Molly Lamken (Caroline More) Cone (1918-)
Autobiography Feature Molly Cone
Molly Lamken Cone contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
By the time I started school, I was used to people smiling whenever I said my name. I couldn't pronounce the l sound. When I said, "Molly Lamken," it came out, "Mahyee Yamken."
My tongue got tangled up on r's too. Once, in the second or third grade, when I had to stand up in class and take a turn reading aloud from our book, I stopped when I came to the word squirrel.
"Squirrel," my teacher prompted. "The next word is squirrel."
I knew what the next word was but my mouth stayed closed. No amount of prodding from my teacher could make me go on. I just stood there with my lips clamped shut until I was allowed to sit down. The truth was I couldn't have managed to say the word squirrel even if my life depended on it.
No one in my family had ever paid any attention to my ineptness with l's and r 's. It was expected that I would grow out of it.
I grew up in a family of five children, with two parents and a live-in grandmother. We lived in the state of Washington, in the city of Tacoma, in a house on a corner, with a holly tree in front and three cherry trees in back. Our clothesline doubled back three times.
My father's name was Arthur Lamken, though everybody called him Abe. The name my mother always signed on the bottom of our report cards was Frances Lamken, but my father and relatives and friends called her Fanny, and my grandmother called her Faga. Everybody called our grandmother Grandma; her name was Pesa Hannah Sussman. She was my mother's mother.
Starting with the oldest of us five, first was Phyllis, then Floyd, me, Evelyn, and Estelle. A sixth child, Jerome, born after my brother and before me, had died as an infant. My grandmother cried whenever I asked about him. I never even knew him.
The fact that we didn't celebrate Christmas (we had Hanukkah), we didn't go to church (we went to synagogue), and our grandmother never spoke to us in English (she spoke Yiddish) was enough to make us feel different from our neighbors.
But I would have felt different anyway. No other girl I knew spent as much time climbing trees, pounding with hammer and nails, or blushed as easily as I did. I thought collecting pictures of Hollywood stars was silly, and telling secrets inexcusable, and felt with a passionate conviction that I could be anything I really wanted to be. I wanted to be a writer.
My parents accepted my ambition to be a writer the same way they did my trouble with l's and r 's. They were as matter-of-fact about it as they were about Evelyn's shyness, Estelle's aversion to ice cream, and Floyd's thumb in his mouth.
I grew out of my speech difficulties without even knowing it, but never grew out of knowing that I would become a writer.
It seems to me that I spent most of my childhood reading. I read a lot, often sitting in the big leather chair in our living room, my feet draped over one arm, my lap full of cookies sneaked from the jar on the top shelf of the pantry where my mother usually hid them. I'd read sometimes on the way to school and always on the way home from the library, stepping off the curb with my book up in front of my face, and automatically stepping up again when I came to the other side. I'd read in bed until we had to turn the lights off, and after everybody had gone to sleep, I'd often take my book into the bathroom, where I could read undisturbed sitting on the chair in front of the heat register.
Molly-with-her-nose-in-a-book was what my father called me—sometimes fondly, sometimes with a tinge of exasperation.
Whenever I think of myself and my family then, I see our house. It was plain and square with a wide front porch, in the fashion of Tacoma houses built in the early 1900s. It had a full basement, a downstairs, an upstairs, and an attic.
If you draw a square, divide it by a line down the middle, and then divide it again in the middle going across, you'll have the floor plan of the rooms downstairs, not counting the kitchen. The lower left square would be the entry hall. In it was an upright piano and the hall tree where my father always hung his hat and coat.
The lower right square would be the room we always called the front room. Sheer curtains and side damask drapes hung over the windows. It was furnished with a big green overstuffed sofa and a matching chair. There was a table lamp with a stained-glass shade sitting on a highly polished mahogany table. A floor lamp with a fringed shade stood at one side of the sofa, an oil painting of a country scene in an ornate, gold-tinted frame hung over the sofa, and a floral rug with a wide, plain border covered a shining hardwood floor. We hardly ever used that room except when company came.
The upper right square would be the room we called the living room. It was separated from the front room by sliding doors of small-paned glass, and had a bay window filled with pots of my mother's ferns and a fireplace with green marble tiles. At one side of the fireplace was a built-in box seat with a hinged lid that lifted to reveal a clutter of discarded toys and a mishmash of boxed games, all with missing pieces. A bookcase with glass doors was at the right of the fireplace, and though I often pulled out some of the books, I usually forgot to put them back in again.
The upper left square would be the dining room. In the middle of our dining room was a claw-footed oval table that stretched out to seat a crowd of people. On one wall stood a buffet. Its two, rounded, front top drawers held the good silverware. Its wide middle drawer was filled with Mother's best embroidered napkins and tablecloths. A glass-doored china closet, with its key always there in the lock, stood against the other wall.
All four rooms were exactly the same size. Beyond them, looking out over the backyard, was a big kitchen with a pantry, and a door to the steps going down to the basement.
The stairs going up started in the front hall, levelled out onto a landing with a stained-glass window, and led to a few steps going down again into the dining room. The main stairway went from the landing up to the second floor.
We all slept upstairs, sharing the four bedrooms and the old-fashioned bathroom which had no lock on its door. The door always stood open unless occupied. In an emergency, you pounded on the door hollering to whoever was in there to hurry up. If this produced only a "Just a minute!" or "Hold your horses!" you had to dash down the stairs, run through the kitchen, and down another flight of stairs to the small dark toilet room in the basement, which none of us kids would use unless we absolutely had to.
Next to the upstairs bathroom was a narrow storage room we called "the long closet." It was so narrow that shelves were built only along one side of it, and so long that when I was very young I was always afraid to go to the far end of it. Another door off the central hall of the second floor opened onto some more steps leading to the attic. There was a small finished room up there which no one used except me sometimes when I wanted to get away from everybody else.
Besides the emergency toilet, the basement also held the furnace, the washtubs and washing machine, and a wall of shelves for Mason jars filled with pears, peaches, and cherries my mother and grandmother put up each summer. Later, it also held the kitchen wood stove when it was replaced by an electric stove.
When my father bought the house, it had a coal furnace in the basement which sent heat up to every room. Early every morning, before anyone was awake, he'd get dressed and go down to the basement to start the furnace. About the time the wood stove in the kitchen was replaced with an electric stove, he had the furnace converted to oil.
Because my grandmother liked the old wood stove better than the new, white, gleaming electric one in the kitchen, my father had it put down into the basement for her. She'd often use it to roast an especially big chicken or goose when the kitchen upstairs was over-flowing with other holiday dinner preparations. She'd sit down there in the basement on a kitchen chair with a goose or big chicken on her aproned lap and pluck out all the pin feathers. I liked to watch her as she lit a paper with a match and twirled the fowl over the flame to singe off any long stray hairs.
I'm putting in all these details because our house was as much a part of our family as I was.
So was our mother's car. Her secondhand Studebaker was bought by my father so that she could take us kids shopping with her, or pick up her friends and go to meetings. It had two extra pull-down seats, called jump seats, so that it could seat five passengers in the back. Whenever I lift my head and think about it, I can hear the sound of the Studebaker horn going 000ooo-gah.
I awoke every morning to the tinkling of a fork in the neck of a milk bottle. My grandmother was the first to get up in the morning after my father. The first thing she would do was open the back door and bring in the bottles of milk. Every bottle had several inches of cream on the top. She'd always use a fork to stir the cream and milk together.
It was my grandmother who held domain over our kosher kitchen. The shelves on one side of our pantry were for milchedig dishes and the shelves on the other side for flayshedig dishes. Whenever we had dairy meals (milk, cheese, fish), we used the dishes on one side of the pantry. Whenever we had meat meals (roast chicken, brisket, stuffed cabbage), we used the dishes on the other side. Tears would come to my grandmother's eyes if one of us (heaven forbid!) ate out of the wrong dish. The rule of the separate dishes was so strict that she would never allow any of us to wash the dishes. She always insisted on doing them by herself or with the help of my mother.
Ours was a household in which the washing was always done on Monday, ironing on Tuesday, cleaning and baking on Friday. Nothing was done on Saturday in our house. No one cooked or cleaned or even yelled on Saturday, because Saturday was Shabbes. (We called it SHAH-biss.)
Every Friday, my mother prepared for Shabbes by cleaning house. She wore an apron over her housedress and a little ruffled cap over her hair to keep the dust off.
She'd start upstairs, pulling the bottom sheets off the beds and pushing them down the laundry chute to the basement. The top sheet became the bottom sheet on each bed, and a fresh sheet was smoothed on top and tucked in at the corners. The pillows were stripped of their cases, plumped up, and clean cases pulled on. The dust mop would be used under the beds and often shaken out the back window. Then the big bathroom was scrubbed, the stairs wiped down, and the vacuuming, dusting, and polishing done downstairs.
While my mother cleaned, Grandma worked in the kitchen. She baked the challah bread and started the cooking for our Friday-night dinner and, afterwards, washed the kitchen floor.
I'd come home from school, running when I reached our block, dash up the steps to the back porch, and plunge into the kitchen filled with the Friday smells of chicken soup and fresh-baked bread.
"The feet! The feet!" my grandmother would holler as my feet invariably kicked up the newspapers she had spread over the kitchen floor.
She'd come hurrying out of the pantry, her comfortable old house slippers on her feet, her apron tied around her middle, her cheeks speckled with pink spots. My grandmother's silvery gray hair was always pulled back from her face and knotted at the back, and there were always a few loose strands at the top of her forehead. She'd point at my feet and shake her head at me, her hands often bare to the elbow and still wet from the dishes she'd been washing. She'd wipe her hands on her apron as she scolded, but I knew that all the head-shaking and scolding were just an obligatory part of what Grandma considered her grandmotherly duties.
Every Friday it was exactly the same. By the time we came home from school, the smell of furniture oil hung over the living room, the newspapers were spread on the kitchen floor, and the chicken soup was simmering on the stove.
Coming home from school in the middle of the week, I would often open the door to the sound of rippling voices. Around the fern-filled bay window in the living room would be clustered a number of ladies, my mother's hand-embroidered napkins on their laps, the best china teacups and saucers held in their hands.
On the dining-room table would be what was left of my grandmother's kringle—a rich coffee cake sugared on top and filled with raisins—or the remains of my mother's sponge cake—high, yellow, and indescribably delicate. A cut-glass dish of homemade cherry conserves (my grandmother's special recipe) would be almost empty, as each guest would have put a generous teaspoonful into her cup of tea.
The gist of the talk that filled the living room those afternoons was largely unintelligible to me, but the words and phrases the ladies threw at each other in their animated conversation were not.
"Du bist meshugga! (You're crazy)," one would say to another with a laugh. Or, "Hok nit a chy-nik (Stop beating the teakettle)," would be tossed at someone who kept repeating the same complaint over and over again. "That I need like a loch in kop! (a hole in the head)" was heard often in the course of their conversations, and so was "Mazeltov!" for congratulations.
Such colorful words and phrases were part of our lives. I was a nudnik when I continued to nag about something, a klutz whenever I stumbled over a dangling shoelace, and a shlump when I raced around with my hair in my eyes and my blouse tails hanging out.
If the grass needed cutting or the garbage can near the back alley was overflowing—it was a shanda (a shame) for the neighbors. We were often reminded to behave like mensh. To grow up to be a mensh, we all understood, had nothing to do with becoming rich, successful, or famous. "A real mensh" was a good neighbor and a responsible, honorable, compassionate human being.
Our great-aunt Lena, my father's aunt, was a frequent visitor. My grandmother called her a "ballabusta," which meant that not only was she a superb cook, baker, and manager, but that in her house "you could eat off the floor."
A tall, handsome woman with piercing dark eyes, Aunt Lena sat, often with arms folded across her stomach, missing nothing. Her raised eyebrows and frequent "Tchks!" and clucks left no one unaware of what she approved or disapproved.
She always made my mother a little nervous. If she made a trip to the upstairs bathroom, my mother would sit and worry a little, knowing that before my father's aunt came downstairs again she would have inspected the bedrooms, peered into the closets, and perhaps even checked for dust balls under the beds.
In our aunt Lena's house, hardly anybody ever went in and out the front door. It was kept locked (unless, of course, the rabbi was coming to visit). She and her husband, Harry, and their daughter, Rose, as well as ordinary visitors like us, went in and out of her house only through the back door, which opened into her kitchen (wiping our feet on the doormat before stepping in).
At our dinner table, Aunt Lena always filled her husband's plate for him, dishing out portions from the bowls and platters being passed as if he were the youngest child. Her authority spilled over into the planning of engagement showers, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and other important family or synagogue occasions. Even if you didn't think to ask her, she'd give advice on what you must do, who you must invite, what you must have, what was "right," and what wasn't.
My father, though he mostly ignored what she said when he didn't agree with her, always treated her very respectfully. My mother was a little afraid of crossing her. I think Grandma understood her better than any of us. It was Grandma who knew why Aunt Lena would feel insulted if she was not asked to bake her strudel or make taglach for my brother, Floyd's, Bar Mitzvah.
Uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends often came for Friday-night dinner, and on some weekends our house overflowed with relatives from Seattle or visitors from "back East." Making room for overnight guests by sleeping on the living-room sofa, or doubling up with two girl cousins at the head and two of us sisters at the foot of one bed, seemed like more of an exciting change to me than a sacrifice.
Our favorite visitors were Aunt Fan, Uncle George, and their three children, Billy, Paralee, and Dicky.
With her snapping blue eyes and curly black hair, Aunt Fan even in ordinary conversation was as dramatic as anyone we'd ever seen in the movies. She widened her eyes in flattering surprise and clasped her hands in an ecstasy of greeting as soon as she stepped through the front door. Her stories were told with much pursing of lips and rolling of eyes, and laughter ran through her conversation as naturally as the tiny freckles scattered across her nose.
Her husband, George, was a solid hulk of a man with a deep voice and a warm grin. His appreciative chuckles backgrounded almost everything Aunt Fan said and did.
No weekend visit of theirs was completed without the entertainment of a show. The sliding glass doors between our living room and front room became the curtain. We children sat on the floor in the living room, the front room was the stage, and Aunt Fan was stage manager, announcer, director, and producer.
Stars of the show were Billy, aged seven, and his sister Paralee, aged five. Their best number was a dance called apache. Dressed as a Parisian ruffian, Billy wore long tight trousers, a dark turtlenecked sweater, and a cap pulled over one eye. Chewing a large wad of gum, one hand on her hip, Paralee wore a short plaid skirt with a slit up the side, a striped blouse, a straw hat adorned with a flower, long stockings, and high-buttoned shoes. Above one knee was a satin garter, a powder puff tucked under it.
The dance began with Billy striding across stage and tapping Paralee on the shoulder. When she shook her head and turned away, he flung her to the floor. The dance ended with Billy dragging his partner offstage by the back curls of her head.
We five could be depended upon to be a much impressed audience. The only other shows we ever saw were the Saturday matinee movies at the neighborhood Blue Mouse Theater on Proctor Street. We paid ten cents to see a news feature called Pathe News, a continued serial, a cartoon, and a main feature. The serial invariably ended with someone seemingly falling off a cliff to his or her sure death. The next week's episode began with the same person back up on the top of the cliff again.
It was only when our aunt Fan insisted that each of us Lamken children take a turn performing that our pleasure dwindled. Evelyn suddenly disappeared. No one told Aunt Fan that she had quietly scurried up the back stairway and was hiding herself in a bedroom closet. I quickly shook my head when first asked. Phyllis was easily coerced into plunking out a piece on the piano, for she had taken a few lessons and was always given much applause. Floyd would stand up willingly enough, grinning widely, but would always forget what he was going to say. Estelle, like Dicky, was easily excused; she was just a baby.
"Recite something, darling," my aunt Fan would urge. Standing in front of me, her hands clasped under her chin in persuasive entreaty, she'd put the power of her will against my reluctance. I'd finally give in, stand up, and recite a piece, but by that time everybody always knew that the show was over.
My father is sitting at the kitchen table sipping tea. He always takes his tea in a glass, putting a lump of sugar in his mouth first, then sipping the tea through the sugar. He holds the hot glass delicately in the fingertips of both hands as he raises it to his mouth. His fingers are tapered and slender, a doctor's hands, I heard someone say once. But my father is not a doctor. He buys and sells used machinery. He calls it the junk business.
My father's face is lean, his hair dark and wavy. His shoulders hunch a little as he holds his glass of tea, gently blowing to cool it. His brown eyes smile at me over the glass.
I smile back, quickly gathering in my mind what I might tell him about school that day. He listens and he nods as I talk but his listening and nodding is not quite as attentive as when he is listening and nodding to my sister Phyllis. There is always something special in my father's attitude toward Phyllis. She is his first child and his expectation for her is perhaps greater than it could be for any of the rest of us. Phyllis is much like our mother; whatever she does, she does well. Phyllis's report cards seldom hold anything but A 's. My father is terribly proud of her. He is also proud of my brother, Floyd, in that particular way that Jewish fathers are proud of their sons.
Was he also proud of me? I am certain he was, even though I often found myself arguing with him about what I wanted to do or felt I had to do.
"I don't have to worry about you," he told me once, many years later. "You'll get along." I knew what he meant. I was the independent one, knew what I wanted, or thought I did, and seldom hesitated to go after it. I was dependable and I was earnest, even if I was often stubborn and sometimes rashly impulsive.
The impulsiveness was the cause of some of my childhood troubles. One afternoon sitting in my fourth-grade classroom, the sun shining in through the big classroom windows, I was feeling particularly happy though I don't remember why. I had finished the lesson we had been set to do, and so had many of my classmates. I knew because there was a lot of loud whispering going on. The teacher rapped on the desk several times, which instantly quieted things down. Each time, after a few moments, the whispering would start up again.
"The next person," our teacher said sharply, "who opens his or her mouth will be suitably punished."
Everyone sat there in silence staring at her. I looked around thinking how solemn everyone looked and before I knew it had mouthed something intended to be funny to the girl sitting next to me. Suddenly I heard the sound of the teacher's ruler smacking against the edge of her desk.
"Molly Lamken!" she said. "Come to the front of the room."
I got up slowly and went to her desk. The silence was all around me.
"I have repeatedly warned this class not to talk. Did you hear me?"
I nodded my head. How could I explain to her that I hardly realized she was talking to me? I wasn't one of those who had been creating the disturbance. I had always been an attentive student. I liked school. I really liked school. No teacher had ever had to reprimand me.
The teacher pulled open her top drawer, removed a wide roll of adhesive tape, and cut off a strip with her desk shears. She laid it over my mouth.
I stood in the cloakroom with the adhesive tape tight over my lips and the shame hot inside me until school let out and the teacher allowed me to pull the strip off.
I walked home by myself, dragging my feet, weighted down by the heaviness in my heart. I didn't wonder what my father would say. I knew I would never tell him, or anyone else in my family. It wasn't my father's anger I was afraid of—it was that he would look at me with less than pride.
My mother is in the kitchen making a sponge cake. She uses exactly ten eggs, and after separating the yolks from the whites she sits with the mixing bowl in her lap and a wooden spoon in her hand and stirs the yolks, to which she has added a glassful of sugar. She stirs and stirs until the mixture becomes a pale yellow color. Then she stirs in a cupful of sifted flour.
My mother beats the egg whites with a hand-turned eggbeater until they make stiff peaks, and deftly tilts the bowl over the egg-yolk batter. The whites slip out, leaving the sides of the bowl clean. Gently then, with a few turns of a large spoon, she folds the whites into the egg-yolk batter.
My mother's sponge cake rises high out of the pan when it is baking. She knows it is ready to come out of the oven when she tests the top with a fingertip and the indentation springs right back.
In our house, there was always my mother's sponge cake and bagalach (rich cookie dough rolled by hand into strips and knotted into little rings) to serve to visitors. There was also my grandmother's coffee cake and schmun kuchen (a round of yeast dough spread with an egg-cottage cheese-sour cream-cinnamon mixture) and, on very special occasions, taglach (bits of dough rolled into twisted balls and baked in syrup).
I grew up with cheese blintzes and gefilte fish, matzo balls and kreplach, with chopped liver, pirogen, borscht, potato kugel, mandelbrot, hamantashen, and bagels.
My mother was an efficient and naturally quiet person. Her eyes were soft brown, her skin was fair, and her hair red—a silky golden red. She brushed it every morning with a celluloid-backed brush, and went to the beauty parlor to have her hair marcelled into waves. Otherwise she pulled it straight and into a knot at the back of her neck.
Her favorite song was "The Indian Love Call," her best friend was a lively woman called Lizzie, and her only true love was my father. Once, when my mother was ironing my father's shirts, I asked her how I would know when I fell in love that it was real love. "You'll know," she answered, without having to even think about it. "You'll just know."
Growing up in a family of five children, four of whom were girls, had its advantages. If you couldn't find something, or had already worn it, you could always borrow one like it (or one you liked better). As far back as I can remember, this exchange, with or without permission, existed more or less freely among us. (Phyllis always yelled at me when I took something of hers without asking. I yelled even louder when Evelyn did the same to me.)
But being the middle one, I thought, had distinct disadvantages. I sometimes wondered how I so often could be too young for many of the privileges given my older brother and sister, and at the same time too old for some of the things given the two younger ones.
It seemed to me that I was always the one who had to run to the store for butter, or sugar, or whatever my mother ran out of when she needed it most. And I was always the one chosen to stay home with Grandma when everybody else, including my mother, went someplace with my father. Evelyn and Estelle were too young to be left behind to look after Grandma, and Floyd and Phyllis were, of course, too old.
Yet it was those afternoons spent alone with Grandma that I later looked back upon with a special feeling.
In our afternoons together, she'd often sit with my hand in hers, stroking it softly, sometimes sighing. It worried her that my hands might be too big to be considered ladylike. She never could understand why I preferred to join my brother and his friends in a game of kick-the-can in the back alley rather than play with my little sisters. Or why I'd rather run around with my hair in my eyes and my blouse tail hanging out than sit at the piano practicing tunes the way Phyllis did.
She'd often peer out the kitchen window at me sitting as high as I could go in the cherry tree. I'd hear her knock on the window, and turn to see her face full of worry wrinkles as she motioned me to come down where it was safe. It brought tears to her eyes to see me lugging pieces of board up from the basement and carrying them to the back corner of the yard and nailing them together to build myself a playhouse. All those things, she thought, were for boys to do, not girls.
Paring apples and cutting them up for sauce, she'd sometimes scrape a piece with a silver knife and feed the scrapings to me from the tip. Once in awhile, she'd put on her good shoes and her good black coat and we'd walk around the quiet streets of the neighborhood together. Sometimes she'd make up stories about who might live in one house or another that we passed. But mostly she just seemed content to walk arm in arm with me, nodding in approval or shaking her head in wonder at the things she saw.
Neither my grandmother nor either of my parents ever talked about their own growing-up years in what my father called "the old country." About all we learned was that they came from the country of Latvia. They lived in a small town called Sassmaken near the city of Riga. It must have been very small. Even with a magnifying glass, I was unable to find it on any map. All the people who came from around there were called "Courlanders," Grandma told me. But I didn't know exactly what that meant until I discovered that Sassmaken was in the region of Courland.
From about 1800 to the end of the First World War, Latvia was part of Russia. Though my grandmother wouldn't tell me any details, I knew it was never easy to be a Jew in Russia. Under the rule of Nicholas II, the last Czar of Russia, no Jewish family was safe. Whenever Russian soldiers came through, villagers rushed to hide.
What I know of my mother is that she was one of two children and arrived in America, on February 2, 1909, with her mother, father, and brother. She was nineteen years old. Her brother, Joe, was turned back on their arrival at Ellis Island because of some ailment with his eyes. He made his way to Denmark, and from there to Canada, and joined his family by entering the United States illegally.
Before her marriage to my father, my mother worked as a seamstress in a garment factory.
All I know about my father is that he was twenty years old when he came to the United States in 1907, one of six brothers and one sister, all of whom left Latvia to find a better life in this country.
But I didn't need any more facts to know what kind of a person my father was. Independent, ambitious, eager to make his own way, my father began to learn English by spelling out the street signs. Like my mother, he became an American citizen as quickly as he could, and together they set about to raise an American family.
I grew up in a world of the Jazz Age, the Flapper Era, and Prohibition, and hardly knew such things existed. Our house was a cocoon in which breakfast was cereal and bananas and milk, lunch was tomato soup and oyster crackers, and Friday-night dinner almost always started with chicken soup. The very orderliness of our lives inside our house made whatever happened outside seem almost a world apart.
I was two years old when F. Scott Fitzgerald became America's most famous writer, four years old when my mother's friends began to bob their hair and roll their stockings, five years old when everyone was learning to dance the Charleston, nine years old when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis, and exactly eleven years and twenty-one days old when Wall Street crashed and the Great Depression began.
"Prosperity is just around the corner," everyone kept saying. I wrote a poem about it and sent it to the editor of the Tacoma News Tribune. It was printed in the Letters to the Editor column, my first time in print, not counting the column and stories I wrote for the Allen C. Mason Junior High mimeographed newspaper. My elation persisted even after the day I opened one of the top drawers of our dining-room buffet and saw it filled with unopened envelopes containing long-overdue bills.
The bicycle I wanted turned into a pair of skates because bicycles "cost too much." My mother and grandmother became expert at "making do," "making things over," and stretching pennies. My father worked longer and longer hours, my mother sewed and mended and darned. Yet we hardly noticed that anything was really different. Making the honor roll still brought smiles of pride to our parents' faces, our Friday-night dinners still started with chicken soup, and sending Phyllis to the University of Washington was still my father's favorite subject even though he could barely manage to scrape together enough money for tuition.
My early years were calm and sure and sound. It wasn't until our family world turned upside down with the death of my mother three months before I graduated from high school that I began to know how central she had been to my father's sense of himself. She was the core of his pride, his ambition, and his happiness. Within a very few years, he chose not to go on living without her.
In high school, I wrote a sales letter which started out—"There are more holes in pockets than dollars nowadays," and continued as a bid for business training during a depression era. A local business college paid me two dollars for it and used it to attract students to their school. It was my first writing sale. I was editor of our Stadium High School newspaper, the Stadium World, and upon graduation received the honorary award in journalism.
Though I had always thought of myself as a writer, I didn't write my first book until after I grew far enough up to spend some time at the University of Washington, work at various jobs, mostly writing advertising copy, marry Gerald J. Cone, and have three children.
I first met Jerry when I was a senior in high school. He was the older brother of my brother, Floyd's, best friend, and the only person I'd ever seen besides myself who could idly pick up a book, or even a newspaper, start reading, and forget where he was. He could walk into another world just by reading the National Geographic. He read history the way I read fiction and remembered almost everything he read. His all-time favorite music was jazz—his favorite musician, Louis Armstrong. He liked W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, and Jack Benny. He almost fell to the floor laughing every time he saw an old movie of Charlie Chaplin making a spaghetti dinner out of his shoelaces. With Jerry I went to my first symphony concert and my first opera. He liked to ski and hike, cook as well as eat, and found it easy to make jokes about himself. We shared the same attitudes toward religion and family, and the same zest for putting our lives together, and when we were married, the same name.
My husband's father was born Samuel Zamihofsky in the small town of Peatra in the province of Bessarabia, a border area, originally of Roumania, though it was then part of Russia. Sam grew up speaking both Roumanian and Russian as well as the Yiddish used in his home.
At eighteen, he was drafted into the Russian army, a life that he found even worse than he had imagined.
His determination to escape the army grew stronger each day. On a troopship going through the Suez Canal, he stood at the rail calculating the distance to the bank. He knew that if he could get to shore, he could make his way to Palestine, where he had heard there was a Jewish settlement. Only one thing kept him from flinging himself overboard—he couldn't swim.
"I had to decide whether I could make it in one jump," he later told his children. Reluctantly he decided that what it would take was two jumps.
"That's how close I came to being a pioneer in Palestine in the year 1900," he said.
He next planned to escape when the ship was to make a scheduled stop at Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). However, that hope disappeared when an unexpected quarantine prevented the ship from docking.
Not until the Russian ship sailed into Yokohama, Japan, did Sam find a way to get to shore and get rid of the clothes he was wearing that labelled him a Russian army deserter. In spite of all his efforts, he was soon picked up for questioning.
As he stood staring down at his feet, someone came up to him and whispered words in Yiddish.
"Say you are Solomon Cohen. Say you arrived this morning from Shanghai, second class."
When Sam reached the table at the head of the line, he said what he had been told to say.
The official checked his records, discovered that a Solomon Cohen had indeed arrived that morning, a second-class passenger from Shanghai, and allowed him to go on his way.
His benefactor, one of an underground group of people who made a practice of helping Jews fleeing from Russia, arranged passage for him to Tientsin, China, and gave him the name of a man in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A., who would help him if he could get there.
In the busy Chinese seaport, with no identity but a name that was not his own, Sam went to the consulate that apparently handled Roumania's affairs. Speaking only Roumanian, he convinced the consul that he was a hapless Roumanian citizen who had lost his passport. He was advised to write back to his father for a duplicate copy, and was given a letter, dated on that day, June 20, 1901, signed by the consul, with this information in it to use as identification until a copy of his "lost" passport arrived.
Sam wrote that letter, but he wrote it to a fictitious father whom he named David Cohen, went to the post office to mail it, and received a receipt that such a letter had been sent. With the receipt and the consul's letter in his pocket, in case he should be picked up again, he set about to get himself to Seattle.
Sam stowed away on the first ship leaving the harbor headed for the United States. Three weeks later he arrived in Seattle.
Samuel Zamihofsky remained Solomon (Sam) Cohen and fell in love with a girl named Goldie Rickles. Before they were married, her sister, Simmie, gave him some sisterly advice. He should spell his name simply Cone now that he was an American, she said.
And that's how my married name came to be Cone.
Jerry and I were married on September 9, 1939, one week after Germany invaded Poland. No longer was I unmindful of the events happening outside of my family. Our daughter, Susan, was born during a blackout in 1941, a few weeks after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Our country went to war. My brother became part of the armed services; my husband, a volunteer in the Coast Guard. And in the years following the winning of the war, concern for the well-being of the new State of Israel became an integral part of our lives.
During the first years of our marriage, I worked as an assistant to the editor of a furniture trade magazine; as an advertising writer for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, writing ads to urge people to use the classifieds; and as a copywriter in an advertising agency. At the beginning of World War II when Jerry was serving in the Coast Guard, I became, for a short time, the advertising manager of a drug firm—until the day the baby-sitter hired to take care of our first child failed to arrive. After the war, my husband and I started a business of our own. We sold, created, and produced direct-mail pieces. Later, my husband, in partnership with his brother, expanded the business into a general printing firm.
My first stories were published in children's magazines. I didn't begin to write my first book until after our three children, Susan, Gary, and Ellen, were born, but what I wrote came out of my own growing-up days.
My favorite teacher in Washington Grade School was Miss Richardson. She was a small, slight, middle-aged woman who wore eyeglasses low on her nose, heavy, sensible black shoes on her feet, and little, white lace collars at the neck of her plain dark dresses. She was my favorite because she never treated any of us in her class as children.
To her we were all individuals on the way to becoming whatever it was we yearned to become. I had a strong sense of myself in Miss Richardson's fifth-grade class. Yet when I became eleven and twelve and thirteen, almost everything about being myself embarrassed me.
My first book came out of the remembered feelings of that uncomfortable time. But it didn't start out as a book. Originally I wrote it as a short story about a girl trying to escape from her family and relatives at a summer beach picnic. That short story became the middle chapter of Only Jane. It was published in 1960, was a Junior Literary Guild book club selection, and transcribed into Braille for the blind, and after it was finished, I kept right on writing.
I was six years old when my youngest sister, Estelle, was born. I stood in our kitchen one early morning and listened to my father tell us that a new baby had come to our house the night before. "Another girl," he told us happily.
"We already have too many girls!" my brother, Floyd, hollered, and began to cry.
It was the remembered noise of my brother's sobs that set me to writing my next book, called Too Many Girls.
When I was in elementary school, my closest neighborhood friend lived across the alley and down the other side of our block. Her name was Margery. She was not really my best friend. We couldn't exactly be best friends in her estimation because I didn't go to her church.
Once I told her that there was no law in this country that said I couldn't go to any church I wanted to. On the strength of this she invited me to a Halloween costume party to which all the members of her Sunday-school class and possible prospects were invited. I wanted to go so badly I didn't tell my mother just how I had managed to be invited.
So dressed in my sister Phyllis's Queen Esther costume, I went to the party, expecting to have a wonderful time. But when I won a prize and discovered it was a tiny holy cross to be worn around my neck on a chain, I knew the truth. This was the most terrible time I'd ever had in my whole life.
A Promise Is a Promise started with some of those prickly memories of my growing-up days.
Mostly, I write about the way things are for ordinary kids—the ludicrous happenings in sometimes unhappy situations. Typical of the stories I write: a too-friendly hound named Mishmash entangles himself in the lives of a boy, his fifth-grade teacher, and all the people in the neighborhood (through seven Mishmash volumes); a boy begins to forget things when his parents separate in The Amazing Memory of Harvey Bean; a girl envies her best friend because this friend is always saying, "My mother won't let me," in a book called Annie Annie; a girl suddenly turns religious to the dismay and bafflement of her parents, Dance around the Fire; a girl turns herself into a moose, Call Me Moose.
Readers write to tell me that my books are "funny." Some say they like my books because they are "sad and funny." They often ask, "Where do you get your ideas?" and to answer that I have to say that usually it isn't I who gets the idea, it's the idea that gets me.
For example, I really wasn't looking for an idea when we acquired a full-grown cocker spaniel named Tiny for our young son, Gary. All I was looking for was a friendly dog.
Unfortunately, Tiny turned out to be exactly what we were looking for. She was the friendliest creature we ever saw. She liked greeting everybody who came to the door, barking loudly when the doorbell rang and pouncing on whoever stood on the doorstep. She liked sharing mealtimes with us, eating what was on the table instead of the food in her dish. She liked sleeping on our son's bed, not at the foot, but in the middle, under the covers, with her head instead of his on the pillow. She not only liked but insisted on helping the mail carrier, the paperboy or girl, and the Frederick and Nelson delivery-truck driver to the extent that very soon we no longer could depend on deliveries of anything.
Finally, and a little sadly, we looked for a new home for Tiny. Fortunately, we found the ideal one. Everything we had found impossible to put up with in Tiny her new owner found just right. She was a middle-aged single woman who lived alone and was afraid of any stranger who came to her door. She was delighted to have someone with her who could be counted on to bark loudly at anyone approaching her house, keep her company by eating with her at her kitchen table, and happily occupy the second bed in her room when she went to sleep.
What came soon after Tiny left us was a book called Mishmash. The episode of the too-friendly dog, I thought, was finished.
Then, one morning in the newspaper there was an item about some villagers in India who believed the world was soon coming to an end. Well, the world didn't come to an end on the expected day, though I might not have noticed if it had, for suddenly I was engrossed in another story about Mishmash.
Subsequently, five more books about Mishmash appeared.
One came after Gary saw a face in the kitchen window of the house next door after the Olson family who lived there had left for a summer vacation. Another after I walked into a brand-new Super Safeway store and was greeted by a robot selling Coca-Colas. Still another after Gary, much older by then, made a visit to California and brought me back a Venus flytrap plant which had a carnivorous appetite for live flies. Each of the seven "Mishmash" books started to write itself in my head, after either some small event had occurred in my everyday life, or something observed had set my imagination churning. In writing each, I started with something real.
I always start with something real.
There was a time when I thought our teenage daughter, Susan, walked around our house as if she had a glass ball over her head. She could see us and be seen by us but never seemed to hear anything we said to her. This started me off into writing a book called Simon.
One evening we went to a going-away party for a family who were moving to Israel. Everyone had arrived but the guests of honor. They phoned to say that one of their young sons had run away. The idea for the book You Can't Make Me If I Don't Want To came from that evening.
A story idea is sometimes like an insistent child. It tugs at you incessantly. Once in a while, it explodes into your consciousness and demands to be written.
Once I saw an item in a Seattle newspaper column that told about a man who repainted his fence when a black family moved into the house next door to him. I gasped when I learned that he painted his side of the fence white and the other side black. I soon found myself writing The Other Side of the Fence.
Another time, at a seminar, I heard of the incident of an Indian boy in a nearby small town who was expelled from school in his senior year because of a conflict with his high-school principal. In a school where few of the teachers had much expectation for any Indian child, he would have been only the fourth Indian to graduate. The morning after graduation day, he was found in the river in which he loved to swim. His death was called an accidental drowning.
Subsequently I heard many versions of the events that had ended with the drowning of that Indian boy.
"We don't bother them and they don't bother us," said a white resident about the way things had always been between the Indians and the other townspeople.
Those words set me to writing a book called Number Four.
Sometimes an idea will find me in a quiet, rather unexpected way.
One time I met a sabra, a young woman born in Israel, here with her husband who was attending the University of Washington. Chatting, I asked her whether she had ever seen Henrietta Szold, the American woman who helped save the lives of thousands of Jewish children during the Holocaust of Hitler by bringing them to the land that is now Israel.
"Once," she said. "I was very young, and she was very old. She came into my classroom with our principal." Then she said, "I don't really remember her at all. But what I do remember, and what I will never forget, is that when the principal introduced Henrietta Szold to us—tears were running down his face."
Out of this encounter and the feeling I took home with me came the story-biography of Hurry Henrietta.
During the research for the writing of this, I came across a diary written by Henrietta in her very late years. I copied a few lines out of it—not for my book—I wanted this for myself. It reflected my feelings exactly and my writing intimately: I find that, old as I am, in a certain sense I have not stopped growing; while my intellect is an organ of narrow limitations, my inner world—perhaps it is my world of feeling—expands.
Jerry and I made Seattle our home when we married. We lived for a number of years in a house at 7309 Forty-ninth Avenue NE, and a few more years at 4072 Eighty-sixth Street NE. In 1956, the year our youngest child, Ellen, was born, we built a home for our family at 6500 Fiftieth Street NE. Though we lived there with our children for twenty years, often in my dreams, then and still now, I find myself back in the house I grew up in. Though I left the house on 2620 North Puget Sound in Tacoma long ago, it seems never to have left me.
Home to my husband, Jerry, and me, after our children were off on their own, was a house we built on Port Madison Bay, a thirty-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. Our windows looked upon a wide stretch of bay over which coursed ferries and freighters, passenger ships, fishing boats and sailboats, and beyond to the Seattle shores and the Cascade mountains.
It was a place where gulls shrieking awakened us in the morning, clam digging was available when the tide was low, crabs could be caught fairly often, a couple of great blue herons frequently came to feed on the shore in front of our house, and fishing was almost a ritual.
Now, back in Seattle, we look out over Lake Washington and, when the sky is clear, to the hills of the Cascades beyond. The sounds that often wake us here at daybreak are the honking calls of the Canada geese that have taken up residence at the edge of shore.
We both like visiting other places, seeing other things. Memorable days include a trek in Nepal, a weekend in Leningrad, a walking tour in Japan, a drive-yourself barge trip on the Burgundy Canal, a climb onto the Great Wall of China, a trip on a regular passenger boat down the Yangtze River, an overnight on a Chinese sleeper-car, a weekend at a mud-bath spa near Padua, Italy, a journey in a rented car across the Samburu Game Preserve in Kenya, a plane ride to Lalibela in Ethiopia in a forty-year-old DC-3 in which our fellow passengers were live goats, a hike up the Roman-built ramp to the top of Masada in Israel. Articles I've written about some of these experiences and other places we have visited have appeared in the Seattle Times Travel section.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Ciara Biography - Wrote Out Goals to Elizabeth David (1913–1992) BiographyMolly Lamken (Caroline More) Cone (1918-) - Awards, Honors, Sidelights, Autobiography Feature Molly Cone - Personal, Addresses, Career, Writings, Adaptations