The wee early years
I was born in the year 1968, and that’s all I’ll say about that.
Within about two years, I came to live with my family at Topeka, in a modest but well-appointed home on the southeast edge of town.
The end of the 60s was a golden age of gaudi flocked paisly drapes in green with a darker green velour sofa and a golden velvet swivel rocker in the living room. There was a large painting of… a western-scape and sunset inside a heavy plaster royal frame with gilden drybrush highlights. A floor-to-ceiling floor lamp with vogue adjustable conic shades around each of the three bulbs provided light in the evenings. The coffee and end tables were a dark stained wood with slightly curled edges on the sides (versus the front and back, this is subjective) like what you might see in the Brady home. An upright piano lined the short wall between the front door and the opening into the central hallway, the opening graced with saloon-style shutter-doors.
The hallway was short – I don’t remember that it had a light – and the bathroom was almost straight across from the opening from the front room. It was galley-style with a long counter on the left with the sink, ending at the toilet which faced across to the tub. At the end of the tub, to the right, was a linen closet and a short wall behind the door corresponding to the coat closet opening into the hall. The tub had a shower head with the diverter on the tub spigot. Mischievious me would set the diverter just before I was taken from the tub after my bath.
I was reprimanded for this, but I think everyone enjoyed hearing everyone else squeal when they went to turn on the faucet and were greeted with the cold spray. I could be wrong on that – it was a long time ago.
To the left down the hall was the kitchen. To the right down the hall, from the opening from the living room were my bedroom, the master bedroom, and the door to the basement immediately right of the opening.
The kitchen was well appointed with countertop on two walls, I remember a double-well sink, lazy-susans both above and below the counter, a side-by-side brown refrigerator. The floor was linoleum, but I can no longer remember if it was tile or rolled. I do remember my mom pushing everything to one corner, stacking the chairs, and scrubbing it on her hands and knees, or sometimes mopping. She’d then come into the living room to rest, and take up sewing or embroidery, or if I was lucky I’d be held while she looked at a magazine or a puzzle book.
The kitchen was trimmed out in orange patterned wallpaper, and above the sink was a clock that looked like a wrought-iron trivet to me, with ornate hands and numbers in latin. If this is another clock I’m thinking of, then the numbers were set in classic Caslon or another face where the numbers deliberately descend below the baseline. In either case, my meta-mind made note that it was a terrible clock for me to learn to read time.
There was a poster which decorated the exposed side of the refrigerator, showing the different types of cutting (chop, dice, etc) with medieval-style woodcarvings in a grid and watercolor in orange and brown tones. When being carried to or from the kitchen I would always express interest and gesture to stop and be allowed to look at it. I would pour over it myself when later I could stand on my own. I’ve tried to find it since, and did once – online, at a poster gallery, and I didn’t have the money or some other excuse – but never again.
As entertainment while Mom was working in the kitchen, I was allowed to take the pans out from under the oven, and clatter them about. I was, and still am, fond of the sound of a pan-lid ringing like a gong. And I enjoyed the mandatory fun of putting everything back in the drawer so they’d all fit – literally putting them back where I found them. Which I was very good at, and which is a major childhood theme.
The hallway, livingroom and my bedroom were carpeted in a short Berber, I think. Either that or it was what we now know as indoor-outdoor carpet, I’m not sure because I didn’t have good references and even now I’m not a textile expert. I do remember crawling along it, to and from the kitchen, the other rooms. I was quickly taught both by instruction and experience to crawl along the right-side wall in my direction of travel. Corners were blind, and I was safest against the floorboard. If the basement door were open, I was to crossover to the opposite wall before I reached the basement opening.
The stairs down were nice solid boards painted a glossy-gray. They descended to a largely unfinished basement. Just to the left, at the bottom of the stairs, was the dryer, and the washer to the left of it. Dirty laundry was thrown down the stairs to pile at the bottom where it was convenient to sort and load. It also provided me a soft landing when I frequently fell down the stairs. Even after I could walk, or at least toddle. The stairs were open, except where my brother had tacked a sheet along the left side. This protected his plastic models from drawing dust off the stairs, and protected the stairs from overspray and sanding residue. His hobby bench was there.
After several falls and some discussion, some kind of panel was tacked up for the first few feet on the right side of the stairs, figuring to protect me from falling off such a fatal height. Yes, I remember the discussion; I was present but not involved. Yes, I understood the rationale. For my part, when falling, I worked really hard to maintain a straight trajectory, having the same concerns as my parents.
The basement was fairly dark. Turning on the switch at the top of the stairs would turn on the bulb over the area to the left, over my brother’s workspace and the laundry area (which also had an exposed shower in the corner next to the washer. My brother had worked off an extension cord from that fixture, which powered a lamp over his workspace, and a radio – a tall, thin, chromed-plastic Realistic brand, I think, with FM and shortwave, and telescoping antenna. In this arangement, when you turned on the switch, the radio would come on with the light. It would help anyone upstairs know if the lights were on, or left on. It also created some terror for me.
I went with the family to “Live and Let Die” in January of 1973. I was 4 and a half. The discordant guitar chords that were played to such great effect during the horrific moments of the movie traumatized me to the song. At that age, I could walk, and was allowed free range of the house. I would go downstairs and play with the Mattel vacuum-former or make Incredible-Edibles or play with my Spin-Art or with the chemistry set… or sometimes just go stare into the furnace burners and watch the blue fire and listen to the roar and gently huff the Mercaptan. But when the Beatles’ Live and Let Die came on the radio, I only had that first tranquil verse to get upstairs and back to the safety of people, or I knew I would die when the chorus played. The song still triggers me.
Before that mobile age, what I remembered of the basement were pensive gatherings by candlelight during tornado warnings — to the right of the stairs where a make-shift family room existed — and Mom’s beauty shop, to the left of the stairs, opposite the open-framed wall that backed the hobby table. Here, my mother inflicted such terror and such intimate joy and peace.
I generally hated to have my hair cut. I’d start out okay, my mom making soft words and sounds, combing my hair and spraying my head with water, which was playfully cold… and then the cutting would begin. And she’d either nip too much here, or scrape a little too hard with the comb or a million other things, and I’d start bawling. I would have rolled away, too, if it wasn’t for being perched up so high in a seat, on top of a board, on top of the arms of her barber chair, which was raised to its max height. She would generally have to finish the cut through my shrieks and sobs, but once she was done cutting… she would continue to just comb my hair, styling it this way and that, combing and combing and combing until I was ready to sleep. And she’d take off the towel or the cape with the crackle of velcro, brush off any loose curls, then pick me up and cuddle me as she’d carry me back upstairs.
This is why, because playing with my hair can hypnotize me very quickly, I only allow young children and very close loved-ones to touch it. With nearly singular exception, my mom is the only one besides myself who has ever cut my hair.