When I Was Little

by Wendy Hermance

My first memories were of living with my father, my mother and my brother in Florham Park, New Jersey in a tiny, 18th century frame house on an endless, bare back yard that sloped into a woods. The land must have been farmed at one time, though the soil was dry and sandy. We had a rusty, used slide that ended in a small sand pile, and that was it.  

Inside, the house was never finished.  My father tore the walls out and we lived with open cavities. This was interesting for what he found and showed me; a tiny bisque doll known as a Frozen Charlotte, and a black, shriveled, leather shoe of a little child. Outside, my second-story bedroom window faced a busy road, but was well-protected by a huge and fragrant lilac tree. To this day I love flowers and the color lilac is especially mine.

Across the street lived a Japanese family in a modern split-level house. My mother would visit their mother for tea, bringing us along. I think they had a well-behaved boy and girl a few years older than us, who paid us no attention. Their mother gave us travelling plums; salty, sweet and licorice-flavored. Some were dry and hard and needed to be sucked and nibbled at before the thin fruit separated from the seed.  Others were soft and gooey, like the insides of soft dates.  They were wrapped in double wrappers, signifying their specialness. 

Otherwise I ate carrots, so many carrots!  I was never without one clutched in my fist at this time, so that one visitor - a nasty and presumptuous man, who might have been a Realtor appraising our house for foreclosure because we lost it soon after - told me I would get “carrot poisoning” and my skin would turn orange. Even at the age of four, I knew the man was an idiot. He was pasty-skinned and smoking a cigarette as he criticized my diet. He knew nothing of value.

We also had a dog named Percival, or Percy. He was a Wire-Haired Terrier from the pound. The otherwise perfectly-tailored little chap had been hurt and his jaw was crooked so he appeared to be smiling all the time. He loved us so that he let us push and drag him up the steep, metal slide steps and push him down the polished steel chute. At the bottom he waited patiently allowing us to cover him in sand, wincing but without complaint. Allegedly he bit the mail man. Allegedly he made my brother allergic. When we moved into my grandmother´s house, he was disappeared. This was my first brush with injustice.

From Florham Park we had moved to Madison, the next town over, into the half-timbered Tudor my grandfather had built. My grandfather had just died by then. His name was James Alexander Smith, although this was a made-up name as he was a foundling. He was a bit aloof, (although also sick). He was a circuit court judge and a successful insurance and real estate man, who probably never had much time for children. I remember Sunday lunches with my grandfather, the drive to Howard Johnsons restaurant for fried clam strips and chocolate-chip-mint ice cream, dyed an elegant, bluish-green pastel. This was a very fancy occasion for us. I would be dressed in a party dress with wide crinoline, and a ribbon sash tied in a bow at my back. To this day I will never pass up fried clams with tomato ketchup. I have painted the walls to every home I have lived in for 25 years in a similar ice cream pale green. 

Soon after we moved into her house my grandmother moved out. She moved to the next town over, Chatham, into a brand-new apartment complex. In her Spartan way, it was a one-bedroom. She outfitted the room with twin beds painted white, except for small oval decals of 18th Century French pic nickers. It had one bath room, tiled walls and floor in the pink of a happy cartoon pig. This may have been a sign of her ironic sense of humor. Everything else about her was understated. My grandmother always had a stylish car. I remember her elegant, black bodied, white-topped Studebaker Hawk parked beneath the beech tree in our leaf-littered, macadam driveway. Her next car was a white VW with red vinyl interior. It was probably a Type 3, Notchback hatchback.  This would have been around 1963.

I was always impressed with my grandmother´s car savvy and proud to drive with her in her car. She otherwise spent next to nothing on herself, wearing the same, charcoal-grey wool pencil skirt and white, lace adorned, short-sleeved blouse every day in three seasons. In the summer she rotated three cheap, sleeveless, nylon shift dresses in abstract prints. They were bought from Robert Hall and cost $6 each. The one I remember her wearing most was also black and white. In all weather she wore a full girdle that included the bra, and sheer hose. I never recall her getting cold. She moved with a bustling march and she whisper-whistled little ditties she made up as she went about her business. I have never owned a nylon shift, but I remember pausing in 2012 mid slice above a block of sharp cheddar cheese in my Sydney kitchen, because I realized that I was wearing a charcoal grey pencil skirt and a frilly white, short-sleeved blouse, preparing the same crumbly, velvety cheese I´d watched her prepare for me countless times wearing the same outfit. 

Her married name was Dorothy DeWarren Smith. Her father was a Waller and my name was once pointed out to me in the pages of Debretts Peerage and Baronetage. My mother´s first cousin, Bobby lived a world away from us - in Massachusetts. He had inherited the title Baronet along with a small castle. I met him only twice and briefly at our house. 

My grandmother was a proper Victorian lady, who had once been a fun-loving girl. She taught us games like Come She Comes, a version of I Spy, and Ghost, a spelling game well-played in a car. She was now saddled with some responsibility for her daughter´s wrong choices. She smoked occasional Tareytown cigarettes, the kind advertised with people with a black eye captioned I´d rather fight than switch, until she switched to Parliaments. We called her Little Gram, and knew that she had been called “Dot” by her friends as a girl. She had no local friends, but once her childhood friend, Mignon came to visit. I remember walking into my grandmother´s apartment bedroom to see a plump, completely naked woman seated on my grandmother´s dressing stool brushing her long, chestnut brown hair, which fell below her hips. She must have been in her 60s. She turned to me without getting up or covering up to chat with me pleasantly. That was Mignon. 

On Sundays my family went to Little Gram´s for lavish meals she made us; top quality roasts of meat with small round, roasted potatoes, side dishes of artichokes, and always a beautiful green salad with ripe, red tomatoes and avocado slices. This was at a time when salads were being concocted of Jello and mini marshmallows. She also served only whole wheat Hollywood brand bread and used Hollywood brand safflower oil. I have no idea where she found such things back then. We ate off Mayflower Vernon Kilns California Pottery that she may have bought on a long-distant visit to her wild, younger sister, Miram, who lived in Los Gatos. 

My father´s car was the Old Merc. It was a massive tank of polished rust that he loved. Its interior was heavy wool in a beige and rust-brown stripe like blankets. It was in perfect shape. We slept in the back seat, but I remember most standing next to my father as he drove, leaning against his shoulder. This is how tall the cabin was. He would tune the radio to the classical music station or to big-band jazz with lush instrumentals and he would discuss the music with us. My mother´s car was a green station wagon, always for work, always a mess. She did not enjoy driving and I hated being in that car and was not in it often.

My father dropped out of school in the 4th grade to work during the Great Depression. He cleaned up construction sites. He met my mother when they were both volunteers at a community theatre, she a budding actress and he a carpenter building sets. My father told me how he bought a box of Nabisco Ginger Snaps and ate them for his lunch with a quart of milk. The other food he told me about was buckwheat pancakes -which were somehow available to buy back then in normal grocery stores as a mix.  My father brought me salted pretzel sticks from the bar he favored, Flynn`s Tavern. I always called them prenzils. I went to Flynn`s Tavern with him a few times. The other working-class men were always kind to me. The pretzels came in small, flat, white cardboard boxes that served as elegant serving trays once the clear cellophane top had been peeled off. They were Ballantine brand to go with the Ballantine beer. We picked at the prenzils daintily as if they were a great delicacy, licking our fingers to collect the course salt crystals in the corners of the box, (although sometimes we grabbed fists of them and shoved them in our mouths). My father also brought home apples for us, a single apple. With the few beers and the pretzels they were all he could afford from the allowance my mother gave him. My parents fought all the time, possibly about money, and probably also about the unbreachable divide of class. 

What my father could not give in material things, he made up for by sharing his time and his imagination. The other fathers were all successful executives working in New York City, or at Bell Labs or Sandoz, or one of the other nearby New Jersey pharmaceutical or chemical companies. Their corporate headquarters were always set on vast, green lawns. At least some of the other men may have had a grudging respect for my father for the time that he spent with their kids. 

About the Author

Wendy Lee Hermance was trained in journalism at Stephens College. She worked for the University of Missouri and Kansas Public Radio and for various South Carolina non-profits designing programming, publications, and writing grants. She has written and produced freelance features for regional publications and for American Public Media. Wendy is a self-taught conservator of old buildings, who has been recognized by the State of Maryland and the City of Charleston, South Carolina. After 20 years in property management, she returned to school, entering the experimental Project Management Leadership program at the University of Sydney. There she wrote about disaster management, distributed workplaces, command and control, informal networks, coordination theory, organizations, resilience, labor law, volunteers and social cohesion. Almost all of these topics made devotion to termite removal or kitchen tap selection seem dull, so she started writing again. Her first book, What’s that Stuff? A Natural Foods Reference Guide (now out of print) is to be followed by her forthcoming Weird Foods of Portugal. Wendy is a member of the Poetry Society of South Carolina and a contributor to The Avocet. She lives.