My Man’s Man Wore A Nightie. It Was All Grandma’s Fault!

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DocImage000000479A person had to be crazy to offer a free Bed and Breakfast to American tourists for two of her busiest months in the year, July and August, when she already had eight kids and a husband to care for, but that’s exactly what my mother did. No money actually changed hands as the tourists were always our relatives, and to their credit they did their best to not overlap visits too much. Nevertheless, the novelty of being able to visit the baby in the family, who had married a Canadian farmer, was just too inviting to resist. So for quite a few summers in a row our house was full to overflowing. Mom had a whole slew of relatives in Pittsburgh who were more than willing to put up with cramped accommodations for sleeping and eating, just to be able to enjoy the nice wide open spaces we could provide in every other way.

In the first hour after someone arrived, if it was still daylight, they would say to Mom or Dad, or both if they were available “Hey are you’uns ready for a walk?” If they had arrived in the middle of the night and slept late, then the first thing they said as they entered the kitchen was “Jeet jet?” If we said no, none of us has eaten yet, then they would go get the German Walnut rolls one of them had invariably made and begin to slice one up nice and thin. Right about then someone would ask if they could brew up a pot of Chock Full O’ Nuts Coffee from the stash that they had brought along with them, because they hadn’t been able to find it in any of our grocery stores last time. Mom would volunteer to cook eggs for everybody and somebody would always say “I’ll take mine dippy” or soft enough to dip toast into.“Let’s redd up and go for a ride.” someone would say right after breakfast and we would hurry to “redd up” the table, and pile the dishes in the sink for when we came back. This postponement was only allowed for special reasons, like an impromptu driving tour past the old haunts some of them remembered, from their years of Canadian residency. Otherwise, we girls took turns washing, drying, and putting away in daily rotation, immediately after meals.

How did we end up having American relatives at all? As an immigrant family my mother’s parents had encouraged any of the adult children who wished to remain with them under one roof, to pool their incomes under my grandmother’s careful monitoring. Eventually there was an opportunity to buy a farm economically, near where a cousin lived in Canada. So my mom’s parents came with her and some of her siblings, bought a farm, failed at farming, and returned home to be American residents again, all within a few short years. Meantime, Mom met Dad, married Dad, had Canadian babies, and put down Canadian roots, also all within a few short years. Because her home was now here, and not there, the only option for her to remain close to her family was for them to come and be with us as often as they liked. And, Man! You couldn’t  feel much closer than on those hot July or  August mornings when as many people as possible tried to cram into one car and go for a ride!

Seat belts were still almost nonexistent in those years, and in some families doubling up one smaller kid on the lap of another was quite typical. I never ever saw the adults being forced into doing such a thing, even though some of them certainly could have. My Aunt Mary was likely not more than four foot ten and 90 lbs. She could have easily fit on her brother, my Uncle Larry’s lap, and then she could even have held on to my baby brother Donny. Instead it was always us who ended up squashed and sticky,with pink impressions from our zippers down the fronts of our bellies when we changed into our swimsuits after coming back.

Then we would put the sprinkler head on the hose and loop it over the clothes line, and run around under it for a while. Otherwise we could go out and stand under the water tank by the green house until it overflowed. It usually did this when Dad was distracted at  busy times, like when we had company.It was freezing cold ground water, straight from the well, being pumped up to the elevated tank. There it would warm up enough so as not to injure the plants that would be watered from it later. Of course we would never fall over and lay flat on the ground from its incredibly frigid temperature like a tender seedling might, but it sure could make our lips turn blue! I think those kids’ water parks where the bucket tips and dumps a flood of water onto excited kids’ heads were first designed by people with water tank experiences like ours. It was terrific!

Why we didn’t use two cars, to achieve all that family closeness in some other way, had a lot to do with the kind of cars that were parked in our driveway, bearing Pennsylvania license plates, each summer. If it was one of  the relatives who had done well for themselves by then, the car would always be bigger, better and shinier than any that we ’d ever seen before. In their owner’s mind, it was just a bit too shiny to drive it around for an hour on a dusty gravel road. The roads were graded so infrequently in our neighbourhood that whenever any of us saw a road grader approaching, or Heaven forbid! already passing by, it was our moral imperative to grab up Jimmy or Donny, and run out to the roadside with them for their entertainment. Then they would stand their pointing, as it as it rumbled on, or wave at the driver as he passed, as excited as if it was a whole parade going by. (I will qualify the preceding statement here, for the sake of their dignity.) Never did any of us have to run Jimmy or Donny out to the road on our hip, or on our shoulders, or on our back when they were past seven or eight. By then they were just too heavy! (Sorry boys! I just couldn’t help myself!)

That brings to mind a strange thing my Aunt Betty, my Aunt Mary, or my Aunt Wilma would say in a distinctive  dialect, sometimes called Pittsburghese —“Will you ride me down to the store please?” “Huh?” we older ones would think to ourselves, smirking at the strange look on our father’s face. “Cuz I want to pick us up some chipped ham, and some jimmies to sprinkle on the cake. I’ll just go get my pocket-book.” My mother only used a few  odd names for things, like gum bands, instead of elastics, and nighties for all night-wear, including her boys’ pajamas.  Mom loved us, and so we trusted her not to lead us astray when it came to what things were called. Unless someone points out to you that you are using quirky nomenclature or pompous linguistics you will remain blissfully oblivious that others don’t call things that too.

From the day that Rolly met me, everyone in my family always called all night-wear, including guy’s pajamas, nighties. Unfortunately it rubbed off on him, and one night when sitting around with some male friends he said something like“ Vonnie and I still had on our nighties when someone knocked at the door.” The guys he was with nearly fell off their chairs at what he had said, and he didn’t quite get the joke. I explained later that most people only call ladies’ nightgowns “nighties” except in strange families like mine, and being such a man’s man he was mortified. But it passed. (Maybe like a kidney stone) But you forget all about the pain when it’s over with. Right? (Or is that childbirth?)

It was all my German grandma, Mum’s fault anyway. When they were raising my mother my grandparents tried to use as much English with her as they could manage to learn, and as little German as necessary. So except for a few German songs and those rude emphatic phrases that kids pick up very quickly, my Mom speaks no German. Her family were all proud Americans and determined to prove it when she was growing up. Just imagine if my mother had been heard saying to her 13 year-old girlfriends “You are invited to come and join the Schlafanzug party at my house on Friday night!” In 1942, when the Americans had just declared war on Germany, someone being invited to join any party but the Democrats or Republicans would have sounded mighty suspicious to English- only ears!

In my mind’s eye I can just see my grandmother going on the trolley down to Kaufmann’s department store, on a mission to buy some new night-wear for herself and my grandfather— a nightgown, and a pair of pajamas. She comes out beaming at her accomplishments. “This day I have learned that I am not afraid to take the trolley, I have money left over still, and I have learned now a new word. Louis must not be asking now where I have put his schlafanzug , he must say instead— in English—How did she say? Aah yes ‘his nightie’!”

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