I was six and we lived in an upstairs apartment in the cleanest section of the dirtiest town I had ever seen. Akron, Ohio, rubber capital of the world, where the black factory smoke and the smells of burning or melting rubber snapped at our noses like smelling salts, acrid and bitter and oxygen-depleting. When the rubber plants were in full tilt, I felt as if I were under water, no, under the covers, being engulfed by huge puffy quilts piled high with winter coats and then piled higher still by people smothering me with their weight.
But other smells, like Lawson’s, baking fresh bread, when we drove to Cuyahoga Falls, across the High Level Bridge. (‘Caution: Bridge freezes before roadway’ signs confused my inexperience, yet intrigued me, wondering what I could do if that happened, how could I, a child, a passenger, in this large clunky car muddling down the highway, as my Dad shifted gears smoothly while cursing at stupid drivers whose mission was too critical to obey laws, how could I do ANYTHING if the bridge did freeze?). Those smells were/are heavenly. They say smell is the most powerful trigger to our memory and I suppose it is so. When I smell freshly mown hay, frying bacon, fresh-baked bread, I return to happy moments, happy childhoods, a simpler time when I did not know reality.
I chose to retire to the rolling hills of Greenbrier County, seeking a quiet refuge from the degradation of city life. It’s not perfect, but the sounds and smells of the horse farm down the road take me back to a gentler time. We’d sometimes visit grandparents and ride the old, half-blind pinto that always tried to bite my leg, but, still, I’d dream I was Annie Oakley riding into adventure on the western plains. The smell of new-mown hay returns me always to that carefree existence. We’d clamber over hay bales in the ancient barn, jumping into piles of hay and laughing, laughing. One day a cousin landed on a pitchfork, not fun, too much screaming and pain, then cursing from Granddad who COULD NOT BE DISTURBED!
Then, back to the smelly, dirty city that would in time become smellier and dirtier as good people fled to the suburbs to escape crime and grime. Then the rubber plants closed one by one, the Pittsburgh steel plants closed, and even the Ford Motor Company’s Cleveland Stamping Plant, where my Dad worked in Quality Control, suffered economic set backs as well. But all of that was not even dreamt of in my child’s mind. When you’re small, everyone and everything is big, bigger than you, bigger than you ever hope to be. Returning decades later, it’s all so much smaller and dingier than you recall. Sad to see what you remember damaged by time and neglect.
We had screens on our windows and fans to keep out the blistering heat. My brother and I would sit on the floor watching the miracle of television. One evening, Rick and I were enjoying a cowboy show, Mom was resting on our lumpy couch, Dad was bathing and shaving, preparing for tomorrow’s workday (it began at 4 am and never seemed to end). Cross-legged, on the clean but worn wooden floor of the living room, we were surprised by a visitor, entering through a hole in the screen door. We were elated, Mom not so. We had been feeding Mickey the squirrel on our balcony and he was friendly, always. We were drawn as kids are to the thought of a pet—not allowed by the landlord, so we made do with our gray and frisky squirrel.
But when he joined us in front of the TV, sitting on his haunches with his front legs up, as if awaiting a treat, my mother shrieked—just a little. She was unaccountably frightened of our buddy and so began to yell for my father–‘Dick, get in here, there’s a squirrel, Dick, Dick! Help!’ I didn’t understand the fuss—Mickey was our little friend, Mom knew that we fed him and talked to him and he responded to our words, our kindness. So, why couldn’t he join us in front of the TV? Other ‘kids’ came over to watch television because they didn’t have one. Why couldn’t Mickey? Mom was a catastrophizer—whenever something, anything, occurred, good or bad, my mother found a way to turn it into a disaster, always, without fail. Hard to enjoy life when your teacher and protector, your guide through life, is fearful and suspicious of everyone and everything. Dad laughed when he saw poor, frightened little Mickey skitter around the room until he rediscovered, finally, the hole in the screen door, escaping into the night. Poor thing. We never saw him again. Traumatized for life, just for trying to watch a cowboy show on TV!
When we lived in that dull town, full of good and odd people, my brother and I explored as much as we were able to, with an over-protective mother. We played with classmates and neighbors, climbing up to the tree house one father had built for his sons. What a view! No, Mom ordered, it’s not safe! If you fall out of that thing, you’ll be sorry! No climbing trees, no playing in the street, no disturbing the disturbed neighbors, no stray animals, no, no, and no! And yet, we, permanently grounded—no more climbing, at least, when Mom could see—nevertheless found amazing things. A doctor on the next block used to dump his old medical supplies—needles, pills, drugs, the debris of medicine—in his backyard, which abutted ours. We’d dig through that rubbish searching for some gem, something unique, some new understanding of life.
One blue-skied day, we found a tiny bottle containing mercury—liquid mercury, quicksilver, they used to call it—probably from a busted thermometer. What fun we had, holding it and watching it flow from finger to finger, like silvery caramel melting in the pot. You couldn’t break it or squeeze it without tremendous reactions. Dropping it on the sidewalk, we watched, enthralled by the tinier beads of mercury, separated for a time from the main glob, dancing on the hot concrete like bacon fat sizzling in the skillet. What happened to that God-like mystery? Elusive as God determined Himself to be, when I grew and began to question how and why bad things happened. Where did the mercury go? I can’t remember—did we take it home to show Mom? Dad? Mom shrilly shaming us—it’s poison, you idiots!–as she threw it into the street, run over and obliterated (sort of) by passing cars? Or did we just drop it somewhere? The mercury just slipped my mind…
Other summer days, Mom would give Ricky a dollar and we’d walk to the corner store for ‘bread, milk, and cigarettes.’ No one objected to kids buying cigs then because no one imagined that kids would do anything other than deliver them, along with bread and milk, to their mothers. We were good, obedient kids. Whatever change was left, Mom said we could buy something—a 5-cent Popsicle, root beer, banana, or sky blue! Or maybe a comic book, was it a nickel or a dime? The only reading my brother ever did, for fun; I alone read everything printed, even cereal boxes. Learned to read at four, sitting on my Daddy’s lap as he read the paper every night, after supper. We’d ‘read’ the funny papers together, as I taught myself to recognize the strange symbols. Long before Sesame Street, we made our own teaching moments. Sundays were my favorite, the funnies in full color, bleeding out on the newsprint, staining our hands with colored ink mixed in with the black. Laughing with my father.
Trips to the corner store made a good part of a day, if we bought comic books or a plastic or metal toy. We entertained ourselves with bits of found joy. Summers were the best times, I think. The corner store, a squat, dilapidated structure barely standing, was crammed full of merchandise year-round, but summer stuff was the best. Squirt guns of different colors, brilliant kites, and balls and bats and what-not enticed us. But the wondrous feature for me was the teensy merry-go-round set up in the store’s back parking space. It was about the size of the self-propelled merry-go-round on school playgrounds, but it was an electric-powered recreation of a full-scale merry-go-round. It had several gorgeous horses, resplendent in their finery, but also a swan chair that held two, and other perches. My favorite was a Palomino, like Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger, and I went to that like bees to honey, climbing up into the shiny, hard saddle and, grabbing the reins, I traveled all over the west on my sturdy and willing steed, fighting for ‘truth, justice, and the American way.’
The best time to ride was early in the morning, before the big kids took over and hogged twirling happiness. Rick and I would dress in the dark, put on tennis shoes and sneak out quietly, hoping to have a ride or two and get back before Mom realized we were gone. It usually worked. She was a good Mom, but too protective. We wanted fun, adventure, freedom. My brother, tying his shoes in haste, would not help me with mine. I could do so many things, well beyond my years, but I could not, at that time, tie my shoes. My mother, who had taught me so many things, could not make me understand the elusive art of shoe-tying. As an adult, I discovered that my right-handed mother performed some tasks as a left-handed person would. Why? Her older sister, who was left-handed, had taught her to tie shoes, like a leftie. I only learned when my Dad, who was 100% a rightie, showed me in a few deft strokes. All those months of untied shoes, vanished in minutes.
Stumbling to the corner wearing my untied tennis shoes, I often was rescued by my ‘boyfriend’ Rickie Montgomery, a roly-poly Italian boy my brother’s age. He evidently adored me and so he tied my shoes for me, bending down on the hot sidewalk, as my brother ran to be the first to ride. Rickie Montgomery and I would arrive, too late for the horses, acquiescing to the dreaded swan ride. Rickie, I think, planned it—we sat side by side, talking and laughing about God knows what. My brother Ricky would smart off, make wisecracks about ‘Linda and Rickie, sittin’ in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.’ Embarrassed, I’d run home, swearing I’d tell Mom he was picking on me, remembering then that we had sneaked out, so she’d never know what he’d got up to.
And Rickie’s Mom made bread better than my Mom’s. Hard to say, for my mother was the greatest of cooks and her bread and donuts were heavenly. But Rickie’s Mom, rotund and cheerful, made bread EVERY DAY, and she would slather thick, chunky slices of it with butter, forcing (?) it on me and my brother, as the still-warm bread and melted butter would explode in our mouths like cotton candy. She was always trying to feed us, thinking that our thin bodies needed nourishment. We were skinny, but so were our parents; we ate well but we walked and played and burned it all off. Yet, Mrs Montgomery thought to do us a favor, to fatten us up, so we could be fat and healthy, like the Montgomery’s were. I can still taste that bread, that butter. That was ecstasy. That was home.
©2015 Linda L Labin, PhD