Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Rain in Spain

I hate rainy days. I know I shouldn't because the earth could not survive without rain, but I hate it anyhow. This feeling goes back to my childhood when rainy days meant staying in the house and driving my poor mother crazy. You have to remember that at least for part of my childhood, we had no TV. There were no video games, no computers, no smart phones or DVDs...all that stood between you and crushing boredom were the toys you had, like an erector set, cowboy and Indian action figures or model trains. There were times when even these were not enough, and you would wail in that whiny voice that all mothers have come to know and hate: "Moooooooom, there's NOTHING to do!" (For full effect this would be accompanied by stamping your feet loudly as you trailed behind your long-suffering mother.)

Frances, my mother, was pretty creative at distracting me with simple diversions. "Why don't you sort out my buttons", mom would say. She had a big glass canister full of buttons that she would take down from the shelf. She would then supply me with baby food jars and have me sort the buttons by size and color. Even as a child, I was someone who appreciated method and order, so I would dutifully sit there absorbed in my task. My mom always made a fuss when I was done an hour later. "Oh you're such a help to me" she would say, and reward me with some milk and Graham crackers or, on a good day, chocolate Mallomars. It never dawned on me that each time mom asked me to do this, the buttons wound up back in the big glass canister again. Hey, I said I was orderly, not smart.

Sometimes if she wasn't busy, she would sit down with me for arts and crafts. We would make carnations out of tissues and bobby pins. I was amazed at how much like real flowers these things looked, especially if we had pink tissues. Mom would pin one in her dark hair when we were done and I thought she looked so pretty. Another favorite pastime was to cut shapes out of paper like hearts or crosses. We would use a pencil to darken around the outline of the shapes, and then, after laying them on a clean sheet of paper, use our finger to rub outward completely around the graphite edges so that when you lifted the cutout shape away, a perfect image could be seen on the clean sheet in a kind of halo effect. A sample is shown at left, taken from a page in my grammar school graduation album dated January 17, 1956. Mom wrote: "Jimmy, May our Blessed Mother Always Guide and Protect You", from Mother. Fran also slipped in a plug for my Dad's shoe store: "Always Shop Beck".

Another rainy-day activity was playing with my homemade horse. My Aunt Anna took an old trestle table, padded it, and actually fastened on a hobby horse's head and tail. Cowboys were all the rage in the fifties, and I would play in our cellar for hours with my trusty steed. One favorite plot was to tear off thin strips of newspaper, stick them into the whitewashed cellar walls, and pretend they were dynamite fuses. I would use the box of wooden matches I had snuck downstairs to light the fuses, and then run like hell, leaping onto my horse to make my getaway before the explosion. Usually if I was quiet, mom left me alone, thankful I was not pestering her. One day though she got a whiff of the burning fuse and went ballistic. "Are you trying to burn down the house" she hollered. "Do you know what your father keeps down here?" Tony Boots, my dad, had an old dresser full of turpentine, paint thinner and other flammables. Needless to say, my dynamiting days were over.

Sometimes mom would get desperate if we had a rainy spell that lasted a few days. The buttons were sorted, the carnations were made, and the horse was just no fun without the threat of a major fire...what else would keep this kid busy for an hour? Once, at the end of her wits, she asked if I wanted to polish the andirons in our fake fireplace. It didn't sound like much fun, but mom was a wily one. She tricked me like Tom Sawyer tricked his friends into whitewashing Aunt Polly's fence by making the job look irresistible. She took out the bottle of Noxon metal polish and a rag, and began buffing a small section of tarnished brass. Soon the spot was gleaming and I was hooked. I took the rag and must have worked for two hours on those damned things. The fireplace was cheesy, with faux logs that glowed if you plugged them in, but by the time I was done, we had the best andirons on the block.

My wife got to spend a lot of time trying to amuse our three kids on rainy days. You wonder what they'll remember about those days when they're grown. One day my wife asked my son Matt if he remembered playing Batman and Robin with her nearly every day. "Remember when we got dressed up and you were Batman and I was Robin and we played for hours?" she asked hopefully. "No" he said. Ah well.

(Originally published September 2009)


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I love rainy days! I usually get an old black and white movie, kick my feet up and enjoy the moment. There is a positive in everything in life.
Great blog.

Jim Pantaleno said...

Not me Joe, I like being outdoors. Seeing the sun has a salutory effect on me. Rain means no walks down to the beach and no golf. Glad you enjoyed the blog.