When Bessie, my grandmother, eloped, her mother (my great-grandmother) kicked her out of the family. My grandmother resented this but wanted back in. She thought producing a grandchild (my mother) would do the trick. She was wrong. So my grandmother resented my mother for not “doing her job”—that is, for not bringing about a reconciliation between her and her mother. And my mother resented her mother for resenting her. My sister, brother, and I grew up in a mysterious fog of female resentment. We sensed it but had no name for it, and no one explained or even spoke about it. 

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My little mother, Mary Ellen Coleman, 1904-1999.


Chapter 7: Useless Baggage

In September 1904, Hannah’s oldest daughter, Mary Ellen Bryant (née Wilson) died of “the fever,” probably tuberculosis. She was 23.

On July 18, her sister, Bessie, the rebellious outcast, gave birth to a daughter and named her Mary Ellen, partly, at least, in the hope that this would put her back in her mother’s good graces. It didn’t. Hannah would not be “soft-soaped.” Dressed in black crepe (which she wore until her death 31 years later), she rejected her new granddaughter as the misbegotten offspring of an illicit, unblessed union. So right from the start, Bessie was “stuck” with a child who had proved, even before she could speak, to be “useless baggage.”

“What are you good for?” Bessie would ask her little daughter, “What’s the use of you?” Everything in Bessie’s world had to have a use—and one that she could understand, which narrowed the possibilities considerably. Repeatedly, she told my mother, “All you do is tie us down.”

Little Mary Ellen was born in “a three-step-down apartment” in a poor neighborhood. I don’t know the address, and there were many poor neighborhoods in Kansas City. A contemporary journalist wrote, “For whole blocks of inhabited buildings there are no yards. Tired mothers sit on doorsteps with fretful babies in their arms and children swarm over the streets dodging electric cars (trolley cars) and other vehicles (buggies, wagons, and automobiles).”

In the better parts of town, young women were trying to achieve the Gibson Girl look, popularized by the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson—big hair, long necks, small waists, and crisp shirtwaists. The Gibson Girl didn’t need a chaperone. She rode a bicycle, played golf, and went swimming. She was well-read, independent, and spoke up for herself. She was the new century’s “new woman,” and she bought sheet music at department stores where all-day relays of pianists played the latest offerings from Tin Pan Alley on upright pianos so that customers could hear how the music sounded.

And everywhere the Gibson girls went, they and their boyfriends sang. They sang hymns: “I Love to Tell the Story”; songs from operettas: “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life”; and ragtime: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” They sang “Meet Me in Saint Louis,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Silver Threads Among the Gold,“ and “Goodbye, My Lady Love.” They also sang racist “coon songs” like “Lilly of Laguna.”

But no one sang in Bessie’s “three-step-down apartment,” not even Frank when he was drunk. Bessie could see “no use to it.”

Mother always said Frank was from Ireland, and for years I assumed she meant Northern—Protestant—Ireland, but I’ve come to wonder about that. He may have been a Catholic, which—in addition to the fact that he was a streetcar conductor—would help account for Hannah’s furious reaction to her daughter’s marriage.

In any case, he was not born in Ireland but in Paola or Garnett, Kansas, in 1876. That was the year that Jesse James and his gang tried and failed to rob the bank in Northfield, Minnesota. Unlike the standard Hollywood movie in which timid, middle-class shopkeepers cower while a heroic sheriff and the town prostitute fight off the bandits, the shopkeepers of Northfield shot the James gang to pieces. Several were killed. Others were captured, including the infamous Cole Younger. Jessie and Frank, however, got away to rob and kill another day.

Jesse James and his gang of psychopaths made names for themselves during the Civil War by shooting unarmed men and boys, but many Missourians romanticized them as Confederate guerrillas who were continuing to resist the Yankee oppressors even after Lee surrendered. Maybe Frank James Coleman wasn’t named after Jesse’s older brother, Frank, but people would surely have thought he was.

Frank Coleman was a dapper, feckless alcoholic who sported a mustache and wore a jaunty bowler. He loved his job as a trolley car conductor. And although he deserted his family when my mother was in high school, all she would say of him was, “He meant well.”

There was no divorce. Frank continued to live in Kansas City, but there was no contact between him and his daughter for roughly fifteen years. Then one night in the early 1930s, after my mother was married and I was born, he showed up at our house after dark. I was sleeping in a crib in my parents’ bedroom and was very confused to be awakened and given to a stranger who was allowed to bounce me on his knees. I remember only his knees, his hands, and my parents sitting across the dimly lit room, looking at me.

As I grew older, I realized Gram should have a husband, but no one ever mentioned him—or even the fact that Gram had once been married. No one ever told me not to ask about this, but I realized I’d better not. I’d read about parthenogenesis in the Britannica and my mother kept telling me “We’re not like other people,” so I think I assumed something like parthenogenesis had been possible for Gram. I didn’t really care.

But when I was 11 or 12, for some unknown reason, I remembered being lifted from my crib and bounced on a strange man’s knees, and it occurred to me that he might have been my mysterious grandfather, whose very existence had never been acknowledged. I asked Mother if that was who he was.

Flustered, she protested that I couldn’t remember that night.

“You were just a baby.”

She squinted at me before she looked away, as if wondering how much else I remembered.

“But was it him?”

She admitted it was, and I realized that the reason everyone had talked so softly and apprehensively that night was that my grandmother was asleep in the back bedroom. She was living with us at the time, something Frank would not have known until he arrived. And the reason he had to sit in the dining room instead of the living room was to make it clear to him that he wasn’t welcome. He had a right to see me, his first grandson, but he was not to come back.

How had this “inappropriate man” met my grandmother? On a trolley, no doubt. When nice girls stopped going around in carriages and started using public transportation, they met all kinds of inappropriate men—bounders, mashers, roughnecks, even “white slavers.” All those words, especially “white slavers” sound comical today, like the names of “types” who might appear in a vaudeville skit. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nobody thought they were funny words.

There were lurid stories in newspapers and magazines warning women to beware of “white slavers.” At any time, a decent looking fellow might sit down next to a girl on a trolley and then she’d go unconscious because unbeknownst to her he had pricked her with a hypodermic needle. He would jump up and shout, “A lady’s fainted!” The trolley would stop. A matronly type would announce that she knew of a doctor’s office nearby. But actually she and the man would be in cahoots, and they would carry the poor girl off to a life of shame. Years later, she might show up at the door of a Magdalene Benevolent Society, but she would never see her family again.

The hypodermic needle and the abduction are urban folklore, but “white slavers” definitely existed. They didn’t, however, prey on middle-class women. Their targets were the daughters of the poor.

In the November 1909 issue of McClure’s, a magazine famous for its investigative journalism, George Kibbie Turner wrote a long exposé: “The Daughters of the Poor: A Plain Story of the Development of  New York City as a Leading Centre of the White Slave Trade of the World under Tammany Hall.” The article was edited by Willa Cather.

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When my mother, Mary Ellen, was four, Frank and Bessie bought a lot 32 feet wide at 44th and Olive Street. That far out in the country, streets existed only on paper. With the help of his pals, one of whom was a carpenter, plus numerous buckets of beer, Frank built a house. It cost him 400 dollars and wasn’t much of a house, but it was better than the three-step-down apartment where Mary Ellen was born.

The neighborhood had no water or sewer lines, so Frank dug a cistern and built an outhouse. And the house had no insulation, so it overheated in the summer. Mary Ellen’s clothes were soaked with sweat and were sticking to her before Bessie got them buttoned and hooked around her. In the winter, the lack of insulation left them all freezing. Frank and Bessie moved their bed and Mary Ellen’s little cot into the dining room. Then they locked the front door and closed the doors to all the other rooms except the kitchen. They made-do with the dining room and kitchen until April, using the back door to enter and leave the house. Bessie kept the stove going with sticks of wood and lumps of coal. They ate by the light of coal oil lamps.

Frank built a fence around the backyard so that Bessie could raise chickens and make a little money. Soon there wasn’t a blade of grass left, and when it rained a person had to walk across mud and chicken crap to get to the outhouse. So Frank built a boardwalk to the outhouse. But if the chickens noticed little Mary Ellen toddling along the boardwalk, they stopped pecking and scratching, and charged across the yard at her. She toddled as fast as she could but was always afraid.

Two summers later, workmen began grading the streets, and Bessie turned her house into a “pop up” restaurant. Every weekday, eight to twelve workmen arrived for lunch. She charged them twenty-five cents and gave them a plate of fried chicken, potatoes, green beans, sliced tomatoes, corn on the cob, and “a not too good apple pie,” plus seconds. The chickens came from her backyard, and the rest, except for the apples, sugar, and flour, from her garden. The following year, workmen laid the streetcar tracks. At first the double tracks only went as far as 39th Street, so the Colemans had to take “the sub” (suburban), a single-track car that shuttled between 39th and 48th Street. Soon the double tracks were extended to 48th, though only every other car went to that sparsely populated neighborhood.

The streetcars brought new people to the neighborhood. Bessie and Mary Ellen peddled eggs to the newcomers. When Bessie’s grapevines matured, she and her daughter sold grape juice and jelly, to which my mother developed a life-long aversion.

Bessie never made much money from her eggs and jellies, but she was not poor. She had “a competence” from her father that was “pilin’ up interest in the bank.” When Frank suggested dipping into it, she pointed out to him that it was not for him to be “a-spending” her money. It was a man’s duty to provide. That was a man’s use. And a man who couldn’t do that was useless.

Mary Ellen tried not to listen to them. She went to kindergarten and first grade at the Horace Mann school. It was nine long blocks from her house. But before she started second grade, there was a brand new elementary school right down at the corner. The original 1912 version of Kumpf Elementary was a wooden building with two classrooms divided by “cloakrooms” and a walkthrough office for the principal. In one classroom, a teacher taught grades five, six, and seven. In the classroom on the other side, the principal taught grades one, two, three, and four. Behind the school were two three-seaters, one for the girls and one for the boys. Every year more classrooms were added.

A few years after Mary Ellen graduated and went on to high school, Kumpf became a stone and brick monument to the nation’s faith in public education. Built on the top of a hill—on the former site of its wooden predecessor—it towered above the neighborhood like a medieval cathedral. But even before the brick building was complete, a series of terraced, asphalt playgrounds for the children were created on the side of the hill. The playgrounds were linked by steep steps, and Mother remembered that every year the teacher who was in charge of the playgrounds whispered to every little girl, “You must never stand at the top of the steps because the boys at the bottom can see your panties.”