65 years ago, my folks, I and my sister, went to live with Mother Gordon and her son, Uncle Edgar, in a house across from the park in Atlanta, Illinois. I don’t know the particulars regarding the decision, but Mother Gordon was my Mother’s Grandmother, Edgar, Mom’s uncle. Mother Gordon’s name was Elizabeth Combs Gordon. She had married James William Gordon and they owned the house across from the city park, as well as a local hardware store. They had three boys, James Norman, William Gilbert and John Edgar.
The house sat on ¾ of a city lot which included a barn and a woodsy overgrowth of shrubs, trees and vines. The house had a nice front porch with lattice work, facing the street and the park.
In those days, the catalogs used to order merchandise for the hardware store were hardback, with pictures and descriptions, but no pricing. I’m guessing the prices were supplemental, so that the catalog could be used regardless of the price changes. When the catalogs were obsolete, Mother Gordon, in the days of “waste not, want not”, used them as her scrapbooks. She filled them with newspaper clippings, calling cards, recipes, pressed flowers etc. They were a treasure trove to me when I was a youngster.
Norman married Charlene Binns and they lived in New Holland, Illinois with their two sons, Bruce and Larry and later with two Dalmatians, Long John and Bismarck. I can’t remember what Norman’s job was, but they had a grocery store attached to their home, that Aunt Charlene operated. It was a fascinating place for a kid – out the kitchen and into the store – to play and fill a little sack with candy to take home. I usually got to spend a week or two with them every summer. She called Uncle Normal, Hi-Jim. He had a good sense of humor and I liked every visit.
William Gilbert married Elsie Mae Foote from Lawndale and they lived lots of places, including Atlanta, Chicago and Salem, Wisconsin – those being the only three I know of for sure. They had a son and two daughters, William Martin, Shirley Rose, and Elsie Gilberta, the youngest and my Mother. When my Mother was still in high school, they moved to Chicago to run a boarding house full of miscreants [I think] and left Mom to live in a rented room while finishing high school. According to her school and lifelong friend, she rented in two different houses before graduating. [Uncle Bill married Phyllis Chrisman of Atlanta. Aunt Shirley married Wayne Marvel of Waynesville, Illinois]
Gilberta married E. Bruce Young of Atlanta and two kids later they moved in with Mother Gordon and Uncle Edgar. Mother Gordon had had a stroke and was confined to bed or wheelchair, the very old cane woven wheel chair. She didn’t speak but she was an eagle-eyed participant. Edgar worked second shift as a machinist for Caterpillar in Peoria and I think we moved in to be there nights while he worked. As it turned out, I was five and in first grade at the time and we stayed until the end of my sophomore year of high school, long after Mother Gordon had passed away and long after the arrival of two more children.
The house included back to front, a clutter-filled back porch, kitchen, pantry, single bathroom, back bedroom [Mother Gordon’s for her duration], Edgar’s bedroom, dining room, the reading room [also Edgar’s and a domain supposedly off limits to any and all children], a front bedroom, living room and the screened front porch with a porch swing. All the electric switches in the house were push button and the heat all came through floor registers. My Dad spent a good amount of time standing on the registers. Edgar, Mom, Dad and sometimes I, stoked the coal furnace. In the Spring if rains were especially heavy, the basement would flood as high as the 6th step of 9 and the furnace would be out till the basement drained. [They didn’t fix that.] The barn was also cluttered, filled top to bottom with barely a path through. A Willys-Knight was driven into the barn one long-ago day and never moved again. An issue of Popular Mechanics had plans for building a boat. Edgar started and got through the initial long thin frame and left it forever. One small room was the cob shed, where a load of corn cobs was dumped periodically. Those were to start the coal and cob stove in the kitchen, through the winter. The main house was heated by a coal furnace in the basement. The basement could be reached by a door from the dining room or by an exterior side entrance we used sometimes. There was a coal chute into a large basement storage area. A delivery truck would bring coal about once a year and open the basement window to shovel the coal down the chute. By mornings in the winter, the furnace would have died down and so the kitchen cob stove kept us warm getting ready for school, until the furnace would probably begin to catch up after we were off. I remember, the kitchen door didn’t have a latch [and heaven forbid, that anyone would just fix it], so we would close the door on a potholder to keep it shut and the heat in. Many, many winter mornings we kids dressed for school in the kitchen. This kitchen couldn’t have been more than a 12 foot square and included a wall of cupboards fronted with bead board, a side board cupboard, cook stove, cob stove, for a time a porcelain-top work table, pantry door, and a long sink. The sink had a pitcher pump on the right hand end for cold water and a single tap over the sink for hot water. Later the porcelain-top table was replaced by a real washing machine to replace the old wringer. There were clotheslines in the yard for the drying part. In the center was the small eating table for all our meals. I remember that it had a short vase with a scalloped top in a red/gold patterned glass and all the teaspoons were kept in that vase.
Thinking back, when we first moved in as a family of four, I guess we all slept in the front bedroom or maybe a kid or two in part of the dining room? I know we didn’t sleep in Mother Gordon’s room and Edgar’s bedroom and reading room were off limits. Later, much later, the tiny 4×6 foot pantry was remade into my brother’s room. I wanted that tiny space desperately, being 5, 6 and 8 years older, but being the only boy, he won out. We girls had triple bunks in the front bedroom and other times, moved to the back bedroom, Mom would divide up the space with furniture to create sides. Our closets were about the size of today’s broom closets. When we had the front bedroom of the house, there was a double doorway curtained off from the living room, usually with the piano blocking off the doorway, but if you had the top of a triple bunk set, you could peak through the curtain over the piano to watch late night TV. After midnight, there was no TV, only pattern following the Star Spangled Banner. In that room there was a window to the front porch and often times the middle sister would climb out the window to sleep on the porch swing. After she put the window back down, she was out until someone in the morning unlocked the front door to let her back in. As a lifelong creative sleeper, not too interested in getting to school on time, that was probably where it all started.
As I mentioned before, Edgar worked second shift and his bedroom also had a curtained off double doorway. There were at least three of these doorways in the house. There were actually pocket doors for each that had been pushed too far or jammed into the walls and NEVER FIXED, no idea why? So weekday mornings, while Edgar slept, we were supposed to be especially quiet. That was probably impossible with 4 kids. His room was pretty messy – most of the time his work clothes hung on the curtain rod at his doorway. He had a brown metal wardrobe in the dining room for clothes, but if it wasn’t off limits, it wasn’t very interesting to us kids. He had two tennis rackets in the frames to keep them from warping, hanging on the wall. The park had a tennis court on our end and we did eventually get those tennis rackets. We used and used them. He kept change on his dresser – I liked to count it, my brother liked to swipe it, till he got caught. Edgar fixed his own black lunch bucket every day for work. He took two peanut butter sandwiches and 2 or 3 peanut butter cookies [they were store-bought, shaped like a peanut]. Mom would try to get him to take leftovers, or anything other than peanut butter, but he was firm in his choice and didn’t budge.
The dining room in the very center of the house, held a large ornate table with 2 extra leaves and 6 chairs with a couple more around the house when needed. Two chairs were armed, the table and leaves had heavy pads and there was a matching buffet with a chiming mantel clock. This table was used for company dinners, playing canasta or gathering clutter. Every Saturday morning, just like ‘clockwork’, I was dusting that table, chairs and buffet. My mom was big, no not big, she was HUGE on chores. Life later became a long life of lists…….of chores. Also in the dining room was the treadle sewing machine and a 3-stack of barrister bookcases, my favorite thing in the whole house. Most of the books weren’t that interesting, but I love books and reading and I loved the way the glass fronts opened and then slid away to reach the books. The bookcases and the reading room had that ‘old book smell’ about them. Bunny Rabbit’s Diary and a couple more books in the cases were mine to read anytime. I still have that one. I always expected that one day I would have those bookcases, but my mother gave them away after Edgar died, to someone else.
Between the bookcases and the doorway to the basement on the East side of the dining room, was Edgar’s reading room, as it was called. It was a room with bay windows and it was filled, again, with just a path. At the windows was a desk/table arrangement where Edgar kept his ham radio equipment. I can’t remember his call letters, but sometimes, if he wasn’t around and he got a call, I would answer. The room was also filled with a big china closet full of Mother Gordon stuff, lots of 78 records and several record players, maybe only one in working order. There were more books, newspapers and stuff. IT WAS A MAN CAVE!
The house at 700 NW Vine was exactly one block from the school. Of course, we walked to school and when I was old enough to attend an evening basketball game, I could walk to school as long as an adult watched from the big tree till I got to the school and then to come home, I had to call ahead and they would watch for me to walk the one block home.
We had good neighbors while living at Uncle Edgar’s. To the East, was a tiny home, where Mrs Hughes lived…alone AND in a wheel chair. On the corner to the North, lived Sam and Laura Bayless. He drove a livestock truck and Laura was a homemaker. West of the Bayless’, live Aunt Bertha McClellan. She wasn’t my Aunt, but that was how I knew her and she was a tiny and spry and bent old woman. West of us on the corner, lived Carl and Vera Lovin. Carl drove a school bus and Vera was a homemaker. She was a simple and very kind lady and she always offered us kids a stick of chewing gum. She kept a glass dish of sticks – I never saw them like that anywhere else. In the summer, Carl would often set up his telescope in the yard and if he had a white kitchen chair in the yard, it was a sign us kids could come and stand on the chair to look in the telescope while Carl told us what we swore we could see. Across from the Lovins’ lived Mrs. Rousey, on a three cornered town lot. She was snow white-haired with a cheery round face. All these neighbors were exceedingly kind and would welcome a little 5 year old any time her mother would let her go visit. They all got May baskets made from construction paper and filled with jonquils, dandelions or tulips every May 1.
I think Edgar liked having family grow up in his house. He never disciplined any of us that I remember and if he did, it must have been a pretty mild reproof. He was a tinkerer and built us toys out of metal and wood scraps around the place. He made a merry-go-round from two wheel rims. He made a doll carriage out of metal with the canopy that tipped forward or back. He made a teeter-totter that rocked on a roller from a wringer washer. We had a monkey bar and a salvaged swing set. Whatever he made was always painted with bright enamel multi-colors.
Edgar could play the piano [it had been a player-piano at one time], but mostly my Mom played when she took a notion. She had a grand intro to the Black Hawk Waltz and that was my request every time she played. We had a spiral-bound yellow music book and she would play all the Christmas songs from that book. She had lots of sheet music too.
In those first days of television, you ordered your TV from the TV guy. Our TV guy was Chet Hunt, who lived across from the community building. He delivered Edgar’s first TV, a big furniture piece of equipment and installed it in the living room. My first show on TV was Howdy Doody. We also loved Red Skelton, Mitch Miller, Lawrence Welk, Ed Sulllivan, as well as Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Fury, Circus Boy, Sky King, Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, The Rifleman, The Mickey Mouse Club, The Little Rascals and later, Andy Williams and Bandstand. We watched Ozzie n Harriett with sons, Rickie and Dave Nelson, Father Knows Best, I love Lucy, The Donna Reed Show, Leave it to Beaver, The Danny Thomas Show, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock, Gunsmoke and Perry Mason. We watched Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, Tony Bennet and Dinah Shore and Perry Como, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, The Wizard of Oz, Soupy Sales and cartoons like Yogi Bear, Roadrunner, Porky Pig and others I’ve forgotten.
When I was finishing my sophomore year of high school, my folks bought a house that had belonged to my Aunt Sally’s grandmother, Mrs. Loun. My Uncle Kent, a builder had remodeled the house. It had 4 bedrooms and that was all I needed, to want to move. I cared not a whit for the rest of the house.
I wonder if Edgar was relieved to have his house to himself or terribly sad to come home to empty. Looking back, well, I just wonder….We continued to look after him all his life, but I’m sure it wasn’t the same and as kids, when did we even think about leaving him. Rumor had it that he was engaged once in his life, but his mom told her she wasn’t good enough for him and ended things. I don’t know if that was true. I never knew him before he was probably 50 or older.
We never know the reasons for most of life, until we have the time to think. When things slow down and no one is needing us anymore, we finally begin to look back. We question, we reason, we resolve or we discard. Growing old isn’t bad, but it’s also not for the faint of heart.