Childhood Bliss

Summer days filled with walks through fields of roses with their wonderful fragrance and myriads of color were only part of my childhood memories. My parents had lived in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, when I was born but seemed to be on a quest to move farther east starting when I was a baby. They left Cleveland to move first to the south of Willoughby; but when I was almost five, they bought seven acres in east Mentor and built a house in what was then a rural area.

Proof of how rural it was became apparent when my dad plowed the land with his tractor and displaced many snakes in the process. He reassured me they would all be scared away before we had the house built and occupied.

Gretchen and her doe.

We had lived in the home only a few months, when one day my mother was startled while filling our wringer washing machine with a hose attached to the stationary tub’s faucet. (That was typically how laundry was done in those days). She looked up at the basement window and thought she saw a cow looking in. She yelled for me and grabbed her Kodak camera and an apple.

We quietly stepped outside, and there in the back yard was, not a cow, but a full-sized doe looking right at us and not moving. I gently held the apple out to her, and the doe took one step and bit into it. (As fanciful as this story may sound, my mother captured the whole thing on that Kodak, and the pictures were perfect. I still show them to people).  We never saw the doe again and wondered why it had been so unafraid of us.

The house was completed in the fall of 1948, so my parents may have been unaware of what would bloom in the field north of us at the Bosley Nursery Company during the following spring and summer. Mentor schools at that time did not offer kindergarten classes, so I had an entire season of fulltime wonderment about those roses.

In addition, Bosleys’ field had a weathered, clapboard shed that stood very close to the horseshoe shaped driveway that my dad had put in. That shed was about 25’ x 30’, and to a small child, it was totally and enticingly spooky. Daffodils and narcissus bulbs in the front of the shed threw forth their early blooms; they were enough for me to overcome any fear of the “spooks” that might live in the building.

One day when I was a couple years older, it was a disappointment to realize the “haunted” shed probably housed only pallets, crates and other nursery equipment. Nonetheless, the flowers in front of it were still wonderful. Far less appealing are the Lowe’s store and its parking lot that now sit where my little feet used to wander.

By the time I was in second grade, Dad had lush grass of about two acres around the house, the result of his tilling and leveling the ground with the same tractor. He had an old reel-type mower, and when I was about 12, I asked him to let me try operating it. Pushing it made the blades go around. (He recognized a promising offer when he heard one).

I did the lawn after that, but it got much easier when Dad surprised me with a motorized reel mower two years later. I considered myself just super-cool to be doing that chore but was always disturbed that it left the dandelions and other weeds standing. Along came the rotary mower, and it cut everything and shot it out the side. About 1958, Dad got a riding mower, and it was just the ultimate.

Those early days were excellent training for me, and I still do a huge amount of mowing. One observation: None of those Old Johnnycake mowers had safety warning stickers of any kind. Today’s yard equipment has so many safety warnings that one wonders what the original paint color was. Years ago, we did not live in a litigious society.  It was assumed that if you were adept enough to operate machinery, you were not stupid enough to put a hand or foot under a running blade or let your kid do so either.

On summer days when it wasn’t hot enough to occupy my favorite place under the shade tree, books in hand, I was a peripatetic child. The neighborhood on Old Johnnycake Road became my paradise, and there were few sections I did not explore. By the time I was in my early teens, nurseries owned by three different entrepreneurs were within 2/10 of a mile’s walk from my home.

To the west was Wayside Gardens, a wholesale outlet for shrubbery, with its iconic stone office building, which only this year was demolished. Up the road on both sides lived branches of the Carosello family, who also tended their nursery on the land around their homes.

The heads of the family, Peter and his wife Bessie, built a lovely ranch home two lots over from ours, and they became fast friends. Bessie was an incredible old-world Italian style cook and always had some wonderful treat to offer me. However, one day on New Year’s Eve when I went to visit, there was an odd-looking platter of food on the table – a marinated eel. I said my hasty but polite good-byes and was on my way home before I was offered a taste.

One of the Carosello sons, Ted, lived in Mentor Village, and son Dave and his wife Jane lived just south of us on the other side of the road. I have fond memories of all the Carosellos and often wonder where their children and grandchildren ended up.

Jane’s sister Ellie came to live with the family as a teenager and rode on my school bus. In one of those coincidences that life can offer, just a month ago she came into the doctor’s office where I am the receptionist one day a week. She had recognized my name immediately, but it took me a few seconds to put things together, and it was delightful to see her. She had been listed on our patient list as “Eleanor,” and the name hadn’t clicked with me.

Sadly, Lake County is probably no longer the nursery capital of the world, having fallen prey to economic conditions and changing times. Commercial buildings and mostly multi-unit dwellings became much more profitable than exporting plants. Mentor represents a certain sadness for me now when I pass through and remember how it used to be; some of the nurseries have moved farther east, but most of them gave way to suburban living and went out of business. (Editor’s note: See this history of Lake County nurseries, Part One and Part Two.)

Other neighbors on Old Johnnycake became a permanent memory from my childhood and teen years. A short way up the road to the south, on a small hill, lived Ventry and Therese Moorehouse. On one of my neighborhood “patrols” when I was about eight, Mr. M. was at his mailbox and spoke kindly to me, saying he had seen me getting on and off the school bus. He had pure white hair and was slim and dapper. We chatted a while, and he asked me if I would like to come up to his home and “meet the missus.”

This offer was like a dream come true. Their home was similar to a stately southern mansion; it had a wide front porch with pillars and was surrounded with pine trees and a perfectly manicured yard. A white gravel driveway led up to the porch. Gazing at their home had been part of my purpose in walking that far.

Mrs. M. greeted me at the door and said she knew who I was. Right away she asked for my phone number to call my mother to tell her I was visiting them. Mrs. M. fascinated me. She was buxom and tall and had unruly, short white hair. Furthermore, she was wearing a dress with nylons, complete with seams up the back. A housewife wearing a dress in the middle of the day was a totally new experience for me. The only women I knew who wore daytime dresses were our teachers at Mentor Elementary.   I had rarely seen my mother in a dress because she was an obsessive-compulsive germaphobe and house cleaner, and one couldn’t do that kind of work in a dress.

Mrs. M. addressed me as “dearie” and marched me into her kitchen, which was huge and had a booth near a glass door that looked onto the back yard. She promptly put some iced tea and a plate of cookies in front of me without asking, and I was mesmerized – until I took a sip of tea and found it the most disgusting thing I’d ever tasted. (My parents drank only coffee, and to this day, I can’t make myself swallow tea). She talked to me non-stop while I stared in wide-eyed wonder at her and timidly answered a few of her questions.

Nonetheless, my experience in the “mansion” was so fascinating that I choked down the tea, which was palatable when combined with cookies. Mr. M. had gone outside and was on his tractor cutting grass in paths that wound around a gorgeous flower garden, complete with benches, a trellis and strategically placed rocks. Mrs. M. offered me a tour, and we went out and walked around.

That day was the beginning of remarkable experiences that would last nine years until I left for Toledo University in 1961. I grew sensitive to the idea that maybe I was becoming a pest to them, but the Moorehouses on the second visit had asked me to have dinner with them and then join in a card game – more heavenly evenings in front of their fireplace. I became a regular visitor, and one day when I was 16, they asked if I would be comfortable babysitting their two grandchildren for one overnight; their daughter and her family were visiting from England, and the adults wanted to take a short trip.

What an opportunity! The kids were 11 and 12, old enough to be mostly self-sufficient. The bedroom I was “assigned to” had a canopied, four poster bed, in which I fell asleep not at all because I spent all night exploring the room. It had alcoves, closets, two dormers, books and knick-knacks of all types. I didn’t exactly nose into everything but didn’t miss anything that was out in the open.

The visiting family indirectly answered many questions I had not thought to ask of the elder Moorehouses. The latter had faint accents, so I thought they may have been British natives or had moved here when they were young. Other clues were the English-style garden, the “dearie,” the tea and their first names, which I had thought were totally cool, especially “Ventry.” It seemed the epitome of a handsome, stately gentleman – exactly what he was.

Being accepted and treated as an honored guest when I was a child endeared the couple to me for what I felt would continue for a long time. In August of ’61, on the eve of my leaving for Toledo, I went to say goodbye to them and left with teary eyes, never guessing the future.

When I came home for Thanksgiving break, I immediately told my mother I wanted to see the Moorehouses on Friday. She said, “They are gone.”  I responded, “WHAT? Where did they GO?” Mom said, “I don’t know. A for- sale sign went on their house, and it looked empty by last month.” I had learned a major life lesson: When people have had a positive influence on you, they should be told about it. I still wish I had sent at least a letter to these dear people to explain how much I cared for them.

At first, I was perturbed with my mother at her response; she seemed so unaware of what the couple had meant to me and had made apparently no effort to find out what happened to them. Reflecting on the situation later, I came to realize that my mother was both shy and somewhat reclusive. She did not “neighbor” with anyone. She suffered with many health issues, and her entire focus had been her family: my father, me, and her sisters and brothers. She was the most domestically-inclined woman I have ever known and had never even learned to drive a car. Her sudden death at 54 from a pulmonary embolism was the major dark cloud of my life up to that point.

Since I was older than most of the kids near us, I was called frequently to babysit by several families and learned to take care of infants and older children starting when I was 13. My “salary” started at 35 cents per hour and eventually increased to a whopping dollar by age 17. The “job” gave me a sense of independence but also taught me about the demands of parenthood, and the lessons were the beginning of my eventual decision to avoid parenthood.  I also learned not to vocalize that plan for my future as it was not well-accepted by the first people I told about it. They insisted I would change my mind. I didn’t.

Gretchen and her cat (l), Lois Auld Ottman, Bruce Beckman, and Jane Ottman (r), about 1955.

In addition to the foliage and flowers of the nurseries and the wonderful couple on the hill, other things made my neighborhood a delightful place. Directly across the street was the Beckman family, Chuck, Barbara and son Bruce. Although Bruce was four years younger than me, we became great pals, no doubt partly because there were no other kids really close by. He loved being read to (I recall reading many comic books and Robinson Crusoe for him). Barb told me once during a phone call many years later that Bruce had become a prolific reader, and she thanked me for my part in inspiring him to read. It was a delightful compliment for an English teacher to hear.

Going back to when I was about nine, my first bicycle seemed like a key to great freedom, even if it just meant going up and down the road for about a mile and back. When Bruce learned to ride, we ventured farther and one time even packed lunches and rode into Kirtland to walk around St. Hubert’s Church, a local landmark.  He and I explored the entirety of Wayside Gardens, and no one seemed to care that we were there. The swamp behind Carosellos’ home had real appeal too.

Barb and Chuck were wonderful to me, and I was very excited when they announced that they were expecting another child. Chuck had returned from a stint in the military. I had fully hoped to be a babysitter for the new little one, but Carrie was born with a heart defect and regularly went into “spells,” which caused labored breathing. Barb had been told no cure was available, but she was determined to give Carrie as long a life as possible and surely could not leave a teenage babysitter, me, in charge. I had never taken care of an ill child.

One time Barb did need to go to an appointment, and my mom and I went to care for Carrie when she was just over a year old. She did go into one of her spells; Bruce, who had seen this happen so often, knew just what to do for her when she started to turn blue. However, I think Barb knew how frightened my mother had been at that incident, so we never stayed alone with Carrie again.

During my junior year in Toledo, Chuck was transferred to Michigan, having taken a job with General Motors. Carrie died at 19 in their Michigan home, and the family moved to North Carolina and then Oklahoma.

Coming back from Toledo after my graduation to stay with my father, I had to face the absence of my mother, who had died in January of ’65, plus the loss of two favorite neighborhood families. In ’66 I married Chuck Reed, and we moved to Painesville and took on the renovation of a 102-year- old home. It was a relief to leave a changing neighborhood behind, and after only a few years, my father came to live with us when we moved to Leroy Township.

How strange it is to reflect on society’s changes when one is 77 and remembers back so many years. Not a single dwelling remains of the Old Johnnycake Road area I grew up in, except for two ranch houses built by the senior Carosellos and Bessie’s sister and her husband. The Moorehouse home was the first to be razed so that contractors could build condos, and Dave and Jane’s home met the same fate not long after.

Gretchen’s childhood home on Old Johnnycake in Mentor, Ohio.

When my father passed in ’90, I sold his house and land.  A very busy dental office, Albrecht Family Dentistry, is almost exactly where my home was. The first time I saw the empty land, I was left with a very hollow feeling.  The place where my aunts, uncles and cousins had gathered often for raucous laughter was gone. Beckmans’ home was used as the Free Clinic for a while, but then commercial development took over there too.

My childhood years were a time when even the “extra” adults of our post-war world could be depended upon. The very same school bus driver, Mr. Cecil P. Corey, drove my classmates and me to school for my full 12 years. The bus was exceedingly quiet with only soft chatter. There were no fights or even paper airplanes floating around. If any horseplay happened among Mr. Corey’s passengers, he parked the bus and stomped down the aisle. That was enough to prevent any further rule-breaking by that group. I was the first to be picked up on the route, and my friend Lois Auld was the next one up the road. We sat side by side behind Mr. Corey; he was so kind to us that we considered ourselves his special passengers. Lois visited from Florida last fall, and it was a pleasure to see her.

Our elementary teachers also seemed devoted to us.  Even Mr. Reed, the janitor, knew all our names and was there throughout our elementary years. He smiled most of the time and was always kind to us. Perhaps being surrounded by so many caring adults accounts for the secure feelings that I think most of us developed, but the early freedom we were allowed in a safe environment promoted our independence.

My childhood years bore little resemblance to how local children are raised now. Indeed, the upbringing described above would qualify in many parents’ eyes today as child neglect. Nothing could be further from the truth; my parents were devoted and loving. It was the TIMES that were different – specifically, a child in a suburban or rural neighborhood was almost guaranteed to be safe. Today’s parents might be leery of someone like Mr. M.  An older man inviting a child into his home might make a modern mother suspect he was a dirty old man, and sometimes those fears would be well-founded.  What fond memories I would have missed without my friends on the hill.

The late ‘40s and ‘50s were truly an incredible time to be a child or teenager. The country was hugely patriotic and optimistic, something that seems amazing considering that our parents had just directly or vicariously experienced a world war. There were many widows taking care of children alone and/or caring for wounded husbands. Sure, the schools conducted “bomb drills,” and we were instructed to crawl under our desks, but I don’t recall any of us being traumatized. When we emerged, our teacher was still there.

Since the baby boomers hadn’t come of age yet, there was not much competition for jobs, college admission, and positions in life. We who had been born during World War II had the feeling, while growing up, that we were free to do as we wished with our lives. Furthermore, most of us had a huge longing for independence.  I recall nothing like the current boomerang generation of young people returning to their parents’ homes in their 20s and 30s. I did so only to help my father because of my mother’s death. but I was married and had moved within a year. Many of my classmates had married and become parents right out of high school.

I sometimes compare my “wandering child’s lifestyle” to today’s helicopter parenting – totally controlling their children’s schedules and seemingly paranoid that their kids will get into trouble if they are not constantly monitored. My mother, on the other hand, cooked and cleaned and kept track of me by my telling her where I would be or by the neighbors calling to say, “She’s here with us.” Few of my classmates’ mothers worked outside their homes. Possibly a purely domestic life allowed them to feel more secure, and my generation then felt secure because our moms were always around – that is, until ’65 when mine wasn’t.

Post-World War II parents did not seem to push their kids into music lessons, sports or other competition unless their offspring were truly enthusiastic about such things.  Unless a friend seemed to be some kind of threat, parents let their kids associate with whomever they wanted.

A couple of years ago, a mother and her daughter were visiting me, and the mother called the girl from my back yard to hustle her into the house.  The mom said, “Hurry, or you’ll be late for your play date.” It was everything I could manage to keep from going apoplectic over this request, but before exploding, I reminded myself that it had become a different time with varying standards. A play DATE? It needs to be scheduled into a tight time spot with myriads of other demands competing for a child’s time, including electronic devices attached to them like artificial umbilical cords. That is not the sort of childhood my friends and I had, and I will be thankful for those old days for as long as I live.

How about running out the side door and finding another kid in the neighborhood to bike with? How about wading mindlessly in “the crick”? How about ice skating on the pond in winter? Better yet, how about going to the field to smell the roses, or at least to dream about the next summer when their color and fragrance would welcome us again?

OOPS! There is no time or place for that sort of thing now.


I first sent a copy of “Childhood Bliss” to the Online Log’s co-editor Karen Holp to get her opinion about putting it into the fall issue. She was enthusiastic, so I edited, proofed and sent it to her.

If you are a regular reader of the Log, you are aware of her creativity with graphics and photography, but I had been unaware that she was also an “Internet sleuth” and able to find obscure information.  Since I am very limited in computer skills, I am hugely grateful to her for this email that she quickly sent me:

The story about the Moorehouse family captivated me. I looked up Mr. V. Moorehouse in Ancestry because of his unusual name. Ventry Moorehouse was born in 1891 in Cleveland Heights. His parents had been born in New York. In 1940 he was 48 and living in Cleveland Heights with his first wife, Avis, 47, and their three daughters, Avis (22), Jeanette (21) and Helen (18).

He was president of a company that made explosives – Austin Powder. Wife Avis died in 1946, and he married Therese Gutschalk, who had been married to Robert Papworth until his death in 1940. She had worked at Austin Powder and had two daughters, Georgia and Emma. A quick search on my part found that Georgia married an Englishman in Germany, so it may have been she who visited her mother and step-father on Old Johnnycake.

Ventry died in 1971. He had gone to Texas to live with his daughter  Avis. He and wife Avis are buried in Knollwood Cemetery in Mayfield Heights. Therese died in 1970, but further information about her is obscure. It would seem that her younger daughter died in early childhood since her name does not appear in any census nor in her mother’s obituary.

Sorry, but I get fascinated by stuff like this.                   Karen

I wrote back to Karen expressing amazement that she seemed to be apologizing for her research; she had answered questions that had lingered in my mind for the past 66 years. I had guessed incorrectly that the Moorehouses were of British descent, but quite possibly they picked up some speech inflections from traveling to England or from Georgia’s visits to Ohio. I would not have pulled the name “Georgia” out of my gray matter, but as soon as I read Karen’s account, I knew it was Georgia and her children who had visited in the “mansion up the hill.”

Upon thinking back further, I believe I heard Mr. M. refer to Georgia as “Therese’s daughter.” All the things Karen ferreted out create a biography of sorts, except that Therese’s later years and final resting place seem to be obscure.

Modern science and record-keeping have made mysteries about people more easily solved, but NEVER did I believe I’d know anything more about my favorite old couple — my “substitute grandparents.” I regret that I had not asked questions about their past but asking would have felt to me like prying.

The time the Moorehouses spent with me took on a one-sided perspective in my mind; they had GIVEN ME their wholehearted attention and time. However, learning of their past lives makes it seem that more was going on. They had raised four little girls through to adulthood. Could it be that they “had” a fifth child, at least part-time? I hope so, and for sure that girl also loved them.

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