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When I was 5 years old I thought I had a standard face, and I wondered why other little girls at the First Presbyterian Church didn't look like me. I remember the Sunday School room where I first thought about this. We had learned the verse "If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them." I liked the "ye's" and the hypnotic effect of mumbling the verse in a sing-song way as you colored your paper.
I looked at each of the other little girls in turn. They were all dressed in elegant frocks, hand embroidered, with dainty tucks or smocking -- the finest one could buy at Best's or Lord and Taylor (although I didn't know where such pretty clothes came from at the time). One little girl with a thin face and turned up nose, high coloring and wavy dark hair; another with reddish hair and freckles, etc., etc. I suppose it was my beginning to see myself as a self.
At the time I didn't feel inferior. I just felt that I was the way I was supposed to be and wondered why THEY were different. I can't even describe how I thought I looked except to say "regular"--not too dark, not too light, not too big or too little, hair not very curly or very straight. I know I had a large hair-ribbon that was hard to get tied just right in my fine, easily tangled hair. I wore long underwear, and pulling stockings up over knit underwear was an ordeal. Mother must have been almost as relieved as I when the fashions changed and little girls were allowed to wear knee length socks, and bloomers under their dresses. Like Ancient China, I guess I thought of myself as the center of the universe, only on a very small scale.
The sperm and ovum that united in 1915 to become ME would never have been possible had my mother not had a miscarriage a few months before. I thank God that my mother and father loved each other. It never occurred to me that I was not a "wanted" child. I weighed over 9 pounds at birth on April 17, 1916 and I had an inconveniently large head size which gave my mother a difficult birth. My mother always had difficult births--and I have sometimes wondered at the inconsistency in her attitude toward her own physical health. She would have resisted the idea that she was "delicate", yet she let my father wait on her, pampered her with special foods; and for a number of years she rested in bed in the morning with a headache while my sister Molly and I did more than our share in helping the family get breakfast.
I remember one morning when I took advantage of my mother's condition. I knew I was supposed to wear a school dress (meaning percale or gingham). However I had received a recent hand-me-down of a white voile dress with ruffles. After leaning over the bed to give mother a farewell kiss I ran to my room, skinned out of my plain percale, quickly slipped into the voile, tied the sash, and sneaked out of the house.
Crime never seemed to pay in my childhood. I felt miserable all day. The voile, which had been glamorous at home, seemed dowdy at school; instead of feeling like a princess, I felt ashamed. Mother didn't scold when I got home; but she told me not to do it again -- and I never did.
If mother had a headache my father would often lead a mock cheer, only whispered instead of shouted: "Shshshsh...mother's tired..." This was repeated until the whisper became inaudible and we were supposed to tiptoe around.
By noon my mother came to life. She had a wonderful capacity for friendship, and she would often be having tea with Leila Jacobs, Edith Langmuir or some other special person by late afternoon. And by evening my mother would be very much alive -- it would be my father who wanted everyone to get to bed early, and my mother who would be ready for a party.
This gives a frivolous impression of mother. Which would be far from the truth--there was nothing frivolous about her. She was proud of her stamina, proud of the number of operations she had had and of how much she had suffered in childbirth. But she wasn't stuck on herself. She loved my father passionately and helped him. She could focus on the essential problem, usually with the keen insight of a poet. She read everything there was to read about raising children and then applied her own common sense.
In l9ll she went to hear Maria Montessori in Carnegie Hall and she invested in all the available Montessori toys. She organized her own little neighborhood Montessori School. She saw the essence of Montessori's teaching, but she became impatient with her rigid disciples. She felt that they used the Montessori methods too unimaginatively, and more for naked ambition than for the natural development of the child. She liked to say that one must look at each child as a unique person. No book or set of rules should be the final criterion. It must all be adapted according to the individual.
I remember one summer when mother raised money for a Vassar Alumni drive by telling stories to a group of children. I don't think I have ever experienced anything more thrilling than that afternoon. I used to daydream about it hoping that she would repeat it. She knew just how to make one listen and love the tale, whether it was the myth of the great horse Pegasus or the story of Shortshanks. I remember when I was 4 or 5 years old that I became terrified that our house might catch on fire and burn to the ground. One night mother heard me crying after I had been put to bed. She came into the bedroom, sat down on the bed beside me and asked, "What's the matter?"
"I'm afraid the house will catch on fire," I sobbed.
Instead of saying that that would never happen and not to worry, mother said,"Well suppose it did? We are very careful and it's very unlikely, but suppose it did?"
Then she proceeded to give me a play by play description of how we would stay overnight with some neighbors; she explained that my father received a salary and even if the house could not be used, he would be able to rent another house, etc., etc., etc. By the time she was finished I was full of positive plans and dropped off to a dreamless sleep. I never worried about fire again.
Let me go back to some of my earliest memories. My very earliest was at the Grand Avenue house in Englewood. My father and mother had moved there in l918 because he was working on a construction job at Camp Merritt, and I was just barely two years old. I remember sitting in front of the house and everyone singing "Johnny Get Your Gun". I also remember moving from that house (I believe it was September 1918 when I would have been 2 years and 4 months old). I had to take my nap on a bare mattress instead of my crib. I can still see the ticking of the mattress, and I can also remember rounding the corner of Engle Street when Aunt Catharine walked me in a stroller type contraption to my new home on Hudson Avenue.
Soon after we moved there I remember my father sitting in front of the hearth fire carving letters on a wooden board. I was fascinated with the letters in his fine straight printing. They turned out to read "EXCEPT THE LORD BUILD THE HOUSE THEY LABOUR IN VAIN THAT BUILD IT". It took me several years to figure out what that meant.
Every night my father would carry me up to bed on his shoulder. Looking down the steep stairs made me afraid and one night I refused to be carried because I said I was scared. What was I afraid of? "Suppose that you dropped me?" I remember my father so patiently telling me that he loved me more than anything in the world, and he would never let anything hurt me. Suddenly all the fear went away, and I remember enjoying being carried after that.
I was the third of four children. My older brother Paul was born in 1911 and my sister Molly in 1913, making them 5 and 3 years older than I. My brother John was just two years younger than I. I had more affinity with my brother Paul than my other siblings in some ways. We both had a tidy streak and he liked to have me admire the cubby-holes in his desk and he often seemed protective.
I looked up to Molly in lots of ways, but I tangled with her too. She was generous and jolly, but she also shut me out when there were other girls around between our ages. I would try to be like her but it didn't always work. I remember her saying that May was her favorite month so I said May was my favorite month too. After a while she said, "You know I think really June is my favorite month; you know, in June there are roses and peonies and school lets out." "Oh yes," says I, "June is MY favorite month too." "See, I was just testing you! You just say whatever I say. May is still my favorite month." Smash.
At the age of three I remember playing in the living room with the "walnut blocks". These were a handsome set of nicely polished blocks ranging from cubes to beams that were splendid for building houses. They fitted compactly into a wooden box and the top layer consisted of a series of arches and columns in the same walnut wood; they were always the most highly prized pieces. This afternoon my mother was seated with her sewing in her hand while John, my brother two years my junior, and I were playing with the blocks at her feet.
John and I had reached for the same arch and each of us had a hand clutched tugging on opposite ends. Mother turned to me and said, "Carol you give the block to John. After all you are three and he is only one." I'm sure that the reason I remember this so vividly is that it was totally puzzling to me.
My mother, and my father too, were very conscious of age prerogatives within a family. The principles of primogeniture were carried out in many subtle forms. Mother liked to think of herself as being perfectly fair, or at least equally loving toward ALL of her children. But she would add, "Of course, there is nothing like the special feeling one has for one's first child. There was a distinct hierarchy as I remember it in being one of the "big kids", meaning Paul and Molly, vs. being one of the "little kids", meaning John and me. A different bedtime, different privileges, the big kids got to have ginger ale when the little ones were sent to bed, etc., etc.
This also was made clear to me as between my sister and me. Molly would have the big doll because she was the older, or the best napkin ring, or the music lessons. This never occurred to me as being unfair--it was simply the way things were.
BUT when my younger brother suddenly emerged to have privileges that I did not have, something happened inside of me. I don't remember being angry over the block incident. I just remember being puzzled. But I think it became a kind of symbol of an unhealthy rivalry that plagued me all through my childhood with my brother. John was a vivid and aggressive boy and was not about to be low man on the totem pole. I was acquiescent when I considered things fair, but I developed an overactive judgment on what was fair. Looking back I think I was probably unduly sensitive to the logic of the hierarchy. If I was considered 3rd then John should be considered 4th--a proposition that John totally rejected.
How wonderful it is for a child to have a house to remember as well as a family. 52 Hudson Avenue, my basic address from the age of two until I was married, was in a neighborhood of older three story houses, well shaded by maple trees. The slate sidewalks were not too uneven for a bicycle, but roller skating was hazardous and puddles formed in the uneven places. Few houses had fences, though some had hedges.
A wide unkempt field bordered the south end of our property and seemed to promise more mysteries than it ever disclosed. I don't ever remember being restricted as to how far I could wander there. Our neighbor on the west was a Reformed Church, closed for years at a time for want of a pastor.
Too much of my early childhood was spent taking naps or quiet hours in total boredom. I memorized the patterns on the oak chiffonier, and the stains on the ceiling that could be made into the shape of California or of a monster. We weren't allowed to read during quiet hour, or even going to sleep at night. I don't know why, especially since our parents loved to read and never were without good books, and there was an abundance of "reading aloud". I learned to sneak something to read. Often a copy of "The Outlook" in the bathroom, but that was hardly meant for kids.
I could paint a picture of my childhood that would sound very repressive. But it wasn't like that really. We had to sit up at the table; keep your elbows off the table; don't spread a whole piece of bread; don't take more than so much butter-- scarcely enough to taste; don't talk with your mouth full; don't sleep on your stomach; don't interrupt; don't show off; don't slam the door. Don't drum on the piano; don't sing at the table; don't sit between an adult and the fire; don't leave the table without being excused; remember whose girl you are.
And yet we did have love and warmth and intimacy. Woven through all the events of daily life was the taken-for-granted fact that this was our family. Also that there was a secret bond between my parents--little jokes between them; private things you mustn't even ask about; special poems or valentines you didn't get to read.
Physical touching is made so much of today as if it is a magical cure for many of the ills of the world. It is difficult to describe the real truth of a situation. In a way we were a "non-touching" family--in the sense that there was a healthy respect for the integrity of each person. Anything that might arouse "lust" was avoided. Yet I always remember my father as not being really home after work until he had found and kissed my mother. They didn't fondle each other publicly, but one always sensed that they parted from each other's arms reluctantly.
Hugs and kisses were natural and wonderfully warm and heartfelt, but they were reserved for meaningful times, like going to bed, or the arrival of a beloved relative. It would be too gushy to administer them sloppily. And one never exchanged such intimacies with casual acquaintances.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of the ritual of awakening and climbing into our parents' bed. The house was cold and the attraction was partly physical warmth, but it was psychic warmth of course too. The first thing they would ask is "Have you washed your face?" Molly taught me how you could give a quick dab to your face and still be truthful in saying "yes" so that you wouldn't have to be sent away to do it. My recollection was of my parents in the double bed with three or four small children climbing in with them and telling their dreams. I had never had a dream,and so I would make up something about a bear or whatever seemed to go along with someone else's dream.
I remember the excitement of the first night when I had a real dream, and being surprised that it was about a very ordinary event rather than the interesting things the others told.
Sometimes my father would cover my mother's face with the sheet and play games of "How much will you pay to see the most beautiful woman in the world?" My father seemed like a different person in bed without his glasses, which he had to wear as soon as he arose. He had beautiful eyes with dark lashes and they seemed very loving and deep. After he put his glasses on he seemed much more formidable. His voice was deep, but he was an essentially gentle person. I was quite old before I realized my mother was not beautiful. She had something better than physical beauty.
My picture of our home on Hudson Avenue in my early childhood has many warm spots. It was not a well planned house, but it had the advantage of lots of space. My mother daydreamed of improving it and succeeded in a few respects. The first floor consisted of the usual large front hall with an archway leading into a sitting room known as "the front room", double doors leading into the dining room, two doors leading into the kitchen and a door behind the stairway which led to the cellar. Beyond the dining room there was another wide hall leading to the living room, which I suppose was my favorite room, for it centered on the comfortable corner fireplace and had large windows on three sides.
The kitchen had six or seven doors, and one of the immediate improvements was to eliminate the extra doors, except for the door to the front hall, one to the dining room through the pantry, the backdoor, and the door to "the round room". I was fairly old before I realized that a "roundroom" wasn't just as much of a basic necessity to a house as a livingroom, dining room or kitchen. The most memorable feature of the roundroom was that it was cool to cold; the laundry tubs and the icebox were its most important furnishings, but it was large enough to absorb a lot of overflow. On what would have been its roof was a large second story porch where, on hot summer nights, we occasionally were allowed to sleep. Originally, large porches had surrounded all but the east side of the house, but they had been cut down conspicuously by the time I was old enough to play porch tag.
The second and third floors were devoted to bedrooms. There were 3 large and one small one on the 2nd Floor. The third floor had 2 bedrooms with hall and bathroom There was also a large "trunk room" which was our attic. At one time our parents had these two attic rooms refinished for Paul and Molly, my older siblings. Paul's room faced south, and the woodwork was painted a bright light green. It was here that we met for "The Bird Club". Our dues were 2 cents a week which went to a subscription to the Geographic.. Paul also kept several objects on the windowsill to throw at stray cats that might interfere with our bird watching. Molly's room had fresh blue and pink wallpaper and the ceiling paper was studded with tiny silver stars. How I envied them!
But the 3rd floor was too cold. On more than one occasion water froze in the basin, and Molly and Paul moved back to the second floor. Later (from about 1926 to 1930) we had a live-in maid named Katie Hartnett who occupied the north attic room. She was paid $50 a month, plus her board and room of course; and she had Sunday and Thursday afternoons off. She was somewhat handicapped in walking and she wasn't very bright.
The second floor had three big bedrooms, a bathroom and a small connecting room over the kitchen that would have been far more useful if it had not been needed for a passageway. Its most attractive feature from a child's point of view was the talking tube that connected it with the kitchen. You could press the small handle down to open the brass fixture and talk to the person downstairs. It seemed more remarkable to me than television probably does to a modern child.
My crib occupied part of the west wall of this room. The reason I remember that is connected with the gaslights of our house. The house was equipped with electricity, meaning one stark light fixture hanging down in the middle of each room. I don't remember a single "outlet". I do remember the agonizing search in the pitch dark for that precious string one pulled to turn the light on. The bare light bulb was clear and one could see the filament inside, not like the soft modern frosted lights. Nobody thought of this as primitive. It was one of the miracles of living in the "modern" world. My mother didn't like the elaborate dining room fixture (which I secretly thought was elegant) Later it was replaced. Apparently when the electricity had been installed in the house it had been decided to leave the old gas fixtures in place. There was one in the upstairs hall that we always used as a night light.
Back to my crib, my recollection is that I usually had a boring time trying to get to sleep. One night I discovered that by standing up I could just barely reach the handle on the gas fixture. I didn't know what it was, but I can see it in my mind clearly with its upturned flower-like shape of pressed glass and the flat brass turning switch beneath. If I turned it one way it whistled; if I turned it the other way it stopped.
I seems to me I played with it several nights before I was discovered. I remember both my father and mother beside my crib, and they were both unusually severe. I know now that they had good reason, but at the time I felt overwhelmed by the intensity of their admonitions.
They told me I must never, never play with the switch again. As punishment I was to stay in my crib while the rest of the family were having ice-cream downstairs. I was crushed to be denied. I'm afraid I was noted for my ability to weep at the slightest provocation, particularly a reproof; but on this occasion I remember biting my lips together with the firm determination that I would not cry. If I was very brave they might relent. In a little while my mother came up and told me that they had decided that I might have some ice-cream after all. They thought I had not meant to be naughty which was quite true.
To me one of the special places in our house was the pladdie--half way up the stairs. Actually there were two pladdies, one between the first two floors and one between the second floor and the attic. They had low stained glass windows. How many times have I pressed my nose against the different panes of glass to stare at a transformed world, now a symphony of gold, and then violet, or red! I would try to transport myself in my imagination into that world.
Another illusion I loved to cherish was standing on the edge of a puddle on a sunshiny day when the clouds were reflected. I could imagine the great abyss beneath my feet extending as far down as the sky over my head went up. It was a scary but vivid imagining. Actually in my very earliest remembrances I wasn't really sure whether or not I might fall into that abyss.
Another optical memory from my early childhood is connected with our First Presbyterian Church. Again, I don't think I was more than two or three when I first attended church, with my parents and siblings of course. In those earliest days the Englewood church rented its pews and our family rented what was probably one of the least expensive pews in the building the next to the next to the last pew in the north transept. Behind me there were three handsome stained glass windows, one of a gorgeous crimson clad figure.
I loved that glowing heavenly red. But clear across the church, in the south transept, there were three stained glass windows also, and the center one was my absolute favorite. Iit was an incredibly beautiful blue angel surrounded by clouds and misty colors just the sort of beauty I dreamed only angels and fairies possessed. I have the vague but strong recollection that my mother was critical of these windows. I could hardly bear to listen to criticism of anything so lovely. (Actually the angel was a Tiffany window and I'm sure is highly prized today, but my mother probably favored a less ornate and pictorial type of glass.)
The thing that puzzled me was what looked like rows of dolls that I saw sitting in front of these windows. At the end of the church service they always disappeared. Thinking back after all these years I am sure that my eyes simply were too young to see in perspective. Adults and older children, when they see tiny doll-like figures, know automatically that they are life-size people, only they are seen at a distance.
Many of my earliest childhood memories are like that--trying to figure things out. I remember listening to adults talk and trying to figure out what the words meant. I could hear individual words that I understood, but I simply could not understand the conversation. Later I felt the same kind of puzzlement watching my father read silently. How could one read if one did not speak the words out loud?
The outdoors was always wonderful and adventurous. When we moved to 52 Hudson Avenue, my parents laughed about having bought "the tree" and the house just happened to go along with it. The tree was a wild or choke cherry tree that had grown to enormous dimensions. It acquired the name of "Augustus" and lent shade to many a picnic, afternoon game of Prisoners' Base, Red Rover, or Steal the Banner. Hide and Seek or Kick the Can usually started from the back of the house, but there was ample room to hide behind Augustus or the other trees. The other trees were mainly wild cherry, sassafras or maple. Several trees needed to be cut down, and I remember vividly the excitement of the long two-man saws, the shouted directions, the final whoosh and crash as a tall tree was felled. Then the most delightful adventure of all was exploring the new spaces that the felled tree made. To clamber up on the trunk, to play ship or other make believes-- part of me still feels that a fallen tree should be part of every young child's play equipment.
For a while my parents kept chickens out in back of the house. What I remember most about them was the horror of watching them be killed. The expression "like a chicken with its head cut off" still seems like a terribly graphic expression as I recall those mindless birds staggering around until they dropped. It never occurred to me to question whether it was wrong to do this. The fact that my father was responsible somehow made it seem okay. I was also terrified of the large rooster. And I was glad when the chickens were all disposed of.
It seems to me that our generation of children were expected to find our amusement out of the simplest things. I remember loving to go out in the morning to see the lacy cobwebs all covered with dew so they sparkled like tiny jewels in the sun; inspect the little brown balls of the dung beetles; or explore for treasures--like a new flower in bloom, or to discover a new butterfly or even on rare occasions a box turtle or a toad. After the asparagus went to seed and was allowed to grow to form a network of fern, I remember some heavenly sessions of making tunnels and passageways through the undergrowth. I must have been pretty small, for when I look at overgrown asparagus now, I realize it's not nearly as tall as my memory of it.
Not too long after we moved my father had a two car garage built at the rear of the house, and next to it was a sort of permanent wood pile. As an engineer, working often on bridge building, he would occasionally bring home some pile ends which would be stacked there awaiting his axe or saw. For small children it provided a good climbing place. Beyond the wood pile was a rough plot of land, not kept in lawn but overgrown with milkweed and Queen Anne's lace, and bordered by a row of lilacs on the east. The old chicken coops were not taken down even after the chickens departed, and I cherished many daydreams of converting them into a playhouse or hut.
The "summerhouse" in the back yard would be called a gazebo today. It seemed lovely to me, but it was old and rickety and soon had to be torn down, much to my disappointment.
Colors were very important to me for as long as I can remember. Somehow or other mother had decreed that I should wear pink and Molly should wear blue. I longed to wear blue. But blue was supposed to be more "becoming" to Molly. Pink did have one advantage: for several years after the end of the First World War, good German dyes were unavailable and blue was one of the colors most affected. It wasn't until years later that I knew why a certain bib was called "the invisible blue bib". It was a plain white bib and the invisible part was the blue that had completely faded. I had a bib with an embroidered brown bear in outline stitch with two tiny green beads for eyes. Those green beads seemed like jewels to me, and I was very indignant when I discovered that my mother had given my bib to John. Mother couldn't have imagined how important those two green glass bits were to me.
My hunger for color led me to spending hours searching in the dirt for small pebbles or bits of broken glass. A shiny piece of blue or red glass was hoarded as a treasure. The less colorful ones could be used for playing hopscotch.
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