For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week.
TV, board games and toys, and school were indoor activities. But year-round, with the exception of raging blizzards, my mother ordered me to put down my book and go “play outside.” We had enough kids on Lakeview and Vermillion for a good game of Spud (very few cars went down our single-block-long street) or freeze tag. I had a particular fondness for “Mother May I;” little prig that I was, I delighted in sending kids back who forgot to ask permission. “Red Light, Green Light” was too prone to cheating, and always ended up as “I saw you move!” (a lie) countered by “I didn’t move!” (another lie). Once a summer, the ice cream truck magically found its way to our block to interrupt our street games, and I would lose my mind with desire for a Nutty Buddy only to by informed by my mother that if I wanted ice cream we had some in the fridge.
My mom was stingy with treats, doling them out occasionally and always one at a time. Each year we went to the Norshor theater to see the annual Disney feature, missing only “Bon Voyage” as it was condemned by the Catholic church for having a scene where the harried American dad is accosted by a Parisian hooker. Going to the movies was treat enough. Getting popcorn or Junior Mints from the snack bar would be gilding the lily.
It was the same at the Northland Country Club pool. Once in a great while I would be allowed to buy a frozen Snickers or Milky Way at the snack bar, at the exorbitant price of fifteen cents, five cents more than the going rate. Mostly we arrived at the pool after lunch and were forced to exist on grapes from home. But once or twice a summer my mom, my sister Lani, and I would sit up on Northland’s gracious veranda, looking out over the pool and first tee, and order divine hamburgers and golden French fries with brown crispy ends. I would slather everything on my plate with ketchup; Lani would leave most of her food for my mom and I to finish up. I later found out that my mom was afraid my dad would be mad about her minor country club charges; he was too busy losing hundreds of dollars in the never-ending Northland poker game to even notice our once a month lunches on the bill.
We were allowed hot chocolate when skiing at tiny Mount du Lac, but that bordered on a life saving measure when we came out of the zero degree cold with soggy wool mittens and frozen-over ski boot laces. The Mount du Lac “chalet” was a squat square concrete building, with window seats overlooking the three ski slopes (beginner, with the jerky tow rope that yanked me forward, landing face in the snow; intermediate, with the impossible to balance T-bar that dumped me on my back; and advanced, where I never managed to set ski on). The chalet had a jukebox and a pinball table, both of which I was dying to play (probably to postpone my return outside). Putting a dime in either of these machines was regarded by my mom as the height of wastefulness. When I finally got to play pinball, with my own dime, I was astonished at how quickly and surely the silver balls tumbled to the bottom and down the hole, failing to set off even a single bell of pinball success.
Why anyone would put money in a jukebox baffled my mother. “You can hear the same songs for free on the radio!” Pinball was even worse in her eyes: not only did you throw away a dime that could have bought an ice cream cone, candy bar, or bottle of pop, your brain cells curled up and died when you played such a stupid game.
Since all my mother’s efforts to transform me into the outgoing, cute, popular girl that she had been had failed, my mother turned her attention to protecting and improving my one asset, my smarts. She regarded comic books (except for the tedious Classics Illustrated) and Mad magazine as insidious destroyers of children’s intelligence: “If you read comics it will make you so stupid you won’t be able to read anything else.” I couldn’t get enough of that forbidden fruit. A neighbor girl stopped asking me over to play because I could not be budged from her older brother’s breathtaking collection of Mad magazines.
My preferred reading was definitely lowbrow, but I would read anything. When I ran out of library books, I resorted to our World Book Encyclopedia, or the lavishly and gorily illustrated children’s bible (heavy on the Old Testament) that somehow washed up on our living room bookshelf. There were also a few ancient children’s books that I read over and over: The Story of Live Dolls, The King of the Golden River, The Five Little Peppers, and Alice’s adventures both in Wonderland and through the Looking Glass. Eventually my mother realized that I was not to be bullied off of the couch and into the clique of popular Congdon Elementary girls. If I was going to have my nose in a book every waking hour, it should be a book that would improve my mind.
One glorious day I came home from school and found a brown box from the Classics Book Club addressed to me. Getting anything in the mail with your name on it was thrilling. I had long pleaded for my own subscription to Highlights for Children just for that reason, but that was not going to happen while my father could bring home the torn, scribbled-on old Highlights from his office. Inside this book-shaped box was a book, Shakespeare’s Comedies, the plays printed in mouse type on tissue thin paper nicely bound in gilded imitation leather. I started right in on The Tempest, reading the Miranda part out loud and understanding maybe a tenth of what was going on.
The next month brought the Tragedies. I had figured out how to skip the boring parts of the plays, which were everything except the lead female role: I dragged my finger down the page until I found lines for Juliet and Cleopatra and Ophelia, which I declaimed aloud from my sofa stage. The following month the Histories arrived which I barely cracked. Henry, Henry, Henry. Where were the good female roles?
Then came the dunning letters. Which were also addressed to me. My mother had thoughtfully put the subscription to the Classic Book Club in my name, but she had never bothered to pay for it. According to them, I owed $36.00 and my membership would be revoked and I would never receive the next book in the series — Plato’s Republic— unless they received payment in ten days. Where was I going to get the astounding sum of $36? I went to my mother in tears. She looked at the letter, crumpled it up, and tossed it in the garbage. Even more than she hated wasting money, my mother loved getting something for nothing; we had the books already, so why pay for them? But the letters kept coming, informing Miss Gay Haubner that the Classics Book Club was about to take legal action to recoup their money. For months, I expected someone to show up at the door and arrest me.
For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week.
I had started kindergarten age four on the army base in Hawaii. My father, a captain, had wrangled this early admission to get me out of my mother’s hair while she coped with a new baby. After a several month gap in my education while we lived with my grandparents, I was sent off to Cobb Elementary School as soon as we moved into the Woodland house, in the middle of the school year. I was the new kid, the smallest kid, and a year younger than most of my classmates. The old maid teacher (the Duluth Board of Education required that all elementary teachers be grey or white haired spinsters) carefully instructed me that if I had to throw up I should not run around the room but stay in one place, the only useful thing I learned in kindergarten. I painted at the easel, sang Old McDonald, pressed my hand into a disc of wet clay to create a Mother’s Day present, and made not a single friend. This would have distressed my mother if she had had the time to notice; she spent the entire day wrestling with a skinny, shrieking, thrashing toddler who fought tooth and claw against sleeping and eating and everything else.
I was friendless, but not unhappy. I had my books and my dolls and a baby sister to boss around. And every day at 3, I had The Bozo Show on our black and white TV. When Bozo wasn’t showing cartoons, but clowning around in the studio, I went back to my book while Lani rampaged through the house. Neither of us were interested in Bozo’s puerile antics or the tedium of listening to the dozens of snotty-nosed kids squashed on bleachers trying to remember their own names for the camera.
At that time we only had two TV stations in Duluth, neither of which was particularly dedicated to children’s programs. On weekday mornings there was Romper Room, which my mother attempted to park my squirming sister in front of. I was a classic Goody Two Shoes and even I was repelled by Romper Room’s “Do Be a Do-Bee” kid propaganda. And I knew that at the end of each show when Miss Mary looked through her Magic Mirror, she would never see Gay and Lani, only Billy and Nancy and Susie.
The high point of my week was Saturday morning, the one time Lani and I could spend hours sprawled in all our glory and pajamas in front of the TV. The first thing to come on screen after the weirdly fascinating test pattern were wonderful old black and white cartoons, Merrie Melodies, Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor Man, one after the other, with no interruptions from silly clowns or idiot children. Then came Mighty Mouse to save the day. The rest of the morning was not as idyllic, consisting of old half-hour shows thought suitable for kids: Roy Rogers, featuring Trigger and Dale Evans and for some reason Nellybelle the Jeep. The Lone Ranger and Zorro, both of whom were much handsomer and more dashing than stodgy Roy Rogers. Sky King, with his cute daughter, Penny, capturing various bad guys through aviation. And my favorites, the horse shows: Fury and My Friend Flicka.
I had a few plastic toy horses, inspired by the far better collection owned by my one and only friend, Judy Lindberg, who lived a few houses down from my grandparents in Carlton. Judy and I had become friends during my parent’s house-hunting days, when she was summoned to play with me. Round-faced Judy seemed almost as friendless as I was. I envied her world-class plastic horse collection, her thousands of Legos (My mother hated anything with lots of tiny pieces), and her status as an only child, a rare exotic when two kids seemed the minimum and lots of families had five or six. Judy’s very German grandfather, Karl, and her parents, Vera, with raven Elizabeth Taylor hair, and roly-poly Julius, owned Carlton’s one and only restaurant. The small café had a few booths along one side and on the other a long counter with those glorious chrome stools; Judy and I were strictly forbidden to do any spinning on them. On the counter and tables were the most adorable china cow creamers, as Minnesotans drank coffee with every meal. I broke one once, mesmerized by the stream of milk pouring out of the cow’s mouth, and I was scared for weeks to go to Judy’s house, terrified of what Germanic punishment might be meted out by her formidable grandpa Karl.
I got to play with Judy quite often, even after our move to Duluth; my family spent almost every Sunday in Carlton. While the adults sat around drinking and talking and drinking, I walked myself down the street to Judy’s, where we played horsies or Legos or fooled around with her mother’s electric organ, or I would sneak a look at Judy’s collection of fascinating, brightly-illustrated books that tried to explain Catholic theology at an 8-year-old level. Judy complained that reading wasn’t playing, and she was right.
If Judy wasn’t around on our Sunday trips to Carlton, I roamed about outside by myself, or explored my grandparent’s big house. On the ground floor there was a small wood-paneled room decorated with the heads of animals. My grandfather loved to hunt; in the winter he would drive around the county, dropping bales of hay off in the woods to make sure enough deer would survive so he could shoot them the following fall. There was an elegant living room that we never sat in; everyone congregated in the new glass-walled sunroom my grandparents had added on so they could look out at the snow eight months a year. My grandmother had remodeled her kitchen at the same time; her aqua blue and pale yellow kitchen was right out of Disney’s Tomorrowland and seemed the height of modern sophistication to me: the freezer made ice, there was a dishwasher, and the Formica counters were festooned with space age parabolas.
Upstairs were “the boys’ rooms” that had belonged to my dad and his two brothers. There the main attractions were the leather albums of coins and stamps from Rhodesia, Ceylon, French Guinea, and other exotic-sounding places I longed to visit even though those countries were just a colorful bit of paper or a coin with a hole stamped out; I could not have found them on a map.
Also upstairs was my grandma’s big bedroom, neat as a pin, reeking of Youth Dew, and too intimidating for me to do anything besides look at myself in her three-sided dresser mirror.
Best of all, my grandparents had a room just for books. It wasn’t big, but it was definitely a library, with towering bookcases on all sides holding hundreds of books in no particular order. There were tomes on dentistry, dusty fabric-covered novels with tiny type and no conversations, ancient nature books with pastel drawings of birds and moths—I just had to keep pulling books down from the shelves until I found something I could enjoy. When I did, I left that book on a lower shelf so I could find it again the following Sunday. There were two books I read again and again; a book on space travel, with lurid sci-fi paintings of the rings of Saturn as seen from the surface of that planet, and sunset on Mars with its two moons hanging in the sky; and a guide to hunting in Africa, bound in leopard-print paper and filled with black and white photos of living and just-shot gnus, zebras, lions, and a wide variety of antelope. If I ever go to Africa, I will carefully shake out my shoes every morning, having seen a photo of a large scorpion that had been extracted from the author’s boot. When I was in junior high, I discovered in my grandparents’ library an unaccountable paperback of Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson, with such horrifying descriptions of sex and violence, including bikers pulling a train on one poor girl, that I took special care in secreting it behind the encyclopedias so I could read it again and again. I have no idea who would have brought that book into that house.
My grandfather had a small bedroom tucked beneath the stairs, where he retreated immediately after Sunday dinner. I thought it was funny that my grandpa’s bedtime was 7:30 until I realized years later that this was his regular time to pass out from drinking 7&7’s all day. Every Sunday I scarfed down my own dinner as fast as possible to catch Lassie and the Walt Disney Show, which later became the even more unmissable Wonderful World of Color. My mother and grandmother cleaned up the dinner plates, my dad built himself a last highball, and then we piled back in the car, my dad drunk and all of us seat belt-less, to drive the half hour back home, where I had to go immediately to bed.
My grandfather’s brother was married to my grandmother’s sister, but while my grandpa was the big man and my grandma the snooty matron in their town of 400 souls, my great uncle Cliff and great aunt Marge were stuck on a farm with a thousand turkeys. Every Christmas Eve Cliff and Marge opened their rambling 1920’s house to dozens of relatives. Aunt Marge started baking in the beginning of December: there were cut-out sugar cookies shaped like stars, bells, and camels, dusted with red and green sugars; spritz cookies, ridged wreathes of pale green, decorated with those adorable little silver balls that you’re not suppose to eat, but that I could never resist crunching between my teeth; pfefferneuse, snowy with powdered sugar, that I always forgot I didn’t like until I had popped one in my mouth; chocolate drops, that I did like, tart lemon bars, homemade white bread to be slathered with butter, and stolen, studded with candied cherries and iced with white sugar frosting.
Marge made candy as well, a feat I have tried again and again to duplicate and consistently failed at: chocolate walnut fudge and penuche and divinity. These were the main attractions for me and it was torture to gaze upon the kitchen table groaning with sweets and not be able to have any until I choked down a plate of wild rice with mushrooms and chicken, baked ham, mashed potatoes, string bean casserole, and ambrosia salad. There were bowls of many other things, such as beets and lima beans, that I didn’t eat, and since it was Christmas, nobody made me. It was farmhouse cooking at its most gargantuan. I don’t think anyone even thought of bringing a dish to Aunt Marge’s Christmas Eve. It would have been like showing up at the miracle of the loaves and fishes with a Tupperware container of pasta salad. Our family did presents Christmas morning, after Santa came. Cliff and Marge did presents Christmas Eve, between bouts of eating. There was always one present for me, so I would have something to open; I tried not to look disappointed at the handmade monkey sock puppet or yoyo doll. Then there was that annus horribilius when my sister got a Raggedy Ann doll, something I had always wanted; I gleefully torn open my own gift to reveal the dreaded stitched grin of Raggedy Andy. I cried all the way home.