Saturday, March 04, 2006

choices - it don't come easy

Before I pick up at Frankford High School I want to give you a little background.

I said my mother had her first heart attack when I was in LF as a freshman. Actually that was only a small one. The first one that almost killed her happened when I was 12 or was it 11? My father died in 1959, the year I would be 11, but he died in June and I was not 11 until September.

After my father died, at age 49 in Temple Univ. Hospital in Philadelphia of congestive heart failure--complicated by severe asthema (Neither would have killed him if he has lived in the present time.) my mother decided to move us back to Pittsburgh to have the support of her family and my father's.

There was no wake in Philly my father's body was prepared by a mortitian and then we accompanied it on a train ride to Pittsburgh. The thing I remember most about the trip was that my father and I used to go down to the train tracks near the Allegheny River when I was very young and we'd watch the trains. Daddy and my grandfather loved to fish, catching catfish in the river. Good eattin' them catfish. I was "daddy's girl" and would love to tag along, so he let me. He always told me he and I would ride a train together someday, and we finally did. Me in the coach and Daddy in a box in the baggage car. A great turn called horshshoe bend is well noted on that train route, I made sure I was seated on the window side so that when we rounded the bend I could see the baggage car from my seat and wave to my daddy.

My mother was the 3rd of four siblings, my father the oldest of 10 - of which only 6 were alive when I was born. So my sister, then 5, and I went back to Philly with my mother so we could could go get the furniture etc. from Philly. My father's youngest brother Albert, who lived in New Jersey with his wife and the aforementioned 10 kids, helped her rent the U-Haul and move it all back. I remember the 4 of us on the bench seat of that un airconditioned truck driving across the PA turnpike in the heat of summer. My mother never learned to drive, she was an epileptic who took Gran Mal seizures.

We found a 3 room apartment. Living/dining room, kitchen, and 1 bedroom on 45th St. one block from the river, just on the other side of the Heppenstall Steel Mill where my father had worked before moving to Philly. He had been a steelworker before he has some kind of "trouble" and was fired. I heard several versions of the firing later in life, but never really got the real background.

Yeah, we lived in just three rooms. My mother my sister and I slept in one room. Mom on the double bed, Chris and I on the bunk beds. There was no bathroom. There was a toilet, in a shed that had been added to the back of the kitchen. There was no central heat, but a gas stove in the living room that was meant to keep the entire apartment warm, and for the most part it did, the "toilet" was always cold. We bathed in a wash tub on the floor in the kitchen or jsut took "sponge baths" and we washed our hair in the kitchen sink (no bathroom sink, remember.)

Those years were good. We had those social security survivor's checks and my father had a small life insurance policy, which my mother used to pay funeral expenses but there was some remaining, which she chose to take in monthly payments until it ran out. That was a good way to do it, because Social Security checks come on the 3rd of the month. One payment that you have to stretch until the next check comes.

For anyone who lives on a fixed income the meaning of more month than money is obvious, and when you have two growing daughters and unexpected expenses it can be tough. Social Security survivors beneifts were not meant to match the deceased's wages, more often the payment to survivors is an "adjustment" for the surviving family members. My mother received the additional $35 life insurance check on the 16th of the month,by her own request, and that was enough to tide us over. For those unaware of Social Security survivor's benefits I will tell you they also do not include enrollment in any Medicare plan. So my mother had to buy and pay her own "hospitalization" policies. This was the late 1950's remember, no HMO's it was strictly pay as you go if you got sick. My mother's health history made it expensive to buy it and have us covered, but she did. A small sacrifice for her peace of mind.

Just around the corner from the new apartment lived my Aunt Mamie and Uncle Frank and 2 blocks away lived Aunt Stella, with John her second husband, Maxine a daughter from her first marriage and her brother Henry and her father, my Tata, Joseph. My father's brother, Philip , a widower,and his 4 kids lived 2 blocks on the other side of the apartment. We lived two houses away from Howard's butcher shop, my mother had gone to grade school with Howard, and next door to Mel and his wife. Mel had no living room in his home, because he had a baby grand piano in the front room. Mel was a professional musican - played in hotel lounges and at events. I remember listening to his rehersals through the walls. In good weather, when the window was opened we ould sit outside and listen to him play. He gave my sister piano beginning lessons. In Pittsburgh in that neighborhood there weren't many people you didn't know. Still is the same way I hear, for those who remain in the neighborhood. Everybody knows you and everybody knows your business.

That eventually proved to be a problem. My mother had lived away from the fishbowl of life in the neighborhood and though she found much of living there comforting, she also found much annoying. She felt controlled by the big brother aspect of life. Pardon the crde remark but she once said, "You can't fart in Lawrenceville without someone knowing what you had for dinner."

My aunts were all deciding how my mother should raise her daughters, how she should spend her money and who and if she should date again... with approval. Now most women of age 44 don't need permission to date, but in Lawresceville's (the neighborhood in Pittsburgh where we lived)fishbowl society believe me, if the community did NOT approve you sure knew it.

So one day in a snit, after some minor disagreement on her parenting skills and what she "should" be doing as a mother, my mother packed us up and moved us BACK to Philadelphia, to the same street where we lived with my father, the 4500 block of Tackawanna Street. At least there we had 2 bedrooms, I got my own side of the room and a little privacy.

Now you're wondering why tell you all this? Right. Well, the first heart attack is why.

Once we were back in Philly the "extra money" from the life insurance from my dad's policy ran out, and we were left with only the social security checks. It got a little tight. So after checking with the Social Security Administration my mother found out that she was allowed to work as long as she did not make over a specific amount of money.

Now remember, my mother had an 8th grade education. She was bi-lingual, having been taught in a catholic school that made her learn to read and write in Polish and English. She was well read, kept up to date with newspapers and magazines about public opinion (and spent far too much time at the movies). The only jobs she could get were for "unskilled labor". A friend of hers, Millie, has a sister who owned a luncheonette (sandwich shop) in the neighborhood of Kensington and was looking for a late lunch and dinner waitress. My mother applied and was hired.

A waitress, with the silly little hairnet hat, and a big puffy handkerchief trimmed in lace pinned to her left breast pocket - yep, that was my mom. The luncheonette was in a business/wharehouse district. Most of the clients were local residents who lived in hearby row houses, or the truck drivers and deliverymen who serviced the factory. There were also the usual cops, and high school kids - only not too many of them.

My mother went to work after we went to school - so she was always there for us in the morning and if we needed her for some school thing she could be there. But we were "latch key kids" after school and at night. She didn't get home until about 10 p.m.

Now in this day and age that's neglect. Then it was just what had to be done. At least she was home on weekends with us, and that was good.

Occasionally, usually on a Friday, my sister and I would take the El (elevated train) from Frankford and go to the luncheonette in the late afternoon to eat at the shop. We'd get a pizza or tuna sub and wait until mom would get off her shift and close up. We'd all take the El back home together.

Well, remember my mother was not a well woman. She spent most of her married life as a simple stay at home, taking care of things and bringing up the kids. But the added strain of working 5 days a week well, it finally got to her.

One day I was called out of class at school by the principal who said my aunt (from Pgh.) was coming to get us. My mother had had a heart attack and was in Northeastern Hospital near where she worked.

We were never allowed to see her, being so young. And an "adult" had to be called in to take care of us. My Aunt Mamie came from Pittsburgh. She and Uncle Frank never had children, she was available.

I think she stayed at our place for about a week, shuttling between the spartmetn and the hospital when it became obvious that my mother wouldn't be getting out of the hospital for weeks. When my mother was able to make the decision, she let Aunt Mamie take us back to Pittsburgh, to live with Aunt Stella.

Now if you recall, Aunt Stella had a full house. Only 3 bedrooms, and in those 3 were she herself, she husband, her daughter who was a freshman at the Univ. of Pittsburgh, her brother, an Allegheny County Police officer, and her retired father. There was "room" for us, but only in the attic.

So they cleared the junk from a portion of the attic, gave us a dresser, and let us move in to sleep on a big double bed with brass headboard. I remember returning to St. Augustine's school and renewing friendships, but I can't recall if I was in 5th or 6th grade. I am thinking 6th because I know that I had "Mother Superior of the convent" in 7th grade when we moved BACK again to Philly when my mother got better.

The attic was ok, at least we didn't have to stay there in the winter months, only a psrt of spring and summer. It was during the summer that we went back to Philly just before the start of the new school year. When my mother improved enough she asked for us to be "returned home" and then another "discussion" about raising the children happened. My Aunt Stella said she was going to apply for full custody of us. Why I dont' know, I think she was trying to force my mother to move back to Pittsburgh for our good. My mother attended church, worked when she could, didn't drink, smoke or fool around with men. So I have no idea why this even became an issue, expect the my mother didn't seem inclined to do the lock step obedience that was expected of her. Naturally my mother hopped on a plane and picked us up, literally, off the street where we were playing and took us straight to the airport where we got on a plane in our play clothes (you have to understand the propriety of this situation back in "the day") and we were once again residents of Philadelphia.

I remember having no clothes that "fit" when we got back home. I'd grown so much while we were away. We went to Mass that Sunday with mis-matched skirts and tops and wearing the only shoes we had on our feet when we left Pittsburgh, sandals. But we were together.

In Philly we stayed, Aunt Stella came to Philly with out suitcases and I think she and my mother came to some agreement about whose life it really was. All I know is that I spent every grade from then on in a school in Philadelphia.

Maybe I'll post about those 7th and 8th grade years some time, but not now. I promise to continue with MY life choices starting with Frankford High School tomorrow.

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