THE CURIO CABINET
Homes in those days followed a certain architectural floor plan very similar in design. They were usually two to three stories high with a large wrap around porch on the front and one side. In Grandma and Den Den’s house the porch began on the right hand corner side, when facing the house, and continued down the front of the house to the corner on the left.
There was a large wooden swing on the end farthest from the front door with an old glider sofa situated up against the house and two white wicker rocking chairs opposite the sofa and facing it. The porch had carved white railings that supported a banister large enough to sit on. It was a wonderful porch with a continual movement of swings and rockers. After dinner Den-Den would descend upon his rocker, smoke his pipe and set out to work the daily crossword as Grandmother and my mother did the dishes.
Upon entering the front door, to the right of the porch, you would come to a large parlor. On the immediate left was a wide wooden stairway leading to the second floor. There was a landing about five steps up as was customary in homes of this type. Beneath the steps and to the right was the door to my grandmother’s bedroom. Den-Den’s was beyond, only his had a bathroom that was adjacent. So that you had to walk through your great-grandmother’s bedroom to get to Den-Den’s bedroom. A lot of couples had their own bedrooms in those days - a carry over from their English ancestors who still practice that habit today.
Facing the front of the house was a wall with a table and chairs; beyond that there was a large curved double entrance into the living room. On the right side, as you entered the room, was a bay window with a sofa in front of it. This constituted the parlor and it was in this room that you decided your destination within the house. If you wanted to go to the kitchen or dining room you proceeded through the living room, so it was quite natural that this was where the greater area of traffic flow was, as everyone usually wanted to be in the kitchen.
I loved this arched entrance to the living quarters. As the side of the house was on the right, with another bay window, one would have to turn left to enter the dining room, through large double doors filled with glass panes, and then on through the dining room and into the kitchen. I usually never got that far because my attention always focused on the most delightful object of my entire childhood—my grandmother’s glass curio cabinet. A curio cabinet is a curved piece of furniture in which you place knick-knacks. Everyone used to have one. Only the best things were placed in there. Items that children were never ever allowed to touch.
Entering the living room and turning left, I would encounter this rather large four shelved cabinet with its precious semicircle of glass encased by a large door that would open vertically. My grandmother collected small miniature animals. The glass objects within this transparent enclosure remained a source of constant curiosity for me, as I was not allowed to open the door without my grandmother and the wonderful small key that she carried on her key ring, hidden in the pocked of her housedress. With no one else in the room, I would stand for hours and gaze at the miniature glass animals that were housed within your great-grandmother’s curio cabinet.
Now, looking back, I have to strain to remember the particular animals represented there, as they were clothed in an aura of vagueness. What I do remember is a feeling, a sense of contentment, as if nothing else in my life mattered. I could stand forever, with my very small feet in my black patent and leather Mary Jane shoes and thin white socks, folded with ruffles, ever so gently at my ankles, in adoration of the transparent world of miniature glass animals that lived within this curio cabinet.
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It was not a form of escape, as I had a happy childhood and my parents didn’t argue. I can never remember their fighting so I didn’t need a refuge from my life; but still I stood, for hours upon hours, closed within that glass animal world whose individual stories filled my imagination. No one called me for chores in those moments. I ceased to exist for members of my family. Perhaps they understood my silence; maybe they had even forgotten my small presence. I was never scolded for stopping and staring at the contents. What could have been hours in my memory, might only have been moments then, as children don’t think in linear time.
What I do remember was the power. I didn’t recognize the kinds of animals within because I was not old enough to know their breeds and differences, much less their predications. I only remember that they gave me a great sense of relief and joy. I would hurry to the kitchen only to stop, short and sudden, in front of the curio cabinet. I would stare at the world beyond my reach, a far away world of transparent shapes, strange and out of reach to mere mortals, closed and locked behind a long and perfectly curved glass door. Not being allowed to open the door and touch what was within, I could only remain the ever wanting observer and as such I spent endless hours in fascination inventing lives and adventures for each animal encased within. Such a world! These motionless creatures were full of fantasy, grace and quests. Their forms formed Matisse curvatures, swift in definitions of space filled with lines suggesting plots and subplots. I had only to glance at legs like ice for stories to unfold, within my mind, lives filled with far-away-ness, lands and experiences beyond mine, tales of loyalty and devotion; animals, not as humans always asking or demanding, but still, waiting, for the dedication of movement.
My parents didn’t argue---they never fought—so I didn’t need a refuge upon recollection, but still I stood, for hours upon hours, closed within the glass world that filled my imagination. No one called me for chores in those moments. I ceased to exist for members of my family. Perhaps they understood my silence; maybe they had even forgotten my small presence. I was never scolded for stopping and staring at the contents. What could have been hours in my memory, might only have been moments then.
I returned to Richmond and my home each Sunday night but my heart and reason was never really there. Somehow I dwelled with those small figurines, that couldn’t move or talk or feel emotions. Somehow I, through them, remained outside, looking in.
This was a reaction that I was to have throughout most of my adult life, that of being outside, beyond, unconnected. Now that I reflect upon this great happiness of mine, some fifty years ago, I remember a sense of total serenity, nothing being required either actively on my part, or inactively within me. It was just simply the silent act of standing, of looking and of wondering about what these glass figures could possibly create if they could move. Maybe it wasn’t even that. Possibly, even in the forties, it was the appreciation of the power of silence. Conceivably it was the thought, even at four, that the curio cabinet would hold for me memories for a lifetime to come.
This was a reaction that I was to have throughout most of my adult life, that of being outside, beyond, unconnected. Now that I reflect upon this great happiness of mine, some fifty-five years ago, I remember a sense of total serenity with nothing being required either actively on my part, or inactively within me. It was simply the silent act of standing, of looking and of wondering about what these glass figures could possibly create if they could move. Maybe it wasn’t even that. Possibly, even in the 1940’s, it was the appreciation of the power of silence. Conceivably it was the thought, even at four years of age, that the curio cabinet would hold for me memories for a lifetime of living.
MISS PAGE -
One of grandmother’s boarders was an older lady with bright red hair named Miss Page. Page, as Grandma called her, was a newspaper writer. Oh how I loved Page (of course I had to call her Miss Page to her face but your great-grandmother and I would refer to her as Page behind her back). I would spend hours in her room on the second floor listening to her stories, which she would recite to me either from memory or by reading the article she had written. I loved Page - she was my mentor - going off to work each day while Grandma stayed home and cooked. Not many older women did that in those days. Of course, no one alive could cook like my grandmother. I often have credited Page with my love of literature and journalism and am sure that she influenced my careers in both television and in writing.
Sundays especially were always a treat. I would go with my Grandmother and Page to the Congregationalist Church outside of Ashland. Located in what was then called the country, this small rural church was a source of great beauty to me. The windows were of multi colored stained glass and depicted the Stations of the Cross. Grandmother, Page and I always sat in the same pew, a tradition that continued with my parents and with me at our own church years later. Unfortunately, I did not continue this habit with you.
Most Sunday mornings the early sun would stream in the church windows to my left. It seemed to fill the entire congregation with a sense of other worldliness. Mystery and ritual were ever present as were the voices of praise lifted in song. Rock of Ages was always my favorite. How we would sing. I suppose that my true love of gospel today came from those early beginnings. I remember how the colored population of Ashland would dress in their finest on Sunday mornings. Although we were mostly a Caucasian Church, the few Negroes attending always had a great influence on the singing as well as the prayers.
Now at 60 I attend the New Life Baptist Church in Tortola, the largest Baptist Church in the BVI. It is air-conditioned and has large floor to ceiling glass paned windows overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The West Indian congregation numbers in the hundreds and the choir is masterful. Services range past two hours on Sunday mornings because we all love the music; since joining several years ago I can truthfully say that singing has become an active part of my life. Fortunately, so has praise!
My first playmate was a boy who lived across the street from us on Augusta Avenue. His name was Alfred and his father was a dentist whom I took to calling "Doc". Alfred was exactly my age and was much shyer than I was; therefore I liked him a lot because I could always get him to do what I wanted to do. In the long run, this was not a good thing to happen however, because eventually my parents discovered this and I was consequentially blamed for everything.
Mama liked a clean house so I was never allowed to play inside. I would go over to Alfred's and climb the four steps to his front stoop and ring the doorbell. Alfred's mother was afraid of what would happen if he came out to play with me because he always got into some sort of trouble or got his clothes dirty. My mother didn't care about my clothes because we had a "live in girl" who washed and ironed everything.
Norma, Alfred's mother, who I called Mrs. Broadus to her face and Norma behind her back, would open the door and call to Alfred who was forever in his room. The door would then swing open with a loud thud and Alfred would come running down the stairs, two steps at a time, wearing a great smile. He loved for me to visit him because I cheered him up. Playing with me in the "sheet house" that we built over Norma's card table was much more fun that moving his toy soldiers about all alone in his room.
The two of us had an entire fantasy world in our sheet house. Sometimes we would play King and Queen with me being the King, as I wanted to rule. Norma's fly swatter was used as a scepter and I would give Alfred a small smack on the rear if he didn't follow my orders to the letter. Then, when he started to cry and say that I was being unfair, I would let him be the King for a while, in fear that he would tattle to his mother on me. This action always helped to quiet Alfred down and boost his confidence.
I remember one particular time when Alfred and I really got into trouble. In those days most houses had alleys behind them. The garbage would be taken out and put into the large rubbish barrel that was located behind the houses in the alley. Also the vendors that were selling their wares or sharpening knives or scissors would come down the alleys calling out their slogans, "Get your knives sharpened today - very cheap". Alleys were used a lot.
At night time alleys were scary because they were the home of ghosts and goblins. I used to make up stories about the awful things that happened in alleys to scare Alfred. He was terrified of going into an alley at night and truthfully, so was I.
We had an old wooden garage behind our house, in the alley, that had a dirt floor. There was a door on the side, with some dirty glass panes in it, that led to our fenced-in back yard. I knew that our "girl" would not come out to see what we were doing because the garage was dungy and dark. There were no lights out there and she too was afraid of the unknown.
I had two major operations or Near Death Experiences when I was young - an emergency tonsillitis and a ruptured appendix. I remember the ether given to me in both and the hallucinogenic affect it had on me. I really tripped on it. The appendix attack was in a huge dust old bank. I was with Daddy. They had to call an ambulance and rushed me to the hospital.
Alfred and I were about four years old when this particular event happened. I had my tonsils out and had to go to this huge hospital (Stuart Circle, where I was born) for the operation. In those days the operating room was a very scary place because all of the machines were huge and intimidating looking and I was very small.
The doctors and nurses had rushed me into the operating room while I was tied down on a bed with wheels on it. I don't mind saying that I was scared out of my wits. Of course, Daddy was by my side, all dressed up in a white outfit like the surgeons wore in those days, and his presence made me feel better. Still, I was very sick and very scared.
This operation left me with some pretty bad memories. The only good side was that I got plenty of Vanilla ice cream when it was over and all of my family (uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins, etc.) gave me "story book dolls" which I adored and which I collected. These are small dolls, between eight and twelve inches high, with beautiful faces and hair, costumes, clothes and hats. I greatly prized my collection. Our housekeeper, Louise - a 7th day Adventist who was constantly telling me I was going to hell because I was so bad, was always taking my dolls away from me as a punishment. I hated her. Mother fired her when she heard her tell me I would burn in flames.
Of course, I didn't tell Alfred how much the operation had terrified me. I told him just the opposite -- that the hospital was beautiful and lovely and that you could have anything you wanted to eat, especially ice cream. Besides that, you got so very many presents when you were sick. I could see Alfred counting all of his new toy soldiers and tanks in his head. When I had finished telling him about my tonsils, he wanted to have his out too, just as I knew he would.
Anyway, I got this bright idea that Alfred and I would play hospital in our garage. It was a gloomy rainy day, which made our already dark garage even more spooky. It was a perfect set-up. Both mothers thought that we were at the other person's house.
Alfred had been given a Doctor's Kit for Christmas with doctoring things in it. As this was in 1944, World War II was being fought in Europe and the Pacific and toys were very scarce. Alfred's father, Doc, had taken one of Norma's old purses and filled it with dentist supplies that he no longer needed.
On Christmas morning, after Alfred had opened his present and discovered the Doctor's Bag, Doc gave a long lecture to us both about how these doctoring tools should never be used on people, only on our stuffed animals and dolls. Of course, we promised to be good and follow his instructions and naturally, because we were both very smart, even at four, he believed us.
Obviously, Alfred had to have his tonsils removed so that he could be more like me and receive, in his mind, lots of presents. He was going to be the patient and I was going to be the doctor. This is not only because I had the stronger personality but also because I had no tonsils and he did. I also had the most knowledge in this particular area. After all, I had been to a hospital. I had gone through an operation in an Operating Room. I knew the procedures for these things. I knew all about Doctors and Nurses and Patients.
I covered Alfred in my mother's apron. I had taken it from the folded clothes in the clothesbasket before they went back into their proper drawers and knew that Mama's apron would be the perfect hospital gown for Alfred. I also took a pan from the kitchen, a washcloth, soap and towel from the bathroom and some scissors from my mother's sewing drawer. Even Doc knew better than to put scissors in Alfred's doctor's kit.
After filling the pan with water from the garden hose, I washed Alfred from head to toe with the wash rag. I knew all about how his body was different from mine because we were caught "exploring" once before and our parents had to tell us why he had a "thing" and I didn't. I let Alfred put his under pants back on only because I knew that he would cry because he was cold. He was always cold and the day was damp and rainy.
I tied the apron around his neck and made him lie down on the operating table, a board that I had stuck over two flowerpots. It was kind of shaky but then so was Alfred. I then gave Alfred a professional lecture about how I was going to remove his tonsils, which were two little balls at the back of his throat. I really wanted to see what tonsils looked like as my doctor did not show me mine after the operation.
I told Alfred that he would have to take "ether", which was the antiseptic of those days. This part was entirely "make believe" as even I did not know what "ether" really was. I had only heard the nurses talking about how it would make me still as I had tried to kick them when I was on the operating table.
I lined all of Doc's old dental equipment on the top of a bucket that I had found in the garage and turned upside down. We were all ready for the big event. I asked Alfred to open his mouth, very professionally, and to stick out his tongue. This he did and everything was all right until I picked up the scissors, opened them and tried to pry out the tonsils between the roof of his mouth and his tongue.
I must have really hurt him because Alfred let out a scream that would wake the dead. Not only that, he jumped off the operating table with a fury and began hitting me with his fist. The board knocked the flowerpots over and they began to break. I was so startled by the entire event that I tottered backwards and knocked over a shelf that was filled with tin cans and other clanging items.
All in all, Alfred made a lot of noise. My mother came rushing from the house into the yard, screaming. When Norma heard Mom, she too came out from her house yelling Alfred's name.
As you can imagine, the results of my tonsil operation on Alfred were not good for my legs and behind. After a proper scolding, Mama slowly walked over to the nearest forsythia bush and pick off a big switch. She always did this when I did something that she thought was wrong. Slowly she pulled each leaf from the switch. That darned Alfred had settled down from his crying and actually had a smile upon his face.
Needless to say, I couldn't sit down for the rest of the day (and probably the next day too), but I never again ever, ever suggested to Alfred that we play Doctor.
I looked up Norma and Alfred in 1976 upon returning from Europe with my sons, Michael and Greg. Norma still lived in the same house, across from us on Augusta Avenue. She laughed when I recalled this adventure to her.
Alfred wasn't home. He married, had children and was now one of the top executives at the Federal Reserve. I wonder though, if he ever actually had his tonsils removed. I also took Mike & Greg to see grandma and Den-Den's house that year. I couldn't find it anywhere but as I had not returned to Ashland in thirty years I thought I was just disoriented. Upon asking someone on the Main Street where the old Terrell place was, I was informed that it had been torn down and the Seven Eleven Store now stood where the house originally was. I cried for hours and dreamt about the curio cabinet for the next week.
CHRISTMAS WAS SPECIAL
Christmases were always special when I was a kid. This was during WWII when anything extra was scarce. Toys were not to bee seen in those days but Mom always saw to it that I had something wonderful under the tree. I remember one Christmas in particular. It was 1943 and America was fighting bravely in both the Pacific and Europe. Everyone lived on rations and "plenty" was not a word that was used in conversations. No one had enough of anything. Plenty was unheard of. Mother asked all of her friends, an probably neighbors too, to save all of their slips, petticoats and night gowns. She saved satin and lace for 6 months to make me clothes for an old doll. They had doll hospitals in those days where you could buy used dolls and redo them. She and Daddy purchased a beat up girl doll at the doll hospital for fifty cents. In those days you could take old toys to a "toy man" who would fix them for you. He would do any of the work needed to make the toy look new. Usually though, people had so little money that they would do the extras themselves.
The toy man reattached my old dolls legs and arms and added padding to the stomach but it was mother who painted on the lovely face. She envisioned and painted for me the most beautiful bride doll face in the world. Creatively, I called her "Dolly". Dolly was redone but she was beautiful. I will never forget coming down stairs on Christmas morning to see what Santa had left. There, sitting in my hand spooled chair, was the most beautiful doll I had ever seen. Mother had made several outfits for her. Here is one with a southerner's bonnet. I also received a tricycle from Santa and the toy man that year. Mother said Daddy stayed up half the night painting it red and black.