KITCHEN COMMERCE and SUMMER
Our end of Foundry Street
was bounded on the West by Farmer John's field which I
remember as mostly fallow, and on the East, by the
railroad and the Glen Alden iron foundry. This is the
microcosm that inhabits my memory. In the field, my
friends (mostly boys) and I built ‘bunks” , lean-tos or
shacks we called our clubhouses, in which we tried often
to work out some initiation rites, but never did. If I was
successful in purloining some William Penn tobacco from my
father’s supply, we wrapped it in pieces of newspaper and
attempted to smoke it. Or we made sling guns, using bands
cut from inner tubes which we wrapped around blocks of
wood to mimic a revolver. When the piece of wood holding
the rubber was released, the rubber flew toward a target.
My best friend Louis Mascagni and I had mounted one of
these on an upended peck basket, where it became a machine
gun. Poor Louis -- he was teased unmercifully when he
claimed priority of invention for us and limited access to
it: : “Only Lenore can use my guns" in our games of
cowboys and Indians. We played Reliev-o and hide-and-seek.
Or my sister and I, in rare collaboration, would sing the
songs of the day (where did we hear them?): “Carolina
moon, keep shining..."
These are summer memories.
And to the summer belongs the procession of itinerant
peddlers and traders who came to the immigrant families.
On a balmy afternoon, when the housewives would have done
their housework, and, as my mother did, changed their
aprons and sat in the rocker on the porch, the seller of
fortunes came with a parrot perched on his shoulder and a
pegboard in his hand. For a nickel, which he nipped from
your fingers, the parrot pecked out a piece of accordion
pleated paper from one of the holes in the pegboard. Good
fortune or bad fortune? It didn’t matter. “Thank you,
lady,” screeched the parrot.
Mr. Sutton, the huckster,
came weekly in summer, his plodding horse pulling a wagon
loaded with crates of vegetables and fruit. The horse
waited patiently while Mr. Sutton, a somewhat taciturn
man, dealt with his customers, mostly the Irish and Welsh
families. The Italians had their own gardens, as did we...
Still, though my mother did not patronize Mr. Sutton, I
did taste Mr. Sutton’s strawberries. Mrs. Mooney sat on
her front stoop and hulled them, passing one or two along
to me, as I sat by her side. Farmer John's only commerce
was with the man who delivered truckloads of grapes in the
Fall, and we knew what he was going to do with those.
Mr. Catrone, a presence — in bulk
and in personality — lived at the end of our
block. He bought watermelons from a peddler — with great
deliberation. He would stroll up to the loaded wagon,
select a watermelon, heft it, thump it, put it down. Then
he would take out his pearl handled clasp knife and unfold
the blade. Masterfully, he would cut a plug out of the
melon, and if the rosy, juicy meat was to his liking he
would pay. In the same manner, he bought his cheeses from
another vendor. Only if the plug of cheese had reached his
standard of aging would he pay. This was my first
experience of connoisseurship. For me, his taste was
surpassed only by another Italian who stopped at the
corner of our garden where my mother had roses and mint
and rue and dahlias, our amenity corner. He leaned over
the fence, plucked a leaf of mint, bruised it, rolled it
into a slender tube and tucked into a nostril — it was as
though he had picked a rose and stuck it in his buttonhole
— and he continued his walk.
The most exotic and intimidating
commercial visitor was a Turkish woman who
dominated the space she occupied. She swaggered up the
walk, greeted my mother with a flashing gold-toothed smile
(more of a grin), and announced she had just what Ma
needed. She came into the kitchen, sank in heap to the
linoleum floor, her skirts billowing around her. She had
slung her pack from her shoulder and proceeded to untie
the knots that held the four corners of her pack together.
As she did so, she extolled the quality and beauty and,
especially, the priceworthiness of the things she was
going to show my mother. She extracted length after length
of printed cotton yard goods, toweling, dress lengths, all
the while chattering away, "Cheap! Cheap!” And then
suddenly, to me, “Good girl, get me a glass of water...
good girl!” I gave her the water, and she went on. Ma did
succumb to her sales talk. The lengths of material she
bought joined many other such purchases in the upstairs
bedroom, where we discovered them, many years later.
The blanket salesman was a regular
visitor with samples of his mixed cotton and
wool blankets. He wheedled and persuaded my mother to
agree to pay twenty-five cents a week for a blanket he
would deliver later. The agreement was formalized by her
having a card, grid lined, where the weekly payments were
noted. Those blankets did not wear well — after a season
or two, the nap wore off and the weaving structure was all
too visible. Fortunately, we never gave up my mother’s
down filled comforters.
Most likely the blankets
would eventually be sold as rags to the ragman
[skudurininkas] . When we heard the tin horn’s “Too - de -
doo!" it was the signal that the ragman was approaching.
No bargaining. He would toss the burlap bag of rags, old
metal (if we had any , or had been able to scavenge any
from the dump) into the back of his wagon, after having
given us five cents a pound (his highest offer) for the
lot. My mother swore that the ragman was Lithuanian: his
horn’s “too - de - doo!” was surely “Skudurul" “Rags!”
My favorite vendor was a
seller of dried herbs and seeds. A young Lithuanian woman,
blond, green-eyed, and speaking a beautiful Lithuanian
seldom heard outside of church. She would sit in the grape
arbor, and as she opened her case, the fragrance of
distant fields and forests would envelop us. As she opened
the packets of dried camomile flowers, linden flowers,
packets of tisanes, herbal teas, she would describe the
attributes of each: this one for night sweats, that for
congestion; this for a sound sleep, that, for soothing
aching joints. I was enchanted by her speech, Lithuanian
of incomparable beauty, and I would have bought her entire
stock, if only to hear her speak, again and again.
[This is another of the 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]
is a kitchen?
Text © Lenore M. Dickinson 2019. [scanned
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Professional Edition and an Agfa SnapScan e50 flatbed