When I was five years old, my father decided he needed to join in the war effort. He signed up as a Chaplin in the US Army and gave up his church in Durham, Connecticut. The family moved to Middletown and lived with Great Aunt Edie while we waited for him to be called. Aunt Edie owned a huge, gray brick Victorian house on Court Street, across from the public library; and my very first memories are of that big, fascinating house.
The Middletown house was like a museum…a huge museum. In the front room, floor to ceiling windows flanked a tall mirror and looked out onto Court Street. The mirror was framed in gold leaf, and to me it looked like solid gold. I’d stand in front of it and imagine I was a princess, turning left and right to study my five-year-old self. On the inside wall, to the right of the windows, was a small fireplace with a marble mantelpiece. Fires were lit only during Christmas, but my memories of that big room are filled with the glow from the fireplace. The furniture was heavy and Victorian and had been in my Mother’s family for years. She’d run her hand over a chair or sofa and say, “Tut, can you imagine growing up surrounded by this furniture?” Well, I’d think, I’m growing up here and I think it’s fun. Rocking chairs, stuffed fat with horsehair, rocked way back and forth like a carnival ride; a sofa was shaped like a bowl and tables with animal feet filled the room. There were fascinating paintings of strange people and mysterious places on the walls.
Through an arch was a music room with a big piano, great fun for my sister and me; behind that room was something called the “conservatory”. It was at the back of the house and was, also, filled with heavy, dark furniture. A large mahogany wardrobe took up half the far wall. The wardrobe had two big doors and two wide drawers and was a constant source of curiosity…but not to be touched by little girls’ fingers. One day my sister whispered that we should open the wardrobe; that it might have a secret room where we could hide if the enemy came to Middletown. My mother and father were out shopping and Aunt Edie was “napping” upstairs. We stood for a few minutes in front of the wardrobe; then my sister carefully turned the key in the lock and opened the big doors. Inside, rows of long, velvet and silk dresses filled the space; feathered wraps and hats hung on hooks and rows of funny little shoes with buttons lined the floor. My sister touched one of the dresses. “This is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen,” she sighed; but I was disappointed. “Where’s the secret room?” I wondered. “What if the enemy comes?” My sister just shushed me. “Look,” she said, “if the enemy comes, we’ll just dress up in these dresses and they’ll be so amazed they’ll leave us alone.”
The drawers held more wonders. “Oh, boy,” my sister crooned, “Look at the dolls!” She held up two Victorian dolls with china heads and stuffed bodies, jointed legs and arms, and tiny china hands and feet in black shoes. “See, Judy,” she said, “one has yellow hair and that’s for you; and one has black hair and that’s for me.” I liked the dolls. They wore dresses and funny long underpants. Aunt Edie told us later they were called “pantaloons”; that was after we’d had a stern “talking to”, of course. The dresses were of light, silky material, covered with tiny flowers and reached below the dolls’ knees. The pantaloons were edged with lace and each doll had tiny gold earrings in their china ears. I fingered an earring. “Isn’t it funny the ladies’ underpants show below their dresses?” I said. “Oh, silly girl,” my sister said. “Don’t be such a baby!” I guessed she didn’t know, either.
My sister set her doll aside as she dug through the drawers. I still remember the dolls, but among the rest of the treasures in the drawers that day, I remember the fans; Oh, I do remember the fans! “Look,” she said,” held a fan up and opened it, smiling and twisting her shoulders back and forth. On the fan, a woman with long, flowing hair lounged against the side of the fountain. Water cascaded into a pool. My sister closed the fan, then, curious, opened it the other way, gaped with amazement and started to giggle. “Look at this, but don’t you dare tell Mother or Aunt Edie,” she ordered. She stuck the fan in front of my face and, now, instead of the lone woman lounging against the fountain, a man had joined her, grasping her body against his, his trousers down around his feet. “What’s that man doing?” I wondered. “He’s hurting the lady. Look, she’s screaming.” My sister sniffed and snapped the fan closed and dug out another one. This one had a nautical scene with a man and woman walking along the shore, looking towards a ship in full sail. My sister closed the fan and opened it the other way. In this scene, the man and woman were rolling on the sand, the man’s hands fumbling at her clothes. “Don’t tell anyone,” my sister said, and put the fans back in the drawer under a stack of fabric. “When you’re grown up, I’ll tell you about the fans but until then, you just forget them, okay?” I didn’t tell a soul, but… I never did forget them.
One of my favorite places to hide and daydream was a greenhouse, right off the conservatory. It was furnished with white wicker chairs and tables, and rows upon rows of green plants, their leaves hanging almost to the floor. I’d sit under the leaves and wonder who had spent time in those wicker chairs. Did Aunt Edie sit in here when she was a little girl? My mother? Were they ever little girls? Like me? It was hard to believe.
Each of us had our own room upstairs. Aunt Edie’s bedroom faced Court Street. My mother and father had a big room that faced the side garden and my sister’s room was across the hall. I, on the other hand, had a small, tidy room next to my parents’. The thing I liked about my room, small as it was, was a large painting of a man and woman in strange, old fashioned clothing, standing in a hayfield next to a wheelbarrow, their hands clasped in prayer. It was a faded brown and framed in a heavy gold frame; and I loved it. I’d lie on my bed and wonder about the people, who they were and what they were doing. “It’s the Angelus,” my mother told me. “They are saying their evening prayers because the church bells are ringing. See the church steeple in the distance?” “Do Daddy’s church people do that,” I asked. My mother’s smile was sad. “I’m sure they would if the church bells rang,” she said and that ended the conversation. I always think about the Angelus: the sweet, simple couple standing in the hay field and I wonder if people would do that now, take time out of their busy days, if the evening bells would ring.
During the day, life went on as normal; but at night, Aunt Edie and my mother drew heavy drapes over the windows and hurried from room to room dimming the lights. Often the sound of the air raid siren rose and fell in the night. “It’s the black outs,” my sister told me, “the air raids.” It made me nervous and she’d sniff, “Oh, you’re such a baby!” Sometimes airplanes shook the house as one of the American Army Air Force squadrons flew overhead. The planes gave me nightmares and I’d wake my parents, shaking and crying in fear. Then my mother would sit on the side of the bed and rub my back. “Those airplanes are bringing little girls’ daddies home,” she’d tell me and that would lull me back to sleep.
The bathroom upstairs was at the end of the hall next to a small staircase that lead downstairs to the kitchen. The bathroom was a wonderful room. There was a white sink with a marble shelf above it, filled with soaps and mysterious lotions. A white tub sat next to the sink and it had feet, animal feet with claws. How wonderful to take a bath in a tub with animal feet! Maybe some night it will get up on those feet and run down the hall and out of the house, I’d think, with me in it. Across from the tub, three steps led up to a small room that was called the water closet or toilet room. My sister told me it was a pretend radio. She’d disappear into the little room every morning and close the door; I’d sit on the stairs and twist the doorknob to turn the radio on. “The Germans are retreating into the east,” she’s drone, or, “We may see the end of the war by spring.” I learned about the war through my sister’s morning news in the upstairs bathroom; and it was through her that I learned about the Black Market.
“The Black Market is becoming more of a problem as the war drags on,” she told me through the toilet door one morning. “The Black Market is a problem,” I told myself. It sounded so scary and evil, something that might bring disaster to our country. So, it was with a certain amount of misgiving that I went shopping with my parents one dark winter evening. “We’re going to the co-op,” my father had told me. “We can get more for our money and ration coupons, there.” What’s a co-op, I wondered as we piled into the car and headed down to Main Street and across the railroad tracks, but nobody heard me. The Co-op was a huge, open room filled with shelves of food and supplies. An almost empty meat counter took up one wall. Pipes crisscrossed the ceiling and dim flourescent lights blinked overhead. My mother took a basket and she and my father walked around the aisles with me at their heals, filling their basket with macaroni and rice, flour and canned goods. Outside it was dark. Inside it was dim, and the food “didn’t cost much money or use too many ration coupons”. Added to that…we’d go there at night! Of course, I thought, that’s the Black Market. Another thing to worry about: would they come and arrest us? Take us away from Aunt Edie’s big house? Finally, I dared to ask about the Co-op, asked if we were shopping in the Black Market. I was not entirely pleased when everyone, including my sister, laughed aloud. “You’re such a baby,” she said.
The war ended before my father was inducted into the army and we moved to Heath, Massachusetts when he was called there to serve the Congregational Church. The next year Aunt Edie died at a comfortable old age and the Middletown house was sold and turned into apartments. And life went on.