When I was growing up in East Lansdowne and still very young, the Smith family lived a short way down on the other side of the street. The East Lansdowne elementary school was directly across from our house, and the Smith house was at the far end of the school yard, not even separated by a fence.
Their house was an unpainted shack, unlike any other in typically suburban East Lansdowne, and was similar to those depicted in cartoons of rural Appalachia or the deep South. It was the home of my first playmate, Tommy Smith, and my older sister’s playmate, Chubby Smith.
I occasionally went into the Smith house with Tommy, but only briefly and never to play. Right inside the front door was a wood-burning stove where his mother cooked their meals. I was amazed when she lifted the round cook surface to show me the roaring wood fire inside. My mother’s gas stove was nothing like that. Inside the Smith’s house was always dark, and thinking back, I suspect they did not have electricity. The house seemed to have only the one room.
One late summer afternoon as we were playing in the school ground, Tommy was called in to dinner and I started to go home. No need to leave, he said. He went in and came right out with a piece of bread and jelly, and ate it sitting on the rough wood steps. That, too, was unlike any dinner at our house.
My mother never liked Tommy, and after breaking some windows, I was forbidden to play with him. I remember the episode clearly. It was his suggestion that we throw stones at the windows of a garage adjoining the schoolyard. Try as I might, my stones could not reach the windows, even though they were only about five feet above the ground. His did, though, and the windows broke. Someone saw us and I was “scolded” by my father, but I felt no guilt, only puzzlement. I knew my stones did not reach the windows, so why was I being blamed?
(Psychologist tell us children below a certain age do not lie because they think everyone knows the same things. The beginning of lying is actually a sign of maturity. I was below that age and assumed everyone knew my innocence.)
On the other hand, my sister’s friend, Chubby Smith, was a delight and was always welcome in our house. She screwed up her face and closed her eyes in an infectious giggle that got everyone else laughing, and she giggled a lot. I have no idea what her real name was. I never heard it, but she was not chubby. I suspect “Chubby” was an endearing, descriptive nickname for a baby, and the name sometimes stuck after the baby fat was gone.
The school burned down one night and we all had to go to the Fernwood school in the next town for the first two grades while a new school was being built. The Smith house disappeared, unnoticed, replaced by modern swings, see-saws, and a sliding board as part of the new school ground enclosed by a shiny chain-link fence, and I never saw any of the Smith family again. I did not see their house torn down and did not even know when they left.
Are Tommy and Chubby still alive? Where did they go? Did they have happy lives? Did they climb out of poverty? I would like to know, but that was long ago, and there is no longer anyone I can ask.