Hunting For the Plot—Chapter 10: Mary Ellen’s Big Ideas

America is more socially and culturally diverse (and confused) today than it was when my mother was growing up, but it was never the sterile mono-culture that the contemporary advocates of politically correct history assume it was. Her grandmother’s values came from a tiny town on the English border with Scotland. Now there was a real mono-culture. America was never like that. And from her American playmates she gradually absorbed enough self-confidence to “freak-out” when her mother and grandmother told her she couldn’t go to high school. She didn’t know much but she knew she had to go to high school—had to.

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To earn money for car fare and textbooks, Mary Ellen danced in the chorus line at Electric Park between her junior and senior years. 

Chapter 10: Mary Ellen’s Big Ideas

Some of Mary Ellen’s big ideas came from her church. She was sent there to learn to submit to her God-given situation. But what she learned there was that God wanted her to go to high school! She also got an idea or two from her sixth-grade teacher, Leona Schoenmaker, who was “young, beautiful, and full of pep.” Leona was also exotic, having grown up in Belgium. Since Leona played the piano, Mary Ellen secretly vowed that someday she would, too. And since Leona led a group of Campfire Girls, Mary Ellen joined that organization.

When I was a little boy, I overheard Mother tell a friend that she had been a “Campfire Girl.” 

Later I asked her, “What’s a Campfire Girl?”

“They’re like the Girl Scouts—only better.” I think she meant they were less boyish—more feminine.

Having no money to buy the official Campfire Girl ceremonial dress, Mary Ellen made her own, and while she was at it, she decorated it with much more beadwork and fringe than was required, thereby “showing” all the girls who could afford to buy their dresses, that she was just as good as they were—in fact, better.

“It’s beautiful,” Miss Schoenmaker told her.

But later, at home, her grandmother demanded, “How do you think it makes us feel, eh? To see you with more than the others?”

Mary Ellen didn’t know, so she just looked at her.

“Embarrassed and ashamed is how!”

Then Bessie told her she was dressing like a gadabout and getting above herself.

“A person in your situation!” shrieked her grandmother.


Another of Mary Ellen’s big ideas came from a neighbor lady. Mary Ellen overheard her say, “That Coleman girl has turned out right pretty.” Sixty years later, she described the effect that remark had on her as being like “a blaze of sunrise and surprise. No compliments of person or accomplishments was allowed at home. One was expected to do well, and vanity could not be condoned.”

That same year, she got a really big idea from Agnes Getz and Mattie Inzerello, two girls about her own age who taught dancing at Turner Hall, the old German Club at 15th and Lydia. The German community went to Turner Hall for gymnastics and “social get-togethers.” But on Saturday mornings, the club offered free German lessons. And on Saturday afternoons, free dancing lessons. Mary Ellen went to the dancing lessons.

Mattie told her she was “artistic.”

Mary Ellen was thrilled. She realized instantly that this was true.

But to get to Turner Hall, she had to ride the streetcar. And to do that, she had to wait for her father’s car or for one that was driven by one of his pals who would let her ride free. When she was 14, one of her father’s pals confirmed the previously mentioned neighbor’s observation by making a pass at her.

She reported this to her mother who accused her of making it up.

“You just want carfare money so you can take the first car that comes along. Well, you ain’t too good to ride free, Miss. We got no money for you to go gaddin’ about, so just forget it.”

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