I remember well that winter, when I was 6 or 7 years old, because it was very cold in our house early in the morning. My family was poor, along with millions of others, in the Great Depression of the early 1930s. My parents’ business was a small tailor shop and dry cleaning outlet, and in the Depression years, dry cleaning clothes became a dispensable luxury for many people. There were weeks when the little shop took in a few dollars or less. When they could no longer afford to pay rent for a store in downtown Geneva, N.Y., my parents opened a tailor shop and dry cleaning outlet in the garage behind our house. Then, the customers totally disappeared.
We lived in a small house. The mortgage of some $5,000 was held by a generous man who offered to defer payments on the principal, provided the interest payments were kept up. I can remember hearing my parents talking quietly about how worried they were about making the payments. Not only was the weather bitterly cold in the winter, the furnace had a broken part, my parents couldn’t afford the $6 to replace it, and they kept the house temperature low all day and even lower at night.
I used to wake up very early, and my father got up earlier. I had to go to school, and my father went to the shop, hoping for customers and keeping himself busy cleaning and repairing men’s used suits, which he sold on rare, happy occasions.
Often when he was ready for the day, he would peek into my bedroom and if I was awake he would wrap me up in a blanket and carry me downstairs to the kitchen. In the kitchen there was a big, black stove with four gas burners and an oven. On the left side of the stove there was a section designed for a coal or wood fire and he would prepare it the night before so he could start the fire right away in the morning.
While the small kitchen was warming up, my father would cook breakfast for the two of us. He would fry eggs, fry potatoes that had been boiled the night before, and make coffee and toast. The toaster was a little four-sided metal rack that sat on top of one of the gas burners; the pieces of bread had to be watched carefully, and turned at just the right moment to toast on both sides without burning them. As soon as he would give me my plate of potatoes and eggs and toast, I would put a lot of ketchup on the potatoes, butter and jelly on the toast, and milk from a thick glass bottle into a small amount of coffee.
How good everything smelled, cooking as the room gradually warmed up. How good it all tasted. And how special and cozy it felt to be alone with my dad early in the morning while my mother and my big brother were still sleeping. Sometimes he would tell me stories and I would ask him questions about things, and it was a lovely time for the two of us.
After a while, my mother would come downstairs bringing my clothes, and she would help me get dressed in the nice warm kitchen. How protected I was by the two of them. How pampered. They did the best they could to make my life comfortable and carefree, because they had had such rough lives, working from the time they were children themselves. I wish I could thank them now. I wish I had thanked them more when they were alive. But I took it all for granted.