A year later, Baby Heather had graduated from the fruit basket to the booster seat. One day we were all piling into the car, and just as I was about to lift all 22 pounds of her up to the booster seat, I noticed that the small soft dolly that never left her side wasn’t there, so I left her standing on the floor of the backseat and went to fetch it. When I returned, she had climbed up and sat down where she belonged all by herself. I’ve often heard mothers say they thought changing diapers would never end, but that wasn’t as hard for me as the lifting and carrying. On the day my last baby took her place on her own, I thought to myself, “I’m going to make it.”
Now that all the kids were mobile, we could go on outings that were about seeing and doing, not buying anything more than a small treat, like a candy bar or a pack of gum. We regularly visited Great-Gramma Passmore, where the kids would enjoy her sour milk coffee cake at the same Formica kitchen table I had as a child. We also went to see Aunt Faye, who prepared and served waffles, one at a time, on fine china while the children waited patiently. She wasn’t a member of our family, but I made her our “Aunt” after she hand-smocked matching pink dresses for my two oldest daughters. I’d grown up with honorary older relatives and wanted my children to have them as well.
New Milford was another favorite destination. We’d park on the green in the center of town and stretch our legs by walking down to the old train station to see the red caboose parked on a siding beside it. Next we’d go to Golden’s Department Store, a family run business that had been the premier shopping destination for most of Litchfield county since 1930.
I took the kids to Golden’s because it was the kind of store my mother had taken me to when I was child. In those days shopping was a special occasion. We dressed up, my tall, auburn-haired mother in a tailored suit and matching cloche, me in my best dress and a straw hat, and I would walk by her side in wide-eyed wonder, looking at a magical assortment of beautiful things I’d never seen before—shimmering strings of pearls, silky pink lingerie, puffy piles of pale yellow towels. I longed to know what it would be like to touch them and once a saleswoman allowed me to run my white-gloved finger around the embroidered flower on a linen handkerchief.
Golden’s was a two-story, terracotta brick building with wide display windows to show off the latest styles in ladies’ fashion, home furnishings, menswear, tools and train sets. Inside there were hardwood floors, rich dark paneling and high pressed tin ceilings and artistic displays of quality merchandise. Mature, well-dressed salespeople offered warm greetings, and the comforting smell from bolts of cotton in the fabric and notions section made you feel at home. I’m not sure how much of all this my kids took in, but they knew it was different from other stores—not a concrete box, like Bradlee’s or Caldor’s.
Before entering, I’d line them up on the sidewalk in front of the store and remind them, “Keep your hands in your pockets and your pockets in your pants,” or we’d have to leave. We’d walk through every department pointing out the things we liked to each other and sometimes they’d catch me starting to touch a pretty dish or figurine and chant in unison, “Hands in your pockets, Mommy!” It was understood we would leave without packages, but every once in a while, when a birthday came up, I was able to go back and get the stuffed animal or toy one of them had been excited about.
After Golden’s, we would walk to the Bridge Street side of the New Milford Green to the World War II Stuart Army tank. According to the locals, this 13-ton relic of the invasion of North Africa found its home on that particular spot because that’s where its engine conked out during the July 4th parade in 1945. In its second life, the tank had become a source of wonder and amusement for children. We’d have a picnic lunch on the bench next to it and then the kids would take turns climbing onto the turret and sliding down into my arms. It was enough to tire out the little ones so they’d fall asleep on the way home.
It was a sad day when the floorboard under Albert’s gas pedal rusted out and a flatbed truck came to take him away. Now I had to squish the kids into a much smaller, nameless, second-hand Opel. We were too cramped for long rides, but by then the kids were old enough go for walks at Squantz Pond and take to the local bakery when I had money left over after grocery shopping.
That’s how we became regulars at The Little Cake Box in the center of town and got to know Linda, the older woman who worked behind the counter. She would exercise great patience while the children tried to decide between a chocolate chip and a peanut butter cookie and make sure they got the biggest ones in the case. Then she would chat with us between customers while we ate and played “I spy” at the table by the window. When it was time for us to leave she always thanked us for cleaning up our mess and said, “See you soon,” to each child when they said their goodbye.
One day we were hanging out there in the middle of the day and my husband stopped by the market next door to get a sandwich for lunch and saw our car. He was a Little Cake Box regular too, but for early morning coffee on the way to the job site, so when Linda saw him come through the door she asked, “What are you doing here at this time of day?”
Her question was immediately answered by four kids yelling, “Daddy.”
She was astonished. “I can’t believe the two are you are married!” she said as the kids jumped up to go to him and I stepped to his side and offered him a quick kiss on the lips.
Observing the six of us together, as if posed for a family photograph, Linda shook her head from side to side and said to Bob, “I would never have guessed this was your family.”
“Yeah, they’re all mine,” he replied with less enthusiasm than he might have expressed in acknowledging ownership of his dog or truck.
She said to me, “I’m so surprised because you’re so – different.”
I explained that Bob and I had known each other since we were teenagers summering at the lake and gone to the same college.
Sensing my uneasiness Linda shifted direction. “Well, looking at the two of you, now I know why these kids are so gorgeous.”
Usually a compliment like that would boost my spirits, but her words didn’t match the incredulous look that lingered on her face. Her observation that we were so “different” and her shock in finding out we were married still hung in the air. I gave her a half smile and said they got their good looks from their father.
Daddy didn’t stay long and the kids and I went back to our table. They wanted to return to the game we were playing, but I told them it was time to finish up and move along. I needed to get out of there and do something so I wouldn’t think what I was thinking or feel what I was feeling.