The Kitchen is Clean, I Put on a Dress, Let’s Dance.
My family was decidedly blue collar; all from Eastern European immigrants. Ethnic working class (working their way up from poor). No one knows about them—but you should. They teach us how to live for the moment, and at the same time, live on even after they are gone. Here’s how that looks:
Of my grandparents, three came from 100% Polish blood. My maternal grandfather was 100% German. They had their first children (my parents) within blocks of each other in the city of Chicago in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the women were 19 years old and the men 21. Those were hard times economically, and when my parents were small children their fathers left to fight WWII.
Both my grandfathers returned 4 years later and sunk into the depths of alcoholism, but that’s another story. In short, everyone survived and lived their own versions of a loving, hard-working, functionally dysfunctional life.
By the time I was paying attention as a young child in the 1960s, many relatives in our extended clan were movin’ on up—or out, I should say. Out to the suburbs of Chicago, leaving the grit of the city behind.
What You Missed
Besides the roughness of the city, what was also left behind was the old comforts of the Polish and German neighborhoods everyone was raised in. The candy store on one corner and the tavern on the other. Walking to the laundromat to wash your big bedspreads and rugs (you do that a lot if you’re Polish). Sitting on the stoops with your neighbors who are often your family.
Now, in the suburbs, aunties and grandpas and second cousins were still my neighbors, but we had to wait till my dad got home to drive over to see them. See, in the 1960s, a lot of city people didn’t drive, especially women, like my mom. So a lot of families only had one car. Like mine.
If I wanted to go to a Girl Scout event after school before my dad got home, I’d need to find a ride with the mom that had the station wagon. If we had doctor’s appointments, my dad got off early from work or we went on Saturday mornings. Think about that lifestyle for a moment…
Now let me take you back to what we did all day with no car and few activities outside the home.
Behind the Curtains
Suddenly we had better washing machines so we could wash our little rugs without the laundromat. Do you know these little rugs of which I speak?
We still have them: you put a lot of little area rugs on your floors — under your sinks where you do dishes all day, around your toilets and bathtubs, and by all entry and exit doors where the shoes are collected — to protect the floors, and your feet. Because you don’t wear shoes in your house.
Or at least, not in our houses.
In the 1960s you wore some form of stocking feet most of the time.
Unless it was a summertime play day and you came in from outside wearing thongs. That was what we called flip flops. I had to tell you that because I love how it makes so much sense, when you consider the shape of thong underwear and realize the namesake is what we used to call flip flops, with that one strip of material between the big toe and the toe next to it. :-)
Anyway, with the rugs fresh and clean off the bigger clothesline in your bigger suburban backyard, it was time to change your bedspreads. You have seasonal ones.
That’s right, you only have one car (and one TV with five channels), but you do have the luxury of seasonal bedspreads. So now you can wait to drive to the laundromat on the weekend with your family to wash the ones you’re taking off the beds, and you can spend the week putting on all these nice, just-unpacked ones for the current season. Let’s say it’s spring and you have some yellow and white cotton happening.
What remains for projects over the next many days, aside from regular house cleaning chores such as washing the floors underneath all those rugs, oh and get the baseboards while you’re at it, will be changing the curtains to the spring collection that matches the bedspreads and lightens up the kitchen. A bit of swiss dot perhaps.
Naturally, you will first have to wash all the windows, inside and out.
And iron all the curtains.
So it goes, season after season.
Wherever You Go, There You Dance
It was not drudgery, mind you. It was joy.
It was like HGTV episodes happening before your eyes all the time, and the owners are feeling really great with the changes, and it smells like crisp soapy pine and pure bleachy lemon, and you live there, or know who does.
There is female chatter (these are small group projects, often calling upon the sewing skills of grandma or the extra hands and height of an auntie). Sometimes there are soap operas and drama. Bursts of laughter. Compliments. Advice.
Often, there is music. And where there is music, there is a strong chance of dancing. My favorite. If you don’t dance during chores you probably have a much harder time enjoying your chores than my people always have.
Granted, these weren’t mini-mansions to care for. The suburban houses my family members moved into were modest. Nice, pretty, (clean!), but no one was movin’ on up in the way their offspring would do years later. Still, for all the larger, fancier homes we’ve grown accustomed to since those days, there has never been anything as wonderful and warm (okay, hot) as the original kitchens of the working class homes of my childhood.
With the curtains changed, the rugs washed and the floors cleaned, the weekend would come and it would be time to get in our car to go “visit.”
To “visit” was an entire category of recreation and fun. Sundays were for parties and dressing up, too. And when you’re a little girl (or a grown woman) with only a few special outfits reserved for dressing up, Sundays and parties are pretty damn exciting.
It might be church, dinner at grandma’s (which happened at lunchtime, by the way) or a trip to the city. Even better: was someone graduating, or having a birthday or their First Holy Communion?
That would mean a big party. Plastic platters and Pyrex bowls of amazing food coming from the HOT kitchen, out to where the action (booze) was.
Your choices: 1) church basement/social area (Sunday shoes) 2) back room of tavern/restaurant reserved for your group (shoes ultimately removed)
3) the garage/driveway (suburban garage/driveway = the new city stoop).
There would be music. If it was Sunday, there was a strong chance of AM radio featuring polka music. And dancing.
You should know about this.
Thongs in the freshly-swept garage, pantyhose in the hot kitchen, no matter. My people can make a dance floor anywhere.
No matter what else sucks, and how hard the work is. Or maybe it’s because something usually does suck, and it mostly is hard work. C’mon let’s go.
Watch out so you don’t trip on that pile of shoes on the rug.
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