“Short Stay” – Personal Memoir From My Mom

(Here’s the next in a series of memoirs my 89-year-old mother is writing as she looks back on her life. She’s been taking a memoir writing class at my parents’ retirement community. If you want to encourage her, offer some positive feedback in the comments section below. To see the other memoirs I’ve posted so far, visit these quick links: Days at the Cottage || New House || My Big Train Trip –Andy)

Short Stay

by Carib Smallman

When I finished fifth grade at Lynnbrook Elementary School, Bethesda, Maryland, I took my big train trip to spend the summer with Gom and Pop. Dad was recovering from his surgery and learning what he was able to do and not do. His boss at the Geological Survey brought several pages of work to our house to determine whether Dad could return to the office. Dad realized that would not be an option, at least not at that point.

Gom & Pop’s house. Carib’s room is the one in the upper right.
My grandparents were terribly concerned and wanted to help. They convinced my parents that a move to Grand Rapids, Michigan, was a good solution. We could move into their three-bedroom house comfortably. Mother and Dad would have Dad’s room when he was in high school, I had the ‘guest bedroom’ that I considered mine and of course Gom and Pop had theirs. I was already there; Mother rented our Bethesda house and she and Dad joined us at the end of the summer.

In September I started sixth grade at Dickenson Elementary School, across the street from my grandparents’ house. The school was very different from what I was used to. Most of the students started in September, but others in the same classroom started mid-year. I felt unsettled. I wasn’t happy that I was made to change the way I learned to write cursive. Everyone in Grand Rapids used the Palmer Method. We spent an hour each day writing aaaaa or eeeee or ooooo across a lined sheet of paper. Boring! I had been learning Maryland history. Here history, naturally, was about Michigan. I found it difficult to change.

I was managing in Grand Rapids, but Mother was really unhappy. She didn’t have much to do since Gom had her routine and stuck to it. Pop was still working so was gone most weekdays. While I was out of the house schooldays and with other kids, Mother and Dad were stuck in the house, except for the walk they took daily.

Carib’s family in Grand Rapids, Michigan – L-R: Mother, Gom, Pop, Dad
Mother had never admitted to Gom that she smoked. When my parents visited she never smoked in front of Gom and Pop. Pop probably would have been fine with it, but not Gom. Obviously, Mother had to ‘fess up. I’m sure that Gom was not happy to have Mother smoking in her house. I can remember walking to the nearby drug store and standing in line with Mother so she could buy a pack of cigarettes. She sometimes bought loose tobacco and paper. She had a strange gismo to roll the cigarettes. I thought it was fun when she let me do it.

Mother and Dad must have had long talks about the future. I am sure neither of them expected to live like this for long. Mother needed a paying job. As the semester was ending, I was told that we were returning to Bethesda. I was more than happy to return to my house, school and friends.

Dad’s friends and former fellow workers assured Mother that she could have a job with them. Not my independent mother! She would find her own job. Mother landed a position as an editor with the US Information Agency, the publishing branch of the Voice of America. She started as a GS-3, what I was years later when I worked summers for the government. After twenty plus years she retired as a GS-11. Quite an accomplishment!

Carib in the driveway next to Pop’s car.
Mother loved that job! She had always been a reader, whatever was available, from cereal boxes to the dictionary. Now she was reading and being paid to do it. She was assigned the Christian Science Monitor Newspaper and several magazines to read. From them she chose articles that put the USA in a good light. She edited the pieces, sent them to the translators after which they were distributed around the world as ‘propaganda’, during the war and thereafter.

As Dad learned to compensate for his lack of vision, he became chief cook and grocery shopper. He would walk the mile to Safeway and carry two full bags of necessities home. During the summer and holidays from school I often walked with him so we could purchase more rationed items. Our small family settled into a new routine that worked to the satisfaction of us all. I never felt that we were less well off than our neighbors and friends. I just loved us all being together again. Just us.

“My Big Train Trip” – Personal Memoir From My Mom

(My mom is continuing with her wonderful memoir writing, providing a gift of her memories in writing to the rest of the family. With this one, her third, about a train trip she took by herself when she was 10, we don’t have relevant photos. I’ve decided to include a couple from roughly that time period as I think the writing is enhanced with pictures. If you want to encourage her, offer some positive feedback in the comments section below. Find the first two memoirs via these quick links: Days at the Cottage || New House –Andy)

My Big Train Trip

by Carib Smallman

Each summer of my childhood, my parents and I drove to my father’s parents’ (Gom and Pop) home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Mother and Dad would stay for a few days before they left for Nebraska, where Dad worked each summer. At the end of summer, when they returned to Michigan, we would drive back home to Washington, D.C.. The year after my father’s serious surgery, he was unable to work. My parents decided I should spend the summer with my grandparents, as usual. I was excited, remembering all the fun I always had at the cottage.

How to get me there was a problem. To arrive in Grand Rapids from Washington by train, it takes a change of trains. I would turn eleven years old in July, a bit young to handle changing trains by myself. After conferring with Gom and Pop, the decision was made. I would ride the train to the Jackson, Michigan station. Gom and Pop would drive to Jackson and be at the station to meet me. I was a bit hesitant at first; I would be all by myself. Mother and Dad assured me I could do it. They gave me the confidence to trust myself.

Carib’s paternal grandparents – Gom & Pop.
Soon after school dismissed for the summer, Mother and I packed a suitcase with my clothes. A carry-on bag had food, pajamas, and books. Mother explained I would board the train after lunch and arrive in Michigan after breakfast the next day. Gom and Pop would be there to meet me. My memory is of excitement . . . not worry or fear.

Friends drove Mother and me to the station, where Mother walked me to the Pullman car. “Take good care of her,” I heard Mother say to the porter as she handed him a tip and then walked toward the station’s exit. It makes my heart hurt when I think how she must have felt as she watched me disappear into the train. I felt the same way the first time each of our sons left on his own.

I learned a lot about trains on that trip. Passengers with upper berths, as I had, sat facing the end of the train, watching where they had been. The upper berth doors pulled down from above the seats making a berth. The two seats used during the day made up the lower berth. For privacy, on the aisle side, there were curtains that snapped closed. The porter prepared the beds while passengers were at dinner. Many years later, I remember traveling with Al, where we rode the train from Salt Lake City to Denver. It made me smile as I discovered much was the same as I had first experienced it.

Many of the passengers in my train car were traveling because of the war. A U.S. Army Major sat down across from me. I felt proud to know he was a major because my friend, a Lieutenant Colonel, had taught me that a silver maple leaf insignia was a Lt. Colonel and a golden maple leaf was a major. The major was very nice to me. I am sure that we talked, but the exciting happening was that he took me to the dining car for dinner. I noticed as we walked through several cars to reach the dining car that every seat was taken, many with soldiers. It surprised me to learn that as I walked between cars I was ‘outside.’ Below my feet, I was able to see the coupling holding the car to the rest of the train. I was finding many facts that I was anxious to share with Gom and Pop.

I have no idea what I ate, but I was impressed that the waiters wore white shirts and black bow ties. After dinner, the major walked me back to our car. The beds were ready. The major suggested I take my toothbrush to the bathroom at the end of the car and get ready for bed. The porter told me if I needed anything, to call him. Then he put a ladder up to my berth and up I went. It was like a hidey-hole, snug and comfy. I changed into my pajamas, got out my book, and read until I fell asleep.

Carib & her parents, Christmas time.
Morning came. I quickly dressed and ate some of the snacks that Mother had packed for me. The porter showed me where to sit while he put the seats and upper berth back together. Shortly after returning to my seat, he explained that the next time the train stopped, we would be at my destination. The train slowed to a stop. The porter had my bags ready by the exit. How happy I was to see Gom and Pop waiting as I got off the train! I felt very proud of myself and pleased that I had acted very grown up and able to be alone.

It was a different world in wartime America. I recall the musketeer attitude: “All for one and one for all.” As I look back, I realize how much I benefitted from the kindness of strangers. Today, I wouldn’t feel comfortable allowing a ten year old to travel alone, anywhere, much less on an overnight train trip.

“New House” – Personal Memoir From My Mom

(As I mentioned last month, my mom is taking a memoir writing class at her retirement community. I continue to encourage her to allow me to publish what she’s been writing so others have easy access to these lovely remembrances. Here’s the second one she’s agreed to release. And as I said last time, if you want to encourage her, offer some positive feedback in the comments section below. –Andy)

New House

by Carib Smallman

Our first family home in Omaha on 69th St – Al holding Steve. Scott in front, holding my hand. I’m pregnant with Andy.
Having outgrown our three-bedroom home on 69th Street in Omaha, we purchased a four-bedroom house in Ralston, on the edge of Omaha. The outside was a vivid yellow, as were almost all the rooms inside. We were told the former owner worked for Sears. He must have scored a terrific sale on yellow paint!

Yellow is not my favorite color. Nothing I could do about the outside but I could paint the inside. As usual Al was busy on the road, so I spent all spring hopping into my car as soon as the boys left for school, painting until time to return to greet their home- coming. Each son had chosen the color for his bedroom walls, as well as the carpeting. Scott, our oldest, picked the long narrow room and asked for the short walls to be black and the long walls to be white. He selected bright red carpet. Steve, our avid reader and night owl, chose the room with the ‘hidey place’ in the closet over the stairs. Walls and carpet for him were his favorite green. Andy, excited to have a room of his own, took the remaining bedroom, and opted for blue for his carpet and walls.

Covering up all that yellow was difficult. The horrific yellow color bled through blue, green and white but, surprise, not black. It meant three coats of paint instead of two. I was exhausted but pleased to finally finish; permitting the installation of the carpeting. This enabled us to move in as soon as the boys finished the school year. I never wanted to see another yellow room!

I was sad to leave our neighborhood friends who had become like family; Elders, Drakes, Frolios, Brooks and we had become close as we had similar experiences with our first house and kids of similar ages. Three of us were stay-at-home moms. We had celebrated many great events together over the ten years we lived on 69th Street. I told myself we weren’t moving so far away that we could never see them.

We lived on Lakeview Drive in Omaha for so short of a time that there aren’t many photos of the house. Here we are with Al’s mother. Note the yellow of the house.
How wonderful it felt to have more room. We settled into the house, met our new neighbors and found nearby shopping areas. September arrived and the boys were pleased with their new schools. Scott especially appreciated being in ninth grade in High School; he still would have been in Junior High in Omaha. Steve talked us into adopting a puppy. Gretel, a purebred, miniature longhair dachshund, with papers, became a part of our family. She was a bit too large to be a show dog so we were able to purchase her for a reasonable price.

Halloween was a week away when Al arrived home with exciting news. He was receiving a pay raise! But. . .we had to move. Move! Now? We hadn’t had time to feel at home in our newly painted house! And that meant we would really be leaving all our friends.

“We have a choice,” Al said. “Which do you think, Oklahoma City or Seattle?” To me it wasn’t a choice. Having grown up on the East Coast (Washington D. C.) and lived in the Central United States (Michigan, Colorado and Nebraska), I was ready for the West Coast. Seattle it was!

In January, Al took off to start working the Pacific Northwest territory. While in the Seattle area he checked out different neighborhoods and looked at a number of houses. By February he had discovered several areas and houses that seemed promising, so I flew out to Seattle to look at what he had found. He would be traveling a great deal and thought it would be helpful to be near the airport. His territory included Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Alaska.

Our house in Bellevue on SE 17th St. This photo was taken within a few years of us moving in.
Al’s first choice was a nice house near Angle Lake and SeaTac airport. Upon investigating the local school systems we found Bellevue appeared to be the best fit for our boys. Returning to the Bellevue houses we had toured, the first one on 17th Street was sold, but the other that had been finished in the fall and was sitting empty was still available. We revisited another house a few miles away. It had possibilities. Back to 17th Street which dead ended into Phantom Lake. Each house on the north side of the street had special access to the lake. The boys would love that, and everything inside was new and clean. We bought it. I took pictures, inside and out, to show the boys.

We sold our house in Ralston more quickly than expected. Wonderful! We could join Al in Washington State as soon as possible.

When the boys saw the pictures of their new ‘home-to-be’, the first thing they said was; “Mom, you said you never would live in another yellow house!” Yes, the aluminum siding on the new house was yellow AND the kitchen appliances were all yellow! Never say never!

“Days at the Cottage” – Personal Memoir From My Mom

(Not too long ago, my mother, age 88, signed up to take a memoir class at her retirement community. I think she liked the idea of getting some of her memories written down so family members could enjoy them. That said, she’s been hesitant to share them so I’ve been working on her. After she shared this first one with me, I suggested it would be great for it to be more readily available and asked if I could post it here. I think it’s a great piece of writing and really comes to additional life with the photos added. If you want to encourage her, offer some positive feedback in the comments section. –Andy)

Days at the Cottage

by Carib Smallman

My paternal grandparents, Gommy and Poppy, owned a cottage on Barlow Lake in Michigan. Their home was about 25 miles away in Grand Rapids, where my father finished high school before attending the University of Michigan.

Fishing from the dock.

Every summer of my first decade, I lived with Gommy and Poppy, partly in town, but mostly at the lake. The cottage had been built long before I was born. Poppy parked the car at the top of the stairs leading down to the cottage. On the right, as we walked down toward the cottage, the outhouse was the first structure encountered. My parents and I were living in a modern house in Washington D.C.; using an outhouse was a new experience. Inside, Poppy had built a very low seat just my size.

Farther down the hill sat the cottage. The door opened into a small kitchen, including a wood burning stove. Water was obtained by pumping it into a large sink. When hot water was needed, Gommy heated it on the stove. The kitchen merged into a dining area where a large table sat, benches on either side. Beyond the table was the large living area, with the two bedrooms walled off along one side. The walls of the bedrooms were very thin; not at all like our house. A chamber pot hid under the bed in each room. There were no lights in the outhouse.

That’s the outhouse in the upper left of this photo.

A row of windows, facing the lake, made up the entire front of the cottage. A wind-up phonograph built into a wooden cabinet sat between the windows and bedroom wall. Poppy taught me how to wind up the phonograph, put a record on the turntable, and then carefully place the needle on the outer edge of the record. Before I could read, Poppy pasted pictures on each side of my records so I could easily identify them. Then he gave me permission to play ‘my’ records. I was very proud that I could accomplish this by myself.

A tall tree towered over the corner of the cottage. Since the cottage was built into the hillside, looking out the front window we were seeing half way up the tree trunk. Poppy had fastened a small birdhouse facing the windows. Each year a wren family settled into it. I usually arrived about the time the eggs hatched, so Gommy and I watched carefully as the mama and papa birds came and went with food for their babies. One of the most exciting days each summer was when the babies were pushed out of the nest. Most often there were three babies. I would run after them as the parents encouraged them to fly. I loved watching them.

On the dock with the cottage in the background.
A half basement with a storage area had been built under the front half of the cottage. Poppy had rigged up a way to bring water from the lake so we could shower. It was cold, but it was better than trying to bathe in the lake!

In front of the cottage, Poppy had built two docks reaching into the lake. Under the longer dock, he spread gravel, several feet to the side and all the way to the end. That made it easy to walk into the lake to swim. There was a short ladder at the end of the dock where the water was deeper, to provide another way to access the water.

The second dock was for the fishing boat. There was a ‘wire box’ beside the dock where fish that had been caught were held alive until they could be cleaned. It was very mucky below that dock. We often saw what we called ‘mudpuppies’ wiggling around down there. I hoped they would stay over there and not lurk around where I was swimming. Fortunately they preferred the muck.

Between two large trees, on a flat area near the docks, Poppy attached a swing for me. Nearby, he had installed a double-seated swing for grown-ups. I spent a lot of time on my swing. I learned I could stand up and swing by pumping my arms instead of my legs.

For my eighth birthday, Poppy bought me a boat. It was a duck-hunting boat with kapok all around the outside so it could not tip over. The oars were just my size. The boat must have been 6 to 8 feet long and 4 to 5 feet wide. The main seat, with the oarlocks, was in the middle. There was a short seat in the front where one small person could sit. I was allowed to row by myself as far as the next two cottages, as long as Gommy and Poppy could see me. I liked to row where there was a batch of water lilies that I could pick. When my Mommy and Daddy were at the cottage, Daddy had a motor he put on my boat. He would take me for a ride. What fun – a really fast ride and with my Daddy!

Putting the oar in the oar lock in preparation for a water lily expedition.

At the other end of the lake, a YMCA camp was located. We often watched the boys out in long canoes practicing their unison rowing. When we visited Uncle Allen and Aunt Irene Burkholder (good friends of my grandparents, not related) we could hear the boys singing across the lake from their cottage.

Uncle Allen and Aunt Irene’s cottage was BIG, with a bunkhouse. The bunkhouse was located over the garage, a separate building from the cottage. Three bunk beds sat around the edge of the room, one on each wall. A regular bathroom was on the other wall. In the middle of this large room was a ping pong table. Occasionally I stayed overnight and that is where I slept, usually with one of the Burkholder daughters and her kids. The adults slept in the cottage.

Aunt Irene had a wonderful garden with many gladioli, my favorite flower! She often picked some for us to take back to our cottage. The adults were always busy, talking and cooking, but they made time to play with me, often card games, especially ‘Touring’, a travel game. (I still have it.) Occasionally, I would swim off of their dock; the water was much deeper than off of our dock. It scared me a bit.

Poppy would take me walking through the woodsy places where there were no cottages. He taught me about the trees and we saw many ‘critters’. The owls fascinated me. If we spied one, I would walk around and around the tree as it watched me. It seemed like the owl was screwing its head off. I never could catch it turning its head back around. Poppy said our eyes can’t see that fast.

With two pet turtles.
I found many frogs, toads and turtles in our wanderings. Gommy and Poppy allowed me to keep a few toads and a turtle by the front door of the cottage. I built an area surrounded by stones, to keep the ‘critters’ in. I would have water and crumbs available for them. If we were leaving for a length of time, I would free them.

Often Poppy would get up really early and go fishing. He caught lots of bluegills and a few bigger fish – a bass occasionally and a rare trout. When he returned, he would clean the fish; then Gommy fried them for breakfast. Yummy!

As you can tell Gommy and Poppy spoiled me rotten. They left me with wonderful memories of the cottage during my early life, until it all came to an abrupt end.