Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Three Rooms and a Basement (Part 1)
Most of the time, our house consisted of three rooms and a basement. The other three rooms, the bedrooms, were always there but served only as places for sleeping. Once the beds were “made-up” in the morning, the rooms, for all practical purposes, could have been severed from the house. In winter the doors to the bedrooms were kept shut during the day – and often during the night too – preserving the precious heat from the space heater. Even in summer, when the doors might be left open, there was no reason to go into a bedroom except to retrieve some item left there. Once Mom’s prized chenille bedspreads were carefully arranged on the bed, no one or no thing was allowed on them; no exceptions, even for guests.
So the indoor activities in our household were restricted to the living room, dining room, kitchen, or the basement.
In later years the basement housed a shower, stool, and sink, freeing the kitchen from the need to serve as a Saturday night bathroom. The addition of a shower also, thankfully, increased the frequency of bathing. With the installation of plumbing, the basement took on the role of laundry, relieving the kitchen, in summer, and the “wash house”, in winter, of that usage. Various attempts to make the basement into a recreation room failed because its low ceiling, cramped quarters, and damp environment eventually discouraged that use. Ultimately, it became the storage place of last resort, a sort of gulag of castaways, a Siberian nether land, in which things once treasured were sentenced to short or long confinement, but ultimately forgotten until rust and mold had degraded or destroyed their usefulness. If I had not made the basement a personal hideaway; if it had not been one of the few places in the house where a clear signal allowed the St. Louis Cardinal broadcasts to be heard, it would not have served any purposes other than storage, laundry, heating plant, and bath.
The kitchen was Mom’s domain. It was the brightest room in the house with a row of windows facing south. The wallpaper usually included some bright reds that matched the red edging on the zinc-topped worktable under the windows. A tall pie keeper served as a pantry, sharing the west wall with whatever version of a cook stove was currently in use. The north wall hosted the icebox, in early years, the refrigerator after the war. An archway to the dining room was cut in the east end of the north wall. Another opening, cut in the east wall led to the porch that housed the steps to the basement or the outdoors. To the right of the latter door there was a dry sink, in the days before the advent of plumbing; a proper, plumbed sink, afterward.
The kitchen was a busy place, always too warm it seemed, heated by the sun, streaming in the windows, and the stove that was seldom idle during the day. A myriad of activities occurred in the kitchen: canning, baking, cooking, dressing chickens, game, or fish. There were few places to sit but that did not deter those who insisted on making it a gathering place while meals were in preparation. Almost every conversation spilled over into the kitchen. Mom’s opinion was important to every discussion. (She could multi-task before it was fashionable to do so.) Often she would retreat to the cooler living room for a few minutes of rest and then draw part of the crowd back to the kitchen with her to continue whatever conversation she had engaged in during her little break.
In the early years meals tended toward vegetarian – lots of beans and cornbread – not for philosophical reasons but because meat cost too much. However, on Sundays, and days when company came, there was chicken, or ham, or a beef roast with mashed potatoes, corn or beans, home baked bread, and pies or cake. Most of the food came from our own little “urban farm” which consisted of a backyard garden, a fenced in chicken pen, and hogs raised right in town. (We never raised a cow but we did have two horses for a short time.) No zoning codes were harmed in the production of our meals.
But the most memorable product of Mom’s kitchen was birthday cakes. Six grandsons lived a few blocks from her kitchen and another ten grandchildren frequently visited on their birthday. Mom’s collection of photos must have included several hundred, showing a couple of dozen people seated at, or circling, the dining room table – a cake with candles set in front of a grandchild with a paper crown on his or her head. And few of Gramma’s cakes were made from mixes; the flour bin that was a part of the zinc-topped work table in the kitchen, and the sifter used to de-lump the flour, are firmly fixed memories of Mom at work in her kitchen.