Kicking the Washing Machine

Upstaires and Downstairs 1964


Kids always used the backdoor of our apartment. Sometimes grownups came to the door, but it was always where kids came knocking to see if one of us could go out to play. Getting to the backdoor took about two minutes if you were in the living room. First, you had to walk through my parents' bedroom (which was supposed to be a dining room), next was a small hallway that connected their bedroom to the kitchen, and finally to the back hall and the door.

The back hall contained hooks for our coats. Across from the clips was a door leading to the basement, a washing machine, and a shelf above the washing machine where my dad would store his bottles of Gablingers or Narragansett beer.

Our doorway was about ten feet from where my cousins, the upstairs Paradises, lived. Walking down the back stairs would lead to freedom from parents and chores. We could be anyone and do anything if we were outside, as long as we didn't leave our street.    

Judy, my five-year-old and oldest sister, Lee Anne, who was three, and I shared a red tricycle. It had red handlebars, red plastic streamers, red seats, red pedals, and black tires. We loved it and often fought about who would ride this. Our sister Michelle was not even one yet, so we didn't have to worry about her.  

Usually, our cousins Jimmy who was seven, and Tommy, who was the same age as me, four, would play. Our neighbors Peter, Paul, Susan, Maria, Timmy, Carol, and many other kids came to play. The toll booth worker would turn her tricycle so the seat was on the ground and peddle the pedal with her hands. You would ride your bike until you got to the toll booth man who would tell you what your toll was so you could pass. The tolls were often leaves or rocks. Sometimes you had to say a secret password.          

Somedays, when we would come inside for lunch, my mother was sitting on the washing machine with her fingers in her ears, screaming and kicking the washing machine. On these days, we had to wait a little longer for lunch. These kicking bouts usually lasted two to four minutes. After they were over, our mother seemed happier and ready to continue caring for her four children while pregnant with the fifth.          

One early summer morning, we were playing One, Two, Three Red light when we heard lots of glass breaking from the back hallway. We ignored the sounds and continued playing until my mother came outside with a big towel covering her neck. The white towel was turning red with her blood. We stopped playing and ran to the house.          

Jimmy started yelling, "Ma, Aunt Mary's neck is bleeding pretty bad!" Then, he Kicked off his shoes and ran up the stairs.        

Fortunately, my Uncle Norman was home, which was unusual because he worked three jobs. First, he guided my mother to his car. Then, Aunt Lorraine came downstairs and got Michelle.     

"Hey, kids," Aunt Lorraine said to us. "Come upstairs for lunch."      

When you walked into the upstairs kitchen, you could see the differences between the two apartments. First, their kitchen was long and rectangular, while ours was smaller and square. Next, their kitchen window was over the sink, while ours was in front of our table. However, the most significant difference was my uncle's benches that fit against the wall. They were storage benches, so you had a place to keep hats, mittens, gloves, and some sports stuff, like baseball gloves.  

I watched my aunt take out a big skillet and her large glass ashtray, "Are you making ashtray sandwiches?" I asked while she pulled out two loaves of bread and a big block of cheese from the refrigerator.  

Then, smiling, my Aunt Lorraine said, "Go upstairs and play. I'll let you know when lunch is ready." The rest of my cousins' apartment was like ours. There were two bedrooms and one bathroom down the hall off the kitchen. There was a small hallway leading to the dining room and living room.   

The only real difference was the boys' room in the attic. The doorway to the attic was next to the television in the living room. Walking up the stairs would bring you to a long attic room with five single beds. Each bed looked like a military colonel made it. In front of each bed was a small chest containing neatly folded clothing.

Jimmy, Tommy, Stephen, Judy, and I went upstairs to the attic. David and Donald were playing street hockey outside with some older kids from our neighborhood. The boys had games and sports equipment neatly placed against a wall, in their cubbies, or on the long shelf across from the beds.          

"Do you want to play Mouse Trap?" Jimmy asked, taking the game from the shelf and putting it on the floor.  

"It will take about an hour to set up," Stephen said.    

"It'll be easy," Judy assured us. Then, she began reading the instructions while the rest of us put the game together.  

As soon as the game was together and we were ready to play, Aunt Lorraine called us for lunch. The smell of the melting Velveeta cheese hit us as we entered the living room.   

"Yum, ashtray sandwiches," I said, walking into the kitchen.     

LeeAnne and Jayne were sitting at the table with Susan. Michelle was sleeping on Aunt Lorraine's and Uncle Norman's bed. David and Donald came in from their street hockey game and went to the bathroom to wash up.     

Aunt Lorraine placed two plates overflowing with crispy, flattened sandwiches on the table. Then, she poured some ZaRex for the little kids and put a pitcher of the overly sweet grape-flavored drink on the table for the bigger kids to enjoy.          

"These are the best sandwiches," I said, helping myself to another half. Everyone agreed as David grabbed his fourth.          

We were enjoying lunch and discussing what may have happened to my mother when we heard Uncle Norman's car turn into the driveway. We ran to the window when Aunt Lorraine said, "finish your lunch; let Aunt Mary get settled."   

Uncle Norman came upstairs first. "Your Mom's fine," he assured us," as he took the last half of the ashtray sandwich. "She needs to rest for a while, so you kids go back to play after lunch. Susan, will you watch Michelle until Uncle John comes home?"  

"What happened to Mary?" Aunt Lorraine asked.   

"She had to get about ten stitches in her neck," Uncle Norman said. "It looked pretty bad when we first got there. Mary had a gash on her neck and smelled like beer. The nurse asked Mary if we had been in a fight, and Mary said, oh, we're not married."   

Aunt Lorraine, Uncle Norman, and some older kids started laughing. I didn't know why this was funny.   

"Is she going to be okay?" Judy asked, her voice a little trembly.    

"She'll be fine, Jude," Uncle Norman said. "The doctor said her neck will be sore for a little while, so she needs to take it easy for a few days. You girls are going to have to help her out."     

"What happened?" Donald asked.  

"Aunt Mary was in the back hall doing some laundry," Uncle Norman said. "I guess some of Uncle John's beer bottles fell onto her."          

"Is there a lot of blood?" David asked.          

"I want to see Mommy," Lee Anne said as she began crying.            

"She's sleeping right now," Aunt Lorraine said. "She's going to be fine." But, unfortunately, this reassurance didn't help, and LeeAnne cried harder.            

"We'll promise we will be quiet," Judy said. "I will bring LeeAnne downstairs to peek at Mom, so we won't wake her." She brought a few plates to the sink and went to LeeAnne.      

Picking up LeeAnne, Judy said, "She's going to be fine; she's sleeping. If you are quiet and stop crying, I'll bring you to see her. Promise." She made a cross over her heart.      

Aunt Lorraine looked at Uncle Norman he shrugged his shoulders. "Go down the front stairs. I think the front door is open."      

Aunt Lorraine gave him a look she didn't say anything.      

"I'll go with them," Uncle Norman said. "Just let me finish my coffee."      

"Did you call John?" Aunt Lorraine asked.

"No, not yet. Let me finish my coffee. I need to be back to work at four."  "I'll go with them, Dad," Susan said.    

"Me too, the boys," said at the same time.      

"I want to make sure Aunt Mary's okay," Stephen said.      

"I want to see the blood," David said.      

"Is she all bloody?" LeeAnne asked as small tears came down her face.  

"David, stop talking about blood," Aunt Lorraine said, holding a wooden spoon and hitting it against her hand as a warning.    

"Susan, you take them downstairs," Uncle Norman said, sipping his coffee, "but don't wake up Aunt Mary. The rest of you help clean up the kitchen."    

Susan picked up LeeAnne from Judy as we quietly walked down the stairs. "Remember, we have to be quiet," Susan said. "Try to tiptoe."      

Tiptoeing was hard for me, and so was being quiet. I was anxious and scared to see my mother, so I pounded down the stairs singing a song my father sang to us before bed, "For its beer, beer, beer that makes you want to cheer," I began.

 "Hey!" Judy yelled. "Be quiet."    

Susan stopped walking and looked at us with her finger on her lips. I looked at Judy and stuck my tongue out, but I continued quietly. Judy peeked into our mother's bedroom first.        

"You're awake," Judy said.      

LeeAnne broke from Susan's arms and made a beeline for my mother.        

"She doesn't look too bloody," I said. "She just has a big bandaid on her neck."  

"Remember," Susan said in a kind, motherly voice. "Your mother needs to rest."

"It's okay, Sue," my mom said sleepily. "I called my mom. She'll be here soon to take the kids to her house for dinner."      

"Okay, Aunt Mary," Susan said. "I'll watch them until your mother gets here."  

"You're a doll, thanks," my mom said.      

We went outside with Susan and played Mother May I with some of the other kids. A few minutes later, our father's car pulled into the driveway. My dad was never good with blood or illness.    

"Where's your mother!" Dad yelled, running up the stairs to the house.

My uncle met him on the way. "She's okay, John. She needs rest."  I'm not sure what happened when my dad went into our apartment. A few minutes later, he yelled," Stay outside until I get this back hall cleaned up!"      

"Do you need help, Uncle John!" David yelled from the street.      

"No, no," my dad said. "Just keep your eyes on the girls."      

"I just wanted to see all the blood," David mumbled as he ignored us and went back to playing street hockey.    

My Nana drove up in her big turquoise 1960 Chevy Impala. We all ran to her car.      

"Nana, mom has a big cut on her neck," I said.      

"I heard," Nana said. "I'm going to check on her. Then you kids are coming Howard Johnsons with Pa and me."      

We went back to play with our cousins and friends. "We're going to Howard Johnsons," I bragged.        

"We go to McDonald's all the time," Tom said. "It's way better."        

My dad and my Nana came outside. My dad was holding Michelle. "Judy, hold Michelle while you're in the car." Our dad said.      

Judy sat in the front seat, holding Michelle, while LeeAnne and I climbed in the long white leathered backseat. Nana got behind the wheel while saying something to my dad about being back by seven.      

"We're going back to my house to get Pa," Nana said as she pulled away from our house and drove to the fancier part of Arlington. "When we get there, we'll clean you up, and then we can go to Howard Johnsons."      

We all cheered, but we were still nervous about Mom. She was tired after she got home from the hospital, and the band-aid on her neck was big. She might have a Frankenstein scar.  

"Nana," I said. "Will Mom have a big scar on her neck like Frankenstein?"  Judy and LeeAnne looked worried as Michelle made babbly sounds like she was trying to get in on the conversation.        

"Oh, I don't think she'll look like Frankenstein," Nana assured us as she drove up her long driveway. "But she'll probably have a scar. She will still be the same Mom, just with a scar."      

Our grandfather met us as we ran up the stairs. "What are you doing here?" he asked as he hugged us. He took Michelle from Judy and gave her a big kiss.

"Nana said we're going to Howard Johnsons," Judy said without taking a breath. "Mom had to go to the hospital because beer bottles fell on her neck. She said she was doing the laundry, but I wonder if she was kicking the washing machine. She needs to rest, so we can't be in the house."  

"I see," Pa said, smiling. He sat down in his chair, holding Michelle against his big belly. He began to sing, "Oh, we're going to the Hamburg show to see the elephants and the wild kangaroos…."      

"Bud," my Nana said while ushering us to the bathroom, "I'm going to wash up the girls, and then we'll go."  

My grandfather continued singing and telling silly stories as Michelle giggled. "I just washed my hands before we left," I said, hoping I wouldn't have to get my hair brushed and my face scrubbed.      

"If you want to come with us," Nana said while brushing Judy's hair, "you must look your best."    

Judy scrunched her face and closed her eyes as Nana brushed her hair, putting it in two perfect pigtails. At least I have short hair, I thought. It shouldn't hurt that much.    

"Use this face cloth," Nana said, "scrub your face while I do LeeAnne's hair."

Looking as perfect as Nana could make us, she told Pa it was time to go. So Judy, LeeAnne, and I climbed into the backseat of Pa's Oldsmobile while Nana held Michelle on her lap. On the way to the restaurant, Pa encouraged us to yell out the window at people sitting on their porches.   

As we pulled into the restaurant, Pa told us we could get whatever we wanted, including ice cream for dessert.    

"Just use good manners," Nana said. "It's important to stay in your seat and say please and thank you."  

The waitress came to our table with a high chair for Michelle, menus, and glasses of water. Nana read us the kids' menus. Judy could read her own. We colored on the kids' menus waiting for the waitress to return and take our order.

When the waitress returned, Nana told us to sit up straight and tell her what we wanted. "I'll have fried clam strips, please, "Judy said, remembering her manners.    

"Me, too," I said before Judy could order her drink.    

"Maryjo," Nana said, "you have to wait your turn."      

Pa giggled behind his menu as Nana ordered for LeeAnne, Michelle, and herself.

We gobbled our food, knowing the ice cream would come soon. When the waitress returned to clear our plates and ask if we'd like dessert, we all said, "Yes, please." Howard Johnsons had 28 flavors of ice cream.      

Pa smiled as we ordered, knowing he could finish whatever ice cream we couldn't. He even ordered a large chocolate ice cream for Michelle and a large one for him.      

As we got back into the car, full of ice cream, the sun still shone as it was a late June evening. Nana said something to Pa, and soon we were at the Top of the World Playground in Arlington. From the Playground, you could see the whole city of Boston. Judy and I rolled and rolled down the enormous hill. Nana and Pa pushed LeeAnne and Michelle on the baby swings.      

Unfortunately, the sun began to set, and it was time to go home. But, since we were distracted by the fun adventure, we forgot about our mother and her injured neck.    

"Do you think Mom will be asleep when we get home?' Judy asked.      

"Maybe," Nana said. "It's important to be quiet in case she is."      

As we walked up the stairs to our apartment, we could see the lights were on in the living room. Mom was lying on the couch, and dad was rubbing her feet.       Mom still had a big band-aid on her neck. Dad shook Pa's hand and hugged Nana. Then, he scooped Michelle out of Nana's hands and ushered us into the bathroom while Nana and Pa stayed in the living room talking to Mom.    

All four of us were in the bathtub as dad soaped us up and rinsed us off. Then, Dad said we should kiss Mom, Nana, and Pa goodnight. Then, he handed Michelle and her bottle to Mom.  

LeeAnne hugged Mom first. "I was scared about you," she said. "I don't like your band-aid." She looked like she might cry again.      

Mom hugged her for a long time, kissing her on the head. "I'm okay, Leelee. I'll be fine tomorrow. I just did a silly thing."    

"Come here, my big girls," Mom said to Judy and me. "I promise no more kicking the washing machine."      

We hugged her tight as she kissed our heads.      

"Time for bed," Dad said. "Let's go."      

We all cuddled together on LeeAnne's bed because she shared a room with Michelle. Judy and I had the other bedroom.        

Dad began singing us his bedtime songs. He started with the Banana song. Soon, LeeAnne was quickly asleep. He kissed her on the head and ushered Judy and me into our bedroom.      

"Dad," Judy said, "Do you really think Mom will stop kicking the washing machine?"        

"I don't know, Judy," Dad said, rubbing her head, "but I moved all the bottles to the basement."      

"That's a good idea," I said.          

Dad came over to my bed and kissed me on the forehead. "We shall see," he said as he began singing, "We are poor little lambs who have lost their way, bah, bah, bah."