The first five years of my life, I lived on a 25-acre farm near Burke, Virginia. Burke is now a suburb of Washington, D.C., but in the 1940s, it was a rural community, no more than a crossroads, and Braddock Road, now a major highway, was a dirt road in front of our house.
Dad, who worked for the General Accounting Office in Washington, raised corn and other crops. We had pigs and chickens, a cow and a calf named Lottie and June, Skiddles the cat and Snow White the dog, and a duck named Hitler, because we were going to kill him and eat him. The house was small, maybe 800 square feet. Heat came from a wood-burning stove. Mom prepared meals on a cook stove, and because there was no running water or plumbing in the house, we hauled what we needed from a pump outside. Mom heated the water for laundry and used a scrub board. Of course, we used an outhouse.
My folks had had it rough during the Great Depression, and they thought they were the luckiest people in the world to have such a home. When my older sister, Donna, asked if we were poor, Mother replied, “We may not have money, but we’re not poor.”
In fact we had wonderful things. Mom attended farm auctions and sales at old plantation houses, where she bought ice cream chairs for a quarter, marble-top walnut dressers for a few dollars. Out in the pasture was the rusted frame of an abandoned car with springs where the seat had been. No custom-made auto could have been a better plaything for my brother and me.
Every Christmas, Dad cut down a tree and dragged it to the house, only to find he’d misjudged and the tree was too big to fit through the door. He’d cut a second tree and sometimes a third before he got one small enough to stand up in the house. Mom gathered bittersweet and greens to decorate—and holly.
I remember walking through the woods with Dad and coming across a magnificent holly tree, the sun shining on the green leaves and red berries, against the white snow. Of course, I was four and any tree over five feet seemed huge to me. I don’t even know if there is such a thing as a holly tree, but that’s the way I remember it, and you can’t convince me it wasn’t the most awesome sight in the world.
It must have been 1944, my last Christmas on the farm, that our presents from Santa failed to arrive. Mom and Dad had ordered them from the Montgomery Wards catalogue well ahead of time. But Christmas week, they received a letter telling them the railroad car in which the gifts had been shipped had been directed to the wrong part of the country and our presents wouldn’t arrive until January. After all, a war was on, and things did go array. That might have been a calamity, but it wasn’t, because Gram, my wonderful grandmother, had made rag dolls for my sister and me, and we found those in our stockings on Christmas morning. (I don’t remember what my brother got, but he was only two.)
Gram was a whiz at sewing—she made clothes for me until she was 90—and those dolls were charming, a black boy in overalls and girl in calico dress. Their faces were embroidered, and their hair was made from yarn. I still have them.
Those Christmases on the farm were magical. The trees were dusted with snow, and Dad pulled us on a sled through the woods to our neighbor Mrs. Garrison’s house. On Christmas night, we sat by the wood stove and ate nuts and popcorn and the divinity candy that my Grandma Dallas sent from Kansas. We sang carols, and Mom read from the Bible.
Poor? Not us.
April 24 Publication Date for True Sisters
True Sisters, the story of four women who travel from Iowa City to Salt Lake City in an 1856 Mormon handcart expedition, will be published on April 24. You can read the first chapter on Sandra’s Sandra Dallas Author page on Facebook. We’ll tell you more about the book and why Sandra wrote it in the next issue of Piecework.
After producing 11 mainstream novels, Sandra has written a children’s book, The Quilt Walk. The book, aimed at girls 10 to 12, will be published next fall by Sleeping Bear Press.
The Quilt Walk is based on a tale in Sandra’s award-winning The Quilt That Walked to Golden. In that quilt history, she tells of two women whose husbands refused to let them take their trunks of clothing with them when they migrated west to Golden, Colo., in the 1860s. So the women put on their dresses, one on top of another, and walked west wearing their entire wardrobes. Later, they made a quilt out of the dresses, a quilt that was known in the family as “the quilt that walked to Golden.”
The Quilt Walk is a fictionalized account of Emmy Blue, the daughter of one of those women, who walks west wearing three dresses and carrying her doll, who is equally “overdressed.”
We’ll tell you more about The Quilt Walk in upcoming editions of Piecework.
Persian Pickle Club Producer Ready for Investors
Double Axe Head Productions, which has the film option on Sandra’s novel The Persian Pickle Club, is looking for investment partners for the low-budget, full-length film. Academy Award-winning cinematographer for Avatar Mauro Fiore will shoot the movie, which could begin filming as early as next year. Contact Christine Fiore, producer, at email@example.com, or 818-726-9486 for information or a prospectus.
Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls. By Stephen C. Bloom. St. Martin’s Griffin.
The pearl is my birthstone, but I never knew anything about pearls, never even liked them, in fact, until I read Tears of the Mermaids. Author Stephen G. Bloom spent years tracking down every aspect of the pearl trade, from implanting beads in oysters (which become the nucleus of the pearls) to harvesting to wholesaling at the world’s pearl markets to retailing. And then there are the women like Barbara Bush and Grace Kelly who give pearls their cachet of elegance and wealth.
Christopher Columbus, Bloom relates, set out on his historic voyage in large part hoping to find pearls, because European royals were gluttons for them. He discovered them in South America, where Indians laden with pearl necklaces greeted the sailors. The Spanish quickly made slaves of the natives, forcing them to dive deep into the ocean for pearls. They harvested thousands, perhaps millions of them. When Bloom ventured to that all-but-deserted South American shore 400 years later, he discovered all that is left are pearls not much bigger than pinheads, and even then, they don’t show up often.
Tears of Mermaids reads like an adventure story, and indeed it is, as Bloom writes about today’s pearl workers, the pearl cartels, and the marketers, including Sotheby’s, which auctions off rare pearl jewelry for millions of dollars.
I’m on my way to Tiffany’s now—just to look, mind you.
Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York’s Trial of the Century. By Mike Dash. Three Rivers Press.
Several years ago, I discovered the Tenement Museum in New York City. I was researching the section on Essie Snowball for Whiter Than Snow. She is a Jewish character who grows up in an impoverished family on the Lower East Side. As part of the research, I bought every book I could find on life among the poor immigrants of New York. The subject fascinated me, and I now visit the museum every time I’m in New York.
Satan’s Circus (which is what that area was called) was a mixture of tenements, saloons, gambling dens, and whorehouses run by a shifty, greedy group of men and occasionally women, whose activities were protected by corrupt policemen and city officials. One of New York’s finest was Charley Becker, who in his early days had a run–in with author Stephen Crane. Charley was relatively honest, compared with his fellow officers, but that changed when he was put in charge of a vice taskforce. He saw his opportunity and within months, he had accumulated a fortune. But he made the mistake of teaming up with a lowlife who threatened to expose the corruption. After the man was gunned down, Charley was charged with murder.
The first half of Satan’s Circus is about New York’s Tenderloin, from the Civil War into the 1910s. The second is Charley Becker’s trial. Charley should have beaten the charge, but the combination of an ambitious district attorney, self-serving witnesses, and corrupt judges resulted in not one but two sensational trials. —SD