My youngest sister describes our childhood as “Little Women” meets “Lord of the Flies.” If you haven’t read either book, think of spending your early childhood years with a happy cocker spaniel and your later childhood years with a weird and mean-spirited pit bull. My father was an alcoholic or rather, he grew into his alcoholism as we were growing up on a chicken farm in New England.
I never knew my parents as young people, none of us ever does. When I look at old family photos, especially of the early years on the farm, they seemed happy enough. Youth conveys such grace, doesn’t it? They had come through the Depression. World War II was finally over and my father’s parents bought a farm in the country. Back then, Bloomfield, Connecticut was the country. Soon after my grandparents moved, my parents followed. They converted a chicken coop into a small, two-story house that we always knew as “The Little Red House.”
My mother grew up on Pequot Street in Hartford, Connecticut. Back then it was a neighborhood of immigrants from everywhere just a block from a park on the Connecticut River. The butcher, the baker, vegetables and fruit were all just steps away from home in this old, European style neighborhood. We spent weeks every summer with Grandma Slowik on Pequot Street, free to roam the streets and play with children whose languages were mysterious to us. At night we heard half a dozen languages spoken softly in the dark as people gathered on their front stoops to enjoy the cool night air.
My grandmother made her own wine in a crock that sat in the window of a back bedroom. There was no telephone in the house. The family spent their evenings talking, listening to the radio, visiting with friends, knitting or reading and they went to bed early. The whole apartment was a “cold water flat”, heated by a single, large white stove in the kitchen, leaving freezing cold spots in the nether regions of the flat in winter. The ragman came by weekly with his horse-drawn cart; ice was delivered regularly and hauled up the stairs to pack the wooden icebox with a few days worth of refrigeration. To me, having an ice chest and no phone means I’m camping, without luxuries and even without some necessities so my mother’s early environment seems primitive to me, yet it wasn’t so long ago.
My mother’s brother John lived long enough to see her married and to meet my oldest sister just once when he was home on furlough. His plane was shot down over Germany. My father lost a brother as well. My parents never talked about the war or the Depression much at all. They were a reticent generation, or perhaps their lives had been so difficult and so filled with loss that they embraced their new freedom from want, tucking the bad years away. I never knew my Uncle John except through a few of my mother’s stories.
I keep my paint brushes in a ceramic vase that he made. He kept a diary of his time in the war and I was amazed by how matter-of-fact he was about the whole horrible thing. I would have filled my diary with screaming, ranting, weeping, hysteria.