I had not seen my father in years. In fact, I really did not care if I ever saw him again. He left so long ago I barely remembered what he looked like. So the day he returned was more of a shock, than a surprise.
When I came home from school that day, the family was all excited about something. Mother, who was usually in an old house dress, was in her Sunday best. She had on one of her two good dresses. This one had big pink roses splashed on a field of black. It was my favorite. My mother was a good-looking woman and since dad had left us several years ago, she had finally started dating again. She said at that time that she considered him dead anyway.
So that day, when mother asked me to go upstairs and make the beds, I did not jump to do it.
“What’s with the cleaning”? I asked. I was told more than once, that I had a smart mouth. I never knew quite how to take that, whether I should be insulted or complimented. But mother seemed worried about getting the house cleaned and right away. It was not like her to be so concerned about the cleaning. Her usual attitude about it was, ‘It will get done when it gets done’, and it always got done.
“It is a surprise, will you please do what I asked?” Mother’s voice was getting a bit shrill.
“Ok, ok, but I don’t know what all the mystery is about. Is someone important coming”? I decided to go and do as she asked before she got mad and started yelling. When she started yelling, it never ended good.
I ran upstairs and started making beds. My two younger sisters were in their bedroom giggling and they were not doing any cleaning. But then they never did any of the cleaning anyway. I hoped maybe they could shed a little light on the situation but when I asked them, they just ignored me and kept on giggling. What can you expect from kids, I thought. I was fourteen and as second oldest in the family thought I was in control of things. I was blond and blue-eyed and rather scrawny yet the boys were beginning to notice me. My mother encouraged me in my independence, because she needed me to help at home while she was working. Since Dad had left us high and dry when I was seven, with no money to speak of; mom needed every penny she could get to raise her four girls.
I finished making the beds and as I entered my room, which I shared with my older sister, the smell of Summer drifted in through the window. The lace curtains fluttered lazily on the warm breeze as I flopped on the bed and lit a cigarette that I had swiped from Mother’s purse earlier. She did let me light hers for her once in a while so I thought it was okay to have one once in a while. I went off into a world of my own and saw myself as a dancer. Myself and Gene Kelly, who was my favorite movie star, swayed back and forth to the music and as we swung out and came together, I was lost in the moment.
I seemed to be day-dreaming more and more lately. It was a way to close out the real world and go to my own special place. Ever since dad had deserted us, there never was enough money, but now things were beginning to get better with myself and my older sister working. I only worked part-time because I was still in school but it was enough to buy my clothes and give a little to my mother. Dad had refused to send home any money to help support us from his Army allotment. So the decision was taken out of his hands and the Army sent money to us anyway. Yes, dad was a real nice guy.
Dad was drafted even though he was over forty because he was a deserter of his family and the Army needed all the men they could get. The second World War was in full progress at this time and that’s all that we heard about on the radio. The war! Rationing, black-outs, not enough sugar butter or gas. The sugar was what concerned me the most, I loved making candy, one thing dad had taught me. Fudge with peanut butter was my favorite.
Whenever mother spoke of dad her voice was bitter and I learned to despise his memory even though I didn’t remember him all that much. Mother managed to fill in the blanks with, “We wouldn’t be in this shack with hardly enough to eat if he were any good.” She called him “Mr. Rat” most of the time. And he managed to live up to that name.
I often wondered if dad would come back and how she would feel if it ever came to that. I knew however, with mother’s attitude, there was slim chance of that happening. As I stubbed out the cigarette, a train whistle blew in the distance and I wondered what it would be like to be on that train. I always dreamed of going to New York, which was not that far away and becoming an artist or a dancer.
“Are you finished yet?” Her mother’s voice broke her reverie.
“I’m all done.” I yelled back.
Mother worked hard trying to support the family. She did housework for several people. She was usually tired when she came home and so she put me in charge of watching the kids and cleaning the house in her absence. I liked being in charge. I could boss my younger sisters around whenever I felt like it. They rebelled of course and there was many an argument. They were eleven and nine at that time. They clashed loudly with me over who was “in charge”. “We’re going to tell mother,” was the usual refrain when I pushed too hard to make them do anything like their homework or make their beds.
The house we rented was a two bedroom over a shoemaker shop. Myself and my older sister, shared one bedroom and my two younger girls shared the other. Mother slept on the couch downstairs. She said she had to keep an eye on the coal stoves anyway, so they wouldn’t go out and then we would freeze in the winter. Of course we had to have the stoves going in the Summer also to do our cooking. Which made for a very warm house in the summer.
My older sister was sixteen and as the oldest had to quit high school to work and help support the family. As a result of her bringing money in, she became very independent. She assumed no duties at home and paid little or no attention to mother. The younger girls didn’t really remember their dad or if they did, it was just a fuzzy outline. Their lives consisted of going to school and playing with their friends.
My reverie was interrupted again when I heard my mother’s voice coming from the bottom of the stairs.
“Come on down girls, there’s someone here to see you”, mother said.
My sisters ran down the stairs giggling to see who it was but for some reason I hung back. I had a strange feeling come over me. I really didn’t want to come down and see who was there. I heard men’s voices that I did not recognize. So I stayed in my room until Mother finally came up and insisted that I come down and meet the visitors.
To be continued.