Where I Came From

…the problem of distinguishing what we are and what we are not responsible for in this life is one of the greatest problems of human existence. — M. Scott Peck

 

 

 

My father had a cockamamie plan at Christmas about driving to New York to visit my grandparents and wife-swapping aunt and uncle (a rare publicized case of two couples legally swapping spouses). We should go to bed early the night before the trip, sleep for a few hours, get up at two A.M., and drive while there was no traffic. So in the black of night, Mom woke Donna and me, got us into our winter coats, and led us to the rear seat of the Pontiac, where we curled up under a blanket. As usual, Mom had Karla bundled in her arms in front, and Dad was behind the wheel. Almost as soon as the car engine started, I fell asleep again.

I woke up when Mom shouted, “Rolf!”

The car lurched, there was a loud thud, Donna and I were slammed to the floor. What happened? Are we alive or dead? I could see our car’s headlights and smell hot brakes. I could feel my arms, legs, I could wiggle my fingers and toes. I heard Mom say, “Oh, Rolf.”

Dad said, “Damn.”

Mom said, “Are you kids alright?”

Donna said, “I bumped my head.”

I said, “What happened?”

Mom said, “We hit a deer.”

I said, “Is the deer dead?”

Mom said, “We don’t know. Daddy will have to get out and look.”

I said, “Where are we?”

Mom said, “Somewhere between Richmond and Athol.”

We were stuck on a cold night in the middle of nowhere. I knew Dad didn’t think well in a crisis, and Mom was checking the still-sleeping Karla in her arms, the sister who slept through anything. Dad held the steering wheel and stared ahead. Mom said, “Rolf, you need to get out of the car and check the damage.” She handed him a flashlight from the glove compartment and said, “First turn off the headlights so we don’t run down the battery.”

Dad snapped on the flashlight and pushed in the knob that doused the headlights. When he opened the car door, I feel a blast of cold air. He slammed the door shut. I saw his flashlight out in front. Dad’s plan about traveling at night looked bad now. In a day crisis, other cars could stop and help you. On this night, we could freeze to death before anyone found us.

 

I’ve often wondered why Mom wanted to marry a man who was indecisive in a crisis. Her father was just the opposite — a quietly strong decision-maker. Oren Oliver Gallup had traveled the world as the export manager for Simonds Manufacturing Company of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, sold industrial saws in countries from Russia to South Africa, and run a small office out of New York City. Eventually he started his own export managerial business there, went bankrupt after the stock market crash, and rebuilt the business later with a partner.

After graduating from Nutley High School in New Jersey, Mom attended Wheaton College for two years but dropped out for lack of interest and because her father was still struggling to recover from the Great Depression. After commuting by bus with her father to the city for a year while she attended the New York School of Interior Decoration, she took a sales job in New York with Mary Ryan, helping designers choose appropriate merchandise for home decorations. Later she worked at Macy’s.

Although self-conscious about slightly protruding teeth, Mom was a honey-haired beauty with the type of figure that attracted men. When she was twenty-two, she met Rolf Schmidt, who had been in the class behind her at Nutley High but not on her radar screen then. She’d been spending time with her current boy friend, Herbie Maxwell, at his house, a neighborhood home where young adults came together for card games and a beer or two. Herbie’s brother was engaged to Isolde Schmidt, who told Mom she should meet her brother Rolf because they both played tennis. Herbie didn’t like losing his girl friend, but the Maxwell brothers had long faces, weak chins, and homely legs.

The New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra precipitated their marriage, and so I have to credit Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms for the harebrained events that led to my “lucky” birth. I suppose they were the romantic facilitators.

After the wedding, Mom moved in with the handsome hunk and his parents, Mama and Papa Schmidt. Four months later Mom became pregnant, but it was my father who had the morning sickness. He drove away each morning on his way to work but stopped a block away and, possibly from the dread of impending responsibility, threw up on the curb. Mom continued working at Macy’s until her supervisor explained that pregnant saleswomen were expected to quit before their appearance became undignified.

On the day of my birth, my father drove Mom to the Newark Presbyterian Hospital about nine in the morning and continued on to his job. Because I was born just before lunch, he returned to the hospital briefly during his lunch hour to see a baby who was born with a round face, strong chin, and fast legs. Unfortunately, I was too small and too loud. At first Mom subdued my crying at night by having me sleep in their bed so not to wake my grandparents. In our own apartment later, she notified neighbors that she intended to let me scream at night until I got accustomed to sleeping alone.

If one of my parents had smothered me then, they could have avoided the embarrassment of a child who would write about their secretive and harebrained love life. But as soon as I was old enough to walk and talk, I became an inveterate eavesdropper. Some sensitive information came to me from hiding near a conversation, or from an argument in my vicinity, or from my mother when she needed to unburden herself.

On my third birthday, when Mom was in the hospital giving birth to Donna and I was with my grandparents, my father was sneaking a mystery woman into our Newark apartment (according to a neighbor). Then he was drafted into the Army and was at Camp Blanding, messing around with another soldier’s girlfriend. He wrote Mom that three bastards in his Army outfit jumped him one night for no reason and broke his nose.

Mom had wanted to move us out of the city ever since my father got out of the Army. Our Newark apartment block was near the Ballantine brewery and the Passaic River and spawned a neighborhood of beady-eyed men who could park by the sidewalk where Johnny Johannsen and I were pedaling our fire engines early on a Saturday morning and offer us candy if we would get into the car with them. After running to tell Mom of this danger I felt but couldn’t describe, I noticed she became quiet for a long time and eventually told my father that the city was a dangerous place for a five-year-old because of kidnappers.

My father said, “Kidnappers only take kids belonging to people with ransom money…like the Lindbergh baby.”

Mom argued it was dangerous for me to roller-skate on Lexington Street and hang around with older kids who were always causing trouble. She said the severe coughing spells that choked me every winter were because the air quality in Newark was bad.

But my father said jobs outside the city were hard to find, and he’d be happy as long as he didn’t have to work in an office again. Although he had a business certificate from Rutgers, he was content as a Hennsler beer salesman.

But Mom had a plan. She subscribed to a New Hampshire newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader, and scoured it for sales jobs that my father could handle. Convinced our happiness was in New Hampshire, she intended to move us to my grandparents’ summer house at Laurel Lake, where she’d found so much joy as a girl.

Eventually she spotted an ad for a Narragansett beer salesman to cover the coastal area around Portsmouth. That summer, a few months after I turned seven, we moved next door to the Perkins farm.

The gray clapboard house sat high on a field-stone foundation. Its slate hip roof, open front porch, and screened side porch were features of an old New England style. It had windows that rattled when the wind blew, a wood stove and hand-pump in the kitchen, and a two-hole outhouse that was part of a shed connecting the house to a barn. The shore of Laurel Lake was a five-minute walk. Mom rejoiced then. She was living in the place that held all her summer girlhood memories.

Mom had never lived through a cold winter in a house without insulation but told my grandparents she was sure we’d be fine. But my father’s weekly sales trips meant he was home only on weekends, and he had no interest in learning about home repairs or problems like heat and insulation. Mom told Emma Perkins she was pregnant and worried about making it through the winter in her condition.

My grandfather arranged with the local fuel oil company to install an oil furnace in our dirt cellar where all the spiders lived. The workmen cut a rectangular hole in the living room floor and fit a metal grate across the hole. When the chilly weather began, Mom had wood delivered and was soon splitting each log to fit the openings in the large cast-iron kitchen stove. I could keep warm by standing on the metal grate or next to the kitchen stove.

When Mom rushed to the outhouse, she wrapped herself in a long fur coat she’d had since college and spent a long time there. She told my father she had bladder problems and morning sickness at the same time, and she sat on one hole and got sick down the other hole. Getting larger in the belly didn’t stop Mom from driving Wilber Perkins’ truck to Winchendon so Emma could deliver Thanksgiving turkeys to the people who ordered them. Emma didn’t drive.

When it snowed, Dad got the car stuck on Quarry Hill. Mom with the big belly and the long fur coat pushed while Dad sat behind the wheel and spun the tires. I felt bad about Mom in the cold and wanted to help her push, but she refused to let me. One might have concluded that the husband should have done the pushing and let the pregnant wife do the tire-spinning. But that would have required a man more willing to get his hands dirty, one more willing to accept that a woman who could drive Wilber Perkins’ truck could probably spin the tires of an old Pontiac with the same skill as a man.

Donna and I adapted well to the country that first year. For our bathes, Mom pumped water into pots that she heated on the wood stove. Then she poured warm water into a round metal tub that sat in the middle of the kitchen floor. In the cold outhouse, we did everything fast. And we read comic books while on kid chairs that we dragged onto the heat register.

Only my father complained. He left each Monday to sell beer in his suit and camel-hair topcoat and homburg hat. I had never seen any other New Hampshire men wearing homburg hats and doubted such a hat helped sell beer. On weekends he complained about everything from shoveling snow to splitting wood. When he got the car stuck in the driveway, he said, “Goddamn fucking snow.” Old Howard Perkins had to pull the goddamn fucking car out with his horses. The Perkins house had a clear view of our driveway, and the Perkins family all giggled at my father from behind their curtains as they witnessed the city boy who wasn’t smart enough to get out of his own driveway. They knew trucks worked better in snow than Pontiacs. “Pontiac’s a damn city car,” Wilber Perkins said. “It ain’t no goddamn use in the snow.”

By the time Karla was born that April, Mom had somehow guided our family through one of the stormiest New Hampshire winters on record. She had split wood for the kitchen stove, shoveled the driveway, and, in the spring, emptied the outhouse using my grandfather’s old wooden wheelbarrow. Despite the hardships, she still believed this was the place to raise children. And, as if to reinforce her viewpoint, the severe coughing spells I’d had each year in the city did not return. Either clean country air or the shock of another sister stopped my coughing.

However, the second winter brought more peril in the form of a demented deer that attacked our old Pontiac in the middle of a frigid night.

As Dad inspected the car, I said, “How did we hit the deer?”

Mom said, “It jumped right in front of us. There was nothing Daddy could do. We were lucky it wasn’t worse.”

I’m not sure how Mom always seemed to see the bright side of a bad situation. What was she thinking? That the deer could have charged us head-on and knocked us up into a tree? Rammed us from the side and tipped us over? That was not my picture of how deer operated. I said, “Mom, what do you mean it could have been worse?”

She said, “We hit the deer right at the top of the hood. If the deer had jumped one inch higher, it would have slid down the hood and crashed through the windshield into Karla and me and Daddy.”

Mom was saying the difference between life and death might only be one inch. That gave me something to think about. Maybe God was warning us. Maybe He was giving Dad a warning. Maybe God was scaring Dad because of the time he had pushed the gas pedal to the floor to scare us.

Dad got back in the car and said the deer was dead. He said the deer must weigh over two hundred pounds, the hood and grill are bashed in, no radiator fluid is leaking out, the right front fender is almost against the wheel, we might still be able to drive the car. He started the car and backed slowly away from the deer. He said, “Everything sounds okay. Let’s just go.”

Mom said, “We have to tell someone about the deer.”

Dad said, “Who?”

“I saw a house back a mile or two.”

“Everyone’s asleep.”

“You’ll just have to wake someone up.”

“What good will that do?”

“I feel bad enough we killed a deer. It makes no sense to have it go to waste. If someone gets to the deer now, it will fill someone’s freezer.”

Dad could not argue about Mom’s reasoning, although his grumbling meant he didn’t care about filling someone’s freezer with deer meat. When he turned the car around, the tire rubbed against the crunched fender. When he drove straight, the tire didn’t rub. He drove until Mom pointed out a house. He parked beside the road, left the engine running. He walked to the house and banged on the front door until lights came on. I heard him shout, “We hit a deer a mile down the road. We thought someone should call the Fish and Game officer to let him know about the deer.”

Dad got back in the car and said, “Okay, we’ve done our duty. Let’s get going.”

Mom said, “I feel better that we told someone.”

When the car was humming along, Donna and I curled under our blanket again. The next time I woke up, the car was rocking back and forth. We were in a gas station and someone was yanking on the front fender. Dad was outside with the yanker, telling him the details of our deer accident. With the fender pulled away from the wheel, Mom said, “Now we can relax.”

The rest of the way to New York City, Dad bragged about killing the deer. He seemed to take great pleasure when gas station attendants and toll booth attendants remarked about the clumps of deer hair jammed in the Pontiac’s grill. As if to punish Dad for bragging, God threw a huge snowstorm at us when we left Grandma’s and Grandpa’s apartment in New York City and brought the car to a stop in a place called the New Jersey Meadows. We slept overnight in a bowling alley on the curved benches where bowlers usually sat.

We finally reached Nutley, New Jersey, and had another Christmas with Mama and Papa Schmidt, a quiet man who always disappeared about the same time we heard Santa clomping around on their roof. On the way home to New Hampshire, we stopped in White Plains, New York, to see the huge stucco house on Gedney Esplanade where Aunt Isolde, Uncle Dick, and my two cousins lived. Aunt Isolde had traded Uncle Howard for Uncle Dick, the same way the Yankees traded baseball players. Uncle Howard had gone to a woman named Edna, and Uncle Dick had come from the woman named Edna. My aunt and new uncle had two fancy cars, including a Jaguar, and two Irish Setters. They had two bathrooms. They seemed to have at least two of everything, and they lived on an esplanade instead of a street or a road. The adults spent time drinking and talking, we had another Christmas, and my cousin Laurie Ann showed Donna and me her fancy bedroom and all the new clothes she’d received. Then tiny cousin Karen made us see her room too. They had bedrooms big enough for a troop of girl scouts, but they didn’t have hills to sled down. And I was eager to go sledding and play with my Lionel train before Mom packed it in a box again.

Isolde Schmidt had been a sophisticated New York model when she married gregarious Howard Maxwell with the long face and weak chin. She’d had rheumatic fever, a heart condition that made doctors advise her not to have children. But when she’d held baby me and observed all my cuddly characteristics, which included reaching for her breasts, she ignored the doctors and had two with Howard and eventually one with Dick. I can only guess why she swapped husbands, marrying commercial photographer Dick Isaacs, who was soft-spoken and shy like her father. The swapping couples might have escaped notoriety had they not inadvertently remarried (on different days) at the same justice of the peace, who thought that a wife-swap in a conservative time in our history would be an interesting tidbit for the New York Times.

A few weeks after Christmas, my Aunt Isolde called with the news that Papa Schmidt was dead. He’d been riding home with his carpool from his job as an aeronautical engineer at the Wright Patterson Aircraft Company when he fell asleep in the back seat and no one could wake him up when it was his stop. That’s how Mom explained it to my father when she got the state police to track him down on the road and send him home.

I remember seeing fear in my father’s eyes when he called Isolde and said he would be driving alone to the funeral in New Jersey. It was difficult to determine what bothered him most —  his father’s death or having to face his own mortality, an ironic twist considering he had threatened to crash us into a tree in an old Pontiac.

My father said Mama Schmidt would now live with Isolde and Dick in White Plains. “Isolde said Mama could never adapt to using an outhouse and having no bathtub. And having to wash in cold water pumped at the kitchen sink.”

I was sad about Papa Schmidt, because he had been quiet and gentle and had once led me by the hand to a Saturday kids’ matinee at a Nutley movie theater, something my father had never done. And I’d loved the smell of his pipe. When she wasn’t doting on Papa or my father, Mama Schmidt hugged grandchildren to her big belly so your nose almost stuck to her dress, carried a joke too long (regaling in laughter whenever I said “swigadette” for the thing she was smoking), and always prompted me to say “I love you” to her in German. Despite these annoyances, I’d never thought of her as a mother who would raise two nitwit kids to follow the path of the harebrained love life.

That spring I tapped maple trees, carried buckets of sap home, and boiled it in Mom’s biggest pot on our kitchen’s old wood stove until the steaming sweet liquid became a remarkable candy. I had almost forgotten about being abnormal.

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