Choate’s Hill Holiday
I lay wistfully, wrapped like a mummy, with layers of woolen blankets and protected by piles of pillows that pressed in on me to limit me, to protect me. The house creaked, its window panes chattered like a fearful old man drawn by a siren’s beguiling plea, come to me, come to me. I pulled the blankets up high realizing it wasn’t a siren’s plea but the pee-pot beckoning from the end of my bed. But I resisted the call. I wasn’t ready to leave my nest, my sanctuary. I was enveloped in total darkness, but surrounded by love and I felt happy. I was almost willing to believe we had a home on Choate’s hill.
There was a comforting ritual to mornings on Choate’s hill. It began with whispered voices from beyond the open bedroom doors, as the boys divvied up the morning chores and candle light danced on the hallway ceiling like fireflies on a damp June night.
Like the Three Stooges, Norman, Willard and Charlie tried to descend the staircase without making it squeak, and this morning, like every other morning they failed in their pursuit. I giggled as Charlie cursed louder than the squeak and Willard louder still said, ‘Shut up’.
In unison, I felt the front door at the foot of the staircase close and heard the clank of the woodstove being kindled in the kitchen. I heard mom’s voice drift soothingly up the stairs and the clicking of the grandfather clock in the parlor, tick, tock, tick…
“Delia, Delia, wake up.” I opened my eyes slowly; they were heavy with sleep and a dream I didn’t want to wake from. Get up ‘Dell’ it’s time to get ready for school. I begrudgingly crawled out from under my fortress of woolen blankets and pillows as mom said, “Breakfast is ready, and you need to get ready for school.
“But it’s snowing, hard.” I murmured. As the back of mom’s gray dress disappeared beyond the door.
Jackie said, “Stop muttering.” As she carefully placed her clothes on her bed. Next to Jackie, the room’s tarnished kerosene lantern smoked like a magic lantern that the genie got stuck in. And Peg, being Peg, turned to wink at me, concealing from Jackie the hint of blush she put on her cheeks. Mom would be appalled.
I could hear commotion downstairs as my brothers, the stooges, horsed around. Norman was trying to settle the younger boys down but they wouldn’t hear of it. Willard and Charlie were arguing. They just liked to argue any point at all.
Freddy stood in my doorway, cute as a bug’s ear, and smiled at me, I patted my bed and he leapt through the air, landing beside me, and we hugged a good morning hug. Mom would say that Freddy, with his curly brown hair and sparkling green eyes, was a handful, but dad would just smirk when mom regaled him with Freddy’s antics. Mom said it was because Freddy reminded dad of himself. But I think Freddy was me, that is if I were a boy.
Most of the time mom wouldn’t make us walk to school on days it snowed this hard. But most of the time dad was around to influence her decision. Mom wouldn’t say where dad was, maybe she didn’t know. But the house was cold, the coal for the coal stove was almost gone, and mom was hoarding the last of it for January, that’s when it got really cold. The heat from the cookstove in the kitchen, never reached much further than the parlor, and we didn’t light the fireplace in the parlor because the chimney was dangerous.
The floor in front of the hearth was rotting as rainwater would trickle down the chimney when the wind blew rain from the North. Dad was supposed to have fixed the chimney and mom kept reminding him of that, with sayings like, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” Mom knew a thousand of those sayings. And I’m sure that dad had heard them all, more frequently than he wanted. But that was dad. My dad was tall and slender with hardened skin and rough hands. His overalls were always dirty from the field or fixing machinery, and there were always two things in his pockets, a pack of cigarettes, that he tried to keep secret from mom, and sweets that he handed out liberally, even to mom.
Whenever we had to move, mom made sure she had two things, her kids and our family pictures. On Choates Hill, our family pictures were in the parlor and hung on the back of the staircase wall. Each picture marked a moment and a place we lived. Sometimes we lived in a place for just a few months. The last picture of us all together was in Chicopee. We lived there for more than a year with dad working at the mill. In the picture, Mom and Dad were like bookends with the three oldest boys in the back trying to look important, and the four girls in front, beaming in our Sunday dresses. Mom held her hands forcefully holding Freddy in place, trying to keep him from fidgeting or fleeing. Dad lost his job at the mill and we left Chicopee shortly after that picture. Mae, the oldest, stayed to work as a maid for the rich people that owned property in town.
To the right of that picture, and before the most recent family picture in front of the South Bridgton Church, was a large rip in the flowered wallpaper. That rip could have represented Lawrence Massachusetts or Biddeford Maine. We had lived in both places for a short while before dad said, “It’s time that we made tracks and skedaddle.” We never had much money, few did in the 1930s. So, we’d hurriedly pick up our things and left this town or that, whenever the bill collector came. It seemed we moved like a game of pick-up-sticks, haphazard and without plan, until we came to Bridgton and our house on Choates hill.
I liked the house immediately. Upstairs there was a bedroom for the girls and another for the boys. And downstairs, a parlor, dining room, kitchen and another bedroom for mom and dad. It was an actual farm. The privy was in the barn behind the house separated by a heavy oak door with a crack under it large enough for a mouse to slink under, but not for a cat. We did share the warmth of the kitchen with a mouse or two. Dad had worked in mills and garages and odd jobs anywhere he could find, but now we were in the country and on an actual farm.
Mr. Whitney, the man that owned the farm, thought that my oldest brothers were rugged and he thought they’d do well at farming and logging. He didn’t know the stooges as well as I did. Up to that point, dad had spent more time under the hood of a car than he had with a hoe in his hand and Charlie was as reliable as a clock you’d forget to wind. But Mom knew farm life and what she didn’t know, she’d find out. Mom was never shy to ask questions. And she knew how to influence dad without making him feel bad. We grew carrots, potatoes and corn. That year, there was a great need for feed corn so that sold easily. The potato crop did poorly, as we had so much rain that summer that much of it rotted. But the carrots did okay, because mom suggested we plant them higher on the hill. When the growing season ended dad was actually able to pay Mr. Whitney our rent, and pay our debts in town. It looked for a time that Bridgton might be our home.
But the rains of summer continued into the slushy mush of heavy fall snow and Mr. Whitney’s tractor, that dad used to skid the logs out of the woods, sputtered, and clanked, and bled a billow of black smoke before a final bang and it died.
I remember hearing dad curse as he slogged his way back to the house. Mom didn’t even put her coat on when she went out to meet him. She hugged him to curb his temper. There was some more exasperated cursing and mom kissed him and held him tightly, just as she did Freddy when Freddy had a tantrum. There were farewells and goodbyes, but by the next morning dad was gone to look for work. And that old tractor just sat gathering snow at the edge of the field for the rest of the winter.
Things were different with Dad gone. Mom and Dad were never on the same page with parenting approaches and that was most obvious when it came to their youngest two, Freddy and me. My dad’s name was Fred, I guess it’s kind of strange that they waited until their fourth son before giving Dad a namesake. But the name Fred could only fit Freddy. Norman was too reserved to be dad, too shy, too introspective. Willard was responsible to a fault and selfless. And Charlie, always seemed to be elsewhere, flirtatious, and ready for a fight. But Freddy was dad, carefree and scatterbrained, silly and cute. Nothing seemed to lay heavily on Dad’s or Freddy’s shoulders.
For breakfast, on the morning of the big snow, we had toast and oatmeal and milk from Ethel our cow. Dad insisted on calling the cow Ethel. Ethel was also my mom’s name. Mom would get steely-eyed every time dad told one of us to milk Ethel. Mom always called Ethel, ‘The Cow’, nothing more. Mom saw the world in black and white and dad saw it with all the colors of the rainbow. I think mom’s annoyance made dad’s mischievousness even more fun for them both.
I sat down at my bowl of oatmeal, my fingers protruding from a pair of old worn-out socks. And I started to eat. Mom always called oatmeal porridge, but I remembered ‘Goldie Locks and the Three Bears’ and for some reason ‘porridge’ made me feel poor and desperate, so I always called it oatmeal. As always, the talk around the table was noisy and alive with hopes and dreams.
But then Charlie asked, “When will Dad be home?” Everyone got quiet really quickly. He looked obstinately, straight at Mom. Not something that I would dare to do.
Mom said softly, sternly, “We’ve talked about this. Dad is out finding a job. Once he has one, he’ll be back.” Her eyes turned a bit red and moist as she pursed her lips tightly together. We would never, ever, see my Mother cry.
She lifted the coffee mug to her lips and slowly turned to look out the window. I gained an appreciation for my mother that winter. I didn’t see it when I was eleven, but now I could, Mom was the glue that held our family together. When dad was scatterbrained, mom was restrained. When Freddy was frivolous, mom was sane. When I didn’t study, mom worked alongside me. She was much shorter than dad and he was tall, and she was sturdy where he was wiry. She was meticulous in how she dressed as much as she was precise in how she spoke. And dad used ain’t and swore like a sailor when mom wasn’t around. Mom stood and started to take the dishes to the wash basin. That was our signal to get our winter clothes on.
I was envious of Willard and Norman who headed to the barn. Since Dad was away Mom made them stay home and tend the animals in the drafty barn and keep the stove in the kitchen stoked, while she kept our clothes stitched together. Mending clothes became a greater chore by the day.
With the dawn barely a hint through the trees, the rest of the Town family troupe stepped out into a cold Maine snowstorm and started our trek to school. We must have looked like a parade of circus performers adorned in a collage of clothing that emptied most of our closets.
The winds swirled the snow around in devilish patterns across the snow-covered road. Like tiny tornados, the snow pulled at my jacket and made my chin sting whenever my scarf dipped low. There was little talk above the wind, as we shuffled and slid down Choate’s Hill. It would be hours before the town plow got to our part of town. But for now, we were the plows, a dash, a slide, a recovery from a spill, and we’d push the snow down the hill. We were the five skiers of Choate’s Hill. Freddy the youngest was by far the best. I think it’s because he didn’t care if he fell. And I was second best, because I knew when I fell, it wouldn’t hurt for long.
Some other kids joined us in Sandy Creek and more still along South High Street. When we reached school, we must have looked like an army of snowmen, wet from the snow and exertion. We hung our clothes as best we could, fighting for every open hook. The hooks closest to the potbelly stove were the best, but there was an unspoken rule that the older kids got those hooks.
I liked school, and except for Jackie, I did the best. What I loved most about school was reading. We had a few well-worn books at home and we had some old newspapers too, which found their way to Mom courtesy of her friend Gladys. At school, I devoured mysteries for their glamour and stories of far-off places where I found refuge on a tropical beach, or on a bustling street in the city of my imagination.
The days’ lessons were done, the books put away, the snow had stopped hours before. And thankfully, our clothes for the most part were dry. Freddy and I joined Peg, Jackie, and Charlie for the walk back home. The road was plowed but slippery. When we reached Choate’s hill, we came across Mr. Johnson’s truck. It was in the ditch on the right of the first turn. Freddy rushed over to see if he was dead, but Mr. Johnson was nowhere around. We helped each other over the slippery parts, encouraged because we knew our house was at the top, and we were almost home.
I welcomed the sight of a bold plume of smoke heading up the chimney against the darkening sky. It meant, at least, the kitchen would be warm. It was just two days before Christmas and we still didn’t have a tree. The boys wanted to cut one from out back, but Mom kept saying wait for father. As we walked up the long unmarred road leading to the house, we were suddenly ambushed by Willard and Norman who threw snowballs at us from behind the trees. The five of us were no match for the two of them. They must have stockpiled a hundred snowballs. We couldn’t make our way fast enough to the house, chased by Willard’s roaring laughter. I remember seeing Mom in the doorway smiling. I missed seeing her smile.
The five of us burst inside the house and mom, still smiling, tried to look scornful as clumps of snow fell from each of us and made puddles on the floor. Mom helped to peel off our layers of wet outerwear to get to our skin beneath. Our cheeks were red and I felt the bite of a thousand tiny needles as the warmth drove the cold from my cheeks and fingers. The boys went about their chores, but Mom needed to remind Freddy and me that we both left our honey pots in the bedrooms this morning.
Mom said, “Take care of those pots then wash for dinner.”
We both knew the pots would be bad by now. There was one in each bedroom and it was Freddy’s and my responsibility to empty them each morning. Our rule was the pots were for pee. But Norman always refused to go to the barn at night. And he always seemed to have to go. Freddy held his tin pot as far away from himself as possible. We both gingerly walked down the stairs, Freddy leading the way.
Peg appeared at the foot of the stairs, carrying a laundry basket filled with clothes mom had washed in the sink that day.
“Stay Clear!”, Freddy boldly announced, “I’ve got half of Norman here.”
Peg took heed and swayed to the left at the foot of the stairs, staying clear of Freddy’s sloshing bucket.
“Best not spill Freddy.” She continued, “Delia, look out, those bumps in the wall are the bones of the tax collector. That’s where dad buried him.” I almost took my eyes off the steps to look at the bulges in the staircase wall.
“Sure Peg, and you left the rest of your brains in there too.”, I replied quickly with pride for my witty reply.
We walked through the kitchen passed mom’s disappointed stare and went into the barn. The privy had two holes that dropped down into a nasty pit under the barn. I never knew why it had two holes. Who would ever go at the same time as someone else? I poured mine quickly and rinsed the pail out in a nearby bucket kept from freezing by the gap under the door to the kitchen. Freddy’s contents just slapped against the frozen excrement below.
We replaced the honey pots at the foot of the beds and then went back downstairs to wash.
When we came into the kitchen, the beating heart of our home on Choate’s Hill, Mom said, “You won’t forget tomorrow morning, will you?”. It was more an order than a question.
Together we turned to mom who was at the sink and replied, “No Ma’am.”
Mom reached for the handle of the pump and pumped it several times before water was drawn from the well to fill the pot that sat in the huge black slate sink. It was the only running water we had in the house, and that sink was large enough for Freddy or me to take a bath; but we never would. We had stayed in other places that had indoor plumbing so it was hard to bathe here. You had to draw water into a pot, heat it on the stove, then we’d generally carry it into mom and dad’s bedroom for privacy. We would take with us a bar of ivory soap and a cloth to clean ourselves. But at least we didn’t have to go outside to fetch water from the well. We could stay inside, close to the kitchen and the stove.
Midway along the outside wall of the kitchen was the cookstove. It seemed to be a living breathing thing in and of itself. It was black like coal, except for a bit of rust on the plates of the cook surface. You could sense its weight by standing nearby. And when it was stoked, and the fire was roaring inside, it would creak and groan and bellow out smoke from the chimney like King Arthur’s dragon. Near the stove, but not too close was our kitchen table. It was made for six but we could squeeze eight. We’d be happy as clams, squished together like cigarettes in a pack.
It was here, seated at this kitchen table, next to the complaining stove and arguing brothers, and while listening to mom’s clanking of tin pots and pans, and my elder sister’s gossip, that I felt most at home of any place we had ever lived. I hoped. I prayed that we could stay.
Mom always insisted on a dinner prayer. Her prayers varied by her mood and with our circumstances, tonight was no different. “Dear Lord,” She began, “We are grateful for the food before us and the love and health of our family. Please be watchful of our beloved Fred and help him to find his way home to his loving family. Amen.”
In unison we all echoed, “Amen!” We all seemed a bit relieved this prayer was shorter than most.
Mom ladled out ‘Carrot Stew’ and we each dipped our bread in the stew. The stew had some meat broth, the last bit of deer that Mr. Pearly gave us the month before, but the stew was mostly carrots. We knew not to say a word. But that night, I went to sleep with my stomach complaining enough for the whole family. One by one, I pulled the blankets up to my chin, each one insulating me more and more from the cold, and I fell asleep.
I heard a rumble in the night. A night so dark I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I saw lights sparkle across the ceiling of my room. I got up and went to the frost coated window. It took my breath and the warmth of my palm to melt away enough ice to see clearly out the window pain. And I watched as a car slipped and bounced up our unplowed road. I felt the house’s front door close firmly and saw mom in her robe move out into the freezing cold. She was a haunting apparition in white. Her shadow danced across the snow as the car’s lights bobbed up and down towards the house. The car stopped just short of her, and a figure emerged and raced towards mom. The two merged together, awash in the lights from the headlamps. Dad was home.
By now the house was awake, and kids with pajamas and slippers rushed outside and Freddy darted into my room and hugged me around my waist. He said, ‘Dad is home!’
In the years since, I’ve had seven children of my own. And the youngest sits across from me at our own cozy kitchen table in Bridgton feverishly taking notes as I reminisce. As he looks up at me, I see a bit of Freddy in the sparkle of his bespectacled eyes. I continued.
And I wonder about that touring car, that we did not own, with a Christmas tree tied across its roof. And I recall hearing my parents muted argument the next day, about that car and whiskey. But prohibition or not, depression or not, my Dad came home. We had a Christmas tree. We no longer ate carrot stew. There was enough coal that winter to warm the entire house. And we got to live in that house on Choate’s hill for many years to come. All because my dad came home.