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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 17: 29 Jan. 2023
Memoir: 664 words
By Janet MacMillan Rives

Living in Our Kitchen


Getting to our upstairs apartment in a farmhouse owned by the University of Connecticut required climbing twenty-four stairs, the same stairs I fell down at ten months of age. I was a crawler, a mover, a climber, so this fall was likely no surprise to my mother, who scooped me up and promptly called Dr. Gilman. He made a house call—this was the 1940s—and pronounced me fit, no concussion, just six or seven bumps on my head.

To the right at the top of the stairs were the kitchen, dining room, and a small pantry. I’ve been told that the pantry was my bedroom when we first moved in, but I remember it only as the place to look for cookies. To the left, a long hallway led to a bathroom on the right and then our living room on the left. The opening (no door) was just narrow enough for me to put my feet and hands against the edges of the door frame so I could shinny up to the top and down again—no falls that I recall. My parents’ modest bedroom was across from the living room, and my sister’s and my room filled a large space at the end of the hallway. That room is where my parents found me one hot summer night in the midst of a deep sleepwalk, pushing hard against the window screen. Ah, a two-story tumble averted!

Bright with its two windows, light walls, and white appliances, our kitchen—the heart of the house—was big enough to accommodate a stove, a sink, and a stylish chrome and red-laminate dinette that could seat four. Behind the table, the side window overlooked a two-stall garage that we shared with the Youngs who lived downstairs. Outside that window, a clothesline pulley system had been rigged up so that my mother could dry a few hand-washed items without having to carry them all the way down to the clothesline in the back yard. To the left of the window was the stove. In the opposite corner from the table was the sink, a radiator, and the back window from which my mother could see the backyard sandbox where I spent many hours as a young child. When I wasn’t in the sandbox, I ensconced myself in the kitchen.

Each morning my mother sat on a stool by the sink where, until I was nine and we moved away, she smoked unfiltered Chesterfields and drank a Coke. She fed her husband and children eggs or Cream of Wheat or oatmeal, though she had no part of such food. The radio was always tuned to WTIC from Hartford with a talk-show format and live music by the Down Homers, a country band. Country music in New England? Yes and I loved hearing it and playing a Tex Ritter record called “Big Rock Candy Mountain” on our 78 rpm record player. As we listened to the Bob Steele show on the radio one morning when I was five or six, I decided to try a handstand on top of the cast-iron radiator. Heck, if I could master a two-wheel bike, I thought, this trick should be easy! My balance was good but not good enough. Blood and scolding followed, almost ending my days as an aspiring gymnast.

When my mother cooked, I sat at the table and drew pictures, colored, and wrote letters to my father. Before I knew how to read, I knew my letters, so I would ask my mother how to spell words, with long pauses between my inquiries. This method produced such phrases as “win you come home” and “Gylum Bardo, band leader.” When my mother ironed, I sat on the floor making houses and barns with a set of tiny red wooden bricks, the 1940s precursors to Legos.

I may have slept in a bedroom, but I lived in our kitchen.

—This piece is from the author’s in-progress series of poems and memoir essays, Horsebarn Hill. See also her poem How to Arrange a Child’s Hands here in Issue 17 of MacQ.

Janet MacMillan Rives
Issue 17 (29 January 2023)

was born and raised in Connecticut and currently lives in Tucson, Arizona where she moved after retiring from the University of Northern Iowa as a professor of economics. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Lyrical Iowa, Raw Art Review, The Ekphrastic Review, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Sandcutters, Crosswinds, Creosote, and Canary, as well as in a number of anthologies. Her first chapbook, Into This Sea of Green: Poems from the Prairie, was published in 2020 (Finishing Line Press). Her second chapbook, Washed by a Summer Rain: Poems from the Desert, is forthcoming in 2023 (Kelsay Books).

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