I did not go on many sleepovers as a child.

I do remember one sleepover at my Great Aunt Lily’s home.  Aunt Lily lived with her sister and her brother, all unmarried, in a two story home with a covered front porch on a tree lined street with many others just like it.  It was close enough that we visited them every weekend growing up.  On rare occasions that my parents would go out, one of the aunts might babysit us.  My brothers preferred Aunt Helen as she was the fun aunt, always quick with a joke, popping out her false teeth at you when no one was looking, always with a drink in hand.  Aunt Lily was the cautious aunt – never letting us stray too far from our side yard for fear of gypsies kidnapping one of us.

I was one of Aunt Lily’s favorites, if that is possible in an extended family with literally dozens and dozens of nieces and nephews.  Still, I always felt like I was.  I was quiet, not social, polite, not daring or adventurous.  I probably appealed to her sense of caution. I was probably the most manageable.

Aunt Helen wasn’t home that I recall on the night I slept over and it was after Uncle Albert had died. I was about ten.  As sleepovers go with one child and one older adult, it was quiet.  But it was time with her that made me feel special for some reason.  She showed me her room, which we never saw on weekly visits.  her room was the smallest in the house, at the very end of the hall that ran all the way around to the front on the second floor.  I would never have snuck in there, knowing how creaky the floor was, I would surely have been caught.  So when invited in on this special visit, it was like almost like entering some sacred space I still should not enter even escorted.

It was simple unlike Aunt Helen’s room – the largest bedroom at the very top of the stairs.  Aunt Helen’s  room had lush carpet, a large queen sized bed, special vanity and dressers for all her clothing.  Aunt Helen worked outside the home in an office, went out often and traveled a great deal.  She was always dressed up.  Apparently this necessitated her placement in this room.  I think it was more that she was always out late and needed to get up the stairs to her room without disturbing everyone else when she came in.

Aunt Lily’s room was simple, a single bed, a single dresser, an imposing Jesus nailed to a cross over the bed watching over her as she slept.  I knew I couldn’t sleep with him staring at me. On her dresser was a small jewelry box with a few special items.  Next to it was a round box of lightly rose scented powder with a puff that she used to apply it.  That scent still reminds me of her the same way that the scent of scotch reminds me of Aunt Helen.

Aunt Lily had worked outside the house for many years as the cook at the catholic school down the street.  Prior to that she raised all her six brothers and sisters from the time she was sixteen.  Her mother died several months after the youngest was born.  It was from that day on Lily’s responsibility to raise them.  She was twelve years older then her sister Helen.  They seemed decades different in age to me and worlds different in style and temperament.

She let me try the powder puff.  She let me explore the attic where my mother stayed when she lived there after high school.  I didn’t want to sleep in the attic.  It seemed too far away and it was already decided that I would sleep in Uncle Albert’s old room down the hall at the back of the house.  Before bed I had a bath in the claw footed tub and Aunt Lily combed out my hair.  I remember having trouble falling asleep. It was a strange place with strange sounds. I was not terribly brave. Eventually sleep overtook fear.

The next day after breakfast at the tiny table in the sunny kitchen overlooking the small backyard, Aunt Lily asked me if I knew the story of the little boy and girl on the china plate we’d been eating from.  I didn’t.  So she told me of the love story of two children from families that did not get along.  They loved each other and would meet on a little bridge over a river that divided their two properties.  It seems I was picked up shortly after helping dry the breakfast dishes.  All in all an uneventful sleepover.

It was so uneventful, I would have thought that there would be more.  I hadn’t broken anything.  I hadn’t been difficult or emotional.  I hadn’t even been slightly unhappy.   After I grew up my mother told me why there weren’t other sleepovers.   When she was a young girl, she’d been shipped off to this Aunt or that cousin for long periods of time.  She didn’t really say why, if she even knew.  She said that it always made her feel as though she wasn’t wanted.  She therefore never let me sleep over at people’s homes so that I wouldn’t feel that way.

For me it had the exact opposite effect.  It made me feel that something was wrong with me that I was kept at home, isolated.  I missed out on learning those social skills and on opportunities to feel comfortable in the homes of others that to this day would be useful.  All those years I felt there must have been something wrong with me that no one wanted me to sleepover at their house.  Had I only known it was my mother’s discomfort.  I think she realized later in life how her actions had betrayed the results she’d been looking for.





Feel Like a Smoke?

I am one of those people in whom anger wells up when I see a cigarette butt on the ground.  Intense, aggressive anger. There are better places for those.  One of my neighbors used to date a slug of a guy that would litter the ground and sidewalk from her unit past mine to his truck every day. Her child plays in that yard. One morning, I started to pick them up and place them on her windshield and in the bed of his truck.  They broke up eventually.  Best day ever.

I have been surrounded by smokers my entire life and I never held such massive dislike for them until recently.  I don’t smoke.  I tried in college.  I thought how cool that looked on others.  It did not feel like it looked cool on me. And I didn’t have the extra cash for that kind of cool.

Everyone in my mother and father’s families smoked.  Every time we had company it was my job to make sure that ashtrays were distributed around the living room so that they would be convenient to each smoker.  It was an important job. My mother did not smoke and she didn’t like that my father occasionally smoked those cheap little cigars that came six to a box.  But she would never prohibit him or any guests from smoking.

We had a collection of those heavy glass ashtrays with notches on the corners to balance the cigarette butt.  Round, square, diamond shaped – faceted glass.  Clear and colored.  Today you can only find those in antique stores and on eBay.  I am not sure why I might want one but sometimes in my effort to reclaim memories I go looking for things like that. Things I do remember.

When I was growing up, we use to pop down to the country market to visit with Mildred, the lady that ran the store.  It felt special being allowed to go behind the meat counter and into the kitchen at the back where she made the soups, potato salad and put together sandwiches and other things that she sold.

The market was in a really old two story, white clapboard structure.  It was located at the intersection of two heavily traveled state routes where it was convenient for people to make a quick stop for  coffee and a sandwich, a smoke and some gossip.  Here at the intersection of north, south, east and west was a building that had stood watch over the comings and goings of people without comment for many decades. Inside your feet would creak across unfinished wood plank flooring. The lower level was full of fresh produce where the lettuce and corn watched the commuters flowing into Akron each morning and back out each evening.  Up five steps was the general store, accessed directly from the porch along the side of the building and the deli area with kitchen behind.

I remember passing a man on the steps once who would years later be my junior high school American History teacher.  The gossip was he was waiting for the just out of high school clerk so that they could make out in his car on her smoke break.  She wasn’t his wife. It was small town scandalous and, to me, somehow very exciting.

Photo Credit: 10/22/2009 - West Side Leader

Photo Credit: 10/22/2009 – West Side Leader

The items on the shelves in the store were generally covered with a thick coating of dust most likely having sifted in through the walls from the street traffic outside. The teenage clerks weren’t really into dusting so it remained untouched except by small fingers spelling the words “dust me” onto the packaging of cake mix and tops of canned soup.  Thank goodness, the deli items were in a case that did seem to get wiped down at least once in a while.  We never bought anything there.  I thought I once heard mom say that the prices were too high.

Sitting around the high worktable in the kitchen on tall stools was a glimpse at the behind the scenes workings.  I always liked seeing how things worked, how things were run.  I secretly loved those factory tours we took on family vacations.  One day we were sitting there chatting with Mildred, the owner. My mother was on one side of the table and I on the other.  My father was still outside chatting with Mildred’s daughter at the register.

Mildred was making beef stew that day.  Everything in a huge stew pot on the stove steaming away.  Mildred leaned against the counter next to it, stirring. Two of the fingers on the hand stirring the pot with a long wooden spoon were cradling a cigarette between them.  Her other free hand was gesturing as she spoke.  She knew all the gossip about everyone in town.  My mother was uncomfortable hearing it but listened politely.  Me, I was, fascinated by the cigarette hovering over the stew.

Mildred stirred that soup so slowly I wondered if it really needed stirring at all.  As she talked the ash on the end of her cigarette grew, glowing ever so slightly in the breeze it felt as it went around and around.   I looked at that ash and began to worry.  I looked over at my mother and she returned my gaze, raising an eyebrow.  We both had a wonderful ability to raise just one eyebrow.  I raised an eyebrow in return and quickly we looked back at the cigarette.  The ash was growing.  Mildred’s story went on.

How long before the ash falls, I wondered.  What will it take?  My mother was staring at it as intensely as I was.  What if our staring at it so hard made it fall?  Would Mildred remember to puff and tap it on the ashtray?  Where was her ashtray?  I looked around.

My dad appeared in the doorway and said it was time to go.  Both my mother and I looked up at him.  He’d broken our concentration.  When we looked back at Mildred, the cigarette ash fell and was being stirred into the soup. Both my mother’s eyebrows went up.  She grabbed her purse and nodded at me.

On our way out the door, she leaned down and whispered, “And that is why we do not buy food here.”

I nodded biting my lip to keep from giggling.

There were far fewer health code standards in the sixties and seventies.  There are far fewer smokers now.