Remembering Mrs. Washtack
|Mary Wakefield Buxton|
by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Urbanna, Va.— Years later I imagined Mrs. Washtack’s real name was Washkansky. She had changed her name after arriving from Poland. I remember feeling stunned that someone would ever change their name. Even more years passed before I understood why.
Mrs. Washtack and her husband had arrived to America in the late 1930s just before the Nazis invaded Poland. They settled in my hometown, Vermilion, Ohio, using their life savings to buy a small farm just outside town limits. They spoke English with a thick Polish accent. He was able to secure a job as a laborer, and an adult son started a restaurant on West Lake Road, a state route named after General William Tecumseh Sherman that ran all the way to Toledo.
Mother brought home fresh eggs and home-grown fruits and vegetables from Mrs. Washtack. Eventually, my sisters, Alice and Georgia, and I stayed at her home when our parents were on vacation.
I soon discovered at Mrs. Washtack’s home I had landed in paradise as I was given the daily task of feeding the chickens. I was only 8 years old but to me feeding chickens was the most wonderful thing I had ever done in my life. I was left feeling quite passionately disadvantaged that I had come from a family that had had no chickens.
I spent blissful hours at Mrs. Washtack’s house feeding chickens. I loved to watch them cluck and waddle while looking for food. I was thrilled to be up close to the honorable chicken. (Although I did not care for the rooster, who strutted around most disagreeably thinking he was in charge.) To this day, in my mind’s eye, feeding chickens is pure ecstasy right up there with hugging dogs.
Mrs. Washtack was short and fat (Mother, who always wanted to soften my vocabulary, would suggest I use the word “plump”) and always dressed in a floral dress with an apron tied around her abundant waist. She wore her gray hair tightly drawn back in a bun and never had a touch of make-up on her face. She wore funny black shoes with thick heels with lace-up ties, and her legs were covered with strange thick tan cotton stockings. I secretly thought she might be a reincarnation of “Mrs. Piggle Wiggle,” a beloved character from my treasury of childhood books.
She had a jolly smile, inordinately red cheeks, and her eyes twinkled when she looked at us. She would have made a perfect Mrs. Santa Claus. Every day we would walk to her house after school following Mother’s careful instructions never to leave the sidewalk that led to her house.
Her kitchen always smelled heavenly. She did odd things in her kitchen, things I had never seen mother do, like take a carving knife and cut a wedge of fresh bread off a warm loaf that had just come out of her oven. On this she spread a thick layer of apple butter from a brown earthen crock, but not like mother’s store-bought glass jars of jam. That treat, along with a glass of cold milk, was the best after-school snack I have ever eaten.
At times, we spent the night. Mrs. Washtack led us upstairs to an unheated attic room with a four-poster bed covered with a thick feather blanket where we were tucked in and kissed goodnight. I imagined I was Heidi asleep in a feather bed in the Alps. I knew I would awake to Mrs. Washtack’s fresh farm eggs, homemade bread and apple butter for breakfast.
Mrs. Washtack had a queer machine in her living room that looked as if it had been passed down from Moses. It made a funny clunking noise when she placed material under its spindle and pressed the foot pedal. One evening, much to our wonderment, she cut out a pattern from an old newspaper and fashioned us pajamas.
One day she took us to Catholic Church for evening service. There had been some whispered discussion with her husband about whether this was proper as our family was Protestant, and in those days there was strong feeling against inter-mixing. She decided to take us to church anyway. She seated us in a pew and then crawled on her hands and knees all the way down the aisle to the altar. I have never forgotten it.
Mrs. Washtack had a magic tree that she had attached seven limbs of different kinds of fruit. On it grew several varieties of peaches, apples and cherries. Her little farm had been planned so that she could exist even if the Nazis had marched into our town, like they had hers.
This would never happen. I already knew no power on earth could ever march into my hometown. The unpleasant realization that I was wrong would also come later.