|Sander Street, about a block-and-a-half from St. George Church and School,|
a little more than a mile from Over-the-Rhine
I was seven when Dad and Uncle Norb went in together to buy the narrow, three-story, green-shingled house at 2606 Sander Street, the second house on the right off Corry Street.
We’d lived a short time on Hollister Street, across from Inwood Park, and before that the first-floor apartment in Grandma’s building. We also lived intermittently on Grandpa’s farm in Morrow, Ohio. Where Kay lived.
|Kay and Me on Grandpa's Farm in Morrow, Ohio.|
I would have loved living on the farm with my step-grandmother Elva had it not been for the spiteful bully, Kay Francis. She was older, bigger and bored to death and amused herself by torturing me. As with most bullying, the victim seldom talks. Kay had warned me. I just had to live with it.
Kay was finally busted when she tried to drown me in LeSourdesville Lake. I had to have mouth-to-mouth resuscitation according to Grandpa. All I remember was waking up on the sand and puking. Kay was more careful after that, and I stayed away from her, until she finally ran off at age 15 with the boy who’d gotten her pregnant.
During the time we lived in Morrow with Grandpa and Elva, we spent most weekends in Cincinnati with Grandma on Clifton Avenue, next-door to the Prosit Café, in her second-floor apartment, and then finally we moved into the first-floor apartment. I liked it there and hated moving . I was upstairs in her apartment more than ours.
My two aunts, Clara and Dorothy, were still at home, as well as Uncle Junior, 13 years older than me. Moving away from Clifton Avenue was like leaving the state, or the country. A mere eight-tenths of a mile was like crossing the ocean to me. I couldn’t just escape up the stairs to a place happier than my own. And after my parents’ third girl was born, they were just fine with me hanging out with Dad’s family upstairs.
There were four years between me and Phyllis, but only two years between Phyllis and Donna, and those two did not blend together well. Phyllis demanded attention, and Mom had her hands full with a toddler and newborn baby. My four years of stardom in our home had ended, but it was still intact at Grandma’s.
The best thing about 2606 Sander Street was the thick, spiraling, wooden staircase that began on the third floor at Uncle Norb’s and Aunt Vera’s apartment, curving in the hall outside our second floor quarters, and going straight down to the street-level entrance, outside our kitchen.
It was a strange house, obviously built for small flats instead of a two-family home.
In no time, my cousin Terry and I had the banister polished slick as ice, using wax paper out of Mom's kitchen under our rear ends, and when Aunt Vera was busy with something else, we’d sail down and around as long as we could away with it. Aunt Vera hated us being on that banister and would yell, “You kids get off that banister now!” You always did what Aunt Vera said.
Our living room was at the front of the house at street level, but the door onto the sidewalk was always kept locked with a heavy upholstered chair in front of it. Off the living room was the one bedroom with a sink hanging on the wall, and a small bathroom.
Mom slept in a brown upholstered fold-down chair in the living room just wide enough for one slender person. My father had the couch. A heavy slide-in French door separated the living room and our bedroom. The door was stuck in open. It no longer pulled out from inside the wall where it stayed encased. The living room and bedroom were like one giant open room.
The bad nights on Sander Street could have been avoided had my parents had their own private bedroom with a door..
There was in fact a small room downstairs right off the kitchen, with another bathroom, but it was used to store junk, the boxes of possessions brought from the last house that never got emptied and used.
Our lives back then centered around the neighborhood and church. Few families on our street had automobiles. As stated already, my father did not drive, and in the early fifties neither did Uncle Norb. Several men on Sander Street drove cars, and so did the woman next door to us, Thelma, who wore slacks that looked like men’s pants, similar to those worn by her husband Steve. Thelma was a woman ahead of her time. She and Steve had no children, but they did have a nice bar and rec room in their basement, and they were always entertaining neighbors and friends.
I remember thinking what must it be like to live as Thelma. Not afraid to dress differently, or not want babies, who could drive a car anywhere she wanted. I’d never known any other women like her.
My father and Uncle Norb both worked at St. George School. Dad was manager of the bowling lanes, the Georgian Club, and Uncle Norb was the janitor.
Dad worked long hours at the bowling alley. He was a one-man show. If the pin setters broke down, he had to fix them. He had full responsibility for the leagues that bowled every night of the week and making sure every alley had a “pin boy” to man the pin setters. Our telephone rang incessantly with Dad’s business. He was on call 24/7. I knew he liked his job and didn’t mind the unpaid overtime. He was autonomous in the bowling alley. It was his domain. He took the work seriously. He earned 75 dollars a week.
I wanted to be a pin setter more than anything, but I couldn’t, Dad explained, because I wasn’t strong enough to swing myself up on the racks when the heavy balls whizzed down the alleys and into the pits. And those pin boys were fast too, holding four pins in each hand which they deftly slipped into the slots and pushed the button to lower the rack, almost at the same time as hoisting themselves up onto the rack, out of the pit, their legs out of the way of the speeding ball.
I was allowed to wash the beer glasses and polish them with the bar towel. I could serve Cokes, and other “pop,” potato chips and pretzels at the wooden bar, and I got to polish the bar, kneeling on a barstool. I was allowed to put coins in the jukebox and play the songs I liked. When Dad didn’t want me helping out at home with Mom and the kids, I stayed at the alley. It was a happy, loud, exciting place.
My youngest sister Nancy was born two years after Donna and slept in the baby crib on Sander Street, in the only bedroom. A narrow path separated the crib against the wall and the double bed where Donna, Phyllis, and I slept. When Nancy graduated to a bed to make room for our first brother, a roll-away bed was placed on the other side of the double bed, up against the wall, and Phyllis and I slept there, while Nancy and Donna shared the double bed. The bedroom was full up. I didn’t expect any more babies. There was no room.
My mother spent most nights tending to babies on Sander Street. Newborns needed feeding every three or four hours and diaper changing around the clock. Babies often get sick, and back then, before all of the inoculations doctors administer now, we all had chickenpox, measles, and whooping cough.
My mother was exhausted most of the time. She had started getting sick a lot. She lost weight and her clothes hung on her, her normally pale complexion turned pasty white, her straight and thin, light brown hair, was held back with Bobby Pins.
And about this time, for some unknown reason, my father began holding all-nighters in the living room, beginning at three or four in the morning, after he came in from the saloons where he hung out after locking the bowling alley.
I learned what drunk looked like at a real early age. I heard what drunk sounded like, and what it smelled like because every morning a stale, sour alcohol odor permeated the air inside.
I felt that my father wanted, needed something that only my mother could give him, in middle of the night when he came home and couldn’t go to sleep. Whatever this thing was he needed and wanted, he could not get from my mother. I heard her tell him, starting in a low voice, even though I was awake, to go to sleep. But he would not. She said she was tired and had to get up in a few short hours with the baby and get the kids to school. It didn’t matter. He wanted her to stay awake and talk to him, argue with him, and answer why she didn’t love him like other women loved their husbands.
I was confused. Obviously, wives loved their husbands. Why wouldn’t they? Wives were mothers who took care of children, cooked, washed clothes, took you to the doctor. What was wrong with my mother? Why did my father constantly accuse her of not being a good wife?
Something deep inside me said not to ask anyone my questions, even my Grandma. Especially my Grandma. This was something I couldn’t voice to anyone. Somehow it was embarrassing before I actually understood what embarrassment meant. It felt bad inside me, and no one could know it was there.
The day came when I did understand, and I targeted this unfolding scene almost every night on Sander Street as the one thing that negatively impacted my life from then on, causing issues in every relationship I entered.
Some nights I wished my mother would just throw something at Dad to shut him up. Pour a bucket of water over his head, hit him with something. Anything just to get him to go to sleep.
Other nights I prayed my father would not come home. And then when he’d be even later than usual, not coming in until four or five, I begged God to forgive me because he’d probably got hit by a car or something and was dead somewhere on a lonely sidewalk.
But he always came home. Sometimes he woke everybody up with bags full of White Castle hamburgers, or Skyline Chili Dogs, sometimes bacon and tomato double-deckers. Phyllis and I would sit up in our roll-away bed and silently, numbly eat whatever it was, Phyllis with her eyes closed but still eating, sometimes drinking a pop, then lying back down and sleeping for what little time was left before school.
When people all over the world, I remember thinking, were sleeping in their still and quiet houses at night, we were wide awake because my father could not go to sleep.
As I lay there next to my sister, gritting my teeth, squeezing my eyes shut, trying to lay on my good ear so as to muffle the angry words coming from the living room, it never occurred to me that I should get up and let my parents know I was awake and could hear every word they said. I should have told my father to either go to sleep for the sake of all the rest of us, or go somewhere else where people liked staying up all night. I still don’t know why I didn’t do that. I’m sure my mother would have appreciated it, and I know my father wouldn’t have gotten angry. He never did when he was drunk. He only got mad at my mother.
As the nights on Sander Street repeated the same scenario over and over, my mother’s health declined further. When a cot was put in the small downstairs room off of the kitchen for her, with a bucket next to the bed for prolonged vomiting, I knew she’d reached the end of her rope.
During her sick episodes, my father became a different person. He came home from work early and tenderly took care of her. This continued over and over. Driving her to mental and physical exhaustion, and then taking care of her.
As an adult, I learned this was typical behavior in dysfunctional households. It was only so long before the cycle would begin again. Mom would get better, take care of herself and look pretty and happy. Then the all-night scenes in the living room would slowly return, and the tired lines in her face and the dark under-eye circles would appear as well as the straight line of her lips. Eventually she wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning when it was time to get ready for school.
Eventually, Mom had to go to the hospital , and our relatives came, divided us up, and took us home with them. I went to Aunt Dot and Uncle Bill’s. Aunt Vera, upstairs, took care of Nancy and Donna.
I remember one occasion where Phyllis went to Aunt Clara’s, who lived across the street from Aunt Dot on West Eighth Street. After the first night at her house, Aunt Clara told Aunt Dot that Phyllis was up most of the night washing her hands in the bathroom. They wondered what was wrong with my sister.
Phyllis’s hands were dry and scaly from constant washing, and in our roll-away bed at night at home, she would peel the skin from her fingers. I learned later in life this is usually considered by psychologists as a guilt behavior. I guess Phyllis thought it was her fault Mom and Dad fought every night. She had a speech impediment and had trouble in school because of it. She also vomited if she ate or drank certain foods, especially milk. Maybe she felt she was too much trouble.
The last time Mom got pregnant on Sander Street was with Ray, my first brother. Ray was born in January, so Mom, only five feet tall, was heavily pregnant through the Christmas holidays. She was a lot bigger with Ray than with Nancy and we had to help her get out of her chair.
I was ten when Ray was born, so I was able to help quite a bit during this pregnancy. I remember Mom having various food cravings and asking me to go downstairs to the kitchen sometimes at night, when we were watching TV, and fix her something. The one dish I remember was egg noodles. She wanted some buttered noodles with peas. Sometimes I’d need to go to the little store just around the corner to buy something we didn’t have. She drank a lot of Pepsi Colas, her lifelong favorite soda.
Of course, Dad was never home until the wee hours of the morning.
One of the worst scares for me was one particular early morning when Dad came in out of breath, like he’d been running. He shut the hall door, a few feet away from mine and Phyllis’s bed, and leaned back against it, trying to catch his breath. When Mom got up and walked into the bedroom toward him, he said, “Dorothy, I’ve been here all night.”
He then explained that he’d gotten in a fight at Art’s Place, the corner saloon, while trying to protect Uncle Norb, and when he landed his knockout punch, the man had fallen backwards, his head hitting the brass foot rail of the bar. Dad said he saw blood coming from the back of the man’s head, and he ran.
Dad wasn’t sure if he’d killed the man and if the police would come looking for him. He wanted Mom to avow he’d been home all night.
I don’t remember what else was said that night, how long it took my parents to settle down and go to sleep, but I lay awake waiting for the police to come and haul my father to jail. I wondered how we’d get by without him. We wouldn’t have any money. What would happen to us?
In the morning, as I walked to school and passed Art’s Place, I still wondered what would happen. The bar was empty and locked up. What had happened to the man my father knocked down? As usual, when I got out of the bed that morning, my father had already cleaned himself up from the night before and was probably in the bowling alley now. As I walked in the school’s side door, I hesitated at the top of the steps leading down to the basement where the bowling alley was. Then I walked up the steps and into my classroom.
No one ever mentioned the fight again. I waited for Mom and Dad to say something about it, but they never did. I suppose the man was all right and there were no charges against my father, but I never knew for sure.
So many things I never knew or figured out back then. Life was crazy and confusing. It was hard to know what was right and what was wrong on those dark nights on Sander Street.