The other day, my wife and I couldn’t agree what sort of take-out to get while we were running errands in town. So, we went to two different restaurants to get our food and took it to the city park to have a little picnic. As fate would have it, Bill, a former co-worker, and his wife, Annie, pulled in at the same time. We decided to share a table and, as often happens with old folks, conversation soon turned to the old days. We all admitted to getting a little misty-eyed sometimes, while looking at old pictures, or thinking of old times. Annie mentioned that the park and its surrounding area held a lot of memories for her.
She was born at the far end of Lynndon Street at her maternal grandmother’s house. One of her uncles (her mother’s brother) had a bakery on nearby Seventh Avenue. In a few years, though, the uncle prospered greatly and had built a new bakery up near the high school. Jefferson Avenue runs from the high school down to the park, and the uncle bought a home on that street, amongst many of the upper crust of the area. He rented the largest shelter in the park every year and hosted family re-unions for his many cousins, siblings and nieces and nephews, and a couple kids of his own.
Behind the big yellow-brick bakery, he built a large home of the same material and moved his mother into it. She had a heart condition, so he hired her a live-in house-keeper who worked week-days and went home on the week-ends. He also hired a woman to come in and cook dinner (lunch) for her every day. The cook also cooked things to leave for supper and to have for the week-ends, when she was off, also.
Not wanting his mother to be alone, Annie’s uncle would get one of his older nieces or nephews to stay with his mother on week-ends and pay them a little for it. Annie was the woman’s eldest granddaughter, and the uncle felt she was the most responsible, so he got her whenever possible. Annie said that he also realized that she had a hard life at home and needed a break herself. Even though she did a little minor cooking and a little housework (the latter more out of occasional boredom than need), most of the time, she just visited with her grandmother.
Their mornings usually began with home-made biscuits with orange marmalade, and all the hot tea she wanted. The tea was a special treat for her, since her folks didn’t normally let their kids drink coffee, tea or soft-drinks. Then, her grandmother would unlock the back door of the bakery and take her through the place as she spoke to the workers and picked up any baked goods she needed for the day. Many of the workers were relatives and they plied young Annie with fresh pastries just from the ovens. Her favorite thing, though, was to get a loaf of bread just from the oven and tear off pieces and eat them while the loaf was still hot.
The big brick house fronted on the high school campus, and large oak trees shaded the row of houses along that edge of the school property. Many afternoons, Annie would sit with her grandmother in the front porch swing, watching the traffic go by on the street in front of the high school, or watching the kids taking their physical education classes on the campus. Sometimes, they would go sit on the neighbors’ porches and visit with them, or the neighbors would come and visit on her grandmother’s porch.
Nearly every day, a quiet knock would sound on the kitchen door in back and some hobo would ask about work or a meal. Her grandmother never gave them any money, but she always fed them a decent meal of whatever she had on hand. “Never turn anyone away from your door hungry,” she always told Annie. Some days, there were several knocks on the door and the food ran a little low, but there was ALWAYS bread!
At night, her grandmother would draw Annie a hot bath in the big claw-foot tub upstairs. Like many farm kids of that era, a bath for her usually consisted of a pan of water and a wash cloth. On Saturdays, there was a washtub to soak in. For obvious reasons, then, the big bathtub was pure luxury to Annie. She would lounge in the tub until her skin looked too big for her from head to toe. Her grandmother would sometimes call to her to ask if she was okay, she would soak so long.
Her grandmother didn’t have air-conditioning by her own choice, but she had plenty of fans. Annie didn’t need them in the room she slept in, though. The exhaust fans from the bakery weren’t far away and kept a steady breeze coming up the alley at the back of the house. And so, Annie drifted off to sleep with the muffled sounds of the city in her ears and the wonderful smell of baking bread filling her nostrils.
There was a certain mistiness to Annie’s eyes as she ended her story and the conversation moved on to slightly different subjects. I remember thinking, though, how many of us are blessed with some wonderful memories from our childhoods. But, then I thought of those poor souls who DON’T have any such memories to look back on, and that sad thought made my own eyes get just a bit misty. © 2013-