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An American Youth
Glenn Stewart

An American Youth

Lifestyle

Voters Rating 1001 / Published

1001

Synopsis

An American Youth is an epistolary memoir, dedicated to Glenn Stewart’s two adult sons.

It is a sensitively drawn narrative of family, fatherhood, and the long-gone but not forgotten Middle America that formed his childhood.

Extract

In the summer of 1961, I went to stay with my grandmother in Bellingham. This was the first of six summers I got to stay with her. They were all simply wonderful.


I loved Bellingham, and I loved being with my grandmother. She was sweet, loving, attentive and crotchety all wrapped up into one.  She had snowy white hair and a 19th-Century-frontier, can-do spirit. She believed in hard work, honesty and God. And she was always willing to help anyone willing to help themselves.


My grandmother lived at 917 North Forest St near Western Washington University, more or less at the foot of Sehome Hill. The house was not large. It had two bedrooms upstairs and a living room. Best of all was a dining area with a view over Bellingham Bay. Downstairs was the utility area, storage and another bedroom that was mine whenever I stayed. There was a trundle bed for my brother when he was also there.


She had an old-fashioned tub washing machine with a hand-turned wringer for the clothes. It was one of my jobs to wring out the clothes after washing for her to hang on the line.


The house stood on a corner lot next to a church, so it was always quiet during the week. In the front lawn between the house and the church stood, and still stands, the most magnificent Tulip tree you could ever see.  I don’t know how old it is, but it was and is grand. It had a rope swing with an old tire hung from it. I loved that swing.


At the back of the house was the church parking lot. My grandmother provided me with a bright red tricycle, so I had full reign over the sidewalk, driveway at the back, and then access down the slope into the parking lot - a fairly large area over which to achieve daredevil speeds.


The best part of this house was on the side below the Tulip tree and between the back yard (such as it was) and the church.  This area was covered by a magnificent raspberry patch about forty feet long and some 15-18 feet wide.  It was always a fraught exercise for me to get berries from the middle of the patch; I was small, and the thorns on the branches were a nuisance. In addition to the raspberries my grandmother also had blackberries and boysenberries.  One of my jobs was to pick the berries and fill mason jars with them; she would then make them into jam. I wasn’t allowed to touch the pressure cooker, but the process always fascinated me.


Berries are one of the marvels of the Pacific Northwest. They are literally almost everywhere.  In addition to the patch in the yard I used to go to Sehome Hill to pick wild blackberries, which were delicious.  This too was a delicate exercise, as the hill was very steep and there were stinging nettles on the hillside. I had to be extra careful.  It was almost always futile, however, and the price of a quart mason jar of blackberries was getting hands and ankles stung.


My grandmother ran a corner grocery store on Monroe St.  The place was cheerful and a little dark, with plain wood floors stained dark from years of people walking on them.  I had a few chores in the store, such as putting empty boxes out for the trash, sweeping the floor, and sorting and rinsing the empty pop bottles that had been returned to go back to the bottler. I remember the Squirt bottles the best because of the logo - a smiling sort of Elf with a bottle cap for a hat. I don’t know if the brand even exists any more, but on the occasions I got to drink one I loved its zesty lemon-lime taste.


For these chores I got a small amount of pocket money that I used mainly to buy candies from the store.  I was particularly fond of the liquorice chewing gum - I think it was called Blackjack. My grandmother had an assistant named Roy Rudy, a big, slow, gentle man with silver hair.  He always wore a green apron, and was very nice to me - as he was to everybody.


My grandfather worked in the back, but I don’t remember that he did very much. He was generally cranky and brusque, and I mostly stayed out of his way.  My grandmother always seemed a bit disapproving of him. He had had a heart attack during the Second World War while working in the shipyards. He hadn’t worked very much since. He collected stamps, and when at home seemed to spend most of his spare time fussing over his collection. He gave me a few starter stamps and a little album for US stamps which I built up somewhat over the next few years, but mostly I didn’t have that much to do with him.


He had been born in Selkirk in Scotland and still spoke with a Borders lilt. I’ve heard stories that he was a bit of a Jack The Lad when he was young. Apparently he was highly convivial and preferred to take off and go fishing for week at a time rather than go to work.  Also, he was supposed to drink.  The latter would have been a serious factor for my grandmother, who was Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She believed that all the evil in the world came out of a saloon, and that the devil lurked in every bottle of whiskey. She was a staunch Presbyterian of the old school – hellfire, damnation, we’re all sinners. I had to attend church with her each Sunday. I didn’t actually mind, although I don’t remember anything of substance from the sermons, but the church was a nice, solid, gray building a few blocks away.


My grandmother drove a 1948 DeSoto, a massive thing.  I loved that car.  It had very comfortable cloth seats and a huge steering wheel that looked like ivory.  I would ride with her when she went downtown to order goods for the store.


The other notable feature about Bellingham to me at that age, and even in the summers to follow, was the sidewalks. From the Forest Street house as you headed west there were sidewalks that went through vacant lots, sidewalks that split in two and curved outwards and back together again.  Sidewalks that turned into stairs.  I used to go walking for blocks and blocks and although it’s a small, insignificant thing really, I loved those sidewalks and going for those walks.  I don’t know why.  They’re still there and I still like them.  I’ve never seen a sidewalk split into two and go curving through a vacant lot in any other American city.

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