NEW YEARS’ DAY 1961
In the gray dawn living room, my brother Jack and I were foraging for party snacks, chips with Uncle John’s garlicky bleu cheese dip, cold sweet potato casserole with marshmallows on top, and pizza. New Year’s Eve had seen one Mom’s blockbuster parties.
Our mother, EleanorOsborne Schloss, was the only divorcee in Elmira, New York. We had returned from New Mexico in 1956 to settle in her hometown, near her parents and the families of her four brothers. When she arrived, her old friends did not come by grandmother’s to wish her a welcome home. Ladies at the church where she had grown up would greet her after a sermon, ask how the children were, and then leave with their families. They never invited us over to play with their kids. But now Mom was teaching art in the Junior High Schools, and she and grandfather had bought a Victorian home to restore. It was a great party house.
Jack tried part of a martini, one without cigarette butts dropped into the glass. I never wanted to try a martini. They smelled nasty and who the heck would put an olive into a beverage? Yechhh! But I did drink a glass of Seneca Indians punch, made with Sloe Gin and orange juice. There was some left in the bottom of mom’s crystal bowl. The only problem was, someone had brought pickled beets to the party. A hardboiled egg rested in a cup of sloe gin and an orange slice was dropped into the dish of beets. We steered clear of the beets and settled onto the couch, clearing off a space between the ashtrays to dig into our treats.
My name is Kate, Katrine Schloss. I was in the sixth grade at the school where my mother taught art, and I had received a beautiful white and gold diary for Christmas. Finally it was January 1st, 1961 and I could begin writing.
Mom slept in after parties and today was no different. A quick peek through the hall door had seen her prone, with her long hair draping out between two fluffy pillows. She liked to huddle under her down comforter on the cold gray mornings. The old maid’s quarters, which had slept several servants, was now a master bedroom with an enormous brass bed and fringed velvet and satin covers. The seven windows in the room each had lace curtains as well as glass shelves full of tinted bottles and perfume flasks. They did not look out over a backyard. We had searched for two years for a house that had no yard to take care of. Instead, directly beneath her bedroom windows was a stand of lilacs, white, lavender, and rich deep purple, bushes so large that they covered the second story windows. Lilacs had filled the house with scent in May when we had moved in. But in January the snow fell so thickly that my brother and I could jump out of our second story bedroom windows and land in the soft white stuff.
This morning a blizzard had blanketed two sports cars. An MG and an Austin Healy Sprite lay buried under 28 inches of overnight snow. Their owners had wandered off into the darknesswith the last guests. I decided to ignore the frozen brilliance, and instead was reading a Richard Halliburton book about exotic adventures in warm places. Halliburton’s true story about swimming in the pool in front of the Taj Mahal under a midnight full moon had all the parts of a great story – romance, mystery and a little danger. That last thing I wanted to do was to go out and play or even worse, shovel the sidewalk. So my bushy hair remained uncombed; we couldn’t get a comb through it anyway. There was no reason to brush teeth before digging into the snacks and I had no intention of getting dressed, even though I was wearing the ugliest plaid pajamas ever. Each year Grandmother would give Uncle John pajamas for Christmas, which he refused to wear. He slept in his Jockey shorts. After the first washday the pajamas would end up at our house, where mom could then cut them into nightwear for Jack and me. She didn’t put any ruffles or lace on them. Even the buttons were ugly, oversized and booger gray. Mom said that I couldn’t have new nightgown until I began making my bed daily, and that was not going to happen. Forget picking up the odd homemade dresses and skirts. That wouldn’t happen either. Apparently I was too tall for little girl’s clothes and the wrong shape for ladies clothes. So I only got recut hand me downs fashioned from a bunch of stuff that had been in the attic since the 1940s.
The doorbell rang. “You get it!” “It’s your turn.” “I don’t want to spill my plate.”
“Let’s flip!” But by then Jack had been tricked. He was already off the couch looking for a coin to toss. The bell rang again. We ignored it. Neither of us wanted to go outside anyway. I also didn’t want to open the door to snow flurries and melting mud puddles on the floor because I would be blamed for the mess.
Now we heard thumping on the front porch. Someone in heavy boots was trying to kick away the sticky new snow. “Rats!” The doorbell rang again as I shuffled through the entry hall toward the front door. “What kind of ratfink comes over on Sunday morning?” and opened it. Isquinted at ateddy bear of a gentleman, who peered back at me through his thick glasses. My announcement was clear:“The party was yesterday.” The heavy storm door closed. The doorbell rang again. This time the man asked, “Is Ellie here? She invited me to come by this morning.” “Oh really. What had she been drinking?” “Hi, I’m Louis. You must be Kate. The name suits you.”
Louis was balding with thick glasses, and bright eyes that found fun in everything. “May I come in?” he inquired politely.
“Yeah, I guess so. Mom’s not up.”
“I’m not in a hurry. Good things are worth waiting for. What are you reading?”
“The Book of Marvels, stories about an explorer, but not the old fashioned kind.”
“Oh! That was a favorite of mine when I was a boy.” He pulled off his glasses again to wipe the fog down. The heated living room made everything steam up. “This upstate winter is quite an adventure too.”
“Well, I grew up in Los Angeles, California, but I live in Greenwich Village now. Everything here looks like a painting. I can’t believe how gorgeous it is up here, the frozen rivers with iced trees, almost like a fancy white cake. There are wind patterns on everything…”
“You an artist?”
Louis laughed, “No, but this is so peaceful.”
“You haven’t shoveled much snow, have you?”
“Your mom and I are going to Watkins Glen today.”
“Like heck she is. We go in the summer and she screams because Seneca Lake is so cold. She hates it there.” Then I decided to not say any more. If the first date went badly, then he wouldn’t bother us again.
* * *
Mom’s room upstairs was completely silent, in a “do not disturb” mode, but Jack had slipped up the backstairs to waken her. He could climb into her big brass bed and ask for a cuddle on Sunday mornings. Mom said that I kicked.“Mommy, there’s this guy downstairs. He says you have a date.” “What time is it?” Jack looked at the big hand and the little hands on the clock, “I think it’s nine and something.” “Oh god, honey, go and turn on the bathtub, will you?” Jack trotted down the upstairs hall.
Downstairs, Louis was asking all about the ornate rosewood piano, so I played him a couple things out of my newest book. I had only been taking lessons for a few months, and couldn’t play like my friends who had started in the first grade. Then he sat down on the bench, played a few chords and announced, “This needs tuning. Do you have a skate key?” He then removed the top from the old baby grand. He said that you begin at middle C, and he had me hum the notes to scales after that. We didn’t need to worry about the D. The pad was shot and it didn’t make any noise. Sometimes he hummed and I used my skate key to adjust the pegs. Then mom sauntered downstairs in a dress and a pair of ballet flats. At least she was acting like herself. There was no way she was going hiking with this man. She chain smoked, and hated exercise in any form. But, she did get into his VW Beetle, and he took the convertible top down. The two drove off into the fairytale landscape, headed for Route 14 and Watkins Glen.
* * *
That afternoon Uncle John dropped by to pick us up along with the week’s laundry. Sunday afternoon was laundry time for our family. Each little group in the extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins had scheduled times to do laundry at Grandmother’s house. That way the four smaller families of Osbornes could get by on one set of laundry appliances. Uncle John, the youngest, was a bachelor, so Grandmother took care of him and he helped her out with errands and repairs. Mom was missing in action again, so I got the task of doing five loads of sorting, washing, drying and folding.
Grandmother’s house was always full of people, and friends were welcome. Tommy Milunich, a nice neighborhood boy, stopped by. We had been friends since first grade. In fact, we had a wedding when we were seven. It was a splendid affair. Mom sewed a hula hoop into the hem of one of her old party dresses, a white one with ribbons, lace and just a few tiny red flowers in the voile. We had a white wicker baby carriage with a doll in it, and Mt. Zoar street was decorated with yards of gold satin ribbon left from some stage production. Cookies and lemonade were served. Then we continued our friendship without any more reminders of matrimony, and the neighborhood kids quit teasing us about spending time together. This afternoon was a cold one, and at some point Tommy had suggested that the three of us play hide and seek, mainly seeking warm places to hide. First, Jack was supposed to hide. Then Tommy and I went to the coat closet in the front room. Damp woolens and warm furs were hung in the closet, and the space was also crowded with a large safe. Tommy sat down on the safe. “Shhh… Remember when we got married?” “Yuh.”
“Do you know what married people do?”
How the heck would I know that? Grandmother Estelle was not married. She was not divorced either. Grandfather Roy lived across town with someone named Loretta whom grandmother hated. Ellie was not married, and neither was Uncle John. Uncle Bill and Monika were the only married people around, and they tried to keep it to themselves. Being married involved privacy, so how would anyone know about it?
“Um, something about bills I think? But I don’t really know what a bill is.”
Tommy began to giggle. “Here, you have to sit on my lap.” “Why?” “Because I’ll show you what married people do.”
“But I’ll hurt you.”
I had been too big to play wrestling games with my uncles since I was six. They made me be the fat lady in the neighborhood circus, and now on top of that I was the tallest kid in the class by a good half a head. Tommy was not the second tallest. Tommy sometimes had good ideas, but this didn’t seem to be one of them. But friends are friends. Were we still married? How long do you get married for? I tried to sit on Tommy’s lap, but I kept slipping off. I found my balance by leaving my feet on the floor while I sat on his lap. His feet did not touch the floor. Then Tommy tried to put his arm around me. “Why are you doing that?” My feet were already on the ground and we had solved the problem with sliding off his lap. “Because that’s what married people do. They kiss and stuff.”
“Are you serious?” By this time the entire event was like two dogs “wrassling.” If you have ever had a 90 pound golden retriever jump on your lap, you would know exactly what this felt like. Tommy was trying to put a 98 pound girl on his lap, and it wasn’t working. We started giggling and fell against the closet door, spilling out onto the rug. Tommy dusted himself off and went home. I headed back to the laundry room.
As soon as the last pair of underwear was folded and bagged, mom opened the door with Louis, the guy from Greenwich Village, who was standing behind her with his pipe and beret. Mom looked like a wet mop. Louis had a huge grin on his face.
“Guten Abend Louis! Fancy meeting you here. … Looks like you two have gotten pretty wet. I’ll take your coats.” Uncle Bill greeted Louis warmly, first in German, then in English. A high school German teacher, Bill was one of the most popular educators in town. He had been one of the first exchange students to live for a year in Germany, and now our family was in the fifth or sixth year of hosting exchange students from countries that had been in the war. Bill taught the children of displaced immigrants and German Jews. Several families spoke Yiddish at home, and parents wanted their children to learn formal German. He was a vital link between life in the new country and the old.
The mandatory Sunday evening dinners at Grandmother Osborne’s were deceptively normal. Parts of the drama were predictable. Grandmother Estelle, always straight and correct, presided at the end chair that she had occupied since the 1920s. A tall woman with strong features, she kept her right wrist on the table, and her left wrist in her lap. Her large hazel eyes behind the rimless glasses did not miss much. To her right sat Uncle Bill and his wife Monika, with a possible guest space; and to her left Peter and Irene, a young German transplant with his French wife, followed by Mom. Uncle John took the end seat for carving and serving, and my brother and I flanked him. This was for correctional purposes. I liked to play with my food, arranging it on the plate, even sculptingmy mashed potatoes and squash into artistic tableaus before devouring them, and Jack slouched at the table, sometimes leaning onto his elbow. He had to have the corner, because he was left handed, and whenever his elbow ended up on the table, Uncle John would grab his arm and “bang!” so hard that the entire table vibrated and the dishes shook in their places.
Grandmother Estelle was well read in foreign affairs, and politics was considered to be appropriate table conversation. With the Cold War heading to a possible series of new European conflicts, things were no longer as simple as America good/Germany bad. Bill led the conversation, offering his viewpoint that we needed to make friends with Germans because the Russians were threatening everyone. “Bruce Olmstead just got released. He’s coming home.” Bruce had been part of a crew on a six-seat reconnaissance plane, shot down by the Russians over international waters in July. A local boy from Hoffman Street, he had been in Elmira’s daily news as the town prayed for his safe release from Soviet prisons and KGB interrogations.
John, a Korean War Air Force veteran, commented, “Damn that took a long time. There was no way that Bruce flew that klunker into Russian territory. Can’t believe we didn’t get him out before now.” No one at the Elmira Star Gazette had reported on the conditions of his release, and President Eisenhower was leaving office.
“I bet Ike offered to shoot every goddamn Russian plane out of the sky if Olmstead and Powers weren’t released.”
“You’re probably right.”
“Hey, did you hear that Krushchev sent President Kennedy a New Year’s telegram? He congratulated him on the election, and hoped that we would now enter a new era of peace and understanding.”
“Did Kennedy write him back?”
“Yes, he suggested a summit conference.”
“That was a waste of telegraph money.”
Jack took advantage of the pause in the conversation, “ Mommy, how was your hike?” “Oh sweetie, it was just wonderful, like a fairyland. The rocks and waterfalls are all frozen. They looked like castles with their arches and rainbow icicles dazzling in the sun.” “Did you go up to the bridge?” I already knew the answer to my dumb question. Mom was terrified of heights. She wouldn’t even walk on the creaky boardwalk that spanned the Chemung River.
“Oh yes, we hiked the entire two miles. Some of the cliffs are a hundred feet high and frozen solid. The only sound from the bridge is maybe a little rushing of a stream where it breaks over a rock in the ice. Sweetie, you would have loved it. The frozen willow trees look like a lace veil with diamonds hanging over everything.” Louis gazed at Ellie throughout this, and then took her hand. Unfortunately this lovely family scene was disturbed by someone’s gagging and coughing into her napkin. Excuse me, I was choking.
Estelle quickly moved the conversation back to world affairs. Despite his misgivings about Russians, Bill predicted that if the U.S. didn’t learn how to make friends and make peace, victory would not be an option. “If we don’t make the United Nations into a powerful organization and respect others’ thinking, we will just blow ourselves up.” Grandmother Estelle ventured, “At church this morning we talked about how important peace will be to our future. Then we took communion, and celebrated how Jesus would have wanted peace, truth and love. The alternative for us will be eternal damnation.” Louis entered the conversation,
“Mrs. Osborne, what church do you go to?”
“Oak Street Presbyterian.”
“Oh. Is it true that the Presbyterians drink grape juice instead of wine at communion?”
“Well, the wine is a symbol of the blood of Christ, so we use grape juice to symbolize the wine. In what religion were you raised, Louis?”
“Catholic. Communion is a sacrament, and we are drinking the blood of Christ. The communion wafer is the body of Christ.”
“Well, you do know that we take bread to symbolize the body of Christ.”
“Yes, but you chew your bread as if it were food.”
“Aren’t we all nourished by his spirit?”
“During communion, Catholics absorb the holy spirit in the bread without chewing it. We believe that the body of Christ is in the wafer. When the wafer dissolves within us, we hope that we have become part of the Christ.
“Oh, how interesting. Peter here was raised Catholic, and we have known a few others. Ellie, would you mind dishing up the sherbet?”
Mom stood, then looked at grandmother.
“I can’t, I’m afraid of what it will turn into.” Grandmother Estelle began to cough into her napkin, and the brothers roared with laughter. Louis bit his lip. Kate and Ellie dished up the orange sherbet, carefully placing each cut glass dish and spoon in the center of the dessert plate.
Peter Moritz and his wife Irene had been fairly quiet through the meal as Bill expounded on his ideas of how the Germans and French should make peace. Uncle Peter had been one of Bill’s “Experiment Brothers” in the 1950s, and had decided to come to the US and to make his life. One day a couple years before, he had been working in his family’s stables when a petite and very young French girl came knocking at the barn. She was lost, and her companions had gone on without her. That day she found Peter, and her future. Because Peter was in the process of emigration to the United States, Irene had come to stay in Elmira to be near him. She had planned to stay at Peter’s apartment across town. Grandmother announced that there was no way that an unmarried couple would be allowed to cohabit. There needed to be an immediate wedding. This was an interesting proposition for two people who hadn’t spent a lot of time together. For one thing, Peter was a German Catholic and Irene was a French Jew. Neither a priest nor a rabbi would consider marrying them to each other. Estelle insisted on a marriage or she would revoke her offer to sponsor Peter’s immigration. So, ten days after Irene arrived in the U.S., grandmother’s minister conducted the church service. When they notified their families of the happy event, both were disinherited.
Irene spoke French and German. She was a true Parisienne, and wore all black clothes, black tights, and stiletto heels. Aunt Monika and Mom took careful advice from her on how to walk, how to flirt, and how to smoke a cigarette. The three ladies were a hit at the local bars. So, at the end of dinner, Irene stood up. “I go take a douche.” Grandmother’s spoon clattered on her sherbet dish. Mom and Monika looked at each other, stifling laughter. Why all the women were holding theirbreath? Apparently, translated literally from the German or French, Irene had said that she was going to take a shower, not wash her bottom. Irene’s announcement was simply bathroom protocol for a home with one set of plumbing and eight people.
Louis looked across the table at my brother and me, smiling.