We were happy in our little shack."
No one had to tell us we lived in a shack at the bottom of Chestnut Hill. We knew we lived in a shack but it was our shack. We loved it and were happy in it. All around us there were beautiful houses with large manicured lawns. Mom said they were old Victorian houses with warm fireplaces and indoor toilets and bathtubs. Some houses even had gorgeous race horses fenced in and grazing in their backyards. Mama said the neighbors wanted our shack condemned and torn down because it was an eyesore. Pop said we will live in our shack until they kick us out and that is what we did and we were happy.
It was actually a two-family house. We lived on the south side facing downtown and a very old lady lived on the north side with her thirty year old grandson named Boogie Boy. He got that name because he was not right in the head. When he was a teenager, he spent five years in a reform school for beating up his math teacher. Mama warned that we were to run inside when he came out of the house. One day, he got crazy and started a big fire on his side of the house. His grandmother cried when the police took him away. We never saw him after that and a year later, his grandmother died. Mama said she died of a broken heart.
There were five of us living in that old shack. Mama, pop and three wee ones. Big brother Shoo, Yay-Yay, middle Shoo and me, Sasha, baby Shoo. In the winter, we lived mostly in the kitchen because the coal-burning stove was our only source of heat. We had a radio and during the day mama listened to her soap operas and at night, we listened to shows like, Amos and Andy, Jack Benny, The Inner Sanctium, The Lone Ranger and The Shadow.
Pop would put chicken eggs in a cardboard box behind the stove to incubate baby chicks. The wee ones would stand for hours waiting for the first sign of a little crack. Squealling with glee, after seeing a crack, we waited for a little pink, furless leg to appear, then another and then a head with beady eyes. These funny looking skinny, naked chicks would grow into adorable soft yellow fuzzballs. They were so little, they fit easily in our tiny palms.
There was an outhouse behind the chicken coop and pop would hang up torn pieces of the Sears and Roebuck catalog on a hook which was used as toilet paper. The wee ones bathed in round, silver, tin washtubs near the stove. Mama and pop bathed in larger oval shaped washtubs when we were asleep.
Two important things happened that changed our lives. Grandma moved in. Mama said she was from the old country. Where that was, I didn't know but she spoke a strange language which only mama understood. She eventually picked up a few English words from us but spoke so funny, we kids giggled and laughed. She moved in with a large, battered, black, steamer trunk and inside was her large, fluffy, handmade comforter filled with goose feathers. We three kids slept with her in a big bed upstairs above the kitchen under that puffy comforter and were very warm and happy. We loved our grandma. After eating, she took her teeth out because her gums hurt and had lots of gas, which made us kids giggle even more. Twice a week, grandma would wake up early with the rooster and while daddy got fresh coal and stoked the fire, grandma would start baking loaves of bread. The night before, she prepared the dough and it would rise in time for morning baking. The wee ones woke up to the aroma of freshly baked bread and we felt like we had gone to heaven. For holidays, she made a special powdered-sugar pastry just for us which mama called grandma's angel-wings.
The second important thing that happened was a big war which started by some very bad men in grandma's old country somewhere overseas. I asked pop where overseas was and he said it was across a very big ocean which was big enough to take grandma many hard months in a crowded ship to cross over to get here. Mama was worried and cried because we still had lots of relatives overseas in the old country. They were in grave danger of getting killed and we heard some were hiding in attics, in cold cellars and heavy forests.
We had to get special books which held something called rations to buy food, such as sugar, butter, milk, bread and flour. Pop got gas rations for his work truck and cigarettes. We helped mama stuffing and wrapping care packages for our young boys fighting those bad men overseas. We packed up hand-knitted socks, gloves, hats, gum, candy and cigarettes. Pop stripped off silver cigarette wrappings and when we had enough we helped him roll the silver paper into balls. "For the war effort," pop said. Mama gave up her silk stockings for the war effort too. They were used to make something called parachutes for our airplanes. At night, there was something called a blackout. Everybody in town had to draw down all the shades and turn off the lights. Daddy said it was to prevent the bad guys from flying over our town and bombing us. Sitting in the dark and scared, we listened quietly for any sound of airplanes flying above. The next morning, we found ourselves tucked snug and safe in our beds knowing we got through one more night without being bombed by the bad guys from overseas.
Soon, special little flags with big yellow stars appeared in lots of front windows. Mama said when we pass by one of those windows, we should say a prayer because in that house, lived one of our brave soldiers who died fighting overseas. That made us wee ones sad every time we passed by one of those windows.
It was mama's dream to have our own house some day. A house with an indoor bathroom, heat in every room and a large lawn with apple trees, flower beds and lots of lilac bushes. And every year, pop promised mama he would buy us our own big house but mama just laughed when pop made promises. She said it was another one of his big whoppers. Big Shoo had to explain what a big whopper was. Another big whopper which never came true. But I wanted this big whopper to come true. We all did.
One Christmas night, after the wee ones helped mama decorate the tree, pop came down those wobbly, old uneven attic stairs, holding two large green-tinted pickle jars filled to the top with shiny brown pennies. He poured the pennies all over mama's bed and squealling with delight, the wee ones jumped up and down, taking turns making penny snow angels. Tossing pennies about us, we kept yelling, "Mama, we are rich! We are rich! Now pop can buy us our new house." Mama laughed and said, "Pop will have to fill up a few more pickle jars before we can afford our new house." Then and there, the wee ones made a promise to save every single penny they got their tiny hands on to fill those extra pickle jars. Big Shoo even promised to give up his favorite Bazooka bubble gum.