MY SISTER WAS AN ONLY CHILD
Having grown up as an only child in a family home with ten people has unpredictable effects. This is the story of a few years in the life of a family that lived in East Orange, New Jersey, from the period in the middle of the Depression to the beginning of the Eisenhower years. Those were days in which our family home was a center and an oasis, a place that represented security and a point of natural departure and return. The story is told from the point of view of a child whose memories represent the view of one both involved and detached, both part of the story and an observer, both one whose life is revealed and one whose limitations shape an image of the lives of others.
I have tried to write this story in a manner that would have been intelligible to those I describe. I have also tried to tell the truth, even when I realize that the truth may exist in terms of a point of view limited by incomplete understanding. For that reason I must say to any relative who reads this, that this is my view of things as they happened, dimmed by years, but illuminated by a sharpness of recall that, once the process was underway, has at times both thrilled and alarmed me. Telling the story of one's own experiences without recourse to falsified dialogue and imaginative reconstruction may produce a pale emblem of those experiences, but in that paleness is a delicacy and a truth that shines forth on the story of people who were heroes in their own brief lives.
The House on Webster Place
The house we always called 7 Webster Place had its moments of simple beauty and unpretentious elegance. The brightness of the landing between the first and second floors intensified the yellows and ochres of the stained glass through whose tiny imperfections I could feel the first tang of winter and smell the early fragrances of spring. The world beyond those panes stood shadowy, responsive to the imagination and suggestive of other lives, other involvements, other adventures. The rose, purple, yellow, and lavender panes muted a harsh outer world and supplied imaginary romance and tender thoughts. The repeated inset fleurs de lis linked me to the mysteries of the musketeers and the lush steaminess of Gascony, a place and a time I had only on the authority of Dumas, Rostand, and their imitators.
I loved the parables I found in our bookcases. I loved the expanse of the landing, on which I could play for hours in the intense light of morning. When I chose, I descended into the hallway and regarded myself in the floor-to-ceiling mirror-coatstand where the family hung its coats, hats, and umbrellas. The carpeted stairs echoed the oriental designs in the dining room rug and I sometimes sat there at the bottom step looking at myself and wondering when I would ever grow up. In the mirrored coatstand I looked small and tentative even to myself and perhaps especially to myself.
In the distance the RCA-Victor radio-phonograph sang forth with popular music or light classics that soothed the entire house. Our few records came forth only on special occasions and my one narrative, on five twelve-inch 78rpm records was Treasure Island narrated by Thomas Mitchell, whom I had seen suffer in It's a Wonderful Life. On rare Sunday afternoons I wrapped myself in the story of pirates and treasure, thrilling again and again to its rhythms despite the fact that I came to know it almost by heart. Those were the days when many fine tales, such as "Leinengin Versus the Ants," which made me respectful of the power of tropical ants, would hold us in thrall for hours.
The porch, with round pillars, simple bannisters, and a large rounded set of steps, supported the green and white awnings that I installed every spring and took down every winter. Shade blessed the porch on hot summer days and evenings when everyone rocked in their chairs and talked and smoked into the dark. We never had screens and were often annoyed by flies, mosquitoes, and inquisitive bees. But most of all, in those years one saw the fireflies hovering outside the range of the awnings, blinking messages that we took to be signs of joy. Summer meant warmth, ease, the family together, neighbors passing up and down the street. The talk was hearty and joyful even in the difficult times. Somehow the rocking chair eased all stress and soothed the weariness in the bones of my parents and grandparents. I sometimes rocked loudly like a maniac while they cautioned me to be careful. In those years I could never just relax--what was necessary was motion, perpetual motion, halted only by sleep.
How the family survived those years remains something of a mystery to me. As a child in the 1930s I never thought or worried about how we were getting by. Thrift was second nature to us all, and economy tailored our desires in such a way as to leave us feeling happy with what little we had. The nominal head of the family when I came home as a newborn from the hospital was my grandfather, Ernest Sr. In his later years he never had a job that could have maintained our house. His son, my father Ernest Jr., the only one in the family in the 1930s with a steady and durable income, kept the family afloat in the years before we actually took ownership of my grandfather's home. In those days I never thought to wonder how the family originally came to own the house, nor did I think much in terms of ownership at all. The concept of ownership grew on me slowly. 7 Webster Place, even when it was not ours in the strictest sense, stood always at the center of my life, as the temple stands at the center of the life of the true believer.
When you stood in the middle of the road looking at the house you saw a worn bluestone curb, a patch of stunted grass and a bluestone sidewalk, cracked, heaving, uneven--essentially a threat to commerce. I shoveled the snow from that sidewalk in the winter, scrubbed the dirt from it in the summer, and swept it free of leaves and clippings in the fall. It never changed and I never questioned the use of such huge slabs in the sidewalk or wondered why they lifted and grew dangerous at different times of the year.
Beyond the sidewalk you saw the privet hedge. When I assumed responsibility for its care it towered well over my head, possibly five feet tall. My job was to keep it from leaning too far out over the bluestone sidewalk where it might impede the pedestrian flow. I took old-fashioned shears and spent the day clipping as straight as my unskilled eye permitted. Then I took the stepladder, eyed the top with its straggly shoots and intruding vines and sometimes invented small machicolations for a visual relief. But most of the time it was simply clip clip, clip clip, then stuff the sweepings in the garbage can on Monday nights. When I was twelve we hired someone to cut it down to the height of ten inches. When I went out to the middle of the street to look back at our house it suddenly appeared four times larger than normal. It took years to get used to it. It felt as if one of us had shaved his head and leaned out over the porch rail to shout to the neighborhood.
Seeing our neighbors walking by on summer's evenings was the one benefit of the sacrifice of our hedges. Neighbors walked their dogs and paused to say a word or two. Others walked home from Erhmann's Market with their meat or from Julius's Delicatessen with special delights. My parents would lean forward, cigarettes held high, their smiles often measuring their delight in seeing acquaintances and sharing thoughts now unencumbered by massive foliage. I can still hear my mother's voice in the air as the sky darkened, speaking clearly and happily, dotting her conversation with laughter. I sat quietly, watching, often playing with a favorite toy, or simply listening to evening talk.
The storm windows and old screens--most of which we never used--rested in clumsy piles beneath the porch. The storm windows were very mysterious to me. A few of them remained all year long on upper-story windows we could not reach. A few of the functional screens got on strategic lower windows when I grew old enough to move them out from under the porch and climb our rickety wooden step-ladder. The skirts of the porch, protected by criss-cross lattice-work, disordered and broken, harbored hundreds of spiders who owned the space. Even when I was in trouble and needed a safe hide-out I gave up that refuge as a bad idea.
In the summer, our porch was a center of activity for my friends. We played board games fanatically. Bob Todd and Billy Coit and others would come and settle in shortly before lunchtime and play as many games of Monopoly as possible, then break for lunch. My mother, Julia, made us some sandwiches and drinks, but only when she was not working. Other times her mother, my grandmother Margaret, would try to put together some lunch. In their absence, we made peanut butter sandwiches and drank chocolate milk. Then back to the porch and more games of Monopoly. When that paled we played checkers. Then on to Rich Uncle, a game that centered on investing in stocks. All preparation for the world of adults. Only we didn't know it then. The porch was perfect because its awnings provided shade and the cool breezes gave us relief from the heat. And in the absence of friends I would hole up on the porch and read Jules Verne and Walter Edmonds. The cicadas supplied the percussion and the songbirds the melody.
Driveways had a special cachet. Only two or three other houses on Webster Place had a driveway. I often dragged cinders from the coal furnace and spread them on our driveway to keep it from rutting out too severely. Nothing worked. The driveway was hopeless, rutted, uneven, threatening, barely flat enough for service. When it rained, the normal reddish color of the cinders faded to a litany of grays and whites. Our Model A jolted, rolled, jounced, and yawed through every inch of that driveway several times a day. You would have thought that the driveway was an avenue to the Baltic during the Napoleonic wars--it had such strategic value. It meant we did not have to park on the street in front of our house. That pleasure was visited upon our neighbors.
The first steps leading to the porch moved you up to the level of the hedge and large blue hydrangeas that dominated the space between the hedge and the porch itself. Then the rounded wooden steps to the porch, almost twelve feet wide, curved in a large, slow, generous sweep. The mail box was up next to the front door, so the mail man took those stairs once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The huge oak door's plate glass panel always had a lace curtain to render it opaque.
When you walked inside you confronted a foyer of some spaciousness. Directly ahead, the stairs to the second floor were set far back, at a right angle, with white bannisters. My grandfather's player piano faced the front door. I used to climb on the bench and reach down to pedal until the piano roll turned out tin pan alley tunes. But most of the time I thrilled to watching the piano keys depress and linger as they played each note. Magical and mechanical, and I loved both categories of experience.
Many years later we sold the piano. A magnificent glass-doored breakfront that my father bought in an estate sale and managed to bring home replaced it. My father filled it with treasures bought from various sales over the years. He loved estate sales and managed to find inexpensive treasures and sell them again at a small profit. His brother Dick had an antiques shop as an outlet. More on that much later.
Standing, facing that breakfront, you would have noticed to the left of the door a piece of furniture known as a secretary. It had a flip down writing surface, small slots for bills, and a couple of "hidden" drawers that appeared to be architectural decoration and nothing more. It had two glass doors and shelves with a few books. When my father bought furniture from an estate he had to take whatever books they held or no sale. So the secretary accumulated some interesting items. One was Thus Sprach Zarathustra, tough going for a child--I made several efforts before we left Webster Place. Another treated the dreadful Japanese invasion of Manchukuo, with pictures of many atrocities. Soldiers held up severed heads and butchered babies as trophies for the camera. Lord Byron's poems, in a Bohn's edition, became a favorite of mine by the time I was eight and nine years old, although I never figured out what Giaours looked like.
On the other side of the doorway you would have seen a large spinning wheel and a loveseat, a prim item that no one ever sat in. Two large white pillars framed the living room, which no one ever sat in either. The sof and chairs, plush, soft, and uncomfortable, were too low for most adults and seemed ugly to me. But these pieces came from an insurance settlement of a car crash that broke my mother's shin bone. No one touched the furniture because its cost could never be measured in dollars.
As you stood in the living room you looked into the dining room. Rarely did we ever dine in it--Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving--but a dining table stood in its center and stuffed chairs graced each corner. We added kitchen chairs and odd side chairs when we dined formally. The windows on the right side of the room overlooked the driveway. Opposite, over the unusable fireplace a large oil painting hung in a gold frame. Its subject was the four horses of the Apocalypse riding hell bent down a long sweeping cinder path. A local furrier of unusual talent apparently copied it in a museum, but I have never since seen it or its original again. Another of the furrier's paintings, in the style I now know as that of Watteau, hung over the also unusable fireplace in the living room. It depicted several French aristocrats picnicking on a lawn with their castle in the distance. Both paintings were extremely sophisticated and I truly wish I knew where they were now. I studied them both with intense interest for a dozen years and more.
As you walked through the dining room you came immediately to a small room with a bay window. A walk-in closet appended to the outside wall contained boxes, glassware, assorted overflow. This small room, little more than a bulge at the base of the dining room, was the most used space in the downstairs of the house. It had a rocking chair in which my mother sat and knitted constantly. It had an ancient couch on which I or my father would sit. The radio and 78 rpm record player was also bought with insurance money. For some reason only I could tune it in accurately to the local New York stations. The front right corner of the living room also had a radio, but a large Atwater-Kent with a tiny tuning dial. On that radio we heard Franklin Delano Roosevelt declare war when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
The small room with the bay window looked out on our tiny back yard, which was essentialy the cindered drive edged with an old Concord grape arbor. You also saw our prefabricated garage with its thin, rigid cement walls. One summer at age eight I ran to close the bay windows of that small sitting room because of a sudden thunder and lightning storm. As I stretched to close the sash a bolt of astonishingly intense lightning struck the ground right in front of the garage, not twenty feet away, then rolled in a glowing plasma directly at me for about five yards. I was transfixed. I could not move. The window stayed open until the plasma dissipated itself only a few feet from the house. I survived and have never feared lightning since.
As you left the dining room and the sitting room you stepped into the pantry. Its best feature was a hammered copper sink with high curved water taps. Another small rectangular stained glass window of abstract design gave a sepulchral light to the place. Our dishware stood in the pantry's large glass-front cabinets. Below the cabinets we stored cleaners and a few bottles of whisky, usually Haig and Haig pinch, gifts from my father's grateful customers. The family drank very rarely, so some of those bottles lasted years. As a child I liked the shape of the bottles and sometimes sketched them into my large art pad.
You moved from the pantry right into the kitchen, as spacious as the living room. Out the back door we had an unheated tiny dark porch. The ice box--with real ice--sat there. So did the mop, the brooms, the pans, the shovels, and other handy debris. Out there the milk invariably soured after a thunder and lightning storm. Every three or four days the iceman brought a large chunk of ice on his shoulder. He would lay it down on a cloth in that dark back porch, try to fit it into the top section of the ice box and where it was too large or too irregular, he would chip at it with his pick until it fit. I often grabbed the slivers and sucked on them in the August heat.
The kitchen storage area, with many shelves on each side, had a floor that was the ceiling of the cellar entryway beneath it. My grandmother's one culinary success was lemonade in an earthenware pot, and it sat and cured in that pantry on the only level space on the floor.
The kitchen table could serve for ten or eleven people. An oilcloth covered it most of the time. Another small table with an impervious white enamel surface stood against the wall next to the old iron gas range. On that table I mixed food coloring into the margarine during the war. I also used it for various projects, models, drawings, even at age eleven learning to type there. But it served for sorting and preparing our meals at meal times. The room itself was always painted yellow. Not a subtle color. Yellow. The small and inadequate sink held the dishes after meals. In front of the sink a large window looked out into the dank and dark back porch. This design feature baffled me, but I never questioned it. Throughout all the years of my childhood, I took what was given as being what was right.
Like most people in our neighborhood, we ate our meals in the kitchen. This was where everyone saved up for their arguments and as a result meals were lively events. There was no music, no diversion, and no one ever complimented the cook. Of course, the cook was usually my mother or grandmother, and neither expected a compliment for their food. Both professed absolute lack of interest in food and cooking. Neither could interpret a cook book. Lumps were in everything that should be smooth. The meat turned dry and resistant the longer they cooked it, and the turnips were a horror not to be imagined. My father cooked on weekends with his specialty a version of vegetable stew which may have had its roots in Ireland. I have never been able to duplicate it and I confess it was good. It was not the custom to offer a compliment on it, but it was good. The remainder of the cuisine was dismal, but nourishing. Erhmann's provided the very best meat available when meat was available. We cooked it to death.
The back of the kitchen led to two stairways. One went up to the landing where the three stained glass windows brightened the front hall. These were the back stairs. The other stairs led down to the cellar. Up the stairs took us to the two front bedrooms, both bright, sunny, both illuminated with large bay windows overlooking the porch roof. The front left bedroom was that of my grandparents on my father's side. It was large, with an unusable fireplace and a four poster bed. My grandmother Helena died in it and I inherited it later. The front right bedroom was my other grandmother's, Margaret or Maggie. At one time both these women were invalided and bed-ridden for more than two years.
The very large middle bedroom had big windows looking down on the driveway back and side. It was bright with several beds, a large dresser on the hallway side, another dresser on the driveway side, and a walk-in closet next to that. What started out as my grandfather's desk was later moved up to that room when it became mine. But when I was very young the bedroom housed me and two uncles, Paul and Alfred. The back bedroom was my mother and father's but before it was theirs it was my uncle Dick's. At that time my mother, father, and I shared the one large bedroom. Things were in flux and the spaces flexible in those years.
The one bathroom was on that floor. It held a huge tub on claw feet beneath a window that looked out on the next-door neighbor only thirty feet away. The floor was covered with octagonal white and black ceramic tile about the circumference of a golf ball. Some of it was missing, but no one knew how to replace it. It remained thus all the while we lived there.
Outside the bathroom in the main hallway was a large built-in linen cabinet with two big white doors. They were locked. Inside these doors were several shelves. Below the doors were some drawers filled with extra blankets and pillows. The doors were locked because my grandfather owned a gun, a Colt's revolver with a very long barrel. I only saw that gun once. It was enough. To this day I do not know why we kept a gun in the house. It could never have done us any good and one day almost did us harm.
The back bedroom was almost filled with two art deco twin beds, also purchased along with the several art deco dressers and nightstands as a result of insurance money. The room had two distinguishing features. The first was a sink. It freed the inhabitant to brush his teeth and shave (when Uncle Dick lived in the room) when other people tied up the bathroom proper. The second feature was a walk-in closet built precariously out from the wall of the house. When it was my mother's room the clothes were so numerous that entering it was like invading another world. At the back narrow end of this closet a tiny window looked out over the garage toward the Benedict mansion. At the appropriate age I fastened a wire to this window that led across the garage and to a playmate's house. At each end we affixed a telegraph and batteries and communicated our deep thoughts.
The attic was spacious and interesting. Here I found the chimney that fed all the useless fireplaces in the middle of the house. The mortar hung between the bricks like tongues and I thought of it as a nice touch. The main space had two small windows and was finished off with crude wall board (no taping or filling) installed by my uncle Bill. This was my space throughout much of my childhood. It was here I built the model rail set and ran my passenger train, with simulated smoke from pellets and lights in each passenger car illuminating the dark. Each Christmas the train came alive and the space became magical.
The front of the attic had two finished rooms. At one point they held my father's Aunt Jett and my Uncle Alfred. They must have held other residents at other times, before I was able to walk and explore the attic on my own. It was always a slightly scary place, even though it housed some of my toys. Before it became my space it was a storage area used primarily by my Uncle Dick. He kept stacks of magazines tied together with his own sample illustrations that made me think he might have been an artist contributing to Esquire and Life.
The smaller of the two rooms contained a bed and a chair and a wind up record player. There were only ten or twelve records in the cabinet, but I played them all. One was very thick with an engraved message on its edge. The RCA Victor dog, Nipper, and the horn of musical plenty occupied the red label. It was Enrico Caruso singing an aria from The Daughter of the Regiment.
The one recording of what appeared to be a military march came in handy when I teamed up with a friend to put on afternoon movies for kids in the neighborhood. Tickets for a nickel. Somewhere my friend got a movie projector. I set up a sheet, relied on the local library for our source of entertainment, and turned the attic into a truly local movie house. The movies were serious silent films, often travelogues, and sometimes World War I documetaries. That was where the military music worked nicely.
Far below, the cellar was a dismal environment. The unfinished stairs leading down into the dank coolness were unfinished and rough. And threatening. The tiny windows eclipsed with cobwebs let in almost no light. The coal bin, large and half filled, provided me with a supply of fossil samples and besmirching coal dust. The ancient gas system which once functioned throughout the house (some of the lamps were still in place on the first and second floors) depended on gas lines running under the floorboards above one's head in the cellar. One of the first lessons my father gave me down there was how to deal with a gas leak. One took a bar of soap and pushed it into the opening until the gas stopped coming out. I once fooled around with a valve, opening and closing it experimentally, when it fell apart in my hands. Two bars of soap, one on each side of the valve, saved the day.
The ancient white furnace was swathed in asbestos, just like the main pipes leading away to the radiators. In the winter my father tended the fire when he came home from work and before he left. After school it was my job to shake down the coals, remove the clinkers, fill the pails with the ashes, and shovel in just the right amount of new coal so the fire would maintain optimum efficiency. The main thing was never to let the fire go out in the cold weather. As a result, we never traveled anywhere in the winters or late fall. Of course, we rarely traveled anywhere at any time, but the winter made it a total impossibility.
Unseen spiders produced a threatening atmosphere everywhere in the cellar. Cobwebs, ancient of days, lurked overhead, in corners, next to the door leading to the back yard, in every direction. Everything was dark. Underneath the kitchen a second toilet stood in the cellar, an old-fashioned affair with a pull chain and overhead tank. I used it only in the direst emergency and as far as I can remember, I am the only person who used it. Standing essentially forgotten in the gloom, it became a repository for cobwebs and coal dust.
For people who had little or no money to speak of, this was a spacious house of unusual comfort. It never occurred to me to wonder how it was paid for, how my father's parents could have come to own it when my grandfather earned on average about nine dollars a week. My father answered that question much later when the house on Webster Place lingered only as a memory and a small file of photographs. Long after we moved away, our house shared the fate of the Benedict mansion behind it, razed by an insurance company for its sprawling parking lot. Progress takes many forms, but it does not preserve human emotions, nor memorialize family agonies, griefs, or triumphs.