Episode 6: SURVIVAL

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Episode 6: SURVIVAL by Jessica Harper

Jessica H: I'm Jessica Harper and this is episode six of WINNETKA.

By around 1960 our house on Willow Road had gone from cozy to crazy. Too many people, too little space. We needed to move again to larger quarters, which we found just across town on Blackthorn Road. It was a big old house, built in the 30's I think, and it's Tudor style architecture would not have been out of place in, say, 17th century England. But that did not stop Mom and Dad from, once again, decking out the living room with orange carpeting and Danish, modern furniture, just to go against the grain, as they were fond of doing, to liven things up.

Years later I would appreciate my parents' rejection of Winnetka's prevalent WASP aesthetic, but back then I was just at that age when I embraced conformity, which I am embarrassed to admit. But I just wished my parents could make the effort to fit in. How was I supposed to have friends over, how could I suck up to the mean/popular girls with all that orange underfoot? Not to mention all the strewn Legos and the blocks and the broken crackers and the Barbie doll shoes all over the place, and children just everywhere. Why did our house have to be such a big, noisy mess? Why couldn't it be like my friend Madeline's house, where the loudest sound was that of her fish tank bubbling? Or like Franny's house which was so tidy and English it was like Downton Abbey, plus you had 24/7 access to Coca Cola and ice cream bars.

Right? How was I supposed to entertain the mean/popular girls when there was nothing in our cupboard but Wheat Thins and canned pears? At Suzie's house there was only one older sister and unlimited TV. I still remember the miracle of Suzie's mother, dressed in high heels and a pencil skirt, serving us spaghetti on trays, while we watched the Dick van Dyke show. I made a note to self that this was a lifestyle to aspire to, and I wished I could stay at Suzie's for a couple of weeks, or maybe even a couple of years, rather than go home to that mad house.

The good news was that at our new house I now had my own bedroom, which had an antique bed frame, and traditional wallpaper, all gold colored with a white cameo pattern, very Abigail Adams. Everyone had their own space, except the little twins Sam and Charlie. Diana took over the attic, so she had total privacy, above the fray of the second floor where the other seven of us lived. The truth is, though, that Diana missed the mayhem. Unlike some of us, she enjoyed being surrounded by vast numbers of unruly people.

To provide herself with company in her lonely upstairs chamber, she adopted a duckling. The duckling was very cute for a short time, until it became a serious duck, whose noise and stink made Diana's pad a deterrent, rather than a lure to visitors, so she became even more isolated. Then, the duck died of mysterious causes, although actually, this was no surprise. In our house a pet's chances of survival were slim to none.

From a pet's perspective, our house must have looked like a swell place to take up residence, with all it's well intended children and it's messy kitchen providing ample opportunity for counter surfing. But I would have advised any animal who would listen not to allow itself to be taken in by the Harpers. First of all, my father hated pets generally, with a special distaste for dogs. He had enough trouble controlling his children, without having other hairy, non compliant creatures underfoot.

But also, the number of pet deaths that occurred on our watch staggering. A friend gave me a parakeet named Pedro for my birthday when I was maybe 12. I kept the bird in my room in a gold cage, only releasing it occasionally to fly around the room and poop on the curtains when dad was at work and was therefore unlikely to beat it to death with a broom. Maybe poor Pedro suffered from too much confinement, I don't know; but one day I came home from school and found that Pedro had committed suicide by sticking his head between the bars of the cage and breaking his own neck. I was sick about it.

Lindsay H: Sam and Charlie and I were taking care of this guinea pig, and the cage was by the window; and the winters in Chicago were very, very cold. So we came home one day and the (laughs) the guinea, the guinea pig was frozen.

Jessica H: (Laughs)

LindsayH: So we were horrified, so we put it on the radiator, and in the afternoon we came home and the guinea pig was no longer with us.

Jessica H: At some point we had this giant rabbit named General Grant, who we kept in a cage outside because he was so fierce. He stood on his hind legs like something out of Jurassic Park, scratching your arms when you tried to get lovey dovey. Somebody may or may not have deliberately left his cage open one night, facilitating that awful animal's disappearance.

Lindsay H: And then I was babysitting Jonie Litzger's goldfish, and I was cleaning out her fish bowl, (laughs) and the fish went down the drain.

Billy H: So one day Pete and I were playing with the chinchillas, and the chinchillas were running around, one of them ran under the bed, and then I jumped off the bed just as the chinchilla ran out from under the bed and I landed on top of the chinchilla, squishing him.

Lindsay H: In the backyard there was a little rock garden and a fish pond, and we went with dad and we got goldfish, these big goldfish, to put in the fish pond; and every year, winter would come, the fish pond would freeze, the fish would freeze, and (laughs) and they would just stay there frozen (laughs).

Jessica H: There were others too. The bunnies who froze in the backyard, the kitten who got eaten by the neighbor's dog; but in spite of our lousy track record, when I was a teenager we finally got a rescue dog named Boodleheimer.

(Lindsay and Jessica sing): Boodleheimer, Boodleheimer, clap clap clap. Boodleheimer Boodleheimer, clap clap clap.

Jessica H: Boodleheimer Boodleheimer, clap clap clap.

Lindsay H: The more you Boodle, the less you Heimer, the more you Heimer, the less you Boodle. Boodleheimer Boodleheimer, clap clap clap.

Jessica H: The more you Heimer, the less you Boodle. Boodleheimer Boodleheimer, clap clap clap.

We kept that cute little beagle, also known as Boodles, well under Dad's radar, hidden in Billy's room in the evening hours; and if there was a security breach, and Boodles found himself face to snout with that dog hater, the dog literally dove under the rug in self defense.

Never had all six of us been so taken with a pet. Boodles was the love of our lives, but he met a sad fate too. I'll tell you about that in an upcoming episode.

PS, I emailed Diana recently to ask her whatever happened to that duck that used to stink up her attic sanctuary. She wrote me back the following, "The duck died, not much to tell." I wrote back, "Well how did the duck die?" Diana wrote, "I'd rather not say." “Oh come on.” I said, "Now you have to tell me." Diana wrote back, “I'm not talking.” “You're torturing me, I'm gonna have to make something up that'll be much worse than the truth.” Diana wrote back, “You could just leave it as an unsolved mystery.” "Okay." I said to her, “You asked for it.” Diana wrote back, “No I didn't, I said cloak it in mystery, and shelve it.”

So for possibly the first time in my life, I'm gonna do what my older sister tells me. Cloak the duck death in mystery and shelve it. So people, I will leave the circumstances of the death of Diana's feathered friend to your vivid imaginations.

So our house was kinda like Noah's Ark with all the twins and the animal life, or death, and I loved having my own bedroom to escape to when necessary. But there was one other room in the house that provided comfort in the form of two things I love most. Food and my Mother. (Jessica sings "Mama's Kitchen".)

The only time we ever went out for dinner as a family was on moving day when Mom's pots and pans were packed up in cardboard boxes. Every other night of our lives, mom cooked dinner for the eight of us. I have this image of her, well of the back of her, as she stood over the stove, her apron strings tied in big bow that wiggled while she stirred the spaghetti sauce or the mashed potatoes, and she sang.

(singing "Mama's Kitchen")

I loved to be near her, in that warm space, surrounded by the smell of roasting meat, and the sound of her pretty voice. To simplify her life, Mom established a cycle of seven basic meals which were meat based. And although I remember an occasional pork chop, the big old roast was the preferred format. Pot roast was a favorite of Mom's, 'cause you could just throw it in the oven, and then you go carpool your kids all over town. Take them to football practice or ballet lessons or ice skating, and you'd come home and the roast would be done to overcooked perfection.

One thing that was out of the question was fish. Mom once tried making fish sticks just to change up the menu a little bit, and I remember standing in the kitchen when my father came home from work. His fedora was tipped back on his head, his tie was loose, his shirt untucked. He spied the crispy sticks on the stove and without even putting down his briefcase he picked up his dinner and threw it at the wall saying, "I can't eat this shit." It was like an ice storm had blown into our warm kitchen and we froze.

Mom waited, speechless, until Dad blew out of the room and went upstairs; and then she stooped to pick up the fish shrapnel that littered the floor. She had pushed back once or twice against this kind of behavior, back on Willow Road when Dad furiously hit her wailing son. But the truth is that Mom was as scared of him as we were. We had learned to follow her lead to step aside and let him have his rage until it was spent. This was Harper normative.

Dad's foul mood was partly due to the fact that he was in that zone that none of us dared enter when he was in it. It was that time after work and before he'd had a cocktail. We all kept our distance, until that nightly situation had been resolved with a certain amount of vodka or sherry. But while Dad was a must to avoid when he returned from work in the evening, when he left for the train station in the morning he was a very different person. He was groomed and focused and ready for work. He was a man that my fast growing little brothers sought to emulate.

Sam and Charlie had turned from toddlers into boys, and they were beginning to understand that manhood was in their future, and that it was embodied by their father.

Charlie H: Every day Dad had a very disciplined routine of getting ready for work, eating breakfast, reading the newspaper, and walking with his briefcase, his light brown leather briefcase, there was never variation, off to the train station.

Jessica H: And when it was Charlie's turn to go out into the world, he turned to the model he knew.

Charlie H: So it was a big day for us, to go to our first day of junior kindergarten at Crow Island School. I didn't put on a necktie but I buttoned my top button and I tucked in my shirt and I found an old briefcase of Dad's and went marching to the front door, ready to take on the world. Fortunately my older brother Billy was right there at the front door and he said, "Uh, nope."

Jessica H: (laughs)

Charlie H: "Charlie you can't go to school like that." So he unbuttoned my top button, untucked my shirt, took away the briefcase and said, "Now you're ready to go to school. This way you won't get beaten up on the playground." (laughs)

Jessica H: Sam also saw Dad's briefcase as an important symbol.

Sam H: He would come down dressed for work, in his suit, shaved, shoes polished, nails filed, and carrying his briefcase. His leather briefcase, which changed shape over the years. But it was a briefcase that you carried like a mini suitcase, it wasn't a backpack and it wasn't a shoulder bag, it was a briefcase, old school briefcase, always sort of a source of mystery and pride. What's inside that briefcase? What's he working on? But he always had it, and he always came down at a certain time in the morning, said goodbye, and marched off to work.

I really drew from that, no matter what had happened the night before, no matter what had happened during the week, he was down there every morning. The image of him going off to work really stuck with me, and instilled in me and my siblings. Good work ethic that certainly carried me through my adult life.

Jessica H: On the other hand, one day Sam's work ethic, and Dad's briefcase, would come back to bite him in the ass.

Sam H: I was sitting in the um, front hall. I was working on a Lego project. [inaudible 00:13:15] When I heard the doorbell ring, and I was like, "Somebody else could get that." You know, there were eight people in the house, so that somebody else could get the door.

Jessica H: (Laughs)

Sam H: 'Cause I was working on my (laughs) I was working on my Lego project.

Jessica H: Very important.

Sam H: The doorbell rang again, I ignore it again. It rang again, and then I looked at the front to look down the hall into the, to the front door, and I saw Dad's head bobbing up- into the window at the top of the door. He was trying to look and see why he couldn't get in the house.

Jessica H: Jesus

Sam H: And I did see him, I saw him looking in. I was like, "I have to work on my Lego project."

Jessica H: (laughs)

Sam H: And then I, then I thought, "Well why doesn't he just go to the back door. The back door is probably open," so I went back to work. And then finally Mom came in and opened the front door and he came over to me and said, "What the Hell are you doing not answering the door?" I said, "I was working on my Lego project." At which point he hit me over the head with his briefcase and told me to go up to my room.

Jessica H: Oh.

Sam H: The thing about it was though, I thought that ... another reason I didn't answer the door was I thought he would be proud of the fact that I was working on my Lego project.

Jessica H: Aww.

Sam H: Oh well....

Jessica H: My parents' usual ritual was that shortly before Dad's expected arrival at home, Mom would freshen up in preparation. She put on a little lipstick, take off her apron sometimes, and maybe change her blouse, splash on some perfume, and when Dad was home and settled in his favorite chair in the living room, they'd pour drinks and discuss the events of the day, his day.

Some months ago my mother gave me an article that she'd found from the 1950's that offered tips to women on the proper way to welcome your man at home after a hard day's work. She read me those guidelines and her comments on them revealed that she had fooled us all. While back in the day she had seemed to be that era's model of a perfect housewife, she was actually downright subversive.

Eleanor H: "Prepare yourself, take 15 minutes to rest so you will be refreshed when he arrives." Meanwhile, the kids are throwing their blocks out the window.

Jessica H: (laughs)

Eleanor H: "Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair." If I put a ribbon in my hair my husband would leave home. "Be fresh looking, be a little gay and a little more interesting." If he's so bored he should change jobs. "He Probably needs a lift."

Eleanor H: "Prepare the children." Make sure you have just one. (laughs)

Jessica H: (laughs)

Eleanor H: "Take a few minutes to wash their hands and faces. They are little treasures, and he would like to see them like that." Well, wouldn't we all. (laughs)

Jessica H: (laughs)

Eleanor H: "Be happy to see him, greet him with a smile, and be glad to see him." One more mouth to feed. "Have dinner (laughs) have dinner ready." He doesn't care a thing about dinner, he wants his drink. "Most men are hungry when they come home." Here you are meat loaf, mashed potatoes. Stuff it down 'cause I worked hard on it.

Jessica H: (laughs)

Eleanor H: "Have him lean back into a comfortable chair, or suggest that he lie down in the bedroom." How about suggesting that we both lie down in the bedroom?

Jessica H: (laughs)

Eleanor H: "Make the evening his. Never complain if he doesn't take you out to dinner or to other places of entertainment." You could just rot instead. (laughs) "Try to understand his world of strain and pressure." What about my world of strain and pressure? "Try to make your home a place of peace and order, where your husband can renew himself in body and spirit," while you go down the tubes.

Jessica H: (laughs)

As mom said, she understood that what Dad really required was a drink. He needed to be defused, and we kids steered clear of that living room until that essential transition from sober to tipsy had taken place. Sometimes when my brother Charlie was a little older, nine or ten, he'd venture into their space, but only very cautiously.

Charlie H: All of us were so sensitive people, picking up the anger in particular was an emotion we knew very well, and we learned to read a room and read people very well because it was a matter of survival; that if I went into the room I had to read Dad's temperature.

Jessica H: And then he'd play bartender, mixing drinks with an eye towards lightening Dad's mood as quickly as possible.

Charlie H: And there's nothing I liked better than cocktail hour after his first cocktail. And I loved it when he said, "Charlie, go make m-me a drink." He'd go, "Ooh, this is a little strong. Could you put a little more water in that?" And I'd go back and I'd fake putting water in it, bring it back, "This is great, thank you." (laughs)

Jessica H: (laughs)

You would fake putting the ... ?

Charlie H: I would fake putting water into his drink to make sure it was good and strong because you could literally see the tension from the day leave his body.

Jessica H: So you felt that that, after work cocktail was essential for your own survival.

Charlie H: Yeah. It was a safety issue.

Jessica H: I remember sitting in the living room with my father at one cocktail hour, I'm thinking he must have had a drink already, because the atmosphere was only mildly tense, and he said something that made me laugh. And then, I did something I never dared to do before. I didn't make a conscious decision to do it, it just kind of happened, as if some gnarly adolescent took over my body, and made me deliberately push the limits of my father's patience.

As I've told you my father had no tolerance for emotional display beyond, you know, polite joviality. He had contempt for tears, even if they were triggered by tragedy. But I started laughing, and then I laughed harder and harder, checking his signals each time I took the hilarity up a notch, ready to cut back if things turned ominous.

Jessica H: I laughed until I started to cry. At first they were mirthful tears, and then they were something else. I wept, all the while taking the temperature of the room, as Charlie would say. How much would dad put up with before he blew? But he just looked at me impassively, his face blank. As I explored the full spectrum of feelings I had never shown him before. Winding down I turned my tears back into laughter. Big laughs, then small ones, then the thing that possessed me left my body and I returned to my normal, compliant self. Cocktail hour proceeded as if nobody had just gone temporarily insane, as if nothing had happened at all. But later, I marveled that while maybe I had been guided by forces beyond my control, I had tested my father for the first time, and had survived.

After the cocktail hour had loosened everyone up some, we all assembled in the dining room to take our places on the benches on either side of a very long table.

Charlie H: One of the sacred times was our family dinners, and particularly when Dad was present, which were usually formal sit-down dinners.

Jessica H: My brother Billy, being the oldest son, got prime seating.

Billy H: We had a refectory table, it was an old, big old oak table with benches along the long edges, and then a chair at each end. And so three of us would sit on one side, three of us would sit on the other, Mom would sit at one end, and Dad would sit at the other end. I was often placed right next to Dad. I think there was some kind of gender specific reason for that, dominance also pre-feminist family structure being expressed there.

Jessica H: Not only were we carefully positioned at the dining table, we were not allowed to leave our seats without explicit permission.

Billy H: If one of us got up from the table before dinner was over, he didn't say, "Where are you going?" He said, "Who gave you permission to dismount?"

Jessica H: I mean, he was joking, kind of. And there were other dinner rules that one violated only at great risk.

Charlie H: So one of the cardinal sins was to answer the phone during dinner. And the phone rang, and I got up to go answer it, and it happened to be a friend of mine so I started talking to him. And apparently Dad was yelling from the dining room for me to get back to the dining room table and hang up the phone. I didn't hear him and suddenly I turned around. He punched me in the face, knocking the phone out of my hand and knocking me up about two steps of stair, and hung up the phone for me. And then of course I had to return to the dining room table and not cry, because if you cried it would make things worse, and you might get sent to your room. So I had had this w-w-w-whimpering pulling back my chair-r-r-r.

Jessica H: Aww.

Charlie H: (laughs)

Jessica H: So now when Dad wasn't present, like when he was traveling or something, our dinners were like, well, have you seen the movie "Animal House"? That scene when John Belushi instigates one of the best food fights in movie history? It was kinda like that.

Jessica H: But whether our dinners were formal or not, I often found them challenging, and so did my little brother Sam.

Sam H: I can't remember why I decided that I was not gonna go down for dinner that night. Being in a big family can be a lot of work, so maybe that was one of those nights where I just didn't feel like going to work.

When I heard my sister Diana calling me to come down for dinner I got up and shut the door to my bedroom, and then I heard her coming up the stairs, and I remember having the thought that I wished I could be invisible. So I got under my covers in my bed, and I lay as flat as I could, putting my head sort of sideways under the pillow, really flattening myself out. And then I heard my door open and I heard my sister Diana come in, and I heard her ask for me, and I heard her look around the room, and I heard her leave. And to this day I don't know if she saw me or not, whether she was letting me be invisible or if, in fact, I was invisible.

In any case, the evening went on, I missed dinner, nobody every brought it up, and the reason I remember it so clearly is because sometimes survival in a big family requires a little bit of magic.

Jessica H: While Dad's temper sometimes made us feel unsafe, we were beginning to understand that there were much greater dangers in the world, from which Dad tried to protect us. The Cuban Missile Crisis took place in the Fall of '62, wherein for a couple of weeks, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev tossed around the idea of engaging in a nuclear war that would reduce the world population by about 200 million people.

While the two leaders carried on this lively conversation, the rest of us understood that we needed to prepare for Armageddon. To that end, Hollywood producers rushed projects into production that would depict in terrifying detail what would happen if the Russians dropped a bomb. I remember seeing on TV a cute family of four standing on their porch, watching the mushroom cloud on the horizon, shortly before the blast of nuclear wind blew off their hair and melted their eyeballs.Cut to some time later, a blackened porch and four neat piles of smoking bones.

Needless to say for those of us at a tender age, and pretty much everyone else, this stuff generated some pretty vivid nightmares. Attempts were made to make us feel more secure. In the classroom, we practiced what was called "Duck and Cover." They'd set off a pretend alarm and we'd duck under our desks, an action we were told would ensure our safety in the even of nuclear attack. I wasn't 100% sure that a 20 pound piece of wooden furniture would save me from the fate of those TV kids who got fried on the porch, but at that point I was willing to believe anything.

I was also willing to believe that my father's efforts would be effective. Dad turned our basement into a bomb shelter, by which I mean he stocked it with several big cans of MPF. MPF was multi-purpose food, a powdery substance with lots of nutrients, that when mixed with water would make a gnarly mush. This food was actually not multi-purpose, it had a single purpose, which was to make us believe that after doomsday, if we sat tight in our basement eating that stuff, things would get back to normal quickly and I could resume my ballet lessons.

I remember seeing an episode of the Twilight Zone in which a family was happily munching away on MPF after the bomb, and the starving neighbors came banging on the door demanding that the family share their provisions, so the Dad had to decide whether to give away precious food that might sustain his family for a longer period, or to go generous and have a block party. I wondered what my father would do with that moral quandary when the Landons and the McNirneys and the Loomises left their nuked houses to get some chow at our well stocked basement; but in retrospect I'm sure Dad knew that if a bomb fell on Winnetka, that MPF wouldn't help us or the neighbors much.

Still, I'm grateful to him for faking it, for pretending that survival was possible. Luckily, POTUS and the Premier worked things out. Nobody blew anybody up and the crisis passed. We kept the MPF just to be on the safe side. But our nightmares mellowed over time and we returned to our la-ti-da normalcy, almost forgetting that very bad things can happen, until we were reminded of that fact in 1963. I'll tell you about that next time.

WINNETKA is produced and edited by me, with digital editing and mixing by Andrew Schwartz. Additional help from Jeff Fox and Tom Weir. Original songs and music production are by me, with the exception of O Vos Omnis by William Harper. Special thanks to Oren Rosenbaum, Matt Cutair, and Ryan Rose, Jeff Umbro, Connie Fisher, Timothy Makepeace, and Susan Bolotin. Thanks and love always to Tom, Elizabeth, and Nora; and to my siblings, Diana, William, Lindsey, Sam, and Charlie, and especially thanks to Mom.

For more information please visit our website, WinnetkaPodcast.com, or also on Facebook and Twitter, and you can find us on Instagram, @WinnetkaPodcast. This is a Global Original.

Next: Episode 7: SURVIVAL transcript