Sunday, January 3, 1999

The First of January

For a moment upon wakening, she forgot that it was the start of 1999.  But then, looking over at her husband's side of the bed, she saw him smile and heard his New Year greeting.

She stretched and returned the greeting, adding, "The millennium minus one."  He corrected her that it was actually the millennium minus two. 

She continued her thoughts to herself.  He's wrong.  The new century will begin in ONE year, not two.   I couldn't have been more than seven or eight when I heard my older cousins talk about the turn of the century.  They didn't call it the millennium; they called it the year twenty-hundred.  I remember how delighted I was with the idea of a far-off party year -- especially the noise makers and the fireworks and the dancing in the streets that they said would be part of it.  Looking back, I think that was the first awareness in my young brain of the passage of time.  It scared me a little, but not much.  Mostly I was fascinated with the idea, because back then there was an eternity of life ahead of me, and each day was not one whose passing was lamented, but rather, one to savor and watch unfold like a story on a moving picture screen.

I remember wondering then if I would still be alive to share in it -- the year twenty-hundred, that is.  I guessed I'd be awfully old --  maybe too old to even know it was going on --  maybe even in a wheelchair.  Or dead. 

And so now here we are, and this morning twenty-hundred is just a year away, and I'm sixty-eight, and it looks like I have a good chance to make the party after all -- maybe even free of a wheelchair and with enough brain cells left to know what's going on.  I sure hope so. 

She smiled and got out of bed.  "You go ahead and shave, dear," she said, "and I'll go start the coffee."

"Mrs. Williams was her name," she told him later at breakfast, the thought erupting aloud, out-of-the-blue.  Somedays (like today, for some reason) she had trouble controlling that.

"Whose name?" he asked.

"Mother's laundress," she said.  "Only, why she had to have a laundress during the Depression, is more than I could ever figure out.  Especially since to save three-cents-per day during the week, we bought a newspaper only on Sundays.  I guess it was because my dear dad gave her almost everything she even hinted at.  They were very much in love.  She was just beautiful.  It was hard for me to not feel like an ugly duckling."

"Ridiculous!" her husband said, and buttered his toast.

"She had two sons, Bailey and Mackey.  Mrs. Williams, that is.  I thought they were such neat names.  I used to imagine what they looked like.  Bailey was already working.  Mrs. Williams said Mackey was very bright and would be going on to college.  That's why she was a laundress."

"They probably didn't make more than a buck-fifty per day," her husband said.


"Laundresses during the Depression.  When you think about it, he probably put the eighteen cents he saved per week toward the cost of her wages."


"Your Dad."


For a moment then, silence reigned in the kitchen, except for the sound of crunching toast and the faint hum of  the refrigerator's motor. 

"Anyway, she used to take me in her lap before she would leave, and tell me to give her a nice hug to last 'til she came again the next week."

"Mrs. Williams?"

"Yes.  She used to get all dressed up again before leaving to catch a trolley home to the Knoxville section of town.  She put lots of face powder on, too, and it smelled so nice, and she looked so pretty and slim and chocolate brown, and I remember thinking that someday, with all that powder, she might turn out white like us, and the idea made me happy.  How dumb I was!"

"We all were."  

"I tried once to give her a penny out of my birthday money, for Mackey, for when he went to college, but she told me I must save my money so that I could go to college someday myself.  I guess I loved Mrs. Williams.  She used to dampen Daddy's handkerchiefs and, with creases made sharp by the heat of the heavy iron, she would fold them in half, then in fourths, and then into eighths.  She would give each handkerchief a final stamp with the iron and stack them at the end of the ironing board until all the week's supply was done. Then she would hand them to me, the top one still warm.  It was my job, she said, to put them in Daddy's dresser drawer.  She made me feel necessary.

"She came on Tuesdays and would spend the whole morning in the basement washing clothes.  We used to call the basement the cellar in those days.  I wonder why?   If it wasn't too chilly a morning, I would go down and watch her lift the dripping clothes out of the tub of the washing machine and feed them into the wringer.  We had one of the fancier washing machines of the day -- an Electrolux, I think.  Our wringer was electric, not hand-cranked.  She would tell me to be sure to not come near the wringer, that a little boy once got his arm caught in one and they had to cut the poor little mangled limb off at the elbow.  I had nightmares about that story, until my mother told me it was just Mrs. Williams' way of keeping me safe from harm.

  "About noon, the washing done, she would came upstairs and my mother would have a nice lunch for her.  Usually, I would be allowed to sit and eat with her, especially if it was creamed chipped beef on toast, which I just loved, or Campbell's Cream of Tomato Soup and grilled cheese sandwich.  I would scrunch about twenty-five saltines in my soup.  Mother said that was not polite, but Mrs. Williams just smiled at me and said it was okay as long as it was just the two of us."

Her husband rose and rinsed his cup and dish at the sink, and she knew she had lost his attention.  She couldn't always be sure he was listening.

They spent the rest of the morning taking down the Christmas tree.  After lunch, she put the Christmas decorations away and vacuumed the house.

"Back to normal, eh?" her husband said at last.  "Glad the holidays are over?"

"Not exactly glad," she said, "but it's such a busy time.  I was just thinking as I was taking down the decorations, about how Nonno, my grandfather, used to spend HOURS shaping mountains under our Christmas tree out of the mountain paper he and I would pick up at Grabe's Hardware Store.  Then he would arrange a 'village' at the foot of the 'mountains'.  When it was all in place to his precise satisfaction, he would liberally sprinkle boxed 'snow' over all.  My mother hated that 'snow', but she never told him for fear of hurting his feelings.  She thought it was so artificial.  Like the 'mountains' were real, I guess?"

Her husband laughed.

"About two days before Christmas every year, Nonno would spend a whole day at our house," she went on, working so hard on that layout to make it perfect.  That's what he was, you know -- a perfectionist.    They didn't have a Christmas tree at his house.   That's a German custom, of course, not an Italian one, and he had little use for i Tedeschi (the Germans) anyway.  I think it went way back to World War I.  Funny how prejudices long outlive whatever caused them, isn't it?"

"Um," her husband said.

"Oh, he was such a wonderful granddad!  I loved the way he would take that crooked little Tuscan cigar of his out of his mouth and sing opera arias to us grandchildren, keeping time to the music with the cigar firmly clasped between right thumb and forefinger.  When I was a little older and he would ask me to play piano for him, he knew right away when I played a sharp instead of a flat.  I think he had perfect pitch.  Could just about read and write his name, but he had perfect pitch.  All that Nonna, my grandmother, had to do was to go around picking up after and caring for the three of their ten kids who were still living at home.  

She did all kinds of things like cleaning and washing and cooking and ironing and propping her book up all over the house so she could steal minutes to read while working, and, oblivious, he would just remove that little cigar from his mouth and in his beautiful voice, sing opera for us.  It used to irritate her, and I guess I don't blame her, but I loved it.  I didn't like Aida, though, when he took me to see and hear it when I was fourteen.  For his sake I lied and told him it was great.  Even now, after all these years, when I hear the Anvil Chorus, I get guilt twinges."

"When's dinner?" her husband asked.

Lost him again, she thought.

She gave him a piece of left-over apple pie for dessert, and poured each of them a cup of coffee.

Stomach full and attention revived, he smiled across the table at her.  "You waxed pretty nostalgic today, honey," he said.  "All reminisced-out now?"

"Poor dear," she said, "did I bore you terribly?"

"Not at all.  I like these little windows into your soul.  Helps me fathom what makes you tick."

"That will be the day!" she said.  "It's good to always leave some things unfathomed, to surprise each other with when we least expect it.  But there's something about the first day of the last year of the century that sets one to looking back.  Don't you think?"

"Um," he said, scraping up the last of the apple pie.

"I was just thinking, while getting dinner ready, about the time Dad bought my mother a Bendix washing machine, and she cried and cried and had Kaufmann's come and take it back because she said it didn't do the clothes as well as the old wringer type.  You see, Mackey, after he had graduated and found a good job, insisted Mrs. Williams not hire out any longer.  We had a succession of laundresses after that, but finally my mother gave up on them altogether.  The War came, you know, and it was almost impossible to get help.  Women made more in the factories.  What vast differences World War II brought about, didn't it!  

Why, women used to work only in the home, and used to wear housedresses all day and then put on a fresh dress before getting dinner, remember?   Did you ever see your mother in a in pants suit?  Of course not!  The unwritten dress code was strictly adhered to.  Now almost anything goes.  Why, I remember one time..."

Her husband let out a deeply dramatic sigh.  "Honey," he said, "no offense, but could we PLEASE save the rest of this saga for January Second?  It's almost seven, and Jeopardy will be on soon.  Lets get these dishes cleared away."

"Oh, sure, dear.  Seven already?  My goodness!  Where did the day go?  I remember seven o'clock around the table at home when I was a little girl," she said.  "No, I guess it was quarter TO seven.  We all had to be very quiet for fifteen minutes while my Dad listened to Lowell Thomas.  For years I thought his name was LITTLE  Thomas.  He was very short in stature, you know.  As a matter of fact, I was just thinking this evening....

Her husband, from behind her, cupped both her elbows in his hands and propelled her into the family room.  "Tomorrow, honey," he said.  "Now will you please turn on the TV?"

"You prefer Jeopardy to windows into my soul?"

"Right now, yes!"

"Then my lips are sealed."


"Promise!  Happy New Year, dear."