Between The Lines / Warm memories of a warm cup of tea
So goes one of my memories of our family on cold winter nights on Old Town Road in Bridgeport. We lived in the northern reaches of that gritty city in the 1950s. My father, like so many dads of that era, was a blue collar factory worker. He carried a metal lunch box to work every day along with his I.D. badge bearing a grainy photo of his boyish face.
When I was a small child, my father had to walk a mile up to Main Street to catch the Gray Line bus to work. Sometimes one of his co-workers who owned a car picked him up, and they'd drive to the defense plant together. In wintertime, Dad left for work in the early-morning darkness and returned in the early-evening darkness with the chill still clinging to his coat.
He'd come in through our front door with its three rectangular windows set in the thick oak. If I stood on tip-toe I could just barely see out the bottom one. But that would be enough to watch my father stamping the snow off his boots on the porch steps.
Mother had supper going in the kitchen, and the boiling potatoes sent up clouds of steam. When I looked in our picture window, I could see her reflection as she stood at the stove. She would usually ask one of the seven of us to set the table. The Early Show was on CBS, usually a classic black and white film shown in between cigarette and Rice-a-Roni commercials. We were a meat and potatoes family and our suppers were simple but tasty. Mother learned to cook pasta when I was in middle school and we loved having that, too. For dessert we'd have a box cake that Mom made that day, and an extra glass of milk if we had enough to last until the next delivery.
Sometimes my father came in the front door whistling. "Did you kids behave today? How's your mother?" These were rhetorical questions that, fortunately, we didn't have to answer. We didn't always toe the line, and we seldom gave our mother much help around the house. Dad put his lunch box on the kitchen counter and gave Mother a bear hug. Then he would sweep her up in his arms and plant a melodramatic kiss for our benefit. She laughed and wriggled away, "Not while my hands are full, Bob."
On other evenings Dad came home with a grimness that brought the darkness inside with him. Sometimes things were tough at work or he felt overwhelmed by the stress of struggling to raise a big family. He would come in the door grousing about this or that and calling us all good-for-nothings. His grumpiness was usually short-lived, but we learned to take cover when Dad had that look on his face.
Occasionally he might even bark a little at Mom, but those times were pretty rare. Dad was a person of high spirits with some grouchiness thrown in. He knew how much Mother did for all of us without complaint day after day. Ours had all the tensions of a typical post-war family -- grocery bills, heating bills, doctor bills, tuition bills, squabbling children, car repairs, broken windows, cranky plumbing. There simply wasn't enough to go around on his factory salary. I wasn't sure what set him off, but I could see it coming like a storm as I looked through the front-door window.
As a child you learn that life is what it is. I couldn't know my father's worries or the scope of grown-up problems. At school we practiced for the nuclear holocaust by hiding beneath our desk when the civil defense whistle blew. At home we watched the vicissitudes of a young marriage in the words and actions of husband and wife devoted to each other yet hard pressed by the times. Dad fretted about keeping his job, and Mother found too many empty envelopes in the budget box.
Our father's nightly homecoming ritual affirmed the goodness of our life and the survival of our family. Even as a child I knew that Dad's prompt arrival at suppertime was a testament to his children and his fidelity to his wife. Although Mom and Dad could give us little in the way of material goods, they gave me one of the most important things in my life -- the example of their love. That taught me to trust and believe in marriage no matter what hardships adult life brings. Dad's cup of tea was something of a sacrament between them. It relaxed him and welcomed him home in our midst again. We knew we were as inseperable as they were.
In time I, too, walked in my own front door as an adult with the weight of the world on my shoulders sometimes. We become like our fathers if we learn anything at all from them. That's when we begin to understand the small gestures in life that can break your heart. I wish the old fellow was still here so I could tell him how happy I was to see him at our door on those long-ago winter nights.
The kettle is still on.
Barry Wallace's "Between the Lines" column appears each Wednesday in the Fairfield Citizen.