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Be It Ever So Humble

by Rose Madeline Mula

Yesterday I drove by my old homestead--or, I should say, one of my old homesteads.  Specifically, the one my family and I moved into when I was eleven and out of when I was sixteen. 
      Actually, "old homestead" is not accurate, since that term conjures up images of a gracious manor with stately columns, a wide veranda, and acres of green lawn. 
      Not even close. 
      This particular old homestead was a small, cramped apartment over a bakery shop that my mother and aunt operated during WWII, the Big One, while my uncle was fighting the Axis Menace in Salerno and Anzio, and my dad, who was too old for the draft, was working on an assembly line in a local defense plant. 
      "Bakery" was as much of a misnomer as "homestead," since none of the products offered for sale were baked on the premises. They were supplied, as part of the sales deal, by the former owner who had opened a new bakeshop across town.   The man had no imagination whatsoever.  His idea of a holiday confection, for example, was his everyday, plebeian loaf cake "decorated" with a single word in block print:  THANKSGIVING, HALLOWEEN, EASTER-- whatever special day the calendar proclaimed.  Maybe he wasn't artistic and didn't know how to make little icing rosettes or turkeys, pumpkins or bunnies; but would it have killed him to at least slap the word "HAPPY" in front of the holiday designation?
       His other products were equally unappealing.  The pies all had concave centers, the drop cookies looked as though they had been, the sugar cookies were soggy, the brownies crisp and dry.   I can remember my mother and my aunt constantly rearranging these disasters in the display window, desperately seeking configurations that would hide their defects.  An impossible dream.  My mom would then stand by the window all day, watching the goods go stale, her brow furrowed, her mouth grim.  I'm still not sure which discouraged customers more--the unpalatable pastries or my mother's scowl.  She got to practice it a lot, since the store was open from 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM, six days a week. Only the Sunday blue laws in effect back then saved my mom and aunt from a seven-day work week. Sunday was a day of rest-except for all that house cleaning, laundry, and bill paying. 
      No vacations.  No sick leave.  No pension plan.  No holiday bonuses.  The only "perk" was all the unappealing stale pastry we could eat. 
     Certainly the upstairs apartment couldn't qualify as a benefit.  It consisted of a kitchen, one bathroom, and three other rooms, all of which had to serve as bedrooms.  I was taking piano lessons, which my parents could not afford; but they were convinced I was a musical genius.  More wrong they couldn't have been!  At any rate, since we had no living room, I had to share my tiny bedroom with a large upright piano.  It loomed over my tiny bed, and I was half convinced it would crush me in my sleep if I didn't practice my requisite hour per day.
      Finally, after five years of red ink instead of sweet profits, my family decided to cut their losses and sell the store, along with the less-than-palatial living quarters above it.  Oh, happy day!
     A variety of small businesses have occupied those premises since then--a produce stand, a convenience store, a photocopy center, and most recently a fishing tackle shop. 
     When I drove by yesterday, I saw a large sign outside what used to be my bedroom window.  It read, LIVE BAIT. 
     Talk about your humble beginnings.

 

Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through Amazon.com and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.

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