What is a kitchen?

Allotment garden, Neville Place

Next to Neville Place there are allotment gardens that swarm with insects in the summer because of the flowers and vegetables that people plant there.

The heart of our kitchen was the iron and nickel (the ancestor of chrome) coal stove, cook stove, and heat source in one: “Happy Thought", manufactured in Pittston by the Pittston Stove Company. It was about four feet wide, three feet deep and the surface was about three feet high. The body of the stove contained the oven chamber. The fire box had two stove lids; opposite the firebox, there was a shelf where my mother kept her pot of tea. Above the surface was another shelf. Below the fire box, a space for the ashes which were removed by opening a narrow door with isinglass windows. In the corner of the kitchen next to the stove was a chair where I spent many hours listening to the singing of the kettle, watching the blue flames of the burning pea coal through the tilted stove lids.

Only Ma tended the stove: she laid the fire, kept it going, damped it down at night, and in the morning, poured pea coal on the embers to start it up again, to warm the house, to prepare breakfast for Pa before he went out to his work in the mines.

When I was nine, Ma took out a mortgage with the Miners Bank to pay for some expansions: another bedroom upstairs, and, when a water line was brought into the house, a toilet was installed in a little room off the kitchen.

Until the toilet room was enlarged and a bath was added, the kitchen served also as the bathroom. When Pa came home from working his shift, Ma would have brought the wooden tub in from the porch and put it on the floor next to the stove. She would have heated water for the bath. Pa took off his cap with the carbide lamp and hung it on a hook on the back porch. He took off his coal be—grimed clothes, stripped to the waist, and knelt on the floor at the wooden tub. He soaped his hair, his face and his upper body, rinsed, and then, either Ma or I would wash his back. Then we children who were left at home, my younger sister and I, would be banished until Pa had finished bathing in the tub.

The wooden tub, the family bathtub, also served as laundry tub; Ma did our laundry using a scrub board, whites and bed linens were boiled in the copper boiler on the stove. The boiler also had another life, but that's another story.

Evenings Pa would sit at his side of the kitchen table to read the newspaper, one of the three or four Lithuanian papers , like the one published by the Lithuanian Alliance, Tevyne (Fatherland), or the Socialist paper, Keleivis (Wayfarer), [or the paper published by the Franciscan Fathers,] Darbininkas (The Worker). I was allowed to read over his shoulder. Ma, as a non-reader, had the benefit of many reading aloud sessions: sometimes, when Pa didn't go out in the evening, he read to her from the Lithuanian translation of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the hero [of which] was a Lithuanian immigrant working in the stockyards of Chicago. During the reading, Ma was usually darning socks, or the long underwear Pa wore under his workclothes. Sometimes it seemed the original material couldn't be seen, only darning. For darning, she used string from package wrapping, string she had untwisted and then plied again to a smaller thickness for darning. As Pa read, I stood in back of his chair and followed the Lithuanian words, learning the pronunciation of unfamiliar ones, and eventually I became the reader. I asked Ma why she had never learned to read; her father had made the attempt to teach her. She said she never had time, she was always working, (once, she said: "I workin’, I workin’ , I workin’ like a mulas!") and besides, when she didn't know a letter or a word, she simply poked it out. So much for reading. My own love for reading, taking example from Pa, was fostered by my oldest sister who borrowed for me my first library book, and got me my first library card. I couldn't believe my luck; she brought home from the library a brand new book, never before borrowed: Becky Landers, Frontier Warrior, by Constance Lindsay Skinner. When I began to go to the library alone, I read my way around the juvenile section, then started on adult fiction, evenings after school. And here began a long friendship with the librarian, Hazel Poe. The books I borrowed kept me up, reading at the kitchen table, late, after everyone else was in bed, until Ma would reminded me of the expense.

In winter, when Ma and I were alone, we had a boring occupation: pulling the barbs from feathers. My grandmother and I would have gone to the butcher shop, where Mr. Pugliese gave us access to the cellar and the barrels of chicken feathers plucked from the chickens on display in the shop upstairs. We had with us a burlap bag, and we reached into the barrels for the wet, sometimes bloody chicken feathers, and if we were lucky, duck feathers and down. We stuffed the bag full, regretting we couldn't take them all, and trundled them home in my coaster wagon. At home, Ma washed the feathers, dried them, and in the evenings, we sat at the kitchen table, a pile of feathers between us, and pulled the barbs from the spines of the feathers, putting the spines in one pile, to be discarded later, the barbs in another, for making pillows, or feather beds. Too soon, the softness of the feathers grew boring and I would suggest I read to Ma instead. And I went on with the story of Jurgis in the stockyards.

There were many conversations around the kitchen table: stories about who did or who didn't send a relative a ship ticket, events in Lithuania, then a new republic, about the coup d’ état by Voldemaras, stories told and re—told about occurrences, like the time a child was being taken by the godparents to the church for christening, but they, having been sent on their way well fortified with spirits, dropped the child in the snow, but fortunately, found it again and fulfilled their duty. But, the conversation went, “Who knows, what damage was done . . . that could explain a lot of things.” And the bottle went the rounds: Pa, Uncle Varash, or less frequently, my godfather, who seldom drank. He had been a responsible godparent: I hadn’t been dropped in the snow! The interesting thing about these conversations was the easy slipping into character, when the speakers were quoting someone: the tone of voice, an attitude, a gesture -— they became the other person, affected the other person's dialect and intonation.

Although Pa did not go to church, and Ma rarely did, except for special days like Easter or when some missionary was visiting, Pa did occasionally take out his hymnal, and sing psalms to a remembered melody. Otherwise, his singing was associated with the amount of alcohol he'd had. Sometimes he'd come home singing, and all was well. Other times he just sat down at the kitchen table and demanded his supper. Then again, in a sentimental, self-pitying vein, (implying that things might have been different with another kind of wife?) it was lamenting the turn his life had taken. And Ma just tended the stove, fed the cat at its dish under the stove, gave Pa his food, bided her time, kept the home fires burning.

[This is one of a series of autobiographical essays that Lenore wrote for a course at the Radcliffe Institute given by Prof. Jane Rabb in 2001. Other essays are listed below]

Lindy's Sister

Text © Lenore M. Dickinson 2017. [scanned and OCRed by TAD using ViewScan 9.95.94]