My mother was born into an ancient quarrel between her mother and grandmother that she knew nothing about. The grown-ups said things she didn’t understand—or understood only after they got mad at her for not understanding.
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Chapter 9: The Second Cinderella
During Mary Ellen’s last two years at Kumpf Elementary School, Hannah condescended to receive visits from Bessie but not Frank—not that he noticed or cared. He was spending more and more nights away from home. Hannah acted as if he didn’t exist. But she never let Bessie forget she had “made a mistake.” To remind her, Hannah would point to her granddaughter—the living proof, the mistake incarnate. So my mother grew up as the family’s Cinderella. In the end, she married her prince and lived in a suburban castle, but she never got over the way her mother and grandmother treated her.
Long after Hannah died, Bessie and Nettie kept reminding Mary Ellen she was an outsider by telling her she was going to be “skipped”—meaning that they intended to leave whatever was left of her grandfather’s money to his great-grandchildren. I don’t think they were being deliberately cruel. They weren’t consciously reminding her of her Coleman blood and pariah status. They thought they were just being practical. My mother didn’t need the money, did she? No. That “fella” she married was “quite a provider.” So it simply made sense to skip her and pass the money to her children. Bessie and Nettie didn’t see how my mother could be offended by what “made sense.”
They thought the past was over. So, actually, did my mother. None of them realized that the past they were all refusing to think about was continuing to shape their relationships. In the end, my grandmother and aunt didn’t make good on their threat “to skip” my mother. To do so, they would have had to talk to a lawyer. They were afraid of lawyers. So as they grew older, my father managed to take charge of their finances without alarming them too much, although a couple of times Nettie had mildly hysterical spells when she was sure she was being fleeced.
Dad arranged things so that when they died what little was left of their father’s money went to my mother. And thank God for that, because no matter how hard she pretended not to care, she did. She didn’t want to be left out.
When my mother was a little girl, all of her Christmas gifts were things that were useful: underwear, stockings, and handkerchiefs, for instance. She expected no more. Then one year she got a doll—a big doll. More astonishing yet, it was from Hannah! Impossible. My mother was sure her grandfather, George, was behind this gift. She thought he was “surely the kindest, quietest, sweetest man who ever lived.” By the time she was old enough to know him, he had “taken to the bottle” (small wonder) and didn’t talk much. But as far as she was concerned, he didn’t have to.
“He was the only one to hold my hand.”
Nettie took a “Kodak” of Mary Ellen with the doll, evidence that it had been duly given and received. Then Hannah took the doll away from her, explaining that if she played with it she might get it dirty. She might even break it. It needed to be kept in a safe place. My mother never saw it again.
She didn’t care. She liked to sew clothes for her dolls, and the tiny scraps of material that she fell heir to were too small to make a dress for such a big doll. Bessie had taught her to sew. Sewing was useful. It could be turned into money. So sewing made sense—unlike reading, which had only limited practical value, especially for a girl.
Then one day Bessie did something that did not make sense and was not useful, something totally inconsistent with her normal behavior. She made her daughter a tiny chest out of Frank’s old cigar boxes. It had tiny drawers with tiny knobs. It was for my mother’s tiny doll clothes. This did not signal the start of a new, loving stage in their relationship. But for Mary Ellen, receiving that tiny chest was unsettling, like sighting a supposedly extinct species of bird and then never seeing it again.
The dolls she played with were little charity dolls that she got at the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Party. Bessie took her to that event every year and as the jovial ward bosses of the Pendergast political machine waved their cigars and made a great to-do of handing out turkeys and toys to needy voters, Bessie pushed her daughter forward with instructions to get herself a doll. “What’s the matter? It’s free, ain’t it?”
But Mary Ellen didn’t want a free doll. She wanted a store-bought doll. But that, she knew, was out of the question, so she asked for a teddy bear instead.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” exclaimed her mother, blushing.
When her grandmother heard about the teddy bear, she turned to her granddaughter and shouted, “You’re a poor girl! A poor girl!”
Mary Ellen was confused and intimidated. But finally she understood. It was not that she was a “poor” girl but that she was a poor “girl.” Teddy bears were for little boys!
Bitterly she wondered how come she was poor when her mother and grandmother were not. It seemed to her that every few years her grandmother was packing her big steamer trunks and going off to where there were kings and queens and castles.
What Mary Ellen didn’t understand at the time was that her mother, grandmother, and aunt were Wilsons. When Frank decided he preferred bourbon to Bessie and stopped coming home, Bessie had reverted in an unstated way to being a Wilson. But there was no divorce, and she continued to be referred to as Mrs. Coleman.
The partial amnesty Hannah conferred on Bessie did not include her illicit offspring. Mary Ellen wasn’t a Wilson. She was a Coleman. She had Coleman blood. Also, she was “Frank’s idea.” It followed then that she was Frank’s responsibility. And was he poor? He most certainly was—wherever he was. Hence, she was a poor girl.
“I said nothing—It was wiser.—but inside I KNEW it wasn’t so. I was as good as anybody. I’d show them.”
Bessie forbade Mary Ellen to play with the other children in the neighborhood.
She never got an answer.
Bessie was always wary of strangers and of anything new or different. She never explored the city. She stuck to her accustomed routes and routines.
Mary Ellen didn’t openly defy her mother, but since Bessie didn’t pay much attention to her or to what she was doing, she was able, unobserved, to play jacks, hopscotch, and jump rope with the neighbor girls. In the winter, they hitched rides on the boys’ sleds. One year a boy built a bobsled by hammering two old sleds together, and everyone piled on for long slides that went down the middle of the street for nearly five blocks (across four intersections) from Wabash to Garfield.
In the summer of 1916, when she was twelve years old, her girlfriends told her about the free swimming lessons being offered at Central High School. It was 36 blocks to Central, and she knew her mother wouldn’t give her money for the streetcar, but she didn’t mind walking. And since the lessons were free, she didn’t think her mother would mind if she signed up for them.
Swimming would be such a modern thing to do. (Her mother couldn’t do it.)
And Bessie saw no reason for her daughter to do it—or for anyone else to do it. “What’s the use of it?” she demanded, but Mary Ellen persisted. Exasperated, her mother pointed out that the regulation suit cost a dollar, “And you . . . ”
Mary Ellen knew. She was “a poor girl.” And, for the most part, a mousy one, as well, her chief occupation being to stay out of her silent mother’s angry, bargy way. But for some reason, she had to learn to swim. Everything (whatever that meant) depended on it.
“Oh, Mama, please!”
Bessie was not about to spend a dollar on a silly swimming suit, but she found some heavy gray poplin in the back closet. Sitting down at her treadle sewing machine, she “ran up” an old-fashioned suit with puffed sleeves and bloomers.
Her daughter hated it. But as she lined up beside the pool with the girls in their sleek, modern, dollar suits, she refused to be humiliated. She was there to learn to swim.
At her teacher’s command, she jumped in—and sank.
The young women teaching the class shouted and poked their long poles through the water. Finally one of them jumped in and pulled her to the surface. Choking and gasping as she was hauled from the pool, Mary Ellen distinctly felt a finger slip under the elastic at the bottom of each of her bloomers and the water gush out.
Her teachers did not laugh, at least not in her presence. The other girls smiled, but who cared about them?
Back home she told her mother what had happened and said that she simply could not learn to swim in that suit. Furious, Bessie made it clear that she had provided material worth money for that suit and had put work in on it. Mary Ellen wept.
Bessie grumped and bumped around their tiny house. She went out back and thumped the rugs she’d draped on the clotheslines. She went into her dark, steamy, greasy kitchen and clattered her pots and pans as she prepared dinner. She was sick of hearing about swimming lessons! Then suddenly she grabbed the suit from the hands of her worthless, sniveling daughter, and the next day, she handed it back to her with quarter-sized vents buttonedholed every two inches just above the elastic.
And that summer, Mary Ellen learned to swim.
When Hannah heard that her granddaughter could swim, she was indignant. Nobody else in the family could swim. Nobody else had ever needed to swim. Hannah knew very well that the impudent girl was proud of her achievement. But pride was a sin, the worst sin of all in fact, as anyone with a proper upbringing knew.
Hannah was proud of not being proud. So she wanted her proud granddaughter “tamed” and “broken”—for her own good, of course. She wanted her to learn about satanic pride and the eternal damnation awaiting rebellious children who failed to accommodate themselves to their God-given situations and who failed to honor their mothers and grandmothers, as the good book specifically commanded. It was time for “that girl” to be instructed about the irremediable evil of mankind—that is to say, of men—so that she would have no excuse for misbehaving, as she, nevertheless, undoubtedly would, given her Coleman blood.
Hannah could see it coming. Like Mother, like daughter, she always said. So when a tent meeting went up on a vacant lot near Bessie’s house, Mary Ellen was sent to church—not taken—sent.
She went for the evening service. Standing outside in the shadows, she brushed midges away from her face and listened to the singing. The piano gamboled a bit by itself at the end of each verse. Bare lightbulbs hung on scalloped strings above the heads of the singers. It was a magical place. It had a roof but no walls. It was neither a house nor a field.
“Would you like to come in?” asked a woman, taking her hand.
And before she knew it, she was in. She met girls her own age. They were Presbyterians, they said. Covenant Presbyterians. They invited her to come to their Sunday school.
At Sunday school, she heard her new friends talking about going to high school, so two years later, when she graduated from Kumpf Elementary, she informed Bessie and Hannah that she wanted to go to high school. They were shocked. Hannah sneered, “Oh, Miss La-de-da wants to go to high school, does she? Ain’t you forgettin’ something?”
Wide-eyed, Mary Ellen looked at her tormentors.
“YOU’RE A POOR GIRL!” they chorused.
Clearly there was more to being “a poor girl” than just not having any money. “A poor girl” was someone who was irrevocably tainted—someone who had been born to a position of inferiority—(conceived in sin?)—someone who had no right to “get above herself.”
Hannah and Bessie had seen this coming for years. Oh, yes. Was the child not always talking about her desire for “pretty things.” What made her think the likes of her deserved “pretty things”?
“We’ve discussed your situation,” announced her grandmother.
And her mother informed her that through their connections (George’s connections), they had arranged for her to be a stock girl at the Emery, Bird, Thayer department store. That was a position they deemed appropriate for a person in her situation.
Bessie explained in a gruff but almost sympathetic voice that a stock girl might work her way up to being a saleslady. “Some a them makes as much as eighteen dollars a week!”
Mary Ellen blinked back tears.
Alarmed by this show of emotion, Bessie reminded her, “You ain’t no better ’n nobody else, Miss High-and-Mighty! Gallivantin’ all over town like you got nothin’ better to do. . . . ”
And Hannah demanded, “Where you been gettin’ off at t’ come up with all these big i-deas?”