The writing style in Willa Cather Is My Great Aunt and Other Stories is direct and honest. By describing specific moments in her life, Trish Schreiber creates an honest and interesting portrayal of her family.
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Our Yard on 2625 East Cedar Avenue and Other Stories and Poems
By Trish Schreiber
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2015 Trish Schreiber
All rights reserved.
Some of my earliest memories are about sharing a room with my younger sister, Margaret. In the family, we were known as the little girls. My older sisters Katie and Elizabeth were the big girls, and Rich, the oldest, was in a league of his own. All the bedrooms at our house on Cedar Avenue were upstairs. Margaret's and my room was in the front of the house and had windows that looked out on the front yard. Our house had been built in the 1920s, and the rooms were large and airy. Our room had a walk-in closet with a built-in set of drawers. On top of the drawers was a small wooden platform. Margaret and I liked to climb up there and sit and look out the little closet window.
My sister and I had twin beds. My bed was along the front wall near a window. I could lie in bed and look out at the branches of the big old elm trees that surrounded our house. In the summer, the window would be open, and if you woke up early enough right before dawn, you could hear all the birds, as if on cue, start singing at once. I've never experienced this phenomenon in any other place I've lived.
Margaret's bed was across the room on the opposite wall. In the space between our beds, there was a table and a rocking chair where my parents would sit and take turns reading to us at bedtime. My mom liked reading the classics: The Secret Garden,Heidi, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and my favorite, The Little Princess. My dad especially loved reading Frank L. Baum's Oz books. He had a clear, deep voice and a wonderful way of reading out loud. After the reading installment was over, Margaret and I would recite the Lord's Prayer. Then my mom would kiss us each and add a butterfly kiss, a quick flick of her eyelashes on our cheeks. Then she would turn off the light and leave our door slightly ajar so we could see the reassuring glow of the hall light.
Even with all these loving rituals, there was a period in my childhood when I dreaded bedtime. I'm not sure at what age I began to worry about getting polio. I know my fears came directly from two things I saw on TV. The first was an episode of This Is Your Life. The program honored a little girl with polio who had spent time in an iron lung. The pictures of her in the iron lung really scared me. The other piece on television was a public service spot about polio. As I remember, it showed a boy playing in his front yard. Suddenly, he falls down, and then his mother screams and runs to pick him up. The idea that polio could strike me that fast was terrifying. I never shared my fear with anyone. Maybe I felt they would think it was dumb. After the bedtime rituals were done and the light was turned out, I can remember lying in my bed, worrying about getting polio. I just couldn't get to sleep. Then I would whisper over to Margaret's bed, "Margaret, are you awake? Do you want to tell stories?" I couldn't admit to my younger sister I was scared and wanted to be distracted so I could fall asleep. Sweet Margaret would usually accommodate me, though I'm sure she probably just wanted me to leave her alone and let her rest. Eventually, though, I'm not sure why, I lost my fear of contracting polio. I will always be grateful to Margaret for her little whispered stories, which helped me to go to sleep.
The smell of fresh mint transports me back to my childhood. In the summer, my mom would brew Lipton tea; and at dinner, each place was set with a tall glass of iced tea on a saucer. There was also a plate with lemon wedges and sprigs of fresh mint, the sugar bowl and, of course, long silver iced teaspoons. Every member of the family mixed their tea a bit differently. I liked two spoonfuls of sugar, a squeeze of lemon, and mint leaves, which I rubbed between my fingers to release their special flavor.
Dinner at the Shannon house was pretty elegant. We ate in the dining room. The table was always set with a nice linen tablecloth. China and silver were used every evening. My mom did use paper napkins, but even these were the big heavy white ones. My mother sat at one end of the table with my younger sister, Margaret. Dad sat at the other end or head of the table. My brother, Rich (the oldest), sat to Dad's right, and Katie (the second oldest) to his left. I sat next to Katie, and Elizabeth, the middle child, sat across from me. We always had the same seats, and I know if you were to ask any one of us, we would remember the exact seating arrangement.
At dinner, there were a few hard and fast rules. You had to wear shoes at the table. There was "no singing" at the table. If you passed the salt, you weren't supposed to hand it directly to the person because you would lose their friendship. This was a family superstition, and we all adhered to it religiously. Also, you had to ask "May I please be excused?" before you were allowed to leave the table. I remember it was torture to hear the neighborhood kids outside playing and riding their bikes, while we had to sit at the table and wait to be excused. In the summer, we always played outside in the evening. Our favorite games were kick the can, hide-and-go-seek, and swing the statue.
Anyway, back to the table. I was born in 1950, so our family dinners took place in the '50s and '60s. When I was a young child, we had a live-in maid, Fannie, who cleared the table and did the dishes. At some point, Fannie got married, and though she still worked for the family, she was no longer there at dinner. So my sisters and I took over the job of doing the dishes. My mom always did all the grocery shopping and cooking. She made great meals. The dinners consisted of some kind of meat, vegetables, salad, rolls, and potatoes or rice. Almost every night, we had a dessert. There were two wonderful bakeries in Denver: Bauers and Volmers, and Mom bought many goodies from both of them. She also did a lot of baking: pies, cakes, and one time even Baked Alaska. We were always encouraged to join the Clean Plate Club. Cleaning my plate was never a problem for me. I loved all that great food.
My mom set the table and the stage for the family to be together. Dinner was a time when family things were discussed. I can remember dinners when we were all laughing so hard we couldn't stop. I remember birthday dinners where you got to pick your favorite foods followed by the traditional chocolate cake with chocolate icing, my grandmother Shannon's recipe. I can also see my little mom enjoying a cigarette after dinner. It was a habit she could never break but would hide it in her later years.
Serious things also happened at dinner. I remember Dad telling Margaret and me that my sister Elizabeth was pregnant and that she was going to drop out of Stanford and marry her high school boyfriend. There was such sadness and defeat in Dad's voice when he made the announcement. Later, when I would come home from college, there were arguments between my dad and me about Vietnam, U.S. imperialism, racism, sexism, and all the other isms I was discovering out in California. Those memories aren't as happy, but they are all part of the family history.
I could never live up to the standard my mom set, but I have established our own Schreiber dinner traditions. We eat in the kitchen on the kitchen table. The plates are plastic. We all created our individual plates with our own drawings on them using a kit called Create a Plate. We use flatware, paper napkins, and plastic glasses. Eating in the dining room with a tablecloth, china, and sliver are reserved for holiday dinners and company. We too have our seating spots. Our only hard-and-fast rule is no TV during dinner. The kids don't have to ask to be excused. But they usually say, "Thanks for the great dinner, Mom." I love that.
Like my mom, I make big good dinners. We don't have dessert, but I always have fresh fruit, which is eaten at the end of the meal. Everyone shares what has happened during the day, and we have some great discussions. Now that our oldest son, Jimmy, is off at college, the family is starting to shrink, but four is still a good group. I don't like to think about three and then just two.
Of course, on some nights, dinner together is impossible. But my husband, Jim, and the kids know how important having dinner together is to me, so they try hard to make it home. Jimmy was born in 1979, Meg in 1981, and Rich in 1985. So the Schreiber family dinners have taken place in the '80s and the '90s. My great hope is that my kids will remember their childhood meals with the same fondness that I remember mine.
I still drink iced tea, but now it is the instant kind, presweetened with NutraSweet. We have some mint growing down by the creek on our property. I think I'll put some sprigs on the table tonight. It will be a nice touch.
Beary was the first, a very little white stuffed Steiff teddy bear. I bought him at Anderson's Toyland, the beautiful big blond brick toy store in Cherry Creek Shopping Center. His arms and legs could be moved forward and backward, and his head swiveled from side to side. The most endearing thing about him were his shiny black eyes, two small metal buttons. Black embroidery thread marked his nose and mouth.
I think I was about seven years old when I got Beary. Dolls had never interested me, but I always loved stuffed animals. Just looking at Beary, I felt I knew his personality. I imagined he was a sweet, shy little young bear. It wasn't long before I went back to Anderson's and bought another small bear, this time a black-and-white panda whom I named Jerry. He struck me as a more outgoing, rambunctious little fellow.
In the coming months, I got Larry, Harry, Gary, and Tet Tet Teddy to make a total of six bears. I fashioned for them an elaborate bear house out of a cardboard box and filled it with miniature furniture, which I also made out of cardboard. I invented a life story for the bears. They were a family. Larry, Harry, and Tet Tet Teddy were a slightly larger style of Steiff bear, and they were the adults of the family. Larry was the father figure and head of the family. Harry was more domestic and motherly. Harry and Larry were best friends. Beary and Jerry were best friends. That left Tet Tet Teddy and Gary as sort of a couple, although Tet Tet Teddy was an adult, and Gary was young, like Beary and Jerry.
Besides playing with them in their bear house, which I had set up in my bedroom, I took them outside. I made cool little forts for them out of sticks and leaves. The outdoor life was somewhat hard on the little animals. I don't remember how it happened, but Jerry lost both his ears. I replaced them with two small black rocks from our newly re-asphalted driveway.
I played with the little stuffed bears for years, taking them on every family vacation in a special plastic case. Once, I lost Beary on a train trip my family was taking from Denver to Sun Valley, Idaho. My sisters helped me frantically search the Pullman sleeper compartment until we found the little white bear. He was wedged between the wall and the mattress of the upper pull-down bunk. I was so relieved to find Beary. I guess because to me he was real.
It wasn't until I went to high school that I finally dismantled the bear house and relegated the bears to a spot on my bookcase. Eventually, they got packed away in a box. I didn't take them to college, but when my parents moved out of our childhood home on Cedar Avenue, I again took possession of them.
Looking at the small threadbare bears today brings back so many happy memories. I can still identify with that little girl who loved her bears.
When I was young, going to a movie was a big deal. There were five big movie theaters in Denver at that time, and they were all in the downtown. The Center, the Denver, the Paramount, the Aladdin, and I can't remember the other one. Sometimes I would go to the movies with my mom and sisters to see a film, but the times I enjoyed the most were when I went to the movies with my neighborhood friends Sara Gerber and Ellen Lowen. One of our mothers would drive us down and drop us off in front of the theater and then pick us up after the movie. It was so exciting to go into the big old theaters with their plush carpets and chandeliers. I loved the smell of popcorn and the whole movie experience. We usually saw Disney films or Jerry Lewis movies. My favorite movie was The Parent Trap with Haley Mills. I went to see it with Ellen Lowen, and we got in trouble because we didn't leave after the film was over. We stayed to watch the beginning again, and by the time we finally came out, my mom was frazzled and worried after driving around and around the block.
I don't know why we decided to go and watch The Pit and the Pendulum, and I don't know why our parents OK'd the movie. Anyway, Sara, Ellen, and I went down to the Denver Theater on a typical summer day. We decided to sit up in the balcony, which was unusual for us. Things started out fine with the showing of the previews and a cartoon, but when the film came on, I was almost immediately frightened. I had never been to a horror film before. I really wasn't prepared to be so scared.
I don't remember a lot about the movie, except that it was set in a castle with a torture chamber down in the dungeon. The music in the film was weird and eerie. Several scenes were done in a bloody red color. Vincent Price starred in the film, and there were several close-ups of his devilish face. The suspense built throughout the film. I have heard people say that it is "fun to be scared." Well, I know for me it wasn't fun. At one point, a torture chamber of nails was swung open to expose an awful long-haired skeleton. I really jumped out of my seat when that happened. I think from that point on, I closed my eyes for rest of the movie; unfortunately I could still hear the creepy music.
Finally, the film was over. We left the theater and walked out into the beautiful sunshine. Once we were outside, I felt a lot better. Sara and Ellen didn't seem to be as affected by the movie as I had been. They chattered about different scenes in the movie as Mrs. Lowen drove us home. Even hearing them talk about the film made me scared. I wished I had never seen the stupid Pit and the Pendulum. That night, I couldn't stop thinking about the film. I shared a room with my younger sister, Margaret, and I kept talking to her after the lights were out, trying to stave off my fears. I imagined that the horrible-looking skeleton was under my twin bed. I was truly and purely afraid. Margaret was sympathetic, but eventually, she fell asleep, and I was alone with my fears. I finally, gathered up all of my courage and jumped out of bed and ran across the hall to my parents' room. Both Mom and Dad woke up, and we talked about the movie. They tried to reassure me that the movie wasn't real and that I was safe. Mom walked me back to my room, and she slept at the foot of my bed until I went to sleep.
My fears were slow to fade. I can honestly say I was scared for at least a year after seeing the film. Somehow my feeling of security was shattered by a second-rate Hollywood production. I've since read Edgar Allen Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum." I can't seem to find much similarity between his story and the horrible movie that scared me so much back in the '50s. I've often thought about finding a copy of the movie and watching it now that I'm a grown adult. To tell you the truth, though, I don't think I want to take the chance of being scared like that again.
My Best Christmas Memory
Every year, for as long as I could remember, I always asked for a puppy for Christmas. We had a family dog, Barney. He was a sweet old dog, but he mainly just slept in the sunny spot on the living room carpet. I fantasized about having a furry puppy that would play with me. Of course, I reassured my parents, I would take care of the little dog. I promised I would feed, brush, and train him. I recruited my younger sister to also beg for a puppy. Margaret always asked for a horse, but I convinced her that our parents would never buy her a horse, but there was a chance we might get a puppy.
Excerpted from Our Yard on 2625 East Cedar Avenue and Other Stories and Poems by Trish Schreiber. Copyright © 2015 Trish Schreiber. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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