Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

My First (and last) April Fool’s Lesson

Monday, April 1st, 2024

Daddy and Me — Easter in Oysterville, 1939

I must have been seven or eight when I played my one and only April Fool’s trick — on my dignified, Bostonian father, of all people!  It wasn’t that he didn’t have a sense of humor  — he did.  But probably not when the joke was on him.  And definitely not regarding the sanctity of his morning coffee.

I, of course, was gormless and when I asked my mom if she would help me substitute salt for the sugar in the bowl on the breakfast room table, I definitely didn’t take any gentle hints from her that this would NOT be a good idea.  I’m sure I stuck stubbornly to the thought that this would be a great joke on Daddy, and I waited eagerly for him to join us before dashing off to work.

He was NOT amused.  I’m sure my mother had another cup AND some sugar ready and waiting, but I only remember how small I felt and how miserable that I had upset my father.  It’s another one of those memories that surfaces every year on this date — and every time I wish I’d told him how sorry I was.  But I don’t think I ever did.

Nor did I ever play such a trick, at least not knowingly, on anyone again.  It was my first “lesson” in empathy — the first time (at least that I remember) that I viscerally thought of how someone else saw things.  I can’t say that the lesson always “stuck.”   Certainly not in its broadest sense.  But I’m quite sure I never played another April Fool’s Day trick on anyone and still feel that it’s a mean, not funny, way to “celebrate” a day.

Yesterday I spent with my grandmother…

Wednesday, March 27th, 2024

Helen & Harry Espy, 1947

No sooner had I turned on the bedside lamp and checked the time yesterday morning than the power went out!  Damn!  And I had overslept, too.  I’d be hard pressed to get through my long list of “todo’s” even without all the amenities… like a shower and a hot cup of coffee to get my day underway.  On the other hand… no internet, so I needn’t worry about half the things on my list.  Not yet.

I dressed by flashlight, had a long drink of water (always in stock in the pantry against such “emergencies”) and called the PUD just in case they had news.  Yep.  A car hit a power pole and the substations in Ocean Park and Oysterville were adversely affected,  The estimate was early afternoon before we were back in the 21st  century.  No details about the accident, but it couldn’t be good considering the damage it caused.

I built a fire in the library fireplace to stave off the cold and wished (for just a minute) that I could go back in time a couple of generations,  My grandmother would be firing up the wood cookstove in the kitchen and stirring the embers in the pot-bellied stove in the nursery — warming that room up for the youngest of her six children, for in my mind it was 1912 or so.

1912 – The Espy Children (Dale, Willard, Edwin, Mona, Suzita, Medora)

The three older girls, Medora (13), Sue (9),  and Mona (8) slept upstairs now that they were all school-age, but the three youngest, Edwin (4), Willard (2) and my mother Dale (1) shared a huge pull-down Murphy Bed in the Nursery — the most easterly room in the house,  Papa, who went to bed late, always banked the fired in the woodstove before joining Mama upstairs, so the little ones would be warm throughout the rest of the night.

When the coffee was ready, Mama carried it to the nursery where the tin coffeepot sat on the stove all day long and Papa refilled his cup periodically when he came in from the dairy barn or the meadow or the cream-separating building or wherever his many chores took him.  How I wished we still had that woodstove… but alas!  My folks had gentrified that room in the 1979s, getting rid of the old stove and having a fireplace built there instead.  Great for cozy ambiance, but not for a practical heating surface when our electricity fails us.

I had been planning to work on the computer all day, communicating with my new webmaster (who is in Alabama!) as we begin working on my new website.  But 1912 had rather limited amenities in that direction so I decided to do what I don’t get to do very often these days — just sit around and read.  Thank goodness for Kindles!  Despite it’s many windows, this house is not very well lit inside — at least not by natural light.  Maybe it’s those 11-foot ceilings that seem to trap in the gloom. even when the sun is shining fairly consistently — as it was on that particular day.  My Kindle was perfect and I escaped into a Jack Reacher book with ‘nary a guilty thought about my website.

H.A.Espy Children on Danny, 1924

Even so, I was glad I didn’t have to fire up the kerosene lamps and read by their smoky light — and even gladder that I wouldn’t have to wash the lamp chimneys in the morning.  I wondered what my grandmother would have thought of such a modern convenience — though with a family of six to wash and clean and cook and sew for, I really doubt that she had much time for reading.  Mom and Willard used to laugh at the memory of her taking a book out to the outhouse for a half hour or so now and then — the one place she wouldn’t be disturbed.  But, of course, there were no toddlers by then.

She always said that the years that the babies were little were the best years of all.  (That babies were Edwin, Willard, and my mom; Mona and Sue were “the girls” and Albert (who died at 4-1/2) and Medora — the two first born — were “the children.”  I loved to hear Gtanny’s stories —  how Edwin thought that God was shooting deer when it thundered and how Willard liked nothing better (from the time he was three) than to take the biggest book he could carry out to the road and lie down in the middle and read.  Horses and carts and walkers worked around him.  And yes… he was reading at three, finished 8th grade at 10 and high school at 14.  What a guy!

As for mom — she was a Tomboy through and through — and no wonder.  There were thirteen kids her age who lived in town but she was the only girl  She remembered spending many-a-time chasing after the boys  when they were trying to ditch her — but then she grew up a bit and the story changed…

It was really a lovely day, yesterday.  Back in 1912.  But how lucky we are that the power came on in time for a hot dinner, electric stove notwithstanding.  Lights!  Heat! The magic of 2024!  I only wish I could share a day of now-time with my hard-working, soft-spoken granny.  I’m sure I didn’t half appreciate her but I was lucky to have her in my life until I was in my second year of college.  I hope I told her how much she meant to me…


And speaking of polar opposites…

Friday, April 7th, 2023

From “The Outlander” TV Series.

I’m in the middle of 18th century Scotland — in the highlands of The Outlander series which I’m reading on my new Kindle to save my eyes from the fine print of the books.  It’s full of historic accuracy, steamy sex, and violent squinch-my-eyes-up bloodshed.  Sometimes I have to stop reading just because it’s too hard on my old and fragile sensibilities.

Ron Howard as Opie Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Tucker to the  rescue (though I doubt that he knows it!)  He just loaned me a book called The Boys by brothers Ron and Clint Howard.  Both were child stars in Hollywood, yet grew up in a normal (actually, more than normal) household, and ended up making show business their  careers.  Though the roles they played as children — Ron as Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show” and Clint as Balok in “Star Trek,” for instance — were often polar opposites, the normalcy of their 1960s-’70s homelife is a side of Hollywood that is not often seen.

Clint Howard as Balok in the “Star Trek” Series.

While the book borders a bit on “corny” (just as “The Outlanders” might rely a smidge on “horny”) it is worth reading to balance out all the horror stories of pushy stage moms and dads who see their kids as the proverbial cash cow.

So, while neither book is exactly well-balanced, I’m enjoying each for its own sake.  And for sure there is little danger of conflating the plots!

Speaking of that “Clean Plate Club”

Wednesday, March 29th, 2023

When I was a kid and was at the point toward the end of dinner when I was endlessly pushing peas (or beans or brussel sprouts) around on my plate, I was invariably told to “remember all the starving children in Armenia.”  I can’t remember that the reminder did any good at all.  Not as far as finishing up my meal.

First and foremost, I had no idea where Armenia was nor did I know any of those children.  I thought they might be starving because of the war  — World War II which we had entered when I was in Kindergarten and would be a major factor all during my grade school years.

But why eating those vegetables would help never was made clear.  And my sotto voiced “Couldn’t we just send them these?” once or twice got me sent to my room.  I can’t remember that I ever got to join “The Clean Plate Club.”  And I fear that the children in Armenia continued to starve.

I thought of that last Sunday when I noticed that 92-year-old Ray Hicks had eaten every morsel on his plate at the luncheon served at the Pacific County Historical Society’s Annual Meeting.  Ray’s caregiver, Larry Holland later told me that Ray told him he had finished eating while I was speaking because if he cleared his plate, it wouldn’t rain!

Now that’s an incentive I could get behind — when I was in my single digits or even now!   The promise of sunshine ia about the best inducement for almost anything along about this time of year in our neck of the woods!

Presidents I’ve Known and Loved…

Monday, February 20th, 2023

By the time I entered first grade in 1941, the United States had had thirty-two presidents, many of whom had served more than one term.  President Roosevelt, of course, stands out clearly in my mind as does his “day of infamy” speech after the horror of Pearl Harbor.

And I remember Harry Truman — such a plain man by comparison and a man who I later learned worked in offices next to my first father-in-law who scoffed, “Harry Truman!  We used to send him out for toothpaste!”  I didn’t much care for my father-in-law so by default Harry got my vote.

And before and after John Kennedy — until Barack Obama — I can’t really sing anyone’s praises.  It’s all one big blur and promises to continue in that vein, at least for me.  No.  I think I can safely say that the only two presidents I’ve “known and loved” were George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — and probably all because of the apocryphal stories we heard and the silhouettes we cut out oh-so-carefully year after year in honor of their birthdays — Lincoln’s on February 12 and Washington’s on February 22.

When we morphed into “President’s Day” and made the closest Monday to George’s birthday a holiday, I have to confess, I opted out.  I guess the holiday is okay but, to tell you the truth, today I would rather have received my mail.  Just sayin’…

One sock up and sensible shoes

Sunday, August 29th, 2021

First Grade, Versailles School, Alameda, CA – May 1942
Sydney – First Row, second from left

Versailles School — First Grade — Alameda Calif — May 1942  it says in Dad’s handwriting on the back.  My first school picture, or at least the first one I remember.  It turned up in an unmarked box with forty years’ worth of disparate images.  I’m eager to sit down and take a look, but for now this one and a few others from the forties have captured my attention.

I wish someone had thought to write the names on the back of this one.  I think I remember that the boy in the back row was Russell and the next to the last girl in that row was Verna Schott, the girl I walked to school with every day.  Maybe the third boy from the left in the second row was Bobby and, even more maybe, the girl at the end of that row was Trudy.  For once, I wasn’t in the middle of the first row — but close enough.  I wonder what my mom thought about my sagging sock…

I remember the school as “Edison School” not Versailles so I looked it up on Google.  I found that Edison School (“Home of the Otters”) was, indeed, Versailles until September 14, 1942, when, after many construction delays due to strikes and the beginning of WWII, Edison School was opened.   It had been funded through the WPA and, according to the website:  From the six classrooms originally planned and built, Edison has grown to its present size of sixteen rooms (portables not included when this article was written) and all other facilities necessary to a modern, first-class school.

Our House at 1320 Versailles Avenue, Alameda — 1941-1947

Good to know.  Mostly though, I wonder who of all those children are still living and what the past 79 years have been for them.  I think I heard from a mutual friend that Verna died some years back — and now our friend, Sharon, has also died.  How I wish that someone could recognize and put me in touch with one or two of these “kids.”  And where was our teacher, anyway?  I think it was Miss Thompson who was also the principal…

That’s the thing about memories…  They are best of all when they can be shared with someone who also remembers.


October 18, 1980…

Friday, August 27th, 2021

Artist Unknown — Mrs. Stevens’ 1st/2nd/3rd Grade Class c. 1992

Dear Mrs. LaRue,
Do you know the Halloween parade?  In this parade can I holed youer hand because Im scared of clowns?
From Ruth

Looking back is oh! so bittersweet.  Not because of what was said, but because of what I can’t remember.  Did I hold her hand?  Did I even go to the parade?  And who was Ruth?  Did she move away?  I honestly don’t remember ever having taught a student named Ruth.  I am so sorry…  I wonder if she is out there somewhere and if she remembers the parade or the clowns… or me.


Another Missing Bit of Childhood

Friday, February 15th, 2019

On this very date, February 15th, in 1903, the first Teddy bear went on sale.  Little did toy store owner and inventor Morris Michtom realize that he was creating a childhood institution.  He had asked and received permission from President Theodore Roosevelt to use his nickname, Teddy, and had then sewn up a couple of stuffed bears and placed them in his store window.  The rest, as they say, is history.

I don’t believe I ever had a toy bear and I’m not at all sure that my son Charlie did, either.  Certainly, there was never a bear that had a place in our lives like Christopher Robin’s Pooh Bear.  I think that “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” was about the extent of my early bear connection.

I do remember shopping for a little Steiff bear for Charlie when we were in Germany in 1958.  He was two and, somehow, I thought he needed a stuffed bear.  But, even then, they were way too expensive for our meager budget.  The stuffed animal that became his favorite was a dog that we got in Italy.

We had gone into a big department store in Rome, specifically to look for a cuddly stuffed animal.  The salesclerk showed us a big, floppy dog, larger than Charlie.  I kept saying (and motioning with my hands) “smaller” and by inches we were shown smaller and smaller versions of the same stuffed dog.  Each dog was accompanied by the word “piccolo” and by gestures which we soon understood to mean “small.”  And, so it was that Charlie acquired Piccolo Doggie who was, as Goldilocks would have said, “just right” size-wise, and was Charlie’s boon companion for years.

During those years, Charlie and I were also introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh in a book given to Charlie by his Great-Grandmother Little, as I recall.  Later, I enjoyed my own second childhood over and over again by reading those Milne books to my first graders.  Wise old Pooh helped many-a-child of my acquaintance over a rough spot – but he wasn’t technically a Teddy bear and he didn’t come along in time for me to enjoy him during my own childhood.

If I were to examine my character critically, I’d probably come up with a flaw or two that I could credit to the lack of childhood Teddy Bear bonding.  Right up there with that electric train I never got!  Oh well…

Phew! I’m glad I figured that out!

Tuesday, February 12th, 2019

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t “a girlie” sort of girl when I was young.  I didn’t much like playing with dolls.  I didn’t like playing dress up.  It never occurred to me to get into my mother’s cosmetics.

On the other hand, I don’t think I was a tomboy, either, although it is true that the top of my wish list was always an electric train and I had a secret desire for one of those box scooters like my neighbor Robert Reading had.  I don’t think I ever wanted a squirt gun or a bow and arrow or anything sort of projectile that I might aim at anyone else.

I did ride horseback, climb trees, go camping, and get muddy.  Those things definitely weren’t the prerogative of boys.  But I wasn’t much into sports or long hikes or sailing or anything that took much physical effort.  I’d much rather spend an afternoon reading or playing a board game or maybe trying to write a story for the children’s section of the Oakland Tribune.

All these thoughts converged the other morning when I had to actually enter the chicken run AFTER the girls and boys were up and about – yes, including the evil black rooster! Their water was frozen solid and I was coming to their rescue, a fact that I told them over and over as I bravely unlatched their gate and walked into their midst.

At first the evil one just looked at me and my big bottles of water –plastic liter bottles once holding tonic and the perfect size for taking down to the coop to replenish their supply.  But, before I could reach the trough, he became all too interested.  He didn’t flap his wings or aim his spurs at me, but he did come marching right for me at a good clip.

Before I could think, I aimed one of the water bottles at him and squeezed.  A big stream of water got him right in the face.  He stopped all forward progress and just stood there looking confused.  I didn’t wait to see what his next move might be.  In two giant steps I was at the trough pouring in that water and was outta there before he could say “cock-doodle-brrr!”.   After I had re-latched the gate, I took a look.  There he was at the trough with the other six, happily slaking his thirst.

“A squirt gun!” I thought.  “That’s what I need.”  But I really don’t like the idea of aiming any kind of gun at anyone – even that evil rooster.  “And I don’t have to!” was my happy realization.  “A water bottle will do just fine.”

Remembering Their Words

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016
Sydney with 2nd Grader, Southgate School, Hayward, CA - 1962

Sydney with 2nd Grader, Southgate School, Hayward, CA – 1962

It happens more than I’d like these days.  I woke up feeling tired – not refreshed.  And we have a lot on our plate today.  I thought of Allegra Tasaki, the little mite of a six-year-old who once said after a long field trip day, “When I feel tired, I just reach into my energy pouch.  For a refill.”  That was fifty-some years ago and I’ve tried to live by that piece of wisdom ever since.

It might have been during the same period of time that another feisty first-grader joined our class along about Christmastime.  He also was tiny, but unlike Allegra and the rest of his classmates, he came equipped with a giant-sized chip on his shoulder.  The very first day he was with us there was a fire drill.  The kids streamed into line and headed toward the door as we had practiced – all except Alonzo who stood but stubbornly refused to join us.

As the others paused and waited, I walked over to him and took his hand to urge him along.  Maybe not quite ‘took,’ though.  Instantly he pulled away and shouted at the top of his voice “Get your hands off me you white honky bitch!”  There was a stunned silence in the already quiet classroom and then one of the bigger boys broke rank, took the hand that Alonzo had pulled away from me and dragged him into line.

Charlie at Three, Claremont Day School, 1959

Charlie at Three, Claremont Daycare – 1959

Alonzo and his family moved during Christmas vacation so there isn’t “a rest” of this story.  Only that I have never forgotten his fiery anger and hostility and have never ceased wondering what happened to that little boy – what kind of man he grew to be.  Could we have made a difference in his attitude or his life had he been with us a little longer? And what lessons could he have taught us?

One other bit of kid wisdom comes to mind this morning.  When my son was three or four and attending Claremont Daycare in Berkeley, the teacher asked the kids, “Who knows what you call it when two people sing the same song at the same time?”  Charlie raised his hand and eagerly answered, “A coincidence.”  More words to live by.

I’m not sure how any of these kid-isms might be related.  But they must be, somehow.  Everything is.