Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Life Before Sarah Palin
We all had lives before we heard of Sarah Palin. We all have lives now. Some visitors to this blog and other so-called anti-Palin blogs seem to think we have no life now except for thinking about her. I had an email exchange recently with someone who made a comment along those lines and I responded that American society follows celebrity gossip. National Enquirer and reality TV help to create some celebrities just to follow their ups and downs. When televisions were first becoming household appliances, daily afternoon soap operas became an addiction for many. And those personal stories were entirely fiction.
I’m not saying that the purpose of this blog is celebrity gossip, but I am saying we are not out of the mainstream in following the actions, family problems, tweets and Facebook postings of a set of people we were introduced to on television. We are in the minority to be following Babygate, but it we get our collective wish in the new year, that will change.
That’s all I’m going to say today about the Palins. Amtrak is taking me home for Christmas, and as the miles and the hours go by, I’ve been thinking about another Christmas time train trip long ago, and written about it In a letter to my grown daughters. Below I am posting portions of that letter here, to share a bit of myself with my readers, should you be inclined to read what’s below. After Christmas, I’ll be back with Palin postings, Levi on my mind (does anyone know what was he doing in LA last week?) and maybe a look at Bristol and the green sweater ( because that post has been in “working on it” stage since I finished with Sue Williams).
So, here we go, back to the days before Sally met Chuck. Back to 1959. In American politics, a young senator named John F. Kenney was being talked about as a candidate for the highest office in the land, and in spite of being Catholic, he thinks he has a chance. I was four years old.
Half a century ago snow seemed to come earlier in western New York, and it piled up deeper. Television broadcasts were in black and white, and for fifteen minutes on weeknights, David Huntley and Chet Brinkley provided the nation with all the news of the day.
Christmas 1959 was difficult for my parents. My older sister was six, I was four and our little brother had passed away in September. He was only a year and a half old, he died unexpectedly of an attack of asthma, and as I look at that now, I see that my mom and dad must have still been reeling from their loss. Making merry wouldn’t have been easy so soon after their son died. But we girls naturally expected Santa to come and friends and family probably reminded our parents that there had to be presents and a tree for “the girls.”. Looking back on that, I see that neighbors were especially kind to us that year.
Our tradition was to open presents on Christmas morning. But in 1959 everything was done differently. An elderly couple that lived down the street joined us on Christmas Eve as we had an early opening of presents from Santa. The woman who rented the apartment on the second floor of our house was there, too. My parents weren’t people who socialized, so this gathering was unusual. I remember it being dark outside. It impressed me that we were up late, with grownups. Grandma must have been there, too. She was always part of our lives, she lived in town, and was a great support to my mom in our care. I remember being given a doll size playpen. It had bright colored dowls – red, blue, yellow and green - and l loved it. My pink metal doll highchair was a gift that year, too. And a big, tall book with pictures of baby animals. I got a tea set that was tin, with a red, white, black and blue pattern in it. And, of course, the wonderful gift from Aunt Marian of my Revlon doll (a pre-Barbie fashion doll with stockings, earrings, girdle, bra and extra outfits). It was as close to spoiled as I ever came as a child, and I think the visitors were mostly responsible for seeing that we had Santa gifts.
My very best friend and cohort in crimes of four-year-olds, Mary Alice, called after we had finished with gifts. This must be the first telephone conversation I have in my memories. My mother stood right by me, telling me not to let Mary Alice know that Santa had already come. I’m sure I obeyed. What we did talk about, I’m not sure. Probably her mother wanted her to wish me a good time on my upcoming trip to Texas.
Yes, we were headed for Texas later that night. My father worked for the Erie Railroad and had employee passes for all of us to go by train, leaving that night. Again, it must have been a decision made after my brother died. A way to avoid being home during the holidays, seeing that empty corner in the living room where his crib had been. For me and for my sister, it was an adventure. We were oblivious to the undertones, and as an adult, I am grateful for that.
I remember the railroad station on Christmas Eve, 1959. I remember being in a waiting room. It was strange, and I was intrigued. Kind of like church, the seats were long and wooden. But, unlike our church, the seats did not have three inch thick cushions. When the train pulled in, we moved with the crowd of people, dressed warmly, assembling to board the train. Again, the darkness impressed me. I must not have been outside in the dark very much when I was a young child. It was unusual. It was a world that belonged to grown-ups. I was a visitor in a strange land.
When it came our turn to board, the steps were huge. I was tiny. Dad and my sister made it up the steps, Mom behind me was holding her purse in one hand and my hand with her other. She pulled my arm way up over my head, coaxing me up. A man’s voice behind us somewhere said something to indicate he wanted us to hurry up. Don’t remember the words, but I do remember it didn’t feel friendly. It felt critical. I was a little kid in an adult’s world. Sometimes I didn’t feel welcome.
On the train that first night, Christmas Eve, we had our own sleeper car. If I am correct, that was arranged by my dad’s brother, Uncle Phil who was a Vice President (of something) for the railroad. Our car had a set of bunk beds, our own little bathroom, a sink, and a table by the windows – sort of a booth-like setting. That train sped through the darkness of western New York and into Ohio as December 24th became December 25th,, the last week of the decade. Mom pointed out lights in houses and towns as we passed them. Christmas lights in windows in the dark, late at night, way past everyone’s bedtime. There was magic in the air. I looked for, but didn’t see, Santa in the dark Christmas skies.
I wanted to sleep on the top bunk and so did my sister. She got to do that. I didn’t. Mom and I slept on the bottom because Mom thought I was too little and might fall out if I was on top. Lot’s of times in my childhood decisions about me were made on the basis of my being little. This was one example I’ve remembered for over 50 years.
The dining car in the morning served Shredded Wheat. There must have been other choices, but that’s what I know I had. There were waiters. Black men whose white uniforms starkly contrasted with their skin – something that I noted with curiosity when my bowl was set in front of me. Our town had very few African Americans, maybe two families. My mother had already told me why their skin was darker than mine. “They stayed out in the sun too long.” At four years old I spent my outdoor playtime in the shade, even if the only shade I could find was from a Lilac bush. No way was I going to “stay out in the sun too long.”
The train had a layover in Chicago. That must have been Christmas Day. At the terminal there, my sister and I saw escalators for the first time. Moving stairs! More magic. I don’t know if we tried to go up the down side, or if we tried climbing them like regular stairs while they rose up, but whatever it was we did, some adult yelled at us for playing on them. The world of grownups was not always a friendly place.
On the train, we had regular seats in passenger cars. The sleeper car was only for the first night. I liked the passenger cars. Some of the adults there were nice to my sister and me. One man was amused by my four-year-old precociousness. I was friendly and curious and bright, and he must have liked kids. Mom, knowing how she is, worrying about us and worrying that we not bother anyone, probably kept us on a fairly short leash, and wouldn’t let us “bother” anyone for very long. I remember learning the slogan to a toothpaste commercial from the man on the train. He was in advertising and he’d written the jingle “I wonder where the yeller went when I brush my teeth with Pepsodent.” On one of my trips back to my seat after talking with him, I excitedly showed my mom a dime he’d given me. That was a lot of money. It came with instructions, I told my mother. “He said to call him when I’m grown up.”
Much of the train time I played with my new Revlon doll. My sister had one, too, and we played together. Scenery flew by out the windows. At one point a buzz began among the passengers, and we children were told to watch out the window for a big river. We were going to cross the Mississippi! Now, I’d probably never heard of the Mississippi before that, but that didn’t matter. We were pumped with anticipation. We were taught to spell it, too. That was a long word –eleven letters! I must have sing-songed those letters for a year after that, saying it as fast as I could and emphasizing the repetitive vowel and expecting amazement from my audience.- “I can spell Mississippi – M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I.” When we crossed over, and I looked down at the water, I’ve got to be honest, I was not impressed. It was muddy and not so very big. Not as big as I’d built up in my imagination. I didn’t let on. I wouldn’t have wanted to disappoint the adults.
When we got to Texas we entered into a wonderful world of cousins. My mom’s sister had three kids, boys the ages of my sister and me, and their older sister. Her nickname was Mamie, the same as the country’s first lady. There was no snow in Texas! Where we had come from, there was snow. But where our cousins lived, we could go to the playground during Christmas vacation and not wear boots!
There were more presents for us at our cousin’s house. I got another tea set, this one was a pink and gray Melmac (1950s plastic in a perfect duo of 1950s colors). The set replicated the full sized Frank Lloyd Wright dish sets that were trendy in the baby-boomer years of post WWII America. My cousin David, my age, had a toy car that climbed walls. He must have gotten it for Christmas because he was playing with it a lot, showing off. Probably his brother Jimmy had one, too, but my attention was on the cousin who was my age. Can’t tell you how it worked, but there was a pull string and that thing had traction. It made more of an impression than my tea set.
At night, I slept in Mamie’s bed and she slept on the floor next to it. I slept with a teddy bear that wound up and played “Braham’s Lullabye” He had belonged to my baby brother, and I had adopted him. His plastic face had a big smile, the rest of him was low pile fur, and I think he even had a red shirt. Mamie liked the bear. After I would fall asleep, she would take it. In the morning, I’d wake up and find it in her arms. I didn’t like that.
Grandma came to Texas that Christmas, too. She must have flown, because she wasn’t on the train with us. She stayed after we left, for another month. Now that I’m thinking about all this, I wonder if that was extra hard for my mother when we got home and grandma was still in Texas. My grandma was the best grandma a kid could have and we spent lots of time at her house. It must have been extra lonely for my mom to have her own mother so far away when she was dealing with such sadness. As for me, I missed my grandma that month she was gone. She played a large roll in my life. She died in 1983 and I still miss her.
Thinking about the Christmas of 1959 makes me appreciate the kindness of family, friends, and neighbors who did what they could to see that my sister and I had presents from Santa that year, and that in spite of my parents' grief, there was a plan implemented to help them deal with the holiday in a way that brought them some comfort and helped them make memories with their surviving daughters. They were Christmas angels.
May you all have at least one angel in your life this Christmas.