Never have I experienced home like I did on 11407-207 Street, in Hammond.
Our house could be described as boisterous, messy, and very very busy. There were always kids in various stages of growth from small active children to sullen teenagers gripped in the throws of hormonal overload. Along with the kids were the dogs, cats, and kids’ friends.
Julius, or Dad to us, worked full-time in a sawmill. Elma, our Mom, stayed at home.
The coffee pot stayed on the stove all day long as various aunties, uncles, or friends stopped by. It was always burnt and never fresh. In order to drink it, most just added hot water, canned milk and lots of sugar.
What is with that canned milk anyways? It was nasty. Not to be confused with sweetened condensed milk, which I understand to be tasty, canned milk was just that. It was milk that came in a small can. It was used in our house for making gravy and as cream for coffee or tea. It would be opened with a can opener and the yellow scum of the milk would settle around where it poured.
I was always totally fascinated as a child to go to other people’s homes for a meal. First of all, their tables were most often always cleared off between meals. To this day, I look at a cleared off table and I find it bare naked somehow.
Other people’s Dad’s ashtrays were not a permanent fixture on the kitchen table. Our Dad’s was. I once tried to put it away. Once.
The ashtray joined the margarine container (pronounced marj-a-REEN by Elma) that was continually topped up with cubes of margarine as it got low joining bits of jam, toast crumbs, and left over onion pieces from previously made sandwiches. Also on the table along with the margarine container were screwdrivers, scissors, and various piles of books and papers. When we sat to eat, we simply jammed all the stuff together to make room, the table never actually being cleared.
You entered the house through the back swing screen door. It opened into the laundry room with a creak and slammed shut as you passed through the laundry room into the kitchen announcing that someone was home. The laundry room’s floor always had laundry scattered about while the washer and dryer were continuously running (except on Sundays, Elma never did wash on Sundays . . . one of the few Christian rules she continued to abide by from her own childhood). Perhaps it was just a way to take a needed break.
The laundry room was also where the eggs were stored. They were stored high in the warmth of the shelving that was near the dryer. Near the eggs was the deep fryer, never covered and never with a change of oil. Any flies or other bugs that landed and became stuck on the top of the oil would simply be deep fried in the next lot of donuts or French fries. Sometimes we had donuts or French fries for supper. We didn’t have to have anything to accompany our donuts or French fries, just donuts or just French fries.
The beer fridge was on the right side of the entry to the kitchen. Although the fridge in the kitchen was always totally stuffed with jars, opened cans, half covered bowls of various leftovers, we never used the beer fridge for anything but beer.
Stuff like mayonnaise, peanut butter, jam and the like were kept in the cupboards. Although the cupboards were also packed full, we could manage to shove things in and make room. This was unlike the fridge which was totally packed full with bowls, canned things with little plates on top. Everything was balanced and precarious. If we ever wanted a glass of milk, in order to replace the milk container once removed, we had to be careful to jam everything carefully back and shut the door quickly and forcefully hoping for the best.
Immediately upon entering our kitchen you would see the smoke from Dad’s cigarettes hanging in the air. Other than once a year on New Year’s Eve when my brother Harold let out the old year and in the new by opening the front and back doors for a moment, the doors were always shut tight. If a door or window was ever opened we would be quickly scolded: “What do you think we are doing?! Trying to heat the whole of Hammond?!”
The kitchen linoleum was the 1970s kind. It was a beige and brown design. There were black little pock-marks all over it from the burn holes made from the sparklers we played with inside one Hallowe’en night. These pock-marks made, much to Elma’s disappointment, only weeks after the linoleum was freshly laid.
Around the edges of the linoleum where it was not smoothed out by our constant foot traffic, there were little grooves in the design that over the years had built up little traces of permanent dirt. It made an extra black trace-line that followed the linoleum’s pattern.
Littered around the kitchen floor shoved up against the walls were various plastic bags full of books, clothes, school-work and other things.
Like the table, the kitchen counters were never cleared. In order to make room or wipe the counters, things were just jammed up against the wall edge. Elma, who was busy busy moving around all day, almost never idle, never managing to make the house tidy.
When she cleared the table, she would simply move the jam, sugar, margarine and other things to the counter, the items almost never making it inside the cupboard. I am assuming this was because her mind did not work that way and not because she was too short to reach the cupboard.
When the counter was wiped down, items would just get shoved against the wall making room for the dishrag.
The kitchen dishrag was a profoundly evil object in Elma’s kitchen. If we had a runny nose, or dirty face, which I assume was often, Elma would attack us with it, lunging at our faces with ferocity and determination. The stink of the dishrag was overwhelming. And it was slimy.
I swore that if I ever had a kid, I would never spit was them or attack them with a dirty dishrag. **
When I was younger we had a sugar bowl that always had white sugar in it that had become brown, lumpy and hard with its crust lining the edges as it had become hardened from assaults of wet spoons over time. The teaspoon used for sugar would be the same for our tea or cereal. We would dip the spoon into our cup, then the sugar, then back in our cup to stir once or twice. And so it went.
Once we were older, one of the teenagers who worked in a restaurant decided to rectify this problem by getting us a restaurant-style sugar dispenser. It was a tall glass jar with a silver lid that sugar could simply pour out of. Of course someone would inevitably dip the top of the sugar into their beverage or cereal causing it to become a bit wet. The sugar would then stick to the wetness.
The top of the container itself was greasy with many hands’ fingerprints and had bits of sugar stuck to it. It never occurred to anyone to wash and dry the dispenser and start again clean. When the sugar was low, the metal lid would be screwed off (difficult as it was due to the stickiness) and more sugar would be poured on the sugar still there.
When clearing the countertops, the jam and sugar would get moved back to kitchen table again in a constant cycle of counter to table to counter, and back again.
I am reminded of one day as we were crowded around our supper table, Dad just home from work.
The usual clutter of books, papers, dishes from previous meals, ashtray and other things were squished together on the table to make room for our plates and current meal.
We ate either at 5:00 pm when Dad got home when on day shift or 3:30 pm when he was about to leave for night shift, the schedule shifting every 2 weeks. I am told he did this shift rotation for 23 years with only two weeks off each year for paid holidays.
Mom was telling a story of some sort, her arms flailing about with gestures as they normally did when she was telling a story. She almost never sat while eating a meal and preferred to tell her stories while standing. When she did try to sit it never lasted as she was always bouncing up or down to get the salt and pepper, an extra dish, a glass for someone, or to stir whatever was cooking on the stove at that moment.
As she flung her hand outwards to make a point, her hand knocked over a plastic cup, likely sitting there from earlier that day. It was full of water or kool aid and spilled onto be table immediately seeping its way into piles of paper and envelopes, and making its way around plates, salt and pepper granules and the like. “Eeeeep!” was her sound.
The Eeeep! sound, heard many times by the Hemminger children, was expressed almost like a scream but instead of the sound being pushed out with her breath, the sound was made as her breath was being sucked in forcefully.
This was the sound Elma made when she was surprised, suddenly upset, or if something disturbing happened on a television show she was watching.
After her “Eeeep!” she immediately grabbed the cup and set it upright thus saving some of the water from pouring out. She then madly dashed to the kitchen sink to grab one of the dishcloths to wipe up the mess.
She immediately rushed back to the table with rag in hand, but before she started to wipe, in a gesture of frustration, she swept her right hand to her forehead in a wide range of motion thus clipping the same glass again with her hand and causing it to knock over again. This time more of the offending water was able to ease out and spread around and through more of the many items cluttering the table.
Once again, and after another Eeeep!, she quickly sprang into action. She grabbed the cup and set it upright, her mounting stress and frustration evident, there still, amazingly so, being an inch or so of juice in the cup.
Finally, and I am not sure if this was because she was disappointed in herself, angry at us for laughing, or simply at the end of her rope after yet another day of keeping house and kids and dogs and cats and the like all fed, all with our needs met, with little thanks, if any, she grabbed the cup and poured the balance of it out on the table with a grand sweep of her right hand.
Oh, Mom, we miss you.