* * *

I remember Buttercup Yellow (my favorite paint color for walls); Joe Fontana (my boss as Visitation parish); cool concrete steps (inside the elementary school)—and silverfish.

I remember gummy white bread (probably Wonder bread), white cheese, sliced tomatoes, and mayonnaise sandwiches—and cold “pop”—for lunches.

I remember mirror-like varnished classroom floors (which I was taught how to varnish, and before the Our Lady of the Angels fire), painted woodwork (done while I was seated and as I scooched along those varnished floors), and paint-splattered white coveralls (which fit, gotten from one of my sister’s boyfriends who drove a beautiful ’57 Mercury convertible).

I remember learning how to paint; I had to learn the fineries and delicacies of “cutting in” and “loading on” with brush (1/2-inch or 3/4-inch, with 1/4-inch for window frames.  I was a master of that: window frames), or the handling of a roller and roller pan, even while on a 12-foot ladder.  Colored paint on walls; white paint on ceilings: not the reverse.  (I admit, I was not–ever–good with ceilings; so, I demurred, and let my partners handle those jobs.)

I remember “Uncle” Joe Fontana, my boss.  Weathered, bent over, shuffling along (it seemed), cigarette always lighted in his mouth, teaching us, raising his voice hardly ever unless we deserved it for silliness or goofiness, or horseplay–or for some egregious errors (in painting walls?).  What did we high school kids do to make him angry?  Not working hard enough.  Not completing enough work within a certain amount of time–sticking to a work schedule.

I remember well, more than the paint and the rollers but the scrubbing machine.   I remember becoming proficient with that Monster, difficult to tame at first, with its three different pads: one steel wool for removing old varnish and a school-year’s dirt; one heavy duty bristle brush for washing the floors clean; one soft pad for polishing waxed floors.  Yes, I became keenly adept in the use of all three attachments.

Joe Fontana was a gentle soul.  Why did he choose me to master the scrubber?

He took the mop from the bucket of soapy water, spreading a soap solution over an area of the floor.  Then he called me over, placing (gently) his hands over mine, like a kindly father.  Left hand, right hand.

Then he gripped my hands and fingers over the handle and triggers of the machine.  Off we went: left, right, straight, left, around, him laughing, me frightening.  He stopped us.  “Not easy,” he commented in his Italian-accented voice, cigarette butt still held between his lips.


“Are you-a ready?”  He told me to scrub.  To do it.  While he watched, and smiled, and smoked.  And I learned well.  I was Mr. Scrubber, for all classroom floors, school halls–and Waxer, too.  I was good.  And less painting.

Yes, I remember those high-school summers in Chicago, working at the parish school, getting up early, making and eating those sandwiches; painting and scrubbing and waxing–all those little details, little things: memoriesofatime…

Part of this past summer’s vacation I did time painting, was on a ladder, was even remembering, not “Rosebud” but “Buttercup Yellow” –one of my favorite colors for those long-ago classroom walls.  I felt Joe Fontana’s “spirit” around me from time to time, my memory of him while I climbed a ladder or kept my brush steady, helping me not forget all he graciously taught me so many years ago.

I hear sometimes, “You’re such a good painter.”  “Thank you (Joe).”

© James F. O’Neil 2019

  1. Good memory, nice people. Better watch that ladder climbing at our age!

  2. Virgil Likness said:

    Always an amazing well presented topic. I can relate due to many school experiences

    • You signed many purchase orders for paint, wax, and buffing machines! So good to hear from my friend and former boss.

  3. Lifetime Chicago said:

    Absolutely love this! Your writing is excellent!

  4. Jan MIcal said:

    This is an amazing story I never knew about you. Using the scrubber must be in the “genes”, for I too used one. When I was in high school, to earn my tuition each summer, I worked for the convent of Loretto Englewood Girls High School. I was a “Portress”,( like a porter) welcoming people at the front door, then peeling potatoes in the huge kitchen, many potatoes since there were nuns from St Bernards grammar school as well as my high school, (lots of nuns back then). All this to do and then, ta da…”floor polisher”. That same ugly and bucking bronco of a machine was great on hall floors but in the pews of the chapel I was always calling for help, being stuck in the kneeler apparatus. They finally gave up on me and I was demoted to dusting the winding staircase while an upperclassman (girl) would take the monster.
    What wonderful experiences we had back in the “dark ages” as I call them, because young people now have no idea what we learned to do before so much automation. Good old fashioned hard work for a good day’s pay!!!!

  5. Suze said:

    My house is painted buttercup yellow on the outside and have the same colour in my kitchen. It takes me back to happy childhood days every time I see it.

    • Wow! How connected we are! Doesn’t that just “blog” your memory!?
      Thanks for the comment. You certainly bring my story to life!

  6. Barbara Rockwell said:

    Nice. Wish you were here to paint the upstairs bedrooms. No floor cleaning or waxing necessary. 😁. I have Walt’s name wait listed in Winona at the Winona Health facility, Roger Metz (one half of Adith Miller-Roger Metz, and at Eagle South (two memory care units and one more to open in the spring) a Bethany Lutheran Home’s facility affiliated with Gundersen Health Systems. We see his memory care doctor, Mary Bassing Thursday, for an updated evaluation. I am beginning to wonder, should Walt go into a nursing home setting— his needs are considerable. The joy of life is evaporating. So, enjoy, love each other, and tell Sweet Sue hello from us. ❤️

    Sent from my iPad


%d bloggers like this: