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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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.”
Soon it didn’t matter. President Wilson declared war on Germany, and the police closed Turner Hall. So there were no more dancing classes anyway.
Stammering, Mary Ellen explained to her mother and grandmother that all her friends at Sunday school were going on to high school.
“Four more years a free livin’—that’s all you want!” accused her mother. “It’s time you started paying your keep around here, Miss”
“You seems t’ be forgettin’ yer sit-u-ation!” hissed Hannah.
Mary Ellen stared at her. She understood in an inarticulate teenage way that she and her grandmother were competing for Bessie’s allegiance—not her love. In that family, love was too embarrassing even to be coveted. Hannah thought Bessie “owed” her because she was her mother. Mary Ellen, as Bessie’s daughter, thought she should come first. She needed her mother’s attention. Hannah won this contest—hands down. And Mary Ellen resented it. Had she been a boy, she might have run away. But she was a girl and was tied to her mother and her grandmother with twisted emotional bonds that none of them could understand or break.
In many ways, her competition with her grandmother had turned her into the mirror image of the old woman. Not only did they both want Bessie’s allegiance, they both nursed grudges, dreaded embarrassment, and thought more highly of themselves than the world was ready to acknowledge.
Hannah knew she was not educated but refused to admit this was a defect. Instead, she insisted it was a virtue. People who had graduated from high school were “all too likely” to “put on airs.” And what was worse than that? Years later, my mother would feel the same way about certain college graduates, but when she was 13, she knew that if she was ever going to “make something of herself”—ever going to be more that the family scapegoat—she had to go to high school, simply had to. So after glaring at her mother and grandmother for a long, silent moment, letting the defiance she had been nourishing in secret build up pressure in her chest, she went berserk.
It was a trick she’d learned from watching them. For years she had cringed while they let her know she was “useless baggage” or dismissed her contemptuously as “Frank’s idea.” While cringing, she had also been studying them—learning from them.
Now, lacking a fairy godmother, “Cinderella” took things into her own hands. Prancing about in a semi-controlled frenzy, she ranted, she raved, and she almost broke one of her great-grandmother’s teacups that had come all the way from England. But when it was all over, she had changed their minds.
“I won, sort of. I could go to high school . . . but I would have to take only business courses and pay my own way.”
Central was a public high school, so there was no tuition, but students were expected to pay dues to clubs, fees for field trips, and to buy their own gym suits, and textbooks. Art students paid for their own art supplies, and then there was the expense of carfare and “school clothes.”
For her first two summer vacations, Mary Ellen ran a hemstitching machine in a garment factory, a giant room where rows and rows of girls bent over their machines. Between her junior and senior years, she danced in the chorus line at Electric Park, an amusement park decorated with strings of electric lights, a great novelty. (The free dancing lessons at Turner Hall paid off.)
But since Bessie expected Mary Ellen to pay for “her keep,” most of the money she earned during her summer vacations went to Bessie. That made it necessary for Mary Ellen to walk to school and save her carfare money for art supplies. She took an art class every semester, in spite of Bessie’s order to stick to business courses. She was artistic. Mattie Inzerello had said so. And her mother couldn’t refuse to pay and still call the tune. That wasn’t the way it worked—not in America. However, Mary Ellen saw no reason to mention her art courses to Bessie.
While Mary Ellen was in high school and for several years thereafter, the most popular literary character in America was a girl named Pollyanna Whittier. I don’t know if Mary Ellen read either of the two Pollyanna books, but she certainly knew about their heroine. Everyone did. People named their children Pollyanna—and their businesses and their apartment houses. Mary Pickford starred in the movie.
Then as now, America’s sophisticates distinguished themselves from ordinary Americans by taking a gloomy view of life, of their country, and of the future. They were convinced that the world was a godless, pointless, actually quite wretched place, and they never tired of telling each other that this was so. They mocked Pollyanna for her simple-minded optimism. But there was more to Pollyanna than the sophisticates perceived. She was a freckle-faced, self-reliant American version of Cinderella. She didn’t wait for a fairy godmother to come save her. She took things into her own hands.
Mary Ellen and Pollyanna were two of a kind. Pollyanna was a poor girl. So was Mary Ellen. Pollyanna had a rich aunt. Mary Ellen had a rich grandmother. Pollyanna was an orphan. Mary Ellen wasn’t quite. But she might as well have been. Her father was gone, and her mother didn’t do much mothering.
In some ways, Mary Ellen must have felt she was worse off than Pollyanna. The latter’s forbidding aunt was pure marshmallow compared to Hannah Wilson. And Pollyanna had her aunt’s Irish maid to talk to. Mary Ellen didn’t have anyone.
Pollyanna’s secret weapon was “the glad game.” Her father, a missionary, taught it to her the year the Christmas barrel from the missionary society arrived with nothing in it but old clothes and a pair of crutches. The point of the game was to find something to be glad about no matter what. So what could a healthy little girl who got crutches for Christmas possibly be glad about?
That she didn’t need ’em!
When Pollyanna’s mother and father died, she went back east to live with her aunt.
When her aunt refused to let her have a mirror, Pollyanna was glad because she wouldn’t be able to see her freckles. When her aunt punished her by sending her to eat in the kitchen, Pollyanna was glad because she loved bread and milk.
What the sophisticates failed to perceive was that Pollyanna wasn’t passively accepting her “situation.” The glad game is a form of veiled aggression and is flavored with a twist of black humor. Pollyanna herself allowed as how it was the most “fun” when it was the hardest. How about the old lady who had only two teeth but was glad because they hit?
Mary Ellen was eligible to join both the Gym Club and the Art Club at her high school, but she didn’t because she couldn’t afford the dues. But that was all right. She was glad, because she didn’t have time for those clubs anyway.
A proper gym outfit was required. It consisted of a plain middy blouse and long, loose, black serge slacks, pleated from waist and gathered at the ankle. When the bottoms were pulled up to the knee, the slacks “bloomed,” becoming strange, puffed shorts. But those “bloomers” cost seven dollars! Mary Ellen couldn’t afford that, so she wore a homemade approximation—a middy blouse and serge pants slightly gathered at the waist and knee. She thought the outfit made her look silly.
“Complainin’ is all yer good for,” Bessie told her. But then, to make her daughter feel better, she sewed two inches of tatting on the girl’s middy blouse. As far as Mary Ellen was concerned that turned an embarrassment into a disaster. But that just made her play harder. As a result, she made the girls’ basketball team every year.
One day Miss Cotton, Mary Ellen’s French teacher, walked into class wearing an engagement ring. There were no boys in that class, French being a female accomplishment, so, as Mary Ellen put it, “French pretty much went out the window.” The girls and Miss Cotton spent the rest of the year talking about her forthcoming wedding.
Billie Beck was in that class. She wore ruffled organdy dresses and huge hair bows and said she was going to be a movie star. Already she was singing and dancing in the nightclubs along 15th Street. Seeing her in the hall, boys would nudge each other, but none of them ever tried to date her.
After she graduated, she went to California where she performed in summer stock with Humphrey Bogart and appeared in minor roles in a few movies. But she didn’t become “a star” until a decade later at the Chicago World’s Fair. Appearing under the name “Sally Rand,” she danced to a tune by Debussy. That showed that what she was doing was “Art.” But what got people’s attention was that behind the two ostrich plumes she was waving, all she seemed to have on was her birthday suit. Almost overnight, little girls all over the country were chanting, “Sal-ly Rand / Lost her fan. / Run, run, run / As fast as you can!” as they jumped rope during recess.
But while “Sally” was still “Billie” at Central High, Mary Ellen overheard a teacher say, “Poor Billie. She’s a nice girl, but she doesn’t have a chance for a normal life.”
Mary Ellen did not think of Billie as “poor Billie.” She admired her—in a way—for aiming at a theatrical career. She envied the romantic lives actors led “on the road” and their ability to turn themselves into different people. But she herself had no desire to be an actor. She was determined to be normal.
By “normal” however, she did not mean “average” or “ordinary.” In her own way, she was as fiercely ambitious as Billie. What she wanted was to have a life that was ideally normal—a life that would show that she was superior but would not make her look like she was “getting above herself.” She wanted to be “better” without provoking the accusation that she was “putting on airs.” An impossible ambition.
Every spring she ran short of cash. But her art teacher, Della Miller, always managed to find “extra” art supplies for her. Miss Miller thought Mary Ellen had talent and encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute. Mary Ellen was flattered, but said she couldn’t do that. She didn’t explain, she just said she couldn’t.
Miss Miller submitted her work anyway, and the Art Institute offered her a scholarship.
Mary Ellen was glad. For years her mother and grandmother had been doing their best “to cut her down to size,” to “cure her of her big ideas.” To offset their low opinion of her, she nurtured a high opinion of herself. She thought her mother and grandmother’s low opinion of her was unrealistic. They thought her high opinion of herself was unrealistic. They were both right.
She hated those two women. She had no respect for their opinions about anything. But, at the same time, for her, theirs were the only opinions that counted. So, more than anything, she wanted their approval and respect. And because her mother and grandmother judged people according to their usefulness—that is to say by their ability to make money—she judged people that way, too, including herself. Actually, everybody she knew judged people that way. Even her most “artistic” teachers merely advocated a softer version of utilitarianism—one that encouraged artistic interludes in the serious business of “getting ahead.”
It wasn’t just that her mother and grandmother would have had “conniption fits” if she’d so much as mentioned going to the Art Institute. The whole idea that art was something that could be studied for its own sake was outside Mary Ellen’s “ken.” Besides, weren’t the kids who went there kind of snooty? She didn’t know any of them but was sure they would be. So she turned the scholarship down.
For the rest of her life, she remained bitter about “not being able to take it [the scholarship],” much as she wanted to. She blamed her grandmother and mother. But she had rejected that scholarship of her own free will because she had something to prove. And she couldn’t prove it by trotting herself off to the la-de-da Art Institute. All that spring, she’d been hearing, “No more loafing! You’ve had your schoolin’. Time somethin’ come of it! Time you stopped being a burden. You ain’t no different ’n nobody else.”
Winning that scholarship had showed her to her own satisfaction that they were wrong. She was different. Better, actually. But she wanted—needed—to show her mother and grandmother that this was true in a way that they could understand. This meant she had to make some money. But, then, too, if she made some money, she could buy nice clothes. She could go places.
Cinderella could have a ball.