Until I was seven years old, we lived in an apartment that my dad made from the extra bedrooms in the Kiehart Homestead. When I was born, there was just me, Baba, Mom and Dad in the living part of the house. In the other part was a store where Baba's brother-in-law sold clothes and on the other side was the Post Office.
Baba was a storybook grandmother. She’d sing in her Old Country language while she held me. We’d rock together in her rocking chair that had padded cushions tied to the back and seat. If I fell asleep in her arms, she wouldn’t put me in the crib. In her low-Russian voice, Baba would tell Mom ‘so kratek čas dojenčki’ (they are babies for a short time).
I loved living in Baba’s house because as I got older, there was a lot to explore. In our apartment, my bedroom window looked out over the main street, the cars and people looked small, and I could watch them moving around. I pretended to catch them by putting my hand on the glass. From the bedroom, I walked through the room where Dad and Mom slept, and then to the living room and kitchen. The shotgun-style apartment was the perfect place to learn how to walk and later to run marathons.
The door from the living room opened to a long hallway. That’s where the fun began. To the left was Baba's side of the house; Baba waited for me at the end of the hall to take me to her kitchen. To the right, were 15 wooden stairs. I sat on my dupa (Old Country for 'rear end') and bounced down the stairs to get to the backyard.
When I was almost three years old, Dad told me a baby was growing in Mommy’s tummy and that I would be a big sister soon. Would I still be Judy? I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to be someone different especially since I didn't know what a big sister was.
One day Baba had a weak spell and Auntie Heley (Dad’s sister) left her job in the Catskills and came to live in the house. She helped Baba because Mommy's belly was too big to be any help.
After my third birthday, I was surprised to see Mom’s bed empty. Baba was in the kitchen and she said "Mommy and Daddy went to get the new baby." They would be home soon.
They brought the baby home, just like Baba said. The baby was tiny and all bundled up because it was cold outside. She made gurgling and bubbly noises. Her name was Jayne. It was easy for me to say and I would run around the apartment saying “Jay-nee. Jay-nee. Jay-nee.” I watched Mom give her a bath in the bathtub. Mom laid towels in the water so Jayne wouldn’t slip. A lot of towels got wet for a little baby.
It took a long time for Jayne to grow into a playmate. As soon as she was old enough, I taught her everything I knew about the house: like how to get to the back yard by going down the steps on her bottom and how to smell the flowers in the garden without stepping on them.
Jayne followed me when I went over to Baba’s side. Auntie Heley was the story reader but she said Jayne was too little. Jayne wasn’t too little because I taught her how to sit still for stories. Mom and Dad didn’t like it when Auntie Heley picked favorites ‘cause it made Jayne cry.'
Whenever Auntie Heley played favorites, my dad would tell my mom a word he said a lot: ‘soon.’ Whatever that meant.
Around the time I was five years old, Dad told Jayne and me the "baby-in-Mommy’s-tummy" story. I heard the story before and this time I knew what to expect. The story was new to Jayne so I had to tell her over and over again. Dad moved a crib next to the bed that Jayne and I slept on. I put a doll in the crib so Jayne could pretend it was a new baby, but Jayne was too little and didn’t know how to pretend.
One morning in May, Jayne and I saw Baba sleeping on Mom’s bed. This meant the baby was coming and we had to get ready. Baba made a pot of soup and Auntie Heley cooked a chicken. The baby was a little girl and we called her Janet. Now there were three Js in our house. And Mom would say it this way: Judy, Jayne, and Janet. If Dad said it fast it sounded like Ju-ju-ju and we all laughed.
The only thing I didn’t teach my sisters was how to be a spy, mostly because Jayne didn't know how to pretend and Janet was only a baby. From our Mayfield apartment, there were two ways to get to the basement: an outside metal door or through Baba's kitchen. Mom preferred we use the outside door, but it was usually shut tight. Anyway, we liked going through Baba's kitchen because if Baba was sitting in her rocking chair, we’d get a snack. The reason I liked going into the basement in the Mayfield house was that I could be a spy. I would leave Jayne to play with Baba and I would tiptoe so the stairs wouldn’t creak and then I’d go to the front of the building and stand quietly under the store.
Great Uncle Andrew mostly spoke in his ‘low Russian’ voice, and other times he’d talk in his ‘American’ voice. Either voice was fine. I could hear both from the basement. I would make up things if I couldn’t understand what he was saying. The post office side was better for spys because it was busier and everyone used their ‘American’ voice. I like listening to the different footstep sounds on the wood floor above. When Mommy called me, I didn’t holler back, I quietly walked to the stairs. I was a good spy because I knew how to be quiet.
The whole house started to get crowded in 1957.
Uncle Washo (Basil) came home from the Army and
got a job in a factory. He called me and my sisters
the katzenjammer kids. He was our babysitter and
would take us into the field where we hunted
for bunnies and flowers. Uncle Washo and I visited
his friend–the Railroad Crossing Guard. We sat in a
little shack that rumbled when the train came. The guard
stopped the cars on the street from getting too close to
the tracks. I still have the train whistle Uncle Washo
gave me from his Crossing Guard friend.
Uncle Steshie (Stephen) came home from the SeaBees and he wanted to take over the laundry room and make it an insurance office. Dad wasn’t happy about that, but as Baba explained, it was everybody’s house. Dad moved the washing machine into the basement. With all those stairs, and outdoor clotheslines, and three kids, laundry was hard work for Mom. The two staircases between the apartment and the laundry room gave Dad the idea to make a laundry chute in the house he planned to build.
From Arizona came Uncle Bill, Auntie Marish, and Phyllis. They lived in the rooms at the end of the hallway on Baba’s side of the house. So now, I couldn’t go that way any old time I wanted. Auntie Marish locked the door, for privacy, my mom said. So, to get to Baba’s side I had to go down our stairs, out to the patio and cross over to Baba’s side where the door opened to the kitchen. Auntie Heley was usually in the kitchen. She played spy with me. A locked door was our spy code for ‘come back later.’ Auntie Heley was a good pretender.
By the time I was six, except for one uncle, I met all of Dad’s family: Baba, Uncle Washo (Basil), Uncle Steshie (Stephen), Auntie Heley (Helen) and Auntie Marish (Mary). They were all back in the house where they lived as kids, except Uncle Johnny who lived in Washington DC.
Soon, my dad would move us to a house in a different place.
Mom said there was too much interference from the family. When she scolded us and we cried, Auntie Heley would rush to our rescue. While Mommy cooked and Baba kept an eye on us, someone would give us cookies and then we wouldn’t be hungry for supper. Once Uncle Bill gave us sour pickles because the faces we made got him laughing. And there was the time when Jayne wanted to play with the little bottles of spices and her eyes got all red and watery. Uncle Steshie gave us little shovels to dig in the garden, and Uncle Washo let us pick the juicy grapes from the vine—we were almost always dirty or purple-y. Baba and my aunts and uncles never said ‘no’ to us. Except for Auntie Marish and that was probably because she had Phyllis and knew the rules about what to do with kids.
Dad kept saying to Mom, “Soon.”
One day, Uncle Washo took me to see the house Dad was building. I got to climb up and walk around. It didn’t look like much, a lot of wood with space between the wood pieces. Dad showed me a spot and said it was going to be my bedroom and another spot that was going to be the kitchen. And he said that word again, “Soon. Soon we’ll be living here.” Now I understood what ‘soon’ meant, but I wasn’t sure about living in a place with no windows or walls and away from everybody.
Phyllis and her mom and dad were going to live in our apartment when we moved into our new house. Mom said we would have lots of other kids to play with in the new town, Jermyn. She said we would be able to go back to Mayfield to visit everybody, especially Baba.
Mom and Dad wanted their own house and so that's what we wanted, too.
Section is from an early draft of Calico Lane.