This is the latest chapter in a series of posts that relate fiction and my life. Not exactly a memoir of reading but a memoir compared to the fiction of the years I have lived. As soon as I switch over to the "new, improved" blogger, and as soon as I learn how to use the "new, improved" features, I will endeavor to make it easier for readers to find the earlier chapters in the archives. For now, you can search in past months. I usually post a new chapter about once a month.
In 1949, I turned two and experienced the first major change of my life. After four years of living with my father's parents, my mom and dad finally got their own home and we moved to it in November. Until then I had been the only child in a house with five adults. Actually my Aunt Lois, who had been around since I was born, married in 1948 and moved to Chicago with her new husband, now my Uncle Frank. But two parents and two grandparents were a good number of big people for me to interact with and be loved by and from whom to get lots of attention. By the end of 1949, I spent each day alone with my mom in our new house until my dad came home from work.
Independence and change were also keynotes in the world at large. Ireland achieved independence from Great Britain and China became a communist country under Mao Tse-tung. India, having gained independence in the previous year, adopted their first constitution and were ruled by their own Prime Minister, Nehru. East and West Germany were established as separate republics with one of those insane arrangements that come out of world wars: Berlin, the country's capital city falls in East Germany and so was also split into two, leaving some West Germans stranded within the communist side of the country. Vietnam officially became a country, but in Korea, civil war and communism were stirring up trouble which would lead to the next war for the United States. Apartheid was established in South Africa, officially splitting that country between the ruling whites and the oppressed blacks. All kinds of splitting into halves and breaking up of old patterns. How odd that the same sort of thing was going on in our family.
In the realms of science and technology, cortisone was discovered and neomycin developed. I would be part of the first generation to have infections treated with antibiotics. Militarily, the United States Airforce flew a jet across the country in three house and forty-six minutes while the USSR tested its first atomic bomb. The US also launched a guided missile 250 miles into the air, the highest altitude ever reached by man at that time.
In film, "Hamlet" won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Actor (Lawrence Olivier.) I tried watching this movie on DVD and found that Shakespeare works better for me as live theatre. "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," a tale of gold fever and distrust in Mexico, won Best Director (John Huston) and "Johnny Belinda," about a deaf and dumb girl who is molested by ignorant country people, got Jane Wyman an Oscar for Best Actress.
It was a big year for pop music with songs that have become standards: Bali Ha'I, Some Enchanted Evening, I Love Those Dear Hearts and Gentle People, Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend, and (my favorite) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The musical, "South Pacific" was a big hit in New York theatre.
When I finished reading the books for 1949, I had completed reading through an entire decade and had read over 200 novels and short-story collections. That felt like quite a milestone until I realized I still had six decades to go. In any case, historical fiction dominated the year in both the bestseller list and other more literary fiction. World War II was adddressed in only three of the novels, but one of those, Guard of Honor, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Two of the historical bestsellers were stories about the life of Jesus Christ and the beginnings of the Christian church.
My favorite novels of the year included Nineteen Eighty Four, by George Orwell, which introduced the "Big Brother" who is still watching us; The Egyptian, by Mika Waltari, for being exciting and telling the story of Egypt's first attempt to worship only one God; Cutlass Empire, by F Van Wyck Mason, an early Pirates of the Carribean; and The Fires of Spring, which made me a Michener fan for good. The novels portraying contemporary life were generally somewhat weak but showed a society becoming obsessed with money and getting ahead in business. Those being traditional American pursuits, indicate a country getting back to regular life after the war.
Certainly getting ahead with a regular life was the aim of my parents. When the year opened they were still living with my dad's parents in Pittsburgh, PA, still saving money and still watching the papers for a home to buy. But in July, my mother realized she was pregnant when she asked for an onion sandwich as a bedtime snack. As she tells it, she then "put her foot down" and declared to my dad that she would not have another baby in that house. They found a two bedroom Cape Cod in an outlying area called Perrysville, which is a suburb now but was out in the country then. The house was near a bus line so my dad could get to work on public transportation and they bought a car for my mom to get around. The house was also close to a shopping area with a good butcher store, always important to women of German descent.
I have vivid memories of that last year at my grandparents'. A front porch stretched across the entire house, surrounded by a low wall with pillars to hold up the roof above it. I spent hours out there swinging by myself on the cushioned metal glider and watching the cars go by. On either side of the cement steps leading down to the street were spirea bushes which had lacy white flowers in the spring and small black berries in the fall. I made up lots of games and stories for myself with those flowers and berries and learned that birds could eat the berries but I couldn't.
My best time out on that porch was the late afternoon, while dinner was being prepared, when I would watch for my dad to come walking up the sidewalk from the streetcar stop at the corner. But one day, standing on one of those concrete steps, I lost my balance and fell to the first concrete landing. Oh my, this was a bigger tragedy than the time I fell off the bed. It hurt a lot. I got a big bump on the head which developed into what was called a goose egg in my family and plenty of bloody scrapes on my knees. After that I became extremely cautious about stairs, although it is possible that my grandmother, who was scared of everything, had made me overly careful about stairs and steps already and this contributed to my fall. I was a timid kid when it came to physical activity and there are few times in my life when I have felt comfortable or competent in any sport, I don't like climbing hills or mountains and I hate going out in boats.
I also remember sitting on my grandpa's lap and having him tell me over and over that I was his honey. At some family celebration, perhaps my birthday, I was allowed a sip of wine. The taste was so odd and the smell so pungent that I mistakenly took a bite out of the fragile glass, causing everyone at the table to laugh and to tell the story many times over. What I learned from this was that drinking and parties and drawing attention to myself were fun. I have always loved parties and at times in my life I have liked drinking way too much.
The basement at my grandparents' was another special location for me. Grandma would take me down there with her when she did the laundry. She had a washing machine but in those days there was no spin cycle. She used a device called a mangle, through which she would feed the wet, dripping clothes from the washer. It would squeeze out the water and drop the clothes into a basket. Then it was up the stairs that led out to the backyard where the clothes were hung on the line. I was entranced by the mangle and never tired of watching her do that backbreaking job. Outside, it was my job to hand her the clothespins.
Also in the basement was the huge coal furnace and a room where the coal was stored. I remember the big truck that would deliver the coal, dumping it into a shute on the side of the house that mysteriously led to the coal room in the basement. I was not afraid of those basement stairs or any of the rooms down there, but I was never afraid of anything when I was with my grandma. It must be that she held all the fear and made me feel safe.
For me, life at my grandparents' was paradise and leaving there was wrenching. But it was not paradise for my parents and they were ecstatic to finally have a place of their own. I remember nothing about the move. All I know is that one day we were living in a strange new house. I had my own room, after sleeping in my parents' room all my life up to then, and I would wake in the night feeling alone and afraid. My parents thought I was having nightmares but I sensed a large and threatening presence in my room that scared me to death. I would cry and Daddy would come to carry me to the kitchen where there was a light on the stove. There he would walk with me in his arms until I fell asleep again.
We moved in November and the first disaster was the furnace blowing up, which I also do not remember. This was a huge emergency because there was no extra money left and Daddy had to borrow from his sister to get a new furnace. During the day in our new home, it was just me and Mom. She was usually busy cleaning and I am sure having fun setting up her own home, but I was lonely and I missed my grandmother terribly. I would settle into a corner of the living room with a pile of my mom's magazines and "read" them aloud to myself. In my memories of the first months there, it was always dark and gloomy which is probably because it was the middle of winter and there were trees surrounding the house. I longed to be back in what seemed like the warmth and love of our former home. Little did I know that things were about to get even worse when my sister Linda would be born the following spring.