What triggers a story? You sit staring at the blank white page on your computer, knowing you have something to say. The piles of notes scribbled all over the desk say you do. And you do this every day. As you sit, you think about the banana cream pie you started out in the kitchen, or the dustmop waiting in the corner you promised yourself to use today, but something you thought of last night when you couldn’t go to sleep at three o’clock is nibbling at your memory. What was it?
In this case, it turns out that it was the smell of my mother’s homemade bread, baked in a wood oven in New London, Connecticut when I was ten years old.
“Kate and Nigh-Nigh” original watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen
The start of two years in New London, Connecticut, did not bode well. We had arrived after a hot and hurried road trip across country in the summer of 1938 to a strange community, strange people and stranger new surroundings.
We found an apartment, upstairs over a grocery store. It had two rooms and the bathroom was down the hall, which was strange because you couldn’t hang out in it because somebody else might need to use it. There was a community phone out in the hallway, but we didn’t know anyone to call anyway so that was OK. The building was old and the landlord lived downstairs with his family of wife and two small children. The good thing was that the landlord’s kids could drink all the orangeade they wanted for free.
Our kitchen floor was crummy old greyish beige linoleum with colored flecks in it. In front of the sink it had worn through to the black, and in one place you could see the wood flooring. My mother was sad but uncomplaining; things would get better. Of course in the Depression, you never could be sure of anything. It’s only claim to fame was a big old wood stove which turned out delicious bread once or twice a week.
Eventually I went out to play with the downstairs kids and came home red and itching. The more I itched, the more I scratched until welts and bubbles broke out all over my body. My father’s diagnosis—poison ivy.
My mother bathed me with stinky CutiCura Soap and the ointment which went with it.and then coated me in a sticky layer of pink calamine lotion which kept leaving flakes wherever I walked. Though I spent the entire summer in bed in this condition, I don’t remember what the bedroom looked like. The whole thing reminds me now of Chesterton’s quote: “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate.”
Another summer, our first (and only) in Oregon, was also spent in the throes of Poison something or other. Along with the ubiquitous calamine lotion, which I might as well tell you, does nothing to relieve the itching, they wrapped me in damp sheets for the summer, mummified and staring at the ceiling of another house.
Years later in California, Dr. Advice and I cut through a meadow to reach the river to go swimming away from the other summer vacationers. I was monstrously pregnant, and in those days you kept out of sight when in your swim suit rather than pose for Time magazine as Demi Moore so famously did in her birthday suit. The meadow was lush with bushes of blackberries and other bushes. We sat and ate our sandwiches and blackberries and tossed the crumbs to a friendly squirrel which seemed interested in us.
That evening I noticed a red rash appearing on my arms and legs. It itched. It spread over my large stomach. You would think I’d learn to keep out of the weeds.