My earliest memories

In my earliest memories, I am in the big house on 70th Street.  

It is morning and I am in the kitchen, pouring cereal into my breakfast bowl.  The summer sun is already streaming through the curtains Mom made for the kitchen windows.  The back door is open.  The growing warmth of the day can already be felt through the wood-frame screen door.  With cereal bowl in hand, and being mindful of the house rule to not let the spring-loaded screen door slam behind me, I walk out to the back porch, down the wood steps onto the backyard lawn.  Next to the wire fence separating our yard from the Farley’s, is a single raspberry bush.  I pick the ones ripened by yesterday’s sun, adding them to the cereal and milk.  I return to the porch steps, sit down in the sunshine and, spoonful by spoonful, eat my breakfast.

Mom is in the kitchen.  Her radio, permanently set to KOMO, sits atop the refrigerator.  Her apron is on over her house dress and she is singing along with her favorite songs.  She is in her 30s but looks younger, very much like her high school pictures in the photo albums.

Dad picks up his lunch pail and walks down the street to catch the bus to work.  When I am old enough to walk alone to the end of the block, I will wait for the Seattle Transit route #7 that brings him home.  As he steps off the bus, I will take his lunch pail and carry it for him, as we walk home together.

The house is a big, square two-story job.  The bedrooms and bathroom are upstairs.  My sisters share the bedroom in the back.  I have the smaller one in front, with a window overlooking the street.  From my upstairs perch, I watch the older kids playing, riding bikes, playing foursquare.  I can see Magnolia and Queen Anne hills.  I can see the three television broadcast towers.  On foggy mornings I can hear the foghorns from the West Point lighthouse.

Mom has a treadle sewing machine in the pantry, off the kitchen.  She make repairs or alteration to our clothing.  She buys patterns and yards of material to make camping shirts for all five of us, all alike.  Mine is the smallest.  Every summer, I look forward to wearing that shirt, the family uniform of vacation and adventure.

During the day, at home with Mom, I play on the living room floor.  The room seems enormous.  On a small part of it, I have constructed yet another village, pushing toy cars through the “streets” between my architecture of wooden blocks.  Each wooden block has blue-stenciled windows and doors on the sides.  They can be arranged to resemble homes or stacked into two-story buildings.

One day, Dad carries a brown corrugated carton in the front door.  He places it in the living room, opens it and takes out a television.  There’s no other place to put it, so Dad turns the box over and sits the small television on top.  It takes a while, but the rabbit-ear antenna finally produces a recognizable picture.  But there’s no sound.  It will take more finessing, and eventually a roof-mounted antenna, before the family can all watch TV together.  On Sunday evenings, Disneyland and Bonanza are the events of the week.  Everyone has bowls of Horlucks ice cream, while we watch TV.  

Two blocks away from our house is a corner grocery, a postage stamp size place, run by a couple who live in the back of the store.  There is another corner market to the north, and yet another two blocks to the east, which sports a full butcher shop in addition to the usual canned and dry goods, and bulk bins of penny candy.  Later, when am a bit older, I will be sent to one or another of these little stores with a list, a dollar or two, and the responsibility to buy and bring home some item Mom needs in the kitchen.  

At the corner of 65th and 32nd, several retail business are clustered around the the four-way stop.  There is a two-pump gas station on the northwest corner.  Across the street, Harry Otterson owns and runs the drugstore.  It is where Mom gets prescriptions filled and takes her rolls of film to be developed and printed.  Across the street from Ottersons, a nice old gentleman with a thick accent, grey rumpled hair, mustache, and a well-used work apron runs the shoe repair shop  To my young eyes, he and the machinery in his shop look incredibly old, as though they’ve been there forever.  Standing in front the tall counter I can barely see over, the place, the kindly old gentleman and his wife seem like illustrations from a fairy story.  

In contrast to the neighborhood cobbler, there is a relatively new feature, a supermarket, outsized by the standards of the little neighborhood.  It has its own parking lot, spaces for maybe ten cars, and rolling shopping carts.  The pharmacy, shoe repair and other businesses are small by comparison.  It is one of the first signs of the future, change that will remake this small stand of retail buildings several times over the coming decades.

Mom and Dad prefer to do their weekly grocery shopping in the central neighborhood business district a mile or so away.  Each Friday night after Dad returns from work, we pile into the Pontiac, stop at the bank so he can cash his check.  He and Mom hold out enough to manage the household during the coming week and deposit the rest to their savings account.  Then, we go to the A&P.  The aisles are long.  Compared to the corner stores near home, the place is huge.  Produce is along one wall.  The meat counter is in the back.  We stop in the aisle where the Eight O’Clock coffee is shelved.  Mom empties whole beans from the tin container into the self-serve grinder.  She turns the dial to the proper position for percolator grind.  On another aisle, bread is put in the cart; boxes of cereal from another.  If I am very lucky, I may be allowed to add a bottle of soda to the cart, as a Friday night treat while watching The Flintstones.

As we leave the store, the grocery bag, filled to the top, sits on the back seat next to me.  It fills the air with the combined fragrance of freshly ground coffee, celery and brown paper.  It is the aroma of abundance.  For the rest of my life, no matter how old I become, the combination of those grocery store smells transport me back to the Pontiac, coming home on Friday evenings.

On weekends, I follow Dad around as he does yard work, or works at his bench in the basement, or on his project in the garage.  He has drawings and patterns for a home built camp trailer.  Mom has been sewing the canvas for the sides, while Dad does the carpentry.  Once he has the sides on, he starts work on the inside, bunks and cupboards.  It is starting to look like a what it will become.

While the work proceeds, we go camping on summer weekends with the old tent.  Dad packs sleeping bags, air mattresses, the Coleman stove, lantern, ice box and Mom’s camping cookware into a one-wheel trailer hitched to the rear bumper of the ‘47 Pontiac. We  spend many summer weekends at campgrounds all over the state.  We go on hikes around the campground.  I ride on Dad’s shoulders.

The genuine memories blur with the scores of scrapbook photos my mother has taken over the years.  Mom’s pictorial history of her life started long before I was born, but it is the photos of our family life on 70th Street I remember most.  First with her Kodak Brownie 127 and later with Instamatics, first in black and white, then color, my mother recorded her life in the house, first as an adolescent living there with her mother father, brothers and sisters and then as a young wife and mother after buying the house from her dad.  I will grow up looking at albums filled with her photos, each one inscribed with a caption, in her hand.  I watch my mother in the living room at her folding card table, organizing her photos, laying them out in her scrapbooks.  Lying on the living room rug, elbows on the floor, chin resting in my hands, I pass time with her photo albums.  Easter pictures of all of us in the front yard, wearing our best clothes.  Christmas in the living room, all of us in pajamas and robes, opening presents.  Summer holidays at the picnic table in the backyard.  Rare winters when snow covered the neighborhood.  Vacations, with the car and camp trailer at the curb in front of the house, packed and ready for two weeks of adventure, all of us wearing the matching camp shirts.  

But the division between the snapshots and my memories is, in the end, unimportant.  The memories and the images have fused.

In these earliest memories of life, the house and my family are my whole world.  In my early awareness, our home cannot be separated from my mother, my mother from my father, my parents from my sisters.  It’s as though it couldn’t have been any other way.  

* * *

One of the few consolations in any life is a sense of the familiar, with all of its imperfections.”

Pete Hamill, Downtown


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3 Responses to My earliest memories

  1. Craig MacDonald says:

    Do you have those photos? If you do I sure think you need to share them here so we can see what you so effectively describe.

  2. James Hunter says:

    Alas, the photo albums were left to Mom’s granddaughter….

  3. James Hunter says:

    Alas, the photo albums have been left to the custody of the next generation, Mom’s granddaughter.

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