An occasional soliloquy from author Aline D. Wolf

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Our Best Home Videos (Part I)

            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.”
            But Gookie wasn’t hearing me. I knew by the expression on her face that she had already decided not to take the job.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dealing with Drips

This rainy pre-Thanksgiving day seems like the perfect time to post this reminiscent blog.....



            As the mother of nine children and seven sinks, I am looking desperately for a correspondence course in “Plumbing for Housewives”.  I admit that “Child Psychology” would be a course I could more readily discuss at a cocktail party, but it would do nothing for that terrible feeling of inadequacy I have when I face a dishwasher that just won’t stop flooding the kitchen floor.
            In this day and age there are aids for all other types of household emergencies.  For example, with a well-worn copy of Dr. Spock, I have been able to remain calm while dealing with most of the childhood diseases.  And I am quite capable of rushing an injured child to the nearest emergency room.
But there has been no Spock-like plumber who cared enough to write “Pipe and Spigot Care” or “The First Five Years of Life with Your Washer”.  And there is no emergency station that offers immediate aid for severely bleeding pipes.
            Instead our household sanitation is completely dependent on a skilled laborer so much in demand that he often has to be coaxed to the scene of an impending disaster.  Just imagine the luxury of a mother who can be her own plumber—who can skip the numbers in the yellow pages and go directly to the scene of her own difficulties, confident in her knowledge of all the gauges and shut-offs in the basement.
            Now that I am seriously searching for a plumbing course, I am really anxious to learn the secrets of the trade.  For one thing, I’ve always wanted to know what’s inside a plumber’s truck.  Most housewives are bright enough to realize that there are no tools or pipes in there.  Every time I call a plumber he surveys my disaster, disappears into the back of his truck for about five or ten minutes and then emerges with the announcement, “I have to go back to ‘the shop’ for a wrench.”  When he reappears forty-five minutes later, I realize with a sinking heart that plumbers make more than teachers per hour, and the actual work never begins until the second hour.
            Another aspect of the plumbing trade I am anxious to know about is “How Many Men to Put on the Job”.  Once, our whole family had to assist a poor little man who was sent to carry a new stall shower to our third floor.  And a few months later the same firm sent two of the biggest men I ever saw to fix a leaking spigot in the powder room.  It did not seem to bother them in the least that they both could not fit in the powder room at the same time.  But it did bother me because the kids kept jumping over the $5 per hour man who was lying casually on the hall floor.
            One of the luxuries of being my own plumber will be avoiding embarrassment.  I’m not talking about the obvious situations like when the children answer the phone and say, “Mommy’s upstairs with the plumber.”  Or even when professional workmen leave a commode on the front porch for two days while they “rough in”.
            There are some things that I like to keep to myself, such as, the little weaknesses I have in housekeeping.  Take, for example, the night I failed to notice that Christopher had dumped half a box of Ivory Snow into the dishwasher.  Somehow, with my mind on dentist appointments and Halloween costumes, I was able to stack all the dishes neatly around the mound of soap powder.  When I turned the switch, bubbles blew madly all over the kitchen and undoubtedly it was one of the most hilarious nights we ever remember.  That is, it was funny until, after trying for an hour and a half to get out of the rinse cycle, the dishwasher gave a terrible moan and died.
            When the repairman arrived the next day I had sent every child who could “talk” to the movies. 
I tried to be casual, mentioning something about “a little too much soap”.  But as soon as he opened the drain he had the whole story.  “Lady,” he said, “there’s enough soap in here to do your dishes for the next ten years.”
            Another embarrassment that will be avoided when I do my own plumbing is that situation when a pipe of a major appliance manages to repair itself completely between the time I call the plumber and the moment of his arrival.  Don’t tell me that leaking pipes can’t seal themselves or that strange noises can’t completely disappear from automatic washers.  I know they can!  It happens in the same mysterious way that a screaming baby with a 103 degree fever can be sleeping peacefully with a cool 98.6 when the doctor takes the temperature with his thermometer.  But how can you be sure about a noise in the washer?  You can try running it through two or three times but this is definitely risky to the life of the machine.  And even if you run it until it sounds as though the motor is dragging on the floor, you’re just as liable to face a plumber who says, “What noise, lady?”  when you turn it on for him.
            One rule I’ve found helpful is never to mention my own diagnosis to the plumber on the phone.  When he asks what the noise sounds like, I usually say, “rumbling”.  This sounds serious enough for him to make the trip and yet it doesn’t commit me to anything definite.  And besides, “rumbling” is a much safer reply than saying, “It sounds as though Charlie’s slinky is caught in the pump.”  Even if Charlie’s slinky has been missing since the start of the trouble, it is dangerous to say so.  Many plumbers can’t face up to situations like this and simply never appear for the job.
            On the other hand when you have to give written instructions to a plumber, simplicity won’t do at all.  Last year before we opened our cottage I wrote ahead asking our summer plumber to “Please connect the automatic washer.”  Such confusion resulted from this clear concise note that this spring I had to compose two detailed paragraphs:

Manager, Never-Fail Plumbing Co.
Wildwood, New Jersey
Dear Sir:           
            Last year when you connected the automatic washer for me you inadvertently attached the hot hose to he cold spigot and the cold hose to the hot spigot.  This situation really challenged me and I became so conditioned to doing the Hot washes on the Cold setting that I am afraid I cannot go back to the original way of operating the machine.  Therefore, when you connect the washer this June, will you try to remember the way you did it last year and then proceed with exactly the same mistake? 
            However, that other mistake you made must not be repeated.  The children did enjoy sailing their boats on the kitchen floor after the first run of the washer, but it is very hard on the life of the linoleum.  Therefore, if the drain hose crumbles in your hands again, please do not connect it anyway as you did last year.  Just charge a new one to my account.
                                                                                    Yours truly,

            Yes, I can’t help thinking how simple life will be when I can be my own plumber—or rather—when I have to be my own plumber.  For the truth will come out.  My husband knows it, the children know it, the neighbors know it—and so I might as well admit it.  I have to be a plumber because our local plumber has crossed me off his list.  He will not come to our house anymore.  It all happened yesterday when I was upstairs.  Suddenly I heard gushing water and terrorized screams of children in the hall below.  The swish was so loud that it could be nothing less than a broken main, and the spray was so thick that the downstairs was fogged.  Forgetting that we didn’t have a water main in the front hall, I grabbed the bedroom phone and told the plumber of my most dire emergency.  Never have I had such quick service; he pulled into the driveway almost as soon as I made my way through the mist to the downstairs hall.  And when I saw him running in with tools actually in his arms, I realized he was making the supreme effort.
            But the spray died down at his feet.  I still think it wasn’t my fault.  I had completely forgotten there was a fire extinguisher in the back of the hall closet.  The kids found it when they were playing elevator with the sliding closet doors.  Naturally they thought it was a skin-diver’s tank.  Greg put it on his back and tried to dive out of the closet, never thinking he would actually be submerged.  You can see what happened.  As soon as the tank was inverted, the hose began to wildly spray everything in sight.
            I gazed at my plumber knee-deep in foam.  “Lady…..” he said.  And then he didn’t say another word.  There was just something about the way he turned and walked out that told me I would have to face our next disaster without him.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The First Day of School in Russia

As six-year-olds are getting their little back packs, pencils, and lunch boxes ready for their first day of school here in the United States, I am reminded of the opening day of school for first graders that I witnessed in Russia in 1990.

We were a group of twenty adults and teenagers from Altoona, PA in an exchange program with twenty adults and teenagers from Rostov on Don in the Soviet Union. In 1989 the Russians had come to Altoona, stayed in our homes and visited our businesses and schools.  As the highlight of their visit they had presented a beautiful musical program in our local high school in which over 1400 people had heard their teenage chorus sing a program of Russian folk songs that concluded with “America the Beautiful” and “Let There be Peace on Earth” in perfect English. Tears flowed in the audience.  The Cold War was still on, these were the Russians whom Americans had feared for years, and yet that night everyone in the auditorium loved them as friends.

The next year when we visited Moscow and Rostov on Don they arranged for us to stay in hotels, because their tiny apartments, already housing three generations, could not accommodate overnight guests.  But they had saved their rationing stamps for months in order to provide us with wonderful meals in their homes.  We taught them square dancing that was a great icebreaker, and with the help of various translators we resumed the friendships we had formed in Altoona.

 I will never forget the first day of school that we witnessed in Rostov.  It was held in an outdoor arena that was filled with parents, teachers and friends of the little six-year-old children. Each little girl and boy was dressed in what had to be a beautiful new outfit, and each child carried an elegant bouquet of flowers.  Their faces reflected joy and excitement as they walked into the arena and the crowd cheered  them as they began one of their most important journeys in life – their education. To me it seemed so fitting to celebrate this inaugural day as even more significant than their eventual graduation.

After some talks in Russian that we could not understand, the children were entertained by a very talented mime.  This young man pretended he was eating an ice cream cone.  He loved the taste; it dripped on his suit; he guarded it from others who wanted it; it fell on the floor and so on.  The new first graders squealed with delight.  This day was a delight for all of them, a day they would long remember as the beginning of their formal education.