“Rusty Triumphs Over Boogieman”

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Rusty was the mother of my good friend Skipper. They had other names, but they were too formal, so everyone called them Rusty and Skipper. I didn’t call her Mrs. anybody, just Rusty. The photo above was taken when she was in her 80’s, but perhaps the hard-boiled no nonsense personality she had when I was a kid comes through in the photo.

Rusty had been in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, and she was the most feisty of all our neighbors. I loved her and loved spending the night at Skipper’s house. Skipper was afraid of the boogieman and before he and I went to sleep, Rusty would look under the bed and assure us that the boogieman was gone. This was my first experience with a parent taking night fears seriously, and I felt very safe at their house.

I also owe Rusty a debt of gratitude for my being a nonsmoker. I loved watching her smoke and told her I wanted to try it. So she handed me a cigarette, and my 6 year old self took a very deep breath in. I promptly threw up. Better aversion therapy could not have been designed, and I was forever cured of the mystique of smoking.

So here’s to Rusty who showed me, even in the very domesticated 1950’s, that women could be both tough and caring. It was a terrific lesson for one little girl.

“Loving Grace”

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I was 3 when we moved next door to Don and Grace Nelson. I introduced myself to Grace by standing on the border of our properties, hands on hips and declaring, “Keep off our properly!” That same feisty take no prisoners attitude is reflected in this photo of me at 4 aiming my cap gun at any intruders. (And no, playing with toy guns had no negative effect on me. Neither did smoking candy cigarettes. I neither open carry a gun nor do I smoke.)

Grace was a Godsend to me from ages 3 to 8 when we moved away. I wrote earlier about the box of Ritz Crackers she stored on its side in a low drawer so I could help myself to them. I lived in a “snack-free” house, and having access to those crackers was a real treat.

What I can know now is that Grace always welcomed me into her house whenever I walked over. That welcoming smile touched a deep place in me, though I wouldn’t have reflected on it when I was a small child. Only in retrospect can I identify Grace as a key “cookie person” providing attention and love on a regular basis to a little girl who needed and appreciated both.

Grace also introduced me to sewing on a sewing machine. Her patience was epic, and she sewed doll clothes for me as I “helped” her sew. I have sewn throughout my adult life, and I owe Grace a debt of gratitude for starting me out on my craft.

Grace disappeared from my life when we moved. Again, I thought it had to do with me and felt quite abandoned. When I located her 20 years ago, she told me she had wanted to keep in contact, but my parents didn’t allow it. Knowing she hadn’t deserted me healed a spot I had carried for a long time. Thanks for your persevering love, Grace.

“Mrs. Dully and Rose Water”

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I have mentioned Mrs. Dully earlier in my writings, as she is the woman who owned the big radio I thought might be a television. She was my Estonian babysitter and took care of me from the ages of 3 to 5 1/2 when my parents went out.

My memories of her are all visceral. She was very squishy and felt wonderful when she hugged me. She always smelled like roses, which I assume now came from wearing rose water as a perfume. When I smell roses now, I am transported back to a time of safety and affection.

My favorite place to be was on her lap in our rocking chair. I don’t think I ever told her that my life was difficult, but she just seemed to know it. She provided a consistent source of loving attention at a time when I felt quite emotionally alone. Of course, I didn’t know that I was emotionally alone. I just knew that some deep place in me responded to her rose smelling, squishy feeling body when she was rocking me.

She disappeared from my life very suddenly, with an explanation that put the blame on me. In retrospect, I know that I had done nothing to keep her away. I don’t know what she might have seen or what she might have heard in our home. At any rate, I never saw her again. As an adult, I found her grave and set flowers on it on Mother’s Day, thanking her for the selfless mothering she had given me when I so needed it.

“Mrs. Van Horne and Melmac”

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Mrs. Van Horne was the mother of Lisa, a friend of mine who was 5 when I was 7.  They lived two blocks away in my neighborhood which was full of boys. When Lisa moved in, I finally had another girl to play with. I would walk over to her house and was always welcome.

Mrs. Van Horne made the world’s best grilled cheese sandwiches I had ever tasted. Actually she made the first grilled cheese sandwiches I had ever tasted. She would then deliver them to us on UNBREAKABLE plates. I was astonished. This was 1953 and I had never heard of unbreakable plates. Everyone I knew had china dishes, either plain or fancy. But for sure everyone I knew had plates you had to be VERY CAREFUL NOT TO BREAK. She told me they were called Melmac, a word I never forgot.

Mrs. Van Horne’s purchase of Melmac plates to use with her two children made a very great impression on me, though I couldn’t have articulated why at the time. Somehow, though, the fact that she took the time to cook sandwiches for us and then serve them on plates we could walk around with told me something about how she regarded being a mom. The needs of kids really mattered to her. That was powerful for me then and is something I have always remembered.

“Cookie People”

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Years ago I heard a reference to “cookie people,” though I am unable to locate it now. The phrase described the people in a child’s life who, though not able to prevent harm from occurring, by providing nurture and comfort  mitigated the effects of abuse. I am about to begin a series of “cookie people” entries, some who fit the above definition and some who simply provided help and reassurance throughout my life. The series will focus on good neighbors who made a real difference in my life.

Yes, I have had my share of dreadful neighbors. It would be more entertaining in many instances to tell you about them. But at the moment, with such discord and anger afoot in the United States, I want to focus on the good. As St. Paul wrote, “ whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.“(Philippians)

I hope that as I share these reminiscences that my readers will reflect on their own “cookie people” and feel grateful. I also hope that readers will have a chance to think about the ways they have been “cookie people” for others, particularly children. I will use the full names of those who are no longer living. Even if they never get any formal recognition, their names will be lodged in the “cloud.”

“Mirror Image”

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In 2001, after living for 18 years in the previous house, having added a new husband in 1988, and having launched our combined three kids, we moved across the country. I had to work with a buyer’s agent by email before we came out to look for a home in Connecticut. We only had the weekend to look for and buy a house, so she and I had narrowed our choices a great deal before we came.

I wanted an ethnically diverse neighborhood with sidewalks, bus service, city water and city sewer.  That turned out to be asking quite a lot of the areas in central Connecticut. Our agent helpfully added that commuting west in the morning and east in the evening was beneficial to keeping bright sun out of our eyes.

We met Anna for the first time on a Saturday morning in January, and she first took us to see the house pictured above. I promptly burst into tears. It looked like a full size version of my dollhouse. The inside was lovely, with well proportioned specific rooms(I dislike the “open concept” idea of modern homes. I like slamming doors, or at least closing them behind me!) The water and sewer were provided by the town, as was garbage and leaf pickup in the fall. The sidewalks went to nearby stores. The bus stopped in front of the house. I told her we would buy it. She said, “You  can’t buy the first house you look at.”

She then dragged us around for two days looking at a lot of “raised ranch” houses which featured large garage doors in front. I don’t want to see a garage when I am looking at a house, though I had not thought to mention that. Finally, exhausted, we told her we were ready to make an offer on the first house she had shown us.

Six weeks later, we moved in and have stayed there happily since.

“A Home in Miniature”

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My great grandfather Theron Durham built this dollhouse around 1895 for my grandmother. She gave it to my mother and aunt to play with. I received it from my mother and gave it to my daughter. Now it belongs to my granddaughter. This is the front which serves as the back for the four rooms on the other side. Over the years it has been furnished by different little girls to suit their tastes. I overhauled it before it went to my granddaughter, actually taking a bit of the cream paint to a store to exactly match the original color.

The house is resting on what was the kitchen table from my grandparents’ house in Pike, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. It wobbles a bit, but forms an apt perch for my grandmother’s little house. The house itself has held up remarkably well since it has traveled from Buffalo to Portland to Connecticut without breaking. Though Theron was a lawyer, he seems to have known a little about building to last.

The dollhouse takes an important center role when I write tomorrow about the house I now live in. Stay tuned!

“Do it Myself”

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When I was young, one of my favorite stories was that of the “Little Red Hen.” She keeps asking her friends to help her and they all decline. So she replies each time,”then I’ll do it myself.” Needless to say, this has cost me some genuine help over the years, but it definitely strengthened my “get it done myself” muscles. When I moved into my house as a single mom with very limited income, my do it myself work ethic was very useful.

The house needed exterior painting. I knew absolutely nothing about exterior painting. But that certainly wasn’t going to stop me. I lived a few blocks from a large paint company, and I went in and asked them what kind of paint to buy and bought it. I  paid my nephew to pressure wash the house. This resulted in several large dents in the wood, but he enjoyed himself. Maybe too much! Then I set to work.

I had chosen a beige called “goat,”  reminiscent of my time in the country. The trim was “Crimson Red” after my alma mater. Fortunately “goat” covered white quite easily and so did “Crimson Red.” I used a paint brush and a step ladder and worked my way around the house. I drew considerable attention from the older men on the street. Not because of my dashing good looks in this outfit, but because they all had an idea of how I should be going at the job.

Thankfully, two of them were actually helpful. One came over and started painting, He couldn’t take looking out his front window at me painting any more without helping. The other neighbor actually built a scaffolding on the back side of the house. This sped up the work amazingly since I didn’t have to keep moving the step ladder.

I was completely pleased with myself after the work was done. It had taken the summer, but I had only had to pay for the paint, one brush and the pressure washer rental. I had, in fact, done it myself.

“A Whole Home of Our Own”

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In 1983 I began to search for a home to purchase. I loved our neighborhood and had very specific wishes for a house. There was a series of dead end streets that ran off the local road. That road had bus service to my job. The dead end streets were much safer for children than through ones. I also love light and so I wanted a south facing home. I didn’t have much money, but at the time the neighborhood was still pretty run down so I could afford a home. Ironically, the house above which I purchased for $65,000 is now valued at over $400,000. Needless to say, the area became gentrified!

When this house became available, I purchased it. It never was particularly a style I favored, but it was on a dead end street with a southern exposure with two nice bedrooms, one bath, a large back yard and a finished basement ideal for playing. We moved in and found that once again the new street was flush with small children.

It had been six years since I had been in a home I could call my own. It felt wonderful.

“Half a Home of Our Own”

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We were able to rent one half of a single story duplex back in the same neighborhood where I had lived as the manager of the smaller apartment building. In fact, this place was just a couple of blocks away. The other half(pictured here but greatly changed with the sliding glass doors)was rented by a mother and her daughter we had met at our previous apartment house.

There were many advantages to our move. We now had a big back yard and we put in a swing set. The neighborhood was much quieter and no homeless people slept out back. The whole neighborhood had once been settled by Italian truck farmers and still had many fruit trees scattered around. We could literally eat our way around the area, munching on figs, plums and apples.

There was an shuttered elementary school down the block, but the large playground remained. A woman had opened a day care, Pumpkin Patch, in the building, making life very convenient when I had to work in the summer. Kitty-corner from our house, across the school’s ball field there was Porcelli’s, a small full service(produce and meat included) old school market.

Best of all, we seem to have landed on a block with many little children. There were three boys and three other girls across the street, and our back yard was a gathering place for them all since we had the swing set. The duplex was small but adequate. I dreamed of buying a house of my own, but that would have to wait a few years.