...Aunt Molly was as round as she was tall. She had dark, short-cropped hair just like my grandmother’s hair. Uncle Hank was of medium height, with red hair. He always had a silly grin on his face. They lived in a village of row houses. Their house was the last unit. It had three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and bathroom, all on the first floor. My four cousins, Ruth, Al, Rich and Harry slept in twin-size beds, two in each bedroom. Aunt Molly and Uncle Hank slept in another bedroom, where they had a crib set up for Carol Jean.
There was no bed for me. I slept in one of the twin-size beds with my cousin, Ruth. Her head was at the top of the bed and my head was at the foot of the bed. Ruth resented that she had to share her bed. She kicked me hard with the heels of her feet. I kicked her back.“Nancy Lee’s kicking me—get her out of my bed!”
“Nancy Lee, you stop that, or you’ll get a whipping,” Aunt Molly called out from the bedroom across the hall. I couldn’t kick Ruth back. I had to take it. There was nothing I could do about it.
Ruth was a few months younger and she was shorter and chubbier than I. She had beautiful, long, blonde ringlets that hung past her shoulders. I envied her for that. I wanted to be friends with her, but she wouldn’t play with me. She didn’t want me at her house and I knew it. Sometimes, when I tried to talk to her, she wouldn’t even answer me. “My Daddy bought me Pick-Up Sticks. Do you want to play with me?” I asked, one more time. She just gave me a smirk and a grunt and walked away.
Her three older brothers were nice. They always let me play soft ball with them in the open field next to their house. Harry was the oldest, but Rich made most of the decisions about who played which position on the field because Harry wasn’t as smart as Rich. The youngest brother, Al, played catcher, at the home base, and I played in the outfield. Harry and Rich took turns pitching and batting. I wished I didn’t have to keep running after the ball. “Rich, may I have a turn to bat?”
“No, you’re too little. You have to be an outfielder.” I only played soft ball with them one Saturday and a few times after school.
I was registered in the fourth grade and rode a school bus to school. I thought it was fun sitting in the back of the bus with Al, Rich and Harry, listening to the kids making a lot of noise, laughing and teasing each other. “Look at the new girl. What’s your name?” asked the girl who was sitting in front of me.
“Nancy Lee,” I answered quietly.
“Don’t talk to her!” Ruth ordered in a loud voice from where she sat in the front of the bus. The girl turned around. After that day, she never said anything to me again.
The school playground, which we used at recess, had swings and slides, just like the park. Whenever I got a turn to swing, I made it go high by pulling back on the chains that held the seat and pumping my legs, back and forth, the way my grandfather taught me. I liked the way it made my belly tickle and the feel of the breeze as it swished the cool air against my face.
Saturday was the day Aunt Molly and Uncle Hank went grocery shopping. It was also the day I found out how mean Uncle Hank could be! The boys and I were outside playing soft ball. Ruth stayed in the house. She didn’t like to play soft ball with us.
Aunt Molly came out of the house carrying Carol Jean and sat her down in the sandbox. “Nancy Lee, watch your sister until we get back. And, don’t go in the house. Ruth isn’t feeling good.” Then, she walked away with Uncle Hank pulling the red wagon behind him.
After the soft ball game ended, I checked on Carol Jean and discovered that she had peed her diaper. It was sandy and dirty. I wanted to change the diaper, because I didn’t want to get into trouble with Aunt Molly for not taking care of her as she told me to. “May I go in the house and get a diaper?” I asked Rich. He said I could.
I went in the house, passing Ruth who was lying on the couch listening to the radio. “Get out! You’re not supposed to come in here!” Ruth screamed at me.
“Your brother said I could,” I answered back, quickly grabbing a diaper from the top of Aunt Molly’s dresser and running out the door. I changed Carol Jean’s diaper just in time. Aunt Molly and Uncle Hank were coming back with the wagon full of groceries.
Although it was September, it was a warm day. They were both hot and sweaty. They hadn’t even had a chance to go into the house to get a drink of water and cool off , when Ruth flung the screen door open. “Nancy Lee was in the house!” she shouted, snitching on me.
I ran to the house to give my reason. But I never got the chance. Uncle Hank grabbed me by the arm, pulled me into the kitchen, through the living room, and down the hall. He pushed me into the bedroom and threw me onto the bed. His lips thinned as he tightened his mouth. His nostrils flared as he sucked in his breath. He looked really mad and had a silly grin on his face. “I’ll teach you to do what you’re told!” He took off his belt, and he whipped me, and he whipped me, and he whipped me!
“I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t do anything wrong,” I cried out,over and over, sobbing in pain from the stings of the leather strap, gasping for air as I tried to catch my breath. I must have hyperventilated because I lost consciousness.
When I opened my eyes, it was dark outside. Looking out the bedroom window, I saw a blinking light off in the distance. It reminded me of an angel, all white and glowing. I ached and I was sore all over. I kept looking at the blinking light until I fell asleep.
... Jeanie had never been to my grandparents’ house before. We walked into the driveway and used the side door that led up the steps and to the back door of their flat. I knocked on the kitchen door and my grandfather let us in. “Hello, little redhead, you must be the Jeanie that I heard about. And, I know, you live in a magic bottle. Am I right?”
“Oh, Grandfather you’re so silly. You know Jeanie lives on Duerstein Street.”
“Nancy Lee, come in here with your friend,” my grandmother called out when she heard my voice. We went into her sewing room. My grandmother said “Hello” to Jeanie. Jeanie said “Hello” to my grandmother. To my relief, nothing was said about a church. I tucked my dress around my legs and sat on the floor across from Jeanie. We had fun laughing and chattering while we played with the cards.
“Don’t be so loud girls, you’ll wake the dead,” my grandmother scolded. Jeanie and I hushed to a whisper, trying to be quiet and not giggle. It was hard trying not to giggle when Jeanie and I made frowning faces in my grandmother’s direction.
All too soon, it was time for Jeanie to leave.“Your friend will have to go home now; it’s almost time for dinner,” my grandmother said, as she finished sewing on the sleeve of the dress she had been working on. She got up from her chair, locked her leg brace, and stood waiting for us to pick up the cards.
“May I walk Jeanie to the corner, Grandmother?”
“Yes, but come right back, don’t dilly-dally, you hear me?”
We hurried down the back stairs, out the door and to the corner. Before heading down Duerstein Street, Jeanie paused, “Your grandmother isn’t very nice.”
“My grandmother is nice. She just doesn’t like us playing cards. I think it’s against her religion. Christians can be very fussy you know. Tomorrow, I’m going to ask my grandmother if I can go to your house to play. Do you think it will be okay with your mother?”
“My mother is a Christian too, and she isn’t fussy. I’m sure we can play at my house.”
When I got back, my grandmother told me, “I don’t like that girl. She wipes her nose on her arm. Doesn’t she have a hanky?” I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t seen Jeanie wipe her nose on her arm. How did my grandmother see her do that? She was busy and didn’t look our way very often. Well, Jeanie didn’t like her either, but I would never tell my grandmother that.
I went into the kitchen and stayed with my grandfather, while he busied himself with preparing dinner. “How about you setting the table for me,while I empty this drip pan?” he said, handing me five dinner plates. I knew that he wasn’t asking because he really needed my help. He just wanted to give me something to do.
The kitchen had a wooden icebox. It had three doors. On the right was a full-length door, where food was kept. On the left were two smaller doors, one on top of the other. Behind the top door was a big block of ice and behind the lower door was a drip pan. My grandfather opened the bottom door, took out the drip pan, carried it to the sink where he dumped the water from the melted ice. “Grandfather, why don’t you have a refrigerator like Nanny has, and like we had where we used to live?”
“This is what came with the house when we rented it. That’s how it usually works. People who rent have to be satisfied with the stove and icebox that are already in the house. Beggars can’t be choosers.”
“Grandfather, we’re not beggars,” I told him in a huff , not liking what he said.
“No, my little Dutch girl, you’re right; we’re not beggars. We’re just not rich, that’s all.”
The next day, I asked, “Grandmother, may I go to Jeanie’s house to play?”
“No, you don’t want to make a pest of yourself, do you? Your grandfather is going to take you to the park today, after he finishes the laundry.” The morning passed too slowly for me. I was anxious to get out of the house. I wished my grandfather would hurry up. He seemed to take forever, hanging the wet clothes on the clothesline in the basement. Finally, he finished.
When he came up from the basement, he made grilled cheese sandwiches for us in a big, black frying pan. After we finished our lunch, my grandfather and I walked across the street. We walked to an area in the park where there were swings with smooth, black rubber seats. “Push me higher, Grandfather, higher,” I yelled out with each push he gave me.
“Pump your feet back and forth and you’ll make yourself go higher,” he said, as he pushed me one last time. I wanted to stay longer, but I knew my grandfather wanted to go back, so I didn’t fuss when he said, “Ok, my little Dutch girl, it’s time to leave.”
On our way back to the house, my grandfather picked a dandelion that had blossomed into a white fluff . He held it to my lips saying, “Blow and watch all the tiny parachutes fly about and land.” I did, and then he said, “The leaves of the dandelion plant are good to eat. But, they have to be picked in the spring before the yellow flowers grow, or the leaves won’t taste good.”
“I thought leaves were poison,” I said, remembering what my mother had told me about the rhubarb leaves.
“Not these leaves, they’re like spinach leaves and good to eat when they’re cooked with bacon and onions. With vinegar and honey dressing, they’re delicious.”
I only stayed at my grandparents’ house for that week. My father knew my grandmother wouldn’t let me go outside to play and she didn’t like Jeanie coming to her house. The following Saturday, my father took me to Aunt Molly’s house where my baby sister, Carol Jean, was staying.
... The sweet dreams of my yesterdays faded from my mind as I awoke to find myself on the little, velvet settee in my grandparents’ house. Why wasn’t I waking up in our new house? I rubbed my eyes, stretched my arms overhead and became fully awake. Throwing the coverlet off , I got up and went into the kitchen where my grandfather and father sat at the table, talking. “Well, I don’t know what to tell you, Ralph—it looks like there’s not much you can do. You’ll just have to wait and see what Lorraine is going to do.” I didn’t have any idea what they were talking about, but whatever it was, it made my father sad. “Look who’s here; it’s my little Dutch girl,” my grandfather said, when he saw me at the kitchen doorway. I walked over to the table and sat on the chair next to my father.
“Your clothes and tooth brush are in the bag next to the buffet. I have to leave for work now, so you stay here and be a good girl,” my father said, as he got up from his chair and walked out.
My grandfather put a bowl in front of me saying, “Here’s something that’ll make your hair curly.” It was a bowl of hot Cream of Wheat, with brown sugar on top.“Thank you, Grandfather, this is my favorite breakfast.”
After I finished eating, I took my clothes and toothbrush into the bathroom where I washed up, brushed my teeth and dressed. I didn’t have a comb, so I used the comb that was in the bathroom to comb and braid my hair, hoping that my grandmother wouldn’t mind.
My grandmother was a serious woman; she didn’t smile much like Nanny. She was already busy at work in her sewing room when I asked, “Grandmother, may I go out and play?”
“No, you sit here, where I can keep an eye on you.” Looking up from her sewing, she handed me a jar of buttons adding, “Here, you can sort out these buttons.” I tried to amuse myself, but it didn’t work. I was still bored, just sitting there on the floor, while she worked at her sewing machine. “What’s the matter with you? Why the sour face?”
“When will Daddy be back? I want to go outside.”
“Enough of that talk, I’ll get you something to keep you busy.” My grandmother got up, locked the metal brace on her right leg, and opened the drawer of the gray dresser, where she kept remnants of cloth, threads and patterns. “Here, you can embroider a dresser scarf.” She handed me two wooden, embroidery hoops and a piece of cloth with a stamped pattern of a basket of flowers printed at each end. She sat back down at her sewing machine and gave me instructions on how to put the cloth between the two hoops and press them together to pull the cloth taut. Then, she handed me a little box of colored threads. I kept busy embroidering the dresser scarf, until it was finished.
“Now, what can I do, Grandmother? May I go down Duerstein Street and see if Jeanie Hart still lives there? Please, please,” I pleaded, with my hands held together, like I was praying.
“You walk down there and come right back. I don’t want you staying down there. If she can play, she has to come here, where I can keep an eye on you. Do you hear?”
I ran out the door to the corner and down the street. I was happy to be outside in the sunshine, going to see Jeanie again. She was the little red haired girl who lived across the street from us when we lived on Duerstein Street. I hadn’t seen her since we moved away, two years ago. I hoped she would remember me.
Back then Jeanie’s mother walked her across the street with her tricycle. We rode up and down the sidewalk together. When we got tired of riding our tricycles, we went into my backyard to play and do somersaults both forward and backward.
I reached the little white house where Jeanie lived and walked up the back porch steps. The kitchen door was open. I put my face up to the screen door. “Oh, Jeanie,” I called real loud.
Mrs. Hart came to the door. She was just as I remembered her, a heavy-set woman with red hair and blue eyes, like Jeanie.“Well, if it isn’t little Nancy Lee. Come in.”
“I’m glad Jeanie is still living here,” I said.
“We own this house, Nancy Lee. Jeanie will probably live here for a long time. What are you doing back here?”
“My father and I are staying with my grandparents today, and my grandmother said that Jeanie could come to her house to play. My grandmother lives at the corner, on Seneca Street.”
“Your grandmother makes dresses for me; I know where she lives. She lives across from our church,” Mrs. Hart said, walking to the sink to get a glass of water.
Hurrying into the kitchen from the living room, Jeanie, dressed in shorts and a striped T-shirt was bursting with excitement. “Hi, Nancy Lee, when did you move back here? Are you going to live back here now? Your hair got longer. What grade are you in now?” The questions flowed one after the other. She didn’t even give me a chance to answer. Jeanie’s excitement at seeing me again made me feel good. “Can I, Mom? Can I go with Nancy Lee, to her grandmother’s house and play?”
“All right, go ahead, but walk straight there and don’t cross Seneca Street or go into the park. Stay at her grandmother’s house.”
Jeanie and I headed out the door. We held hands and swung our arms, like the pendulum of a clock, as we walked down the steps. “I got a new two-wheel bicycle from Santa last Christmas. Wait till you see it,” Jeanie said, as she headed toward the garage. There was no door on her garage. I could see the bicycle standing inside near the side wall. It was shiny blue with chrome fenders. It had a basket on the front and a bell on the handlebars. Jeanie was so lucky; I wished I had a bicycle.
Before we headed back to my grandmother’s house, Jeanie showed me how she could ride it.“May I take a turn, Jeanie?”
“Do you know how to ride a two-wheeler?”
“Sure, where we used to live, Tommy’s friend and his sister had bicycles. Sometimes they let us ride them.” I gripped tight onto the handle bars, and my feet peddled a round slowly on the pedals. I rode down her driveway without falling off, to Jeanie’s surprise. Then, I got off, remembering that my grandmother was waiting for us. “We have to go, Jeanie, Grandmother will be worried.”
Jeanie put her bicycle back in the garage, ran into her house and brought out a deck of Old Maid playing cards. We skipped, hopped and jumped all the way down the street, happy to be together again.
Until her mother mentioned it, I didn’t know that Jeanie and her family were Catholic and went to St. John the Baptist Church. That didn’t matter to me, but it would sure matter to my grandmother. “Jeanie, don’t tell my grandmother that you go to St. John’s Church. She doesn’t like Catholics. She only likes Protestants.”
...We walked up the steps of the back hall and he opened the door to the kitchen. My grandfather was sitting at the kitchen table, holding Carol Jean. She was usually a good little girl, but now she was being a real handful. “I think she needs a diaper change, Ralph,” my grandfather said, as he bounced her on his knee, trying to get her to stop crying.
My father went outside and brought in a diaper from one of the brown paper bags that he had put into the trunk of his car that morning.
When Carol Jean saw my father, she reached out for him to take her. He did and her tears stopped. My father laid her down on the kitchen floor and changed her cloth diaper with a clean one.
I was familiar with my grandparents’ flat, because years ago when we lived around the corner on Duerstein Street, my father and I walked to their house many times. Their first-floor flat had a kitchen, dining room, living room, three bedrooms and one bathroom. It also had a sunroom in the front of the house that my grandmother used as her sewing room.
My grandmother was a skilled dressmaker, doing alterations for three local dress shops. Even when she was behind in her sewing, she wouldn’t pick up a needle to work on Sunday. Her life revolved around her religion and the church. It was probably because her father was the Elder Jacob Swartz that she referred to Sunday as the “Lord’s Day.” Although, now a Baptist, she kept her Mennonite ways, dressing in plain dresses and not wearing make-up; soap and hand lotion were her only beauty products. She was short and slender, just like my grandfather and she kept her dark hair with strands of gray, cut short. When she was a young girl, she was afflicted with polio, so now she had to wear a metal brace strapped to her right leg so she could walk.
When my grandfather was younger, he lived in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania where he worked in a lumber yard. After he and my grandmother married, they moved to the town of Ebenezer, outside of Buffalo. On an early 1900s census form, my grandfather was listed as a shopkeeper, but I never saw him work outside the home. Grandfather had a big smile, big ears, and a big heart. He had the red hair of the Irish. He got that from his mother, who was the daughter of the famous evangelist, William Alonzo Ridge.
My father’s bachelor-brother, Uncle Harold, lived with my grandparents. He was a few years older than my father. He wasn’t as muscular as my father, but he was the same height and had the same dark, wavy hair and handsome looks.
Uncle Clarence was my father’s oldest brother, but he was scalded to death in an accident at work. I never met him.
The youngest of my father’s brothers was Uncle Saul. He had dark, wavy hair and was also handsome, but much taller than my father. Uncle Saul was married to Aunt Mary Ann and they lived off Seneca Street, several miles away.
My grandmother instilled a strong sense of duty in her sons, telling them, “Hard work, charity to others, and honesty would make them men of good character.” But my mother didn’t see it that way. She called my grandmother’s sons, “Mama’s boys.”
Standing in the kitchen doorway, while looking into the living room, I saw Bobby by the birdcage, watching the yellow canary. “Sing birdie, tweet-tweet; sing birdie, tweet-tweet,” Bobby repeated over and over again in his little-boy voice.
My grandmother, dressed in one of her plain dresses, was sitting on the brown couch in the living room, watching Bobby. When she saw me, she said, “There you are, Nancy Lee.” Then, she stood up, locked the metal brace on her leg and walked toward the kitchen. “Ralph, sit the children down and we’ll have something to eat,” she told my father as she walked past me. Bobby followed my grandmother into the kitchen, climbed up and sat on a chair. His chin reached only a little above the top of the table. I sat down next to my father, who was holding Carol Jean on his lap.
My grandfather cut slices from a loaf of bread, while my grandmother brought out a block of cheese and a round of baloney from the wooden icebox, setting them on the table. The blessing was said and we ate in silence.
After the meal, my father said, “Stay here and be a good girl until I get back.” He took Carol Jean and Bobby and went out the door.
I ran to the kitchen window, looked out and watched as my father’s car left the driveway. I was confused. I went into the living room and sat on the couch next to my grandmother, where she sat reading the Bible. “Grandmother, why aren’t we going to our new house?”
She didn’t give me an answer; instead she said, “Nancy Lee, this is what Jesus said to the people. Listen carefully: ‘Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no way enter there in,’ St. Matthew 19:14.” I loved God and I knew God loved me. I didn’t want my grandmother to preach to me. I wanted her to answer me.
My grandfather finished cleaning up the kitchen and he came into the living room to join us. “Here, my little Dutch Girl, take a piece of candy,” he said, as he held out the candy dish filled with maple-flavored candy. Little Dutch girl was what he usually called me.
“Thank you Grandfather, but I don’t want any,” I said, in a low, sad voice. He put the candy dish on the table, sat down in the brown chair next to the brown couch and dozed off.
I wondered what Tommy was doing now at Nanny’s house. I was sure that he didn’t have to sit still and listen to a Bible reading. He was probably outside in Nanny’s backyard trying to catch the crickets as they sang their songs and hopped about the grass. “Grandmother may I go into the back yard and play?” I asked, holding back the tears that stuck in my throat.
“No, sit right here, next to me, while I read some more to you. Your father will be back soon.” I scooted to the corner of the couch, sat back, and listened as my grandmother continued to read to me from the Bible. Soon her words were muted with the sounds of my grandfather’s light snoring and the ticking of the old clock that sat on the buffet.
The kitchen door opened and my father walked into the living room. “Daddy, where are Bobby and Carol Jean?”
“Carol Jean is going to stay with Aunt Molly for a little while and Bobby is going to stay with my friends. They’re all right, so don’t worry,” he said, trying to assure me they were okay. Aunt Molly was my father’s only sister. She was married to Uncle Hank.
Just then, Uncle Harold came into the house. He and my father walked down the back hallway toward the bedrooms. They stayed there for a while, talking.
When it was time for supper, I followed my grandmother into the kitchen and sat at the table. She took some food out of the icebox and put it on the table. We ate a meal of cold, sliced, roast beef, red cabbage and potato salad. I didn’t like the potato salad. It wasn’t the kind made with mayonnaise. My grandmother made her potato salad with onions and vinegar. She said it was “German” potato salad. For dessert, we had apple sauce cake with white frosting. I liked that.
After supper, I sat next to my father on the couch, while he read the Sunday paper. Soon, I was tired and it was time to get into the bed, which was made up on the little, velvet settee in the dining room. “Goodnight, Daddy,” I said, snuggling under the coverlet.
“Goodnight, Nancy Lee,” he answered, as he walked away. As tired as I was, I couldn’t go to sleep right away. I kept thinking about our house on Duerstein Street, where I used to live when I was very young. I drifted off to a fitful sleep, dreaming of those happier days.
My mother, who usually had a gentle smile, was now stone-faced as she got into the car and sat on the front seat next to my father, with Carol Jean on her lap. My parents’ mood was somber on this beautiful day and I couldn’t understand why. Even Tommy, who usually teased me, was quiet. Why was everyone so serious? Tommy and I had the window seats in the back, where four-year-old Bobby sat between us. Billy was still in the hospital.
As we rode, I sat silently, looking out the window. After awhile, the sights became familiar to me as my father drove down Seneca Street. I recognized the gray, two family house where my father’s parents lived. It was across the street from Cazenovia Park, the pride of South Buffalo.
My father turned into the driveway, going all the way into the back yard, where he parked the car. “Why are we going to visit Grandmother and Grandfather before we go to our new home?” Neither my mother nor my father answered me. They got out of the car. Tommy, Bobby and I followed.
My father took Carol Jean from my mother, holding her in his left arm. He reached out to Bobby with his right hand and walked toward the side door of my grandparents ’house. “Come with me, Nancy Lee, we’re going in the house to see your grandmother.”
I started to follow after my father, but when I took a quick glance behind me, I noticed that Tommy and my mother weren’t coming. They stayed by the side of the car. My mother’s hands rested on Tommy’s shoulders, as he stood in front of her. “No, I don’t want to. I want to stay here with Mama and Tommy!” I answered back defiantly, with a stomp of my foot.
Just as my father went into the side door, Grandpa Meyer’s car pulled into the driveway. He was the only one in his car; Nanny wasn’t with him. The thought flashed through my mind that he must have taken her along with the baby crib and boxes to our new house. But, why did he come here?
Grandpa didn’t get out of the car, or even turn off the engine. I smiled at him when our eyes met, but he didn’t smile back. He turned his eyes away. Didn’t he like me anymore? Why didn’t he like me anymore?
My mother hurried to the car with Tommy following and they got in. There were tears in my mother’s eyes. I was scared! “Where are you going, Mama? Don’t go, Mama! Why aren’t you staying with us?” I ran to the car, pulled at the handle, trying to open it to stop my mother and Tommy from leaving, but the door wouldn’t open.“Mama, Mama, take me too! I want to go, too!”
“No, I can only take Tommy.”
“Come back, Mama! Come back, Tommy!” I cried as the car pulled out of the driveway. I stood there feeling abandoned. Why did my mother take my brother Tommy with her? Why didn’t she take Bobby, Carol Jean or me wherever she was going? What would I do without Tommy, my big brother, my hero?
I was broken-hearted and burst into wailing sobs, letting the hot tears roll down my cheeks. I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye. A firm hand on my shoulder brought me out of my shock of being abandoned by my mother and back to the moment. My father was standing behind me. He came back outside, but not in time to see my mother and Tommy ride away with Grandpa Meyer.“Let’s go in and see your grandmother. Here, blow,” he said, holding his handkerchief to my nose.
“Daddy, why is Mama going to Nanny’s house with Tommy? When are they coming back? Aren’t we going to our new house today?” I sobbed,looking up at him. He just looked sad, as he took my hand and walked me into the house.