. My mother stored cereal and crackers in it.
Storage? Duh. Dawn, your family was obviously more clever than mine.
More great yarns.
Rob McKnight 5259 West 121st Street Overland Park, Kansas 66209-3539 (913) 642-4559 Mobile: (913) 238-6792
Thanks for the compliment, Rob. My dad was a great weaver of yarns. He’d be happy with this.