"On August 28, 1864, the first U.S. Railway Post Office route was established officially when a car equipped for general distribution was placed in service between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. ... "


Glenn Miller - Stardust

My mother, Anna Marshall Goetsch, was of course the central figure of my life in my early years, since my father was at work most of the time. She was born in 1903.

Both of her parents had died before I was born. She told me that her mother had run a boarding house, and that this was the house she had grown up in as a young girl. I believe it was on Brainard Street, only a few blocks north of us when we lived at Mill Street and Benton. It was no longer a boarding house then. Her father worked for the post office on the railroad. He would, she said, be a week or so at a time on the railroad, sorting the mail in the mail-car and then, as the train roared by the different small towns out west, he would deftly hook the mailbags onto poles put up for that purpose. I suppose they stopped if they had passengers or freight to leave off or pick up, but that might not have been very often in those days.

As I recall she had two siblings. One, a younger sister, had died of tuberculosis in her twenties or thirties. I never knew her. The other, a brother, Harlan, I only vaguely remember, as he died when I was quite young of a heart attack. Somehow we didn’t have much contact with my mother’s family. I remember only that she had some relatives in Chicago, which we felt was another world, and we rarely saw them. I remember though that she had a great uncle, named Willie, who showed up unannounced every few years in Naperville for a day’s chat and a few drinks. He fascinated me because he was short and yet tough and, like Popeye, of whom he reminded me more than a little, had been in the navy, had a tattoo, and was quite eccentric. In spite of his otherworldliness I remember that my dad liked him. He seemed to like peculiar people. He just got a kick out of them, probably because he considered them so unlike himself.

The roaring twenties were my mother’s heyday. She was a flapper. I once asked her what a flapper was and she said girls bobbed their hair, started wearing short skirts, and stopped wearing bloomers. I was not precisely sure what bloomers were, but apparently I had a vague idea because I left it right there, and she didn’t seem anxious to explain. She was a college girl and that was unusual in those days. She graduated from Northwestern University, in the school of nursing, and afterward worked in Chicago at Cook County Hospital. She recalled more than once to us that she had taken care of a very small premature baby who she could hold entirely in her two hands and he (or she), a colored baby, as was said in those days, weighing 14oz, slept in a cigar box at the hospital. She was very proud of her care of this child. All through her life she received a slim quarterly at home called, The Pilot, which apparently was an alumni book from her nursing school. It looked pretty boring to me, but it stayed around the house for weeks and probably was a way for her to keep up with her old classmates as well as possibly to keep up with newer concepts in nursing.

My mother said she had smoked cigarettes when she was young but quickly gave it up because of asthma. I imagine that her sister dying of tuberculosis, of which little was known at the time, may have had something to do with this decision. But she, along with my father and all their good friends, drank quite a lot of booze. Their drink of choice was called the highball and consisted of whiskey and water over ice cubes. Appropriately the term also means a railroad signal indicating that the way ahead is clear and that a train may go ahead at full speed (trains were the big new high technology of the day). As an evening wore on, the proportions increasingly favored the whiskey, and full speed. Sometimes, my father would drink a beer, Budweiser, usually right out of the bottle as the young people do today; my mother, didn’t seem to care for beer. When I asked, in genuine curiosity, not in censure, why they all drank so much, she said that that was part of growing up during prohibition, it was a way for young people to show their independence.

“But how could you drink during prohibition,” I asked, naively.

“That was easy,” she replied, “there were speakeasies.”

A speakeasy as I understand it was something like a private club where you had to know someone else that belonged in order to get in. They were illegal during prohibition. My point is, she was not an old fashioned girl by any means.

She had a special friend, Charlotte Hermes, who was also more modern than most of our friends’ mothers and they formed a bond that lasted throughout her life. Charlotte was also a professional. She worked for the state of Illinois, an undercover inspector of quack doctors. She liked highballs too and they would sit together in our kitchen, we listening raptly, while Charlotte humorously told bizarre stories of strange radiation machines and similar instruments of quack medicine. Her job was to pose as a patient and then give testimony at trial against the practitioners. My mother was always highly entertained by these sessions, as was I.

Mom was about 5ft. 2in. tall, enjoyed food, and had plenty of flesh to show for it, though she didn’t seem what we today would call overweight or obese. I didn’t think of her as being fat since she looked pretty much the way all my friends’ mothers looked: the matron look. To some extent it was just the way she was built though she was quite slim, with a perky nursing cap on her head, in nursing school, but that was way before my time.

Mother was the Naperville city nurse until I was born. Her duties then, as she explained them, included making the rounds of Naperville’s schools checking on the children—including the Catholic grammar school that I later attended. (The separation between church and state was apparently more tenuous in those innocent days than it is today.) Looking back, it seems peculiar that a city—of all organizations—should employ a nurse, but though there were a few doctors—generally seeing patients in a room of their house—there was no hospital in the city. And, besides nursing, the job included what I later gathered was welfare administration. Not welfare as we know it today; there was none of that. The assistance available was largely provided by the relatives, neighbors and the churches, more or less in that order. Apparently what the position involved, besides nursing proper, as I reconstruct it from her rare conversations about it, was looking in on old people who were sick and had no relatives, poor families with children, and what we might now call dysfunctional families. She visited these people in their homes and had the authority of law behind her when it was necessary to enforce a quarantine, deal with an infestation of rats, or cats, or of lice, or to send a drunken father for a short vacation in the hoosegow after he had beat-up his wife or kids. No, Bunky, they were not all angels in the good old days.

On August 28 1934, a year and a day after she and my father married, I was born, quite properly it seems, as things tended to be in those days. She was 32 years old, thought to be quite old for childbearing at the time. Her “lying in”, as was said in those days, spelled an end to my mother’s professional career and she was never to return to it. Though for a while she did manage the “books” for my dad’s business, from that point on she stayed home and became just, Mom.

When I was very young, maybe two years old or so, an addition to our family arrived: A man carrying a bushel basket knocked at our kitchen door. My mother opened the door, and after a few moments of discussion with the man she called me over. In the basket were a half dozen or so very young puppies snuggled all together warmly on a blanket in the bottom. She asked me if I would like to choose one to keep. I did, of course. Mom suggested I name her Bootsie because she was black except for her paws which were white. She also had two distinctive brown circular spots, one above each eye. Bootsie lived thirteen years and became an integral member of our family, with a personality distinctly her own. When my father would chastise her for some impropriety she would go to the window, put her front legs up on the sill, look out and ignore him. She was also my, and later my brother’s, constant companion, at least until, when she became very old, she could no longer keep up with us. She had several litters of puppies which, in a manner similar to her arrival at our house, my mother gave away, after snipping off their tails with a scissors and dunking the stub in flour to help it heal. She thought this process made the dogs more attractive, though it seemed rather cruel to me. She, probably just to make me feel better, said that they didn’t feel it. When Bootsie died, my brother and I gently wrapped her in a blanket and buried her in one of our favorite places at the quarry (of which more later).

Three years after I was born, more or less, I had another, and less benign, surprise: the arrival of my brother. My mother, of the modern school, thus psychologically sensitive, and apparently wanting to hold off sibling rivalry at the pass, was careful to make me feel that he was a fine new addition to our family. I vividly remember her sitting me down in a small child’s chair that we had. She placed a warm, soft, blanket-wrapped package carefully in my lap, explaining that this little odd-smelling, immobile and truth be known rather ugly weight, was my brother and that his name was John. Further, that I was to share in his care, thereby giving me something of a stake in the matter. I’m quite sure that this was the au courant method of adjusting an only child to his dethronement. However it seemed to me to imply some form of ownership as well as responsibility and I managed to maintain this outlook for some years to come.

Mom wore dresses every day. They would be “house dresses” if she had work planned, or fancier dresses if she was going somewhere that day, and never without silk stockings (probably real silk, since nylon had not yet been invented), high heels, white gloves, purse, and a hat. This was standard issue for matrons of the day. She could drive our car too, which was somewhat unusual for women of the time. As I recall, it was a 1936 Plymouth coupe.

If the occupation of matron sounds today like a leisurely life, it was not then. Housework was at that time a serious proposition. Washing clothes, to give only one example, was done by hand using a scrub board in a large, metal tub, after which the tub was drained and the clothes rinsed. Then the clothing, piece by piece, was fed through rubber coated wringers powered by a hand crank, feeding with one hand while cranking with the other. Afterward they were taken outside, batch by batch, in clothes baskets into the yard and pinned with wooden clothespins to rope “clotheslines” strung there more or less permanently. In the winter they were hung in the basement to dry. 

Once a year, in the fall, many women would “put up” glass Mason jars of tomatoes and other vegetables, and of fruit—unaccountably, without a can in sight, it was sometimes called “canning”. As I recall it, it was a long and tedious project involving much boiling, sealing with paraffin and other near-industrial processes. Mom was not a glutton for punishment and this attempt at frugal housekeeping soon withered on the vine, unmourned by my brother and I, as we were usually pressed into service on that great day.

I never remember mom standing around. She was usually very active: cleaning, shopping and cooking, and in fact she generally enlisted my brother and I in the cleaning part, to the extent that we could help. We affected to make that extent as minuscule as possible; we had our own business, outside. Nevertheless, in the evenings after supper, as my brother and I quarreled over who was to wash and who was to dry the dishes, she might read a magazine, or the Naperville Clarion, or listen to the radio, then a rather large and formidable device. Yes, there was no TV.  For a number of years she went to a “card party” each week with several other women to play bridge.  When it was her turn to host the party, John and I got out of the house as fast as possible.

When I was very young, marketing was generally done in a succession of stores, not in a supermarket, though later I remember an A&P store with little, wheeled, wire carts, a store that probably wouldn’t even count as a “supermarket” today, resembling more a Latin American Super Mercado. One rarely ate at restaurants in those “depression” days. They were much more expensive then, in relative terms, than now. There were no frozen foods and no “fast foods”, a notion completely foreign to those frugal times.

Mom was, as I wrote, personally very neat when she went calling or shopping, but at home she was not especially sensitive to dirt or controlled by an extravagant sense of order. My brother and I bathed once a week, usually Saturday night, with mom providing the scrubbing when we were little, just like a Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post cover. The house had an orderly arrangement and on the surface was pretty neat, but it probably would not have passed the white glove test.

We almost always ate three meals together at home each day, my brother and I walking, or later riding our bicycles, home from school at noon, and my father driving home from work at breakneck speed for lunch—which we called dinner; supper, at 5:00 or so, was the evening meal. What we ate each day was highly dependent on the family’s current financial status which apparently was quite variable, but we knew little about it at the time as financial matters were never, ever discussed in front of us boys. Much later, when questioned, she told me the reason; it was because dad had had to deal with such things when he was young and he wanted to spare us that.

My mother liked to eat, and usually she seemed to like to cook. If times were good we usually had some sort of roast on a Sunday with a green vegetable, such as broccoli or peas, neither of which I liked (she didn’t peel the broccoli stalks), and a red vegetable, such as carrots, which I did like, and virtually always mashed potatoes and gravy. As to the gravy, when she was ready to begin this delicate operation she would invariably say to my father, “Bud, I need one for the gravy.” (Bud was my dad’s nickname.) Unspoken, but understood, was that the “one” was a highball, and he would prepare it with a tinkling of ice and a slight, knowing smile.

The rest of the week we ordinarily ate some variation on the leftover roast with less and less meat and more and more vegetables and starches until, near the end of the week, we seemed always to have what my mother simply called casserole. It was not our favorite. If we asked what was in it she would answer slyly, “There’s nothing but good stuff in it,” and that was all she would say on the matter. Mom had taken a course in nutrition when she was at nursing school and claimed that with both green and red vegetables at each meal, vitamin supplements were completely unnecessary.

In more financially strained times our meals ran toward meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and tuna noodle casserole, hot dogs, and occasionally even spam. We rarely ate fruit, except for apples in season. At that time there were no frozen foods, and canned foods from the store were I believe rather expensive.

If my mother was sick, or had to be away for some reason, my brother and I, at noon, either met my father at a restaurant near the shop where he worked. It was called, somewhat too elegantly, The Rafter House. Or even better, if he was too busy, were able to eat by ourselves at a little place called, simply, Paul’s, that occupied a small space in the basement below a food market at the northwest corner of Benton and Washington, right on our way to school. In either place we almost always had the same thing, what was termed roast beef: thin slices of sirloin, well done with mashed potatoes and gravy over all. We loved it. If by supper time she had not recovered, dad would bring home a sack of “castle burgers”, small little hamburgers that we’re just about the best things on earth. He got them at the Prince Castle on Washington street right by the river. It sold only ice cream in all its forms, and these little hamburgers. It was a small chain restaurant, one of the first, owned by a Mr. Fredenhagen, a knock-off in a way of the much larger White Castle hamburger chain. This was probably the first “fast food” in the Midwest. Unfortunately, mom was seldom sick.

Always on a Sunday, perhaps once a month or even less often, we all got in the car and went out to eat at a real restaurant. My folks favorite spot was The Elms, five or ten miles east, on Ogden avenue. This was a high time indeed, and my brother and I were given nickels to play the jukebox. My favorites were the Andrews sisters and Glenn Miller. I now, at 70-something, recapitulate that small pleasure at the VFW club in Pittsburgh which, satisfyingly, has the same songs in the jukebox, and people my age to go with them. But it’s now a buck for three plays.

Discipline was ordinarily my mother’s job. And it was usually verbal, though it might be accompanied by a sharp swat on the back of your pants. For truly egregious behavior sterner measures were applied, but this was very rare: we usually knew well just how far we could push the limit and only rarely tested the boundaries. The punishment I remember most vividly in these cases would begin when my mother, at the end of her considerable patience, would say, “Bill, that’s it. Cut a switch.” Which meant that I was to be given a kitchen knife to go outside and cut a switch, that is to say a small branch of a bush or small tree, to be trimmed to a slim and flexible state, with which you were to be spanked. The order was that it not be too small or mother would do the choosing herself. (Mom became “Mother” at these times.) The contemplation of this terrible future as you selected the weapon was punishment itself nearly equal to its use, the switch being briskly applied to your bare rump over your mother’s lap. It was at once painful and ignominious. After application of the punishment you were sent up to your room until your father got home at five. This amplified the penalty considerably as you were given plenty of time to contemplate precisely what would be done then, just another aspect of the total punishment regimen. Usually what was done by father came in the form of a lecture. By this time, that was quite a relief, and one promised pleadingly that one would be better. I don’t remember my father ever striking us. I believe that was women’s work in our family.

Because mother was a nurse (curiously, like some other professionals, the military and politicians, a nurse is a nurse until she dies—retirement doesn’t seem to invalidate the title), her children had to be quite sick in order to avoid school. The rule was that if you were sick you had to stay in bed; no declaring sickness and then amusing oneself about the house. And as for going out in the yard … well, don’t even think about that. She counted on the boredom of bed life to get us back to a functional status as soon as possible, and it worked. My mother’s general theory seemed to be that if you were a little sick you would either get better or you would get worse. If you got better, no problem. If you got worse there was almost always a single course of action: bed rest. You had to be nearly on your death bed to see a doctor. In those days, when you were sick, it was typical for doctors to come to your house instead of the other way around as it is today. The balance seems to have shifted. When needed, they had a neat leather case filled with pills and instruments. There was usually no need to go to a pharmacy.

During an illness a regular routine was followed almost irrespective of what the illness was. One was put to bed and usually got regular small sips of ginger ale or Coca Cola with ice, and nothing else. You knew you were on the mend when, in a day or so, the next item came: Saltine soda crackers, still my particular favorite. Then when the Campbell’s chicken noodle soup came, you knew you were headed back to school in a short while.

Measles, mumps, chicken pox and other maladies too numerous, and now obscure, to mention were consecutively visited upon my brother and I and everyone we knew. It was just taken for granted that every child would go through this list of maladies. Strangely, I had measles—real measles, not the three-day variety—eight times, including once after I was married, in my twenties. It is said that late onset measles can cause sterility. Obviously, not in every case.

I remember once when our whole family had scarlet fever, a particularly nasty relative of strep throat. It can be quite a serious disease if untreated, and the problem in our day was that there was no treatment, antibiotics having yet to be developed. In some cases it can lead to hearing loss, heart problems and other serious consequences. My mother had had scarlet fever when she was a child and it had left her with little hearing in her left ear. (In spite of this defect, my father occasionally said, with a wan smile, that my mother could hear fine—she just didn’t listen very well.) In this particular case we were quarantined in our house for, I think, ten days or so. They posted a big orange sign on the front door of our house, “Quarantine”, signed by some official, and you were supposed to keep your doors closed. Recently a quarantine was instituted in China and considered here to combat SARS, a viral disease for which, as I write, there is no known cure, but this procedure is otherwise rarely or never used today since most contagious diseases are prevented in the first place by inoculations when you are very young. During the time we were quarantined I was impressed with the seriousness of it all: my dad not going to work, which I could never remember having happened before; a uniformed policeman nailing the bright orange sign on our front door; the neighbors leaving food on the front porch for us—and, of course, we all felt pretty sick too which amplified the angst.

There was a mystique about illness then, even though my mother was of the “modern” persuasion and poo-poo’d old wives tales in general, and our neighbors’ in particular. One can get the flavor of what I mean by reading books from the 1930’s or earlier. In fact, the farther back you go, the more mystifying illness was. People used to get the “vapors”, which name I presume to have come from the theory that dank, vaporous air could do you in. You could also contract something called “consumption” which I believe was tuberculosis (from which my mother’s sister died in her twenties). In the forties and fifties, when polio was a disease for which there was no known cure at the time, even our mother was very concerned about us. One theory of the time was that over-exercise, or just being tired, might bring on this limb-withering disease, so my mother was constantly telling us to get out of the pool—yes, she occasionally went to the beach with us, but I never remember my father doing so—and sit down a while, or to stop running around and rest a minute. Much later I can remember standing in line to suck down a sugar cube infused with some bitter stuff; the first inoculation for poliomyelitis ever discovered.

As final proof of my point that disease is a mystery until its cause is known and its cure is developed, I offer this anecdote: I vividly remember going into a drugstore in an ethnic neighborhood of Pittsburgh in the early nineteen sixties and seeing a large canister of live leeches for sale on the counter. I had thought these existed only in European folk tales. But time marches inexorably on and probably the worm will turn and leeches will, sometime in the near future, come to be seen as an ultra modern cure for something or other. If nothing else, I could see a couple of blood sucking leeches on one’s arm having a cautionary affect on a child who may perhaps have contemplated feigning an illness.

One thing you could do when sick in bed though was read, and sometimes get stories read to you. Now that I think of it, I have to this day a habit of reading almost compulsively when things don’t go well. I wonder if that’s how I acquired it. Being read-to however, was not unusual for us, even when you weren’t sick. At bedtime my mother often read to my brother and I when we were little. I still remember the strong feelings I had about one long book, The Water Babies, which was read to us a chapter a night. Today I couldn’t tell you anything much about the story, but I still remember the kind of magical feeling it had about it, and especially the pictures which were, I remember, in the cheap edition that we had, black and white pen drawings of exotic babies who lived underwater. 

Later, both my brother and I rather liked reading (we didn’t know it was geeky) and it remains so. My father was usually too busy to read much though he enjoyed the Reader’s Digest and the Saturday Evening Post and perhaps an occasional novel, say, Sam Spade by Dashiel Hammett. Nor do I remember my mother reading very much for her own pleasure. Yet we were strongly encouraged to read. I suppose this was another new theory going round, a modern theory to which my mother subscribed. It was one from which I gained great pleasure and, besides that, as it turned out, a good living.

Occasionally books became a subtle communication from my mother to us on subjects too delicate for face to face conversation in our rather innocent home. I remember that when I became an adolescent I apparently seemed to my mother to be acting rather morosely. She diagnosed my case privately, or perhaps in collaboration with my father, and one day she handed me a rather sterile—by today’s standards—book about sex. It was not the last of the self help variety of reading materials I was to receive from her.


Coming out

Bottoms up


Watch your fingers!




Saying grace