Monday, May 7, 2012

The Women of My Childhood: Thelma Crocker

I've decided to write about each of the people important to my childhood, starting with the women, then the men, then the children, and finally my parents.  I suspect that through each of these blogs will be woven other stories that depict what it was like growing up in the 50s/60s and that everyone will find something of themselves in the stories.  I'd love to hear about what connects with you.

There is no rhyme or reason about starting with Aunt Till (aka Thelma Crocker), except that she happened to come up in my mind as I was planning my next blog.

Aunt Till was the oldest of my aunts, and ironically, the most like my maternal grandmother.  I say ironically because, though she was my aunt, she was not born of my grandmother Laura Gordon.  Aunt Till's mother had died young, and when my grandfather met my grandmother, they took the children both had (my grandfather had my Aunt Till and my Uncle Ernest; my grandmother had my Uncle Jack) and blended the families . . . then had more children:  a set of twins who died very young, then another set of twins (my Uncle Bud ((Donald)) and my Aunt Sis ((Florence)), my Aunt Edie, then my mother (the youngest). 

Though I never really knew my grandmother Laura (she died when I was 7 months old), the pictures of her show a beaming, motherly woman, a bit chubby, though not obese, rimless spectacles on a softly-round nose, dark hair parted in the middle and pulled to a roll, dark shirtwaist dresses with buttons down the front, and black "sensible" shoes tied in a bow.  Aunt Till looked a lot like my grandmother, yet she didn't wear shirtwaist dresses . . . sensible shoes, yes, because she walked everywhere.  And I mean that literally.

When I was growing up, not a day went by that my mother and my Aunt Till either had a telephone conversation or met face-to-face at one of our houses for tea and cookies (while us kids ran in and out of the house, nesting on a lap, asking for cookies, telling on one of the cousins).  The connection between them was perhaps the strongest of any of my aunts, and I often wonder now if it's because Aunt Till had already had a houseful of kids when my mother started having us and offered plenty of timeworn advice about how to raise children successfully.  She seemed to do that with a great sense of humor and a lot of love. 

I have many memories of holidays at the Crocker household, days when the two-story duplex on Bucknam and Linden Streets rang with my cousins Butch and Donald running down the hallway shooting at each other--and me--with Roy Rogers pistols.  They were the closest to my age, but they were boys and less likely to play with me than they were to terrorize me.  During one of those visits, they roughhoused with me on the porch and one of them (I think it was Butch) inadvertently pushed me into my brother's carriage.  The pram was a large navy blue kind of carriage that had a brake on the front wheel.  Unlike the one picture below that has a safety stopper on the end, the brake on our carriage did not, and it was that brake I fell against.  The brake stabbed my upper thigh and an instant rush of blood soaked my shorts and spilled onto the porch floor.  Aunt Till and Mom lifted me atop the wringer washing machine in the pantry, sticking my legs in the sink where the blood made rivulets that circled down the drain.  Though they bandaged me tightly and got the blood to stop, they never took me to the doctor's, so I didn't have stitches and to this day, the two-inch scar is still visible.  Throughout the emergency, my Aunt Till calmly took control while my mother did a little bit of freaking out -- and neither one of them believed my cousins had anything to do with my fall.

There were many other events that happened at that household, most of which were happy.  Christmases were legendary -- a huge tree in the living room decorated with ornaments that each child in the family had made (Dottie, Barbara, Jim, Butch and Donald), noisy trains running the track around the base of the tree, what seemed like thousands of gifts piled beneath, and a happy chaos throughout the entire house.  Aunt Till, flush-faced and aproned, in the kitchen with her turkey and all the fixings, and once everything was ready, all of us crowded into the dining room to eat.  After a few years, us kids were relegated to a folding table set up in the living room (where an adult -- usually Dottie -- supervised and made sure we didn't kill each other).

Whenever Aunt Till was around, I could be assured that I wouldn't be punished by my mother.  Aunt Till was soft-hearted and loving, especially toward us, for some reason.  I distinctly remember a day when my mother was giving away some of my clothes, which I'm sure Aunt Till was bringing to a needy family, and I noticed that my favorite pair of shoes was in the package.  Foretelling times to come, I threw a hissy-fit that the shoes weren't going to be mine anymore (I still have a thing about shoes!  LOL.)  Aunt Till practically had to sneak out of the house with that bagful of clothes/shoes, and I thought for sure that she was laughing about it until years later when my mother told me that Aunt Till had actually been crying.  I know that soft heart was her most endearing trait.

And we all knew not to get her laughing!  She would giggle uncontrollably at Uncle Charlie (her husband) or my father (who knew how to tease her) or at something she and my mother found hysterical, and before too long, she'd squeal, "Stop!  Stop!  You're going to make me pee!"  And she'd have to take off her dress, wash it out and wear an old housecoat of my mother's until her clothes were dry enough to put on and go home.

When the kids were gone and Uncle Charlie moved her into a small apartment on Glendale Street, collecting salt and pepper shakers became her passion.  She lined shelves around the walls of each room with S&P shakers of every shape, size and description, from the Mammy ones that are now worth hundreds of dollars to pairs that came from every corner of the world.  Barbara (who traveled widely in the Air Force) and the many boys Aunt Till had befriended during the holidays when she opened her house to servicemen/women who wanted a homecooked meal would send her the shakers to celebrate every occasion.

Grandkids started coming, and still those Christmases exploded with gifts -- and somehow, she managed to still include us in her gift-giving, though she had what felt like hundreds of kids and grandkids of her own.  Her heart kept expanding with each new baby that came into the world -- and when I had my own, she became my babysitter for a while until her own health couldn't handle the daily routine of supervising a child.

There is not a time that I think of her that I fail to see a smile on her face or a quip from her lips.  She might have been small, like my grandmother, but she was feisty and funny and loving, and as I'm sure many of you who read this might realize, she is missed by all of those whose lives she touched.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Becoming: Female

During the Sixties, most of the girls I knew had absolutely no idea what was coming toward them until it came running down the inside of their thighs. 

Yes, I'm talking about "that time of the month."  "The Curse."  "My Friend."  Your period.  Menstruation.

Uncomfortable to read, huh?  Well, think about how uncomfortable it was for US.

The first time I doubled over with cramps, I was 11 years old.  My mother had "the talk" with me when I was 9.  She told me I would bleed once a month and that it would be my body purging itself of "extra blood" and that the actions my body was taking would prepare me for being a woman and for having children.  I have to admit I had absolutely no idea how getting rid of what made my body tick would actually make it healthier and stronger and more capable of having children, but whatever . . . she was my mother and she had to know, right?  The one thing she hadn't told me was how much it hurt.

Sheeeeeit.  It hurt.  For DAYS.  I wanted to cry, and often, I did.

That first time, the blood that ran down my thighs was a shock.  I distinctly remember where I was and how it felt.  It was fifth grade, Mr. Sansone's class.  That morning, I felt lethargic, but it was something I couldn't really pin down, so I went to school anyway.  By mid-morning, everything changed.  I felt crappy.  Moody.  Headache.  Stomach "not right."  In the middle of a lecture about something inane, my stomach started expanding and contracting as if two sets of large hands had taken control of my innards and were massaging my inner organs so hard they were about to burst.  My body heated up, I began to panic, and trickles of heat and sweat ran between my shoulder blades like heated rivers of lava.  I wanted to melt into the floor under my desk.

Somehow I obtained permission to go to the girls' room (it wasn't difficult; I had an almost unwritten pass to leave the room anytime I wanted because of my epilepsy -- and I have to admit, I used it whenever I was bored, but this time, I needed that permission to scoot out the door as quickly as possible).  And when I got to the bathroom, I realized this wasn't any normal flu bug.  This was debilitating.  I anchored my butt and stayed there for what felt like hours.  Wave after wave after wave of cramps ran through my body like an angry tidal wave.

If you've never had stomach cramps, consider yourself lucky.  Cramps grasp you in meaningful and cruel ways that wreck your sense of time and space.  You find yourself struggling to control groans so animalistic that to release them would make you sound like all the National Geographic nature calls put together and amplified so loud they would reach the furthest corners of the continent of Africa.  All you remember afterward are those brief seconds when the pain lifts, the drenching stops and you can breathe . . . and during those moments you feel like you've been granted access to heaven.  That's how much of a relief it is when the pain stops.

After that first month, my period came with an almost abnormal regularity.  Each 28-30 day cycle seemed more cruel than the last, because with each cycle came cramps, moodiness, and pain so incredible that I realized fainting was not only inevitable but normal.

Through it all, my mother was there.  She stood outside the bathroom door until I finally would let her in.  She drenched facecloth after facecloth with ice cold water, holding them to my forehead, placing them on the back of my neck, folding them around my wrists, anything to fight back the drenching fevers that held my whole body hostage.  She was the one who grabbed me as I slumped to the floor, she lifted me to my bed, fed me Midol, swabbed my forehead, found the heating pad for my stomach, bought the boxes of Kotex that made me walk bowlegged for a week.  She soothed me with her voice, reassured me that it would be over soon, reminded me not to hyperventilate, and cried when the tears ran down my face unabated.  She understood.

I hated being a woman.  I wanted more than anything to go back to being a girl able to climb the monkey bars and swingsets like an untamed wild child, to ride my sled with abandon down the hills at Glendale Park, to go ice-skating in the dead of the frozen New England winter with no worries about falling, to ride a bicycle without the bulkiness of the "sanitary pad" between my legs.  I wanted to be a boy because I truly believed they had absolutely no worries.

By the time I ended my teenage years, I had been told over and over again that the only way the cramps and pains of the monthly curse would end would be if I took the next step in womanhood and entered the motherhood stage.  Though it wasn't the only reason I became pregnant with my one and only child, it definitely was in the back of my mind that it was possible that this monthly agony would end and that I would have something angelic to show for it.  And I did.  But first, I had to deal with the fact that those cramps and that monthly agony would far more than just the pains of becoming a woman:  that agony was the precursor of something much more deadly, something everyone had ignored.  But that's the story for another blog.

All I can say is that I'm so happy someone discovered that birth control pills help to regulate the monthly cycle and to alleviate the pain most teenage girls experience during 'that time of the month' . . . because I think most of us would have been driven to rid ourselves of that trauma in whatever way we could. 

I truly didn't need that kind of misery to move me from girlhood to womanhood.  A simple Hallmark card marking the occasion would have sufficed, thank you very much!