Recapturing Details

“We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important.  Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter. . . Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency.  A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter. It is not a writer’s task to say, “It is dumb to live in a small town or to eat in a café when you can eat macrobiotic at home.” Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist – the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside…We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.”

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

I think if I were to go back to the house where I grew up, if some time warp would permit, and walk in the rooms and the hallways, I could take up now as if I never left.  I could go into the kitchen and know which cupboard to open for a plate, a soup bowl or a glass.  Which cupboard to open to remove a can of soup and which to open for a kettle in which to heat the soup on the stove.  Why is it that those details remain so clear?

Our kitchen in the 1,000 square foot house was not crafted from expensive materials.  Our house was built in 1948-1949 in that post war period when materials were scarce and expensive for builders and homebuyers to come by.  The counter tops were Formica with metal molding strips along the edges and over time it started to show worn patches from being cleaned and wiped so often with a sponge or a dishcloth.  The cabinets were plywood, stained and varnished a maple sort of color, though it was painfully clear they were plywood.  They were not veneer and there was no attempt to fool the eye into thinking they were something they were not.  The floor was linoleum, again one of those post-war grades and of a non-descript pattern that didn’t show stains and spills readily.  It was practical.  When I watch HGTV now and see granite counter tops and art glass back splashes, cherry wood cabinets and high grade ceramic floor tiles, I am amazed that some people consider these necessities, rather than “nice to have” or luxuries.

Under one counter were built in “bread boards” or “eating boards,” larger than the average cutting board, the kind with knobs that pulled out, each one about 25 inches wide and about as deep.  There were two of them, side by side, separated by about 2 inches.  They could be used for rolling out pie crust or sugar cookie dough, for food preparation or chopping vegetables.  We also used them as a kitchen table.  At meal time, we pulled both of them out as far as they would go, to make an eating/dining surface of about 52 x 25 inches, with the crack in the middle separating the two.  My father would sit at the far right end facing East, my mother would sit in the center to my father’s left, facing South, and I would sit at the other end facing West and facing my father, with my back wedged up against hinge side of the refrigerator door.  I sat on a four-legged kitchen stool with no back; it was hard to fit a chair at that end because of the close proximity of the refrigerator door, smack up against my back.  Hence, the stool.  And if the refrigerator had to be opened any time during the meal, I would have to stand up and move the stool to allow for the door to open.  My parents each sat on a chair pulled over from the adjacent dining room.  We used the dining room only for company. 

In the early 50s, we had an incomplete set of pastel dinnerware, mostly dinner plates and a few salad plates, cups and saucers.  Over time many pieces broke and were discarded.  Most that remained were chipped.  In reviewing the different patterns I’ve found on the web, I think they were probably LuRay dinnerware, made by the Taylor Smith & Taylor Company. 

I don’t know where they originally came from, but there is a good chance they were someone’s hand-me-downs or purchased second hand, and probably never were part of a complete set.  My parents married in 1945 and not a lot was available in those days.  My father had just been discharged from the Marine Corps and I’m not sure how quickly he was able to get a “real job.”  My mother’s depression mindset and skills at living on a shoestring probably got them through for many months.  By the late 50s, early 60s, we were to acquire a set of Franciscan ironstone in the Autumn pattern, swirling autumn leaves on a speckled ivory colored background, now considered “vintage” and no longer made, and now a collectable item.

Our refrigerator was a gas model made by Servel.  Very few people after the 1960s still had a gas refrigerator.  When it needed servicing, which was rare because it was a real surviving work horse, my mother would call the Gas Company and ask them to send a repair man who was near retirement age, because the younger men had no clue what this contraption was all about, much less how to fix one or how to get parts.  It didn’t have an upper freezer compartment like modern refrigerators, but had a space in the upper center for three aluminum ice trays, flanked on either side by skinny wire shelf racks.  That was it.  No space to store a pint of ice cream or a package of frozen vegetables.  My mother scoffed at frozen food and for the most part considered it an abomination.  I have to admit, looking back, it wasn’t spectacular, and such luxuries as Lean Cuisine and the vast array of today’s choices weren’t even on the horizon.  I came to be embarrassed about that refrigerator, because most all the neighbors had modern appliances with freezer units, and had them filled with goodies like fifty-fifty bars, Fudgesicles, frozen French fries, Banquet pot pies, and frozen fruit pies that could be popped into the oven and baked quickly.  On those rare occasions when my mother bought frozen foods, we shopped in the morning and had them for dinner the very same evening, so no need for long term storage.  One neighbor even had a large “deep freeze” in their garage and they could store a whole side of beef – of course they had a family of six and this was practical for them.  But my mother thought it folly.  She said the flavor would be ruined by months of storage.

For years we had an old gas stove, an antique by today’s standards.  The burners had to be lit with a match, as did the oven.  The oven temperature couldn’t be regulated with any accuracy, and the oven door didn’t close tightly, so heat would leak out and escape during the baking process.  So my mother would take the kitchen stool (the same one I sat on during meals), push it up against the stubborn oven door at a precise angle (only she could do it exactly right), and then weight the stool down with four cast iron skillets atop it, one nested in the other, so that the stool wouldn’t move from the resistance of the oven door wanting to fall open.  And so it went for many years.  And I must say that many a perfect pie, cake, and Thanksgiving turkey were baked successfully in that oven, despite its disabilities.  Later my mother would succumb to purchasing a “modern Kenmore” stove in the mid 60s, a floor model that Sears had on sale.  My mother, ever the scrimper with my father’s pay checks, considered this a luxury.

We had an old Maytag wringer washer too.  I’m pretty sure we were the only family in the neighborhood with one of those, as well.  Automatic washers had since long replaced the old tub style ones with wringers by the 1960s.  My guess is that it was made in the early thirties.   I found two just like it on auction on eBay, but no reference to the date they were manufactured.  When my mother sold her house in the mid 80s, she was still using that washer.  

I remember how we would wash clothes on hot summer days, starting at seven in the morning, to beat the heat, running the laundry piece by piece through the wringer after rinsing.  Then I would be designated to carry the wet clothes in a large enamel dish pan out behind the garage and hang them on the clothesline, with wooden clothespins, to dry.  We never had an electric dryer.  My mother said they shrunk the clothes and they never smelled “clean” when dried in a dryer.  You must be getting a clear picture now – we were wedded to the old, the complicated, the labor-intensive, and the back-breaking – and, I might add, the embarrassing.

If I could go back, I would go to the small skinny cupboard, to the right of the kitchen sink, and remove a glass, one of those jelly glasses in which Welch’s grape jelly came, that you saved after the jelly was all eaten, with a cartoon depiction of Howdy Doody painted on it.  I would open the door to the old refrigerator and remove a small can of frozen Minute Maid lemonade from the space meant to hold an ice cube tray.  One ice cube tray would have been removed to accommodate the lemonade can.  I could fetch a pitcher from the cabinet under the eating boards.  Then I would make a pitcher of lemonade, stirring it with an iced teaspoon of the Queen Bess pattern, one of many purchased with General Mills coupons, saved over time.  And I would open the large tin in which we kept baked cookies, homemade of course, a red ten inch round painted tin, about five inches deep, that had a lid painted with poinsettias, greenery and Christmas candles.  Here and there the design was starting to fade and flake off.  And I would remove the lid and bring out a cookie I had baked earlier that day, perhaps one of my prize-winning peanut butter cookies, with the cross hatched design pressed on top using grandma’s three-tined, black-handled fork, one of the last of an old set that had probably been a gift to my great grandmother as a wedding gift. The aroma from the cookies, pent up inside the tin, would escape and smell heavenly.

I would pour lemonade into the jelly glass.  I would eat my cookie and drink my lemonade, and probably go back for seconds of both, before retiring for a time to the old rocking chair in the living room, the one that used to belong to my paternal grandfather.  And I would rock, almost imperceptibly, while flipping through an old Saturday Evening Post with a Norman Rockwell cover, and read the latest installment of a serialized Perry Mason mystery story, slowly, slowly.  Because the next installment wouldn’t come for a few days and I had to make it last.  And I would look at the Hazel cartoons and laugh as I read about the latest exploits of Heinrich Schnibble, by Dave Morah, in the Post Scripts section.  And I would barely notice the sonic boom as a plane went over, flying from nearby Edwards Air Force Base, breaking the sound barrier.  But I would notice the change in the light as it filtered through the ivory colored wide venetian blinds on the West facing windows, making the dust motes dance visibly, and know from the angle of the shadows that it would soon be time to start peeling potatoes for dinner, because my father would be pulling into the driveway returning from work a little past five, and we would want to have dinner ready to eat by six.

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About Connie

Connie Pursell is a baby boomer and a technical writer in the world of healthcare claims. Did Jesus Have a Cat? is her first book of essays. Connie misquotes Shakespeare: “Some are born quirky, some achieve quirkiness, and some have quirkiness thrust upon them.” She thinks she was born quirky but didn’t find her voice or full quirky potential until her later years. She grew up in Lancaster, California and earned a BA and an MA in English from Cal State University, Long Beach. In addition to essays, she also writes poetry – a couple of poems are included in the book. She is active in volunteer activities, makes beaded jewelry and lives in Laguna Niguel, CA with her three cats.