A ride into the past
Published 1:01 am, Wednesday, November 25, 2009
We were all piled into our `54 Chevy wagon with the imitation wood paneling on the side. It was cold out, and the heater in the car didn't work. Nothing in the old junk worked but the engine, and the engine didn't always work, either. Although it was only Thursday, we were dressed up in our Sunday best. Thanksgiving was one of the most special days of the year for our family.
We were going to Aunt Jo's house in Bridgeport for turkey dinner. Jo was a gray-haired woman with an iron will but she was also one of the kindest people on the planet. She was married to our uncle, Bill Nitsche, a retired engineer. Bill usually wore a vest with a pocket where he kept his big round gold watch and chain. He liked to take the pocket watch out periodically and announce the time. A long-time habit left over from his years on the railroad. My irascible and long-suffering Aunt Jo would turn to her portly German husband and say, "What's it to you, Nitsche? You haven't done anything in 20 years, anyway." She loved old Uncle Bill heart and soul but she also liked to say he would drive her to an early grave.
The coldness of Thanksgiving morning surprised me. It always did. One day the leaves were on the ground in the warm glow of autumn; the next day the wind had swept them all away. The ground was cold and frosty and hard as steel. The running water in our back yard brook seemed to flow more slowly and there was a narrow gray crust of ice along the banks. The trees were bare and the wind strummed their branches like stringed instruments.
It was wonderful to have a school holiday in the middle of the week. Every day with no school was cause for celebration for me. But Thanksgiving was different. There was something proper and grand about it. It was a national holiday that felt like a church holy day. People dressed up and behaved more formally. It wasn't like the bathing suits and fireworks on the Fourth of July (my favorite holiday). No hot dogs and hamburgers, no grape soda in a bottle, no lingering sunset at Pine Creek Beach. Thanksgiving was a city holiday that was celebrated late in the year. It took you back in time to where and when your mother and father were children. Everyone who had a home went back again on this day.
We lived on a swampy lot in a neighborhood of homes built right after World War II for the returning veterans and their growing families. Back then the North End was considered the outskirts, so it always seemed to be something of an occasion to drive into the old industrial city. And our temperament Chevy often added to the adventure. The ride to Aunt Jo's could be a crowded but pleasant trip or it might turn into a hair-raising madcap journey with Dad stifling himself from swearing in front of his seven children. He hated cursing, so this presented quite a challenge for him. I sensed that taking the whole family somewhere in an unreliable car reminded Dad of other roads he might have taken in life.
The heavy wool winter coats we wore were more like suits of armor in those days. If you were buttoned up tight, you were probably slowly losing circulation somewhere in your body. Your collar left a red imprint on your neck. And your mother made you wear a hat, boots and mittens, too. Nothing could make a boy feel like a bigger fool than this get-up. We all hoped that none of our friends would see us in this sissified condition. Mother even told us to comb our hair! This was definitely a holiday with some social give-backs, but Jo's turkey was worth it.
We all left at once on signal. Dad would bellow, "Time to go! Get out to the car now." And he wasn't fooling. There was no allowance for foot-dragging or lollygagging in a big family. If you were dawdling, he would threaten to drive off without you, and you'd be terrified at the thought of being left behind in the dark silent house. Nobody was ever late when Dad was driving. There was another reason to be ready on time besides exile. If you got out the door early you could claim a better seat in the car. This was more important than you might think. It was not only a matter of comfort but also of dignity. The wrong seat might mean you had to endure a crowded ride with somebody sitting on your lap or an elbow jabbing your ear.
I liked the window seat behind the driver the best. Even at a young age, I was a daydreamer and enjoyed watching the buildings on the way into the city. Bridgeport was a fascinating place to see with its gingerbread Victorians and wrought iron fences, neon-lit corner bars and giant factories. I felt like I was looking at a picture book by P.T. Barnum.
It wasn't a perfect seat, though. The window didn't close all the way, so you'd be frozen stiff by the end of a long ride in the heaterless heap. Even worse, the door didn't always stay shut. It might suddenly fly open when Dad took a right turn and eject me from the bosom of my family. And there was no guarantee that Dad would stop the car if that happened. He already had too many mouths to feed. Besides that, once the Chevy got going, he'd never even consider turning it off.
We did a final head-count before we left the driveway. Dad turned around to make sure everyone was accounted for and Mom called off our names.
Kevin, the oldest, and always the realist, would say to Dad, "It's cold back here. Turn on the heat."
"What are you some kind of a wise guy? You know the heater doesn't work."
Also a pragmatist, Kevin retorted, "Then why don't you fix it?"
"Who needs it? We got nine people crammed in here and the car is filled with body heat. Now shut up and snuggle up."
Dad had a point. I huddled against my brother Tim and rubbed my hands together. My teeth chattered and I felt a shiver down my back. It was from the cold, of course, but I see now it was also a shiver of delight at life. I loved our big family and was proud of being a part of it. I loved it when our parents sat together in the front set with a small child between them and a baby in Mother's arms. I loved anticipating that the car might not start and we might be in store for a riotous adventure. We were pretty close to being poor, but yet we knew we had all we really needed. We were grateful for our close family and we shared a silly sense of humor that got us through the large and small crises of family life.
Believe it or not, we all cheered and clapped when the car finally started. The shouting went on until my father commanded us to be quiet, so he could hear the engine and shift into reverse. We waved to our house as we left, and Mother suggested, "Why don't you sing a song?" And then we all joined in some rousing choruses of "Old Macdonald Had a Farm."
We would be the last to arrive at Aunt Jo's first floor flat on Norman Street. She'd peek out from behind the curtain and then she'd open the door with a welcoming smile for everyone. The house was deliciously perfumed with the scent of turkey and stuffing. Uncle Bill was standing over the gas stove stirring the gravy with a wooden spoon. The front room was already crowded with relatives: our Grandmother, Mal; blue-eyed Uncle Phil, the police lieutenant, with his wife, Aunt Nessie; Aunt Helen puffing glamorously on her Chesterfield; Uncle Tom already tanked up and trying to provoke an argument; Aunt Kit, an affable woman who talked incessantly; Uncle Nat, a quiet, but tense, gentle man; Uncle Timmy, the farmer, and red-haired Aunt Ev.
They are all gone now. Every one of them. My father is also gone. No more cold mornings for Dad; no more junk cars. I am 60 years old this year, the boy in the window seat. Still holding on for dear life, and still grateful for the love a family gives, especially at holiday time.