Tuesday, March 24, 2009

644 pre-School kitchen snippets

There was a photo, which may be lost forever, showing me, aged about 4, washing my doll clothes on a child-size washboard, in a basin in the kitchen sink at 644.  Presumably, I was standing on a chair.  Presumably, because I remember the picture (the light was very photogenic, pouring through the window above the sink) but I don't remember the event.  Certainly it was posed, because there was no water in the wash basin (enameled metal, of course, there being no plastic yet).  Similarly, I remember (and here it is) a picture of my sister, just two, standing in the bassinet frame in expectation of our new baby, which would be a brother.  But in both cases, it is photos that I know; I don't have real memory of their being taken.  The snapshot I just posted also shows the rose trellis arching the end of our front walk; it is the rose trellis that I do remember.  In a family of avid photographers, I early formed a distinction between what I remember (what no one saw in many cases) and what I know very well but from photos.
So, no one took a photo of the stove we first had when we moved to 644, but I remember it very well.  It stood up on four legs and was connected to natural gas.  It was very safe; there were no pilot lights that could blow out, and no one, of course, turned on the gas before the kitchen match was lit and ready.  Good kitchen matches do stay lit, but if one was blown out by a draft from an opening door, for example, one turned off the gas jet and started over.  Simple.  Baking Christmas fruit cakes, though, required a little skill.  You didn't set your oven.  Today I'd set mine for 275° F.  You could buy an oven thermometer at Woolworth's or the hardware store, but we didn't have one.  My mother, like my grandmother, knew how high the gas flames had to be to keep the oven (each particular oven, not all being insulated the same) just right to produce fully cooked but unscorched fruit cakes after several hours, how many hours being determined by looking at them, once they were past being ruined by opening the door of the oven, and towards the end poking them with toothpicks.  After cooling overnight they were wrapped in waxed paper and dish towels (made of cotton sacking, such as was used for sugar) and stowed in drawers to age till Christmas.  Brandy might have helped them, but ours depended on molasses and as much glazed fruit and nuts as the dough would take.  Year after year, they were perfect.  Some old things were difficult, but others were not, and the danger of 100% manual gas stoves and heaters is largely an advertising myth.
Now, believe it or not, my mother actually won a new stove by completing a slogan ("in 25 words or less").  I think it was an Oxydol-sponsored contest, but couldn't swear to it.  She boasted of having won a Roper so faithfully that I am dead certain that the brand-name was Roper.  It did have pilot lights and a heat control on the oven.  It was white, too, at a time when most cooking stoves (unless you still had a black wood burner, and that was very rare indeed in California) were cream or green, that apple green.  The Roper even moved with us when we moved north after the War started.
In the small pantry area between the kitchen proper and the porch with the washing machine, beneath the shelving, was my toy box.  My grandfather had made it, in the shape of a box between the bodies of running dogs (I think dogs, not hares).  Blocks, stacking toys, and what not, were tossed in there for storage, and it seemed to me that I spent long hours doing not much more than picking up and putting down things in it.  Or putting together and taking apart.  Since I didn't take naps, perhaps an hour in the toy box instead of running all over and making demands took their place.  In the toy box: it was large enough for a pre-schooler to share with the toys.
In either house, our hair was washed by lying on our backs on the kitchen counter with our heads largely over the sink.  No one left a child unattended there.  But that reminds me of soap, since bar Ivory was used as shampoo (a little vinegar in the rinse).  When we spoke nasty things, that is, when we sassed or tried to frighten the littler ones or said one of the words that Daddy brought home from work, such as damn, or said peepee for urine, there was a time when my mother washed out our mouths with that same Ivory soap.  My next sister and I somehow divined that a teaspoonful of butter was the cure for soap (and, by the way, it is), and the cleansing of our naughty mouths with soap didn't last too long.  I remember, too, that the washcloth with which my mother washed our faces before coming to table often was "sour", and I hated the odor.  I still hate anything that has that stench.