My mother found a job two days after she graduated from high school. She loved it—and she loved her boss. She loved being out of the house and away from her mother. She loved making more money than her mother realized. She made new friends and began, literally, “going places.”

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Mary Ellen (right) and her friend Maude, going places on the cheap.

Chapter 12: Mary Ellen Finds a Father

Mary Ellen’s Sunday school teacher give her a copy of Just Folks, by Edgar A. Guest. Leafing through it one day I saw she had underlined three lines of a poem called “The Job”:

From the start to the end
Your success will depend
On just what you make of your job.

She certainly made the most of hers.

The same day she graduated from high school, she saw a blind ad in the newspaper and wrote a reply stating her age, qualifications, and the salary she’d accept. Two days later a man who owned a printing company asked her to come in for an interview. He needed someone to help the woman who ran his office.

After he interviewed her, he said, “You fill the bill.”

She stood up to leave. He stood up, too, and shook her hand. She’d never shaken hands with anyone before. It was so businesslike, so respectful. She loved him.

So five days after graduating from high school, Mary Ellen had a job, and her mother and grandmother had to find something else to complain about.

The woman who ran the office, Miss Thomas, was an old maid of the old school, who wanted things done the way they had always been done. But Mary Ellen was too eager to do things to stop to find out how they’d always been done. Miss Thomas, who was at her best goading a slacker, didn’t know what to do with her. To slow her down, she took to sending her on errands to the printing shop and to the bindery.

“I hope you don’t mind. It’s so dirty out there for a girl who wears such nice clothes.”

“Mind? I’m glad. The men out there are teaching me everything.”

Miss Thomas frowned—and gave Mary Ellen some typing to do. When she finished. Miss Thomas told her, with a flicker of satisfaction, that she should have made a carbon, and would have to make a second copy.

“Oh, good,” said Mary Ellen, “I can use the practice.”

“Where did you learn to type, young lady? You aren’t doing your fingers right.”

“I’m just glad I can do it,” replied Mary Ellen, working her fingers faster than ever.

Miss Thomas finally decided that she’d had enough of her young colleague’s boundless energy and invincible gladness. She told her boss the new hire wasn’t working out. “She’s too much of a chitterchat.”

He tried to butter things over, but the woman insisted that Mary Ellen had to go. Instead, she was the one he let go, and Mary Ellen was put in charge of the office. For a while she did the work of two people for one person’s pay, but it never occurred to her to complain. She was no “kicker.” She had “sand.” And she had a friend. Out in the plant, she’d met a girl named Gwen Wurth, the only woman working in the press room. Gwen was a linotypist, something she’d learned to do working on a country newspaper before coming to Kansas City.

When Gwen wasn’t running the linotype, she dropped by the office to help Mary Ellen, and the two of them made the place “hum.” The business was growing. Mary Ellen was promoted. L.T., her boss (L.T. Martin), made her the company’s treasurer. She wrote checks, okayed the payroll, and subcontracted art work to her own art studio—while continuing to schedule her beloved boss’s golf dates.

At church, Mary Ellen met a timid proofreader named Maude Youngwirth. Maude was like a character in an Anita Brookner novel—a woman who spent her life on the edges of other people’s lives. She lived alone in the homes of people who rented rooms to “respectable single women.”

Mary Ellen needed someone like Maude—someone who would admire everything about her. And Maude needed someone like Mary Ellen—someone who was popular and would see to it that she was included in all the parties. In the early 1920s, Mary Ellen and Maude took their vacations together. They bought Pullman tickets and got off to sightsee wherever the train stopped. They thought this was a wonderful system.

“No hotel bills! We got to see most of the country that way.”

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In the 1980s, I asked Mother about a big vase she kept in the closet. It had been broken and glued back together. “Why are you keeping this?” “Maude gave it to me,” she said, adding as she left the room, “She got it in Russia.” Russia? So Maude visited the Soviet Union, no doubt in the 1930s after most of her friends were married. Did she go by herself? Impossible. Did she go with a delegation of American radicals? I can’t imagine Maude understanding anything about communism. But I’m sure she was deeply dissatisfied with her life.

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She and Mary Ellen kept in touch but just barely. Maude never owned a car, so Mary Ellen sent Herb to fetch her for cameo appearances at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We children were told to call her Aunt Maude though we had no idea who she was. When Maude died, Mary Ellen handled the funeral arrangements and was shocked to discover that her friend was ten years older than she had always claimed to be. Mother didn’t know what to make of this.

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Until Mary Ellen married, she continued to live with Bessie in the house that Frank built, and Bessie and Hannah, at whose house they ate lunch every Sunday, continued to try to make her behave according to their ideas of how a girl “in her situation” should behave. But her boss’s recognition of her competence plus the salary he was paying her gave her the confidence to go her own way. She bought fashionable clothes and taught herself to play the mandolin. Where she did this, I don’t know. Certainly not around her mother or grandmother.

But she was not one to shimmy until dawn in the jazz clubs down on 12th Street where Count Basie, Buster Smith, Charlie Parker, Mary Lou Williams, Lester Young, Dick Wilson, Jay McShann, Hot Lips Page, Ben Webster, and a dozen others were making musical history. Jazz was too low-life for Mary Ellen. She didn’t approve of country music either. It was for hicks. And as for classical—well, some of it was very nice, to be sure—for those who went in for that kind of thing. But her kind of music was the kind sung by Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. Not too low. Not too high. Just right. She bought a wind-up Victrola so she could listen to their records.