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ROOM TO LET Kate’s Journal


When I was a child living at Grandma’s house, the largest bedroom in the house was often the first to be rented, because it brought in the most money. In Long Beach this room was in the rear, and was off limits to me. Grandma slept in the small room off the living room at the front of the house, where she somehow managed to surround herself with all the belongings of a lifetime.

At one point between renters, my mother and I shared the big bedroom. I must have been quite small, because I remember the furniture as being very large. I was so pleased with the transition that I stood on a chair before the mirror and cut my first bangs. It gives a child a great sense of accomplishment to have control over such an important part of their anatomy.

The change in my appearance, though pleasing to me, distressed the women in my immediate family. Auntie however, common sense Yankee that she was, took the newly shorn culprit to the local barber and ordered a “Dutch cut”, which went well with my ugly Buster Brown high top shoes. Grandma’s image of me with patent leather Mary Jane’s went counter to her sister, Aunt Georgia, who saw me as an ordinary rough and tumble kid. My own self-image landed somewhere in the middle.

I was born with both feet turned the wrong way, and while years of “step-shuffle-step” lessons did not make me a prima ballerina, they did make me a noisy tap dancer practicing on the linoleum kitchen floor.

One thing you learn early on when living in a house with paying guests, is how to be quiet, so for one reason or another, I was often sent to stay at Auntie’s house in the hills near Los Angeles.

In the early spring, those hills were covered with tall grass, which was the perfect conduit for cardboard box sleds. There were few neighbors around the hill, perhaps eight or nine at the most, and fewer children, but those who came to check me out taught me skills I could never have learned while living in the city.

Country kids know what’s going on in the outdoors. They know what bugs to pick up and which to leave alone, as well as which of the snake family is friendly and which should be avoided. We built large cages for the friendly snakes and fed them the bugs we didn’t like.

Days at Auntie’s were kept to a pattern: early to bed, early to rise. Puffed wheat or rice for breakfast, often accompanied by a slice of cake. Since cleanliness is next to Godliness, we cleaned house each morning. I still remember the smell of Old English furniture polish on the dust cloth hung in the cleaning closet.

Auntie had few clothes in her small bedroom closet; a couple of house-dresses and a dress-up one, and maybe two pair of shoes. We cleaned up early and went visiting perhaps once a week, and one or two people occasionally came for lunch. Her food and cooking were as simple as her clothing. Though she and Grandma grew up in the same well-to-do family in New Hampshire, they were quite different in their life approaches.

Each of my long visits with Auntie had to end, and I was returned to Grandmas’s house. I don’t remember that the big bedroom was ever empty again while she lived there, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to sleep there once.

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10 comments on “ROOM TO LET Kate’s Journal

  1. Lovely description of a simpler time in life. Your sentences here, simple rather compound/complex contribute to your explanations of life with Gramma and with Auntie. This way of conveying a narrative- with form the same as the setting, for example, is not easy to do.
    In Sebald’s Austerlitz, he writes one 4- page sentence as he descibes a day in Therezin death camp outside of prague.

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  2. A bit of both worlds, Kayti. I enjoyed the comparison. I was a country boy and definitely could have taught you about bugs and snakes and lizards and frogs.:) –Curt

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  3. I like to know more about having a “Dutch cut.” It is the first time I heard about it. Is it a hair cut whereby a small flower-pot is put on the head and all hair below the rim cut off?
    There are now Dutch uncles about. Going Dutch on a date and all sorts of other expressions. Of course, putting the finger in the dijk was another one of those stories I never heard about till I came to Australia.
    It is fascinating how in folklore some things relate to different countries and cultures.

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    • I love all the odd descriptions people put on things. Yes, a “Dutch” cut is exactly that. Bangs and cut short and even all around. How it got that name is beyond me, as well as all the other “Dutch” expressions. It’s the same with cooking from different countries. Sometimes the same recipe called by an unfamiliar name. Don’t we live in a wonderful world?

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  4. I’ve never in my life heard of cardboard box sleds. Of course, we had long months of snow sledding, bookended by the ritual taking down and putting up of the sleds. Summer was for other things, although bugs were great attractions for us, too.

    And believe it or not, as soon as I read “Old English furniture polish,” I could smell it. Proust had his madeleine, I have my cleaning supplies. There’s an old hotel down the Texas coast that smells exactly like my grandmother’s house. I can’t quite identify the combination of scents, but it involves old linoleum, that polish, and something else. Every now and then i get the urge to drive down there just to smell it.

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    • We had sleds in New England, though skating was a bigger attraction in winter. With cardboard box sleds there was no upkeep because they were generally worn out after a few runs down the hill.
      I can believe that Old English polish brought back memories. It has a distinctive smell, and I still have a bottle of it!.

      As in Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”, I think that is what I am doing when I write memoir! Funnily about the madeleine’s, someone gave me a box recently and we have been enjoying them with a cup of cocoa. My English friend Suzanne, bought a mold and has been making them lately. Delicious.

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  5. Aunts, grandmas and mothers—it appears you grew up in a family of women. You were fortunate that they were all different in manner and temperament. It gave you the background to allow you to make some interesting choices about how you developed. What a great account of your childhood!

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    • Ha ha! My book “A Houseful of Women” told that story. In retrospect I know I was very lucky to have known and lived with all these strong women. With my father away at sea so often they had to be resilient and capable. Fortunately for them, I was the only child, and well-behaved.

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