Monday, July 31, 2006

Living in the Past

I spent much time at my maternal grandmother's house in the 1940s. Grandma lived in a small village about 90 miles from my home town, so my visits to her lasted for whole weekends and sometimes for a week or two. I got to know Grandma, her house, and her village quite well -- so well that my memories of her and her surroundings are still vivid. When I reflect on those memories I realize that her house, and much of her village, was a throwback to the early 1900s. This was life at Grandma's house in the 1940s:

There was no indoor plumbing (that came later). Water was drawn at a pump in the backyard. Hands and faces were washed at a basin; baths were taken in a large galvanized tub in the shed attached to the house. The "toilet" was an outhouse tucked behind the garage (which held no automobile).

Where did we heat bath water? On the large, wood-burning range that sat in Grandma's kitchen. She arose early every morning to fire up the range, on which she cooked all meals.

Central heat? There was none. The wood-burning range and an kerosene stove supplied all the heat Grandma needed. The upstairs bedrooms relied -- in vain -- on the principle of rising heat.

Air conditioning? Absurd. The only relief on hot summer nights was to stay outside for as long as possible and then to sleep with a window open at each end of the house, in the hope of catching a breeze.

Grandma kept a kitchen garden, where she grew many of the vegetables that we ate with our meals: string beans, green peas, corn, radishes, and cabbages. (Nothing beats the taste of a pea fresh from the pod.) Grandma bought other foodstuffs at local markets, to which she walked three blocks.

She kept perishable items in an icebox. An icebox -- for the youngsters out there -- consisted of metal compartments encased in wood. The top compartment held a block of ice, which kept the contents of the other compartments cool, but which had to be replenished every few days.

The floors of Grandma's house were covered in linoleum and the walls were covered in wallpaper -- all in a style that dated back to the early 1900s. Most of the furnishings, too, dated from the early 1900s, when she wed my grandfather -- who died before I was born.

There was no TV, of course, and no telephone (that, too, came later). When Grandma needed to make a long-distance call to any of the eight of her (ten) children who didn't live in the village she walked four blocks to the office of the local phone company.

Grandma, herself, was a throwback to the late 1800s. Her vocabulary and attitudes reflected the era of her upbringing. She indulged her grandchildren with sweets and movies. But she expected good behavior and told us, in unmistakable terms, to straighten up when we misbehaved. We obeyed her -- and we loved her.

Many (perhaps most) of the other residents of the village lived just as Grandma lived, simply and quietly. The predominant evening sounds were those of crickets and tree toads, not cars and clubs and TVs at high volume. We could see the stars and, on occasion, the Northern Lights. Children could roam, day and night, without fear.

World War II had ended. The Depression had not returned. Life seemed good -- even to adults, who enjoyed what they had. Peace reigned, for a short while.

Sixty years on I sometimes retreat to my memories of Grandma, her house, and her village. Those memories take me back beyond my childhood in the 1940s to the even simpler and more peaceful times of a century ago.

Related posts:
The Good Old Days
Thinking Back
Ghosts of Thanksgiving Past