DOWN IN THE CELLAR (tales from the crypt)

Down in the cellar

It was cold and dark,

lit by one small, dim, overhead bulb,

That produced a bleak, weak light;

We played club in the cellar,

Carol and Patti and I

And sat in a circle

Around a lit candle,

That my mother would have had

A fit about  if

She had known

About the candle

That we were wasting.

 

Scariest of all was the mud cellar

With just a small path

Across the length of the room

illuminated slightly by a small window

That looked out on the street

But cupboards along the left side

held some of my mother’s canned goods.

It was a dry, hard, packed yellow dirt

Which didn’t go clear to the floor boards

To the living room above.

My little brothers played in here

With small cars and trucks,

Especially when it was raining,

And my father kept his fishing gear

And large wading boots on a hook

Over the mud side.

There were  three rooms  in the cellar

But for some reason

That one room had not been excavated

When the house was built.

One day, Carol and Patti and I

Were playing club

When the telephone rang

Upstairs in the dining room

And I ran upstairs to answer it.

Carol and Patti came bursting through

The cellar door,

Their eyes wide with fright

Both shrieking–

There’s a dead body down there!”

“Down where?” I asked, baffled

“IN THE MUD CELLAR!” they shouted;

“Oh, no there isn’t” I replied

And I headed downstairs,

With the two of them

Cowering behind me.

I went to the mud cellar,

And turned on the small light

In that room

And we all began to laugh.

“Their “dead body” was my father’s

wading boots hanging from a hook.

 

Sandra Lee Smith
(incident occurred around 1949-1950

 

THE BABIES ON BALTIMORE STREET

We lived through the thirties and forties,

The babies on Baltimore Street,

Climbing up trees and on roof tops,

(Without breaking bones–no small feat!)

We grew (or were born) while the War raged,

The babies on Baltimore Street,

Saving paper, and string and whatever

Would help the allies defeat

The “enemies”  somewhere over the ocean,

And bring uncles back home again,

To babies of Baltimore Street, who

Could not quite figure out when.

Our staunchest defender was Grandma,

The Lady on Baltimore Street,

Whose wrath on our foes was a marvel,

And proved that revenge could be sweet;

Her house was our home and our fortress,

She kept us all sheltered from harm,

The stairs and the cellar and back yard

All part of its beckoning charm;

 We carried her bags from the market,

The Babies on Baltimore Street,

And making a trip to the Juice Bar

For a hotdog was really a treat,

On bicycles, scooters, and skates, we

Ventured all over the ‘hoods,

Free to wander all over the place,

Building hideouts and forts in the woods.

Those days have been gone quite a long time,

but recalling the memories is sweet,

And I’m proud to say that I was one

Of the babies on Baltimore Street.

 

Sandra Lee Smith/written for the family cookbook “Grandma’s Favorite” self-published in 2004.

THIS OLD HOUSE

This Old House is made of brick

And has been standing about

A hundred years; It is a

Three-storied house with a big

Basement that had

A wine cellar in one of the rooms,

A cellar where my grandfather

Stored his homemade wine,

Made from the grapes grown

On the hilly back yard.

There are a lot of rooms in

This old house,

Where my grandparents raised

Three children and where,

When their children married,

Apartments were created on the first

And third floors for the married

son or daughter and his or her

Spouse–and in turn,

When children were born,

We all took turns living in

This old  house.

My parents lived in

This old house for nearly

Nine years–until I was almost

Five years old – and my

Parents bought their first

Home of their own.

As much as I loved the House

At 1618 Sutter street, where

We lived for about ten years,

Nothing

Could ever compare with my

Love for this old house, that

Was such a big part of our lives.

When I was still very young,

My grandparents lived on

The second floor of this old house

And I can remember sitting in

A rocking chair by  the kitchen window,

On my grandpa’s lap, watching

my grandma make doughnuts.

After my grandfather passed away,

When I was about eight years old,

My grandmother moved down-

Stairs to the front apartment

And rented out the second floor.

My aunt and uncle lived on the

Third floor until they were able to

Buy a house of their own.

I spent many nights with my

Grandmother in those two

Rooms on the first floor–one

Night a week throughout

Grade School at St Leo’s

And one night a week

Throughout my four years

Of high school.

I have SO many memories

Of my life with my grand-

Mother but one particular

Memory is grandma and

Me having a cup of hot tea

Before bedtime, with saltine

Crackers spread with real butter.

The only other person whose

Memories of grandma and

Her house on Baltimore Avenue

Would be my brother, Jim, who

Is 3 years older than I am,

Although–a younger brother

(George-whom-we-called-Biff)

And our cousin Johnny shared

Some escapades in the summer

Time which the rest of us

Didn’t know about until

Many years later;

This old House holds many

Memories for many people

And now is an Assisted Living

Home for disabled adults.

Since we can no longer live

In this old house perhaps

It is a good home for those

Disabled adults and if

There are any ghosts in

This old house they can

Only be friendly spirits

Of family members who

lived there for so many

Decades.

DEDICATED TO THIS OLD HOUSE

AT 1925 BALTIMORE AVENUE

 

Sandra Lee Smith

 

 

BROTHERS

When they are small, they’re a bother,

Mischievous,  troublesome louts,

They’re into your letters and diaries,

The house always rings with their shouts,

 

Their pockets are filled with those crawly

Live things–like spiders and mice,

With which they proceed to alarm you

(Kid brothers are never quite nice!)

 

Merriment shines in their faces,

Pranks plotted to your chagrin,

Until you, wailing, cry to your mother

“Brothers are almost a sin!”

 

And suddenly, childhood is over,

You and your brothers have grown,

Took part in the world that’s around you,

Married, had kids of your own.

 

And looking backwards, you wonder

what happened to make it this way,

whatever became of the brothers,

You lived with, enduring, each day.

 

How handsomely they stand before you,

How clean and how straight and how tall!

And as loving arms gather round you,

You don’t mind having brothers at all

 

Sandra Lee Smith, 1970s (written after attending my niece

Mindy’s Christening in Cincinnati, for my four brothers

PEN AND INK

Before ball-point pens came along

When you reached the third grade at

St Leo’s School,

You received a fountain pen and

a small bottle of ink,

That resided in a hole on top of your desk,

And your penmanship lessons were

Written in dark blue ink–

And for myself, a leftie, resulted

In smudges all over my left hand;

I always had to lay a blotter

Under my hand

Whenever writing letters,

To keep the script from smearing.

Even so, writing with a pen and ink

Was a most exciting discovery.

** And writing to penpals

Opened a whole new world to me.

My first penpal was a 4th cousin

In Detroit, with whom I became

Acquainted when we visited her

Family, the summer before I turned

Ten years old.

Other penpals followed, a steady

Stream that grew until, as an adult,

I began typing letters

Instead of writing them longhand.

When I turned 25 I became penpals

With a young wife and mother

In Australia. We have survived

Many crises in our lives,

Over the years and finally met

In 1980 when I lived in Florida;

It was a surreal experience,

Like putting a face and voice

To the thoughts and dreams

Of someone you have known

For decades.

We still exchange letters but now

Or correspondence is peppered

With the aches and pains of

Old age.

And now, there is email

And a host of new friendships

And a constant stream of

Instant messaging,

But I still get a thrill

At the sight, in the mailbox

Of a handwritten letter

Written by a penpal.

 

Sandra Lee Smith

February, 2009

 

LIFETIME GIRLFRIENDS

We were three little girls on Sutter Street,

Playmates, from the time we were five,

With paperdolls, dress-ups and a place to play school,

We played make-believe and contrived

To play “let’s pretend” in various ways,

In lace curtains we’d stroll up Sutter and down,

And visit the neighbors in our cast-off hats

High-heeled shoes and discarded old gowns.

The little old ladies on Sutter Street

donated the clothing we wore,

and gave us the scraps of fabric we used

to sew our dolls’ clothing and more;

On bicycles we rode all over the town,

and collected seeds to sell to the ladies

(never mind that the flowers were their own hollyhocks)

We had picnics in woods that were shady;

There were jump ropes and skates and things to collect

For crafts to make things we could sell;

We put on a show once a year, but in truth,

Did not rehearse it very well!

On summer nights all the children would play

And when we grew tired, we would sit

On somebody’s front steps and sing current songs–

Singing songs we knew just a bit;

We grew up and dated, as teenagers do,

Double-dating and doing things together,

One by one we got married and had families

and went separate ways and no matter what 

How many years have gone between visits,

When together we all talk at once and its nifty,

Laughing together recalling the days,

of a childhood in the 40s and 50s.

 

Sandra Lee Smith

February, 2009

 

KITCHEN MAGIC

The magician had a book

and the book was titled

“The Service Cookbook”

By

Ida Bailey Allen

and I knew that this book

Contained all the Secrets

Of the Kitchen Magic.

I held my breath

As I opened the pages,

Many of them stained,

and Darkened and Shredded

from Use–

But I knew

it contained the Magician’s secrets

Shortening+ sugar+Egg+Vanilla +flour

+baking powder+salt+raisins+milk=

old fashioned Raisin Cookies

or

Sugar + milk+baking soda+

additional sugar+

+Pecans=

Pralines

and

Milk+tapioca+cornmeal+

Molasses + sugar+butter+

salt=

Indian Pudding

Although I was a very young child, I studied the Magician’s handbook, determined to learn all its secrets, and when the opportunity presented itself, I stole the book of Kitchen Magic.  Now it was mine and I could perform all the magical things that happen only in the  kitchen .  And I did.

 

Sandra Lee Smith,  March 2009

 

LEFTOVER CAKE

LEFTOVER CAKE

When I was a little girl,

Perhaps once or twice a year

my parents would have a party,

sometimes it was a New Years Eve celebration

to which children were not invited—

although one year, my brothers and cousins and I

had our own party in the basement of our house

on Sutter Street..

I’m not sure what we did to occupy ourselves

but what I remember is the next morning

There were many tumblers with an inch

or two of liquid at the bottom—

but which did not taste very good.

I suspect my brothers may have poured all the

dregs together  to see what they had missed,

but what I remember best

is the remains of a cake

left laying out on the table

now crusty and dried out–

but cake…was cake…

.no matter what its condition

SO while our parents slept

We polished off the cake.

–Sandra Lee Smith

 

 

 

MY MOTHER, LETTING GO OF MEMORY

Today, if she had lived, my mother would be celebrating her 101st birthday in July.  Not impossible–I know people well into their nineties. But my mother had Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons, and her body  deteriorated, her memory  completely gone–perhaps accelerated by  years of alcoholism.  She had a series of strokes, but like the Energizer Bunny she kept coming back to life, even without a mind. My greatest fear is becoming a vegetable like that.  My brother Bill was born on her 29th birthday–and that, if nothing else made him mom’s favorite. Their birthdays were always celebrated together, whenever the family got together. My father died eleven day s before her birthday and so we were all in Florida on July  20, 1984, when we buried my father at a cemetery in Clearwater, Florida.

We had a birthday party and cake and ice cream and all of us hustled to find presents for her. Above all else, my mother liked to be the center of attention; I’ve often wondered why–and can only surmise its connected to her birth order, second from last n a family of eight or nine children, most of them grown by the time my mother was born.  My mother, I think, craved attention and could never get enough of it. She battled with all of us (except Billy) for loving our paternal grandmother,  Grandma Schmidt more than we loved her.  She kept close tabs on everything she did for any of us, so it would not be forgotten.

She retaliated, I think, by becoming sick (it was called a nervous breakdown in those days) and she would spend a week in the hospital reading Redbook magazine and charming the doctors and nurses.

It took the onset of Alzheimer’s for her to finally let go of all the slights and insults she believed she suffered, and when her memory was truly gone, she received all the attention caregivers could provide–and had no ability to appreciate any of it.

Who, I wonder, will remember her when her children and the oldest of the grandchildren are no longer alive to remember her?

 

Sandra Schmidt Smith/third in a family of seven children

 

THE THINGS SHE KEPT, THE THINGS THAT SHE LET GO

The things she kept were mostly free—rubber bands and plastic bags,

Envelopes from the mail, which could be torn open to use for making lists

Or notes to the children regarding their chores while she was at work.

She kept string which was easier to come by back then, unlike now when

No one ever has a ball of string; she kept and reused aluminum foil that was

Still perfectly good; she was a child of the Depression and knew better

Than to waste anything.

She kept margarine and cool whip tubs to keep leftovers in, and bread wrappers

That you could pack a lunch into. She kept all plastic bags and soon had an enormous

Collection of them. She found she could use plastic bags to pack around things she was

Mailing to one of her children. She saved all boxes, of course, because you never knew

When you might need a box. And newspapers—she saved all old newspapers until there

Was a huge stack in the garage and when the garage floor got wet in a big storm, the

Newspapers soaked up a lot of the water but became musty smelling and she was forced

To throw them all away. She quickly started a new collection of old newspapers.

She kept empty lipstick tubes to the bafflement of her daughters who could think of no

logical Re-use of these items. She did not consider herself a hoarder; she was frugal. She

remembered what it was like, to go without.

She kept her sons’ comic books and baseball cards. She refused to let a grandchild have

any of them.

She kept, in her heart, a lot of resentment and anger to all of those who slighted her—her

husband, her children, her siblings and her in-laws. She often let people know, she would

never forget how they  treated her.

What she let go – she was able to let go of relationships, of people she no longer wanted

in her life. She could, it was discovered, burn decades of negatives, not considering there

might be any value to them. She would burn the comic books and baseball cards—she

was letting go of all these  things taking up space in her basement. She never considered

that any of these things belonged to one of her children. If it was under her roof, she was

entitled to do what she wanted with those things. It was a painful lesson for her children.

Towards the end of her life, there was little to show that a woman lived in that shell of a body. Photographs reveal an emptiness in those green eyes. She had Alzheimer’s and no longer remembered any of the resentments towards other people. (she DID forget how they treated her). In the end it had all been let go.

–Sandra Lee Smith/my mother, Viola Beckman Schmidt, July 28, 2012