It doesn’t seem fair that home video cameras weren’t invented until years after our most hilarious family episodes had occurred. Every time I see some other family’s boo-boos aired on national TV, I think, “If only we had had a camcorder when Chris got everyone with the Water-Pic. Or even when George stunned the patients in Dr. Bloom’s office or when Mrs. McCoy asked me her famous question.”
Some of these were one-liners, I admit. They would have to be spliced together to make any kind of impact. But other scenes, like Mr. Hitchcock’s visit or the night the bat got in, went on for hours. If our video camera had been running continuously, they would have to be shown on TV as a serial.
Of course, it might have been embarrassing to show the scenes of the Water-Pic because we all looked as if we had a family bladder problem -- a serious one. Chris was about 10, I believe, when he filled the Water-Pic with water, plugged it in, set it on the bathroom counter at groin height and aimed it at the doorway. Then he turned the switch to its strongest pulsating force.
Now the plug that he used was one that was turned on and off by the bathroom light switch. The Water-Pic was quiet when the light was off. But when an unsuspecting soul walked in and turned the bathroom light on --well I am sure you can imagine what happened. Not only family members were doused, but several guests were humiliated when I failed to check on Chris’ activities prior to the arrival of company.
To get the full effect of George’s question in the doctor’s office, viewers would have to remember that it was 1959 -- an era when delicate matters were not usually discussed in a crowded room. We were still going to a family doctor then, rather than a pediatrician, and the waiting room was filled with adults sitting in a very large circle.
I settled myself for what looked like a long wait. George -- a very precocious 8 year old -- picked up the Time Magazine and started reading an article in the medical section. After a few minutes his voice broke the silence of the room as he addressed a little old lady across from us, who had given him a smile. “What do you think about birth control?” he asked her. Almost simultaneously everyone else in the room looked up from their reading material to see who was going to reply to this question. The color rose in the lady’s cheeks. Everyone stared at her. There was a long pause and then she stammered, “Well, I don’t know. I guess it’s all right.”
When I think of that woman, I am reminded in a way of dear Mrs. McCoy, a housekeeper we had for several years when the kids were growing up. To say that Mrs. McCoy was unsophisticated was an understatement. Her favorite vegetable was “broccular.” She made wonderful sweet rolls and wrapped them in “alunium” foil and always answered the phone by saying, “Heller, the Wolf residence.”
One day, after she had been with us for several months, she said to me, “There’s somethin’ I’ve been wantin’ to ask you.” She led me upstairs to our bathroom. After I had taken my shower that morning, I had hung my shower cap, as I often did, on the spigot of the bidet. She pointed to it and now she asked, “Why do you always wear a shower hat when you are sittin’ on that thing?”
Finding good household help in those days was a real challenge for a mother of nine. When applicants heard the number of offspring, they either hung up the phone immediately or never showed up for the interview.
Several years before the reign of Mrs. McCoy -- 1965 to be exact -- I suddenly found myself in need of a helper in early December. Because I was desperate to find someone before the holidays, I placed an ad in our local paper immediately, giving our phone number and the promise of good steady work in a convenient location.
There was no way I could have anticipated the response. Perhaps because it was close to Christmas, every unemployed woman in the area wanted a job. The phone started ringing in early afternoon as soon as the newspaper hit the streets, and it kept ringing for hours and hours.
It was a day that I’ll never forget. After lunch I put Gina and Dorie in bed for their naps. I then got out the recipe for Hungarian goulash, something that I had never made before. We were having a dinner guest -- Mr. Hitchcock, who had once written a book about Hungary, so I thought the goulash would be a nice touch. Jerry would be home at 5:30 so I planned the dinner for six.
The goulash recipe had to be doubled for 12 of us and there were a lot of ingredients to be cut into small pieces. I had just taken the meat out of the refrigerator when the first call came -- a woman named Ethel. She sounded nice. I wrote down all her statistics and gave her an appointment for 7:30 that evening when dinner would be over. Jerry, I knew, could entertain Mr. Hitchcock while I interviewed her. The next caller, who said her name was Gookie, was scheduled for 8 p.m. And on it went.
To prevent each prospect from asking about the size of our family I kept up a steady line of questions -- Name? Age? Experience? References? Do windows? (I never mentioned the storm windows that had caused my last cleaner to quit) Scrub floors? Have car? etc. By 2:30 I had notes on every scrap of paper I could find. By 3:00 I wondered if I should answer the phone any more, but each time it rang I felt a new hope of finding the ideal person, i.e. one who had been raised in a family of 15 and was likely to think that cleaning up after 9 would be manageable.
At 3:30 I still hadn’t started the goulash. Our only downstairs phone was in the center hall, so there was no way I could cut meat and vegetables while holding the receiver with my shoulder.
Dorie and Gina were just getting up from their naps and our older children were coming in the back door from school when the front doorbell rang. I realized frantically that Mr. Hitchcock had arrived and nothing was ready.
Now Mr. Hitchcock was an 85 year-old man whom we had met several months before. Dignified, well-educated and a little tottery, he had once lived in Europe, worked in journalism and dabbled in art. A few weeks ago we had invited him to come to dinner on what turned out to be my day of non-stop phone calls. Not only had he accepted the invitation, he had volunteered to come early to show George and some of our other children how to make a bas-relief with plaster of paris. A lovely project, I had thought at the time.
Mr. Hitchcock came in carrying a clay model of George’s profile and a large box of plaster of paris. The only thing I could see on the box was a big warning sign -- “Keep away from eyes.” How was I going to keep our 2, 4, and 5 year-olds away from this hazard while I tried to make goulash and answer the phone?”
Mr. Hitchcock set up the bas-relief project in the breakfast room while I drove Mary to her music lesson and dropped Pat at the dentist, taking the three youngest with me in the car. We got home to find the phone ringing, Mr. Hitchcock looking for an apron, and Greg holding an ice bag on his head. I put disinfectant on his cut, decided it didn’t need stitches, and gave Mr. Hitchcock my green and white striped pinafore with the large ruffles over the shoulders.
His project proceeded while I cut up 4 lbs of stewing beef and tried to keep the three youngest out of the plaster of paris. He needed an old bowl, never to be used for anything else. The phone rang. I found an old bowl in the basement. I started to cut the green peppers. He wanted a large smooth board. The phone rang. I found a board in the garage. The phone rang. He told me about when his wife died. I started cutting up the four cups of onions. The phone rang -- only this time it was male voice. I started to say that I had advertised for a woman when I realized it was Jerry -- my husband, Jerry, who was supposed to be home now, at 5:30.
“Where are you? I need you right now so I can get this dinner on the stove.”
“I’m in Williamsport. We had a problem at the store here.”
“Williamsport -- that’s two hours away.”
“I tried to call before, but the line’s been busy for hours. I won’t be home until nine.”
My heart sank. I didn’t get the big pot of goulash on the stove until almost six o’clock and the recipe said it had to simmer for two hours. In those days there was no microwave to hurry things up, so I set the gas at “medium” rather than the recommended “low”.
The bas-relief was finished long before the goulash and the kids started making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to hold them over ‘til dinner. Between phone calls Mr. Hitchcock told me rather forcefully that he needed a drink. I turned the goulash up to “high,” went to the liquor cabinet in the center hall and took out a bottle of Scotch from the top self. The phone rang again. As I was asking my usual questions I suddenly saw a woman’s face looking in the little window beside the front door. Could it be Ethel already -- the interview I had scheduled for 7:30? I hung up the phone, started quickly toward the front door, and fell against the wall. Something was around my ankles. I staggered again but managed to hold on to the open bottle of Scotch. And then I looked down. My slip straps had broken and my slip was down at my feet. Grabbing it quickly, I stuffed it in the hall drawer, set down the Scotch and opened the front door. But it was too late. I knew exactly what Ethel was thinking as she ran toward her car.
I poured a good stiff drink for Mr. Hitchcock and we sat down in the living room. My first prospect had quit before the interview even started. Exhausted and discouraged, I asked the kids to serve the goulash.
“Mom, this is stuck.”
“It won’t come out of the pot.”
“Ugh, this looks awful.”
They were more than accurate in their appraisal of my goulash. It was a total disaster.
While Mr. Hitchcock had another drink, I opened a can of baked beans and boiled some hot dogs. We were just sitting down to this substitute meal when Gookie -- the 8 o’clock appointment -- rang the bell.
I was almost in a state of despair as I left Mr. Hitchcock and the kids at the dining room table and ushered Gookie into the living room for her interview. Then I gradually realized that my luck was changing. Gookie just might be my ideal prospect. She was telling me she was from a family of 12, she loved children, never smoked or drank, she couldn’t stand people who did… And then Mr. Hitchcock staggered into the room wearing my ruffled pinafore and holding his glass of Scotch. He stared at Gookie with obvious approval. “Thish one looks pretty nice,” he slurped.
“He’s a friend,” I said quickly, “He doesn’t live with us.”