by John Sheldon Perilloux
Frequent references to "the good old days" are often heard when people refer to earlier chapters of their lives. "The good old days" were really only good old days in the sense that values and standards were higher than they are today, family members often settled in the area in which they had been raised and, consequently, family members were closer together, geographically and spiritually. It was this nearness that contributed to the higher standards and values of years gone by.
However, "the good old days" were really not so good to many of those who lived those days. Consider my mother, who bore eight children and raised seven of them to adulthood. Her second-born died of whooping cough only six days after reaching the age of one year. In those "good old days" doctors were often hours away, and prevention or treatment of diseases such as whooping cough were still unknown. Imagine the agony of a mother watching her one-year-old daughter suffering the wracking coughs of that disease and the feeling of terror and utter helplessness as she watched her die.
The period of my mother's child-bearing years spanned almost 22 years, from 1914 to 1936, so that by the time the final two children were born the eldest had already gone out into the world to make his own way.
It would be some time before he would be able to make his own way, however, since the country was in the grip of the Great Depression, and something still worse lay in wait beyond the Great Depression. This eldest son joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, better known as the CCC, and $25 of his $30-a-month salary was withheld and sent to his parents, helping put food on the table for the remaining family members.
Given the nature of that son, he probably looks back and really thinks of that experience as the good old days. How many of us who came along later would do the same?
My earliest memories of my mother were of her day beginning at 5 A.M. when she prepared breakfast for my father before he left for work, starting a fire in a wood-burning stove before being able to cook the breakfast. Next came preparing breakfast for the remaining children at home and sending them off to school. There was never a cold bowl of cereal on our table, but instead a hot, cooked meal, always
And after we had been sent off to school her workday really began. She fed her chickens, milked her cow, worked in her vegetable garden, cleaned her house, washed the clothes and began cooking supper. There were never sandwiches at any meal in that household; always there was a cooked meal.
Now, about those chickens. My mother sometimes gathered the eggs and set a brooding hen on them to hatch her own chicks. This was a hit-or-miss method, since she had no way of knowing which eggs were fertile and which were not. At that time baby chicks could be ordered from the Sears-Roebuck catalog and delivered through the U.S. Mail. My mother sometimes availed herself of this service, ordering the chicks with an order form from the back of the catalog. When the chicks arrived, they were delivered from the post office, 10 miles away, by the rural mail carrier, Kido Tregre, sometimes on Sunday. The mailman of that day probably never made more than $5-a-day, but here was a man willing to get into his own car, on a Sunday, and deliver live 2-or 3-day-old chicks to a postal patron 10 miles away. Today's post office won't even deliver a quarter-ounce letter across town if it doesn't have a zipcode as part of the address.
Those chicks would later become roasted chicken for Sunday dinners. Between the delivery of those chicks and the preparation of the delicious table fare, however, would come hours of work, vaccinating each chick against the pox and feeding and watering them. Then the fateful day would arrive when the designated pullet would make the supreme sacrifice. It was always my mother who went into the back yard and cut the neck of the chicken, despite her distaste for doing harm to any living thing. Then she would pluck it, and clean it and otherwise prepare it and then roast it in the oven of the wood-burning stove, or in later years a kerosene stove or, still later, a gas stove.
The milk that was served on our table was milk gotten from my mother's own cow. Years later, after she no longer had a cow to milk, she told us how she had always been afraid that a cow would kick her while she was milking it. Still, she went out every morning, during the fair weather of summer and the cold, dreary mornings of winter, to milk her cow so that her family would have milk to drink at every meal. She never put milk on the table without first having boiled it to destroy any bacteria that may have been present.
Washday was not the easy task it is today back in those "good old days." In fact, it's my firm belief that the modern woman would be driven to despair if she had to face that task today.
There was no running water, no water heater, no washing machine and no clothes dryer. What there were were two galvanized tubs, one for the wash water and one for the rinse water, and standing in the tub with the wash water was a corrugated brass and wood washboard. If hot water was needed for the wash (and of course it always was), water had to be heated on a charcoal brazier (called a réchaud in French), one bucket at a time, and poured into the wash tub. Each piece of clothing had to be scrubbed up and down along the corrugated washboard until it was clean, the soap suds wrung out by hand, and then each piece had to be rinsed in the rinse tub until the soap suds had all been rinsed out, and then the water wrung out again. After that strenuous work each piece of clothing had to be hung on the outdoor clothes line, clipped to a strand of wire with two wooden clothes pins.
While the wash was drying my mother would be preparing dinner for whoever happened to be home at the time. With one eye on the pots and one eye on the weather so that she could rescue her wash from any approaching rain, she managed to prepare delicious meals and squeezed in sweeping and mopping the floors in between.
Those floors were another story - not the carpet and ceramic tile that are in my house today, but bare wood and then later, linoleum. Those floors required much more labor to keep clean than today's modern floors.
When the clothes were finally dry on the line, they had to be collected, brought into the house, and those that could be folded were folded and put away in a drawer somewhere. Then came another chore that many consider a nightmare today. There were no wash-and-wear fabrics in those days. Shirts and dresses and pants had to be starched and ironed, and there was no electric iron in our house either, because there was no electricity in our house then. Two flat irons were heated on the wood stove. While one flat iron was being used to iron a piece of clothing, the other was on the stove top, heating up. This went on until every item of clothing had been finished and hung up in a closet or armoire. Think about standing near a wood-burning stove in a Louisiana kitchen in August, ironing clothes, with no fan or air conditioner, and ask yourself what your reaction to that would be today.
And after supper had
been served and the dishes washed, my mother had time to help us with our
homework, by the light of a kerosene lamp, and after that was done she made
time to play a game of checkers or Chinese checkers with her youngest son.
He always won and thought it was because he was a smarter player. He
knows better today.
Running water and indoor plumbing did not come to our house until many years later. Outhouses were a common sight in the backyards of most of the homes in our neighborhood, including ours. So that family members would not have to trek to the outhouse in the darkness of night, chamber pots, referred to indelicately as "slop jars," were used and then emptied in the outhouse in the morning. Up until 1939 my two older sisters still lived at home and helped my mother with the housework when they were not at school. One of the chores that fell to them was the emptying of the chamber pots. After they were emptied they were washed out and then rinsed, and the wash water and the rinse water was dumped on the ground near a gardenia plant in the yard near the wash shed. Never was there a greener gardenia plant or one that produced larger flowers than that recipient of a daily dose of ammonia from the residue of those chamber pots.
In 1939 one sister married and left home to start her own family. In 1940 a second sister married and set out to make her way in life with her husband, and a second brother finished high school and joined the CCC. That left only three of us children still at home.
And then, December 7, 1941, "a date which will live in infamy," as President Franklin Roosevelt told the nation in a speech the next day. On Dec 7, 1941, bombs, torpedoes and machine gun fire from airplanes of the Japanese navy destroyed most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and much of the U.S. Army Air Corps in a sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, Wheeler Field, Hickam Field and the Naval Air Station at Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii. My mother saw two of her sons and her two sons-in-law go into military service, not to return for almost four years. She said extra prayers at night and at Sunday Mass and shared the anguish and uncertainty of millions of other mothers all over the world . A blue satin flag with four white stars was displayed in the front window of our living room, signifying that four loved ones were off to war. Similar flags appeared in the windows of almost every home in my neighborhood. There were no draft dodgers in Montz, Louisiana.
Then, on a glorious day in August 1945, the fighting and shooting and dying stopped after President Harry Truman ordered the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrendered. World War II was over, and my brothers and brothers-in-law returned home. One brother had earned a Purple Heart medal with the First Marine Division during fighting on the Japanese-held island of New Britain in 1943 and then another Purple Heart on Peleliu in 1944, but he was home again.
The hot war of World War II had ended, but the Cold War had begun and was not to end for almost 40 years, until, as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, "Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot." My mother was to see her other two sons off to serve their country in their turn, and also another son-in-law, two grandsons, a great-grandson and several nephews. One son returned after three years, as did one grandson, the son-in-law and some of the nephews. The great-grandson served nine years, one nephew's body was returned to his widow and children, one grandson returned in a flag-draped coffin before he had even reached the age of 21, and the last son did not return until almost 22 years later. My mother said that during those almost-22 years she checked her mailbox everyday for letters from that last son, and sometimes went back and checked a second time to see if she had perhaps missed a letter. That last son regrets that he was not a more dutiful son and wishes that he had written more often.
In her later years the conveniences of electricity and running water, electric irons and gas stoves, washing machines and clothes dryers, and all the other gadgets and gizmos of modern times made my mother's life somewhat easier and relieved her of some of the drudgery of "the good old days." However, she always said that those days when her children were at home were the good old days for her.
On March 23, 1985 Vivian Cambre Perilloux passed away. She had lived 91 years, serving her family, her community, her country and her God to the very best of her abilities. She had seen all her children attend school, two sons earn Master's degrees, one daughter earn a degree in Journalism. On March 25, 1985 she was laid to eternal rest beside the husband with whom she had shared sixty-four years of marriage and beside the grandson who had returned in a coffin. I miss them all.
Copyright © John Sheldon Perilloux.
All rights reserved.