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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

Our Family Home

December 2019

When I was little, I did art projects. My mother said I made too much mess. If I played the piano, I made too much noise. Because she didn’t get the baby grand tuned often enough, it was always a quarter to a half note off; I still sing in tune with the piano of my childhood. I used to play well and have a few recorders and Irish flutes, but don't play any of them often enough these days. After being told I made too much mess and was too loud, I took to my closet to write starting when I was four. I had a light in there, a wooden box I sat on and wrote on top of some higher cardboard boxes. It was perfect. Our family home was big (twenty rooms) and many people lived there (eleven including me), and my parents had just stopped having a live-in maid. My mother had so much to do she didn't bother much with the whereabouts of the youngest member of the household as long as I was quiet. She already knew I was nother quiet child.  

A refuge during wartime.

When I first wrote my name, I was three—GAiL. I showed it to her. She was unimpressed, responding only with “Um-hm.” That astonished me then…all the more reason to take to the closet.

My siblings and I were all named after someone in the family. For me, they skipped the names of my father’s sisters who died in infancy or before school age. They saved me from his aunts’ names—Carrie Hughena, Lilliana Benn, and Sadie Wilhelmina. They went back three generations to find a name. They settled on Abigail when I was a month old on my mother’s condition that I be called Gail as Abigail was too old fashioned. I was seven when I learned this and inserted an Abi in front of the Gail in all my books. Heaven help the person who calls me that now. For one, I don’t respond.

I went to kindergarten at Little Folk Farm. Since both of my sisters and my brother worked summers at Little Tree Farm, as well as at Thompson Farm, picking and packing produce, when people asked me where I went to school, I said Little Tree Farms. They laughed, but I was proud of Mary, Bill, and Hannah because they worked in the fields in knee high rubber boots picking cucumbers or de-budding tomatoes in the afternoons. When only my brother was still working there, he and his young teenage friends waited for the flatbed down by Travis’s Rexall Drug, across busy Route 9, and near the library. Before the Thompson truck arrived to pick them up, a truck delivered donuts for the drugstore to sell. The donuts disappeared. Not knowing why they disappeared, Mr. Travis called the police department. Police Chief McCarthy saw the names. Of all of them, he picked out my brother and said, “Shall I tell your father?” Oh please don’t, said Bill. “Fine. Then you’ll pay Mr. Travis for them.” Five of the six boys paid their share and split the cost of covering the other boy’s since his family was poor and his farm work earnings went to the family coffers.

In the fall of 1945, I missed two weeks of school because I had chicken pox. Worse, though, was January. I came down with a dreadful sore throat. To this day, I remember how it hurt. My mother said it was just a cold and I could go to school anyway. I did…until the doctor came and said I had scarlet fever. He had sat on the edge of my bed and when he went to stand, he bumped his head on the wood of the top bunk.

“Ruth, I’m not coming back until you move her out of this bed.” I’m sure he would have returned, but that day I became a permanent resident in my parents’ room. My oldest sister, Mary, had to move to the garden apartment because I was quarantined and she, but not my other siblings, was at risk of catching it. I think my parents slept in her room for those three months. I remember seeing my sisters once each. I thought I was alone and got scared. I called for my mother, but in that big house and she downstairs fixing breakfast, she would not have heard me. I was crying and calling for her. Mary must have sneaked upstairs to get something. In she came. She wore a grey wool straight skirt and a salmon colored sweater with a pearl necklace. He dark chestnut brown hair fell against her shoulders and she looked apparition beautiful. She asked me what was wrong and I told her I wanted Mummie. She told me to stop crying or I’d make myself sicker. I stopped. She was eleven years older than I and would know what was best. Besides I hadn’t seen her for at least a month. The other visitor I remember was Hannah. She sat at the foot of the bed and read me a story. I think it was a chapter from Stuart Little.

An excerpt from my book, The Soul of My Soldier, Reflections of a Military Wife:

Dying

When I was five, I had scarlet fever. In bed for three months, I ate oatmeal for breakfast, toast with cinnamon sugar for lunch, and chicken soup for supper, every day except for the week I lay unconscious with a 105.5-degree fever. Toward the end of my coma, I, in a prone position, lifted out of bed and floated past my mother and out the window. All the yellow spring flowers—daffodils, narcissus, jonquils, hyacinth, tulips, crocuses—bloomed on the snow-covered Massachusetts hillside. I went above the cirrus clouds between parallel columns of cumulonimbus clouds. I didn’t want to go back, and when I did, I hovered at the window. Should I stay where I was? Should I go back, knowing how devastated my father’s mother was at the loss of her three young daughters? My mother had told me those stories again and again. She always said she was so lucky to have her four children when my father had been the only survivor in his family. I went back.

My first words after a week-long silence were, “Mummie, what’s heaven like?” After all, mothers know everything. My question threw her against the wall. She never answered me.

A month later, in April, I hadn’t gone back to school yet, but was well enough to have my tonsils out. I hemorrhaged. My sheets were damp and red. From my crib—there were no spare beds in the hospital—I watched the nurse look top to bottom and back again for sheets. The large cupboard was empty.

“Honey,” she said, “Three boatloads of wounded just arrived in Boston and they requisitioned sheets from all area hospitals. We have no clean sheets. Either your parents can bring some or you can go home.” I think it was a question, but I couldn’t talk then or for the next three weeks. I didn’t care what decision they made. I pictured those soldiers lying on boats. I already knew what pain and death felt and looked like. I was on their side.  

After the three months in my parents’ room, I remember my first day up. I wore a white blouse and a favorite plaid jumper. My mother must have said to put these clothes on and come downstairs. As I walked from my parents’ room fifteen feet to the stairway, I clung to the wall. I wobbled and my legs tremored when I put weight on them. I passed the Persian prayer rug that hung on the wall and paused to pat the softness I hadn’t felt in months. I had pins and needles in my hands and feet and my legs began to shake. It took a long time to walk downstairs. I made it down half of the first flight before the landing—about four steps and sat down I felt so weak and wobbly. When I reached the landing, I clung to the windowsill until I had enough strength to go down the second half of the stairs. That she didn’t wait for me or come up to check on me gave me confidence I could make it down to the dining room on my own. She was always gentle and kind, just not the most compassionate or empathetic person in the house.

I rarely felt lonely that whole illness because the presence of the house and its noises were so familiar. It had only been a year since I used to fear there were German soldiers under my bed and I leapt off of the foot of it into the hallway and ran to my parents’ room and to crawl to safety between them. They had twin beds but I always found them in one bed. I was amazed to find that they didn’t breathe at the same rate and that their hearts beat differently. My parents were one unit and they should breathe the same and their heartbeats should be the same.

Also in this house lived my grandmother, an aunt and a cousin on the third floor, and another aunt and cousin on the garden level. Before and after I was ill, when I wasn't outdoors climbing a tree, playing croquet, riding my bike beyond the limits of the neighborhood, or sitting with my friend at the bottom of the hill watching the trains go by, I walked through the house looking for someone to play with me or tell me a story.

The house that contained us also became a family member. It outlived my grandmothers and my father. My siblings and I talk about the house as if it grew up with us. Built in 1893, remodeled and added onto when my parents bought it in 1934, it held us in its twenty rooms. My mother always liked that it had seven gables. I liked its six porches, some open, some screened, and two unheated sun porches. I had the biggest porch off my bedroom, a deck porch that ran the full length of the house. French doors opened on to it. After my mother tucked me into bed and in summer, I snuck out to sit on a wide section of railing and lean against the white clapboard wall of my bedroom. I watched the stars, listened to the leaves rustle in a gentle breeze, and waited for the night train to go by. That was my signal to hightail it back to bed before my mother came up for bed when she checked on each of us. All she did was open the bedroom door, but it was enough to know I should be in bed and pretend to be asleep.

The attic had a full stairway up to it and four sections, each one any adult could stand it. Wasps lived around the south window in summer; we had to be very careful not to bother them. My grandfather’s crutches were down by the wasps. On a hot day or in the dead of winter, they hardly moved. Along the wall away from the window were the four trunks my grandparents had used on their treks for their holidays to their beloved Nova Scotia where they had grown up and had started their married life. When they died, they died Canadian and were buried back in Lunenburg. The east section of the attic contained old whiskey barrels filled with the remnant rolls of extra wallpaper from all the various rooms. It also held all the old bank statements and cancelled cheques from when we moved in in 1935. The north section of the attic seemed the most fun. Some boxes contained hula skirts and others had old maids’ uniforms. An entire area had our children’s games. Sometimes it seemed too much of a bother to take the games downstairs and we played them on the floor up there. Whatever was in the west section must have been very boring because I have no recollection of spending much time there other than to look out that window at the flatland at the bottom of the hill.

I liked the bathroom on the third floor because the bathtub had claw feet, but my mother never let me take a bath there. It was the maid’s bathroom that now belonged to my grandmother, aunt, and cousin; my sisters and I had our own to use. The third floor living room was forty feet long. In this 1890s house the ballroom was on the third floor. It astounded me why guests would have trekked all the way through the main part of the house. Why was there not a separate stairway or the ballroom on the garden level? Traveling to the third floor to visit Grandma or Aunt Mary was a pure delight, a cool drink on a broiling summer day. Either would tell me stories or let me go through their jewelry boxes or bureau drawers. I watched Grandma brush her grey hair that went to her waist and sat on her bed watching her dress some mornings. I wondered what those long things were that hung to her waist only to learn later they were her breasts that I assume has nursed six children.

The second floor held a modicum of interest…the bedrooms for my brother, sisters, and parents. I liked that we did not go into one another’s rooms without permission. I. We each had a private space, including my parents who were, as I said, one unit. My brother’s closet had a door into my bedroom, the only such closet in the house. It saved us both many a boring time when we squabbled and were each sent to our rooms. We opened the doors and set up a game, sometimes a card game, Sorry or Parcheesi, but usually we had an ongoing game of Monopoly. Of course, we thought our parents never knew, but they probably smiled their private parent knowledge. After all, unbeknownst to us, they had once been children also.

It was only a house, just a structure of wood and windows with seven gables and a roof, four fireplaces and three living rooms, neither a cottage nor a mansion but a home filled with an extended family. My family consisted of the six of us and at various times grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and family friends. I may have been close to the various people when they moved in and was definitely close to them by the time they moved out. Except when one cousin visited for two weeks, I was always the youngest scampering about the house, taking stairs two at a time or going up a tree to overlook the roof down into the valley. Whether eight or twenty-eight, I took a book with me and sat up in the top enchanted by word and wind, novels or poems and the green leaves of maple or the deep red ones of copper beech. It wasn’t the view I wanted but the solitude.

In summer, breezes blew through my window or French doors to cool the night. In winter, the radiators clicked and banged in the early morning after my mother arose to turn up the heat. She always set the heat to 55 degrees at night and got up in the dark to be sure the house was warming when the rest of us awoke.

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