We live in a very disposable world. Disposable cameras, disposable phones, disposable razors and even disposable income! When I was a kid, things were quite different. Whether it was due to limited funds, or a holdover from the depression era, my parents were very frugal, not by desire, but more by necessity.
With the onset of autumn and the approach of winter not far behind, each year during late September and early October, a myriad of activities would take place in every part of Duquesne. Our house was no different. Disposable items were non-existent, and taking care of things so they last was a way of life.
Aside from the obligatory raking of leaves each weekend, our entire family would be involved in getting the house ready for winter. The first thing that would happen is cleaning and prepping the porch furniture for winter storage. Each September, we’d drag all of the outdoor furniture to the top of the driveway. Once assembled, it would be my brother’s and my job to scrub down the furniture before it was finally moved to the garage. We’d let it dry in the semi-warm autumn sun before Dad would come along and put on the finishing touches before storage. Once all of the furniture had dried, Dad would then coat any moving parts with oil or grease. He didn’t want any parts to oxidize during storage, so the last step was one “for good measure.”
Before stacking and storing the furniture, another chore awaited us. Back before the days of insulated windows, each fall meant that Dad had to take down screens and install the storm windows. Like any good hunky, one could never merely take down the screens and just slap up the storm windows. Never! With bucket in hand, every storm window had to be completely cleaned. In addition, we would also wash each sash window, both inside and out, before my dad would even install the storm windows. Not the most pleasant job in the world.
Each storm window had a specific window that it was designed to fit. Dad insisted that they be installed ONLY on the designated window each year. The problem was that he had marked each window’s placement on the side frame of the storm window using a nail and some type of code that even a cryptographer would have a tough time with. Adding to the confusion was the fact that my dad’s handwriting less than perfect. Once we had determined where each window went and were installed for the winter, we’d turn our attention to the screens that were removed. They too would be thoroughly scrubbed down, hosed down, dried and stored in the rafters of the garage.
Dad would always check the screens before they were stored, and would take care of any repairs at that time. This included replacing any missing or broken hardware and replacing any screening that was damaged. This is where I must admit, I question some of the issues my dad would find with the screens. It amazes me now, when I think of how many missing hooks or torn screens he would have to repair each fall. Of course, he would rarely wait until he had amassed all of the problems before he’d begin repairing them. I swear, as each one cropped up, he’d announce that he had to run down to Schink’s to buy something or take a screen down to be repaired. He would have made several trips by the end of the day, and it never seemed to bother him. Of course, my brother and I knew that each trip to “Schink’s” also meant that he was in close proximity to his favorite “watering hole,” the GBU. That also meant that he would have probably stopped for a shot and beer to keep him fueled up to finish the job!
One sure sign that winter was coming would be the activity that would be going on inside our home. Mom would have started her fall cleaning activities while we would be taking care of the outdoor chores. Like any good hunky homemaker, she would begin with the drapes and curtains throughout the house. The long spring and summer seasons usually left their mark on the window coverings. Aside from the occasional stain caused by an open window and a sudden summer rain, the gritty glittery mill dust would have been very obvious on the curtains by the end of summer. Spring and summer breezes carried the grit in, and a thorough washing was always in order.
The type of interior cleaning that had to take place prior to winter was vastly different than what we face today. Because of central air and insulated windows, most of our homes today do not experience that same type of contributing factors that our parents faced. Open windows, mill dust and kids running in and out caused the need for refreshing the place before being sealed-up for the winter. Part of that cleaning routine, and one that I hated, was Mom’s insistence that the walls be washed down. With bucket in hand, we would all help to clean the walls. Dad or Mom would take care of the walls while my brother and I would be assigned to baseboards and heating vents. One by one, each room would be cleaned within an inch of its life. The aroma of Spic n’ Span would be evident in every room and only then would Mom or Dad be ready to tackle the most time consuming room…… the kitchen.
Our kitchen was a very typical 1950’s kitchen. In Interior Designer vernacular today, it would be called “Mid-Century Modern.” In my words, it was just “home.” White metal cabinets, white stove and fridge, white porcelain sink, a red and white checked floor, pink and maroon plastic tile on the walls, and a pink and grey Formica table with pink and black chairs. Sounds tasty??
This final part of pre-Winter cleaning would entail the removal of every dish, glass, cooking utensil and item from each cabinet and drawer. Every item would either be washed or wiped down, and the exterior and interior of each cabinet would be thoroughly cleaned. I hated helping in the kitchen. It usually meant that I got stuck with the silverware drawer. The great outdoors would be calling for me to come out and play, and here I was, washing spoons! Total humiliation!
After all of the fall cleaning had been accomplished inside and outside of our home, the next project that became the focus was canning any garden remnants.
Usually all that was remaining in my dad’s garden or those of friends or relatives by this time of year were green tomatoes, a few peppers and perhaps some forgotten green onions. The concoction that my parents would always make from the remaining vegetables would be chow-chow, a.k.a. piccalilli. My dad always claimed that he was using an old Slovak recipe to make the chow-chow. Now that we have access to the internet and every conceivable means of researching anything we desire, I have found out the truth. It appears that chow-chow never had its creation roots in Czechoslovakia. In fact, research shows that it is actually a Southern American and/or Nova Scotian delicacy. If my dad were still around, he would probably defend his story by claiming that although it may have been created in the South or Nova Scotia, it was by the hands of hunkys that were living there.
I think the main reason that I wouldn’t fuss (too much) about helping with the fall clean-up, was that I wanted to have my mother’s undivided attention in the weeks that followed. Two very special events occurred back-to-back at the end of October. The first was Halloween. Once clean-up was behind us, Mom and I could start discussing what I would be for Halloween. Although my mother was handy on the sewing machine, she mainly dealt with repairing torn knees, ripped seams, etc. She really wasn’t a “let me whip up something on the ol’ Domestic Sewing Machine for Halloween” type of mom. She was more of a “Let’s see what we have in the closet” or “Let’s see what they have at the 5&10” type of mom.
Trips down to Murphy’s on South First in October always meant that we got to look at the boxed costumes and masks that they had. Some years, because of not having enough money for a new costume, I begrudgingly wore something from the closet. However, most years Mom had saved enough money for me to get a new costume. As we draw closer to Halloween, I can’t wait to share some memories about trick or treating with you.
The second event of the back-to-back events was November 1st, my birthday! I actually didn’t like my birthday as a kid for two reasons. First, the day seemed anti-climactic after receiving tons of candy the night before. The second reason was that once Fr. Shaughnessy found out my birthday was on All Saint’s Day, a Holy Day of Obligation, I was always scheduled to serve at one of the masses that day. He would always point out to the congregation that it was my birthday. Kinda embarrassing for a kid.
As I’ve prattling on about all of the work we’d do to prep for winter, I began to think of one constant that held true throughout all of the cleaning. Whether we would be working outside or inside, my parents always had the radio on and music playing. WJAS and KDKA were the stations of choice. KDKA for news and sports, and WJAS for music.
I learned to love Mom and Dad’s music, and still do. Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Patty Paige and Connie Francis were some of their favorites. If they weren’t listening to them on the radio, they would be playing their records. Things haven’t changed much for me even now. I just seem to work better with music playing, and I am always able to find some station that continues to play some of the standards of that era.
Thanks Mom and Dad for the work ethic you instilled in me at such an early age, thanks for the wonderful memories you gave to me and thank you for giving me the gift of music for all of my life!
What a wonderful reminiscent short story of life in the area of my youth.I was born and raised in Mckeesport on Soles St. and our family followed almost to a “T” the exact same rituals or traditions, whichever you choose to call them every year.Nothing was wasted and our home,like others were taken care of in the same manner.
My recollection of “picalilli” was that it was of a German recipe passed down through the family.I never heard it called “Chow Chow” until I relocated to North Carolina.Funny how each ethnicity said it was their recipe and the best of all.To this day I wonder where it originated.I understand why it was made,merely because all that was left in the Fall were the green vegetables that would not ripen.Nothing was wasted and that made a wonderful addition to a winter meal,a garden conglomeration salad of sorts.
I truely love the writers recollection of life and events in our Mill towns.I miss those days and the closeness of neighborhoods we had then.The only disposable thing we had then, was the energy to be good neighbors,citizens and hard working people with pride in our communities.Those are things that have all but vanished in our cities and towns.
The world is very different now and technology has allowed us to share stories like this in a forum we never dreamed of then.Whats important though,is to not let these stories disappear and keep them alive in the hearts and minds of our offspring.I often wonder what the grandchildren,great grandchildren and great,great grandchildren will look back on and say those were the good old days.I just can’t imagine it,no matter how hard I try.I know that my ancestors probably wondered the same thing and saw the coming of new technology too.
Thank you Sir for such a great story of the Hunky way of life.
Craig T. Holtzman……………………..
Craig, you are most welcome. I became a grandfather for the first time in July of this year. I have printed all 101 posts that I have written in this blog and each and every comment, so that in years to come, he’ll know about his family’s roots and a wonderful way of life. Thank you again for your kind words. – Jim
Jim, I love reading all you write…..it is a nice trip down memory lane….I cant wait to read the Halloween story! Keep up the good work!
I remember that silvery glittery grit that covered the surface of everything outdoors and made its way indoors too. Mill dirt. It probably made its way into all of our lungs too! You could write your name on the surface of any automobile on our street after a night of the “mill dust”. I’m wondering what the heck that was. Does anybody know? I’m sure some kind of effluent from mixing the ore into the steel or somesuch. It wasn’t all the time, just MOST of the time.
My mom also made chow-chow and gave jars of it to folks who asked for it. I was amazed that people actually liked that stuff. To me, that was “adult” food, unsuitable for kids.
Costumes for halloween were made by the kids, not the parents, in my neighborhood. Lots of hobos, pirates, cheerleaders, brides, you get the picture! But it was lots and lots of fun.
Jim, thanks for the memories you silver-tongued Devil!
Debra, Each night they would “blow the blast furnaces” around 3 0r 4AM. The skies would light up and the birds would wake-up and start to sing. It’s true, and when the light faded into dark again the birds went back to sleep. However, floating through the air were the little flakes of metal you write about. They would indeed cover everything, especially the cars we washed & waxed the day before. Interestingly, excluding the mill dust that came with it, the metal flake looked kinda cool. Having spent 21 years as a manager with Chevrolet I know alot of people who paid good money to get “Metal Flake” paint, which we in Duquesne got for free. Even if we didn’t want it! 🙂
Great insight on life and times in the Mon-Yough Valley. Having grown up in McKeesport I can relate to every thing you write. Keep up the good work — you have a “way with words” that jog the memory bank!
How about wall paper cleaner? Sort of like silly putty with gusto.
where did we ever find the TIME to do all of these chores and still enjoy life??
I, too, feel a connection to the music of the late 40’s and 50’s..i always say i absorbed it thru osmosis…it was always a treat for us to watch my mom and dad do a couple of turns in the living room as they were wonderful dancers..and look out at a wedding…they just floated on air.
We didn’t find the time, we made it. Out of necessity.
My grandmother made chow chow every year. So did my aunts. It was thought to be an old Hungarian recipe. Always called chow chow. I would be with your dad on this one!!
Jim, this brought back so many wonderful memories. Yes, we worked so hard back then. Some people still do today, but most, as you said. are into the disposable, quick, convenience store living. Tina
The smell of burning leaves was my biggest fall memory. Back when people did that along the curb.