It was always a mess, that house. And it wasn't just the size of the house that made it so hard to maintain. For even though we moved three times in my childhood and teenhood, the interior of each house we lived in remained the same. The main home, the Dutton house, the one we lived in initially for ten consecutive of my growing up years (my parents and siblings moved back into it after I had left home) was stucco. A product of the post WWII boom, my father obtained it through an F.H.A. loan on the GI bill. The white stucco reflected the hot Texas sun in the summer, keeping the interior as cool as 100 degree Texas temperatures would allow, and barely kept the winter winds out in the one and a half months of winter that we had in the Lone Star state. We were always chilly and damp from January through March.
There was a bright blue roof which faded with years on the small two bedroom house with an attached single garage. It had blue trim around the windows and doors. The stucco itself felt cool to the touch as we lounged against it, seeking relief from the heat, or rough, as we slid around it's corners, playing hide and seek. It was a square box in shape with a postage stamp yard, front and back, although the back yard was slightly larger, enough to accomodate the double garage my parents built later just off the alley. There was a driveway in front of the garage to the right of the house (facing it). Overloaded rose bushes in front of the living room windows with huge, red, blossoms spilled their fragrance on the June night air. Purple iris' marched along the side of the fence which separated our yard from the neighbor's. Fern like asparagus grew wild in and among the rosebushes and iris beds. Many times during the summer, I would come in to find asparagus stalks steaming on the supper table. Mother would call to me to clip a couple of leaves from the mint plants by the front door to put in her iced tea. I honestly don't remember if she planted any of this (surely); they just seemed to grow wild and free of their own accord; there was no gardener in our house.
There were casement windows in every room in the house which we would laboriously roll out in order to catch the stray breezes in the stifling heat or a breath of fresh air in the winter. The sickening sweet smell of honeysuckle would float in the back windows from the vines twined in and among the chain-link fence surrounding the back yared with it's ever present dog, the family pet. How I loved to lounge in the back yard, pulling the little honeysuckle trumpets off the vine, and suck the honey-like juice from the inside of the flower. There were long rows of wire lines for clothes attached to metal poles at each end. When I was tall enough, I would spend hours hanging clothes on the lines; fighting the billowing wet sheets as they slapped me, and struggling to get my brother's stiff jeans off the line. Finally, when I was a teen-ager, I had a portable radio that I could listen to while I worked.
The outside of the house looked much as any other on the block, fairly well kept; our lawn sometimes a little more shaggy than others, and I envied our friends across the street who had silky bermuda grass to roll around in while ours was "just regular grass" with burrs and stickers in it. (That did not keep us from going barefoot). Our house was a little to the right of middle on a street with 25 houses on one side, facing 25 houses on the other. We were fifth from the corner to the right of our house (facing out). In each house on the street except for a few, there were children, from one to six (us). So there was always someone to play with. We even played in the street! The appearance of the house on the outside belied the disarray on the inside. As a child, to me, it was just the way it was, although I did labor in vain at times to keep it neat and tidy. However, as I entered the disconcerting teen years, it was an issue of contention as I tried to control the chaos from my siblings in the event any of my friends stopped by.
My mother had always worked, an unheard of minority in the fifties as I've stated. Most of the chaos could be attributed to that, I'm sure, but the eight people living in the 1200 sq.ft. three bedroom house (the attached garage had been renovated into a third bedroom) was the main dilemma. There seemed to be clothes, books, and toys strewn about constantly. No matter how hard I or my mother worked to clean it up, the clutter seemed to magically reappear within moments. (With children aged 17,16, 12, 5, 3 years and a baby, I'm sure it did). Also, in the fifties, at least in our household, fathers and sons did no inside work. That left my mother who was gone most of the day five days a week, myself (the 17 year old) and my 12 year old sister, who at that time was with my grandparents more than she was home, and the baby. So most of the cleaning was left to me.
In the fifties, the only electronic helper we had was a washing machine. I don't think we even had a vacuum. I just remember sweeping the linoleum floors deliberately chosen as they kept the house cooler and because they could be swept and mopped. No dishwasher (except for me); and there seemed to always be dishes in the sink to wash. As there were no perma- press clothes at that time, the ironing board was a permanent fixture in the living room, next to the blue corduroy sofa. I whiled away many an afternoon, my head on one arm of the chair which matched the sofa across the room, my bottom on the sagging cushions, and my legs flung over the other arm, reading one of the many books in my parent's maghognany bookcase which faced the front door. I read many of the classics as well as non-fiction. One thing never lacking in our house was reading material; my mother and father always read every night before turning out the lamp on the nightstand next to their bed. If I wasn't reading, I was ironing.
Next to my head when I was reading in the chair was a room "air cooler". We were thrilled when we got it. All of us children would put our faces to it when the summer heat became unbearable. If the rest of the house was closed off, the front room was cooler than outside. At that time, there was no central air, in the homes of people I knew and in most stores. The only cool place was the movie theatre and we looked forward to Saturday as that was our haven and escape. Little did we know however that the magical water cooler could contain mold and that it was bad for the asthma I developed when I was eight. None of us put together that putting my face to the cooler triggered an asthma attack that night. Or that my beloved cat, Tiger, who slept on the end of my bed, and even delivered kittens there was also a trigger for the asthma. For my generation, there were no medicines for asthma or preventatives; I just struggled to breathe during the night, or after exercise, or when I had a cold. Fortunately for the generations that followed and for me today, the medicines available totally prevent those scary attacks.
In our house, I'm sure due to finances, there were few decorations; no knickknacks. Nothing to knock over or break, but nothing to break the monotony. We finally got a TV when I was 12; the screen was approximately 9 inches, and everything was in black and white, but we were thrilled. We watched "I Love Lucy" (the first episode I saw was when she was working in the candy factory and stuffing candy in her mouth--we rolled on the floor and howled), "Leave It To Beaver", and "Gunsmoke." There were only a couple of channels and a couple of programs to watch, but it was the one time most of the house was quiet as we glued ourselves to the TV. We had a telephone, but just one phone, and it was a "party line" which meant for those of you to which this is a foreign idea---that we shared the line with people we didn't even know. You would pick up the receiver and hear someone talking. You could actually listen to their whole conversation and they yours, but you always knew if someone else was on the line. And of course, the line was always busy so no one could call you. We felt we had really moved uptown when we got our own private line. It had 4 numbers only.
Mine, and my two sister's bedroom was right next to the living room; there was a very small hall onto which the two bedrooms on the right side of the house opened. The larger bedroom had been mine most of the time we had lived there. First I shared it with my brother who was a year younger than me, and my sister, who was 5 years younger. We had 3 single beds lined up; or sometimes against the walls. Sometimes, we had a live in baby sitter, and she would sleep in one of the beds, and my sister and I would share my bed. Our parents were in the bedroom next door. Then the attached garage was converted into a bedroom. At first, myself and my sister had that room, and my three brothers had the large bedroom I had previously occupied. Then my youngest sister was born and we three girls moved back into the bedroom across the house and the boys were in the room my parents had previously occupied. I felt sorry for the brother who was close to my age as he shared bunk beds with a five and three year old. My parents then occupied the converted bedroom which meant they were across the house from us. When my youngest sister was born, I was sixteen and would be seventeen the next month. My mother went back to work 2 weeks after her birth. Her crib was in the room with me, and so, at times, I would heat her bottle and feed her for the 2 a.m. feeding to give my mother some extra rest. I do think that is why she and I are so bonded today despite our age difference and the fact I left home before she could remember I was there (when she was 3).
Before the garage was converted, and before some of my siblings were born, my dad decided to raise hamsters to sell. We had cages lined almost to the ceiling with them. As a child, it was fun to watch them and feed them, but I'm sure my mother didn't appreciate the extra responsiblity as most of it fell to her. Cleaning those cages was no fun. The whining of a toddler, demands of older children, and a traditional husband (who believed he was king of his castle) never seemed to faze my mother. Looking back, it is hard to believe how young she was (she was 18 when I was born). Children always think their parents are "old". Sitting in the living room armchair knitting, in the kitchen cooking, changing a diaper, and fielding a ball thrown at the light fixture by a four year old, her calm disposition never changed. I never heard her raise her voice except when calling us inside to eat. She never used profane language. When my brother and I were teen-agers, she did nag us, but then I suppose she had to. Even though my mother had for almost as long as I could remember, gotten up while it was still dark and left to stay in an office from nine to five, riding the bus and getting home after dark; her presence was always felt in the house by me. If nothing else, I hurried to do my after school chores because "Momma would be home soon." She never punished me if it wasn't, but her disapproval was more than I could bear. She taught me how to cook, take care of babies, and clean floors via telephone. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen with her dark eyes, and dark hair. She was always well groomed and wore make-up, perfume, and jewelry for work, another thing she taught me. My father looked like Clark Gable with his dark hair, and grin that could light up a room.
My father on the other hand was stern; he never raised his voice either, but he didn't have to. One look from him and anything was quelled. My father believed strongly in the old adage, "Children should be seen, and not heard". It fell to me most of the time to try to keep the younger ones quiet if he was home. At the dinner table, we were only to speak when spoken to and that didn't happen often. We had dinner every night together though. My mother had a reportoire of menus that she prepared over and over. We always knew what night of the week it was by what was on the table. And Saturday was hamburger night. There were, of course, no fast food restaurants when I was growing up. But occasionally, my parents would treat us to take-out from a cafe. On Saturdays, you could get 10 large hamburgers with everything on them for $1.00 and the french fries were thrown in. We would get so excited when we saw that plain brown bag with it's greasy contents. In the summer, sometimes, when it was 100 degrees outside (which it was nearly always in July and August) we were allowed to have watermelon only for a meal. We would eat it with our hands, taking bites and gorging. What a treat!
When all the lights were out in my father's palace, and the only sound that could be heard were the chirping of crickets, and the hum of the watercooler in the living room, I loved to watch the moonlight filter through the slats of the venetian blinds, and make bright patches of light on the dark asphalt floor. The same floor I would crawl out of my narrow twin bed onto, press my cheek against it's smooth tiles, trying to draw the coolness from it, and sleep there the remainder of the hot, muggy, summer night, listening to Elvis sing "Heartbreak Hotel" on my record player.