Another excerpt from the draft I am working on. My dream has triggered a sense memory of my mother’s past which has become my past.
My mother was a child of the Great Depression. Her father built their house on Bellaire Avenue in the Brookline District of Pittsburgh, creating a home with his own hands which he finished in time for mom’s birth. Her parents first four attempts to start a family ended in miscarriage. The fifth pregnancy was successful. In September 1929, my mother was born. One month later, the stock market crashed.
Her father of Scotch-Irish heritage had quit school in the 9th grade to work with his father as a plasterer. Her mother was a first generation American of Czechoslovakia immigrants. My mother never heard the story of how they met.
Her father struggled to find work during the Depression. In early 1935, they lost the house. They rented a new home a few blocks away on Birtley Avenue. The backyard had a large apple tree that became the heart of the neighborhood in the summer. All the neighborhood boys would come over to play and swing in its branches. My mother describes a normal childhood, with a loving mother and a younger sister and baby brother and many friends. She and her sister taught the neighborhood boys games such as Mother May I, Statue, and Simon Says, and they joined the boy’s games in the street, Kick the Can, King of the Hill, Red Rover, and Cowboys and Indians. Her family was poor, but my mother did not know it at the time. She would hear her parents whispering about the Depression over dinner, but she thought they were talking about the blue glass bowl that sat on the dining room table.
In the late 1930’s, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her illness progressed despite three surgeries — two radical mastectomies and a hysterectomy. Through the initial years, she continued to take care of the household. When she suffered post-mastectomy weakness of her right arm, she adapted by switching to her left to beat batter for cakes and fudge. She moved the furniture to clean the house. She taught my mother how to use a vial of Spirits of Ammonia to revive her when she fainted while she worked. This happened on many occasions.
I asked my mom, “Did you ever have to revive your mother?”
“Yes. She would get off the floor and go back to her housework. You have to think in terms of those days. She was a good housewife and Mother.”
In the winter of 1943, her mother became too weak to climb the stairs to the bedroom and took to sleeping in the dining room. She was hospitalized at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in January 1944 where she agreed to experimental Radium treatments in exchange for free hospital care. My mother and her sister went to free art classes at the Carnegie Museum on weekends, after which they would go to visit their mother in the hospital. It was against the rules for children to enter the hospital without an adult. The nurses would sneak them in by the back stairwell and let them see their mom.
“Mother got yellower and yellower but each week the nurses combed her hair and put in a blue ribbon to match her eyes and she was propped up I bed smiling and laughing. She would say that when she came home she would ‘Sit on a cushion like a fine queen and dine upon strawberries, sugar and cream.’ I loved that and pretended it were so. I recall the day in February when Dad told me she was not going to live and that I would have to be mother to the family from then on.”
She died on June 11th, 1944. My mother was 14.
“After the funeral, I was at our home with all the relatives. I remember the crowd walked out onto the back porch. I stood close to Aunt Stella, my mother’s sister closest in age who somewhat resembled her. We stood not talking when suddenly a rabbit darted across the backyard. I had never seen one there before. It was a sign to me that life went on or so it seemed. It gave me a kind of hope and courage. It may sound strange but that is actually what I thought at the time.”
“Dad had hired a little old woman to take care of us but he must have stopped paying her for as soon as she had finished all the liquor he had in the cupboard, Mrs. Noble left. That is when my duties took over. I was fourteen. I never told my friends at school and only told my art teacher what was going on. She gave me some hand-me-down clothes which were too big on me but I cut them down. I learned to make things over for my sister Nancy and me.”
“I did the laundry and cleaned somewhat and cooked the meals. I had no preparation for this and ended up with my many varieties of meals with hamburger, chili, sandwiches, meatloaf, skillet meatloaf, etc. Dad seldom came home while we were still up in the evening. Many is the night that I saved the meal till 9:30 and then put it away and went to bed. Doing the laundry was scary for our basement had low, dark ceiling with broken glass jars embedded in them for some reason. Maybe to give them strength. Mother had made her own soap and boiled clothes in a copper kettle. I didn’t do that, but used bluing and starch and hung clothes on the line with big long poles that sometimes fell down and dirtied the clothes. Start over time. Because it was so dark in there I sang loudly as I washed. All the operettas I could remember, songs from Brigadoon and Desert Song, were belted out loudly. Good thing we had empty lots on each side.”
Her father retreated further from the family and disappeared into bars.
“Several times I walked back up to Brookline Boulevard to Joe’s Tavern where I knew Dad was and went in to bring him home. I realized later that he would hide in the back while the bartender told me he wasn’t there. One time the bartender even bought me an ice cream cone to distract me. I would think of the old song, ‘Father, O Father come home with me now, the clock in the steeple strikes one,’ but it really wasn’t funny.”
“One day I came home and dad said we were being evicted and we had to move. Then he left me in charge. All out belongings had to be out of the house within 72 hours, and we had nowhere to move them to. It was a horrific experience getting rid of all mother’s things as well as our own in that big house. The basement was full of storage junk. Everything was stacked on the side yard and we were evicted. Most of all I regretted leaving the piano and the dog whom Dad turned loose in the country.”
My mother was 16. They moved into her grandparents house for a while. All four of them slept in the attic, two to a bed. They had to move the beds to the dining room when winter came and the attic was too cold. Her grandparents had little income. She began to realize that her father was not contributing any money for food. Her grandmother began to talk about wanting her to quit school and get a job. Her grandmother, having come from a small village in rural Czechoslovakia, never understood my mother’s desire to finish school and go to college. Mom took a job after school in a bakery to earn money for the household. Her Aunt Blanch, the youngest of her mother’s sisters, also lived in the house. When Aunt Blanch got pregnant, they all had to move out.
Mom took her younger brother to The Milton Hershey School for orphan boys. She was 17 and had to lie about her age on the papers to sign him in. Her Aunt Mary helped her sister Nancy find a home with a neighborhood family. After Nancy left, my mother remembers standing in the cellar, crying hysterically. She went to live with Aunt Mary. She does not know where her father went.
“Don’t be afraid to tell this tale with a little schmaltz, and humor. The three of us siblings shared black humor or Galgenhumor for years without knowing what it was. That is the best way to survive an idiotic world.”
She finished high school and got a scholarship to Carnegie Melon where she studied art under Samuel Rosenberg in the same class as Andy Warhol.
“He was a strange fellow. He had acne and wore trench coats to class. He was very gifted but chose strange subject matter such as a drawing of a young boy picking his nose. He had much potential. Too bad he stopped painting and wasted his talent.”
I grew up hearing my mother’s stories. Her descriptions were so evocative that I created pictures in my mind of the scenes and her memories became mine. When I was in kindergarten, I remember standing at my bedroom window in Dallas and knowing, somehow, that I was facing north towards Pennsylvania. I knew that was my birthplace. And I felt a sense of longing, and relief that our difficulties had been left behind.
I think she told the story of her past in order to put it to rest in her own mind. But I also feel that she told her stories to teach me about life, about how hard work can overcome challenges, about the importance of finding beauty in life, about believing in yourself and ignoring what other people think. She told me and my three sisters that we were all smart and creative and could do anything we wanted in life, no matter what happened. She told me that she wanted all of her children to be independent and not feel we had rely on her so that we would be OK if anything ever happened to her. She raised us to not need her.
But mom’s favorite subject was art. Mom smiled when she talked about how her mother saved butcher paper for her to draw on. She told me about how Jackson Pollock splashed house paint on canvases to make art and she had dripped black, gold, and white paint on the barren concrete floors of the tenement apartment in Pittsburgh that we lived in when I was born. Her description and her joy at turning ugliness into beauty was so vivid that I developed a memory of that floor, I can still see it in my mind, even though we moved from that apartment when I was one-year-old. She put a four-by-eight piece of quarter-inch plywood on the wall upon which she painted a window looking out onto a bay with sailboats. She kept the wooden panels and put them up in our house after we moved to Dallas when I was three. In our new home, she painted another window with bay view on the entry hall wall and lemon trees on the wall in the dining room. She used artist oils to craft fairies on the walls of my sister’s room. She painted the walls of my room sky blue and then free-handed lines with white acrylic to turn it into a wall of bricks. She gave me a book — Harold and His Purple Crayon — a story of a boy who creates fantastical worlds by drawing along the wall as he walks — and told me I remind her of Harold.
When I was in grade school, Mom had a calendar with photos of European towns which stayed on the wall well into the following year, open to one particular month — a photo of a magnificent tree growing in the center of a town plaza. When she took the calendar down, I remember her looking at the picture one last time and talking about how beautiful it was. She found a Magic-Marker in the drawer and began to sketch on the living room wall. A piece of the image materialized on the wall. The marker ran dry. She found another one in the back of a drawer. The tree grew a bit more across the wall. After all the markers in the house were spent, she went to the store and bought a half-dozen more. By that evening, a three-foot wide reproduction of the photo was completed. I was in awe of her ability to create like that, without a single errant line, free-handing permanent marker into a beautiful scene.
Kurt Biehl ©2015