Tag Archives: childhood

Your party is on the line

 

In the old farmhouse where I grew up, our most sophisticated form of communication was a black rotary telephone. For a while, it was on a party line, meaning that one ring (say, three short notes) meant the call was for us, and another (two long) denoted one for our neighbors across the street. This could not have been the most efficient arrangement, given that the phone was vital to my father’s sawmill business and at any one time teenage girls lived in the house.

My mother served as my father’s bookkeeper and secretary, which meant that she fielded most of the calls. If an incoming call was deemed of low import, she would take a message, but if it were vital, she would put the phone down (no ability to put someone on hold, so the receiver would pick up the various sounds of the kitchen – the washing machine rumbling, the iron hissing), walk to the back door, and bellow, “YOO-HOO! Armstrong’s on the phone!”

The sound would travel across the septic tank, over her garden, into the maelstrom of activity at the mill, where it had to compete with the whining saw, the flap-flap of the shingle mill, the roar of the motor, the thud of logs rolling off a truck. From there it would reach into my father’s broad but not especially keen ears. He would raise his hand to signal a halt to activity, then begin his long stride back to the house.

“Yoo-hoo” never failed. Though not an especially loud person, my mother had taught first grade, and she knew how to get attention when she needed to. “Yoo-hoo” also was employed on the rare occasions when my father didn’t arrive for supper at the appointed time of 5 o’clock sharp. Usually this was because a visitor out at the mill was chewing his ear, as he would say. Then she would walk to the back door and yell, “YOO-HOO! Your supper’s getting cold!”

If, on the other hand, some urgent piece of business required an outgoing call, my father would lope into the kitchen, sawdust and diesel fumes trailing in his wake, and say to my mother, “Get Baker on the phone.” (He referred to most of his friends by their last names.) My mother would immediately drop whatever she’d been doing, sit down at the hulking metal desk in the kitchen corner, and pop open the metal address book looking for Dick Baker’s number. She would dial the appointed digits and, when Baker or whoever it was answered, say in an apologetic rush, “Oh, oh, hold a minute, here’s Warren,” and my father would pick up the receiver.

He never said hello, but always started with “Yeah,” as though returning to an interrupted conversation. “Yeah,” he would say, “I got those oak planks you wanted.” (When I was a grown, married woman, he would occasionally call me up himself and start with, “Yeah, this is the old man.”)

All of these phone calls, whether incoming or outgoing, he took standing up, receiver to his left ear, his voice projecting toward the window, as though the listener hovered there on the porch. Although he, too, was not an especially loud person, on the phone his voice boomed, until the conversation wound down and he mumbled a sign-off like “All right, see you later.” Then he would leave the house, through the sinkroom and backroom, putting his hat back on his head.

For now, the phone line was dead, until one of our friends called to “tie it up,” as my mother would say (turning on the kitchen timer), or until it my father returned with another urgent request for his wife.

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The power of ‘Little Women’

 

I read “Little Women” for the first time at age 12. It was the Scholastic abridged edition with the pink cover – the four girls in an oval frame. A few years later I was ready for the long version.

It’s a cliché to say I identified with Jo. Of course I did. Every young girl is meant to, whether or not they dream of being a writer. It wasn’t about scribbling in the garret – it was being an independent, feisty young woman who isn’t afraid to defy authority or convention.

Although she’s not the eldest, Jo is the sisters’ leader – organizing their theatricals, boldly racing the boys, standing up to the icy Aunt March. In fact, she is more of a family leader than moralizing Marmee or their feckless father. Just as Louisa May Alcott did, Jo becomes the March wage earner, whether selling her stories or chopping off her hair.

I didn’t have a writer’s garret, although I knew what a garret was; instead, I wrote at an old waterfall vanity we’d picked up at a yard sale, sitting on a castoff piano stool. First, in tiny five-year diaries, later in five-subject notebooks I decorated with pictures of wildflowers sent by my Aunt Dot, the biology professor. From my bedroom window I could see my father’s sawmill and all of its comings and goings – trucks rumbling in with towers of logs, men tossing slabs into piles, sawdust flying through the air like snow.

I was the youngest, the Amy of the family, but I was nothing like Amy, being neither blonde nor insipidly vain. Besides, there were not four of us sisters, but three, or rather there had been. Our “Beth” already had died. Still, that part of the book came as a rude surprise, and I’m sure I cried when the fictional sister made her selfless exit – not dying so much as slinking away, afraid to be a nuisance.

Of course, my sisters had probably identified with Jo, too. Who wants to be sensible Meg, even if she does get to marry Mr. Brooke? And who would admit to being like self-centered Amy? No, Jo was the sister who had it all figured out.

Which made her fate all the more hard to accept. Not only does she not get the European trip with Aunt Carrol, she refuses the impassioned proposals of Laurie. Mr. Bhaer, the German professor horsing around with his nephews, seems like a poor substitute for the next-door neighbor we’ve expected her to marry practically from page one.

It would have made more sense for Jo to make good on her threat to become a literary old maid. Even at 12 I could sense authorial invention.

None of this ruined the book for me, however. To read “Little Women” is to enter a different world, in which a child’s powers of imagination, invention, and self-sufficiency are strong enough to confront the greatest of adult terrors. War, scarlet fever, poverty, and hunger are among the 19th-century scourges the four girls face, and they vanquish all of them in their fashion. Beth may die, but she does so bravely. And each of the girls in turn must conquer her moral failings – greed, vanity, and selfishness among them.

What is most remarkable about this is that all the problems, internal and external, are solved by the titular women. Consider the men in “Little Women”: Mr. March is missing for the first half of the book, moldering away in a Civil War hospital. Laurie’s grandfather is a crabby shadow, quickly melting in the presence of Beth’s godly goodness. Laurie, even when he marries Amy, is a perpetual boy; Mr. Bhaer is just another grandfatherly figure. The only real “man” would be Mr. Brooke, and he could hardly be said to be a paragon of dominance and authority.

It must have been reassuring to read “Little Women” that spring of sixth grade, in the drafty house where my mother fretted about money, swept up my father’s trail of sawdust, and refused to say my late sister’s name. I could take comfort that the March sisters, too, knew what it meant to dress in hand-me-downs and long for things they could not have. For a few hours, I could believe again in the type of childhood I thought I would have, where sisters trade clothes and put on plays and braid each other’s hair – and where a young girl writing at an old desk might someday make something of herself.

 

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