Hyde Park Play School, 3846 Drake Ave., Cincinnati, Ohio
by Sally Clay
Mt. Sterling was just 100 miles away from Cincinnati on the other side of the Ohio river, but when my father came to pick me up for a weekend visit it was like taking a trip to another world. The transition to the South was marked by a passage over the Humming Bridge, an old bridge between Covington and Cincinnati with a metal grid that resonated loudly under our tires. Daddy always laughed when we reached the bridge, and let down the guard of suspicion that he had put up to confront my mother. We often stopped for a soft drink on the Kentucky side, and once Daddy even bought me a present, a stuffed monkey that I named "Mustache Suzy Boo" in honor of the soft whiskers that she had on her chin. Mustache Suzy Boo was the only stuffed animal or doll that I ever really cherished; she represented to me the special relationship that I had with my father then.
The hours that Daddy and I spent on those journeys from North to South was a bittersweet time; my father had not been brought up to experience deprivation or loss of any kind. He had spent his entire childhood in the charmed and genteel environment that I myself had enjoyed only briefly when I lived with my grandparents and their servants. Theirs was an extended family that included not just the people in the big house on Maysville Street, but assorted aunts, uncles, and cousins all over town and in the country, and by extension just about the entire upper level of Mt. Sterling society.
In the local schools, which he attended by choice rather than boarding school, he was the star pupil. He was easily accepted into Dartmouth College, where he again excelled academically, and continued on to Yale Law School and summer work in the Justice Department in Washington. It was in Washington that he met my mother, who was working in the department as a secretary. When they married, he only naturally assumed that everything would go as smoothly and unimpeded as everything else in his life had. During the months when he and I shared those lonely trips back and forth across the humming bridge, Daddy was shaken and vulnerable, and perhaps more human than he had been before or would be later. He was a person who wanted everything to be Right, with a capital "R," and even during that time of divorce and disappointment, his belief in propriety and stability never faltered. The man who took simple delight in the music of an old bridge was not really the man that my father wanted to be.
After I returned to live with Mommy and Nonnie in Cincinnati, my father had spent a brief stint at Army boot camp. He hated every minute of it, for he always detested macho camaraderie and was too strong-willed to endure military commands and regimentation. In the army his tendency to suffer massive migraine headaches reached crisis proportions; that, and the fact that he had flat feet, qualified him for a quick medical discharge.
Soon after his discharge, Daddy began to date an old college sweetheart who lived in Paris, Kentucky, not far from Mt. Sterling. Esther Patton was also recently divorced and had a young daughter my age. I knew nothing of this at first; during my weekends in Mt. Sterling my father gave me his full attention. We spent hours listening to phonograph records of Margaret O'Brien reading nursery tales. Margaret O'Brien had replaced Shirley Temple as the model child in popular thought, and my father assumed that I would admire her as much as the adults did. I thought she was a smart aleck, just as I had always thought that Shirley Temple was a bore, but I said nothing to my father because I did not want to spoil his enthusiasm.
Daddy was always enthusiastic about something, and always convinced in an almost Messianic way that his enthusiasms were the wave of the future, something that he needed to sell to everyone around him. In those days, long before the days of reel to reel tape, he was already involved in home recording and had equipment to record directly onto blank phonograph records. He also owned a movie camera and projector, along with Mickey Mouse movies in the days when Mickey Mouse was an annoying little stick figure. These were hobbies that we enjoyed together; Daddy loved to film and record my reactions to holidays and events, and his almost childlike delight in the results of his technology almost exceeded my own.
But one weekend we did not get out the phonograph records. Instead, we got back into the car on Saturday morning and drove to visit Mrs. Patton and her daughter in Paris. I did not like this turn of events at all; I preferred having my father all to myself. Mrs. Patton lived on the second floor of a two-story frame house, and as we reached the second floor landing I rebelled and refused to go any further. I was resolute. Embarrassed, my father left me sitting in the gloom.
After a few minutes the apartment door opened and a lady quietly emerged. "Why, you must be Sally Sue," she said with a soft Southern accent. "I'm so glad you came to visit today. I'm Mrs. Patton, but you don't have to call me that. You can call me Esther if you like."
I must admit that I was tempted to smile, even to relent and to go in the door. But I stayed firm and pursed my lips tightly shut. Esther (but I would never call her that!) did not try to force me to come in. Instead she left a little pile of miniature toys by my side. I was grateful to her for that--it helped to alleviate the dark feeling that was creeping up on me.
Not long after that visit, Daddy married Mrs. Patton, as I had known that he would, and he bought a house to live in with his new family. My new stepmother continued to go out of her way to please me; I think that she used all of her skills as a former schoolteacher to woo my acceptance. Her daughter Jeannette, when learning how to talk, had mimicked her when she called her "darling." This had come out as "dai" and it had stuck. Now that my new stepsister was a mature four years old, she called her mother "Mama," but I adopted the nickname myself, and from that time on called my stepmother "Dai."
Jeannette and I hit it off immediately and became best friends as well as sisters. Our favorite occupation was to confuse our acquaintances by presenting ourselves as twin sisters. She was an exuberant girl who, unlike me, never questioned her impulses. She was so thrilled at acquiring a father that she lavished her attentions on Daddy, sometimes at the expense of her own mother. It embarrassed me to see her fawn over him, covering him with hugs and kisses and insisting on sitting on his lap in the evenings. I had never done such things. But it seemed to please my father.
When Daddy married Dai, he ended what for him had been a painful period of loneliness and humiliation. For me, the marriage ended the intimacy and understanding that I had enjoyed with him, even though it had been tinged with sadness. Now Daddy would no longer be sad. He could again become a stable and respected member of the community--not just father to a bewildered little girl, but now a Father with a capital "F." Daddy was no longer sad--but I still was.
Mommy's new endeavor, the Hyde Park Play School in Cincinnati, was a great success. I myself was impressed by the fancy sign in the front yard and the large black letters painted on the side of our station wagon. Since Mommy opened for business just as I was starting kindergarten, I felt a certain sense of my own importance as "older sister" to the little three and four year olds that attended Mommy's school. I was even allowed to play the part of Santa's elf at Christmas time.
My best friend was the little boy across the street, a blond boy who chewed his fingernails. Herbert and I had the nursery school play room all to ourselves after the younger children left, although for the most part we disdained to play with their "baby" toys. I always envied Herbert's candy-coated fingernails, for his mother painted them with a special medicine in an effort to discourage his nail-biting. This was useless, for he kept on munching. I begged my mother to do the same for mine. She tried to explain to me that the medicine tasted bitter, but I still coveted Herbert's fingernail paint.
I also envied Herbert's prowess in the bathroom. One day, in a rush to relieve ourselves, we wound up in the bathroom at the same time, and for the first time I observed someone standing up to "tinkle." I was amazed and astonished, and asked my friend how he did this. Herbert merely shrugged his shoulders and said, "That's the way I always do it." Later that day, after Herbert had gone home, I locked myself in the bathroom and tried to accomplish the same feat, with disastrous results. I later investigated this phenomenon in greater detail with my friend Bobby Itman who actually let me study his penis and then proudly demonstrated his skill: he stood on the far side of the bathroom in his house, pointed his penis to the ceiling, and peed into the bathtub! This was something strange and wondrous, and these new and unsuspected male organs, with their little rings at the end, fascinated me. I don't think that I actually wanted anybody's penis--but I did very much want to pee into the bathtub.
I never actually told Mommy about my adventures with Herbert and Bobby, but I did ask her why I could not tinkle standing up. She was delighted to have such conversations with me. I think that, despite her resentment of Grandma Eastman's disciplines, she learned from her a holistic view of female biology that was not at that time popularly accepted. In any case, she patiently explained to me in simple terms the reasons for the differences between boys and girls, emphasizing that because I was made the way I was I would one day be able to have a baby--the most wonderful thing in the world. (At this point she gave me a big kiss.)
Herbert and I were always trying to concoct a way to set up shop on the street. We probably wanted to earn some money, but more than that we (or actually I, as instigator) wanted to engage in commerce of some kind with the outside world. At the suggestion of Herbert's mother, we finally set up a lemonade stand one sunny Saturday afternoon. Our mothers made the lemonade and provided us with a table and chairs, and we were in business.
It was a successful venture by any standards. We quickly sold out the first pitcher of lemonade, and just as we started on the second one a soldier came up the street and stopped to buy a drink. He looked quite tired, and his uniform was damp with sweat. He emptied his cup in one swallow, grinned, and wiped his lips in relief. "That was swell," he said. "I'll take another one."
But I was seized with an attack of professional ethics. By my reasoning, our valuable lemonade was not intended to be distributed in unlimited quantities to anyone. "Only one per customer," I announced to the bewilderment of Herbert, who had already started to pour a second cup.
"But I'll pay for it!" protested the soldier.
I was adamant. "Only one per customer," I repeated.
The poor soldier was speechless. I heard Herbert's mother whispering frantically to my mother, who then tried to reason with me. "Honey, couldn't you sell him just one more? We can make plenty more."
"Please," begged the soldier.
I thought on this, realizing that we were at an impasse. "I tell you what," I said calmly. "We can only sell one to a customer. But if you will go away and then come back, then we can sell you one."
"How far do I have to go?" asked the soldier desperately.
"Around the block," I replied.
"Sally, be reasonable!" Mommy exclaimed.
But the soldier nodded and walked up the street. A few minutes later he returned from the other direction, bathed in sweat. He paid his nickel, and Herbert poured.
Soon after the lemonade incident, I entered first grade, and Mommy and I moved to a new house on Drake Street. It was a magnificent and magical place, a wide, massive building set back from the street by a circular driveway and with a wide porch extending around two sides. Its exterior consisted of thick dark beams and stucco, like the buildings I had seen in movies about the England of knights and poets and jesters. Inside the rooms were huge, and the elegant, polished staircase in the front hall had two landings between the first and second floor. It was the kind of house where one would expect to find hidden rooms and secret passages, and my cousin Susan and I--later with my younger cousins Paul and Ann--spent many suspenseful hours tapping the walls in the hallways and cellar, looking for secret panels.
My room was at the top of the staircase. Although it, too, was a large room, my bed was near the door. I was never much of a sleeper--even then I considered sleep a waste of time, and had caused untold aggravation to my kindergarten teachers who insisted that all of the class take a rest period. I refused to rest. So when Mommy insisted that I go to bed at a reasonable hour, I protested until she finally agreed that I could listen to my radio or read, as long as I was quiet. I began to enjoy the long hours of solitude that I spent in the darkness between daylight and sleep. Usually I listened to my radio, which at the time was filled with the live music of the forties--new songs that are now called standards--and with short dramas using evocative sound effects--doors that opened with great creaks and footsteps that approached and retreated noisily. Often late at night, when Mommy finished her work downstairs, she would sit at the piano in the front room and play beautiful romantic music by Chopin and Liszt and Debussy. I especially loved it when she played Libestraum , and the cascading notes seemed to trip all over the house and even up the stairs to my room.
It was at about that time that I began a long love affair with reading. For some time I had suffered from a kidney ailment called pyelitis and was often kept home from school and confined to my bed, where I first began reading on my own. Eventually I spent some days in the hospital for tests. My great-grandmother Clay sent me a few of the newly published Nancy Drew books, and I immediately became hooked on them. My pyelitis was finally cleared up by pills, but even though I spent less time in bed, I continued to read. By the end of second grade I had read many of the children's classics, including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
I had only recently met my Aunt Susan, Mommy's younger sister who had recently returned from wartime work with the Red Cross in England. Always reluctant to call people by their conventional names, I dubbed my aunt "Susu," and always called her that. Susu was to me the female equivalent of a swashbuckling uncle just returned from the Foreign Legion. She wore her long blond hair in a French twist that set off her angular face and almond-shaped eyes that flashed with frequent amusement. She was unmarried and proud to remain single, for she was off to establish a career for herself in New York City. She was a person of vulnerable idealism masked by tough sophistication, and she and my mother--who tended more toward manipulation and emotionality--never really got along. I idolized Susu and immediately decided that I would be like her when I grew up. When she began sending me books from New York I was overcome with honor. I knew that her choices represented "real" writers, writers that were respected in the world of New York: James Thurber, E.B. White, and others whose books had gold award seals on their covers. I decided that when I grew up, I would become a writer.
Susu conveyed my ambition to my grandfather Eastman, who also lived in New York City. Mommy had never talked about him much, but now I learned that he was a writer and was in fact an editor on a newspaper called the New York Times. Even with no knowledge of newspapers, I was suitably impressed, and when I received a thick envelope with "Roe Stevenson Eastman" scrawled above the Times logo, I proudly took the letter to my room, where I could read it in privacy. The letter inside was two or three pages of single-spaced elite type peppered with long, incomprehensible words--"50 cent words," as Mommy called them--plus a couple of long, incomprehensible poems, also single-spaced. I was not sure what it all meant except that my grandfather was welcoming me as a fellow writer and, along with that, as his granddaughter. He signed the letter "Your Grandfather Eastman," with a note that I should think about what I wanted to call him--and a request that I avoid choosing "Grandpa."
I pondered my new vocation and my new grandfather, and over the next few days sat down to write my first poems, an earnest attempt at doggerel. These I enclosed in a letter, which I opened with "Dear Gramps," explaining that I had found that title in one of my mystery novels. His reply arrived in a week or two, again under the imposing New York Times letterhead, and I read baffled as Gramps, in his Victorian prose, critically dissected my poems, referring disapprovingly to my lack of meter and onomatopoeia. Mommy was exasperated, and told me to ignore these comments, but I was unconcerned, more pleased at Gramps' attention than discouraged at his criticism. It was some time, however, before I sent him any more of my attempts at writing.
Later that year Mommy arranged for me to be excused for one month from second grade, and we boarded a train in Cincinnati for an overnight trip to New York City to visit Susu and Gramps. We traveled in a tiny little compartment in which the table turned into a toilet and the seats into beds. I was so thrilled by this cozy technology that I scarcely paid attention to the scenery rushing past us out the window.
When we arrived, Susu nonchalantly hailed a cab (with pop-up folding seats perfect for children!) and crisply directed the driver to a Greenwich Village brownstone. Her apartment was on the top floor--like Susu, it appeared spare and chic, no-nonsense. Closer examination revealed lovingly handmade furniture (both modern and antique), well-read books, works of art. The bedroom, where Mommy and I slept, was at the back, with barely enough space for a double bed and a dresser. The only other rooms were the living room in the front, adjoined by a miniature kitchen. I considered this terribly romantic. Susu was as beautiful as ever, and clearly in charge of her exciting career as fabrics editor for Glamour magazine. She might as well have been in charge of the entire noisy and dirty city, for she had the answer to everything, and came and went wherever she needed to go with casual authority.
With Susu at work, Mommy and I had the whole day to ourselves. I was fascinated by the New York subway system and, with Susu's instructions, quickly figured out the correct trains and stops to take, all of which remained a mystery to Mommy. The first day we went to the Museum of Natural History, where I was delighted to find a display of dinosaurs just like the ones I remembered seeing in Fantasia. I became absorbed in the Egyptian section, tiptoeing in the hushed silence around the mummies in their boxes. Most of all I was excited by the tall glass cases containing entire suits of armor, with other cases showing swords and regalia. I imagined myself in that armor, and dreamed about it all through lunch.
In the afternoon we went to the theater, one of Mommy's great loves. In Cincinnati she frequently took me to the theater or the symphony, and earlier that year we had seen the road show of Annie Get Your Gun with Mary Martin. I loved that show and its music, and for months afterwards I sang my favorite song from it, "Moonshine Lullaby." Even more so I admired Mary Martin as Annie Oakley, a heroine who competed at an equal level with men but who also loved and nurtured her younger brothers and sisters. That, too, was the kind of person I wanted to be. In New York, we saw The King and I, but although I enjoyed it very much I did not particularly admire the properly feminine heroine, and felt more sympathy for the strong-willed Buddhist king.
The next day we saw the movie Joan of Arc, and I was back in my element. I was excited to watch Ingrid Bergman, both in her armor and in her prison rags. She was virtuous! She was brave! She was a knight! She was a saint! There was something else about Joan of Arc, or about Bergman's interpretation of her, that struck a responsive chord. Even then I was able to appreciate that the heroine's very integrity brought suffering upon her, and I deeply admired the way she stayed true to her voices even when faced with persecution and death. For me, all of this was summed up by the armor and the rags.
That evening I finally got to meet Gramps, who had returned to town from a stay on Staten Island. We walked from Susu's over to his apartment for dinner. His apartment reminded me of Nonnie's--heavy, old-fashioned furniture and a lot of knick-knacks displayed for no apparent reason. Gramps himself was not at all like his letters. I had expected a stern taskmaster who would lecture me about my defects and deficiencies. Instead, Gramps turned out to be a distinguished and gentle man, not stern at all but quiet and shy. He did not seem to remember how to talk to children, so he spoke to me as if I were an adult, and after dinner--remembering that children like games--he pulled out his chess set and taught me how to play.
Before we left, he made some pronouncements on writing. "The most important thing for a writer," he said, "is to be observant. Look around you. Know what is going on and remember what you see."
The next day, Saturday, Gramps took me to the drab and cluttered editorial offices of The New York Times and then the composition room full of noisy black Linotype machines, where he had one of the operators make a slug with my name on it. In the afternoon all of us--Mommy, Susu, Gramps, and I--went to the Statue of Liberty. I was grumpy and tired. As we neared the top of the stairs on the inside of the statue, I was overtaken by dizziness, and at the top, looking out from the crown, I threw up. I had come down with chicken pox at the top of the Statue of Liberty.