White bread was a staple in every household in the fifties and primarily used to make sandwiches. The bread was sliced thin and sold in a long slender plastic bag with the word Wonder Bread emblazoned on the bag. Fried bologna and mayonnaise, Peanut butter and bananas, cream cheese and olives-whether it was used for sandwiches, toasted or eaten smothered in butter, no Midwest kitchen would be absent the proverbial loaf of Wonder bread. As the main ingredient of a sandwich, it was difficult to be creative with white bread unless cutting off the crusts counted as being creative. We weren’t allowed to cut crusts; it was wasteful and there was absolutely no reason not to eat the crust. Mother told us that the crusts were the most nutritious part of the bread, but I doubt that her statement was true. It was more than likely a ruse to encourage me to eat the crusts. There were no wasted crusts in the Strange house.
Creativity with bread arrived in the form of toast. All different kinds of toast. Orange toast, milk toast, cheese toast, chipped beef on toast, cinnamon toast. These were the Strange versions of creativity with toast and we ate every kind of toast imaginable-true gastronomical delights (except for chipped beef on toast).
Have you ever heard of orange toast? I don’t know anyone who knows what orange toast is except my siblings, my cousins and our kids. No recipe today could match the simple and delicious version of this childhood treat, which is clearly connected to the memory of Saturdays mornings when we were allowed to sleep late and lounge around in our pajamas watching Howdy Doodie.
By the way, orange toast was not made in a toaster. We didn’t own an actual toaster, but we did have an oven, so Mother made all of our versions of toast in the oven, under the broiler. For orange toast, she used nothing more than white bread, butter, sugar and orange juice. It was delicious.
Mother always freshly squeezed the juice with an old-fashioned clear glass juicer, which was a kitchen necessity at that time. Frozen orange juice concentrate did not arrive on the scene until the late 50’s so a juicer was a kitchen necessity at that time. After squeezing the oranges, she separated the seeds from the bottom of the circular juicer and then added 1 teaspoon of sugar to the juice. She placed pieces of the white bread on a cookie sheet and arranged four slices of butter on top of the bread-four squares on one square.
She spooned the sweetened juice onto each slice and popped the cookie sheet into the over under the broiler, leaving the door to the oven cracked so that we could peek in and watch our delicious treat materialize. As the broiler coils turned a bright reddish-orange, we watched the butter melt and the edges of the bread crisped and darkened in color. The juice bubbled as the liquid heated up and the bread became toast. When the orange toast was done, Mother used a spatula to lift the toast off the cookie sheet; otherwise, the toast fell apart with the softness of the middle portion of the bread-now toast-tearing easily.
From the plate, I chose to eat the delectable crispy edges of the toast first. Or maybe the mouth-watering soggy, sweet middle part of the toast, or maybe I cut the toast in two and ate the crispy edges and the soggy middle together. Regardless, the entire experience only lasted seconds as I enjoyed every scrumptious bite.
Milk toast? That was a very different experience. I had to be sick to get milk toast and no one wants to be sick. I would venture to say that the words milk toast reminds most people of timidity and little joie de vivre. The comic strip character, Caspar Milquetoast was the reference for this image, so those people would be correct. However, what I think of when I hear the words milk toast is comfort food-Mother’s special treat when we were sick. It probably has medicinal value, but as a child, I felt infinitely better after a batch of her milk toast. After a night of fever or stomach ache, I would smell the aroma of the warming milk from the bedroom without having to even ask. From my bed, I anticipated the arrival of the warm bowl of milk poured over, once again, that iconic piece of white bread-toasted, that is.
Back in the kitchen, Mother sliced butter into the hot liquid and then added salt and pepper to the steaming concoction. The black flecks of pepper floated to the top of the liquid and jumped out from the whiteness of the milk and the melted butter. She allowed the mixture to cook, while she once again broiled her buttered bread in the oven, toasting it quickly so that it would be ready for the steaming hot milk.
When it was ready, Mother carried a tray to my sick-bed, careful to keep from spilling the heated liquid. She placed the bowl in front of me and steam rose over the bowl and into my face as I leaned over to capture the delightful aroma of the mixture. No matter how sick I was, I eagerly placed my spoon into the now softened toast and cut it into small pieces. Soggy, sweet, buttery and salty. When I finished the bread, I scooped cooling liquid into my mouth as my whirling stomach settled and the fever dissipated into oblivion.
Sick or well, I hated chipped beef on toast. And right now, I’m off to the grocery store to buy a loaf of white bread and oranges. It’s going to be cold in the morning and I just might lie around, drink coffee and eat orange toast. I wonder where that juicer is. And, I probably should buy whole wheat instead of white-my cousin reminded me that whole wheat is after all, healthier.
Part of the thrill in going to Kentucky to visit my cousins and other relatives, was to help prepare and sample the delectable homemade biscuits made by Mamaw. This truly was a ritual that took place almost every morning you spent with her. Whether it was during one of our visits to her or one of her visits to us, biscuits were always on the menu.
She was one of those truly grandmotherly types, who wore the plain cotton house dress that buttoned up the front, black orthopedic shoes and elastic bands around the lower part of her thighs, which held up her stockings. Towards the end of the day, the elastic bands appeared around her ankles, as she must have tired of the binding higher up on her legs, but was not yet ready to take off her hosiery.
Her silver peppered hair always looked as if it had just been permed, and the tight curls lay in ringlets against her scalp. She didn’t wear any jewelry that I can remember, but wore lipstick on special occasions. Inevitably when visiting, she always asked me to bobby pin her hair after she washed it. She sat in the bench in front of her dressing table and I stood behind her, looking at the two of us in the mirror. She kept her bobby pins in one of the two milk glass, chicken-shaped containers, which graced both sides of the dressing table. To begin the task, I carefully separated her hair into small sections, wrapped the hair around a finger, placed the coil against her scalp and then positioned bobby pins in a criss-cross fashion to hold her hair in place. Mamaw’s job involved handing the bobby pins to me one at a time. We talked the entire time I was fixing her hair, which generally revolved around stories about my father as a child or other people who had died. I often teased her that she knew more dead people than I knew who were living.
Once I had finished pinning her hair, I wrapped her head with a hair net to hold the sections in place. She went to bed secure in the knowledge that in the morning-Voila!-she had a head full of curls. We slept in her full-sized bed and as I dozed off to sleep, I listened for the sound of the trains, which passed her house nightly. The train’s whistle and the clanking of the train’s’wheels against the metal tracks mixed in with the soft snoring of the older woman I loved.
In the morning, the visit’s ritual continued as she adroitly and artistically set about making her batch of biscuits. First, she found the rectangular box of Diamond brand matches that she kept on top of the gas stove. In one quick action, she struck the wooden match against the strip of flint, which was on either side of the box, and the smell of sulphur permeated the air. She lit the over and began gathering her baking ingredients on top of the small kitchen table. She mixed the flour, baking powder, ice water and lard and the magic of the motion mesmerized me. She never measured her ingredients, but used her watchful eye to determine the appropriate amount of “this and that” as she carefully weighed the texture of the dough with eyes and hands, which were slightly knotted and gnarled, with closely trimmed and unpolished nails. She worked the dough furiously in the crockery and melded the dryness of the flour with the moisture of the ice water and the smooth, white, greasy lard. No one bakes with lard now, but it was a staple in Mamaw’s kitchen and was the one ingredient, which gave her biscuits their flaky, rich texture and taste.
Once mixed, she gathered the dough in a ball, sprinkled flour on the table’s top and began the artful kneading of the dough. She punched the dough gracefully, yet forcefully, continually alternating between adding additional flour and rolling the dough around in her hands until it lost its stickiness. When she deemed the dough ready, she pulled her old, wooden rolling-pin out of the cabinet, floured the table and the rolling-pin to keep the dough from sticking and used the force of her hands to roll the dough into a less than perfect circle, which was a half to one inch thick. She used a jelly jar, which had a small opening, dipped in flour, to cut the dough into the pre-cooked circles.
She repeated the reshaping and rolling of the dough until she didn’t have enough dough left over to roll. At that point, she gathered all the scraps into one large biscuit, which was not symmetrical in shape or height. This leftover biscuit was her special biscuit-the biscuit that all her grandchildren wanted to eat-the privileged biscuit.
If Sissy and I, or one of our cousins both at her house, we would have to draw straws or pick a number between 1 and 10 to see which of us earned the honor of having that particular biscuit. That biscuit was called Big Ben. To Mamaw, Big Ben was the memorial biscuit in honor of my grandfather Benjamin Robert Strange, who we called Papa, and her husband.
Whoever received the honor of eating Big Ben, smeared it with butter and some of her homemade plum jam. She never told us why she named a biscuit after Papa, but I suspect that she made biscuits for him often and he loved her biscuits, and this was how she honored him after he died.
I made biscuits for my own children on occasion and carried on the tradition of Big Ben that was a special part of my childhood; the careful attention to the process of mixing the dough, the rolling and cutting, the gathering of the scraps into one large biscuit, the smell of the gas oven being lit and the taste of the plum jam on my lips. A sausage biscuit at McDonald’s? Ha! Can’t even come close to my Mamaw’s Big Ben.
The word Kentucky conjures up words like blue grass, bourbon, the Kentucky Derby, basketball, fried chicken and biscuits and gravy. For me, the word Kentucky is deliciously peppered with childhood memories of visiting my Kentucky cousins. There were sixteen of them and they lived just across the Ohio River in Elizabethtown and Louisville, Kentucky. We visited them once or twice a year and it was often difficult to see them all in any one visit, but it was always a memorable adventure.
Seven of my cousins were on Mother’s side of the family, and all of them were my Aunt Kay and Uncle Bill’s children. Daddy had three sisters and a brother and between all of his siblings, there were nine children. Almost Even-Steven on both sides.
We usually traveled to Elizabethtown because that is where most of them lived. On holidays the Louisville cousins, who were on Daddy’s side of the family, traveled our way to join in the event so we were always surrounded by many aunts, uncles and cousins during our visits.
As a family, our vacations generally revolved around weekend or holiday trips to Kentucky. We piled into the car with our suitcases packed in the trunk and began our two hour journey across the winding, two lane roads between Indiana and Kentucky. As a small child, I hated driving to Kentucky because I would get motion sickness every time we traveled. I sat in the back seat with my siblings and tried every position possible to keep from getting sick. I traveled with my pillow and tried to sleep, but with two or three siblings fighting for the limited geography, it was impossible to get much rest. We weren’t constrained by seat belts or car seats in those days and often I nestled into the space on one side of the middle hump on the floor, and tried to sleep in that limited compartment.
When not sleeping, we played “I Spy” and counted cows on each side of the road. When we passed a cemetery on our side of the road, we lost our cows. When we saw a Brahma bull, we earned twenty-five points. The game lasted until we became bored or when we left the rural countryside of Kentucky and traveled through smaller towns with no cows.
When we arrived at our destination, I happily emerged from the confinements of the car, waiting for my stomach to settle back to normal knowing that delicious food was on the agenda.
Because we had to share our visit with everyone, we often spent much of our time in Kentucky going back and forth between multiple houses. The greatest benefit in the constant movement between the various houses was the food-we never went hungry on those visits. Everyone fixed food for us and we were not allowed to refuse the generosity of our aunts and grandmothers who had spent much time preparing a feast.
While my siblings and I never felt pulled in multiple directions, I am certain there was fierce competition for our time. My parents never wanted to show favoritism toward one family over another, so inevitably we visited with everyone, even if only for a brief time. While we split our time between the two sides of the family, I recognized that Mother liked to be at her sister’s house and Daddy liked to be at his sisters’ or his mother’s house. As for the kids, we didn’t really care. Each family welcomed us graciously and made us feel at home and special. We feasted on Aunt Dorothy’s German chocolate cake and played cards at Aunt Kay’s. We watched Uncle Delma, Uncle Charles and Uncle Russell bring in their catch from their squirrel hunting or fishing adventures. We ran around the countryside-playing hide and seek with Janet, Ronnie and Patty. Our parents drank iced tea and visited with their siblings and their spouses.
At Mamaw’s we ate green beans and sweet corn. Biscuits and plum preserves. Sweet pickles and fresh tomatoes. And, when we couldn’t possibly eat one more bite of food, we traveled another hour and a half to Springfield to visit Mother’s parents, Mama and Poopdeck, where we began the feasting all over again.
Our cousins were older, the same age and younger than us. There were more girls than boys, thank goodness. They visited us in Indiana when they could, and we returned the hospitality the best we could. They grew up just like we did and today they live all across the United States and in Europe. They have spouses, children and families of their own and they have their memories as well. Some of them are fans of the Kentucky Wildcats and others are fans of the Louisville Cardinals. They love their basketball and they love their horseracing. Many of them religiously celebrate the Kentucky Derby, placing their bets and toasting the day with a tumbler of Kentucky bourbon or a mint julep.
Today, we don’t see each other often and when we do, it is more often at a funeral than a celebratory event, but we still hug and kiss and laugh with each other and “Remember when…..” Our lives are separate, yet joined by the special ties of family and history. They are forever woven into my past; I hope they will continue to be part of my future. To my Kentucky cousins-a toast and a smile to all the delicious memories of our family!
In memory of my beloved Bobby
July 18, 1950-November 6, 1968
My parents exposed their child to often unusual and atypical experiences-or at least looking back, it seems so. We went to the racetrack and church, the bowling alley and Bible school. We saw Jerry Lee Lewis and the Lennon Sisters in concert. We learned how to play poker and we mastered the game of hopscotch. These were the most opposite of events and entertainments and some of them perhaps not necessarily considered appropriate for children.
In thinking back to those times, I have to remember that today life is governed by different rules and everything we say and do must be politically correct. In the fifties, lives were simpler and in some ways-not in all ways-people were less judgmental and more caring. In looking at life through those eyes, I consider one of the most unusual sporting adventures we witnessed as children was wrestling. And, since our parents chose to expose us to the sport, it made perfect sense that we were introduced to one of the most famous wrestlers of all times-none other than the one and only, Richard “Dick the Bruiser” Afflis.
“The Bruiser” was an Indiana native having been born in Delphi, Indiana-I had to Google Delphi to find out exactly where it was located-and grew up in Lafayette, Indiana, where he first played high school football. He continued playing football as a college student for the Boilermakers of Purdue University and then played lineman for the Green Bay Packers in the early fifties, before becoming a professional wrestler.
The interest in wrestling exploded after WWII so it must have been a natural choice for our parents to take us to the Armory to see the famous “Bruiser” when he came to town. Forget the fact that wrestling was and still is one of the most aggressive and brutal sports of all, if not in actuality, violent on some levels. “The Bruiser” became a legend in the world of wrestling and somewhat of a hero in Indiana and particularly in Indianapolis where he lived.
I have only a vague memory of “The Bruiser”, but Sissy reminded me of our excursion to the Armory and helped trigger the memory of this unusual nugget of my childhood. She easily recalled the event and described “The Bruiser” as being barrel-chested with bleached blond hair. His favorite opponent carried an equally frightening moniker of “The Crusher” and sported bleached blond hair as well. It must have been the fashion for wrestlers at the time, which eventually carried over to Hulk Hogan, a more modern-day wrestler.
For me, I remember the shoes-high top lace-ups in bright red. Apparently, I was a shoe aficionado even then. On the other hand, perhaps I just preferred to concentrate on the shoes he was wearing rather than the jeering and heckling of the crowd-strangely gruesome behavior from seemingly normal people, which I have never been able to understand. The wrestling experience apparently left a much greater impression on Sissy, as she loves her boxing and football contests of today. I consider them two equally aggressive sports, which often make me cringe with the crushing of body against body.
For me, I prefer petticoats and the more gentile sports of tennis and golf. Sorry Bruiser-I do not think I liked watching you wrestle in person, and I certainly do not watch it on TV today. Mickey Rourke gave me enough of a flavor for the sport in the movie “The Wrestler”-barrel-chested, with bleached blond hair, wearing the shoes. Red shoes? Now those are worth thinking about.
We had just moved from the apartments on Riverside Drive to a new, two bedroom brick house on the east side of town. And the biggest news was that we now had sidewalks. Sidewalks were a luxury and made going out on Halloween easier and safer. We lived on Congress Avenue and to this four-year old, the street seemed miles and miles long. When I went back to visit my parents as an adult, the street seemed smaller and much shorter, but that did not minimize the memory of my Halloween adventures on Congress Avenue.
There was only Sissy and me at that point-no baby brother or sister-and we did almost everything together. This included shopping for Halloween costumes and trick or treating. I don’t remember where we found that year’s costumes, but my guess is we shopped at either the S.S. Kresge five and dime or the ubiquitous Sears and Roebuck department store to find the perfect costumes.
There was no fairy princess wand, witch’s black hat, or Dorothy’s ruby red slippers for the Strange girls. In 1954 we decided to both dress as frogs. Definitely random. When was the last time you saw a frog costume? Remember, this was before the days of Kermit the Frog. Nevertheless the costumes left an indelible impression on me as here I am decades later recalling the details of that night in October.
The body of the costume was made of some type of green cloth. I don’t know that polyester had been invented as yet, but it was a one-piece deal that I pulled on over my clothes like a jump suit, all the way to the neck. A black plastic tie held the two sides together as it encircled the neck of the costume. It was too cold in Indiana on Halloween to go without clothes underneath, so a larger size was required to make up for the extra room needed for the bottom layer of clothing, which would keep us warm. Shoes next, and then we were off.
The mask was made of hard, thin plastic and was the best part of the costume. The frozen, painted face of a smiling, happy frog greeted everyone on the other side of my face. The mask was also the worst part of the costume. Underneath, it was hot, hot, hot and by the end of the evening, the experience, while entertaining and fun, was truly claustrophobic. But we didn’t dare remove our masks during our journey up and down the street, because the neighbors would then discover our identity-which would be an unforgivable consequence of not being able to bear the heat of the mask.
Of course, Daddy was standing not too far behind us on the walkways leading up to the houses as our protectorate in arms, so it was not as great a mystery as we liked to pretend. Red, curly hair and straight brown hair sneaking out from under the elastic bands that held the masks to our small faces usually was enough of a clue to let the neighbors know that it was the Strange girls. It really didn’t matter whether we kept our masks on or not, but I was not going to be the first to fall victim to the temptation of unmasking and revealing my identity.
“Trick or treat” we shouted out in unison as each of our neighbors opened the door feigning great surprise. Our intent was always to secure a treat and never to trick-a thought that had never entered the minds of two frogs just looking for candy. “Thank you,” was our genuine response as the neighbors loaded Halloween treats into our personally designed, brown paper grocery bags, which we had laboriously decorated with our small hands and crayola eights. After trying to view the generosity of our neighbors in the dark as their hands reached into our bags, we squealed in delight running back to our father. We excitedly described the comments and surprise of Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones-Yes, there really were neighbors on our street named Mrs. Smith and Mr. Jones-as we skipped happily to the next house.
Once the trek was completed up one side of the street, on the blessed sidewalks of course, and down the next side, we returned home to count our loot. Mother waited at home serving treats to all the other neighborhood kids and we ended our evening knocking on our very own door and collecting the very best treat of the evening from her. A hug and a kiss for these little frogs.
Once home, the masks came off as we poured the entire contents of the bag on the living room floor, exclaiming at some of the prizes we discovered in our bags. Full sized candy bars, home-made popcorn balls, candied covered apples in luscious caramel or a sweet, sticky cherry glaze, and occasionally a full pack of gum. We traded the candies we didn’t like with each other and put our favorite ones together in piles on the floor and surrendered some of the loot to our parents, who helped keep the sugar rush in check. We blew out the pumpkins, tucked our costumes away in a drawer for safe keeping and staggered off to bed-after of course brushing our teeth with Crest-satisfied with the evening and our innocent deception.
In the fifties, we didn’t worry about crazy people putting razor blades or poison in our candy. We knew everyone on our street and we were happy with what we received-small tokens of neighborly love. Well, there might have been that one house towards the end of the street we avoided. Not very friendly folks lived there. But for the most part, we felt safe and secure.
We didn’t worry about tooth decay, stomach aches or the boogeyman. And we certainly weren’t worried about offending any particular religious group or being accused of worshipping Satan. We were just two little girls, dressed up as frogs, running through the neighborhood with our father collecting sweet treats from our neighbors and reveling in exclamations of “Who are these cute little frogs?” Halloween in the fifties? Safe and fun, which was its intent. Witches, ghosts and goblins, oh my! And frogs on sidewalks, too!
Don’t you wish you could be a frog-if only for a night? On the sidewalks of Indiana? Boo-ribbit!
October rolled around with the anticipation of another addition to the Strange family. The 1961 World Series ended with the New York Yankees winning in five games and Halloween was around the corner.
Earlier in the year-on Easter Sunday in fact-Mother and Daddy told us the news. They were both thirty-seven years old and even though that is not considered “old” in today’s world for having a baby, thirty-seven was considered to be outside of the preferred age for women to bear children back then. Besides, our family was already complete. We had two girls and one boy and another baby was not on the agenda.
Nevertheless, at eleven and twelve, Sissy and I were thrilled with the thought of another baby in our house-provided it was a girl. BQ was already four and the novelty of having a brother, in all of his mischief-was over.
In our new Easter garb-which I clearly remember as a beautiful yellow and white dress with embroidered yellow flowers on the white bodice-we walked up and down the street to our best friends’ houses to broadcast our news. Little did we know nor understand at the time, the fragility of life and our roles in caring the life that would be coming home in a few months.
This time, it was a girl as she finally arrived on October 23. I waited eagerly for her to come home from the hospital, being so excited about the chance to be finally be a big sister. The excitement didn’t last long as our parents told us there was a problem. She apparently was born with a herniated “something or another” and she needed an operation. An operation on a baby! We had never heard of such a thing as that. We were now scared and confused as trepidation slowly made its way into our home.
For whatever reason, the operation could not take place for six weeks and during that period; we could not let our baby cry. If she cried too much, the herniated “something or another” could strangulate and she could die. With this additional information, we defined our responsibility quickly-our baby was not going to die. We would not let that happen.
For the next six weeks in the Strange household, we carefully, lovingly and with a significant grasp of the gravity of the situation, set about to care for our baby. We passed her back and forth between usanytime she whimpered or even began to cry. Mother to Daddy. Daddy to Sissy. Sissy to me. And back again to Mother. I am not sure what Mother did during the day when we were in school and Daddy was at work, but we managed to keep her quiet and satisfied for that very long six weeks in the autumn of sixty-one.
The day of surgery finally arrived in early December. We understood the seriousness of it all and only wished for our baby to come home safe and sound. The surgery was a success and when she arrived home a week later, the only indication that anything had ever been wrong with her was merely a three-inch incision on her lower abdomen. We saw the stitches tightly sewn, holding the two sides of the surgeon’s precision cut together. Three inches, while not much bigger than a pill bottle, appeared enormous on her small body, while the overwhelming weight of fear disappeared from from our small shoulders.
The incision healed and we now heard the healthy cries of our new baby throughout our home.
Years later, we teased Mother and Daddy about spoiling her so badly. She would get away with things that the three of us would never have gotten away with, and in spite of their protestations to those facts, we knew that she truly was the baby of the family and the spoiling began the first day she came home from the hospital.
Today, technology and medical advances have improved the potential outcomes for many new babies who must undergo surgery for a variety of reasons-a liver transplant, a cardiac defect or a herniated “something or another”. This is now and that was then. Then, when there were now four.
Happy Birthday Yordy! No crying allowed-even if it is your fifty-first birthday. I love you!
Little girls still wore petticoats in the fifties and finding that very special one for my new church or school dress was a special treat. Mother, Sissy and I usually shopped at the S.S. Kresge store in the Lawndale Shopping Center because it was close by and the merchandise was not expensive. The SS. Kresge store along with Woolworth was the quintessential five and dime store of the day. The stores housed everything from clothing to hardware and we could find the perfect petticoat or mixing bowls or nails, or anything r else we might need in one location. As we entered the store, we saw the clothing racks in the distance filled with the lacy, full or half-slips sticking out from the racks. Ruffles, lace, nylon, tulle-they greeted us with style. Silk petticoats were not hanging on the racks at S. S. Kresge and even if they had been, they were too expensive for our budget. The petticoats were usually white, but also pink, pale blue or lavender and even yellow. The flashier petticoats were of course red or black, but I don’t remember having a petticoat in either of those colors. A bit scandalous for elementary school I imagine.
The full-length version always had a small pink flower with green stem appliqué attached to the center of the top half where it would lie flat on the breastbone of its small inhabitant. The half-slip would also sport the appliqué positioned at the waistline or along one of the layers of ruffles.
At the beginning of school each year, we went shopping for new shoes and dresses and of course a petticoat to go with the new dresses. One year, the newest petticoats of the season had jingle bells. Yes, jingle bells. I’m sure my teacher didn’t appreciate the noise because as I walked or ran I could hear not only the swashing of the nylon and tulle against my dress, I heard the ever so slight sound of bells jingling. melodiously. As I walked by my classmates, one of them always inquired, “Where are those bells coming from?” I stopped, moved my body side to side and proudly declared, “That’s my petticoat!” The jingling soon became passé, some of the bells fell off and I was eventually left with a plain old, quiet petticoat.
However, fashion never rests and not to be outdone by the musical petticoats, the petticoat designer of the day added yet another feature to the fifties’ crinoline. What was the purpose of a petticoat? Well, to emphasize the fullness of a skirt or dress. And, what better way to elevate the light, nearly weightless fabric of a petticoat than an inner tube. Yes, I said inner tube. Along the inside of the petticoat, someone had designed a model that included one-inch plastic inner tubes lining the circumference of the slip. Similar to the plastic inner tube used to keep bodies afloat in the pool; these petticoats had to be blown up before wearing. In the morning when getting ready for church or school, I opened the plastic valve, filled my lungs and blew into the inner tubes. I never liked blowing up inner tubes at the pool, but these were small and didn’t require much air.
Having accomplished that task, I knew my dress would billow out from me beautifully. I could confidently wear my petticoat without the telltale sound of bells and without having to wear an extra petticoat for extra bounce and fullness. No one, not even my best friend, knew I was wearing inner tubes.
But just like those pool toys and floats, the air eventually leaked out and by the end of the day, the extra bounce in the petticoat had disappeared. My dress still flared a bit, by virtue of the layers of ruffles and tulle, but the regal appearance the inner tubes created was gone. Not to my surprise, inner tube petticoats only lasted one season and I haven’t seen one since. Perhaps the style will return and the technology will have improved-but I don’t think so. Besides petticoats were terribly itchy and hot and………
Today’s push for healthy eating would be the total antithesis of fried foods in the 50’s. We owned an old-fashioned deep fryer with a slightly twisted metal basket, which fit into the deep interior of the rectangular shaped device. It had a thick, striped cloth covering the electrical cord, which was slightly frayed, signifying the many years of its existence. This portable, electric device was the precursor to the Fry Daddy of the late 70s, but, oh-so much better. Mother had inherited this deep fryer from her mother. She stored it in a lower cabinet in the kitchen and it only came out of its hiding place for certain gastronomical delights-cinnamon sugar donuts, fried oysters, fried ochre and corn dogs. Fried chicken was cooked on the stove in a cast iron skillet, just in case you are wondering. I didn’t like fried oysters or ochre so I only paid attention when she made donuts or corn dogs.
Usually, we ate fried bologna sandwiches, PB & J or peanut butter and banana sandwiches for lunch,but as a special treat on a rainy day, Mother treated us to deep-fried corn dogs. When she announced the choice for the day’s lunch, we happily pulled out the deep fryer with the weathered wire basket and volunteered to help. Our mouths watered at the mere mention of crisp fried meat on a stick-our version of the all-American hot dog.
Mother fixed the batter with egg, milk and cornmeal, while Sissy and I dug deep into the kitchen drawers to find the used Popsicle sticks we needed to insert into the dogs. We speared the meat with the sticks and rolled the raw hot dogs in the batter until they were completely covered in thick meal. Carefully leaning over the fryer, Mother supervised our efforts warning us not to get too close to the popping, hot grease as we placed our uncooked dogs into the basket. We watched as Mother dipped the basket into the boiling oil. As the wet batter mingled with the grease, loud popping noises filled the air as bubbling grease filled the space within the basket. After several minutes, the yellow corn meal turned brown. Mother carefully pulled the basket from the grease and allowed the excess grease to drip onto a plate set out specifically for that reason. After waiting for the corn dogs to cool, she collected them from the basket and served them on our plates. We waited patiently for the sticks to cool so we could pick up the corn dogs to first roll them in catsup or mustard, and then eat them. Satisfied and full after only one corn dog, we returned our unused Popsicle sticks to the drawer and returned the fryer to its rightful place.
Today, I don’t usually eat fried foods, except perhaps when I go to the ballpark and think about eating a corn dog. I walk around the large stadium scouring the selection of vendors and their respective menus until I find one that sells corn dogs. Regardless of the price or the length of the line, I stand there waiting to place my order. The corn dog of today looks no different from how it looked in the fifties-meat on a stick, covered in crispy, fried cornmeal. It comes served by itself in a paper container. As I make my way over to the condiment stand, my mouth begins to water. I cover one corner of the container in catsup and I return to my seat to enjoy my treat of deep-fried and delicious.
Since 1992, there has been a National Corn Dog Day. It is celebrated on the first Saturday of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship, and along with corn dogs, Tater Tots and American beer are honored. What more could a girl from Indiana want-basketball and corn dogs? I wonder where the event is being held next year. Surely one more corn dog won’t clog my arteries.
I am rarely late. Most people I know will attest to that. In fact, most of the time, I am early for whatever event, meeting, appointment or movie I plan to attend. For whatever inner drive causes me to be punctual, I like to think the habit is a by-product of my religious upbringing or my mother. She was late to everything.
We attended a small United Church of Christ on Green River Road in Evansville and most of the people who attended the church lived close by in the neighborhoods bordering the church. We lived miles away or so it seemed that far to me as a child. We went to Sunday school, Bible school, Wednesday night church potluck dinners and a variety of other church activities. Church was part of the social fabric of our lives and upbringing. And on Sunday morning, we were always late to church.
The challenge of getting four children ready and out the door for anything can’t be much different from today.”Where are my shoes?” Don’t forget your money! Let’s go, let’s go, we’re going to be late,” were common themes in our house on those chaotic, rushed Sunday mornings. And no matter how hard Mother and Daddy tried, we always ceremoniously walked into church while the choir was singing the introductory hymn. My parents led the way, and the four of us trailed behind, with my sister and me hanging onto the smaller hands of the youngest two. We walked straight to the back of the church where seats were still available in the crying room, where young mothers with their babies and younger children watched the church proceedings through a large glass window separating them and the accompanying noise of unhappy babies and toddlers from the rest of the congregation.
In the crying room, there were no nicely polished wooden pews. We sat on folding metal chairs and listened to the scratchy voices of the minister, the choir and the deacons through a speaker positioned just above the glass window. The mix of ambient noise between the two spaces included the cries and whimpers of babies and children from inside the room, and the snoring old men out in the treasured sanctuary.
The crying room wasn’t much fun. There were no pencils or cards for drawing, and there was no opportunity to slide along the slick pews or to lie down if enough room was available. Drawing, sliding and napping were favorite distractions during the hour-long monologue from the pulpit, for which we had little to no understanding. And the singing, in that small room with babies crying and mothers shushing-unbearable. Nevertheless, because we were always late, that’s where we spent many Sunday mornings.
Nevertheless, we still were to participate in the passing of the collection plate-the church certainly wasn’t going to ignore the potential contributions in that room-and communion. Sinners all of us I am certain!
Men in dark suits entered the room for just those two occasions. First they brought the velvet lined silver bowls to collect the money and envelopes, and next they arrived with the round wooden trays which had small openings to carry the small glass vials filled with unsweetened grape juice. Lastly, they brought another silver tray filled with the communion companion, the white wafer that was supposed to taste represent bread but instead tasted like paper.
As we marched into the back of the church on those Sunday mornings, I was always embarrassed by our tardiness. I sensed that the whole of the congregation stared at us and talked about how the Stranges were always late to church. Little did I know or understand at the time that more than likely, every family, young and old, looked at my parents and remarked on the fact that they faithfully and successfully managed to get four children to church, regardless of the time. The fact that my parents wanted us to learn the value of faith, kindness and generosity was less about where we sat, and more about what we learned when we were there. I guess that made up for our tardiness.
I don’t attend church on a regular basis but am moved on occasion, for one reason or another, to attend a service. It can be at a Methodist church or a Catholic church-I am not particular about the denomination. I am more interested in the experience and often merely looking for the solace and comfort that being in a church can bring. When I do go, I am always on time, but I head towards the back of the church to sit in one of the last rows. I like it back there. It feels right to be there sitting quietly in a nicely polished wooden pew with a new mother and her sleeping baby.