Thursday, March 10, 2011

White Porcelain
by Ira Smith

May 1937

" Mom, did you see the bathroom? It has a tub and a sink in there!" My parents and I had just moved in to this $15 per month house on elm and maple-lined South Main Street with a view of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains of Vermont. I was six and a half years old. There were clean cabinets with counter tops and a chrome-trimmed, wood-burning stove in the kitchen, a carpeted living room with a coal burning stove with mica glass in the door, two upstairs bedrooms with hardwood floors and roomy closets, and a handy ice box in the shed just outside the kitchen door. There was a white porcelain tub, sink and toilet in the bathroom. Mother was filled with joy!

Dad was content too - he had a tool shed and a large fertile garden to work in. I was excited - there were adjacent woods to play in and three boys two doors down to play with. The lush lawn in the back yard had a stone fireplace for summer cookouts. We were all happy!

The landlords, Frank and Margaret, were old friends. They had been living in this house and had just moved next door to live with Frances, Margaret's recently widowed mother. They became extended family and I referred to Frances as my "third grandmother."

Summer of 1933

Just the three of us moved into a two-story, side-by-side duplex on Sisco Street. Mother would no longer slave over a hot stove for a bunch of in-laws. The plain interior consisted of a kitchen, dining room and living room plus two bedrooms upstairs. There was only a toilet in the only bathroom at the top of the stairs. We had to wash up at the kitchen sink. There was no bathtub! We took turns taking our Saturday night baths in a metal tub near the kitchen stove where the hot water kettle was handy.

The house was heated by the wood stove in the living room and the one in the kitchen. Sticky, black creosote was always seeping out where the long kitchen stovepipe entered the chimney. One night, the chimney caught fire. The volunteer firemen came and dowsed it but the ceiling sagged with water. Mom cursed as she vigorously poked a hole through the plaster and lathe with a broomstick to let the water out.

The open stairway to the bedrooms was in the dining room. It had a landing half way up where I visited with Joyce who lived on the other side of the thin wall. While doing laundry, Mother visited with Joyce's mother, Ethel, through the gaping hole in the partition that separated the two halves of the cellar. The great fire of 1936 engulfed the main block of stores in the village. I remember Joyce, her brother, Kline, Ethel, Mom and I watching the aurora in the night sky from our shared front porch. Dad and Joyce's father, Walt, labored all night as volunteer firemen.

We didn't have a car. Once a month we trudged up to Elmer's house on Depot Street to pay the rent. He was a slow-moving landlord; it was like pulling teeth to get him to fix our leaking roof. Mother was tired of maneuvering drip pails.
Dad worked at Ralph's garage fixing cars, changing tires and pumping gas. He did occasional gigs with Ralph's seven-passenger Buick chauffeuring rich summer residents on scenic tours through the mountains. Dora's bar across the street from the garage was a magnet at quitting time. Dad often stopped at Dora's for just one beer which often turned out to be two or three. One night I spanked daddy cuz he came home late to a cold supper. Mommy was awful mad and he made her cry.

Late May each year, Dad ambitiously spaded his large garden with a round pointed shovel. He grew a wide variety of vegetables and Mom canned them, a key supplement to Dad's meager income.

Our street should have been named School Street, for the district school with all 13 grades was just up the street. I started Kindergarten when I was not quite five - the youngest kid in the class. Mother walked me to and from school the first few days.

One August when I was six, Mom and I walked to the Essex County Fair which was just beyond the school. While meandering along the busy midway, a concession barker said, "Hey miss, bring your little brother over here and buy him a toy." The compliment weakened her resistance and she bought me a rubber dagger.

October 1931

The three of us moved in with Grandma Bertha, Dad's recently widowed mother, in her home north of the village beside Hoisington Brook at the foot of Ledge Hill Road. Mother called it "the little house in the hollow with the outhouse." She was appalled - no indoor toilet! Dad's three younger brothers ages 12, 19, and 21 lived there as well. Because Grandma worked long hours cleaning houses, Mother's first real taste of married life at age 21 included taking care of an infant, and cooking and laundering for six people while recovering from a hysterectomy.

July 1930

Mother, aged 20, and Dad, aged 24, were married July 28, 1930. When I was born on December 8, the local newspaper said that Mom and Dad "were the proud parents of a bouncing baby boy" which is remarkable for a 17-week preemie. We stayed with Mother's parents, Louie and Della in their new home on their 40-acre farm in South Westport.

Ten months after I was born, Mother was hospitalized with serious complications from childbirth and underwent an emergency hysterectomy. With the state of medicine in those days, it is a wonder she survived. I grew up as an only child.
Circa 1925

In their mid-teens, Mother and her brother, reluctantly quit attending the one-room country school to help Grandma on the farm. Grandpa was rehabbing in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Saranac Lake. Later, she went to live and work in the village as a chambermaid in the resort hotel. That is when she began dating Dad.

Ira Smith © 2011

Written at a Handcrafted Words Online Workshop


  1. Great article. And, this is my real name. Guess what my last name is??LOL

  2. Lovely writing Ira. I remember outhouses and no electricity. At first I was confused by the time line but found it works. Yes, a white, clean water flushed bathroom - heaven. Such a beautiful area you write about, a pleasure to read. Sharon

  3. Ira,

    What a great "family" piece of writing! Your family (and we) are the wiser for having read this. I love starting out with a question from the child you. I could feel your childlike exuberance! I can't decide about the order/time line. I read it both ways, top down, bottom up. I think it is easier for me to read it from 1930 - 1937, than the other way around. Either way I am taken by the strong women in your family - grandmas and mother were clearly the center of it all. Your "white porcelain" really made me appreciate the importance of a full bathroom - something I've never been without! Despite the roughing it, in various locations, one could feel the cozy warmth of your childhood. Wonder if you have ever been back to visit any of these homes in recent years? Would be interesting to see how they measure up with your now adult eyes! Great writing! Thanks for sharing it all with us.


  4. The different residences make a great thread for your story and your description conjures up a vivid picture of these places. I like how the timeline works. Reading your piece has been a real education!