Piano, Soap and Walnuts / circa 1954

Three Memories of Mom from 1954-1956 

[Letter from Tim to Charlotte on October 11, 2016, five days prior to her 96th birthday]

Happy birthday!!

Dear Mom,

About sixty years ago you were a young mother and I was one of your two young sons, living at 10299 South West Eastridge Street, Portland, Oregon. Our home was one apartment in a 1950’s “project” of about 100 units. Here are three of my memories of you from that era.

You were very unusual, in not only having a piano, but regularly playing it, and thereby spreading to those around you the appreciation of hearing and making music, and patiently working on it! That put you way outside the world of the other young mothers in the neighborhood. They came visiting and encouraged you to join them in their mid-day “coffee parties.” I remember your discussing with me the mixed feelings you had after returning from one of the parties. You were happy to be invited and included in the local social circle, and you felt there was something to be learned from the informal “village” of friends in similar circumstances, with husbands off working by day, while childcare and laundry and other housekeeping chores fell to the women. But you were bored with the topics that dominated the long sessions of “girl talk.” Too bored to keep it up, you dropped out of the coffee club and explained to me that the social stigma of having abandoned the other young mothers and their gab was outweighed by the joy of playing world famous compositions by “the old masters” on the old upright that lent its weight to our loving room.

Walking through the apartment from the front door, we would pass through that room – where you and Dad also slept on the hide-a-bed – into the breakfast nook and kitchen, then through a locking door to a short hallway, with the back entrance on the left, and a stairway to the shared basement on the right. I was six or seven at the time. Up on a shelf in that little hall were a few household cleaning items, including a box of “White King D” laundry soap. I reached up one day for something nearly out of reach and accidentally brought down that soap box, dumping about half a cup of caustic white flakes into my up-turned eyes. I screamed and you came running. Your three years of nursing school, subsequent hospital work, and recent parenting duties had prepared you for emergency situations. Wasting no time or motion, you carried me to the kitchen sink, dangled my face over it, and splashed handfuls of water on my face and eyes. They were tightly shut at first, but after a while I began blinking them to let the lukewarm water in. You kept splashing for several minutes, until the soap was rinsed out and I was beginning to stabilize. I went from agony, to tolerable pain, to diminishing discomfort in the short time that only immediate rescue could have provided. Of course, it took a long time for the irritation to drop to the level of a background nuisance, during which you asked me what I was trying to do, but did not scold; you knew my safety lesson of the day was learned. Thankfully, no long-term eye problems developed … although, come to think of it, I started wearing reading glasses later that year, with a far-sighted prescription. Is there a cause-and-effect connection I have never made before? I am wearing reading glasses right now! No, that would be “post hoc ergo poster hoc,” a logical fallacy whose name I learned, as the years unfurled, from my first wife, a high school debater: “after the event therefore because of the event.” I’m not going there. But I am expressing a big Thanks! to you, Mom, for quick thinking, quick acting, and being an all-around present and attentive mother!!

In those days you marked special occasions like birthdays and holidays with food and household decorations, and sometimes gifts. You even let me help in the preparations. One October, with your birthday and mine and the holidays coming up, before pre-shelled walnut were available in the stores – even if we had been able to afford such a luxury – we “fell to” the relaxing and pleasurable chore of using nut crackers to open the shells, and picks to dig out the good stuff, to be used in the weeks to come in turkey stuffing, cakes and cookies. Cracking walnuts doesn’t always result in perfect half-shells but sometimes it does, and you kept those separate from the rest. That evening you drew a tub of warm water for my routine bath upstairs, but this time you brought out the walnut half-shells and a box of little birthday cake candles. One by one, you lit a candle, dripped wax into a shell and pressed the base of the candle into the cooling wax until it stood up on its own. Then you launched the tiny boat upon the bath water with its candle mast shining and flickering, joining the other boats like a fleet of ships setting sail on a magic sea. Finally, you drew the shower curtain closed and let me sail into the dream-scape to my heart’s content, blowing and nudging and gazing in wonder. That was the best birthday of my childhood. About seventeen years later, that image inspired a song lyric of mine that your grandson heard very often in his early years, being rehearsed and performed by our Eugene, Oregon, band, Prince Gabriel’s Fleet, whose name references both his name (with a fantasy twist) and that song …

Walnut Shell Ships
By Tim Tompkins and Suzanne Janes (Gabriel’s parents)

I dreamed we all set sail in walnut shell ships one morning in May
As dawn our misty spirits lifted, casting night away.
The sun smiled down.

An island there appeared, grassy, and white flowers abound,
A castle tall with silver towers rising from the ground.
And mermaids dance.
They dance the day away, so delighted to play.

As evening fell a warm and welcome west wind arose in our sails
And carried off shell ships and dreamers to lands of fairly tall tales.



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