"From Up the Crick"

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Christmas was eating the first piece of fruitcake after Midnight Mass and sucking an orange through a peppermint stick. There was a special gift each year, perhaps a new Lightning Glider sled, a new pair of skates or a bicycle, but each Christmas was the time for a new paint box, a tin, rectangular box with eight, tiny squares of glorious colors and one paint brush, a new box of crayons, a pencil box, new books, and a stocking full of oranges, tangerines, and nuts. It was hard tack candy and boxes of chocolate hidden in closets and under parents’ bed. My mother often told the story about once during the wee hours of the morning when she awakened my daddy because she heard mice. Not mice at all but my brother Cyril under the bed, lying flat on his belly eating the hidden candy. Christmas was a handful of fun and a heartfelt of joy.

On New Year’s Eve we waited for first-footers, for this custom of the Scottish people had also become ours. The house had been cleaned thoroughly. The flowered chair covers in the sittin room had been washed, starched and ironed as were the lace doilies for the arms and backs of parlor chairs and couch and drum-top tables. The lace curtains had been washed and stretched on the adjustable, wooden curtain stretcher edged with straight pins to hold tightly the hems of the curtains. This process totally exhausted my mother and her extensive swearing vocabulary, but those curtains came off that stretcher as stiff as winter’s frozen towels. The fine lace tablecloth in the dining room matched the lace-curtained double windows, dominated by Mother’s huge, healthy, Boston fern. Mother periodically placed wet tea grains in the fern’s dirt, her special formula for success. It worked. One felt poinsettia, attached to the window lock, hung on the bottom center of every window in the house. Freshly scrubbed hooked rugs covered the carpets on the floors of the sittin room, the parlor and the dining room, and rag carpets covered the kitchen linoleum. A fresh-pine spray on the front door greeted the first-footers after they passed through the blue-lighted cedar tree and spreaders in the front of the house. Daddy took his decorating very seriously. The first person to enter the house had to be a man, preferably a tall, dark-haired man, because a woman first-across-the-step was bad luck. The first male was always given a silver dollar.

St. Joseph’s bells loudly rang in the New Year, and I still feel the warmth of my parents’ kisses and wishes for a Happy New Year, as much as I can still feel the warmth of my bedroom with its wallpapered wall, its step-up closet, its crucifix, its oak vanity, dresser, poster bed, night stand, and rocking chair, as I reluctantly went to bed soon after midnight. A picture of the Blessed Mother hung above the silver painted radiator. There was no clutter in my bedroom. It was as neat and well-ordered as the white chenille spread and as comforting, eternally feminine and lasting as Grandma Monahan’s yellow and white double wedding ring quilt. On New Year’s Day, the calendar was turned, never the day before, and most families served kraut and pork because the pig is a rooter and will root out evil. I remember my home as a perpetual open house.

Winters slowly melted into Springs and I continued to build happiness on certainties. Deep, ice-crusted snow jellied into dirty slush, pussy willow bushes birthed their fuzzy babies, the crick rose from the mountains’ runs, and Lent was here. The long days of Lent when we knew with infinite faith that giving up our bags of penny candy or the show, as movies were called, at Harry Ward’s Opera House, or a thick chocolate milk shake at Homer Noel’s place guaranteed God’s favor. With the dynamic convictions and zeal of missionaries we ransomed pagan babies with our pennies, earned through denial, by dropping them in the small, cardboard box on Sister’s desk. God alone knows how many “ransomed pagans” are roaming the world with names like Mary Margaret, Myles, Noreen, Geraldine, Colleen, and Hugh.

Lent also meant Friday afternoon Stations of the Cross, an interminable devotion for the young. Every Lenten Friday, our Mothers made us, with absolutely no consideration of the weather, go home for our dinners. This was neither nutritionally nor spiritually motivated. Like Monday mornings’ wash, we were part of our Mothers’ competitions. Our coming home to eat gave them the chance to clean us up: a clean uniform, washed face and hands, brushed hair pulled back with bluebird barrettes, our best sweater or coat, good shoes if the old were shabby. Most female parishioners attended Stations of the Cross on Friday afternoon, and I guess that a clean child was a status symbol. If cleanliness is next to Godliness, we were certainly virtuous.

On Friday afternoons, we stood, knelt and sang “Stabat Mater,” as clean and sparkling as the armor of a crusading knight. Fourteen times we knelt and answered the priest’s prayer, “We adore Thee O Christ and we bless Thee,” with “Because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.” It was a long service, particularly long for a Friday afternoon. I played mental games during Stations. I’d try to see for how many stations I could stare at one object. I’d think ahead to the next station, somehow hoping that would speed things up. Seven down, seven to go. And then I’d have a moment of piety and weep with the women of Jerusalem. I particularly liked Simon of Cyrene and Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and was really fascinated with the Sixth Station as Veronica made her way through the crowd to wipe the face of Christ. Although I was young and wanted to play on Friday afternoons, the phrase ‘ignominious death on the cross” made me realize, at a very young age, that life would not be all play.

Lent ended after the long hours of Holy Week, with the ‘Gloria” of the Mass on Holy Saturday and the ringing of the great deep-toned bells of St. Joseph’s that had been silenced since Holy Thursday. Easter Sunday was the day for our new Easter outfits which we wore even if it meant freezing. I remember pastel coats, new dresses, and fancy straw hats with grosgrain streamers. We were as neat as our new black patent leather or even white leather shoes that matched perfectly the snow that was often on the ground. Our small one-button, white-gloved hands held small leather purses that usually contained an embroidered handkerchief, a pair of rosary beads, and very little else. Lent was over and we attacked our Easter baskets like “starving Armenians,” whoever they were. We ate chocolate bunnies, robin eggs, marshmallow peeps, jelly beans, and we played with our stuffed bunnies. One special one of mine wore a kilt and a plaid hat, and I loved him even though he was a “Scotch” bunny. Toad McNeil gave him to me.

My youth was now an unbroken happiness of anticipation of the spring that would bring forsythia, lilacs, lilies of the valley, tulips, dogwood, pienies (peonies), longer days. The crabapple trees would bloom simply because the Catholic children needed them to make May crowns for the statues of The Blessed Mother that were in our classrooms, all four of them. We took about six inches of string and looped the tiny, pliant stems of the blossoms over the string, and then pulled them into a circle. At times, we interspersed lilacs between them. Often, Mary’s crown was top-heavy, but we looked lovingly at our art and breathed its delight. Mary stood in a circle of lilacs, tulips, wild honeysuckle, and dogwood brought from our woods and yards and sometimes from neighbors’ yards that we passed on our way to school because in our childish innocence we saw no evil in stealing flowers for Mary’s shrines.

We walked, like high-wire artists, across the gas-line pipe that paralleled the Hollow bridge, and we threw big rocks into the swollen crick. We chased the snake-beaters from the frog pond up the hollow and scooped up frog eggs that provided our science study for weeks and was about as close to the reproductive system as we ever got. Spring was freshly whitewashed rock foundations of homes. It was the real chance to ride the Christmas bicycle. We stayed out later in the evenings playing “Kick the Can,” a combination of soccer and “Hide and Seek.” One person would stand, usually against a telephone pole, count to a hundred, make certain that the can was in the middle of the road, then go look for all the hidden friends, catch one, race back, and whoever kicked the can first won. We divided into teams to play “Watch the Moon Skip the Rocket.” One team would hide while the captain went back to the other team and drew directions in the dirt to the hiding place. The other team spread out, always within yelling distance, and upon discovering the other team yelled, “Watch the moon skip the rocket.” There was no time limit, the fun was in the search. “Coxey’s Army” had to be played either in the daylight or under a telephone-pole light. The players formed a wide ring around the person who was captured. They held hands tightly while the person would attempt to break through. It was a circular version of “Red Rover,” with the entire team taking on one person.

Spring was hopscotch and jump rope. Jump rope demanded speed and endurance and we had both. We had our individual jump ropes, usually a tweed rope held with colorful wooden handles. Individual challenged individual to matches determined by time. But we had the real fun with a long piece of clothes line. Two girls for some unknown reason jumped rope together. Other girls would hold the ends of the rope.  One of our favorite games was a game where the rope holders would chant “Mable, Mable, set the table, don’t forget the red-hot pepper” and increase the speed until the jumper missed.

Counting jump rope games were played to the rhyme: “Maggie, Maggie, where is Jiggs? Down in the cellar eating pigs. How many pigs did he eat?” Here, the jumper would count out as long as she could last. Whoever could count and jump the highest number was the winner. An element of romance was added to one counting rhyme. The names of the jumper and the boy that she liked at that time were inserted into the rhyme. “Down in the meadow where the green grass grows, there sat [name]as sweet as a rose. She sang, she sang, she sang so sweet, along came [name]and kissed her on the cheek. How many kisses did she get?” Our romances were very many but short and mostly imagined. There were not enough of us in Midland to pair off because that would have jeopardized our games. We ran in hordes and, of course, our parents would not have had it any other way.

Spring was the first thunder that ‘woke the snakes.” It was spring rain hitting the tin roof of Pa Steiding’s shed in the empty lot next to our house. Pa planted a garden in that lot and often shared a glass of ice-water, ice-tea, or lemonade with my Mother. Mother always knew when Pa was thirsty, and Pa always knew when Mother wanted spring-green onions and summer-red tomatoes. Spring was the first day of May when a freckled person was “to get up before dawn, go outside, make the Sign of the Cross, wet the face with the morning dew to make the freckles go away.” I did but they didn’t.

May 15 was the day my daddy began to wear his straw hat. Spring brought large, square, cardboard boxes of new peeps that filled the local post office with nosey children whose “OH’s” and “AH’s” mingled with the constant chirping of the peeps and must have made the postmistress, Florence Blair, avidly thirst for winter’s quiet. Spring was also the time when we deviled Miss Pittman by repeatedly asking her if the rain would hurt her rhubarb.

Families planted backyard gardens with lettuce, carrots, radishes, squash, and placed the Burpee seed packets on little poles at intervals in the garden to identify that parcel of the garden. We put away our galoshes, snowsuits, mittens, hats or toboggans as we called them, and took out our sweaters, ankle socks, play clothes, umbrellas, and rain-coats. We filled the streets with children riding bicycles and balloon-tire-scooters. For hours on end we played dodge ball, jacks, marbles, and pick-up sticks. We had yoyo and paddle-ball contests. Our days were days of spontaneous enthusiasm as unpredictable as sunshine.

We wanted to be always at concert pitch, and we liked to climb a mountain now and then. We lived in the valley and so often did our emotions. We had to face spring floods and Diocesan final examinations. The crick was often kinder to us than the Diocese. A flooded backyard or cellar was easier to live with than the thought that we were taking the same examinations as the children in Baltimore. We knew the depth of the crick but what came in that sealed envelope from Baltimore was a still pond with depth unknown. There were no excuses. We either passed or we stayed in the same grade, and being “kept back’ in school was, like Baptism, an indelible mark that time could not erase.

The crick touched my life at many points but my memories of it are strongest when it was flooded. I remember walking over to the Hollow bridge to see how high the water was. Although we were warned repeatedly to stay away, we paid no attention. Somehow or other we trusted it; perhaps [because] we had spent so many hours with it. My mother always feared water, saying that while fire could be controlled, water couldn’t. One spring when the crick was high, my brother and my cousin, Joseph Kenney, decided to be adventurous. One stood at the bottom of the crick bank behind our house and one stood on a big rock under the middle of the bridge. They had found a log and placed me on it. Joseph, standing at the embankment, let go and I shot down the crick to Cyril who stopped me. Mother happened to go out on the back porch to hang up a tea towel and heard our laughter. She walked to the embankment and the rest belongs to that part of history catalogued under, “Remember when……". Wilbur Crowe from Paradise Street was even more daring. He rode an inner-tube down the flooded stream from the bottom of Paradise Street on down past the Hollow bridge. The water was so high that he had to duck at the cement bridge on Main Street at the meeting of the waters. We cheered Wilbur on every wave of the way.

The water receded, examinations were soon forgotten, rented books were turned back in, school uniforms were washed and put away with the hope that the wearer did not outgrow them by next fall, and the newness and energy of summer came. There were still Requiem Masses during the summer, for the nuns wielded the power, even in the summer, to enforce attendance, but our days were ours, intimate and carefree. Close friends became closer. Chloe and Noreen Murray, who moved from O’Mara’s Avenue to Back Street, and I threw blankets over double clothes lines, cut out paper Sonja Heine[sic] dolls, and played uncountable games of war and old maid. Once, Noreen fell in the crick and was terrified to go home because she had been warned about playing in the crick. Mother saved the day by drying her clothes and calming her fears. Noreen had two brothers and one sister, Patsy, who often wanted to tag along and would tattle if we didn’t let her. Most days we managed to shake Patsy because we were the big kids.

Our summer ocean was the “sulfur crick,’ and we piled thousands of stones upon thousands of stones to build a dam, thrilled with a depth to our knees. And we even charged admission to those who had not been in on the construction of the dam from the beginning. A hundred rocks was the charge, and we counted every one. We wore rubber bathing slippers to protect our feet while we often swallowed the dirty water, full of open sewage.

All churches in Midland, the Methodist, the Presbyterian, and the Catholic, had summer picnics at the Celanese Pool in Cresaptown, Maryland, about ten miles down the road from Midland. Somehow or other, the Methodist child went to the Catholic picnic, and the Presbyterian child went to the Methodist picnic. Even on the crick it was important to know someone. And sometimes, we even exchanged “best friends” to get to a picnic. Most of us weren’t particular about what we packed in our lunch sacks: a minced ham sandwich, a store-bought Ort’s cake, a banana. We piled in the back of a truck or the back seat of a car, carrying our swimming clothes in a rolled towel. We could always bum food from one of the families that packed a veritable summer banquet, or we could spend our dollar on hot dogs, Hohing bottle-company orange drink, or a chocolate imp, ice cream covered with chocolate and on a stick. I remember these picnics, but more vividly I remember the sunburns because these picnic days were the only days that we spent almost entirely in bathing suits. Noxzema and corn starch were the remedies, not completely effective, and even a cool sheet touching a burned back made us wonder if our day in the sun was worth it.

We walked in the woods and talked to those men in town, often unemployed, but rugged, trustworthy and ingenious, who were cooking their Mulligans. A Mulligan was a progressive con game. The men would talk Buzz Dilfer out of beef bones. Then they would subtly threaten Frank Wilson, the bread man, and the beer-truck man of a boycott of their goods if they didn’t contribute to the cause. The vegetables they “borrowed” from the women’s cupboards. They placed the beer in a cold mountain run, lit a fire, cooked their Mulligan, and relaxed in the glory of a Midland spring or summer. No matter how far I walked, or whom I met, I never was scared because everybody knew everybody else.

We picked violets, wild roses, and flags (irises).  We dug for anise roots, we tore off birch-bark, we searched for waxy spearmint leaves, we picked raspberries, and we chewed them all. We drank homemade root beer and birch beer and ate salt-sprinkled sour apples that puckered our lips. We swung out over the coal banks on grapevines, young Tarzans and Janes, creating our own adventures. We jumped the shadows of the coal trains as they passed. We stole cakes from the racks in the back garages of Ort’s Bakery where they were placed to cool. With the boldness of youth we took them to the side window when Arch Dixon was working because he would squirt icing on them from his huge wax-paper funnel. At times, we “printner” (Crick for pretty near) got caught. We played Batman in Buckshot Stakem’s deserted slaughter house but forgot to ask permission and had our first encounter with the law. We were questioned by the State Police, taken before Tailor Tom Stakem, Trial Magistrate, and ordered to reimburse “Buckshot” for the hundreds of dollars’ worth of damage that we supposedly did. Our parents refused to pay and that was that.

We had high-pitched enthusiasm for baseball games that were held on Sundays, and every town of considerable size, around 1000, had its team and its rooters who didn’t hesitate to question any umpire’s call with passionate hues of partisanship and sometimes downright ignorance. We made extraordinary statements backed with fierce assurance and lion-hearted convictions that the umpire was such a cheat that “he would steal Christ off the cross and go back for the nails.”

While Robert “Lefty” Grove from Lonaconing was pitching for the Boston Red Sox, the crick people were home rooting for their teams in the George’s Creek League, and Midland people were the often-unruly fans of the crick. Delicate, feminine women like Rose Byrne, Kate Atkinson, Alice and Trellis Winner could turn into over-enthusiastic Brooklyn Dodger-like fans at the crack of the bat or any time any player came up against the following lineup:
Pitchers Patty Corrigan or Shooky Rogish
Catcher Boogs Rogish
First Base Leo “Toad’ McNeil
Second Base Jack Kirk
Third Base Hooper Hyde
Short Stop Owen McCutcheon
Left Field Billy Stevens
Center Field Spike Dunn
Right Field Yellow Horse Graham
Managers Frank Burns [and] Dick Stakem

In our opinion, this lineup was equal to or better than any major-league baseball team at that time. Although at times rowdy and undisciplined, when they took the field to play the game, they became totally serious and professional. Baseball was one of the few things that they did take seriously.

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