Disappearing in Goethe House: Johann’s Sleep


No matter how long a journey is, and though it begins with eagerness and excitement, my heart aches the night before going back home for the narrow streets I had walked on for many days; the harmony of the unknown language, stores, coffees and restaurants, the rustle of women’s skirts sweeping the ground, the cheeping of children leaving school, and the murmur of cars. On the threshold of saying goodbye or farewell and still remembering the taste of food, I long to stay one more day despite homesickness. It doesn’t matter whether the journey is short or long because there is no such thing as a bad escape. Going back home means returning to reality, existing in the detached routine and work. Organizing and turning back to the writings, tidying the house, helping people, living… How sacred it is that time stops during a journey, and I spent it wandering through books in unknown languages. I was bestowed the pleasure of unhurriedly beholding the works of painters and sculptors of the region and the chance to rewrite stories. Soon to become tomorrow’s passenger, I think of all this all night.

The Letter in Abeyance

Staring at the ceiling of the room I rented in Frankfurt, I sought pretexts to stay. It would take a few minutes to change the ticket. I could talk to the landlady to let me stay one more night. Dive back into the magic of Heidelberg. One more morning walk. What about the next night? Other nights? Other cities? The broken wing of time was a passage to sleep for me.

In the morning, I put on my broad-brimmed hat and rolling my suitcase behind me, I rang the bell for Ingeborg. As she always did, she smiled and said, “Good morning.” She asked me whether I wanted a cup of coffee before leaving and handed me a piece of paper. “This came for you last night, but I didn’t want to wake you up.” I was surprised by the letter. It was an old-styled letter, sealed and written on parchment paper. But who wrote it? Why? Why a letter instead of email, phone call, or a text message? Moreover, it was sent to the house I temporarily stayed at. Even my family didn’t know the address! I grumbled in Turkish, how? Ingeborg asked whether I wanted milk. “No,” I said. “How did it come here?”

Lifting her eyebrows, she said a man with a triangular hat brought it. She thought it was from a friend living in Frankfurt or hereabouts.

With a knife, I scratched the seal and unfolded the letter. I tried reading the messy handwriting, but it was in vain. It was in German, so I needed Ingeborg’s help, and she was curiously looking from behind my shoulders. I was about to ask whether she could translate the letter when I glanced at the signature. It couldn’t be true; I must be hallucinating.

Ingeborg squinted and read out loud:

“Dear Fräulein,

I’ve been watching you pass by my house for days. I’ve been expecting you to lift your hat and smile at me or knock at the door, wondering why the house is here. But you walk in a hurry each time and don’t smile at me. I wistfully look at you. I know you will go back home tomorrow morning. Stay one more day for my sake and come here immediately. I need you.

Address: Großer Hirschgraben No: 23–25

Waiting wistfully,

Johann Goethe”

Ingeborg burst into laughter. She gave me the letter, sat down on the couch, and kept on laughing.

“It’s not that funny, I guess,” I murmured.

She wiped her tears and said, “Someone is making fun of you, Fräulein!” I stood up, took the letter, and approached the door with my suitcase.

“No, Frau Ingeborg,” I shouted as I went down the stairs. “No one is making fun of anyone; it is just an overdue letter! Tschüss!”

I hurriedly walked towards the main street, hailed a taxi, and whispered Goethe House to the driver who I thought was probably a Turk.

It is the Call of Johann

I could see his silhouette standing behind the curtain. I bowed my hat and smiled; the silhouette backed away. I paid the entrance fee to the house that was a museum and left my suitcase at the entrance. I passed by the entrance paved with new stones and stopped before the majestic old wooden door at the end of the hall where floor tiles were worn out.

Which Johann was waiting for me? Which Goethe called for me? Was it the brokenhearted young man who left Lotte and went back to Frankfurt or the genius who finally finished Faust with an aching heart and gray hair? I lifted the lock and pushed open the door. I first saw the hand holding the handrail at the top of the wide, curved stairs on the left. I heard the rattles. Watching him come down the stairs, one by one, took my breath away. The dim light from the wide saloon behind the stairs illuminated his body. The embossed embroidery and brocaded edges of his jacket reaching his knees shined. Above the jabot of his shirt, partly hanging down from the tight pants, his neck was white. The light fell upon his sharp jaw. I saw his thin but characteristic lips, shapely nose, blazing eyes, and pure white forehead. He tied his brown hair back with a black ribbon. The curls over his ears were vivid. At the last step, he took his hand away from the handrail and reached it out towards me.

“I’m glad you accepted my invitation, Fräulein.”

His cheeks were burning as if he had gotten out of a lake after long hours of riding. They were burning with excitement, passion, and, mostly, youthfulness. Perhaps like shortly before writing Werther or at the exact moment of writing it. He was in front of me. Young Johann Goethe!

He held my hand and brought it to his lips. After saying how he was afraid I would leave the city without receiving the letter, he pulled me close to him, as if he were embracing a friend he hadn’t seen for centuries. We stood before the console with a giant mirror, at the saloon. He seemed to be wondering why the traveler who went to cities of many authors didn’t come to his house, I intuited. I smiled at his reflection. “Herr Goethe,” I said. “Perhaps I was startled by your notoriety on libertinism. Or I was not ready to resist The Sorrows of Young Johann. Or I might be afraid of meeting Mephistopheles. Do not ask.”

He held my chin, turned me towards himself. “Even the greatest blessings perish on earth, but only the impression we make through our thoughts beyond the time is there, it stays in eternity. Now stay here and share my loneliness of centuries in the rooms of this empty house.”[1]

What were my options? Going back to the ones who expect me, or living a carefree life? I asked him to tell the servant to bring in my suitcase.

The Days in Goethe House

It was only us in the great triplex house. He wanted me to stay in the lit room facing the street. The furniture in the room was only a bed with a brass headboard, a small table, and a dressing mirror. It was enough. In the writing room, where the floors squeaked as we sat down with candles and oil lamps at night, he told me to select a book I liked from the library. Regardless of the language of the book, he translated and read me incredible stories. We talked about Central Asia, the history of prophets, and, mostly, the forests. He insisted on going to the Black Forest together: “Let us go and surrender ourselves to the soil, hear the insects. Let us collect plants and put them inside our notebooks. Let us drink more and ride horses along the Main River.”

The days passed quickly. I forgot about my life in my country, abandoning myself to the smooth, idle rhythm of the house, the small garden, and the expansive yard. I felt spoiled when I touched the soft Persian carpets with my bare feet in the room where we studied early in the mornings. I wandered about in the libraries with a tattered chemise I found in a closet. I watched Johann from behind his shoulder as he wrote sonnets. “Must it ever be thus, that the source of our happiness must also be the fountain of our misery?” I feared losing my ghost, my Johann, and willed myself to refuse that moment when it would be time to go home. Thinking about all the women admiring Johann, I suppressed not to disguise myself as an infatuated woman turned into huge boils on my skin.

In the morning after a night he had drunk so much and fallen asleep, I read a passage I found while tidying up the papers on his desk. “The full and ardent sentiment which animated my heart with the love of nature, overwhelming me with a torrent of delight, and which brought all paradise before me, has now become an insupportable torment, a demon which perpetually pursues and harasses me. When in bygone days I gazed from these rocks upon yonder mountains across the river, and upon the green, flowery valley before me, and saw all nature budding and bursting around; the hills clothed from foot to peak with tall, thick forest trees; the valleys in all their varied windings, shaded with the loveliest woods; and the soft river gliding along amongst the lisping reeds, mirroring the beautiful clouds which the soft evening breeze wafted across the sky, — when I heard the groves about me melodious with the music of birds, and saw the million swarms of insects dancing in the last golden beams of the sun, whose setting rays awoke the humming beetles from their grassy beds, whilst the subdued tumult around directed my attention to the ground, and I there observed the arid rock compelled to yield nutriment to the dry moss, whilst the heath flourished upon the barren sands below me, all this displayed to me the inner warmth which animates all nature, and filled and glowed within my heart. I felt myself exalted by this overflowing fullness to the perception of the Godhead, and the glorious forms of an infinite universe became visible to my soul! … It is as if a curtain had been drawn from before my eyes, and, instead of prospects of eternal life, the abyss of an ever open grave yawned before me. Can we say of anything that it exists when all passes away?”[2]

I folded the paper and put it in my brassiere. I went to the backyard and waited for the cold to sober me up.

Goethe House… The poet’s house was behind the old well before me. It was the eternal grave of my ghost and my temporary residence. The place where the great author put his head on the pillow and said to his wife Charlotte von Stein, “I own two Gods only: you and the god of sleep. You heal everything in me which was capable of healing and drive out the evil spirits.”[3] It was the first time I really looked at the house: his magical energy ever present. I passed by the well and entered the house. I stopped in the hall where I first saw him. I looked at the yellow- and blue-painted saloons and the kitchen to the right.

I wandered the blue saloon where Johann wrote Götz of the Iron Hand on the round dining table. They were there: his father Caspar, his mother, and his sister and only confidant) Cornelia.

The lace pillows were made by his mother, and the rococo objects in the showcase were bought from the best manufacturers of the time. The yellow saloon, or the Weimar Saloon, was where his mother stored everything she bought in Weimar. The kitchen to the right was filled with cake molds, cauldrons, and pots. A cook and two servant girls worked in the kitchen. Calluna bundles were hung on the window facing the backyard. A pump brought cold water to the dining table from the well in the cellar. A big oven, where everything was cooked, warmed the entrance. The lanterns on the kitchen cabinet were lit to welcome the gentlemen home at night.

I felt as if everyone who ever passed through the house touched my skin. I trembled. I began climbing the stairs that made up nearly one third of the house. I touched the curved wrought-iron handrails, then the letters JCG and CEG carved on them—the first letters of Johann’s mother and father.

At the top of the stairs, the clothes of the family hung in closets resembling a big ghost The clothes were many because only three days a year were laundry days in Goethe House. Perhaps Johann’s love of Italy arose from the copper Rome engravings on the walls behind the closets. His father Caspar Goethe made them in 1740. They often drank and had parties, meetings in the Red Saloon because of its Chinese wallpaper. During the Seven Years War, the lieutenant of the king of France, Thoranc, stayed in this saloon, although Caspar Goethe, who supported Prussia, was not pleased with this. Still, a portrait of Thoranc greets people in the next room. The Goethe family was keen on music: father Caspar Goethe played oud, Johann played cello, and Cornelia played piano. Johann’s mother accompanied them by singing. An oil painting above the red clavichord drew a bittersweet portrait of the family. The Goethe family smiles at the peaceful scenery in the painting made by Johann Corvad Seekatz. Five babies are behind them‑they symbolized the five siblings who died at an early age.

I climbed to the second floor and entered the room where Johann was said to be born. Near the window, the Frankfurter Frag newspaper was framed with the issue from 29th of August in 1749, the date of his baptism. The next room was his mother’s, filled with small porcelain objects. The walls were covered in various paintings in gold frames. This room led to the library. The foundation of the library was laid when Johann’s father created a treasure of 2,000 volumes for him because he liked reading at home—that’s how Johann learned about the stories of Dr. Faust.

Third floor welcomed people with another waiting room. One of the rooms on the floor housed a puppet theater where Johann prepared shadow plays and created miniature worlds. The puppet theater was a gift to the family and became famous through its depiction in Johann’s The Theatrical Mission of Wilhelm Meister. Beyond the theater room was the poet’s room—where there was an eternal dominance by paper and ink! Poems, dramas, satires, musical plays. Young Werther! The walls were decorated with drawings, the images of his Lotte, and a portrait of Cornelia. What was on his mind while drawing, figuring all his characters? He spoke with them and created an ink community out of silhouettes. He slept on a small couch, brought in from the waiting room, when he was tired.

Looking at the Poet from a Distance

I glanced at the sleeping poet whose head slightly fell over his arm on the couch. It was like he aged within a few days. His slightly open mouth was growling. I contemplated on his life once again. His journey to Italy, the frustration of the love in Italy, the deadlock of his love for Charlotte von Stein, the failure of achieving social reforms according to the principles of Enlightenment at Weimar Princedom.

But I was with young Johann. There was something that comforted me in his steady breath which calmly welcomed the wrinkles on his face. Young Goethe… Goethe, who clearly revealed the social obstacles before self-improvement through his complicated thoughts about the contradiction between personality and society, saw feudal stratification as obstacle to self-improvement and sharply criticized the social order of his time—with the help of satire.

I thought about what George Lukacs said of Werther. “Young Werther is considered a love story…Is that correct? Yes. Werther is one of the greatest love stories in world literature. But like every really great poetic expression of erotic tragedy Werther provides much more than a mere tragedy of love. Werther’s tragedy of love is a tragic explosion of all those passions. Young Goethe succeeded in introducing organically into this love-conflict all the great problems of the struggle for the development of personality.”[4] The wave of admiration after publishing Werther prevented Caspar Goethe from seeing his son merely as a lawyer, and he accepted him as an author (it was not a surprise, then, that Johann’s most productive period began after Werther).

After coming to Weimar in 1775, Goethe dealt with politics and became the special mentor of the Duke. The Duke continued working on the interpretation of the Quran, with which he first met in 1771, and he was the first man of literature to show a positive approach to Islam in Germany.

Resisting aristocracy, Goethe’s ethics in the council of ministers were evaluated in a different way by the literati. Some authors describe Goethe as a reformist politician who struggled to free the peasantry from oppressive and heavy taxes. Others describe Goethe as being supportive of children’s mandatory entry into the army of Prussia and precautions regarding the limitation of freedom of speech. Goethe is described as voting for the death sentence of a mother who killed her baby out of desperation and then—in contrast with his beliefs—he treated his merciful behavior in Gretchen’s Tragedy (however, there is no information available about whether it was his personal opinion or if he surrendered to the majority opinion).

He was tired of his relationship with Stein. He had adventures in his journey to Italy, became famous with his libertinism, fell in love with Christiane Vilpius, and struggled to have society accept “the little vamp” by marrying her. He was the tired poet. He invited unrest after his death by writing. Though he was forgotten for a while, he was declared as the greatest author of Germany. His bones may be lost beneath the soil, but what about his soul?

His soul, which couldn’t leave the house he spent his life and wrote Werther in, insisted on staying away from the moment of death every day. He was with me. Sleeping.

The Sleep of Goethe

I had to leave him as is because I got lost in the tremble of lips and his eyes that saw gondolas passing by misty canals and experienced the magic of the theatres in Venice. I was not afraid of becoming a ghost, becoming a visitor living out of a suitcase in the huge house, being gossiped about by the servants in the kitchen, or the possibility of Johann’s family to come. I was neither afraid of the possibility of Lotte, Stein, nor Vilpius. Rather, I had to leave because I had escaped from the arms of literature.

Being unable to leave the stories and tales I heard in various languages every new day, enjoying the traces of history in each room of this house, becoming addicted to climbing down the stairs within the arms of Johann as we danced, loving the man who vividly told me of the East, being unable to shorten the bridles of the horse I would ride towards Black Forest with him… Were these fears? By degrading the affinity through his words, sentences and narrations, did I try to escape from his magic, his great character and his heart, yearning for nature like mine? Why did I want to run away from Goethe House instead of having inspiration and writing everything in detail when I went back home?

Because I knew what he wrote, I ran away from it.

“Why dost thou waken me, O spring? Thy voice woos me, exclaiming, I refresh thee with heavenly dews; but the time of my decay is approaching, the storm is nigh that shall whither my leaves. Tomorrow the traveller shall come, he shall come, who beheld me in beauty: his eye shall seek me in the field around, but he shall not find me.”[5]

He moved, put his arm below his head. The pink light of the fading day reflected on his brown hair from between the curtains. I approached, quietly pulled the black ribbon on his hair and tied it around my neck. I caressed the forelocks on his cheek with my fingers. He grumbled, but he didn’t wake up. I wanted Goethe’s sleep to remain in this moment. It was illuminated and bright.

I took off the chemise, folded it and left it on the working table. I left the house as I had entered it, to go back home, with my small suitcase rolling behind me.


[1] Goethe Diyor Ki – Doğu Batı Publishing

[2] The Sorrows of Young Werther – J.W. von Goethe (Translated by R.D. Boylan)

[3] Goethe Diyor Ki – Doğu Batı Publishing

[4] Goethe and His Age, George Lukacs, Merlin Press, 1968.

[5] The Sorrows of Young Werther – J.W. von Goethe (Translated by R.D. Boylan)

Photo at the top of the page: “Goethes Gartenhaus” by Tobi NDH is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

A Tiny Green Blueberry

"New Green Blueberries in the Wildlife Habitat Garden" by Rachel Ford James is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse&atype=rich

A tiny green blueberry.

Crunchy. It’s eaten by mistake. It was mixed in that package of frozen berries that I’ll pretty much eat by the pound. I poured a handful of the frozen berries into my glass and poured two shots of vodka on it. This makes the alcohol sweeten and the berries absorb the alcohol. I poured in an entire can of ginger ale and drank and the tiny green blueberry was at the very bottom.

Young and underripe. Drenched in booze.

When I was a child I discovered the taste of toothpaste and blueberries. Everyone talks about how toothpaste and oranges taste bad but nobody ever mentions just how awful toothpaste and blueberries are. I’d just used that gentle strawberry kid’s toothpaste and it still tasted like disgust.

The last time I ate an unripe blueberry was when I was a child. There was a line of blueberry bushes in my family’s backyard and sometimes I would eat the green ones just to remind myself of how gross they were. I haven’t intentionally eaten a green blueberry since.

Every morning. I would go to that line. And eat. Blueberries.

The crunch of a green blueberry feels as unpleasant as the taste of a green blueberry. It’s not terribly unpleasant, but I still don’t like it. They have the same level of unpleasant energy.


Photo at the top of the page: “New Green Blueberries in the Wildlife Habitat Garden” by Rachel Ford James is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse&atype=rich

The Iceman

"Jimmy The Iceman Cometh: All heating and cooking is done with coal oil in the FSA (Farm Security Administration) housing project. Hartford, Connecticut. September 1941." by polkbritton is marked under CC PDM 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/

About 1937.

We had a large card with numbers on it which we put in the window to tell the iceman we wanted ice. The number on top of the card showed him what size block to bring in. When our ice was just about all gone, we put the card in the window with the number 25 on top. That was for a 25-cent block, a good-sized piece.

The iceman sometimes had a wagon pulled by a horse, but more often it was a truck. He drove slowly along the street and looked up for the cards in the windows. When he saw one, he stopped the truck, went around, and climbed up in the back.

I used to enjoy watching him work. He would climb into the back of the truck and slide a large block of ice away from the pack. Then he would dig the ice pick into the block in spaced places across the top of the block. This was to split it. I enjoyed the chinking sound it made as white sprays shot downward through the ice from the ice pick strokes. Then the piece would split off with a chunking sound.

The iceman put a piece of burlap over his shoulder. Taking hold of the chunk of ice with tongs, he hoisted it to his shoulder. Then he walked with it along the sidewalk by the house and up the shaky outside stairs to our second-floor apartment. Turning into the hall, he opened the top of our icebox and dropped in the ice.

“Twenty-five cents,” he said as he straightened.

“Right,” I answered, handing him a quarter.

“Thanks.” And off he went to get another piece of ice to deliver to his next customer. I wondered how many chunks of ice he carried on his wet shoulder in a day’s time.

Sometimes I followed him out and watched him break off another chunk of ice for the next customer. Then while he was delivering it, I climbed into the truck and looked for small pieces of ice that had broken off. If I found more than one piece, I would give some to my little sister or maybe my next older brother. My oldest brother was usually out working.

If I found a good-sized piece like a large icicle, I wrapped a bit of newspaper about the base of it. I carried it around like a big cone, but it was the narrow end that I licked, instead of the large end as it would be with an ice cream cone. I carried it until I had licked every bit of coldness and moisture from it. It seemed an hour before it was gone, but when I crunched the last bit of it between my teeth, I felt as if the chunk had only lasted a minute.

Joe was the iceman that usually delivered our ice. He was nearly six feet tall, slender, with brown hair and eyes that were an unusual shade of tawny brown. He was probably in his twenties, though it was hard for me to judge at that time.

Joe used to grin at us when we gathered around to watch him split a chunk of ice off the block. Sometimes he would pretend to make a mistake and would make several good chips fall off the block for us to pick up.

“Go on, freeze your teeth,” he grunted as he slung the ice to his shoulder. “Let’s see if I can make it up those stairs without breaking a leg.”

I followed him up the rickety outside stairs that old Mrs. Woodruff always promised to have fixed but never seemed to get around to.

“Look out for that hole,” I called out as he approached the landing at the top. There was a broken board about six inches from the railing where a person could easily plunge a foot through the landing. I always tried to warn anyone coming up the stairs.

“Yeah,” grunted Joe as he stepped carefully around the hole. “Guess Old Lady Woodruff wants someone to fall through before she gets that fixed!”

Joe opened the door and went into the hall with the load of ice on his shoulder. He flipped open the top of the icebox with his free hand, then dropped the chunk of ice in and moved it around a little to settle it on top of the remaining ice.

Shutting the lid, he looked down at a trickle of water appearing from under the icebox. “Better empty the pan, son,” he told me as he pocketed the quarter I handed him.

“Gee, yeah,” I muttered. “See ya later, Joe.”

“Right. Thanks.” And Joe departed while I stooped to pull out the brimming pan from under the icebox.

I carried the pan to the sink, trying to keep it from slopping over too much. I dumped the water in the sink and put the pan back under the icebox before wiping up the spilled water with an old rag.

I thought some more about Mrs. Woodruff and the steps. I wondered why she didn’t find it to her own benefit to fix the steps, because she climbed them every week.

I remembered the previous Saturday morning when she had puffed her way up the stairs to collect the rent. Her weight made the climb especially difficult. She grasped the shaky side rail and leaned forward as she climbed. I watched her progress from the kitchen window overlooking the stairs and wondered, as I always wondered, if the rail and stairs would give way all at once under the stress. With the window open in the summer heat, I could hear her grunts and the answering groans of the stairway. She maneuvered safely past the broken board on the landing and made the door rattle with her knock.

“Come on in,” I said through the window. I was both relieved and faintly disappointed that she had once again avoided the trap waiting for her foot. Not that I actually wanted her to be maimed or killed, but I thought she would be forced to fix the stairway if she had a small accident on the landing.

Mrs. Woodruff opened the door, and I could hear her footsteps in the hall till she appeared in the kitchen doorway.

“Morning,” she puffed out.

“Hello, Mrs. Woodruff,” I said. “Sit down. Mom’ll be out in a minute.” I indicated a chair at the drop-leaf table by the window.

Mrs. Woodruff crossed the kitchen and plopped her weight onto the chair. She was wearing a familiar brown dress, rather baggy, with a matching vest of a style that might have been worn by a child. On her head was a round brown hat with a limp feather. She fanned her face with her hand.

“Hoo!” she panted. “Sure is hot today!”

“Sure is,” I agreed. “We do get some air through here when the windows are open. ‘Course, we usually have to shut them at night to keep out the bugs, ’cause we ain’t got any good screens.”

“You can get some of them sliding screens cheap in the five-and-ten,” she said. “I’d go broke if I supplied screens to my tenants.”

I didn’t say anything more to her, but went to the curtained alcove that separated the kitchen from my mother’s bedroom, which branched off to the left, and the bathroom, which branched to the right.

“Mom,” I called, “Mrs. Woodruff is here.”

“Okay, son, be right out.” In a moment Mom came through the alcove, carrying her purse.

“Good morning, Mrs. Woodruff. Like some coffee?”

“Just some water, please,” Mrs. Woodruff said. “Gotta keep the radiator full, you know.”

Mom smiled. “That’s right; it’s a hot day.” She poured a glass of water and set it on the table. Mrs. Woodruff nodded her thanks and drank the water thirstily while Mom got a five-dollar bill out of her purse.

“Let me give you a receipt, Missus.” The landlady pulled a receipt book out of her handbag and laboriously filled out a receipt. She had a way of wetting the tip of her pencil with her tongue that made me think she was writing with her own substance.

“There, three and a half,” she said. “Here’s your change.” She fumbled a dollar bill and some change out of her purse onto the table.

Mom left the money there while Mrs. Woodruff heaved herself out of the chair.

“Thank ya, Missus,” said the landlady as she adjusted her hat.

“You’re welcome.” Mom followed her into the hall, and I heard Mom’s voice saying, “Better be careful on the stairs, Mrs. Woodruff.”

The door to the landing opened, and through the window I saw Mrs. Woodruff come out onto the landing. “Don’t worry,” she said as she stepped carefully around the broken board. On the way down she turned around and called over her shoulder, “I’ll see if I can get that fixed next week.”

“Good,” answered Mom, who had followed her out the door. “See you next week.” Then Mom turned around and came back in the apartment.

“I declare,” Mom said as she reentered the kitchen, “I don’t see how that woman can go up and down those stairs every week and not worry about falling through!”

“I know,” I laughed, “and she’s so heavy! But if anybody falls through, it’ll be one of us, not her!”

“That’s right. I sure wish she’d fix them.”

“She’ll never fix them,” I scoffed. “Not till they fall off.”

Mom picked up the money from the table. “Well, maybe she will, son. Anyway, Mrs. Woodruff is good to us. She doesn’t charge us an awful rent, and sometimes she will trust us for the rent for a week or two.”

Mom put a quarter in my hand. “Delbert, would you go over to the store across the tracks and get some coal oil for the stove?”

“Sure, Mom.” I got the kerosene can from the closet beside the three-burner kerosene cook stove. We had a coal stove in the kitchen too, but especially in the summer Mom used just the kerosene stove for cooking to keep from heating up the kitchen. I usually went for kerosene (or “coal oil,” as we called it) a couple of times a week. Like emptying the water pan under the refrigerator, this job usually fell to my lot.

When I got back with the kerosene, Mom was just finishing some bread dough. She put it on top of the cold wood stove in a crock, and laid a cloth over top of the dough.

“There, I’ll let it rise for a while,” she smiled. “After a while we’ll have some fresh bread.”

“That’s great!” I said. “It sure beats that stale bread we been buying lately.”

The bread we usually bought wasn’t completely stale. It was what they called “day-old bread.” It was no doubt half a week old. We could buy it for half-price or less. It was something like three loaves for twenty cents—a price we could afford. We’d buy a week’s worth at a time. It wasn’t too bad at the start, but by the time we got to the last couple of loaves, it was quite hard, and moldy in spots. We would trim off the mold and eat what was left. When it was toasted and dunked in hot cocoa, it tasted pretty good. But when I ate it in a sandwich at school, it was rough going. It was food, at least, and we ate it. We didn’t throw it away. But when Mom baked her own bread from time to time, what a treat it was!

She had her own way of making bread, just as she had her own way of cooking any other kind of food. She seldom referred to a written recipe; she kept most of her recipes in her head. And she would alter the proportion of ingredients in the making. In making bread, she would stir the batter and throw in extra flour until the batter reached the bread-dough consistency she wanted. When it felt right, she would knead it on the breadboard, then put it into a crock to let it rise.

After a while the bread dough was ready to be kneaded again. “Delbert, would you like to knead it this time?” Mom asked.

“Yeah, let me at it,” I said enthusiastically. After washing my hands at the kitchen sink and drying them, I approached the table where Mom had dumped the bread dough onto the breadboard.

“Here,” she said, “get some of this flour on your hands so the dough won’t stick to them.” She sprinkled some flour on the breadboard beside the dough.

“Okay, Mom.” I rubbed my hands around in the flour till they were coated with white. Then I began to knead the bread. I dug my knuckles in it and worked it back and forth on the board. I liked the feel of its passive resistance as I attacked it. It was something I could hit without hurting. It was sort of like a punching bag but not as hard on the knuckles. It was soft and yielding but never gave way completely. In fact, it always came back. The more I kneaded, the better it would rise again later. I made a big ball of it and punched it with my right fist. Then I rolled it around on the board and slapped it a number of times. After that, I kneaded it again with the knuckles of both hands for a while.

“I guess that’s enough, son,” Mom said after about ten minutes.

“Okay, I’m ready to stop.”

I washed my hands again while Mom formed the bread dough into loaf shapes and put the dough in four bread pans. These she set on the stove, putting a dish towel over them.

“I’ll let it rise again, and then I’ll bake it,” she said.

We had a special oven attachment that we would set on top of the kerosene stove. It was a large metal box, and it was made so that, when it was set on top of the two burners, the heat would circulate around the sides of the oven. The bottom part was open so that it would fit down over the burners, and there were air compartments between the outer shell and the inner walls of the oven so the heat could circulate around the oven about the same way it would with a regular oven. The kerosene oven didn’t heat up the kitchen as much as the coal and wood stove, but even so, Mom did not usually bake anything in it on the hottest summer days. This day was not as hot as some, so I was glad to see that Mom had decided to make bread.

My sister Ruth came in while the bread was in the oven. She was a gangly kid of eight years old at this time. She was very dear to me most of the time, though I sometimes got annoyed with her, as older brothers usually do with “kid sisters.”

I remembered a night when Ruth and I were sharing a bedroom, and I had sat up late working on some difficult arithmetic homework. Ruth was asleep in spite of the glare of the light bulb overhead, which had no shade. I don’t know how late I worked, but it was a long time that I sat at the end of a trunk, using it as a desk. I was sorry that I had to keep the light on while my sister tried to sleep, but it was the only light we had. The room was on the third floor next to the attic and was bare of any conveniences.

After wrestling with an especially hard problem for a long time, I decided to get up and walk around the room for a minute or two. The room was about ten feet square. I walked quietly back and forth in my socks a couple of times, then stopped and looked down at my sleeping sister.

Ruth lay on her left side with her left hand relaxed on the pillow in front of her face. Her hair was honey-colored and fine; it covered her ears but left the rest of her face visible. Her clear-skinned face, with high forehead, turned-up nose, and definite chin, was as peaceful in repose as that of a sleeping infant. I thought of the times when she was a baby, and we had all competed for the right to hold her. There was something extremely appealing about my sleeping sister that awoke a strong protective feeling in me. She looked so defenseless and innocent that I felt more like her father than her brother.

A song came into my head, a song that probably was written about a sweetheart rather than a child. But it seemed very appropriate.

“My little girl, you know I love you,
Though you’re many miles away.”

I sang those two lines quietly several times as I looked down at the sleeping child. The pathos of her trusting vulnerability moved me powerfully, and I stood there for several minutes with tears coursing down my cheeks. I felt that I must do my best to defend her from harm.

I went back to my homework then and concentrated on finishing my math before going to bed. But the memory of that evening stayed with me, though it was often submerged in daily activities, and the emotions that my “kid sister” had aroused in me while she was asleep reinforced my protective feelings for her while she was awake.

There were times, of course, when I was impatient with Ruth or when I wanted to get away from her to play with other boys. But most of the time I took seriously my role of older brother and protector.

I remember taking Ruth to the movies on Saturday afternoon. The admission was only a dime, but of course Mom didn’t have much money. She liked to let us go to the movies once a week if at all possible.

“Now be careful at the crossings,” she told me.

“I will, Mom.”

“Here’s a nickel for candy,” she said.

“Gee, thanks, Mom!” I pocketed the coin and kissed her on the cheek.

She hugged Ruth and said, “Have a good time, honey.”

“Okay, Mama.” Ruth kissed her, and we went out the door and down the shaky outside stairs.

Ruth and I walked along together, with Ruth skipping ahead from time to time. At railroad crossings or street intersections I called to her and made sure to catch up to her so I could hold her hand. She minded me pretty well because she knew Mom had put me “in charge.”

On the way to the movie, we had to cross the railroad tracks near our house and several street intersections. The railroad crossing was bad because trains would often stop for long periods and start up unpredictably. After waiting ten or fifteen minutes, we would get impatient—but I sternly rejected any thought of climbing over the train.

“Let’s go,” said Ruth. “It hasn’t moved in an hour.”

“No,” I asserted with a laugh. “Anyway it’s not an hour. It’s ten or fifteen minutes.”

“Well, I don’t know what to do,” she complained. “What can we do while we’re waiting?”

“I don’t know. But if I let you climb across, Mom would skin me alive—even if you didn’t get hurt, which you probably would.” The train gave a sudden jerk. “There, it’s starting to move. Let’s count the cars.”

But it was slow counting. The train moved by fits and starts, and we were only up to thirty-seven when it stopped cold again.

“Let’s go home,” Ruth said.

“Don’t you want to see the movie?”

“Yes, but the train won’t let us.”

I was about to answer, when the train gave a shuddering jerk and started to move again—backwards.

“Oh, no!” I said. But the backward movement halted with a jolt; after a pause, the train began to move forward again, slowly at first, then picking up speed, and the caboose went by at last.

“Hooray!” said Ruth, beginning to skip across the tracks as the gates lifted.

“No!” I sprang and grabbed her hand. “We’ve got to wait and see if there’s a train on the other track.”

Many times I had seen another train appear on the other track just as the first train had finished passing. This time none appeared, but I waited till we could see down the tracks for a block before I said, “Let’s go.”

We ran across the double tracks and down the street to the corner, where we turned left. We had five more blocks to go to get to the movie, but only one intersection was bad. That one was bad enough to make up for a whole bunch of easy ones. Campbell Street was a through street running north and south, and we had to cross it without a traffic light. That meant watching and waiting for long minutes till both lanes of traffic were clear. It took a lot of patience—and timing.

“When can we go?” Ruth whined after five or ten minutes. At least she didn’t try to get away from me at this crossing, because she was afraid of all the cars. You see, the railroad tracks went through the center of town from east to west, and therefore north-south traffic was cut off except at certain through streets where there was either a grade crossing or an underpass. After the grade crossing on Fifth Avenue, there wasn’t another through street until Campbell Street, where there was an underpass. Because it was one of the few through streets without a grade crossing, Campbell Street was one of the busiest streets in the city. And there was no traffic light where we had to cross.

Cars came whizzing out from the underpass on our left, more frequently than those approaching the underpass from our right. Perceiving that, I watched the traffic from the left, which was nearest us, for a break in the flow. Occasionally one occurred, but when I looked to the right, the flow from that direction would be for that moment uninterrupted. Finally a break in the traffic from the left came when there were half a dozen car lengths between cars in the opposite lane.

“Come on.” I gripped Ruth’s hand, and we walked to the middle of the road. Then I looked in the faces of drivers coming from the right until I saw one who smiled and waved us across. By that time, traffic was coming from under the viaduct again, and I had a fearful impression that the cars were touching our clothing before we scampered across the second half of the street.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t hold back like you used to do,” I told Ruth, “or we’d have never got across.”

From Campbell Street it was a short block to the theatre. We paid our ten cents apiece and went into the lobby, where we lingered in front of the candy case for some minutes trying to decide how best to spend our nickel apiece for candy. Eventually we both decided on some green leaves—little green gum drops shaped like leaves, with a delicious mint flavor. With our little bags of candy, we groped our way down the aisle—the theatre didn’t offer usher service for Saturday matinees—and found seats near the front where we settled down with grateful expectation of an afternoon’s entertainment.

And an afternoon of entertainment was what we got. There was a feature-length western with lots of galloping back and forth across the screen—and lots of stamping and cheering by the kids; an Our Gang comedy short full of silly antics by Spanky, Alfalfa, and the rest of the gang; a newsreel during which we went to the restrooms; and a Flash Gordon serial episode in which Flash escaped at the start from a trial by fire ordered by Ming the Merciless—to the cheers of the audience—and appeared inescapably trapped in Ming’s cave with collapsing walls at the end. The children all groaned, “Oh no!”

The neighborhood movie theatre provided a lot of wonderful family memories. Dad and Mom separated when I was young, so I treasured the times when Dad took us three boys to the movies. Ruth was generally too small, so my older brothers Norman and Don and I went with Dad to see a number of classy films, adventure movies like Captain Blood and Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and quality movies like The Tale of Two Cities starring the great Ronald Coleman, based on the famous novel of Charles Dickens.

Little wonder that when the time came, I went to work at the local movie theatre. After Mom remarried, we’d moved from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to Elmira, New York, in 1938. In 1941, I took on the job of usher at the Keeney’s Theatre.

In modern times, movie buildings often contain a bunch of little theatres, but in Keeney’s Theatre where I worked there was room for maybe 1,400 people on the ground floor and another 1,200 in the balcony up the stairs to the right. Once you got past the ticket-taker, you entered the theatre on the ground floor, with the seats slanting down gradually toward the screen.

I’d report to work before the theatre opened to the public, sometimes in the morning. I’d get dressed in my uniform and get ready for work. First I’d take off my shirt and jacket. We wore a starched shirtfront called a dickey, connected to a starched collar. I wore a light blue uniform with a long-sleeved jacket, trousers, and a bow tie.

Sometimes I would tear up tickets at the entrance and sometimes I’d work with my flashlight as an usher leading people down the aisle. And sometimes I’d clean out the restrooms after the show was over.

Each ticket was about two inches long. When you tore it in half, you still had a square inch of ticket, made of a better-quality cardboard bearing the legend Admit One, not the name of the movie. The tickets would have a date stamped on them. The usher would split the ticket and drop one half into the receptacle, then give the other half back to the customer. But you didn’t need a ticket stub to get back in. And we didn’t leave the theatre to go to the restroom. Most people went at the end of the feature film, at the beginning of the previews of coming attractions—what we called in the trade “the trailer,” because it used to be the trailer after the main feature. We’d usually have a cartoon, a newsreel, and coming attractions, and then the movie. Sometimes they would have two features for the price of one—a double feature.

Most of the time while I worked in the theatre I didn’t have a driver’s license. I think my pay for a week of work at the theatre was $10, and there was a deduction of 2% for Social Security.

The Maltese Falcon, as a matter of fact, came out while I was working there. I came in early before my shift started in order to sit down in the theatre and enjoy seeing Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor without being interrupted. I watched it a couple of times.

With war declared, I enlisted in the Army Air Corps on Dec. 30, 1941. We saw a lot of great pictures in the Eighth Air Force. I treasured every letter from Ruth and Mom, and from our family.

When I returned from the war, I drove a taxi in Elmira for a while and went to work with Dad and brother Don to sell various things: Filter Queen vacuum cleaners, TVs, food freezers, and so on. I lived with Mom and Pop in Elmira during the summers to work and save up money for room and board at Syracuse University, which I used the G.I. Bill to attend—a first for our family. Through it all, Keeney’s Theatre was still there to provide great entertainment.


Photo at the top of the page: “Jimmy The Iceman Cometh: All heating and cooking is done with coal oil in the FSA (Farm Security Administration) housing project. Hartford, Connecticut. September 1941.” by polkbritton is marked under CC PDM 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/

A note from Adele Gardner, Del’s eldest child and literary executor: 

As a boy, Delbert was remembering some lines from “My Little Girl,” published in 1915 with words by Sam M. Lewis and Will Dillon and music by Albert Von Tilzer, now in the public domain. For more information about the lyrics and history and for links to hear the song, visit https://digitalcommons.conncoll.edu/sheetmusic/1669/ and https://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2199&context=mmb-vp. 

Dad carried on the tradition of great movies with us, introducing us to many of his favorites. Together we saw Captain Blood and Robin Hood, and he reminisced about seeing them with his Dad; The Maltese Falcon, which we agreed was one of the best films of all time; and so many more, like High Noon, Casablanca, and the Road pictures with Bing and Bob. We loved sharing these experiences with Dad. On a few special occasions when we could afford it, he’d take our family to the movies as well. In these expensive modern theatres, our mother (his wife, Marilyn) learned to sneak in snacks, including her much-prized homemade fudge.

I even followed in Dad’s footsteps and took a job at our local AMC Theatres Patrick Henry 7, starting as a concessionaire and working my way up to usher, then projectionist (we projectionists retained usher duties and often served as the head usher). Though work and college hours kept me from seeing many free shows, I loved getting family members in free, especially when Dad and my brother Theo attended a matinee while I was running the projector. In my usher capacity, I loved “walking down” that showing and standing for a few minutes near their row, or taking my break to sit next to them, sharing small courtesy cups of popcorn.

Dad’s affection for his sister Ruth continued lifelong, even when most of the continent separated them after Aunt Ruth moved to California with her second husband. We all treasure the visits we’ve had with her and all other members of Dad’s family, a very loving, close-knit group.

Dad wrote this memoir in longhand through the paragraph about “an afternoon of entertainment” ending with “The children all groaned, ‘Oh no!’” The paragraphs that follow come from a phone interview I conducted with Dad on August 18, 2008, about his experiences working in Keeney’s Theatre, with a few facts and details added in the final two paragraphs from a short autobiography he wrote for the Second Air Division Association in Fall 1993, from our conversations over the years, and from a phone interview with his wife, Marilyn H. Gardner, on April 13, 2013. 

This particular memoir of Dad’s is dedicated to our beloved Ruth F. (Gardner) Allen, May 14, 1929-July 5, 2020.