Web Site: The Seven Window Kitchen
The story of a child who sees her single mother struggle to keep her home after her father dies by renting a room to a German prisoner-of-war.
The Seven-Window Kitchen
by Terry L. White
When I was a child, my mother would keep all the trinkets and pretty stones that we gave her on the kitchen windowsills. Every spring and fall she would take all these small glass and plastic figures down, clean them thoroughly. Then she would clean the windowpanes with vinegar water and sheets of newspaper. When she had replaced the figurines and knick knacks on the windowsills, they kitchen would gleam and glitter like the inside of a kaleidoscope.
Mom could tell you when and where each bit of her treasure came from. There was a pink shell from Ocean City, picked up on the beach as we hauled our blankets and baskets down the inlet to the rushing surf.
Tommy brought home a glass insulator he found after one of the telephone poles near the track fell from lightning. The telephone crews had returned to replace the pole and installed a new insulator and gave my brother the cracked one, an article so old it had turned purple like the old glass will. Celie found a little china doll on the sidewalk one day, and mother had made the tiny doll a red gingham dress and wove an even more minuscule hat of sweet grass to crown its balding head. I rescued a cobalt bottle from the trash and brought Mama small flowers I picked on the way home from school to add to the display.
Mama always said she had the most generous children in the universe. I don’t know about that. We never had a whole lot of anything to give away – or spend, for that matter. Daddy died of polio the summer I was seven and we all missed him.
Of course, us kids had school most of the time, but we all had jobs on school holidays and during the summer. Tommy had a fine lawn-mowing business, I watched other people’s children and Celie went with Mama while she was cleaning houses for our neighbors on Saturday. Mama worked at the shirt factory during the week too. Looking back, I will say that we were poor, but I don’t recall that we missed out on a whole lot – such was Mama’s talent for making life complete and satisfying under the hardest of circumstances.
I was ten the year Polly came to live with us. Polly was older than dirt – according to Polly herself. She had sparse grey hair combed gently over what appeared to be a bald spot on the top of her head. She was round and squat with swollen feet encased in ratty felt slippers slit over the little toe to accommodate her corns, bunions and other podiatric woes. Polly worked at the shirt factory where she sewed ribbed necks into hundreds of casual knit tee-shirts daily. Her milky blue eyes stared up at me through thick smeary glasses.
It was not that Polly was short, more that life had enfolded her upon herself so that her neck had bent down and out, giving her the appearance of an ancient turtle into the faded paisley gown and pilled brown sweater she wore winter and summer. She slept in the little room at the head of the stairs, leaving the door open for what little warmth drifted upstairs during the winter. Polly ate with the family and disappeared to her room directly after taking her plate, cup and silver to the sink for me to wash.
“Why doesn’t Polly ever talk with us?” I asked my mother one hot summer day when the whole family had retired to the front porch for iced tea after a cold supper of ham and deviled eggs. Tommy and Celie were gearing up to beg for dimes for ice cream and I was combing Mama’s hair, an activity she said relaxed her and made her feel better after a long day at the shirt factory where she worked with Polly.
“Hush,” Mama shushed me. “Polly is our lodger, and we don’t discuss the private lives of other people.” She leaned her head back so that I could reach the top of her scalp where a tiny scab winked from between the black and white strands. “It isn’t nice.”
I divided a clump of hair and braided it finely, then let the strand drop. Sighing, I started on another. A few days before I had glimpsed the ugly black numbers on Polly’s left forearm. “Did you know she has a tattoo?” I asked in a shocked whisper. My grandad had a tattoo, he’d gotten it when he was in the army, but I had never seen a woman with at tattoo before.
Mother turned with a scowl. I could smell the cheap talcum powder she poured down the front of her cheap wash dress. “Missy!” she snapped. “I have told you once . . ..” Her face looked grim. “Enough!”
Tommy and Ceilie made faces at me from across the porch. Now that I had put Mama in a bad mood, the possibility of talking her out of any money for ice cream had melted away. They began to bicker over who had to put the dishes away, a task they shared nightly. Mama closed her eyes and rocked slowly, back and forth, back and forth. I brushed her hair until I felt the tension leave her neck. The rocker slowed to a stop. She snored softly, exhausted in the summer heat.
Celie, Tommy and I wandered out into the yard, bored already with summer although school had only been out for a week or two. We weren’t allowed to cross the street, but it didn’t matter. The back yard was deep, with a long garden border on one side, an apple tree to climb and a field of buckwheat beginning to blossom under the hot June sun. Behind the field was a community playground complete with swings, slides and a whirling platform we called a merry-go-round, although it was nothing like the carousel we sometimes got to ride at Eldridge Park on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon.
“I know why Polly has those numbers on her arm,” Tommy said, full of importance. He was tall for his age with a broad nose and kinky brown hair. He looked sturdy and intelligent. Celie was round. She had a round face and a round body. Her hair was blond and she had the temperament of a snake, always lashing out with hurtful words when you least expected. Mama said it was because Celie missed Daddy a lot, but I think being mean was in her nature.
“What makes you think you know so much?” Celie scratched at a bite on her chubby leg. “Mr. Know-it-all.”
“Larry told me Polly was a DP.” Tommy said smugly. “She was in the War.”
Back then, everyone knew which war. Tommy, Celie and I had been born in 1945, 1946 and 1947, right after Daddy came home from World War II. Later, people would call our generation the Baby Boom, but we didn’t know anything about it when we were young. We only knew there was a photograph of Daddy in a uniform with his arm around Mama in the living room. They seemed like children playing at being grown up and very happy in that picture. But that was before the War and polio and all.
DP was a short version of the phrase: displaced person, and it referred to individuals who had been liberated from German prison camps and other people who had lost their homes as the result of the horrible war Hitler had inflicted upon the world.
“Polly is Jewish and she was in a prison camp.” Tommy puffed out his chest, proud of his superior knowledge. “Hitler tattooed everyone so he could keep track of all the Jews he put in his work camps.” He turned smartly, duck-walked toward the apple tree and froze in the pose as if we were playing a game of statues as we often did on summer nights.
Something caught in my chest. We used to go to the movies on Friday nights when Mama could afford to take us, and there were often news films about the aftermath of World War II. Sometimes the comentators talked about displaced persons and how some of the Jewish prisoners who got out of the death camps were going to Israel where they were building a whole new country. Other displaced people lived in England or Switzerland or America, but the big thing was they all wanted to go home to Israel where they would never have to be afraid any more.
The whole idea was more than I could understand at the time. The only thing I knew was that displaced people had been in a terrible, awful, horrible place and that American soldiers had helped get them out. I was glad they were out, but I wasn’t sure I wanted Polly living at the head of the stairs any more.
Tommy said he was going to ask Polly about the prison camp. He turned to go in the back door and up to Polly’s room where she dozed in the sullen heat waiting for the cooling breezes of evening to bring here true and restful sleep.
I crept up the stairs after him, fascinated and terrified.
“Polly,” Tommy’s voice sounded weak. It fluttered in his throat like a butterfly just out of the cocoon. “Polly?”
The old woman’s eyes remained closed, a half-smile on her face as if she saw something we could not in the stifling room where the dust motes sunk in the sullen light. “Go away, child,” she said with a thick accent. “Please leave me be.”
I was standing behind my brother and could see the backs of his ears go from tan to pink to wine red. But he stood his ground, stubborn as a bull. “Were you in the War, Polly?” he demanded.
Polly turned her face to the wall and I could smell the musty old woman, urine and powder smell of her in the air she disturbed. Faded roses lurked on water-stained wallpaper. The scent of Evening In Paris dusting powder, our gift to her that past Christmas, wafted from the dusty bureau where several hairpins and a thimble lay on a tiny milk glass try. “You do not want to war about,” she said in her broken English. “Go be children and do not think about wars.”
Her shoulders shook, as if she wept, and at that, I crept silently back down the stairs to sit on the front porch steps and watch the sun go down. I think Tommy went outside too, but he traipsed through the kitchen, past Mama’s wringer washer on the back porch, to sit on the rope swing that hung from the apple tree’s gnarled branches.
It must have been nearly nine when Mama shook herself awake and looked around for her brood. “Sally? Tommy? Celie? Where are you?” she pulled herself out of the old rocker and mumbled something about it needing paint – which it had ever since I could remember. She saw me on the stair. “Sally, be a good girl and help Celie with her bath. It’s getting late.” She walked into the kitchen, her hand at the small of her back as it often was those days. “Then get yourself to bed as well.”
I found my younger sister already in bed, or on it, reading a fairy tale in the fading light. “Come on now, Celie,” I pulled her up and put the book on the stand beside the bed. “Mama said to go to bed. Are you washed?”
I took her word for it that she was, and helped my little sister into the frayed white cotton slip Mama let us wear for nightclothes when the weather was hot. I turned back the coverlet and lay down beside Celie, her breath already steady and quiet. But then, try as I might, turn as I would, I could not fall asleep.
I kept seeing Polly’s arm as the ratty brown sweater slid back and the smeary tattoo was revealed. For some reason those blurred blue-black numbers made me shiver. It wasn’t cold the first time I saw Polly’s tattoo, so it must have been fear, although I had no reason to fear the silent old woman who slept in our extra room. At any rate, I struggled with sleep for a long time, imagining booted soldiers and ovens full of dead people who scared away my sleep.
We were all sitting in the seven-window kitchen having supper when Mama remembered she had not yet fetched in the mail. Leaving us to our supper of mashed potatoes and salmon cakes with canned peas and little dishes of peaches swimming in their heavy juice, she walked heavily to the front door and opened the little box. I heard the squeak of the lid as it opened and closed, the looked up as she came back into the kitchen. There was only one letter, and she handed it to Polly with a questioning half-smile. “Were you expecting a letter, Polly?” she asked.
Polly rarely spoke, and did not now; but rather reached for the envelope in my mother’s hand. Late sunlight glinted on the collection of glass ornaments on the windowsills, and as quickly as a wink, our lodger slipped the envelope into the sleeve of her ugly brown sweater and returned to her meal. I looked at Mama, but she just gave a sharp little shake of her head and jerked her chin toward my plate. I knew what that meant. Tommy and Celie looked from Mama to me and back to Mama. Something had happened, but none of us were quite sure what.
About a week later, Polly went away. Mama talked about getting a new lodger, but she never did. As it turned out, Mr. Perkins, the widower down the street, asked her out and the next thing we knew they were getting married and we moved out into the country. We had a good life there, but I often missed Mama’s seven-window kitchen and wondered whatever happened to Polly and her ugly tattoo. It was one of the stranger mysteries of my life, and I will admit that whenever I thought of Polly, I shivered as if I had stumbled upon an open grave.
Mama died last week, and it fell to me as her oldest child to go through her things and prepare them for the charity sale down at the Church of Christ. Most of her clothing was worn and faded, and I tore them up into dustcloths and scrub rags knowing Mama would approve. I put her stone martin stole aside for Celie and gave Thomas Mama’s dog-eared Bible, even though he was preparing to go off to Vietnam and thought he didn’t need it.
For myself, I kept Mama’s diaries, a little stack of black and white exercise books dated from the spring of 1943 when Mama and Daddy first met back in Elmira, until the winter of 1958 when she started to date Mr. Perkins. I had a new husband and family of my own at the time so it took a while before I had time to read them all.
I remember it was a bright summer day when I began to finally get to know the woman who was my mother, and unravel the mystery of our lodger Polly.
Mama had the soul of a poet and the story of her romance with Daddy was perfectly phrased to preserve the awesome and terrible love she felt for the young man who came home from war, then succumbed to a senseless and deadly disease, leaving her alone in the world with three small children to raise.
The second book of her journal was so sad I wept unto the pages until I realized the ink dissolved in tears and put aside my sorrow while I read of one woman’s struggle against the world. I read about the houses she cleaned and the men who tried to take advantage of her when their wives weren’t looking. I read about the terrible heat and clamor of the shirt factory and the harsh fatigue that plagued her days as she wrestled with her fate and the needs of a growing family.
The third journal told of a frightening time when Mama thought she would loose her home and the seven-window kitchen, which she dearly loved. Tommy, Celie and I had been sick all winter and the bank people told Mama she had to keep up the mortgage payments or she would lose the house.
What a blow that must have been for my soft hearted mother. All she ever wanted was to raise us up right and to have a good life. I wept into my hands when I read how she sold the diamond ring my Daddy gave her when they got engaged to satisfy the bank and save her house with her seven-window kitchen.
Mama wrote about how Polly came to her in the factory, speaking broken English and how she tried to sew with knotted fingers that had been broken more than once in the prison camp back in Germany. She took time to record how long it took for the two women to begin to understand one another and to become friends.
Mama also wrote about the ambivalence she had felt as she weighed offering Polly a room, and what a German person might be like, living under the same roof and all. People in America were still wary of Germans at the time, and we were far too innocent and ignorant to know the difference between Christian and Jewish at that time in our life.
Mama wrote about that fear, and how worried she was that Polly might not want to live in our extra bedroom after all. Mama knew the rent for our extra bedroom would make all the difference in our security. She wrote about how she held her breath and prayed while waiting for Polly to consider her offer of a place to stay.
Of course, in the end, Polly did come to stay in our house, and we did live something like happily ever after.
The part I never knew was that poor sad Polly in the ugly dress, lived out the rest of her life in a much happier situation as well. It doesn’t take much when one has survived a trip to hell.
One of the last entries in Mama’s journal was about the letter that came to Polly that summer evening while we ate our simple meal in the seven-window kitchen. The letter came from an agency that worked to reunite family members separated during the big war. Polly’s letter arrived with the news that her daughter Sophie had also survived the prison camp and was waiting for her mother in Israel.
I never saw the joy on Polly’s face when she read this letter, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to learn that she was not alone in an uncertain and sometimes vicious world. I know Mama was torn between happiness for Polly that she would no longer be alone in the world and fear that she would once again be vulnerable and unable to pay her own way.
Mama, in the end, had Mr. Perkins – we learned to call him Dad in time – and I can only imagine that Polly and her daughter Sophie had some good time in the world once they were together again in Israel where ugly black tattoos were badges of honor and survival meant victory over death itself.
And as I look back at that seven-window kitchen, Mama, us kids and Polly, I know that life may be very hard at times – that change is the only constant in the world – that summer always comes – and there is always time for miracles.
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|Reviewed by m j hollingshead
|holds reader interest, well done, poignant read|