by Mary Bahr, Curator, Elkridge Heritage Society
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- Redecorate or WHAT?
As far as I know, my maternal Riefle-Rohrbacher/Shafer-Horn and paternal Bahr-Kessler/Fox-Zeun ancestors were 99.99% German. I don’t know where the other .1% came from, except the Muellers were Dutch. But I mention this because, though some were farmers and b_ _ _ _ _ _s, many more were also artistic and professional in the fields of invention, painting, making pottery and glass, playing the piano and violin, and teaching the arts, etc. So the genes were not distributed by our own merit. Like the Patapsco overflowing, it seems to me our family inherited more than a small quantity of Germanic work ethic and creativity. Of course, it is up to us to do something with it.
Our family has always been outspoken and bold. As large canvasses, my brother and I used the walls of our bedrooms in Edgewood Cottage (“The Old House”) to express ourselves. Len painted his with images of horses in action, which were, from my perspective, imaginative and magnificent.
After we moved out, our mother carefully stripped off each of his wall paintings. After her death, I found a pile of them rolled up and laying atop his horse-hair mattress in The Old House. As much as I wanted to save and mail them to my brother, they were too big and brittle.
My sister, Beth, preferred wallpaper. Her bedroom was first wallpapered in an extremely large Scotch plaid of yellow and black blocks with very thin red lines dissecting the design. Its super-size engaged my attention every time I went into her room. Mother later re-wallpapered it in a tiny pattern of green and red squares (Part 1, illustration 5). Mother not only hung wallpaper, but worked in sales at a wallpaper store — so she got choice pick’ns.
On the other hand, I went through a stage of loving maps for their shapely abstract qualities, and so on very large paper, I drew colorful huge ones of the European world — particularly Greece — enough maps of countries to cover my walls and ceiling. Later, I took them down and painted three of the walls orange, red and black. I must’a thought I knew what I was doing.
Our parents always encouraged our expressiveness, though I sensed various times when my interests drove them up a wall – or tested their patience let’s say, like when my musical choices included playing Annette Funicello records repeatedly for hours on end on the family’s turntable. Hey, when I really liked something, I wanted more. Though I don’t play the record anymore, betcha’ I can remember the words to every song!
Do you HAF’TA play this ALL the time?” YES. “Can’t you play something ELSE once in a while?” NO.
I digress that lunchtime on the playground at the Elkridge Elementary School was particularly trying when one day a rumor burned my ears that Annette, Jimmy and other Mouseketeers were killed in a bus accident. It was even in the newspaper. I cried buckets before I found it to be a lie. Whoever started the rumor might have been a parent … driven up a wall.
Meanwhile, regarding the other rooms in our home, in a letter dated July, 1947, our dad mentions that before moving into Edgewood Cottage, his preparation included not only outdoor chores, but painting the interior woodwork, sanding and waxing floors, and possibly covering the kitchen floor with linoleum, although I don’t remember that as the kitchen floor seemed to be always covered in newspaper. To this day, I don’t remember what it was underneath.
Dad also wallpapered the dining room with mother’s choice of a deep rustic red with small yellow, blue and green flowers dancing through it. I distinctly remember at a Sunday dinner, remarking to my family in general that I particularly loved the wallpaper. This when I was around six. Mother beamed proudly and told me she picked it out herself.
Thus, for the sake of mother’s pride, a brief tour around our dining room table is required. Against the north wall were two white Federal-style corner cabinets with lovely plates behind the glass. The combination of their white with the rustic red wallpaper was very pleasing to the eye. Against its adjoining east wall there was a marble-topped telephone table and white door connecting to a small utility room to the kitchen.
Ring ‘round the rustic rosy.
The opposite south wall (see below), was angled, with a white fake brick fireplace surround and a top white mantel that held two blue French glass chanticleers, and next to that, at a right angle, was a large white trimmed window adjoining the east wall with its white door to a side porch. Next to that was mother’s baronial sideboard, topped with a dome covered 30-day clock, drawers for silverware, and bottom cupboards chocked full of RCA Victor 78 records. Years later, on the wall above the sideboard, mother exhibited a large woodcut print she made from looking at a skeleton of a tiny fish.
- A Toodle Loo:
The small utility room between dining and kitchen had a scrub sink, a ringer washer, a window, and to the left of that – a dinky dank loo with no lock on the door.
When the ringer broke down, mother drove our dirty linens to an Arbutus laundry next to the Hollywood Theater. She dragged me along of course, and I would be off to spend what seemed hours fingering the greeting cards in the nearby gift shops. That, or otherwise whining “CAN’T WE GO HOME YET?”
I must have been five at the time and particularly bored because on one of those trips I asked her if I could drive the car home. God only knows why she allowed me to sit on her lap and let me steer her car along Southwestern Blvd. And very well too, I might add.
Imagining things: Mary: “Was that guy cuss’n me?” Mother: “What guy?”
No novice to steering, my first bike (a red 3-wheeler), carried me all over The Old House – speeding around furniture – and into every nook and cranny I could get it.
Mother’s remedy to my interior traffic was to put me and the trike out on the stony driveway, where she knew it was tough going and would slow me down. I guess she was proud of herself for that idea too. Instead, I maneuvered out to the smooth paving of Old Lawyers Hill Road. I don’t remember stopping traffic and I’m still here, so cars must’ve passed around me.
But then mother finally got her own Maytag washer and I had to peddle 12 more years before getting a driver’s license and a job to pay for my Austin Healy.
- Chicken Little Was Right:
Even with both parents working, I always wondered about the kitchen and why they never got around to it. Obviously, painting the kitchen wasn’t on dad’s list of priorities, because we spent all our years there dodging old (I think possibly leaded) paint, peeling above our heads. There were times I know, as a little kid, I would try to eat the paint chips and then later I heard discussion as to whether I was a bit slower in learning multiplication tables. I guess by now, all that lead has worked its way out.
I don’t want to psychoanalyze my parents, but I wonder if, in the back of my mother’s mind, the kitchen was her psychological contribution to a spartan lifestyle that she so admired in her friends, Addison and Rosalie Worthington. But unlike the Worthingtons, we had a well AND THEN city water, electricity, and indoor plumbing. On the other hand, maybe the Worthingtons PAINTED their kitchen.
And if it wasn’t the matter of falling paint, I remember a spider above my chair on the kitchen ceiling that fell, because I next noticed it on my cereal. Or the time when a thermometer broke and I played with the sliding silver in my hands.
Good grief. Was no one else paying attention to all this FUN stuff?
One day our dad announced it was time for us to move because The Old House had termites and he could not get rid of them. I was still a little kid, able to fathom the depth of terror of moving from things familiar, the only roots I could remember. “Chicken Little” was right. Not only the peeling paint, but my whole sky was falling.
- Dirty Pictures In My Soup:
Dad used the upper staircase hallway as his exhibition space for a long time until one day I complained to mother about not being able to walk out of my room without being confronted by sketches of nude models (he taught anatomical drawing at the Maryland Institute of Art). I was used to seeing these drawings without much thought, but one day I made a sudden connection between me and the sketches – that is that we were all female. But when a modest young girl gets to a certain age, she doesn’t want to think about what her father might know. And though mother lectured me on why I should not be ashamed of the human body, the sketches came down awhile later. I seem to recall maybe removing them myself, but I’m not sure on that score.
Now thinking back, I digress on an experience that, though I could read of the innocence of Snow White and the romance of Cinderella, I was also allowed to see dad’s talent for drawing the naked human form. Yet at a movie theater (after an announcement — “COMING SOON TO A THEATER NEAR YOU”), mother reached over and covered my eyes during a racy preview for the French film “And God Created Woman” with Brigitte Bardot, in English subtitles.
What was the point, mother?
First, it’s a rare movie that gives God first credit in its title, even though it’s French. Second, I knew enough about Eve’s shenanigans with Adam from Sunday school at Melville Methodist (not that you would know exactly what, mother). And third, dad’s sketches showed more anatomy than Bardot’s immodesty ever did after U.S. censors snipped their scissors.
Yet I hadn’t made the connection before because I wasn’t yet a girl of a certain age.
- All Creatures Great and Small
In the 1950′s we had a penned area for our ducks, a sheep shed for our sheep “Irma” (la Deuce) and “Tressie,” and a chicken house with its large enclosure of chicken wire. I volunteered to collect the eggs because I loved the hens, particularly a red one. On the other hand, our two roosters (shown below) were territorial and aggressive to everybody.
But I particularly tried to avoid the feisty Leghorn because he liked a good chase and was more sure-footed than me around obstacles, particularly when I was carrying eggs.
Then just once he chased me against the wire, cornering me from leaving, and clawed the back of my legs.
Dad came to my bloody rescue, and that little transgression spelled c-u-r-t-a-i-n-s for the Leghorn. I had never seen a bird run around without a head to guide him, and it was an awful sight to witness. And even worse was when my favorite red hen ended up as Sunday dinner. Without understanding the accountability of my brother’s membership in the 4H Club, I was too horrified and grieving to eat her.
Over the years, I worried over an abandoned possum, nursed a sick squirrel, found turtles, held a garden snake or two, and saw a wonderful bat in Len’s bedroom. Our beloved pets were two cats — a Siamese named Tisa, and a black cat named Pepsi, along with two dogs — a Cocker Spaniel named Sambo and later, Chester (not pictured), a Springer Spaniel with a permanently limped paw, fittingly named after Chester on Gunsmoke. An assortment of these and other loved ones are buried on the property.
Nature’s bounty was everywhere and usually I was found somewhere in its middle.
But with arachnids, my imagination ran amok. The spider on my cereal wasn’t half as bad as the big black one that fell on my shoulder at the door as I left for school one day. My lower lip never quivered so much as when I pleaded with mother to get it off, and particularly more so when she told me to brush it off myself.
I seemed to see more spideys in The Old House than outdoors and I played outside a lot. In fact, the only spidey outdoors I actually remember having contact with was one who ran across my stomach when I was playing in a leaf pile. It was little, shiny black, and had a red dot on it. I paid it no mind.
Many years later, in our new house, with my bedroom on the ground floor, I woke up in time to find a big black and yellow striped garden variety on my pillow, right next to my face. Was it hoping for an introduction with my nose? Actually, it was a blind type that runs toward vibrations of movement. My sister made it mincemeat with her shoe.
Then when gleaning through the dining room debris in The Old House before its demolition, I paused to go look out the window, but couldn’t get to the window because halfway across the room I suddenly found myself face to face with a fat red spider that had blended in with all that rustic red wallpaper, in a web the size of volleyball net (seriously folks) blocking me from wall to wall. If my vision had not refocused in the nick of time, my face would have…well, with all “due respect” – you get the picture. I did the “Queen’s exit.”
I’ve read books to understand spiders, but better are the experiences. The teensy jumping ones, like the zebra spider, are adorable like a pet. For other types, I’m curious, acknowledging them, and hold them in conversation which gives me certain understanding and accountability. But when mother said she had conversations with a friendly spider hanging from a web above her bed and who answered her by moving when she talked to it, I was skeptical.
“Good morning spidey.”
I found it out to be just a long dust bunny hanging from the ceiling that flowed with air currents. I was laughing on the inside when I mentioned that her vision needed correcting. Mother was really disappointed. I should have minded my own business. We all have our delusions.
Now I give most spiders due respect — humanely trapping and depositing them outside to a far pasture. But if I can’t, then the webwalkers and skydivers might be forced to take a long walk off a short pier. And sometimes my charity ends towards the “EXTRA BIG wandering-indoors” variety. Like Bogart I ask,
“Yo, spidey ! Out of all the pit stops and broom closets in the world I walk into, I gotta find you HERE ?”
A spider’s spa with a whirlpool feature.
To Be Continued…