Insignificant Rooms


Today, I am honored to publish a second article by my Guest Author, the McAdoo Marvel.

I grew up in a four-room house. Two rooms faced the north side, two the south. One north room was the forever bedroom. With space for two double beds, a dresser, and a squeezed-in trunk, it was a bedroom winter and summer. Louise and Billie shared one double bed, Doris and I the other. The trunk provided space for underwear and pajamas for Doris and me.

Louise loved to scare us at night with stories about the eye eater, especially if we happened to hear a paper bag being gently blown across the kitchen floor. She’d suggest that it might be the eye eater. Her teacher at school read them eye-eater stories, so they must be true. I protected my eyes by hiding them under the sheet.

The eye eater was definitely worse than the sound of coyotes. On hot summer nights, everyone, including the adults, would drag their mattresses outside where we could catch a little breeze. Invariably, we heard the coyotes howling to each other or maybe at the moon. The noise made the blood chill, but it helped to hear others voice their complaints.

The other north room became a living room in the summer, but was Daddy and Mama’s winter bedroom. When the weather turned cold, living room furniture was moved to a southern location, and the doors leading to the cold rooms were closed. The house stove, one burning either wood, coal, or coal oil (kerosene), warmed only two rooms.

A large walk-in closet in the bedroom served the whole family. Shelves covered one end, rods for holding hanging clothes were on the other end, and hooks were on the wall between the two. We hung winter coats and hats on the hooks. As Christmas neared, Louise seemed to be the only one aware that some of Santa’s presents were stored there. She’d get up in the night, when she thought everyone else was asleep, to shake and rattle packages. When Christmas Eve came, she knew what everything was, and who would get what. When we were big enough to draw names, she would know whose name each person drew, plus what each would get. Not much escaped that prying nose.

One of my after-school chores was gathering eggs; Doris must've still been too young to help with that at the time. I went into the cold closet alone to get my coat and hat, and probably saw something that gave me a clue there was no Santa Claus. Later, I discovered that I had learned the truth before my older sister Billie had. While we were waiting for Santa one year, I noticed Billie and my brother, Reid, sitting off by themselves, practically whispering. Later, I asked Billie what they’d been talking about.

“There’s not really a Santa Claus,” she replied, sounding a little surprised. 

“Oh, I knew that,” I said. It didn’t make me unhappy or feel cheated that I was younger and knew; it made me feel grown up. But I don’t know how I learned; no one told me, or even talked with me about it. All I can imagine is that somehow the closet divulged it. 

That closet also helped me learn the value of small change. I don’t know where I first saw it, but I should have left it - I took a quarter. Who would miss a quarter? I didn't have any qualms. Naturally, I hid it on the bottom closet shelf. We were going to a high-school play that night, and as we looked, Mama pointed out that we couldn’t go without the quarter, because we didn’t have enough money otherwise. I helped look before I finally “found” it where I had hidden it. I never tried that again. At our house in the height of the Depression, we needed all the change we had.

I kept my “Mr. Lawson dime” in the closet. It was safe until Mama asked to borrow it. I had gone to county meet in storytelling that year, first grade, and won first place. I don’t remember why Mr. Lawson happened to be at our house, but he gave me a dime for telling the same story for him. I lent Mama the dime, which she later told me she had repaid, in spite of my repeatedly asking for it. To this day, I don’t remember a payback.

Mr. Lawson was earlier married to the only child of Will and Mae Eldridge; his wife had died in childbirth. Mae Eldridge and Rosie Buckner were sisters, and Rosie’s kids were so upset about what happened to their favorite cousin, they weren’t allowed to attend the funeral. But Mae thought nothing of asking Rosie for the oldest of her three girls to replace the daughter Mae lost. Naturally, Rosie refused.

“Baby Lou” Buckner was my best friend. We often traded lunch – my whatever sandwiches for her fried squab. The loft of their barn was filled with doves, and she got burned out on squab. My kingdom for one now. Once considered gourmet food, squab was on the menus of the finest restaurants. But I don’t believe you can find one now.

As we got older, Baby Lou and I seemed to be in competition, but not of our own making. If left to the teachers, Baby Lou won. My mother and I both felt they chose a valedictorian without adding up our grades. I came in second, and said nothing. At graduation, I made a short speech that my mother wrote, and sounded more like a valedictorian than Baby Lou. When it came time to vote for a captain of our high-school girls’ softball team, I knew I certainly didn’t measure up as the player Baby Lou was; I thought she’d win. As the only nominees, we had to leave the room for the voting. The big surprise was that I was elected as the new captain. Someone told me how everyone voted, and I still think it was a sympathy vote; they didn’t want Baby Lou to win everything.

A shelf in the walk-in closet was Doris's hiding place for her chocolate Easter bunny. She accused Mama of eating on the ears. Mama tried to tell her she didn’t even like chocolate; it was the mice nibbling the rabbit. But Doris was as receptive to that idea as I was to my dime repayment.

The fourth room of our house was a combination kitchen/dining room. It was always the same. Since the pantry was a slice of the kitchen, its length was the same, and it was as wide as the ice box in the middle, with ample room for someone standing in front of it. One end of the pantry had shelves all the way up. There was plenty of space underneath for a slop bucket that held food stuff – vegetable peelings, eggshells, uneaten food, etc. – for two trips daily to the pigpen. At the back end of the pantry was a high shelf that held anything that needed to escape small hands, and under the shelf was space for nearly anything else.

Near the front shelves was a window the same size as others on the house. I used to hear Mama at the window, watching everything being blown around as she muttered, aloud but to herself, various things about “this infernal, eternal wind.” When a friend of my son made the decision to attend Texas Tech and went to check out the high plains, one of the things he mentioned was the wind. But not in quite that manner. He wasn’t aware that the wind caused the branches to grow horizontally; he proudly told my son, “They have bonsai trees, but they’re grown.”

The only purpose of the pantry to us kids was as a source of money. We were paid a penny apiece for dead mice. Each of us had a certain number of mouse traps, with our names printed on them. It was up to us to load the traps and hope for the best. Usually, we opted for the pantry. We were delighted if we stumbled across a nest of little red mice that still had their eyes closed. We could see the pennies adding up.

All Mama had to do in the pantry was move the ice box to the back, and the stove fit right in as her temporary kitchen rearrangement. Then we could snitch bites of things cooking, and do our experiments without being seen. I learned the snitching lesson when I wanted to taste the sugar Mama was caramelizing for caramel pie. The lesson I passed on to Doris was, “Don’t ever try that.” It’s hard to turn loose of half-melted sugar.

We’d heard of fried prickly pear fruit, so we first tried that. We picked some fruit, and somehow got the thorns off, probably by washing the pears repeatedly in the horse tank. It was an actual livestock tank; all the stock drank there. But the tank served several purposes. It was where we left the pans to soak when they had been used for cornbread, and we usually forgot they were in there. It was also a swimming place for us, if we were out in time for the water to settle so the cows would drink.

After we tried cooking the prickly pears, we decided it was nothing we’d want to repeat. Next, we tried our crème de la crème. We liked the sound of “fried tomatoes,” so we cut a nice, ripe tomato, sliced it, and dropped the slices into a hot skillet. We weren’t sure we would survive; caught in the space behind the ice box, we couldn’t get out until the spattering and popping finally stopped. Later we learned that those talking about fried tomatoes mean green ones dipped in a batter.

As you can see, I still recall some lessons I learned, probably more easily than if I’d learned them differently.