Put them under your pillow

Glenn Miller - Indian summer

We went to Grandma’s—my dad’s mother—every month or so for Sunday dinner and almost always on holidays. Dinners on Sundays, even at home, were different than dinners on weekdays, but especially so at grandma’s where there might be ten or fifteen people, mostly relatives of one variety or another. At the time I’m writing of, all but one of her eleven children, Helen, the youngest, and her husband, Mike, who was the bookkeeper at the shop, had left the house, or died; Helen took care of grandma who had heart trouble. Grandma had had three boys and eight girls. One boy had been killed in an auto accident long past, and the oldest daughter had died from heart trouble, leaving a husband and a daughter.

One of the normal attendees at Sunday dinner, the widower of my aunt who had died, was “Doc” Fanning, a dentist, and of course my uncle. I knew his hands and fingers intimately: he was, naturally, my dentist when I was a child. After your treatment was all over, if you hadn’t yelled too much, you got a piece of candy from a pretty wooden box with numerous drawers that he kept enticingly right next to the dentist chair. Kept business brisk I presume. Though in fairness I don’t think they were aware of that particular cause and effect then; dentistry in those days consisted largely of pulling teeth. Eventually, it was assumed, you would graduate into dentures when too few remained to chew with. Grandma used to get a kick out of scary us little kids by purposely letting her uppers drop down and waving her arms in the air crazily.

For some part of my youth even my great grandmother survived. Her house was right next door to my grandmother’s but separated by a nice grass yard that contained a very full and pretty mulberry tree toward the front from which we occasionally picked the rather sour fruit and ate it. We called great grandmother, grandma Heim, her married name. I’m not sure if she was my grandmother’s mother or my deceased grandfather’s. She was rather frail and didn’t attend dinner, but a plate was always taken to her and many of the guests at dinner stopped to see her and say hello. And a block or so away lived my great aunt and uncle, brother and sister, siblings I believe of my deceased grandfather. Neither had ever married and they lived together in a small house. This was a little unusual, but not all that strange in those days. (Whatever happened to bachelors and spinsters, and maiden aunts—or, for that matter, virgins? We just don’t seem to have these once familiar categories anymore.) Besides all these, we had a number of pseudo relatives who often came to dinner. They were just good friends of the family, though for us children many of them had been given the honorific, aunt or uncle. This was all a little fuzzy to us kids (as it may be to the reader) but we didn’t really care very much; all these interrelationships just weren’t on our horizon; it was just like one big family.  Everyone knew everyone even if the relationships were hazy to us kids.

Anyway, grandma remained almost alone in this big house, and since earlier there had once been all these children, there were plenty of rooms to play in when we went there. This was exciting to my brother and I because probably our first cousins, Ann and Rose—close to our ages—would be there to play with as well as other young relatives, and because there was a different yard to play in that had not been as minutely explored as our own.

Most of the adult guests were drinkers, even the younger women, and the beer and bourbon helped to generate a constant din of talk and laughter. We kids usually played outside during all the chatter while dinner was being assembled unless it was raining. There was a large yard and a sidewalk where the girls might play hopscotch.

To the rear of grandma’s back yard was a large garden, mostly of potatoes, which would be pulled up in the fall and stored in barrels to be eaten all winter. In the springtime the remainder in the barrels would begin to sprout and grandma would cut out the sprouts carefully with a knife; these became the seedlings for the spring planting. There was often a big barrel of apples in the basement too that we could munch on, though we preferred the candy that was usually offered in a bowl in the dining room. There must have been some sweet corn and onions in the garden too. It was not a little namby pamby garden by any means; it was meant to feed people.

(My mother once told me that when my dad was young he had sold vegetables door-to-door during the depression after his father died at a relatively young age of a heart attack. He never talked about this. She said it was because it was a painful memory. In fact I tried several times to get him to talk about what it had been like for him as a kid, but no-go; as I wrote, he just changed the subject and to this day I still don’t know anything much about it.)

 A sit down dinner would be served in the dining room at 2:00 or so in the afternoon, with an auxiliary table usually set up in the kitchen for the children, more or less supervised by one of the aunts. Dinner was usually a roast of some type. If the guests were many, there might be two roasts: beef, ham, pork, chicken or turkey. I can’t remember anything else except maybe fried chicken. This was served with several vegetables such as fresh green beans, sweet corn and tomatoes in the summer, canned peas and corn and carrots in the winter, and always mashed potatoes and gravy—often “dressing” (stuffing) was served if there was a turkey. Usually, with turkey, candied yarns with melted marshmallows on top accompanied it. I also remember having a baked casserole of canned green bean and store-bought French fried onions. Often, dinner was accompanied by some form of gelatinous salad one usually made with lime Jell-O with grated cabbage and carrots entrained in it. A leaf lettuce salad might be served if it were summer. A ritual was that Grandma would give the kids a nickel to eat their green beans, unaware—or so we thought—that we secretly liked them.

After dinner the younger women would clear the plates and do the dishes, chattering away. The men and kids were excused from this chore. Some of the men and older women took naps on a convenient couch or on a bed in one of grandma’s many spare bedrooms. In the winter one of the men might carry the ashes out of the basement from the house’s coal furnace, or do some other “manly” chore around the house. Work in those days was pretty gender-specific. If the weather was nice the rest of them usually went out on the lawn to continue their various threads of conversation or to throw a ball around. In the summer of course the house was quite warm, what with all the people in it and with the cooking. As I recall, only the movie theater in Naperville, the venerable Naper Theater, since deceased, was air conditioned and that was so unusual a luxury that the fact was prominently announced on a sign on the door. We children of course were busy playing again, either indoors or out, depending on the weather.

Later, in the evening, a few more drinks might be had and a light supper of leftovers would be served buffet style. Soon after that a steady progression of goodbyes began.