A Halloween Story I’ve Never Told Before: Alone with the Wind

Every year on Halloween night, I remember Halloween night in 1963, when I was seven years old. Our family had just moved into a newly constructed house in a new neighborhood about a month earlier. I had my own bedroom for the first time in my life. My room was on the corner of the house, and the wind (always fierce in Richland, Washington, on the Columbia River) blew around that corner so hard it whistled and howled.

My younger brother and I had been out trick-or-treating earlier in the evening. I don’t remember what costumes we wore, nor which parent took us, though it was probably our father. I’m sure it was a happy evening, as all Halloween evenings are for kids of that age.

I was in second grade at a Catholic grade school, and the great thing about my school was that we always got November 1 off, because it was All Saint’s Day, a Catholic holy day. We had to go to Mass with our parents on November 1, but we didn’t have to do homework on Halloween night, so we could stay out a little later than the public school kids. Of course, for a seven-year-old, staying out late wasn’t a huge advantage, but it became a bigger deal as I got older.

After trick-or-treating, my brother and I came home, indulged in our favorite candy, then went to bed.

In the middle of the night, my father woke me up. “I have to take your mother to the hospital. Just stay in bed, go back to sleep, and I’ll be back by morning.” There was a sense of urgency in his voice.

Even at seven years old, I knew what the problem was. My mother was having a miscarriage. Again. She’d lost one baby in February 1960, then had a miscarriage in January 1962, and now was pregnant again.

Wide-eyed, I nodded my head at Dad, and he left.

I couldn’t go back to sleep. I tossed and turned and listened to the wind rattle the windows. In addition to concern about my mother, I worried about whether the house would burn down and whether a burglar would strike and all the other fears children have when they’re alone. I thought about waking my brother up, but Dad had said to go to sleep.

Finally, I turned on my light and read a book as the wind continued to wail. This might have been the first time I ever read in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep, though there have been many, many occasions since then when reading has been my remedy for insomnia.

At some point in the wee hours of the morning, I did fall asleep. Sure enough, Dad was home for breakfast, and he retrieved Mother by noon. She lost the baby, but otherwise, all was well, though I don’t think we got to Mass that day.

I’ve often wondered about my father’s decision to leave my brother and me at home by ourselves. We didn’t stay home alone during the day yet, nor in the evenings if our parents went out. This was the first time I’d ever been left in charge.

When my mother lost the first baby in 1960, I was not quite four. I don’t remember that night at all—he told me many years later that he put us in the back of the car, still asleep, and took us to the hospital with my mother, where he left us with the nurses. I don’t remember the 1962 miscarriage either. We were living in a small house with good neighbor friends next door—he might have called the neighbor lady to stay with us. (I do remember the neighbor lady bringing us casseroles in the days following.)

But in 1963, in our brand new neighborhood, we didn’t have next door neighbors yet, and didn’t really know anyone else in the few occupied houses on the block. Besides, I was seven—a big girl. I remember feeling very grown-up and responsible when Dad told me they were leaving me in charge. But I wasn’t grown-up enough not to fear the wind.

What frightening memories do you have from childhood?

The Afghan My Grandmother Made Me

Nanny Kay’s afghan today

The other evening my husband pulled an old throw out of the closet and settled in for a nap. We haven’t used this afghan in years—it’s a bright variegated blue and white random knit, and although we have a lot of blue in our home, this blanket doesn’t really fit in. The acrylic yarn and coloring looks very 1960s, so a half-century later, it seems dated.

But I’ve kept it around since my childhood. After all, my grandmother made it for me.

My paternal grandmother, my Nanny Kay, had many talents. I’ve written before about her piano playing. My father said she played the violin very well also. She cooked well, and she crocheted. My mother knitted and my other grandmother did needlepoint, but Nanny Kay crocheted.

After my mother died, my father found a box containing a handmade lace tablecloth with a note in my mother’s handwriting on it. The note said Nanny Kay had made the tablecloth as a wedding gift for my parents. Neither my father nor I remembered ever seeing it. The workmanship on the lace was exquisite— tiny crocheted stitches made up each two-inch medallion, and the medallions were tacked together to make a covering large enough for a table for eight. (I thought I took a picture of it after my dad died, but I can’t find the photo.)

Afghan at the foot of my bed at Middlebury, 1976

I don’t remember exactly when Nanny Kay made the blue and white afghan for me, but I think I was about eleven or twelve. I can picture it on my bed when I had a pink bedspread, which was between about 1967 and 1970. And I definitely recall using the afghan in the winters during junior high and high school, when I curled up on my bed to do homework or read. Our Siamese cat would sometimes curl up with me. One time she bit my algebra homework when she decided the paper would make a good toy. Another time she got sick on the afghan, which is why I can so clearly remember her in my room with me.

As I recall, Nanny Kay planned to make these afghans for all her grandchildren, or at least for her granddaughters. I don’t remember my brother having one (the other brother may not have been born yet), but I have a vague recollection of my sister having a pink crib-sized blanket in the same style. My afghan was a Christmas present from Nanny Kay, and I loved it when I got it. I don’t like wool against my skin, but the acrylic yarn was soft and cozy.

Afghan on my bed at Stanford, 1977

Somehow, the blue afghan made it three thousand miles across the nation to my dorm room at Middlebury College. I don’t see pictures of it in my early college years, but it is at the foot of my bed in the last room I had at Middlebury. Then it went three thousand miles back west to Stanford Law School with me also.

Later it moved to Kansas City and spent some time on my daughter’s bed during the winter months, but she never liked it. It was too old-school for her, I think. For the last decade or so, it has lived in the closet, until my husband pulled it out, reviving all the memories I recounted above. It now covers my child-sized rocking chair, awaiting another nap.

What hand-made items do you have from your past?

Summer Freedom from Generation to Generation

Now that we are well into June, most schools across the nation are out, and kids everywhere are enjoying their summer vacations. Or are they? It seems to me that children don’t have as much summer freedom as past generations had. They may have the world at their fingertips through the internet, but they don’t know their neighborhoods as well as their parents and grandparents knew theirs.

My dad in the years when he roamed Los Angeles

My dad talked about taking the bus all over the Los Angeles area when he was a kid. His family lived in Pasadena from the time he was six or so until he was thirteen or fourteen. He told me he and a buddy would each bring a dime for their excursions—a nickel to travel outbound as far they could travel using bus transfers, and the other nickel to get them back home. From Pasadena in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, they rode to downtown Los Angeles and beyond. I wish I could remember his stories about all the places they went.

It didn’t seem to bother his parents that he was roaming the streets of a large metropolis in the years after World War II. (L.A. was the fifth largest city in the U.S. in 1940 and the fourth largest in 1950.) He made it sound perfectly normal for a preteen boy to be out on his own anywhere he could travel on public transportation.

A Kansas City-born friend of the same generation as my parents talks about similar bus trips in her hometown. “My mother never knew where I was,” she told me. Kansas City was much smaller than L.A., but in the 1940s the municipality was annexing land for expansion, and it had its own share of crime. I’m not sure I would have let my preteen kids take the bus by themselves, though they did once they reached high school.

By contrast, I grew up in a small town without any public transportation. I could only go where I could walk or ride my bike (and there weren’t many places in town worth pedaling to in the summer heat). In my grade school years, I mostly roamed the fields around our house with my brother or stayed inside and read a book.

Columbia River from near the ferry road access point

When I was in high school, some friends and I did go tubing in the Columbia River on hot summer afternoons. We took our inner tubes to an access point on the old ferry road and floated to a boat ramp maybe a mile or so downstream. The river was cold but the sun was hot, and the water felt great in the dry desert air. Then we’d walk with our tubes back to the ferry access and do it again.

I look back on those times now and realize floating the river was probably less safe than riding the bus in L.A. in 1947. The current was fast, and I was not a strong swimmer. But there was only one time we didn’t maneuver ourselves to shore at the boat ramp. We floated on past as we paddled furiously and reached the riverbank a few hundred feet further on. Then we had to scramble through the rock and brush back to the boat ramp. A little scary, but we all survived, unscathed except for a few bug bites.

Friends my age talk of being shooed out of the house on summer days until dinner time, whether they lived in the country, in towns, or in cities. So freedom was still a part of summer for my generation.

My kids having a summer picnic on our deck. Not much opportunity for exploration. 

But my kids’ generation had a different experience, at least those who were in day care. I can remember making sure my children were enrolled in summer programs during their grade-school years. Their school had a summer program with weekly activities that seemed quite adequate in the primary grade years. But as they got older, they wanted more variety. They went to Scout camps and YMCA camps. They visited grandparents. But I made sure they had scheduled group activities every week. I didn’t want them home alone.

When my son reached middle school, I let him stay home by himself a day or two a week. But I thought a whole week at home by himself was just asking for trouble. When my daughter reached middle school, she refused to go to the school’s summer program any longer. I let her stay home with her older brother—who was in high school by then. They had strict instructions on what they could and could not do, where they could and could not go. They were allowed to walk to the YMCA swimming pool a mile from our house, but they were also cautioned about crossing the four-lane roads and the freeway entrance and exit ramps that lay between our neighborhood and the pool.

So my children had less freedom in the summers than I had, and far less than my father who had all of Los Angeles as his playground. I think it’s one of the disadvantages of having two parents who work jobs with little flexibility.

What do you remember of your summers? Were you free or scheduled?

Not Wild About Wild Asparagus

The house we moved into when I was six and a half, in October 1962, was at the end of a block-long street. Next to us on the east was a vacant lot. That lot remained vacant until well after I no longer lived with my parents, though at some point the next block of the street was paved and houses built on it.

Richland house, with corner of vacant lot showing

The vacant lot was my childhood playground. The ground was sand and rounded rocks left when the nearby Columbia River receded in some eon past. My brother and I made forts out of tumbleweeds which we piled in a big hole in the lot. Sometimes we fought each other. Sometimes it was us against the pretend bad guys. We dug up ant’s nests, not to kill the critters but to watch them frantically rebuild. We got hot and sweaty and dirty, as children do on warm summer days. And when the autumn days turned cool, we got cold and our noses and fingers turned red.

The area had been a farm at some point, though it was probably part of the land that the Army evacuated in 1942 to build the Hanford Nuclear Reservation as part of the Manhattan Project. When my brother and I explored the acres around our house, we came across dilapidated shacks—old barns or farmhouses or other structures that survived from the pre-war era and had never been razed.

“Be careful,” our mother would caution. “Don’t step on a nail. And watch out for snakes.”

At the mention of snakes, I was far less eager to explore, but my brother convinced me we should. So we went, brushing sticks in front of us to scare any rattlesnakes or scorpions or other hazards. We rarely encountered anything more dangerous than a splintered board. Maybe a garter snake or two. No scorpions. Most of the black widow spiders we saw were near our home—they liked to sun themselves on webs near the warm brick.

One reason we knew that the neighborhood had once been a farm was that in the spring Mother found wild asparagus in the lot beside our house. Stalks sprouted between our yard and that big hole where we built our forts. They sprung up through the dead grass my father dumped when he mowed the lawn.

I was not a vegetable-loving child, and I did not like asparagus. And certainly not this asparagus. The stalks that grew in the vacant lot were not the thin bright green spears sold in the best restaurants. This asparagus consisted of thick, woody stalks that were mostly seed. It had to be boiled to a pulp before it could be chewed. And even then it was stringy.

But my mother thought it was wonderful. “Fresh asparagus!” she exclaimed when she found the spears. Asparagus in the grocery stores—then, as now—was expensive, and she rarely bought it. So for her, these volunteer plants were a treat.

I was an adult before I tasted good asparagus. Maybe my tastes have changed over the years, but I now think tender, blanched asparagus is an exquisite addition to steak and potatoes.

I even buy it to cook myself this time of year, though my husband prefers that I boil the color and texture out of it. (He might have enjoyed the wild asparagus along with my mother.) When only the two of us are eating it, I accede to his wishes. But when we have guests, I insist on only steaming it—no reason to inflict his plebeian predilections on a third party.

How have your tastes changed since you were young?

Infrastructure, circa 1962

Troutdale - Dodson 1957 Columbia River HwyThere’s been a lot in the news in recent years about infrastructure. Which projects are “shovel ready”? Which will create more jobs? How do we bring our aging roads and bridges into the twenty-first century?

When I hear about infrastructure, I think of the development of the interstate highway system in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was a child living in the Pacific Northwest in those years, and my family traveled regularly between our home in Eastern Washington and the larger cities of Seattle and Portland. The old highway to Seattle meandered through the Cascade Mountains, and the Portland route took us through the Columbia River Gorge. Both routes were under construction for my entire childhood, it seemed, as I-80 to Seattle and I-84 to Portland replaced the older roads.

My earliest memories of these trips are of the two-lane highways that crept through one small town after another. We only stopped in those towns if the car needed gas. My father’s philosophy was that our bladders needed to be as big as the gas tank. We left home before dawn and arrived at our destination by early afternoon—no need to pay for a meal on the road.

The routes to both Seattle and Portland were scenic, though those pre-interstate roads included some hazards. The mountain highway twisted and turned as it climbed to the passes, with huge drop-offs next to flimsy guardrails. Every so often, a guardrail would be missing, and I would wonder what had happened. Rushing mountain streams ran at the bottom of those drop-offs. We might see patchy snow any month of the year, but in the winter when the roads were covered with snow and ice, we had to stop at a turn-off near the pass so my father could put chains on the tires.

The river route couldn’t deviate far from the Columbia because of high bluffs rising near the banks, but this road offered views of dams and tunnels and waterfalls. My brother and I used to count the waterfalls—in spring there were well over thirty cataracts spewing over the high cliffs down toward the road. Some were mere trickles, but some were real gushers. We agreed not to count the spots where the cliffs were simply wet and no water flowed.

ellensburg_cleelum-postcard-1940s

Between Ellensburg and Cle Elum in Washington. Postcard from the 1940s, but not much changed by  1960.

When the interstate construction began, the length of our trips doubled. Every few miles, we stopped in interminably long lines of cars. Our family sedan was not air-conditioned, and in the summer we baked in the heat, with dust from the jackhammers wafting into the vehicle through open windows. My brother and I sat in the back, bored and cranky. I tried not to fight with him, but what was I supposed to do when he encroached on my half of the bench seat? I couldn’t read in the car without getting nauseated, but during those tedious waits, I pulled out my book. Then we would start up again, and I’d have to put it away.

When we finally reached the head of the line and passed the construction worker with the flag, my father gave a jaunty salute, and the man in the hard hat nodded.

Only as I neared my teens was the interstate completed, and the trip became easier. The scenery was still lovely—we still counted waterfalls and held our breath through tunnels. And we still had to put on chains in the winter. But no more long lines of cars.

Now, fifty years later, so many of our roads need repairs. I live in Missouri now, and the state of I-70 is a frequent topic of conversation. I agree we need another infrastructure push, but I don’t look forward to the jackhammers and delays.

What do you remember about childhood road trips?

On Strings and Things

I’ve written before about what a picky eater I was. Cooked carrots were my worst nemesis, but I also hated all foods with strings. You’d be surprised how many foods have strings.

Bananas, for one. Kids are supposed to like bananas, and I did like the taste. But before a banana was placed on my plate, I insisted that it be peeled and all of the stringy fibers removed. I preferred them sliced, so any remaining strings were only a quarter inch long.

Corn on the cob, of course, has lots of strings. Seeing corn silks on my plate could make me retch. We usually had canned corn, which I ate no problem, though sometimes an errant string found its way into the can. I made my mother pick the strings off any fresh corn carefully before she cooked it. Even then, I usually did my own second combing to pick off the silks before I would butter the corn. And today, when I’m in charge of cooking corn on the cob, I am still as careful as I wanted my mother to be, though my tolerance has improved a little bit.

Then there are sweet potatoes, a very fibrous food. Mealy, milky mashed potatoes are much better than those orange tubers.

And string beans—they’re even called string beans. Like with corn, the canned ones were acceptable, but when fresh green beans are snapped into bite-size pieces, sometimes the string doesn’t snap cleanly and remains clinging off of one piece. Not going to eat it.

The list goes on.

t-in-jacket-april-1959-cropped

Me, wearing one of the jackets I chewed, 1959

My mother never really understood my abhorrence of strings. “Why can’t you eat the fibers, Theresa?” she asked. “You’re always chewing the strings on your jacket.”

And I did.

As a child, the winter coats I played in usually had hoods. The hoods had strings to tie under the chin. The strings frequently came undone and hung down my chest. I put the ties in my mouth and chewed the ends. I chewed them until they were frayed and disgusting. The taste improved the more I chewed.

Why were those strings different than food fibers?

Because I was a kid. I have no better answer.

Other strings didn’t bother me either. For most of my childhood, my parents had one of those white cotton bedspreads with the pulled loops that created a pretty design on the top of the bed. The loops fascinated me.

When I was three years old, I took my naps on my parents’ bed, while my brother slept in his crib. He and I shared a bedroom, and if we were both in our room, neither of us slept during nap time. I was growing out of naps, and many afternoons I couldn’t sleep. I got bored lying on my parents’ bed, and sometimes I pulled the loops on the bedspread. I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but they were so tempting.

One weekend afternoon, I pulled a very long loop out of the pattern on the spread, and then another, and another. When nap time was over, my mother came into the room, took one look, and asked if I had pulled the loops.

I shook my head. “No.”

She asked again. Again I lied. I didn’t want to get into trouble.

My father was home, and she sent him into the bedroom. “Your mother says you pulled the loops on the bedspread.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Here’s the thing,” he said. “It’s naughty to pull those loops because it wrecks the bedspread. But it’s worse because you lied about it. You have to tell the truth. Because you lied, I’m going to spank you.”

And he did.

My dad was in graduate school at the time, and my parents had to live with that bedspread for several years. My mother tried to repair it, but they couldn’t spend their scarce money on a new one. And every time I looked at the damaged spread, I remembered the lie. And the spanking.

I won’t say I never lied to my parents again, but I didn’t do it often. And not about matters where I could be so easily caught.

When did you get in trouble as a kid?

My Earliest Memories: What Is Real and What Isn’t?

As we begin the new year, I’ve been looking back at my life. From time to time I try to decide what my earliest memory is. I recently wrote about the first Thanksgiving I remember, in November 1958 when I was two-and-a-half. But I have earlier memories yet.

T 17 mo & M 2 wks

Me at 17 months, and my newborn brother

I might remember my brother’s birth when I was seventeen months old, but I may only be remembering the stories that were told later of what a good big sister I was.

I remember my mother having to feed the furnace in the house we lived in from mid-1957 until August or September 1959. But I can’t pinpoint exactly when those memories took place in that timeframe.

I’m pretty sure I do actually remember many things that happened between December and March 1958, when my mother, brother and I lived with my maternal grandparents in Klamath Falls, Oregon, while my father was taking courses in Corvallis, Oregon, for his master’s degree. I was not yet two during these months.

I have fleeting memories of my great-grandfather visiting during that time, though it might have been a later visit, and I don’t remember the most famous family event of that visit, which was when I pushed my baby brother over—caught on an early home movie for all to see.

I’m fairly certain I remember chasing Kitty, my grandparents’ cat, under the couch. I so wanted to pet Kitty, and Kitty so did not want to be petted. She was a grumpy old thing. But again, that memory could have come from a later visit.

kf-house-cropped

My grandparents’ house in Klamath Falls (you can see the Oldenburgs’ house beyond). My bedroom was on the back of the house, which was over the basement garage.

I remember locking myself in the bedroom during naptime. I was fascinated by the lock in the doorknob—we didn’t have those at our house—and I loved to push the button. The bedroom windows were on the second story above the garage in the back of the house. On a couple of occasions, someone had to climb a ladder to get in through the window to rescue me. I didn’t know I needed rescuing, but I was not able to understand how to unlock the door—or maybe I just didn’t want to. After the second or third “rescue,” my grandmother tied a dishtowel around the knob so I couldn’t push the button anymore. But again, this could have happened on a later trip to Klamath Falls.

However, I have one memory from that winter that is confirmed by newspaper accounts. I researched it online and found references to what happened in the Klamath Falls newspaper for February 10 and 11, 1958, though I’m not certain of the exact date.

In the middle of one night in early February 1858, I woke up in that bedroom in my grandparents’ home where I liked to lock the door. What woke me were bright red lights flashing through the bedroom windows. My mother slept with me, and she was also awake. (I can’t remember if my brother’s crib was there also, but he slept through the whole thing.)

My mother was crying. “Shhh,” she said, when she saw I was awake. “Go back to sleep.”

“What are those lights?” I asked.

“Fire trucks.”

I knew what fire trucks were. But I’d never seen their lights flashing. “Why are the lights blinking?”

“There’s been a fire. At the Oldenburgs’ house. Now go back to sleep.”

I knew Dr. and Mrs. Oldenburg. They lived next door. They were old, even older than my grandparents. Their daughter had been one of my mother’s best friends growing up. I watched the lights for awhile, then slept again.

In the morning I found out both Dr. and Mrs. Oldenburg had died in the fire. My mother and grandparents didn’t want to talk about it when I was around, but I heard them whispering.

From that time on, I didn’t like to look at the Oldenburgs’ house. I could see it was burned for awhile, then it got fixed. Another family moved in, and I played with grandchildren who visited them when I was also visiting. But the memory that someone had died in that house always stayed with me. And that night in February 1958 might be my earliest verifiable memory.

What is your earliest memory?