Was there anyone in the United States who was not affected by the Great Depression?
“Mama, I’m hungry!” were not unusual words in Rose’s neighborhood.
But little Helen and her younger sister Rosie were more fortunate than most of the kids in their small N.E. Minneapolis neighborhood, where families of 12, 14, and even 17 children were not unusual in the 1920s.
Nonetheless, Rose struggled to feed her two girls and herself. Even though she and Stanley had paid off their mortgage, life was hard. She had the 50% settlement from the lawsuit against the the railroad (the attorney kept the other half). She
was a gifted seamstress, sewing for the wives of the Pillsbury and General Mills executives. (True? That’s what my mother always told me, and the story never changed.) And, like so many others, Rose earned a small income from the sale of her bathtub gin.
(For years, I wondered about this. How could they have used the bathtub if it was used for gin? How did they wash themselves? But I was a little girl and if Santa Claus could come through the keyhole in the door, who was I to question something as odd as bathtub gin?)
“I don’t know,” my mother would say to my nagging questions. “Now go outside and play. Come in when it’s dark. ”
Who was I to question my mother’s stories?
But even I could tell that my mother’s stories had a bitter undertone to them. “Now don’t tell the kids next door that each of you got an orange for Christmas,” Rose admonished her daughters. “And whatever you do, hide that pan of oatmeal in the oven. I have clients coming for fittings this afternoon. They mustn’t see any signs that I am not a successful seamstress. We’ll eat supper after they’re gone.”
Rose also sewed for the local church, a job she wasn’t surprised at having been given, but it was expected that along with repairing priests’ vestments, she would sew all the costumes for the annual operetta…again, for free.
This, of course, meant that most of her available sewing time was spent sewing costumes late into the night instead of meeting her clients’ deadlines.
Then came the day that her firstborn came home from school, tears in her eyes and wicked red indentations on her knees. “Sister made me kneel on acorns because I stuck up for Tomasz.”
“And just what did Tomasz do that you had to stick up for him?” Rose demanded.
“He swiped some chalk from the chalkboard and drew pictures of Sister outside. Sister made him lick the drawings off the sidewalk. Mama, that just isn’t fair!”
That did it. Rose was still appalled over the never-ending gossip about Father Jajeski who was shot in his confessional a few years earlier by a distraught woman. But like so many others in the neighborhood, Rose figured it was none of her business.
But this? To make a child lick chalk off a sidewalk? And then to make her daughter kneel on acorns?
Rose grabbed her purse and stormed off to the church. She demanded to talk to the nun who acted as principal.
“My girls will be attending the public school from now on,” she said with barely hidden fury.