Speaking of Judy, I mentioned in the story that we "didn't always play well together." That was true, but I can't think of anyone I'd rather "play with" now than Judy. We have an amazing number of common interests now that I've given up paper dolls and she's given up horse pretensions.
I shared a double bed with my mother until I was almost fifteen. Our big dresser stood to my right, Mother slept to my left, and my little sister, Judy, slept to Mother’s left in a small bed of her own. Judy shared her youth bed with a collection of dolls and stuffed animals. It’s a wonder any of us had room to turn over.
Ours was one of three upstairs bedrooms in my grandparents’ home in Springfield, Missouri. The room directly across the stairway landing from ours was usually occupied by renters, college students who attended nearby Southwest Missouri State Teachers’ College. A smaller bedroom centered between our room and the students’ belonged to my Uncle Joe, who was only seven years older than I.
Downstairs, my grandparents, Mammaw and Packy, had the bedroom at the front of the house, a corner room where light flooded through sheer curtains on two sides. A narrow hallway ran from their room all the way back to a fifth bedroom, where my great-grandmother, Dora, could wake up in the mornings and look out on the bright colors of Mammaw’s flower garden.
In 1953, when I was ten, we got our first television set. Grandma Dora passed away in October of that year. The following year Joe graduated high school and promptly took off for Mexico with his best friend, not telling anybody where he was until he called and said he’d be back from time to time, but first he wanted to see the world. Mammaw was distraught, and Packy was fit to be tied. I don’t recall what Mother and Judy had to say about the situation. As for my own reaction, I kind of enjoyed the sudden expansion of elbow room. I thought I might get a room to myself, but I didn’t.
Things gradually returned to normal. Judy and I went to school, Mother and Packy went to work, and Mammaw stayed home to keep the household running. She had the hardest job of all. She climbed upstairs to clean the college boys’ room and downstairs to do the laundry in the basement. She did it all while wearing clunky, two-inch high heels, nylon stockings rolled to her knees, and a fresh, clean apron over a crisply starched housedress, usually one she’d made herself. She hummed as she did her housework. Her smiles were warm and plentiful, and she never complained. When Mammaw rested, she read: Good Housekeeping, Redbook and several other magazines she liked. She also liked flowers, soap operas, and everyone she ever met.
Packy, a World War I veteran, was pleasant but stoic. He didn’t talk much, but he did dispense a little discipline by calling Judy or me to come back and shut the screen door properly every time we’d run through and let it slam. Packy wore khaki shirts and khaki pants with suspenders to his job at the furniture store and didn’t change out of them until bath time, whether he’d spent the evening working in his big vegetable garden or watching TV. Mammaw kept a thick Indian blanket over the sofa to protect it from both garden soil and from the tobacco that spilled from the white, drawstring pouch of Bull Durham Packy kept in his shirt pocket. Each time he rolled a cigarette, a few specks of tobacco fell to the floor. He claimed tobacco was good for the carpet, kept the worms out of it. Packy was a reader, too, but his tastes ran to the daily newspaper, the Reader’s Digest (which he kept in the bathroom), and paperback murder mysteries. He was an avid fan of the St. Louis Cardinals and President Harry Truman.
Mother was moody. She could be tons of fun, but when I run a reel of “Young Mother” images through my mind, I see more frowns than smiles. She was beautiful and stylish, especially when she dressed up for work or to go out for an evening. She was a skilled seamstress and made a lot of her own clothes, including a coral-colored, poodle-cloth coat and matching tote bag once. She sewed many of our clothes, too. She contributed income to the household but otherwise didn’t help out much at home. She ironed the clothing that she, Judy and I wore each week, washed the supper dishes once in a blue moon, and supervised Judy and me in the cleaning of our bedroom. Even though she didn’t have many regular chores, she wasn’t afraid to tackle larger projects. I recall holding on to her legs as she sat on an upstairs window sill and leaned backwards into the open air to wash our bedroom windows, and I remember another time she redecorated our room, modernizing it by painting the woodwork white, covering the old floral wallpaper with a shade of paint called Dusty Rose, and adding a rose-patterned border where the walls met the ceiling.
Like her parents, Mother enjoyed reading. She bought murder mysteries and movie magazines at the newsstand near her job. Packy read the mysteries when Mother was finished, and I read all the movie magazines, even one I knew she didn’t want me to read. It was called Confidential and was a precursor to today’s gossipy tabloids. I specifically remember one story in Confidential about Robert Mitchum, the actor. The magazine reported that Mitchum attended a Hollywood party and, after realizing he was the only person there not wearing a costume, downed a few cocktails, went to the kitchen, stripped down to his birthday suit, doused himself with ketchup, then returned to the assembled guests and introduced himself as a hamburger.
With Mammaw and Packy as backup caretakers and little or no assistance from our father, Mother did a good job of providing for Judy and me. Despite holding down a full-time job, she showed up for every important school event. She entertained us frequently, taking us to the swimming pool, the roller rink, the movies, or just to the corner drugstore for ice cream sodas. Still, I never felt I had enough time with her. When she went out for the evening on a date or with a friend, I missed her. Especially at bedtime. Sleep didn’t come easily when her side of the bed was empty. My child’s mind interpreted her absence once or twice a week as rejection. Now I understand how lonely she must have been.
Judy and I didn’t always play well together. We were four years apart in age and didn’t have many common interests. Judy was active and energetic and liked to play outdoors with friends. My favorite pastimes were quiet, mostly solitary ones: reading or drawing clothes (I called it “designing fashions”) for my paper dolls. On summer days I’d sit on the front porch swing in the shade and peek over the top of my Nancy Drew or Ginny Gordon mystery to watch Judy and her best friend, Cindy. They’d pull their hair back into ponytails and pretend they were wild horses. I could see how much fun they were having, racing around the yard, sweating, whinnying and slapping their thighs to make hoof noises, but I was too lazy for their kind of fun.
We got along better after supper. When the heat of the day dissipated, the children in our neighborhood spilled outdoors from houses up and down the street and congregated on sidewalks and in front yards--usually ours, because we were centrally located. There weren’t many of us kids, probably seven or eight at most. We caught lightning bugs together and put them in jars, or we divided into teams and played games like Simon Says and Lemonade (“Show me something if you’re not afraid!”). Hide and seek was never more fun than when shadows fell between the houses and the tall trees. We felt safe in the near darkness because parents and grandparents sat on front porches, chatting, sipping iced tea, watching over us. We knew to stay within shouting distance of our parents and to be back home when the streetlights came on.
When it was too dark or too cold to stay outside after supper, our family would gather in the living room and watch television. Most of us multitasked, a habit carried over from earlier days when we’d gathered there to listen to the radio. Mammaw would sit in the wooden rocking chair, one eye on the TV set, the other on her crochet or embroidery work. Mother sat in the easy chair, pincurling her hair or filing and polishing her nails. Judy and I staked out separate spaces on the rug, she with a favorite toy, I with paper dolls, drawing paper, crayons and scissors. Packy stretched out on his back on the couch. He’d lie flat like that until Judy’s inevitable nightly request: “Packy, make a hole.” Then he’d roll onto his side and draw up his legs to place the soles of his sock-covered feet squarely against the back of the couch so Judy could climb up and snuggle into the space behind his knees.
One day didn’t differ much from the next back then; our routines were familiar and comfortable. Saturday night suppers were always hamburgers, pork and beans, potato chips and soft drinks (known to Missourians as “pop”). The only part of the Saturday menu that ever varied was the flavor of the pop. Mammaw would ask each of us early in the week what we wanted: Dr. Pepper, Grapette, Orange Crush or something else. Once she’d added all of our requests to her grocery list, she’d call in an order to the Monroe Street Market, and they’d deliver it the next day.
Sunday’s menu was always the same, too: fried chicken after church. Mammaw made sure we all went to Sunday School every week--all of us but Packy, who never did go that I remember. Technically, Mother didn’t go either. She was on the premises every week, but she stayed in the nursery, tending the babies. I always thought she volunteered for nursery duty so she wouldn’t have to listen to the lesson or the preaching. Mammaw always stayed for church after Sunday School, but the rest of us skipped church sometimes. When we did go, I enjoyed the music more than anything. Our Baptist church had a big choir and a huge pipe organ. The hymns I heard on Sunday mornings filled my heart and touched my soul more deeply than any words our preacher, Dr. Eastham, ever spoke. Young as I was, I disagreed with him about some things. I didn’t for a minute believe God was as mean as Dr. Eastham made Him out to be.
Time passes and things change. Rivers run dry, ships sink, familiar family routines come to an end. The summer before I turned fifteen, Judy and I moved to Texas with Mother and her brand-new husband, whom she’d met only three weeks earlier. We left behind Mammaw and Packy, the house and the neighborhood we loved, and Judy’s youth bed. Most of Judy’s dolls went missing, too. I suspect they were left behind intentionally due to lack of space in the U-Haul trailer, though Mother never did admit it. I left my first steady boyfriend, and, more significant over the long term, my sense of security. The memories, though--the wonderful, wonderful memories--those I kept. All those Missouri days and nights were packed in my head and heart so carefully and lovingly that I can take them out and enjoy them even now.
And I do, nearly every day.