Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mom's Childhood

When mom and I go away by ourselves, or even if we are just spending time together, we talk…a lot!  You would think that after having my mom for over 30 years, I’d know everything there is to know about her life, but that is not the case at all.

I learned several things about her family the weekend she took me away for my birthday.

My mom had 4 other siblings.  We have driven by the house she grew up in, but we were never allowed inside when we were kids.  My grandfather started to hoard everything when my grandmother died, and from what I was told, there was a path to the kitchen, to the bathroom, and to the couch.  Otherwise, there was “stuff” from floor to ceiling. 

I always wonder about the way my mom grew up, because she never really talks about her past and her family.  Her siblings are spread out around the United States, many of them not having talked since my grandmother passed away in 1982 or 1983.  They just aren’t a close family, and it’s a shame.

The house they grew up in was (is) VERY SMALL; I would say about 850 sq. ft. at most.  About 4 or 5 years ago, mom and I went to her home-town of Cuba, NY, and we drove by the house she grew up in.  Her brother currently owns the house because their father left it to him (he is the only one that lives in Cuba and took care of the house when grandpa was ill before he passed away.)

When we drove up to the house, I spoke out loud and said that I wondered if the house was open.  Mom said it couldn’t possibly be open, but she’d love to see the inside.  So, that was my cue.  I went up to the house and low and behold, the door opened.  I looked over my shoulder and waved her to come in from the car.  I let her lead the way so I could soak up as much information as possible from the stories she may tell.

As a side note, this house was an old boy-scout camp cabin.  It was VERY primitive.

As we walked in, there was the family/living room.  This room was not very big - probably 13 x 15.  That may sound big to some, but I cannot see 5 kids and two adults having enough seating in that room to do anything together.  There was a wood-burning stove in the middle of the biggest wall, and that heated the home (well, this side of the house.)  The rest of the house had NO HEAT.  Mom told stories of the Winters (remember, they are in upstate New York where there is A LOT of snow and it gets REALLY cold) that they put their socks and jeans on the stove so they could dress into warm clothes.

The foundation was collapsing, and the side of the family/living room was wide open to the elements.  There was an ENORMOUS bee’s nest that pretty much took over the corner of the wall.  You could see that the squirrels and critters were coming and going into the house.  On that wall, there was a cedar chest.

My mom opened the cedar chest, and there were a lot of items my grandmother had saved.  I was in awe.  From what I understand, my grandmother adored me.  I have heard stories about my grandmother that are not good ones.  From what I understand, she is pretty much the reason no one wanted to stay there at the house.  Everyone as kids couldn’t wait to get out of the house.  But grandpa “was a peach” as my mom said.  He loved his wife and she could do no wrong. She gambled his paychecks away, and never worked because she was “too sick” to work.  She took my mother’s paychecks when she started working at 14 stating that she was “saving them for when it was time for her to move out,” to find out that she had spent every last penny my mother ever made.  As I mentioned, my grandmother adored me, and I have absolutely nothing against her.  I actually wish she was around for me to know her to form my own opinion of her.  She died visiting me for the 4th of July when I was 2 due to complications with her diabetes. 

My mom gave me permission to take a book with newspaper clippings my grandmother had been saving.  As we walked through the narrow hall, you came to the kitchen.  The kitchen was TINY.  I don’t know how 7 people ate in the kitchen.  There was junk everywhere.  Mom said that there were piles of “stuff” that was there when SHE lived there 37 years earlier.  I found pictures of my grandmother and grandfather, my long lost cousin, Jovonne, and the family.  Mom said I could take them as well.

The bathroom was a toilet.  Mom told stories of how they couldn’t flush the toilet in the Winter because the pipes had frozen.  They had no water.  They had to wash their hair in a sink, and that was once a week.  Not even hot water was in the house (no water heater.) I saw the bedroom that “the girls” slept in.  There were 3 girls and 2 boys in my mom’s family.  There were two twin beds against each wall and a dresser.  There were still ashes on the dresser from when my mom lived there.  The “girl’s bedroom” was a 9x9 room.  Barely enough room to fit the two twin beds.  Two girls slept in one bed, and one in the other.  The dresser had 4 drawers.  I’m not sure how 3 girls shared that dresser.  There were no closets in this room.

The boys slept in a small room attached to the house.  Again, no heat.

I knew about the bathroom situation (7 people – one bathroom and pipes freezing,) but I learned that they did laundry once a month.  How in the world could a family of 7 do laundry once a month?  I asked mom about underwear.  She said she honestly doesn’t remember, but she doubts they had enough clean underwear for everyone for the month.  There was no washer/dryer at the house, so they went to the laundry mat and did it all.  I have gone 2 weeks without doing laundry, and all I can say is, ewww.  I don’t care what anyone says, after a few weeks, your clothes start to smell if you wear them more than a handful of times.
I also learned during my weekend get-a-way, that mom and her siblings always got chicks and ducklings for Easter in their Easter baskets.  My grandpa apparently loved duck eggs.  But the chicks were not only a gift for Easter, but used for dinner several months later.

I love hearing stories from my mom about the way things used to be.  They didn’t have a phone, so they had to use a payphone down the road (a pretty long distance,) and how mom and her siblings would sneak out at night and go swimming in Cuba Lake when it was really hot.  They would leave their suits on tombstones in the cemetery on their way home so they’d dry over-night and their parents wouldn’t know about it. 

I couldn’t imagine living as they did, but the simpler life definitely appeals to me.  My mother was poor growing up, but she has so many great memories.  I have so many great memories myself growing up to tell our future children.  None of them were bad memories.  None of them have been hardship memories.  My brother and I were blessed with parents who loved us and wanted better for their children than what they had…and they succeeded.  Though they divorced, we never needed/wanted for anything.  I have nothing but great memories growing up.

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