When We Were Renters

 

 

Grant Street Wausau WI

Grant Street, Wausau, Wisconsin. I lived there from age 4 to age 6. I returned there at age 61. That’s when I took these pictures. I’ve been back a couple times since because the memories flood from this place. We rented half of the house from the Gormans, who lived in the corner portion. One of the Gorman boys was in the war. Mrs. Gorman was old. The house was partly furnished, but my parents gradually, with my grandparents’ help, added furniture of their own. Google Earth tells me we lived in number 682.

Our House Grant Street

Bad things happened there. My baby brother was born in 1942 and I was so jealous that I started using a bottle again, fell off my skates with it, cut my finger badly. One day I was standing at my mother’s elbow as she was bathing Bobby in a little tub, and I tried to get up on the counter beside him. I knocked a pepper shaker off a shelf and rubbed it into my eye.

My grandma was in in the hospital in 1944. Mother took Bobby and me with her on the bus to visit on gray days in March. I remember the black-frocked nuns in a sepia corridor. I had to sit in the sunroom and sew yarn on cardboard pictures, waiting.  Grandma died.

Then Dad finally was drafted in April 1945, and we had our pictures taken on May 1, all dressed up. Mom and the baby went to live with Grandpa as soon as Dad left, only I stayed with my other grandma and grandpa to finish first grade. My painted turtle died in the classroom and I had to take it my grandparents’ home to bury it at the corner of their garage.

But good things happened on Grant Street, too. Dad made hamburgers and cut potatoes into french fries on Saturdays, and if it was summer we had big, thick tomato slices, otherwise canned peas. On long winter days Mom and I sat together by the front window while she painted her fingernails bright red. Before the Christmas pageant she bought me patent leather shoes.

We could walk downtown from here, and she bought me a new book every time. She also walked me to the public library, let me see the goldfish in the outdoor pond. She sewed mother-and-daughter dresses for us.

My grandpa came one day and took me with him to the train station (there at the end of the street) ro see the first streamliner that came to town. He was the station agent on a trunk line of the Chicago Northwestern Railway,  and the Hiawatha, a passenger train, was on the Milwaukee Road, but the engineers knew him and they let him lift me up to the cab, and he climbed up, and we sat looking out through the sleek, slanted, glass windscreen at the track.  I sort of remember. I do.

Uncle Hed (my living grandma’s brother, Hedvig Henderson) came to visit and gave me a huge peppermint stick, which lasted for months. I sat on the front porch swing – in the summer the window walls of the porch were removed — licking my peppermint. I got some on my sweater sleeve. My mom washed the fuzz off the candy stick.

The porch was a haven. I was very shy, but I liked to jump rope on the sidewalk in front of the house. One day a woman in a long black coat came along. She was old and hump-backed. I stopped jumping and scrambled to the porch. (I’ve told this story many times.) She was wearing something bright on her lapel and I was staring. She stopped, crooked her finger at me and said: “Little girl, come here.” I did.

“Do you know what this is made of?” she asked, tapping her gnarled finger against the smooth yellow butterfly. I shook my head from side to side. Probably my pigtails were flying. “It’s plastic,” she said. “My son gave this to me. He said some day whole houses will be made of plastic.” I soberly nodded and she turned and resumed her walk toward the downtown, Third Street.

Employers Mutual Wausau WI

First Presbyterian Church Wausau WI

Up that way, opposite the train station, were two important buildings just before downtown. One was where my dad worked, Employers Mutual, a luminous, three-story building with wide steps leading to its glass and concrete front. I know now it is considered a remarkable Art Deco triumph. In the same block, across the street, stood our church, a grand First Presbyterian, which is Gothic Revival. Both are now preserved as historically significant. Both are marks of the prosperity of our town, carved out of the forests along the Wisconsin River. In my childhood Wausau was surrounded by rich farmland owned by German immigrants who still had horses, just in case their new plows with engines failed them.

My grandpa’s railroad line was the conduit from farm to market. It most valuable cargo was ginseng. Second was fur, silver fox and ermine. We played on the scales at the station in the little town just ten miles from Wausau, from St. Mary’s Hospital. My other grandpa was an accountant for one of the richest families in town. He took us to visit the two farms kept as hobbies by the surviving women, Mrs. Alexander and Miss Ruth. One raised Aberdeen Angus cattle from Scotland, and the other had longhaired show rabbits and Sardinian donkeys. We would always get fresh eggs and, in the Spring, maple syrup.

That wasn’t the last house we rented. There was one more. When Dad came back in 1946, having seen Japan, we moved to a Victorian house with an earth basement and a gas meter in Upper Michigan. But by the time I was ten and Bobby was five we owned a house. But that’s a different story.

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