Monday, June 22, 2009

Some Considerations: impression of confusion is true

At a time when children were not yet fashionably dressed, and we lived in a tract (viz, subdivision) where no one was wealthy, and our father had a job, and we had each other (and always our grandparents to write to), and the neighborhood was not unsafe, the impression that we had not much to complain of is true in large part. But the other part, the hard part for children who, like Lorna and me, had been protected and cherished and secure in San Luis Obispo and not much less so (because we were still aware of less) in Alameda and even in Rollingwood, was insecurity and knowing that other people did not respect us. Of course, I can only speak for myself. Were we still the girls that we had been when we were younger? Were we still the same family? Would I, too, become perpetually sick and pleading for shots and prescriptions we couldn't pay for to doctors who came unwillingly? For, yes, doctors still came, yes, with a black bag. And not quasi-dealers.
Just about this time, from his job, Daddy did get family coverage, probably Blue Cross, but that had nothing to do with our mother's problems, which, socio-economically, were ours. When I told the attendance clerk at school that I had had to stay home because my mother was sick, she said that in order to come back I still needed an 'excuse' from her. The gym teacher said that in order to get free uniform gym clothes (blue shirt and short bloomers) I just had to bring a request from my mother, but my mother got mad at the idea of begging for gym clothes. I am sure that many thousands of girls have found themselves in the same dilemma. You can't blame school for having no imagination, and you must, in the more recent lingo, just suck it up. Because of my earlier upbringing, it never occurred to me to forge a note from my mother (and besides there'd be hell to pay if she found out: my shame would be hers). I knew that other kids in the tract stuffed paper up the coin-return of the public telephone, but I never was tempted to do it. It was a low thing to do. What would the grandparents think of it?
And through all of this (except when the electricity was cut off) I had a phonograph and classical music recordings to listen to, I had books (including, to be candid, my mother's Doubleday Book Club novels—sent before her subscription was cancelled, as well as better things), and I had drawing materials, even though, from time to time, we certainly were malnourished. Later I couldn't help but respond to Edna St. Vincent Millay's statement that they had all the luxuries but none of the necessities. I'd guess now that she, too, had some luxuries but less of what most people regard as necessities. Certainly, like Miss Millay, I was egoistic. It did not occur to me to wonder what were the luxuries that my sister (let alone the little ones) craved. Sometimes I let myself think that, since they were free to play, and I was trying to create a week's menus that could be provisioned for a set sum or getting clothes washed and ironed, I had earned my special position. Considered in terms of tit for tat, that was so, but it is bad for every eldest child that has to play that role. Disciplining the little ones as well as I could was bad for us all, and it is bad for every child that has to do it for a protracted period. My sister was cooperative, and Daddy was good to both of us, but she was too young to help control the little ones. That she and I survived this insecure period surely was due to our happy beginnings, perhaps even to our mother's better health during our gestation.
Neither one of us knows how the half-Sheltie, Viffy II, came through the early months of 1947, but she did. One of Daddy's fellow workers at Swan's had children the right size for our rocking horses, which thus found a new home; perhaps the cradles did, too.
Neither of us knows when Daddy began to bring home chute-damaged merchandise from his job in the basement of Swan's 10th Street Market. This was legitimate. All the guys did, and with permission. It couldn't be sold, and it wouldn't be picked up for return. Cans and bottles without labels (we learned to read the codes stamped on the bottom of the can), flour and powdered milk and corn meal that had tears or punctures in the sacks, even pet food for Viffy II and Comet. Less often, but often enough, we got sugar this way. For bread, I had only to find cubes of live yeast at the grocery that were not outdated: we had a good, old cookbook. The first batches were not very good, but thereafter I made good loaves of bread and some dinner or breakfast rolls at least once a week. It takes a lot of breadmaking to use fifty or even 20 pounds of flour. It was a great help to have this mystery canned food, though no one likes canned peas very much and I certainly do no like canned sauerkraut. Spam, it must be admitted, chipped beef, and corned-beef hash were most useful. There were no food stamps at the time, and surplus foods were much less varied.