Thursday, November 8, 2007

Milwaukee, 1916


Bernice Ann Adams Smith

Grandma’s life in the West was at an end, and her family took the train east to Milwaukee, where her stepfather was enrolled at Marquette Medical School. She told me once that she was disappointed when she saw the Mississippi, because of how brown and muddy it looked.


“We took most of our food with us on the train as we couldn’t afford to eat in the diner. We had sandwiches and fruit, and when they ran out we’d buy more at train stops. Mother was nursing DuRell, so that was no problem. He was nine months old.

When we reached Milwaukee we went directly to the Blatz Hotel, where we stayed until Mother could find a job and a place for me to stay and go to school. Father stayed at the YMCA, where he had a part-time job that paid for his room. In a short time Mother and I also found places. Mother was a housekeeper at a home for unwed girls. It was ideal for her because she had her own room and she could keep Durell with her. So many babies were crying all the time that if Durell cried, nobody noticed. I went to a family in Wauwatosa, a mother, father, two children in grades school and a grandma. Their name was Walker. I had my chores. I was to rise early, get breakfast, and do dishes before I left for school. I came home for lunch and did dishes once more. After school I ran errands and helped prepare the evening meal. After dinner dishes were washed I helped the boy and girl with their homework and then I did mine.

Saturdays were spent cleaning...no spot of dust was overlooked. Grandma Walker was an invalid who spent most of her time in bed and ate her meals on a tray. She was nice to me and I liked to go to her room to talk. I felt that she was the only friend I had in the house. It was made very clear from the beginning that i was not to be considered part of the family; the children called me their hired girl. There was a wonderful library that I wanted very much to read, but there was no time for frivolous things.

On Sundays after the noon meal I was allowed to visit Mother and Durell. That was a treat; I loved all the new babies and their young mothers, and I desperately missed Mother and DuRell.

My social life at school was a disaster. I was given quite a “rush” when I first entered school. After all, I was the new girl and everyone was curious. Mrs. Walker’s schedule however left no time for afternoon dances in the gym, or football games on the weekends. I turned down all requests for dates so the boys decided I was stuck up and didn’t ask anymore. My pride prevented me from making girlfriends. I didn’t want to bring them home to the Walkers and that I was too proud to admit that I was working for room and board and had no time to socialize. I did make an exception at the end of the school year and it was a disaster.

It was prom time and the school was in a fever of excitement. I was asked to the dance by one of the nicest boys in school. He was captain of the football team and a date with him was an honor. I accepted with misgivings: I was thirteen and never had a real date before. I didn’t even realize that I was expected to wear a formal. I did worry about my skimpy wardrobe, but I thought I had solved the problem with a borrowed pink blouse and a dark blue skirt. My date arrived with a lovely corsage. If he was shocked by my inappropriate outfit he was too much of a gentleman to show it. As we entered the auditorium I prayed for the floor to open up and drop me out of sight. Every girl was dressed in a lovely floating formal. I have never before or since felt like such an outcast. I pleaded with my date to take me home, but Bob was determined to stay. I’ll never forget his words. “You may not have the prettiest outfit here, but you are the prettiest girl and I’m proud to have you as my date.” I stuck it out to the end. Bob was, still is, my idea of the perfect gentleman.”

Tomorrow - the end of the Great War.

2 comments:

Serena said...

A beautiful story! :)

frenchfryedfreud said...

It keeps getting better.