Way back before Julie Andrews was the ingénue cast as Mary Poppins, my mother bought me a Little Golden Book all about that magical governess. The best part, which was a surprise to my mother, was that the children in her care were Jane and Michael Banks. Seriously. I was Jane Banks! I’m sure I scoffed just as any self-respecting five year old would at Mary Poppins, a vanilla-laced imposter. I felt even more peevish about this since my uncle, only one year my senior at a grown-up six years of age, was Michael Banks. If I’d been versed in Shakespeare at the pre-K level, I might have even said to the fictional Mike Banks “I bite my thumb at you, sir.” My Mike was much more daring-do than the Casper Milky Toast entrusted to dear Ms. Poppins. Let’s just say Mary would have had her hands full with the two of us: the REAL Jane and Michael Banks.
In addition to feeling some sense of identity theft by these imposters, I found myself with an additional sense of smug superiority. You see, we didn’t have Mary Poppins. We had something even better. We had Aunt Ruby.
Aunt Ruby was my aunt and Mike’s older sister. When my grandmother, Mike’s mother, died (are you confused yet?) the two youngest boys went to live with their sister Ruby. As a child that seemed like the most natural thing in the world; as an adult, I look back on Ruby with awe. I try to imagine me with my own six year old son taking in two more boys, ages 4 and 6. That’s a tribe! Uncle Wayne ran an automobile repair shop while Aunt Ruby stayed home riding herd on her active threesome. When her son Gary and her little brother Ed went off to school, Aunt Ruby babysat me while she kept tabs on Mike.
I’m not sure why this is so, but everything seems so much more exotic at someone else’s house. Aunt Ruby was no exception. She had the largest houseplants I’d ever seen. I’m not sure now what species or phylum they belonged to, but her living room looked like a sofa and coffee table located in an equatorial jungle. Her front yard grew elephant ears whose leaves Mike and I wore like hats. We would prance our leaf-bedecked bodies around the huge yard which in actuality was barely bigger than a postage stamp. Never once did we get reprimanded for picking the leaves off the elephant ears or picking flowers for Ruby to put in a jelly jar in the window sill.
Aunt Ruby had an inside-dog. That alone seemed miraculous to the five-year-old me whose dog Peppy, acquired after much begging and crying, was relegated to the outdoors. Tuffy was as fierce as he was flatulent. When Aunt Ruby exclaimed “Tuffy!” with that certain tone in her voice, we knew that a greenish foul fog was about to enter our nostrils. We quickly joined in that game, screaming “Tuffy!” every time that unimaginable, distinct odor presented itself. The exclamation was followed by gales of uninhibited laughter. Then I would look at Mike and he at me with even more laughter ensuing. We would laugh until we fell on the floor rolling with glee.
Our favorite pastime was pushing the couch out from the wall, removing the seat pillows and building a fort. We would hide behind our upholstered fort peeking out occasionally to look for cowboys, cavalrymen, and Indians. This was long-before Indians were Native Americans or even First Nation people. We dodged many a bullet and arrow with corduroy couch cushions. We told ghost stories to each other of the five-year-old variety about spiders, bloody wounds, and monsters. We weren’t sure what monsters looked like but we were sure they existed. We hatched many a plot for the afternoon’s play behind that couch and occasionally fell asleep snuggled together, giggling and whispering.
Aunt Ruby was famous for her banana pudding, heaping with golden brown meringue. This dessert is an art form in the Great Smoky Mountains where she was born and raised. She learned her cooking skills at her mother’s side in a dirt-floored cabin at the base of Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. In addition to banana pudding, she learned to craft biscuits, grits, ham hocks and beans, and other southern fare using no measurements other than the discriminating eyeball. When asked how to cook one of her dishes, the recipe would contain measurements like a little dab of butter, a small scoop of sugar, a mound of flour, a handful of grits and so forth. When she died on a crisp fall day in 1983 she took those recipes with her.
Even though we were surrounded with a spread that could sit proudly on a table in Southern Living magazine, our favorite food was Aunt Ruby’s mustard sandwich. I’m almost positive that this was something Mike invented and to this day I salivate at the thought of it. This delicacy consisted of two pieces of white Wonder Bread with a thick layer of mustard within. That’s it. Yup. We took a plate of mustard sandwiches behind the living room fort and winced with every delicious bite. When I requested this dish at home, my mother looked at me with unabashed shock and denied me that treat proclaiming the total lack of protein. I loved my mother and I understand this today; I also remember the joy of having an aunt that never-ever gave me any looks that didn’t have a smile incorporated into them.
When we were older, Mike and I spent hot, humid summer days riding our bikes around the neighborhood. My bike spokes were sexy, bedecked with my mother’s donated plastic pop-beads. Mike attached Uncle Wayne’s playing cards (with naked ladies on them) to our bike spokes with Aunt Ruby’s clothespins “borrowed” right out of the handy bag hanging on the backyard line. We would ride as fast as our legs could pump a one-speed bike, wind blowing our red hair, all the way to the railroad tracks. Once there we would wait for a train to come, all the while Mike demonstrating his superior trainspotting abilities by putting his hand on the rail to feel for vibrations and even putting his ear to the rail for a more discriminating guess. (As a parent and grandparent I shudder at the thought of these escapades.) When we knew the train was close by, we would carefully place a penny or two on the rails for the train to flatten. When the man in the caboose gave a parting wave, we would rush to the tracks and pick up the paper thin pennies, still nearly too hot to hold.
One day, while lounging near the tracks, a ‘53 Chevrolet convertible bursting at the seams with teenagers drove up to the tracks and stopped at the crossing. Observing us standing with our bikes, pennies in hand, one of them shouted, “I’d rather be dead than red on the head!” They all laughed and sped off, spitting gravel and humiliation in our paths. That was the last time we ever put a penny on the tracks; that was the first time I realized that children weren’t the only mean people in our world.
Our other summer adventures seem so Pleasantville today that I can hardly imagine they happened, but I suppose this was the joy of living in the fifties . . . the “happy days.” A tiny store existed smack in the middle of a neighborhood, Robinson’s Market, a precursor of today’s convenience store. I can’t imagine how anyone could make a living with this store. I suppose it catered to those last minute emergencies like milk, eggs, butter, flour, sugar, and so forth. A tiny produce section ran down the side of the store and a small dairy cooler hummed in the back. Just a small section of shelves held canned goods. But the thing that called us to Robinson’s Market, which we always just called “The Little Store,” was the candy counter, the centerpiece in the front of the store. The cash register perched on a tiny counter was positioned next to this curved glass display case, full of penny candy. We would buzz to the little store, playing cards rattling against our bike spokes. We clutched our meager funds, pennies and nickels, in our fists while we bought the usual: those little wax bottles with syrup inside . . . paper dotz . . . candy lips . . . and the forbidden candy cigarettes with that sinister glow on the end. I often wonder how much wax and calculator paper we ingested in the name of penny candy!
Occasionally Mike and I would take our bikes and go to another location, Dodd’s Bakery, located in the Englewood shopping district, just blocks west of the Temple complex. Of course back then it was just the Auditorium and Englewood was a bustling shopping district serviced by a trolley line. Dodd’s Bakery was on the corner. It too had a large glass case full of cookies and confections. But these were out of our budget. How could we spend ten cents on a cookie when a dime would buy all those little wax bottles and paper dotz? So we just stood out on the sidewalk, noses pressed to the glass, looking inside. Eventually Mr. Dodd would see us and he would leave his position within the store and walk out to the sidewalk. I always thought he was a rather imposing character: tall and thin (how?) with angular features, gray hair, peeping out of a white paper hat, and a frown on his face. He always wore a white tee-shirt, white pants, and a white flour-crusted apron. He would look appraisingly at us and then say, “Well, would ya like a cookie?” We would nod, too fearful to speak up. He would retreat back into the bakery and bring us each a sugar cookie wrapped in baker’s paper. We would thank him as he went back inside and eat the cookie right there, on the spot. After all, how can you eat a cookie while holding handlebars?
After we brushed the sugar cookie crumbs off of our clothes, we would amble down the sidewalk a couple of doors to Land’s Barber Shop. Again we pressed our noses to the glass and watched Mr. Land cutting hair. He was fascinating to watch, not so much for his haircutting but how he maneuvered around the chair. He had one shoe with a very high built-up sole. Even though he still had a bit of limp, it was impressive to watch how gracefully he worked the room. I wish I had at least once told him how much we admired him. He probably thought we considered him a bit of a freak show; actually he seemed like a superhero to us.
When we felt especially lazy, we just found a shady spot to sit and while away the days. We sat under the privacy of willow trees. We scoured the neighborhood for honey locust tree pods. We would take the hard brown seeds out of the pod and rub them furiously on the sidewalk and then touch our skin to feel the heat. We would pick milkweed and eat it, assuming that since it had the word “milk” surely it was edible. We made fantastic leis of clover to wrap around our necks and ankles. We stood together in the long wait for the ice cream truck which we called “the popsicle man.”
We found baby birds and put them in a shoebox with grass. They always died in spite of our ministrations and childlike prayers. We caught grasshoppers and worms and poured salt on slugs. We observed anthills and spiders building webs to catch tasty insects for lunch. We ate our picnic lunch under shade trees drinking Kool-Aid out of colorful aluminum glasses that dripped sweat in the summer heat. And best of all, we sat all day watching the crew tear up our road, grade it, steamroll it and then put down shiny sticky tar covered with small white gravel that clicked and clunked for days when my parents went out in the car.
When the hazy, muggy days gave way to the violet hues of twilight, we joined the neighborhood kids in the long strip of back yards that joined together without the benefit of fencing. We played Red Light Green Light, Mother May I? and kicked the can, running as fast as our bicycle-tired legs would take us, hiding in bushes and around the corners of the detached garages that perched like dominoes every couple-hundred feet. Breathless, we would wait for our turn to be caught or to gather the courage to break for it and run pell-mell for “home” and the joy of kicking that old tin can.
When no organized games were in process, we would chase fireflies which we always called “lightening bugs.” We would place them gently in a Miracle Whip jar with grass on the bottom. Mike, who was always good with tools, would punch holes in the jar lid using a hammer and screw driver. I would go to sleep that night with the flashes of fireflies lighting up my room. I remember one special time when Mike smeared the flashing part of the bug’s abdomen on my ring finger. The bug died and the remnants did not flash, but rather emitted a steady emerald glow. Mike said, “There, Janie. Now you have a ring like Queen Elizabeth.” I was thrilled. We knew nothing of bioluminescence; to us, they were enchanted. It all sounds too idyllic and indeed it was.
I’m sure this is more than enough tales from the fort of the real Jane and Michael Banks for the reader to understand how enchanting our childhoods were in those lazy days. I look back today with joy and some wistfulness because my sweet playmate, the real Michael Banks, was put to rest in September of 2015 at age 69. His body, riddled with leukemia and diabetes and powered with a weak diseased heart—like those baby birds—finally gave up the fight. Never once did he say a harsh word to me; never once did he lose his temper in front of me; never once did that smile leave his face. He was really and truly supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. I will love him always and cherish memories of the years we shared as children as well as the few and far between times during our adult years.
If only I could crawl behind the sofa one more time to share a mustard sandwich with Michael Banks. If only . . . .