The Taylor family started out in a city apartment in a medium sized city in central New York, right at the end of World War II. We played air raid in our front yard. When the city held tests of the air raid sirens, we had to crouch down next to the cellar wall. Then we had to check up over us to make sure there were no windows above us. If there were, we had to scuttle along to a new window-free position and wait for the all clear. This was before the US dropped the first atomic bomb. This was in anticipation of just your regular old everyday average bomb like the ones that made life an insecure misery in London during the war.
Sometimes we walked to the little grocery store on the corner, at first with Mom, later we were allowed to go by ourselves, since we didn’t have to cross any streets. Most of the time, we just ran around making up games with the rest of the kids in the neighborhood or sat in the back driveway with Mom while she hung out the laundry.
Felicity, my older sister, was born first: pale, anemic, two months premature (she almost died, we often heard), delicate and pretty. Zoe, that’s me, I was born second: chubby, full term and jealous as hell of my dainty “big” sister (second child syndrome much?). According to family lore, I followed Mom and Felicity as soon as I learned to crawl and bit their ankles whenever I got the chance. Soon after I was born came Tyler, the long-awaited son, blond and handsome, with curls all over his precious little head. Not even a year later we got Gertrude, (Gertie) also a chubby, but with a cherub-sunny face and perfect golden brown ringlets. By the time we got Robert, a devilish, blond crew cut little tough boy, we no longer fit in a two-bedroom apartment.
Dad, Hobart Taylor, found a house in the country, only about ten minutes from our old place in the city. Augusta, my mom was not happy that he picked it out all by himself, but was very happy to get the seven of us out of that crowded apartment.
By the way, as you can probably tell, we were poor. My dad had to leave school in the eighth grade to take care of his parents. Fortunately, he got some training in electrical matters. By the time we moved to Smithvale, he was working at GE and was in the electrician’s union. Mom, with five small children, was not employed, in fact, I never remember her being away from us, except to have babies.
I was seven when we arrived in Smithvale and I don’t remember much of that first year except a big old house with floral wallpapers, crackled white radiators everywhere you looked, and lots of grassy lawn. Already, by seven and eight, Felicity and I were often in charge of the younger kids. There were a lot of neighbor kids on our street. A few newer type subdivision houses were popping up here and there. Mom’s life changed little. She still spent hours rinsing diapers, soaking little outfits covered in spit up and later in dirt, and putting everything through the wringer washer in the basement. No wonder she loved to hang the clean, wet laundry on the line. It was a chance to be outside, even though she usually had at least two toddlers hanging on her skirts or pedal pushers. She put her hair up in pin curls after Dad left and tied a folded scarf around her head, and even like that we thought she was pretty.
Felicity and I knew how to heat bottles by then, how to test them on our wrists and hand them out to little snot-nosed Robert. Some days were just chaos, morning to night, although three of us were in school by then. Mom still had two at home and by the times we got back from school everyone would be ready to sit down in a little line in front of the TV to watch Howdie Doodie, with little cups of cereal to munch on. I just loved that Princess Summerfall, Winterspring.
The theory was that Mom would remove the scarf and pin curls from her hair shortly before Dad got home and primp herself up a little bit for him. At first this theory was put into practice religiously, but after a while the pin curls were often in place for several days at a time, hence the number of family photos that show our pretty young Mom with a bandana wrapped around her head. There is no doubt that her life was better in Smithvale than in the city. We could all be outside so much and Felicity and I could keep an eye on the tag-a-longs so Mom didn’t have to be outside every time we were.
Winters were harder. All five of us had to be helped into snowsuits and boots and hats, and mittens and scarves. We were usually out about five minutes, then we were back, tracking melting snow everywhere and all needing to be undressed at once. And there were always the random bathroom emergencies when Mom had to shift into high gear and race to the bathroom with a child balance on a hip, tucked in under her left arm, booted feet flapping in the air, set down in front of the toilet and just the essential parts unwrapped. That she was usually successful in preventing an accident is a testament to her dislike of laundering those bulky snowsuits in mid winter.
No new babies arrived for a couple of years which gave us all a little breather. On good days Mom would cut little sandwiches out of white bread with cookie cutters and stage little tea parties, and of course, there were tons of birthdays to celebrate with double layered frosted cakes and glowing candles and “Happy Birthday” and ice cream and presents. There was Easter and Christmas to break up the year and visits to our aunts and uncles who drank lots of beer and played the piano and sang “Nothing Could Be Finer Than to Be in Carolina” and “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” Mom took off her bandana for all these occasions, except the one Easter when we all had the measles or the chicken pox and everyone went back to puking and crying as soon as we got over our Easter baskets.
Some of my aunts and uncles smoked, although Mom and Dad never did. Grampa Taylor smoked big old smelly cigars and our favorite, funny Aunt Mable smoked cigarettes and left an ashtray full of red-tipped butts each time she visited. In fact, I think all of my aunts and uncles smoked, but not like Aunt Mable. My handsome cousins were older than us but they didn’t smoke yet.
After a couple of years of quiet on the baby front, just when we were all done with bottles and diaper changing, Mom and Dad started up again and produced three more girls, Emily, Rebecca and Morgan. I was nine when Emily was born, ten for Rebecca, and eleven when we got Morgan. It was getting embarrassing and the neighbors were aghast. But Morgan was the last one.
By then Mom was definitely swamped. If she kept up with the laundry, she forgot dinner and it was burned or so dry we couldn’t eat it. Felicity and I learned to cook in self-defense so by eleven and twelve you could find us standing over the stove after school with a baby on our left hip stirring pots and checking ovens. We liked to cook.
We had outgrown out country home, but Dad made do and carved new bedrooms out of attic space, freezing in winter, broiling in summer, but we were young and happy and had lots of friends and we didn’t mind much. Life for Dad was a constant struggle involving day-old bread and gallons of milk and shoes, shoes, shoes. He didn’t have to buy clothes very often because everyone we knew contributed boxes of castoffs which Mom and us older girls went through. The ironing piled up until Mom offered us a penny a piece and we learned to iron.
By the time I was five it was the 50’s and by the time I was eleven, when the last baby was born, it was 1956. My sister and I were avid watchers of Syd Caesar, Milton Berle, and eventually The Hit Parade and Ed Sullivan, Father Knows Best, The Nelsons (Ozzie and Harriet) and I Love Lucy. We always had a TV. Dad was an electrician, after all, and everyone brought him broken sets to be fixed. He had lots of boxes of TV tubes in the basement with his oscilloscope and his voltmeter and he knew just which tubes to replace. No one smoked on TV in those days, except Dean Martin, who always had a cigarette hanging from his lips, maybe Lucy when she wanted to catch her hair on fire, and they did have these dancing cigarette boxes – box on top, underneath all legs, doing their Rockettes routine. Don’t remember the brand, maybe Chesterfields.
By the time we were all in school I was about sixteen with two years of babysitting already under my belt. Mom would get up at 5 am to spread all the bread out on the kitchen counter to make sandwiches for us all for school. Dad was still working at GE, but Mom didn’t drive, so when he got home from work he was in his taxi years. Mom volunteered him to drive for everything. My sister and I were both in a high school sorority, Alpha Mu Zeta. We made newspaper containers for cancer bandages and sang at old folks homes (as they were known then) and went to lots of meetings. Dad always had to pick up at least four other girls whose fathers were too busy to drive.
We went most summer Saturday afternoons to the Starlight Theater. It cost 35 cents at first, and later 50 cents. We saw every Doris Day movie and imagined ourselves into perfect designer apartments, cars and clothing with our reluctant, but lovesick gorgeous bachelor, who could not help giving up his glamorous single freedom, because he fell madly in love with one of us and now had no choice. I don’t think Doris Day smoked in any of those movies but Rock sometimes did. And, of course, we watched Elvis, but he never smoked. The tough hood guys who hung out at Mary’s Pizza with their teased-out-hair girlfriends, they smoked. The bad boys wore their cigarette packs rolled up into their t-shirt sleeve. Annette Funicello and her crowd didn’t smoke in the Beach Blanket movies. Everything was about s-e-x, and meeting the right guy. Even Tammy, the innocent poor country girl was always learning about s-e-x. And Gidget too! Maybe sex and cigarettes got mixed together for me.
Now we had, of course, pretended to smoke in our younger years. We loved nothing better than to take a quarter and go to the penny candy store. Candy cigarettes with their little red tips were one of the things we bought, along with the licorice replicas of 45-rpm records with the red candy center, and the waxy bottles with sweet syrup inside, and the Lik-a-Maids, and the watermelon slices.
We lived near an old air base so there were lots of abandoned barracks and obstacle courses, completely overgrown with meadow grasses. In my teen years the fire department burned an abandoned barracks every Thursday night, for practice, and to get rid of them. We would all run up and watch. It was better than fireworks. Mom would sometimes pack us picnic lunches in the summer and we would go into the meadows, find a clear spot and eat with our friends, maybe catch tadpoles or frogs. We would open the milkweed pods and scatter the silk and then cut down stalks with our mumbley-peg knives. After they dried out they were hollow and we would meet by the cellar stairs and try to smoke them. We also smoked cattails, holding the stems in our mouths, tapping off the ashes into the dirt around the cellar door.