Naïveté in another age

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

I was a true believer into the middle of my grade school years—fourth grade—when it came to me that Christmas and Santa Clause were part of an extended play put on by my parents. I was 9 or so when I saw the presents hidden in the basement, and suddenly I put it together that those sleigh bells ringing each Christmas morning to wake me up were not Santa’s. It altered my perspective of myself.

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I’d gone to the basement to get potatoes for dinner. This was one of my hated chores because the spuds by this time of winter had long rubbery tentacles growing out of the dents in their dirt-covered skin. We called them “eyes,” but they were just roots. Roots that looked like octopus arms. They didn’t hurt you or infect you or even feel icky; they just were icky. Ugly. Possibly with a bad intent despite the hundred times my mother said, “They won’t hurt you!”

The basement was okay, not a scary one. It had plenty of lights, and it was clean, not full of junk. One of my friends had a basement piled with boxes sagging from having gotten wet again and again. You could barely walk around. My grandparents’ basement had dirt floors, a coal room with a chute from the outdoors, and, in winter, dog turds all over at the bottom of the steps.

We played in our basement in the winter, mostly roller skating around the furnace. We could do this for hours, making up games I’ve forgotten the rules to.

I used to watch Mom use her Mangle in the basement. It was an ironing machine five or six feet long that pressed an entire garment at once. It had a big lid that Mom brought down with all her might onto the rounded surface where the pants lay. A single slamming of the heavy lid, and the pants were creased and ready to wear. You had to be really particular how you laid the garment in there – it took Mom minutes to straighten everything on each pair of Dad’s work pants. So, really, it probably took as long to use a Mangle as it did to iron on an ironing board. It was advertised as a handy new item for the home, though, so it had to be good. And it made ironing the sheets a “breeze,” as Mom said.

That it was called a Mangle I now think is weird. “Mangle” as a verb means to destroy thoroughly; and even as a noun is derived from a Greek word meaning an engine of war. It’s a wonder they sold any at all with that name – it’s not exactly a word that promotes trust.

We steered clear of it because Mom warned us of losing our hands and arms if we got too close. I think that’s why I followed her down to the basement on ironing day – the menace of the mangle was appealing, and it was safe as long as Mom was in charge of it.

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I was gathering potatoes for supper when I saw the Christmas presents. An odd color peeping out, half-covered in the laundry basket; upon investigation it revealed itself as a pale purple stuffed poodle about two feet tall. She was elegant in rhinestone collar and long eyelashes. Beneath her was another one, blue, same outfit. They had to be for my older sister and me.

I covered them back up, chose potatoes with the fewest sprouts and climbed the steps to the landing. I stood at the window of the back door, watching it pelt sleet into the gloom of four o’clock. A week before Christmas, the weather was fitting: I was in a cloud of gloom. And it wasn’t because I’d realized Christmas was put on by Mom, but that it had taken me so long to figure it out.

I’d always thought I was smart, not a stupid girl. But who wants to realize she’s naïve, even at 9?

Christmas morning, I pretended surprise and joy at the purple poodle sitting beside the Christmas tree, just where Santa had placed her. She went upstairs with me and sat on the floor at the foot of my bed like a guard dog. But what she brought to mind each time I walked in my room was what a dope I was. I didn’t ever name her because I never really got along with her.

That eventually faded, the period of hating my poodle. Even before she wound up living in the closet, she was just another item in my room, not nearly as interesting as my tiny china horse collection, my Notre Dame pennants and my bookshelf that increased in sophistication as I grew up, my interest moving from The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, to the Betsy, Tacy and Tibb series, to Black Beauty, Lassie Come Home and Pippi Longstocking. I had the Garden of Verses book of poetry for children, which I read till I went to college. It amused me then and still does, to sing Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem:

Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s Chest
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum
Drink and the devil had done for the rest –
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

By fifth grade I was a library rat, browsing the entire library and reading books unfit for children. But even as I read Gone with the Wind and By Love Possessed, I took away from them only what I could imagine. It wasn’t like watching TV, which we didn’t get till I was too old to have time to watch it, or like looking things up on the Internet, as kids do now.

We did look up words in the unabridged dictionary on its pedestal in the library – I remember looking up virgin, a word I’d known from church since I could read. But when Margo and I had heard some boy say it, we understood that it had a meaning! Until that time, it was just a word repeated in hymns. When we discovered it was “a person who has never had intercourse,” we looked at each other, closed the big book and ran out of the library to resume cruising around town on our bikes. Since we didn’t have words to talk about the word, we just rode.

Apparently, we weren’t ready for the definition that day.

Really, it took me forever to know much about real life, however many Frank Yerby books I read. I had a boyfriend, but I was still pretty dim. And then I went to a Catholic girl’s college. That was truly the eye-opener for me. All the girls came from cities, and, boy, did they know stuff. At least a lot that this small-town girl didn’t. Talk about going to college to get an education.

Taking a long time to grow up wasn’t a bad thing, and I wasn’t really the dope I thought at the time. It was simply a different era. My great-granddaughter at 4 knows more than I knew when at 9 I discovered the purple poodle and a couple years later when I had to look up the meaning of a word I’d been using since I was 4.

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