Our house on the farm was a one-floor rancher in the shape of an “L”. At the lower end of the “L” was the living room and dining room overlooking our fields and the roof of the barn off to the left of the picture windows. A large kitchen was centered on the backside of the living and dining room, and it too overlooked a large patio, gardens, and a massive back yard ending at a row of pine trees to break the wind blowing in from the field beyond. Looking out the kitchen window, to the left was the woods beside our house and to the right was the paved driveway to the highway with poplar trees lining each side – poplars that Allison and I hated. Every summer, in addition to the daily chores dispensed by our mother each morning, chores that followed us on endless notepads all of our lives, we were required to cut the overgrown grass around the two rows of poplars so that in the course of the week all the poplars would be neatly trimmed. Of course, then we would have to start all over again. Meanwhile, Charley’s chore was to mow the lawn driving around on a yellow Cub Cadet lawn mower. If he did it right and did the front and back lawns in the same day, it would take him six hours. However, anytime he got tired or bored or was angry with Mother, Charley simply deposited the mower in the pond closest to the house, which would infuriate her, but give him a week or so of freedom. However, with Allison and me, even if we were getting blisters on our hands, the best we could do was throw our shears into a field or the woods beside our house – granted, not very bright, and, in our case, easily retrievable after a stern admonition from Mother.
The long “L” of our ranch house was where our bedrooms were located. Starting at the door of our parents’ room, as kids, we would hold running contests down the hallway past our bathroom, Jerry, Holly, Allison’s rooms, and ending with a rush at the room that Charley and I shared. Of course, these contests were held when Mother was away or otherwise engaged – running up and down the hallway was not exactly a sport she had in mind for playtime.
We rarely went into our parents’ bedroom unless it was an emergency, like a nightmare one of us might be having or the onset of a late night storm full of bright lightning and roaring thunder, or on an unique occasion, like bringing Mother breakfast for Mother’s Day or saying goodbye when we left with Daddy for Sunday school. Their room was mysterious with its own unique, adult smells. Mother’s things sitting on her vanity were not boy things, but things to make her even prettier than she was every day. I remember, on occasion, sitting on Mother and Daddy’s bed watching her get ready to go to different social engagements and feeling like I had been included in a great secret. Even though she was in her slip and bra and was closely applying makeup using the vanity mirror, I felt funny being there, watching her intently applying her mascara to her eyes – before blinking and smiling at me – or opening the silver lipstick tube and pressing the red tip to her lips, then pressing her lips against a tissue – it was an honor that I, as a boy, didn’t deserve. Maybe even, trespassing as she got up and shimmied into her dress, talking about the need for us to behave for the farm girl who would be babysitting us that evening. I wasn’t listening but looking at her slim blonde features in profile. I thought she was beautiful, I must say, even when times were tough.
Once, every so often, Allison and I, when we were alone, would go into mother and daddy’s room and explore their drawers and closets and look at the things under their bed. Holly said she knew what was hidden in there and, even though we couldn’t find anything beyond our mother’s soft nylons and Daddy’s t-shirts and underpants, we believed Holly knew all the secret places. On more than one occasion Holly would let us accompany her into their room on her annual pre-Christmas hunt for the gifts we were to receive Christmas morning. This was dreadfully exciting. Still, even in doing this, Allison and I firmly believed Santa would be coming Christmas Eve. We had no problem reconciling the difference between Santa’s gifts and our parents: our parents gave us clothes, books and socks, but Santa was different. Clearly, we might know ahead of time what our Mother had bought for us, but Santa, driving back and forth to Pittsburgh everyday was an unknown variable that could and did raise the ante to a whole new level. Even Holly, could never figure out what jolly old St. Nick would bring, and Holly was one of his biggest recipients.
Next to our parents’ room was our bathroom with two sinks and two showers. It was intended for four kids, and we were perfectly suited, until, that is, Jerry was born. In front of the bathroom was an open area where our parents placed a large desk and chair. This was Daddy’s work area to take care of the bills and do the farm’s business. It typically had a phenomenal mess of papers and letters waiting to be open on the desktop, and for us kids, it was a great location to find pens and paper and magazines, such as Field and Stream, with its hunting jokes on the back page. Most importantly, on the desk was our only telephone. When we moved to the farm, the phone was a party line and Mother and Daddy would need to wait for the party on a farm nearby to hang up, before they could make a call. Later, when Holly was a teenager babysitting us, she would dial random numbers, and we would talk to the strangers who answered their phones – sometimes all four of us talking to these people for hours on end, even if other farmers on the party line needed the phone.
Next to the bathroom was Jerry’s room. We never went into Jerry’s room as it was the room of a baby and smelled like it. This had been our television room where I watched Chuck Wagon Theatre and a guest bedroom back when we first moved to the house but that quickly changed a year later when Jerry was born. Soon we were watching television in the living room and in time it turned into a playroom with our toys and games all over the floor. That lasted for about a year until Mother decided to take the connected garage below the living room and convert it into a large television room and mud room. It was in this new room when I watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television. It was also in this room where on Thursday nights we watched the weekly television series Boris Karloff’s Thriller. By this point we were older and Holly was in high school. She was now babysitting us regularly when Mother drove off to play bridge with her friends. Just before ten o’clock, Holly would pull us out of our beds so she could have us cuddle against her to watch each week’s episode of this incredibly scary show, and, subsequently, all of us would be petrified nearly to death. Only Charley said he wasn’t afraid, but Allison and I never wanted to watch it as we would have nightmares for nights on end. Still, every Thursday night, Holly insisted, so there we sat riveted to the TV. I can remember on one or two occasions seeing car lights turning down our driveway and realizing Mother coming home early, and us scrambling to turn off the television and racing through the living and dining rooms and down the long hallway to our bedrooms, ducking under the hallway windows so not to be seen from the car. We literally didn’t know what was worse, watching Boris Karloff or being caught by Mother. Luckily we never found out. When Mother came down the hallway to check in on us, with our hearts racing, we always pretended to be asleep.
Mother frequently stopped and talked to Holly before going back out to the kitchen and living room. Holly’s room was next to Jerry’s room, and when Holly was studying we frequently hung out in it. This was the room of a teenage girl dominated by large windows at far end opening out into a picturesque view of the woods beside the house. A double bed arranged against the wall next to Jerry’s room, was the most important piece of furniture in the room – as it was from there Holly would hold court. Holly was a girl who knew she was cute, funny, athletic, intelligent and in total control when it came to us or the boys in school. Hanging out with her was great! When Holly was babysitting, you never knew what was in store or who would be in her room. Her windows were just the opening needed for boys who thought they might have a chance. Through the woods, across the short lawn, and right through the window they would come. Or with her friends she would stop everything, and, rather than have us go to bed, we would all go out into our huge back yard and, with the Brotherton kids joining in, play British Bulldog running across the outfield-like grass from the woods to the hay field on the other side, and Holly always was one of the hardest to catch. She and her friends fought to the last, and it would take twenty of us chasing her across the yard to bring her down and, of course, lift her to the count of three. Those were great nights that never, ever, certainly in my life, were duplicated. Or, when Holly was alone in her room and ostensibly studying, we begged her to leave her door open and play her record player. She had the only record player in the house, other than our parents’ high-fidelity console in the living room. If you wanted to listen to “Peter and the Wolf” or “Oklahoma”, or Perry Como, you went to the “hifi”, but if you wanted Elvis, Patsy Cline, Jerry Lee Lewis or even Pat Boone or the Four Freshman, Holly’s room was it! At night, lying in bed, we pleaded for her to play her record player, so we could listen while falling asleep.
After Jerry was born, Allison’s room, next to Holly’s down the hallway, became the guest bedroom, especially when my father’s mother or our mother’s brothers and their families would come to visit. Her room was a little girl’s room with pretty furniture and a nice double bed against her windows. I remember Allison and I watching my dad’s mother sleeping in Allison’s room when Daddy drove grandmother up from Pittsburgh. It wouldn’t be long before the room smelled like an old woman. While she was sleeping, Allison and I tried the hand lotion from her large jar of Jorgen’s or stared at her false teeth in a glass of Listerine next to the bed. Daddy’s mom was a frequent guest until one time when Allison, in rushing to greet her upon her arrival, knocked her back out of the kitchen door. She fell into the wood pile on the back patio and broke her hip. Subsequently, she was confined to a nursing ward at the Presbyterian Home in Oakmont, outside of Pittsburgh, where Daddy watched over her care and where we would go for short visits. This was back when my parents were still together.
Categories: My Family Story