Friday, August 21, 2009

Those Shifty Fifties

SHIFTY.....A word suggesting shadiness and deceit. According to Webster it is indeed indicative of deceit, and evasiveness. It also means to be resourceful. And resourceful our family was. This was a whole decade of folks given to resourceful living. A throw back from the war days I suppose. Our mother was the queen of make-do and ingenuity; a trait which appreciatively extended down through the following generations. Those were days when daddies worked and mommies stayed home to care for children and keep the home in order. Also the days when parents talked. To one another. Decisions were made together like how to spend the money Daddy earned and another quirky thing common among most of the families from that time was that the children were to be seen and not heard. We had no voice or opinion. At least when there were decisions to be made. Like where to spend the summer vacation. Practically all families took a vacation and it was just budgeted in. Kids were not inclined to suggest, question or nose into adult conversations and discussions. There was just no reason for us to as our needs were met and it was just taken for granted that this was the way it should be.

(This is a little snapshot of my little brother Freddie and I. We were probably around 2 and 4 at the zoo in Little Rock, Arkansas.)

(Our Daddy, George who was 23 here. Wasn't he handsome in his army uniform? He was a yankee from upstate New York)

(And this southern beauty was our Mama, Gene Margaret who was 17 when this was made. She and Daddy had been married for 1 year, and she was why we were in Arkansas as that was her home)

Although I was born in the first month of 1944 I think of myself as a child of the fifties due to only dim recollections before the age of six. I don't think it common or usual to remember much before the age you can attend school. Probably what we recall as actual memories are really things we're heard over and over and thus ingrained in our memory banks.

I do however have strong memories of the summer I was six and Freddie was around four. Things that year were "normal". Or were they. Seems only yesterday to be called in from playing to take our baths so we could be ready to greet Daddy when he came in from work. Mother was keen on sewing and one particular outfit I loved wearing was a little chocolate brown cotton pinafore trimmed with white eyelet ruffles up and down the side of the midriff. She even brown Rit dyed my socks to match and hand polished my white sandals. My hair, hanging to my waist had to be washed daily to eliminate the sweaty little girl smells and then braided with none other than chocolate brown ribbons. Freddie would also be made pure and ready with freshly ironed plaid shirt (hand sewn) and starched and ironed shorts to match. Out we'd go and wait with Mother on the arrival. She'd take a lawn chair for herself and a big jug of iced down lemonade (hand-squeezed) along with four glasses and we were permitted to play. Nicely. The Studebaker would presently appear and Daddy got to have his lemonade while exchanging pleasantries about what we'd done all day before going in for the evening. We could be "normal" again now that he was home.

This was in the days before television and evenings were spent pretty much the same from day to day. Daddy after removing tie and loosening the top botton of his shirt caught up on the days happenings from the newspaper while relaxing in his swivel chair and Mother would cook supper. We sat and ate as a family and mealtimes were actual events where we were encouraged to talk throughout the meal. Even the kids. And parents were truly interested in what we had to say. Things like eating Popsicles and riding our tricycles. Mama talked of her day. Washing, hanging clothes to dry and so forth. Maybe even a little funny like the time Freddie reached down and bit Freckles, our Cocker Spaniel on one of her long curly auburn ears and she turned the tables on him in the same manner. He still sports a faint scar on his chin from that little nip.

Bedtime stories were read to us and we knelt down on our knees for prayers. After that it was anyone's guess. Those were times for adult discussions, plans and perhaps arguments. Afterwards, well you know. The point I'm going for is that we kids knew nothing of adult private times, even things as mundane as the price of coffee. Least of all anything of a sexual nature. And for the most part, mothers and daddies stayed married to each other their entire lives. Always. That's not to say that divorce and infidelity were unknown. Just to us and those we knew.

The same summer of the chocolate wardrobe my daddy quit his job as a butcher. He went to work as a laundry delivery man for a dry cleaning company and his main stop was at the state hospital for the criminally insane. I only mention this because it was the summer that our next door neighbor went crazy. Miz Closs was her name and she had a husband and a grown son that frequently visited. For reasons unknown to us she developed a sudden hatred for my mother. My mother! A woman who didn't do a dang thing to set her off. They weren't even friends. Just nodding neighbors. Miz Closs had to be in her fifties and Mama was not more than a child herself in her early twenties and a keep to herself kind of gal.

These are actual memories not things I've heard over and over. Trauma stays with you even and maybe especially if it occurs at such an early age. My mother had gone to hang clothes on the line out back and feeling something not quite right turned just in time to avoid being whacked across the head by Miz Closs with a garden hoe! Not stopping to analyze the situation she ran like hell for the house and called the police. Miz Closs was questioned as was her husband and son who reported that she had not been feeling like herself. The matter was dropped and after a few unnerving days of leery speculation things went back to "normal".

Nights later the entire family was awakened as from a communal nightmare to the shrieks and curses coming from next door. "I'll kill her." "I'll kill the bitch". The insane admonishments obviously coming from Miz Closs. Sweet Jesus what was happening? For a moment my folks thought Freckles had been left out to pilfer in her garbage setting the lunatism in motion. Miz Closs however was not referring to Freckles. She was intending to kill our mother.

The police again arrived and this time left with Miz Closs. Things began to return to "normal" and we again went about the business of daily living only to know false security. She was deemed well enough to be released and soon the horror of it all resumed and in full force this time. We were not allowed to go outside to play and had become prisoners in our own home. Freckles could not go out to pee without Daddy standing guard with hoe of his own in tow. Mister Closs had become his wife's warden and thus the first lesson in the workings of the judicial system were learned. They finally came back for Miz Closs though and she became a lifetime resident of the same facility my daddy delivered laundry to. Shortly afterwards Mister Closs sold the house and new people came to live there. Normal people like us. Our home however had lost it's charm and security and we moved across town to live with my aunt Anne and grandmother Mammy. Life was good again.

(Note: Be sure to come back next Friday for the continuation of Those Shifty Fifties)


  1. ooo, a three-part series! go, Mollye!

  2. what a fascinating story ....

  3. Mollye, Thanks so much for the comment on my blog! And this story about the neighbor lady's descent into crazy...I just love it. :) Would you mind if I added your blog to my sidebar?

  4. I love your shifty fifties theme,cant wait to read next weeks.

  5. Wow, That is one scary story and it must have been hell for you all. Glad things worked out well eventually.


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