It was Thanksgiving weekend of 1960.
Just like the mythical Dick, Jane and Sally would visit Grandmother and Grandfather on their farm, I was off for an overnight visit with mine, not on a farm like in the classic children’s primer, but in their apartment in Queens, NY.
But there was nothing bucolic about this NYC borough.
Having just spent Thanksgiving with my maternal grandmother in Manhattan, a place where every single thing seemed infused with energy and glittering with promise, Queens seemed, to my suburban sensibility, a borough in which everyone and everything looked as if it had long since passed its inspiration date.
Because my grandparents still lived in the same brick, Art-Deco-Moderne apartment house that my father grew up in the 1930’s, I had entered the world of my father’s youth.
My Fathers Boyhood Home
Early the next morning, it wasn’t the crowing of a rooster that woke me, but the hiss of the steam heat coming up from the radiator, its old rickety pipes rattling and knocking like some arthritic ghost of Christmas past, drowning out the roar of the Electrolux, sucking up nonexistent dust.
In the end it was the pungent scent of Parsons Ammonia assaulting my nose that was my final wake up call.
It didn’t matter that it was a Sunday, or that it was November, with feather duster firmly in one hand, a mop in the other, it was always spring cleaning for my grandmother Nana Rose whose motto was- “the only way to keep a house clean was to make sure it never got dirty.”
Shaking the sleep from my eyes, I peeked out the window but the dismal view of an air shaft had a funereal gloom about it, as far from a pastoral view of meadows as you could imagine. The close proximity of a neighboring building blocked the bedroom window of whatever sunlight there may have been, giving little clue whether it was morning or still night.
A Boys World
As the unfamiliar light washed over me, my eyes became adjusted to the familiar surroundings.
The same room where only just last night my family had nibbled on mounds of chopped liver and drank Canadian Club and Cott’s Cream Soda from sparkling cut crystal glasses, had, before being re-commissioned as a den, been the bedroom where my father and uncle slept as boys, and where now once again it was transformed into a bedroom where I had spent the night.
That my father had spent so much of his time cloistered in this cheerless, view-less room, building his balsa airplanes, reading The Hardy Boys, and listening to The Shadow on his red Bakelite radio, made me a little sad.
The smell of morning coffee percolating on the old gas stove drew me out of the bedroom of my grandparents apartment.
Padding into the Nile gray-green kitchen unnoticed, my footsteps were wiped out by the hum of the old Frigidaire which my grandparents still referred to as an icebox. The sliding-leaf kitchen table, its bent tubular chrome legs shined to a gleaming perfection, was always uncharacteristically cluttered, so unlike the rest of the tidy apartment.
It was the only hint of disorder in an otherwise well-ordered world.
An oilcloth covering the table’s antiseptic porcelain top was littered with dozens of little tins of Phillips Milk of Magnesia tablets, that my grandfather chewed like candy mints, which were scattered among the repository of the day’s flotsam and jetsam.
Only the maroon, Bakelite table top radio with its large round dial and concentric speaker grill bars, stood constant watch over the ever-changing tableaux of detritus on the table.
Acknowledging my presence, my grandfather greeted me, his gravely Noo Yawk voice in its best Jimmy Durante delivery: “Ev-rybody wants ta get intah da act”.
Unlike Little Sally’s farmer grandfather with whom she politely shook hands, my grandfather proceeded to kiss me with his unshaven face that was as abrasive as his voice.
Whatever time of day, Papa’s breath was always minty-fresh, whether from peppermint Chicklets, those candy coated little nuggets of gum in the little yellow box, or from minty Feen-a Mint laxative gum. He always carried both of the similar looking gum in his pocket, often confusing one for the other, which was why I always refused his offer of gum.
The Road To Regularity
Not even Josephine the TV plumber lady could unclog poor Papa’s plugged up sluggish pipes. When it came to plumbing the most important pipes to keep clean were in your body was the notion. When intestines are lazy my grandmother warned, a cauldron of poisons collected and health fades. Lackadaisical intestines required industrial strength laxatives to flush away sludge.
Every day like clockwork a cornucopia of correctives cathartics laxatives ad purgatives were flushed down poor Papas pipes due to the fact that he suffered from what doctors called the commonest trouble of modern life intestinal fatigue.
While Little Sally’s grandfather planted the fields and milked the cows, papa’s agenda for the day consisted of unloading his burdensome self by plotzing into his gig overstuffed chair to peruse the daily news.
With a stack of the days newspapers at the ready Papa began his daily vigil waiting in vain for either the viscous Mineral oil, the Carters Little Pills or the chocolaty candy Ex Lax to stat percolating as they slowly wound their way down his aged pipe system and take effect. If h knew JFK would make good on his campaign promise to get us moving again he would joke he would have voted for him.
Cooking over the blue flame of the gas stove was a large pot of bubbling gray stick-to-your-ribs hot cereal, which Nana said would brace up my nerves and help with my digestion.
Turning my nose up at the bubbling gruel, she quickly reached for a box of cold cereal as an alternative. “The Big chief says he’ll throw in the whole village for a box of Shredded Wheat,” she recited reading from the unfamiliar box with a picture of a factory and Niagara Falls on it.
“Shredded Wheat was your fathers favorite!” she crowed pouring milk into my bowl till the whole mass was submerged in a pool of liquid, wiping the glass milk bottle with an absorbent dishcloth to catch any rogue drop lest it splash on the clover patterned oilcloth.
Now staring up at me at the breakfast table was a hefty, stoneware ceramic cereal bowl filled with a very forlorn looking object that resembled a bale of hay.
I began feeling homesickness coming over me.
I was used to jolly bowls of make-you-happy cereals- little puffs of corn in gay fruit colors, or wholesome, colorful, candy-coated flakes of wheat, served in light-as-air-it-never-breaks-melamine bowls.
Except for the promise of relief offered by the color Sunday comics, my morning had started out as dull and dreary as the view of the dark back alley, as a steady drizzle of cold November rain sifted down out of the wan sky.
The thick morning tabloids gushed with hot-off-the press news about the birth of John F. Kennedy Jr., and were chock full of pulse stirring stories of our new President-Elect, this most modern of leaders- this, the president in our future.
On the cusp of a new decade Americans were ready to blast off into the New Frontier of the 1960s leaving old-father-time Eisenhower in the dust.
Since the summer the promise of young men vying for grandfatherly Ike’s job was on everyone’s mind. And no more so than the Senator from Massachusetts John Kennedy. JFK exuded youthful optimism , he was pure motion like the feel of a Thunderbird smooth, easy with a special flare, urging us to move forward.
In contrast to the topical editorials extolling how JFK would “get us moving,” the comic strips seemed, well… stagnant and a bit dusty.
Sadly frozen in time, Poor Little Orphan Annie, and The Katzenjammer Kids had faced the same un-resolved dilemmas for the past forty years, when a little boy in knickers sat at this same table hungrily enjoying his Shredded Wheat.
I on the other hand was used to having Little Orphan Annie served up to me in the lively form of TV Host Chuck McCann dressed in drag, who in his curly top auburn wig would read the comics from The Daily News to his TV audience.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.