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.
For my semi-devout Catholic father’s sake, my skeptic mother gamely took meat off the menu for our own Friday dinners, which I made a trial for her, as I couldn’t stand cheese or eggs or fish. Pancakes were my Friday dinner of choice.
Eating meat on Friday was a mortal sin, as I learned in my catechism class, which I had to attend every Wednesday afternoon, along with a handful of other Catholic kids who didn’t go to parochial school. The class was held at Holy Rosary School, where frightening nuns in full habit prepared us to make our First Communion by drilling us with the Baltimore Catechism. We went over and over questions such as “Why did God make you?” until we could parrot the word-perfect answer: “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.”
The nuns hated everyone in the catechism class. We were practically heathens; good Catholic children went to parochial school. The nuns assured me that I was not going to heaven as I did not have a saint’s name, and that my mother wasn’t going to meet St. Peter either, as she wasn’t Catholic. I was pitched into existential despair by this knowledge. It was also bone-chilling to have to make my first confession, required before taking communion. I had to learn yet another series of correct responses to questions I didn’t understand before I could enter the dark, velvet-curtained booth to make my confession. I knelt in the dim light until I heard the swoosh of the screen sliding back; even then the priest’s face was blurred through wavy plastic panels that were punctuated with holes so we could hear each other. I had to confess my sins, sins that I pretty much made up. I was seven years old. I didn’t steal, I didn’t lie, I didn’t take the Lord’s name in vain. I mostly did exactly as I was told. Did fighting with my sister count?
Having gotten that horrible ordeal over, I made my First Communion on a gloomy, rainy April Sunday, wearing a frilly white dress and a dainty veil bobby-pinned to my head, like a tiny bride. My Catholic grandmother made a big fuss over me, and gave me a small white missal with brightly colored illustrations of gospel scenes, and a pink and gold watch.
After that endless mass (dozens of little communicants lined up at the rail, all of us terrified lest we drop the Host out of our mouth and onto the floor, which according to the nuns, went so beyond a mortal sin that death by lightning was to be expected), our family went to breakfast at Perkin’s Pancake House, a huge treat, as it was always jam-packed on Sundays, and my father hated to wait for a table anywhere. Because I had to fast for two hours before taking communion, I was starving. Alas, the chocolate chip pancakes I always craved were still forbidden, even on the occasion of my First Communion; not by the Church but by my dentist dad who viewed them as candy for breakfast.
When we came back to our house, our happy, blessed party was greeted with a rat infestation. Duluth is a port city, built on a hill, and snowmelt and steady rains must have driven the rats up from the lake all the way to our “nice” neighborhood. My most vivid recollection of that day is not receiving the body of Christ for the first time, but watching my grandfather, the great hunter, beat a rat to death with a shovel. Poison was set out, and for the next few weeks I had to check carefully when I went down into my dad’s basement workroom to play with my Creepy Crawler set to make sure I didn’t step on a dead rat.
I loved my Creepy Crawler set; I squeezed bottles of red or blue or green liquid plastic into metal molds in the shape of insects, and then inserted the molds into a heater to set them. There was a flimsy wire handle to remove the red-hot molds, and a prescribed time to wait before peeling your new insects out of them, but burnt fingers inevitably ensued. To my great joy, my sister Lani was expressly prohibited from playing with my Creepy Crawler, or even being in the workroom while I used it.
Toys were plentiful, arriving as birthday presents and from Santa. Each December brought the thrill of new toys from Mattel and Hasbro. The commercials on TV and the photos in the Sears catalog made each doll and toy look irresistible, promising hours of fun. My mother long resisted getting me a Barbie; she thought there was plenty of time for girls to be clothes-obsessed, starting at age twelve. And every Barbie outfit came with the dreaded little pieces, accessories of tiny shoes and jewelry.
When Santa finally brought me one, a blond bubble-hair doll with a wasp waist and deformed feet, arched so high that the Barbie mules did fall off and get lost immediately, a girl about my age moved in across the street (only to move away a few months later). She also loved to “play Barbies,” which did indeed involve nothing other than making up reasons why our Barbies needed to change clothes every few minutes. I eventually acquired a Ken, who was boring, and a cardboard Barbie House, that my hung-over, fumbling, grumbling dad put together for me on Christmas morning. I never got the pink Barbie convertible the girl across the street had that I was consumed with desire for and would have pilfered if given the chance. Then I would have something to confess.
I never got the cotton candy machine or the snow cone maker I begged Santa for, in letters and in person, year after year. I did get the much-lusted after E-Z Bake Oven, but after I had used up the two boxes of cake mix and the one box of brownie mix that came with it (cakes and brownies that came out medium rare), I had nothing left to bake with. It never occurred to me that I could just use part of a box of grocery store cake mix. I thought because I had a miniature oven, I needed miniature boxes of mix.
Board games seem to have been thoughtfully distributed among my friends. Judy Lindberg had Operation, which my mother refused to buy, certain I would immediately lose the pieces. To prove her wrong, I actually managed to hold on to all of the components of Mouse Trap, which was much more fun, for years. I also had Lie Detector, where you had to determine the guilty party among twenty or so suspects. I played this over and over until I learned to figure out who dun it within three guesses, which happened about the same time the batteries died, and since we never had batteries in the house, that was the end of that game. Nancy Green had Mystery Date and Careers, which let us pretend we were teenagers or adults. Those games taught me to judge boys based on their looks and that secretary was a good job. My one Congdon school pal, Nancy Erman, had The Game of Life, which I adored. So much better than slow, stodgy, unwinnable Monopoly, with useless Water Works and endless passings of Go. Life had the little cars which you filled up with your peg husband and children. Then there was the heartbreaking decision you had to make, almost at the beginning of the game, to go to college or to start working and making money. We should have figured out then that The Game of Life was rigged.
My deal with Nancy was that we would have one game of Life and then play trolls. She had at least a dozen troll dolls, in various sizes: homely, grinning, sexless, squat figures with long, neon-colored hair. I only had a few, as I had to buy mine with my own money. My mother, the toy tsar, refused to pay for anything so ugly.
When I was seven I set my heart on a Chatty Cathy, the star of seemingly every pre-Christmas toy commercials. Chatty Cathy was the most marvelous doll ever. She talked! You had to pull a string on the back of her neck to make her speak, and then she only said about five things. I was desperate for her. On Christmas morning Chatty Cathy was perched under the tree, reinforcing my belief in Santa Claus despite Nancy Green’s best efforts.
That was the year that we took an odd vacation to St. Petersburg, Florida, with the Lindburgs. Our family drove down, they flew; a week later they drove back in our car and we flew home. I have no idea whether it was to save money or see the country. I only have two memories of the car trip down: driving past an ancient kerchiefed black woman sweeping a dirt yard with a broom made of sticks, and my dad, pushed beyond human endurance by hearing “My name is Chatty Cathy” for the eight thousandth time, flinging my new doll out the car window somewhere in Alabama.