Through Any Given Door

1.27 Wolf at the Door

Claudia and Betty

1946 • Sonora ~ Squatting on the front stoop in the low afternoon sun, Betty, all of six, and Claudia just four, sat wondering what kind of trouble they could get into when their plans were cut short. An eerie howling, like a trapped animal with its foot caught in a snare, floated through the front screen door from the top of the staircase above them.

“What is that?” they whispered, giggling and poking each other.

“Owoooooooooooo! Owoooooooooooo!” they imitated the sound as if they were wolves calling to one another in the woods.

“Who is that crazy person?” Betty wondered aloud to Claudia.

Carleen, who was twelve, heard them. “Shut up, she hissed through the screen door. “It isn’t funny, it’s Mom.”

Something happened to Mom, something snapped. This was the first time my mother tried to kill herself. They took her away for a while until she could get better, but she never did, not really.

Other than Mondays, Mom seldom got out of bed until the kids left for school. Betty had her hair braided on Monday and wore the same dress for a week; by Friday she itched on every square inch of her body. The rest of the week Mom slept in, waited for the older kids to be gone, then got up and fixed herself a steak, lit a cigarette and vanished into the shallow depths of her westerns and True Crime Magazine.

Although no longer compelled to clean the house or take care of her children, she still managed to cook occasionally, making meals in her heavy black cast-iron kettle or her Dutch oven, one-pot meals like her mother cooked.

She used to bake chicken on summer Sundays and make roast beef for winter Sundays. She used to make scratch cakes with Bakers chocolate frosting and bake pineapple upside down cakes. The family missed the smell of her homemade biscuits and fresh apple pies, her rolled sugar cookies made from leftover strips of dough, sprinkled with pats of butter and spilled cinnamon. She also once loved to sew—the hum of her Singer now silent—making the girls’ clothes and embroidering the top hems of white sheets, pillowcases, and tea towels like her mother taught her, like she taught Carleen, like Carleen would teach me one day.

During the week my father worked long days running the store. Every morning he went to the bakery before school to pick up glazed and sugar donuts for breakfast for the kids. On Sundays, after taking the kids to Mass, he made ice cream, rock candy, or fudge; fudge was his specialty. Stirring it the whole time, he took a spoonful and dropped it into a glass of water to see if it made a hard or soft ball. When ready, he buttered the pan, stirred in the black walnuts that Mom and the kids had picked and shelled at Grandma’s, and poured the chocolate mixture in a square tin. The kids impatiently hopped from foot to foot, waiting for the fudge to set. To make rock candy he boiled sugar and water into a strong solution, dipped in the strings (one end of the string was tied to the middle of a yellow pencil), then placed the pencils on the rims of tall drinking glasses with the dipped strings hanging on the inside until the solution hardened. After repeating this process several times, clusters of clear crystals formed, looking like confused icicles. The kids liked the fudge better.

My father believed that life was hard work. He believed you had to earn everything you got, and that to get anything done right you had to do it yourself. He believed that you always finished what you started, and that if something was worth doing, it is worth doing right, and doing it right the first time. All these beliefs served him. They also served my mother; as she had no such beliefs, he picked up her slack. On Saturdays he did the heavy cleaning: mopping floors, changing sheets, wiping sticky doorknobs, scrubbing ten grimy handprints of five kids off the walls. By this time, my mother’s idea of housework was to sweep a room with a glance.

to be continued …

© 2017. Catherine Sevenau.
All rights reserved.

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  1. Such great stuff, I treasure my reads from you.

  2. Ruth Schwartz says:

    Nicely done, Catherine! I haven’t had a chance to read anything of yours recently and I am delighted that you are doing your memoir this way. The cover is good too!

  3. My older half-sister Jane had a similar story. She left her husband after having 4 children, tried to kill herself with carbon monoxide in her car, was sent to Napa State Hospital where they gave her electric shock treatment, married two more times and had another son, lived with manic depression and had little contact with our family. I was 16 years younger. I remember her at a family gathering, smoking, drinking and shocking them with stories about her affairs. Her husband, a quiet sort, was there too! I guess they weren’t able to shock the wild streak out of her. They all called her “Crazy Jane”. I found out after she died that she wrote poetry. I wish I could’ve known her better.

  4. Jim Chatfield says:

    He set a good example for his children. Your Dad was quite the young man, more men should take his example. Families would be a lot better off.

  5. Such a difficult time. My mother also had a “nervous breakdown” as they called them back in the day. She said she couldn’t swallow normal food and existed on baby food, cigarettes and beer. They took her to Mayo Clinic. The doctors told her she needed to take her mind off of herself and start a business. A cafe in town became available and my mom and dad bought it. It actually worked to overcome her depression or whatever it was. She ran the cafe for about 18 months. By that time she went back to being our mom. It is very hard for a family to go through when your mother is there but absent from your life. People didn’t talk about it then and they don’t even much today. Unfortunately there is still a stigma involved. Your story brings back a lot of memories Catherine. Thanks for sharing the painful parts of life too.

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