Herb and Mary Ellen “do Europe,” come home to a decade-long depression, and I am born on the breakfast table.
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Chapter 16: Cutting Loose and Cutting Back
When Bessie moved in with my parents in 1927, they had to adjust their plans, but they didn’t abandon them. They still intended for Mary Ellen to go on working until 1929. At that time, she would quit and then she and Herb would go off to Europe for a “seam-splitting fling.” When they came home, they planned to raise a family. Three children—that was the plan.
So early in July 1929, they drove to Montreal and boarded The Duchess of York bound for Liverpool, happy at last to be by themselves. That same month the United States Senate ratified a pact with many nations making war illegal! (Why hadn’t anyone thought of that before?)
The dollar was much stronger than any European currency during the 1920s, which meant that Americans who could count on a small income from home could live fairly well abroad. Many did, particularly writers and painters who wanted to live among European sophisticates instead of the American “booboisie.”
The expatriate Americans were called “the lost generation.” They were “lost” because “life” had disappointed them. They had nothing to believe in. Mary Ellen and Herb weren’t part of that crowd. They had plenty to believe in—God, Progress, America, and themselves, for starters. And they certainly weren’t lost. During the twenties, they had found jobs, a place in society, and a future. Nevertheless, they, too, sailed off to Europe. It was the thing to do.
The trip cost them $1,194, plus incidentals. Mary Ellen took plenty of film for her Brownie and a list of things to see. Herb was willing to follow her lead, but he kept getting sidetracked by interesting looking window frames, doors, and trim that he wanted to tell the boys about back at the American Sash and Door Company. And he was fascinated by the queer little farms he saw from the train. Miserable places. Not at all like his grandfather’s farm or Uncle Charlie’s. He didn’t see why the folks living on those little places didn’t get up on their hind legs and make some improvements or else sell out and try something else.
First they “did” London, Amsterdam, The Hague, Cologne, Coblenz, the Rhine, and Paris. Paris reminded them of Kansas City. There must have been something to this because the avant-garde composer, Virgil Thompson, who was also from Kansas City, said the same thing.
From Paris they went to Avignon, Monte Carlo, Nice, Genoa, Rapallo, Pisa, Rome, Florence, Bologna, Venice, Milan, and Montreux. From Montreux, back to Paris, then to Cherbourg. They decided Holland was their favorite country, and with that settled, they boarded The Duchess of York for the trip home.
On the deck with their new friends, a couple from Kansas who had taken a troop of Boy Scouts to an International Jamboree, they waved a glad goodbye to all that interesting but oh-so-gloomy history that their ancestors had so sensibly fled. They were on their way back to Kansas City, where everything was up-to-date, and where they planned to raise three up-to-date children in the most up-to-date, modern way.
They landed at Toronto on August 24 and were back in Kansas City by the end of the month, eager to get their pictures developed and get back to work. What could go wrong?
October 24, the stock market crashed. They could tell this was serious by the expressions on people’s faces, but since they didn’t own any stock, they didn’t think it would affect them. They were wrong about that.
As share prices dived, fortunes disappeared. People couldn’t make the payments on their loans, so the banks foreclosed on their properties. But the properties were worthless, because no one had any money to buy them. The banks, having no insurance in those days, began to fail. People lost not only their stocks and their jobs but their savings. Mary Ellen wouldn’t be “going places” again for a long time.
Several men in Herb’s office were let go. He kept his job but took a pay cut and said he felt like he was “progressing backwards.” A man he worked with was after his job and decided to scare him off. They met out in the mill office one day when no one else was there. After locking the door, the man announced that he was going to knock Herb’s block off. It wasn’t unusual in those days for young men to “take a swing” at one another. No one thought this was grounds for litigation.
Retreating behind a desk, Herb agreed that the fellow could do what he said but pointed out, “If we get into a fight, we’re both going to lose our jobs. Is it worth it?” He didn’t have to say that finding another one would be impossible. They stared at each other. Without a word, the man turned, unlocked the door, and left the office.
But Herb, too, had his eye on another man’s job—that of the company’s chief bookkeeper.
“He was at least 15 years my senior and I thought each year he would surely die and I could get his job. But he kept reporting day after day. I learned a lesson. Waiting for a dead man’s shoes never pays.”
But Herb couldn’t stand “working without a future,” so he tried self-reliantly to create one for himself. He “worked out” a credit card scheme before there were such things as credit cards. Decades later, when he was in his 90s, he showed me a notebook filled with page after page of tiny, perfectly clear handwritten figures. Haltingly, as if speaking to a child, he explained what it was and remarked, “I was smarter back then than I thought I was.” Lamely, I expressed my ignorant admiration. He said since he couldn’t leave his desk at the American to sell it himself, he had hoped Mary Ellen would do it for him.
This astonished me. Did he actually think a housewife who knew nothing about money and had only a basic grasp of arithmetic could walk into a bank or a department store in the 1930s and sell them a credit card scheme?
I questioned Mary Ellen. “Oh, yes, that was his big idea. Can’t you just see me asking to talk to a financial officer with one kid in my arms and another in tow!”
But this was an evasion. She could have left us with Gram. The truth is she knew she didn’t understand Herb’s scheme and knew she didn’t have a chance of selling it, but she didn’t want to admit this, even to herself. She wanted to go on believing she could have done it if she’d tried. So she used her children as an excuse for not trying.
Though vain of her practicality, Mother lived in a dream world where by grit and determination, she could do anything she put her mind to. She was always trying to prove this to herself, but she was careful not to overreach. At some level she knew her limitations. My father had a better grasp of reality than she did, but in some respects he overestimated his clever wife’s abilities.
1931 was the worst year of the Depression. At one point, Herb and Mary Ellen had only four dollars in the bank. But they still had faith in the future and between 1931 and 1937, they had three children.
I was the first. When Mary Ellen realized she was “in a family way,” she consulted her mother. But Bessie was almost as ignorant about childbirth as her daughter. Neither of them realized this, however, because both of them assumed all knowledge came from experience, and since Bessie had had this experience, they assumed she must know all about it.
Bessie advised her daughter to have her baby at home. “The only reason people goes to hospitals is to die.”
I couldn’t imagine why my up-to-date mother listened to Gram’s advice, but at last I realized that, unlike my father who thought he had “put the past behind him” when he left the farm and came to Kansas City, my mother had not yet been able to do the same. Gram—her past—wouldn’t go away. And while my mother, a business woman who rode in flivvers and danced the Charleston, thought she had lost all respect for the past, she automatically sought help and counsel from Gram—from the past—when faced by an experience nothing had prepared her for. We used to expect parents and grandparents could help us because they’d had more experience. But as the 20th century unfolded this was no longer true. Things were changing too fast.
Mary Ellen gave birth to me on the table in the tiny breakfast nook between our kitchen and the dining room. Dr. Potter and my grandmother attended. I weighed eleven and a half pounds. The home birth experience couldn’t have been good for Mary Ellen’s relationship with her mother—nor probably with me. My sister and brother were both born in the hospital: Maralee, in 1934; Mark, in ’37.
During the Great Depression, farmers couldn’t afford to hire people to harvest their crops, so they sold them cheap to anyone who would pick them. Often on Saturday mornings, my parents left me with Gram and drove out to a farm somewhere to pick beans, apples, tomatoes, or cherries—whatever was in season.
Mary Ellen mashed the tomatoes to make tomato sauce and canned the fruit and vegetables in Mason jars, a hot, steamy process that required a pressure cooker. One year the cooker exploded, splattering the kitchen with food and leaving a large gash in her arm. Another year several of the Mason jars which were stored in the basement exploded while we were eating dinner upstairs.
Sometimes Herb took all of us to the ice-cream store for triple-scoop ice cream cones, and on rare occasions, we went to a White Castle, where hamburgers were six for a quarter with a coupon (very tiny hamburgers). On hot nights, we went for drives with all the windows open and stopped at a drive-in for frosty mugs of root beer—nickel mugs for me and my little sister, dime mugs for our parents.
But our main treat during the Depression was going to the movies. They were cheap, and the theaters were the only places that were air-conditioned. At the time, I had no idea of how fascinated my mother was by actors and actresses—both by movie stars and by members of the summer stock companies who came through Kansas City.
As the Depression dragged on, Mary Ellen began buying fabric at department stores and making her children’s shirts and dresses, using an old treadle model machine. She also kept a pile of socks “that had grown holes.” Whenever she sat down “to radio,” she darned a few of them. All of our socks had darning lumps in them. When our shoe soles grew holes, she would postpone having them resoled by lining them with a piece of cardboard. She knew all about “stretching a dollar.” That was something she’d learned from Bessie and had hoped to forget.
Herb called her “an asset beyond price.”
Mother told me we were lucky she and Dad married three years before the Depression started because they were well stocked with the appliances that they’d bought to set up housekeeping. They had a vacuum cleaner, a radio, and an electric refrigerator. (Our next-door neighbor was still using an ice box.). They had a bucket with a paddle and a hand-crank for making ice-cream and an electric toaster that toasted the bread in metal screens that you had to turn by hand. If your attention wandered, your toast went up in smoke. What they did not have was a mortgage, which must have been a huge relief.
And unlike most of our neighbors, they owned a car. Herb usually drove it to work, but on Wednesdays he took the streetcar so Mary Ellen could take the car to the grocery store. Often, she took along the obese woman who lived next door and didn’t have “the means to get around.” I found this scary. Every time that woman got in the car it tipped so far to her side that I was afraid it would go over, or that the springs would break. Then how would we get food? She lived with her sisters, a thin one and a stout one. They were like characters in a fairy tale. The thin one and the stout one had jobs. Belle, the fat one, stayed home and kept house. I couldn’t believe she did much housekeeping since I didn’t see how she could bend over.
The people on the south kept their grass trimmed and their doors and windows shut. They had a boy my age and a teenage daughter who had a bicycle. Occasionally we played together, but never became good friends. The one time they invited me into their dim, spooky house, they told me we weren’t allowed to walk on the rug We had to walk around it, one foot in front of the other, like Indians.
We shared a narrow driveway with those neighbors. It widened at the back to provide access to two small garages, side by side. The people across the street got to their garages through an alley, so their flat front yards, undivided by driveways, provided us kids with a playground that ran the length of the block.
From time to time, Mother’s old boss at the printing company asked her to handle a special project for him, and for a week or so, she went downtown every day, leaving me and my sister with Gram, who was still living with us. I’m sure her boss would have liked for her to come back to work full time, and she would have liked that, too. But then she would have had to leave her children with Gram. At the time, I would have had no objection to this. Gram never gave me any trouble. It would be decades before I realized what a favor Mother had done for us by rejecting the opportunity to go back to work full time.