I am saddened by the number of people who are suspicious of and even offended by fables, fantasy, and allegories. Imagination was an ever-present commodity in my home as I was growing up. My brothers and sisters and I walked around with a book in one hand and a pen in the other. Music was a continuous soundtrack in our home- always in the background, but often the main event, too. We children envied and emulated the quick-witted and clever around us. Mother recited long rhymes at the drop of a hat, and quoted poems & silly songs during our bath times or in other mundane, potentially boring (for her?) situations. We listened to the opera every Saturday (“Texaco Presents… the Metropolitan Opera!”) as we youngsters cleaned our large, old, kid-filled home.
And then there was the Mass — especially Sunday High Mass — a holy, ritual-filled hour that taught us the transcendence of God, the reality of miracles, and the glory of heaven. Truth, beauty, goodness, all around. Sorrow, alcohol, and physical abuse all around, too. But a book or the movies could serve as a way to cope with pain and confusion, calm one’s fears and present the possibility of a future happy ending. “Bookish tendencies” are good skills to have when it comes to dealing with the harsh realities of home.
I think my childhood reading of myths and fables helped to teach me to read between the lines in real life — which is another survival skill, by the way. I am thankful for the books of C.S. Lewis, Edward Eager. and J.R.R. Tolkien both for the comfort their works provided and the skills their stories brought with them. So, my advice to you is to read a wonderful book of fantasy soon, then trust your imagination to lead you to a deeper understanding of the world around you,
“Hey Margie, is our house scarey looking?” I brought this up as my older sister and I walked to Daley’s Grocery Store – an almost daily event, no pun intended. “I don’t know. Why?” “Because Janice Whartmore said ours is the scariest house on the block.” Margie was quiet for a while. “You just tell Janice Whartmore that you’d rather have a scarey house than a scarey and mean brother.”
Whartmore’s were our closest next door neighbors with kids. Janice was right between Margie and me in age; she had only one younger sister and one older brother. They always seemed kind of stuck-up to us, those Whartmore’s, but that didn’t matter too much when it came to getting a game of four-square, jump rope or dodge ball going. Ballard, a northern Seattle neighborhood, was a pretty nice place to grow up in the 1950’s, with games of ball, and hide-and-seek and even impromptu home-made parades being the norm. Still, that remark about our house made me uneasy. We did have the biggest house and yard on the block, and we had the biggest family to go with it. The final count for kids in our family would be ten. I was the seventh born – the fifth girl. So it seemed fine to me that we had a big house, but what was scarey about it?
After we got home from the grocery store with the milk and bread (we were always running out of these things, even though the milk man and the bread man came to our house twice a week), I would go across the street, sit on the Anderson’s steps and get a good look at my house to see if Janice Whartmore was lying or telling the truth. And then I would march right next door to ask Janice what she was scared of. I’d go, that is, if her mean older brother wasn’t around.
Even in the 1950’s and 1960’s people in the northern Seattle neighborhood of Ballard found it hard to believe that our family did not own a car, but it was true. Dad said that in a good year, our family was in the middle-to-low income bracket, but if he were to purchase a car, we would drop to the much feared low-income bracket for sure. Anyway, that was the reason he gave us kids for not buying a car. Naturally, not having a car forced us to walk or take the bus in order to get anywhere – a constant challenge and irritation. We envied any family that did have a car, which meant we envied just about everyone we knew. Many of these car-owning folks were generous enough to give us rides from time to time. One such person was Marguerite Reiten, whose house was directly across the street from ours. Marguerite belonged to St John’s parish as we did, and for a period of time she gave our family a ride to church on Sunday mornings.
Marguerite and her ancient, invalid mother lived in a large white Craftsman style house; I thought their house was particularly impressive because it had two sets of steps. One cement set climbed from the street to a paved walkway in the Reiten’s front yard; the second set, very wide and made of wood, adorned the front of the house and led to a grand porch. The front of the Reiten’s house had several windows and a dark wood and brass front door. Since their house was on the crest of a knoll (as was the entire street on the east side of 12th Ave N.W.), there was a tuck-under garage built beneath it. In that tuck-under garage was a large, domed, curved, billowy blue, full-sized Nash automobile.
(Here is my older brother Bob’s response when I asked him about what kind of car Marguerite drove: OH my goodness, Teri. Yes I remember Marguerite Reiten’s car. It was a Nash. The full size model. It looked like an upside down bathtub. I think it was a two-tone blue color. Marguerite was a BIG girl. She was quite religious too. I think she tried to enter the convent at one time. It didn’t work out. I don’t know why but as a kid I kept trying to paint her as a mean person. However every time I had dealings with her, which was not very often, she was quite kind and soft-spoken.”)
It was in this voluptuous car that Marguerite drove us – my Mom, and “X” number of kids – to mass on Sunday. (Dad walked the ten blocks to St John’s so that he could say the rosary.) Marguerite herself was large and curvy, like her car. She was tall, fair-skinned, dark-eyed, and wore her thin black hair in a braid on the top of her head, arranged in a band that went from ear to ear. She was missing one of her teeth, too, although I can’t recall which one. She was an impressive sight to a child; as impressive as her car, almost. And as Bob mentioned, she was very kind to all of us.
One puzzling thing about Marguerite was that even though she had only herself to get ready for church, she was never ready to leave on time. Mom had all of us scrubbed and polished for church by 9 am, but we waited for Marguerite every Sunday. As we stood on the sidewalk below her house, Marguerite would call to us from the windows so that we could have the minute-by-minute description of her final preparations. She encouraged us to “Be patient! I’m looking for my missal! Hold on! Mother needs her knitting! Don’t panic – mass won’t start without us. I will be right out!” When she finally did appear from behind the doors of the tuck-under garage, she caused us little girls to stop and stare. This large and elegant lady invariably wore a floral dress, was bedecked with jewelry, had deep red lipstick artistically applied, and wore a Spanish mantilla over her hair. She was a showstopper. When the garage doors were fully open, we Kings would file into the garage and climb into the car. Mom would sit in the front seat with the youngest, and the rest of us would find a space in the wonderfully expansive backseat of the Nash. Magically, there was always enough room for us.
Now the epic journey to church would begin. In the front seat, Marguerite would be talking like a mad hatter to Mom while shifting gears on the Nash like nobody’s business. From the backseat we could look out the windows of the car and see the neighborhoods of Ballard and Greenwood from a vantage point we rarely had – elevated and enclosed. It was an entrancing time. And there was an element of suspense, too We knew the clock was ticking – 10:45 Mass would start any minute, and we were still blocks away from the church parking lot. But we were covering ground! It was amazing how quickly we could get to church in a car. And yet I could tell Mom was concerned – her eyes had a thoughtful, serious look, even though her lips were smiling. I don’t ever recall a time when we were late to church, but on the Sundays when we rode to St John’s with Marguerite, we were often still looking for a place to sit as the priest approached the altar – which was perilously close to late according to King family rules. I think it was this tendency to tardiness that eventually caused Mom to gently refuse Marguerite’s offers of a ride, and forced us kids to be content to walk to church.
My sister Margie and I had a weekday connection with Marguerite, too. When I was six and Margie was eight, Marguerite offered to teach us how to crochet lace at her home. I don’t know if I really wanted to learn to make lace, but I definitely wanted to look inside that big, white house. What would we see when the dark, wooden door was opened and we walked in to Maguerite’s?
Stay tuned to this blog for the next entry in Life Before Starbucks – Marguerite Reiten – Part 2
Plinky’s question for the day was, ” What broken relationship do you wish you could restore?”. This made me think of friendships from childhood days. I have not, since I moved from Seattle in August of 1970, had any contact with friends from school. The person I wish I could meet again is one who went with me through Catholic elementary years at St John’s in the Greenwood neighborhood in Seattle – grades 1 through 8, and Catholic highschool, Holy Angels in the Ballard neighborhood – grades 9 through 12. Her name is Mary Elizabeth Johnson, born June 2nd, 1952, oldest daughter to Florence and Edwin Johnson, older sister to Ellen.
It’s been a long, long time since I have seen Mary; May of 1970, to be exact, the month and year of our highschool graduation. Our long relationship was broken then, by time and distance and growing up. Broken by choices which seemed noble at the time. Broken because that’s what happens when people finish school, move away from home and get a life.
Mary and I had been friends since second grade, and we did all the goofy things kids do growing up, including writing our names, in crayon, on the wall in my bedroom. We knew we would get in trouble if they were found, but no one did find them until I was a junior in highschool and Mom said I could paint my bedroom if I would pull the wallpaper down. I cut our signatures out of the wallpaper that I removed, and kept them in a book for many years.
In highschool Mary christened herself “Nag” because I insisted on shortening her name to “Mare”. She also thought that if she signed the notes she sent me in class with her pseudonym, no one would guess she was the author – how funny! Who else would be writing me a note??? No one!
Mary, I wonder where you are. I have looked for you on facebook, but the name Mary Elizabeth Johnson is extremely common, and not one of the scores of profiles that I have read has been a match to yours – to ours. I am not one who looks wistfully at the past, full of regrets and ‘do-over’ desires, but in this one area of my life, in this particular relationship, I wish that I had not been so determined to leave my past behind and strike out into a completely new world. I wish I could have had the wisdom that my younger sister, Claudia, has. She has remains in contact with several of her elementary school chums to this day.
Maybe you have heard this song by Kristin Andresssen? http://youtu.be/EELEjeYzfjM You come to mind whenever I hear it.
I hope we meet again some day, Mare. I would provide the crayons, and we could sign our names on the wall in my bedroom one more time.