Things I Never Told Nana

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My father and I never bonded, hell sometimes I wondered if he even knew who I was. From the time I was born until age 15 when he died, he only actually communicated to me twice. Oh yeah, once in a great while he told me to do things, but that’s talking, not communicating. My bad, I forgot, he taught me the difference in spelling lavatory and laboratory when I was about eight, but that was it for father/son bonding. I can remember as a young kid how I wanted to badly for my dad to notice me the way he seemed to notice my two older brothers, especially the older one, Ronnie. But he didn’t: as a matter of fact neither did Ronnie.

I first began to notice this when we moved from our house in Camden, a suburb of Minneapolis to an apartment over the “dairy store” my parents bought at 1119 East Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. In the front room, which was over the front part of the store, my parents had their bed set up in a closet area. Next was the living room with an inside staircase to the store, then my brothers’ room (I had two brothers) was next to the dining area where the space heater was. At the back wall of the dining area was a door into the kitchen, bathroom and my room sort of behind the refrigerator (a Kelvinator, in case you wanted to know). My room was the darkest as it only had one window which had a large tree overhanging it. I always wanted to climb that tree but never did because I was afraid of heights: the fact is heights still bother me but not as bad as when I was a kid.

The kitchen had a door leading out to a very scary old set of wooden stairs leading down to the dirt parking lot in back of the store. About halfway down, there was a small landing then where they made a left angle (if you were ascending) turn and ran adjacent to the “bottle shed” where we stored all the empty refundable bottles. Everything was refundable back then, well not exactly everything, I wasn’t, but then that was my fate. Almost from the time I could walk, it was my job to sort the empty bottles by make, size and what they were used for. I learned to hate Grain Belt and Hamm’s beer bottles cause their labels were always sticky.

Constructed of corrugated tin panels over the wood frame on a dirt floor, the “bottle shed” had no heat in winter and no air conditioning in summer. Winter wasn’t so bad, but summer was a killer with the heat, humidity, and bugs. Come to think of it, we had those same three problems in the apartment, the bugs especially in my room because it was almost right over the shed. I can remember having a lot of those sticky fly traps things hanging over my window and the doorway. The spiders never had to weave webs in our home, the fly traps provided their meals.

My room was the coldest one in our apartment, but I got used to it. Guess that’s why I can’t sleep well when it gets too warm in my bedroom now. Thank God for central air conditioning, back then we cooled at night by setting a block of ice in a large bucket then having a fan blow over it. If that didn’t work, we soaked our sheets, then got as much water out of them as possible before wrapping ourselves in them to lay down in front of the ice block. I’m surprised I never wet the bed, then or now.

I don’t recall my mother ever coming into my room at bedtime for anything other than to tell me to put the book down and go to sleep. My dad didn’t even come in to do that. Nope, I never heard: “Did you brush your teeth? Did you go to the bathroom? Did you say your prayers? I wasn’t subjected to any of those ridiculous practices. To this day, I don’t know if my brothers were either because they slept near mom and dad; I didn’t have to.

I was lonely at times, but I had my good friend Teddy with me. Yep, you guessed it, I had a real Teddy Bear. Nana gave him to me, and I named him Teddy; I was talented even as a child. Nana told me that Teddy was named after President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt so I should be proud; I was, and still am.

I told Teddy everything – all my hidden stuff and more. Even things I tried talking to Nana about, but they might hurt her to know. I don’t know why I felt that way other than the fact that I never, ever wanted to hurt her in any way. I guess I was afraid of losing her love yet knew Teddy would always love me: he was the brother I never had.

For awhile, I wanted to call Nana and tell her everything, but I didn’t dare. Back in the 1950s, we didn’t have cell phones, and long distances calls were expensive. There was no way I could hide calling on our phone, and I didn’t have money to use the pay phone on the corner. I think I once tried to call her on the police call phone next to the pay phone, but the operator told me to hang up. It was ok though, I probably could not have heard Nana with all the buses and streetcars making noise. I liked the streetcars but the buses always coughed black, smelly smoke when they started to more.

My older (by 3 years) brother David hated Teddy, but I think he hated me even more because he would do things to hurt me. He would think it funny to steal from me, lie about me and even harm Teddy. Once, he even cut Teddy’s neck so bad I had to suture it up. That’s when I learned how to sew, not real well but I did suture my Teddy until Nana could show me how to do it properly. She said I did a good job of basting it then gave me a curved needle and heavier thread to “heal your Teddy.”  I actually enjoyed hand sewing for many years and later in life when I began getting arthritis, I started to do satin stitch embroidery. I figured that is Rosie Greer could do needlepoint, so could I.

“Be sure you sew the cloth, not the fingers!” was Nana’s credo. Funny, even now, some sixty odd years since last we spoke, I can still hear Nana’s voice. She was a born teacher; one that never stood at the head of a class but she was always at the head of my class.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nana and Henry

Don’t you love those nostalgic memories that seem to pop up at the oddest times?

When I was in the first grade at Adams Elementary School on Franklin Avenue at Bloomington Avenue, four long city blocks from where we lived above our little store at 1119 East. Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN., I had to walk to school every day.

Now don’t start ragging on me about it being only four blocks from home. It was in Minnesota where winter starts right after Labor day and ends just before Mother’s day (sometimes), and I was only five years old. Between the street cars, the diesel buses, the other cars, and trucks spewing gasses and dust filling my lungs with all kinds of stuff I didn’t need, it was a challenge just walking down the sidewalk. Winter wasn’t so bad because the snowplows piled the snow up on the sidewalk so tall I couldn’t see over them. If the store owners got out early and shoveled, then it was relatively smooth sliding along on the ice because the wall of snow sent the smog above us. The sad part was that we always had black and brown snow because of all the crap in the air.

So, I would walk to school on the South side of Franklin Avenue and return home on the North side so where the Old Dutch Potato Chip company had a plant. Oh my god, if you haven’t smelled fresh potato chips on a cold winter’s day, you haven’t lived. We, my buddy Henry who walked to and from school with me, would stand in front of the big window and watch the chips being bagged by the machine. I think the imprint of our lips and drool are still on that window if it’s there.

Even today, 68 years later, when I smell fresh potato chips I think of Henry, one of the best friends I ever had, but he was a Negro. That seemed to be important to people sometimes cause when we would be walking home from school, they would make nasty comments about a white boy and a nigger walking together.

I once asked my Nana why people, especially my mom didn’t like Henry and she said it was only because he “is a knee-grow” and “those people were wrong because they don’t use the brains God gave them. Your friend is no different than anyone else, in fact, he’s better than most cause he let you be his friend.”

But Nana,  his mom is white, and his dad is black!

“So, what does that prove? Do they take good care of your friend? Do they love him? Are they nice people?”

I think so, yes.

“Then, their skin color makes no difference, does it?

But Nana, how can he be black like that when his momma is white, and his dad is black – shouldn’t he be like a zebra?

I think Nana, and maybe Henry too is still laughing about that one.

I never did see his knee grow, but that’s ok, because he was then, and remains in my heart as Henry, my bestest friend ever.

Nana said I was a gifted little boy because I saw people “through the eyes of a blind man” and heard their words “with deaf ear.”

“When you look at Henry, you don’t see his skin, you know his heart.”

Nana, though you are gone, yet remain. Your words still echo in my mind.

I miss you both.