By Marilyn Crockett
Thanksgiving is the traditional time for a break-up from the boyfriend or girlfriend left behind. But it is also the time for a critical look at the home and family left behind. In 1959 amid the noise, crowd and smoke of Union Station in Chicago Illinois, I met my family, who drove me home away from my new life at Monmouth College. Neither parent greeted me with great enthusiasm. That was their way and was expected. My sister Sue was still overweight and greeted me wistfully, but we didn’t seem to talk much. Arriving, the outside of the house looked fine, a brick twenties, bungalow on a pleasant curved street lined with the mature Elms of Elmwood Park, the Chicago suburb that had been my home for all of my eighteen years.
The house had been bought in the thirties. It was the second house bought in Elmwood Park, the first one had been lost to the foreclosure of the depression. My twenty-three year old parents had married in 1928. I did not know about the foreclosure then. To hear my mother talk, the reason for the move might have been the house being too close to the Catholic school and church, and the new house being on a larger lot with a two car, not a one car garage. To hear my mother talk about the depression, it was an heroic time when Aunt Athena had bought a double length of fabric and mother had made both dresses, one for herself and one for Athena. My father had held on to his job as an electrical engineer for Commonwealth Edison on a half pay and a half day level. I did not know about the loss of the first house until much later when my much older brother told my sister and me about it. I now think about mother as an early spin-doctor. She didn’t just put her best foot forward, she put a rosette on the heeled shoe. .
The inside of the house in Elmwood Park on Birchdale Avenue was another story. It was quiet. And, by the way there wasn’t a single birch tree on Birchdale avenue, just Elms. We no longer had the friendly cocker-spaniel, Kelly, to hop around and wiggle excitedly. There was a small screen black and white television in a large ugly housing and a turntable in an even larger cabinet, but they were seldom on. I had a choice of sleeping back with my sister in what had become her room, not that she had changed it any or the attic. I think I went to sleep in the unfinished attic where I had some privacy amid the rafters and the rough orange crate stacks of books my brother had left behind from his college years.
The center of the clutter of the house downstairs was my mother’s legitimate doll collection. It was housed in two china cabinets squeezed into her smallish bedroom, along with two dressers and a double bed. One of the china cabinets was white unlike the cherry wood one it was next to, perched on top of Mother’s dresser. There was very little room to get around and make the bed. But there was also an overflow of dolls and doll things in boxes in the closet and under beds and in drawers in both downstairs bedrooms. There were some good dolls. Her grandmother Cole had given her a very expensive doll when she was nine. But there were not very many that were “good” She collected mostly dolls destined not to survive well, apple head dolls, corn husk dolls, dolls in national costumes, not unfortunately including the Madame Alexander dolls, which do survive and are considered of some value. She had scary china doll heads without bodies. These had very white bone porcelain skin with vary dark glazed hair, parted in the center, Victorian style. There were also paper doll booklets held back from “the girls” that “would be valuable someday.”
In the dining room there were also not one, but two sewing machines. The second a treadle, had been bought for me when I was nine. These were the base of piles and boxes and stacks of fabrics and yarn which also covered the dining room table. There was also a china cabinet that did contain good china, along with some ceramic figurines from Mother’s lessons in china doll painting. Mother knit as well as sewed, and wove. The spinning wheel would come later. The kiln and molds for ceramics were in the basement. There was a big loom on the dining room table and smaller table looms stacked around. Excess from all the hobbies, was all over the house. There were piles on the mangle that led to the kitchen. I had never known Mother to use the mangle although she may have before I was born or when I was too young to notice. It just sat there and supported piles. The pantry was a huge pile overwhelming shelves and a set of drawers that were permanently stuffed by the time I came along and never opened. The stairs to the attic were cluttered with stacks of papers and magazines topped with stacks of egg cartons and strawberry boxes.
None of this was new to me, but seeing it with fresh eyes brought up anger. It was impossible to take a shower, since my father’s shirts were hanging on the shower curtain rod. My parents’ closet was admittedly not that large and full of Mother’s clothes. Everyone had always taken baths instead. That meant washing my hair was a separate chore. Other people’s houses were not like this. I’m not sure how other people coped with the small closets but cleaning them out would have been a start. Instead of cleaning them out my mother acquired other used clothing from charitable clothing drives and kept some that might be useful for the girls as hand-me-downs. I had hated this as a teen.
There were no nice new fluffy towels either, just thin dirty looking ones hanging limply. My response to everything, the house, the impossible level of clutter and old things was to angrily swoop all the towels in the bathroom and take them down to the basement and put them in the washer and dryer. They were no better, after the unnecessary washing, than they were before. What I had taken as dirt, was wear and age, or dirt so ground in that the towels would never truly “come clean.” My mother was perplexed by my behavior, but we made no explanations to each other. I just gave up my feeble attempt to fix things, and looked forward to returning to college.