Growing up in East Baltimore:
I was born into a home of financial caution and religious zeal, in an East Baltimore row house one half block from both St. Matthews church and the garish lights of Luby’s Chevrolet. It seems to me now that those two buildings represent the contradictory tows of my childhood – the good, delineated by an ever present and ponderous religious life versus the temptations of the temporal world so flamboyantly illustrated in that car dealership’s art-deco signage in flashing pink and turquoise.
My parents were devout. From babyhood my brother and I were immersed in Christianity, attending church and Sunday school plus a widening number of religious activities as we grew. At home we listened to the “Youth for Christ” daily radio program. Our stereo played the records of Tennessee Ernie Ford or Billy Graham’s George Beverly Shea. “How Great Thou Art” became the background music of my life. My parents tithed their income, yet often scrimped to make additional contributions to special projects or to meet the church’s financial shortfalls, a frequent topic of dinner conversation. My mother became an advocate of missions. Little cardboard coin banks for global mission projects appeared with regularity on our kitchen table and into which we were expected to deposit our pennies. With amazing stamina, she also managed a succession of church fundraising projects: bake sales, bazaars, candy sales, and dinners, all produced with volunteer labor, including, as I grew, mine. At a young age I was sent door-to-door to solicit orders for bake sales. A timid child, I was uncomfortable ringing the doorbells of strangers; some people were kind, some surly, some doors closed in my face without words. I began to evaluate outcomes by assessing the houses, skipping those with darkened windows or a bare and cheerless stoop, lying to my mother when asked if I had knocked at every door, certain I was committing a grievous sin.
Money – or rather scarcity – was the underlying groundwork of my mother’s worldview. She’d been born into a large family and there’d not been money for any but the most basic of needs, thus through her growing years she had often felt beggared and empty-handed. Her memories contained tales of cautious economies, sparse homemade Christmases and a child’s winter coat handed down through six siblings. She received her first toothbrush when a public health nurse distributed them in her third-grade classroom. After attending the local grammar school, she walked a four-mile round trip to Stevensville in order to attend the high school from which she graduated in a class of twelve in 1931. She’d been an excellent student but her family had no knowledge of or ability to access further academic opportunities. After graduation she took her youthful dreams to Baltimore, bunking with an older brother’s family in a tiny apartment while attending secretarial school. I think she saw this as her opportunity to alter life’s course, and her father, in support of her hopes, managed to provide the modest tuition dollars. She graduated in 1932 in a city bereft of employment opportunity, her dreams of success blighted by America’s Great Depression. Throughout her life she often spoke of her fear at that time, remembering the anxiety she’d felt as she laundered her one nice dress and polished her shoes in preparation to set out each day in search of work. Her life experiences left her imprinted by austerity, by a fear of doing without, of not having enough, even when life gave her much more.
My parents met at church. St. Matthew’s was only three short city blocks from her brother’s apartment, and she began attending services at the invitation of another young woman in the neighborhood. My dad’s family were established members of the church where he participated in a variety of activities. He was a sharp dresser, gregarious, friendly, generous, liked by everyone, he stepped more lightly through life than she. My mother was a beautiful woman, though she never truly knew it, always thinking her younger sister was the beauty because of some chance remark their mother made long in the past that still felt like a wound. My dad, like the fathers of most everyone I knew, worked in one of the many factories of blue-collar Baltimore. It seemed to me that we should not have been less prosperous than those with occupations no better and some worse, though they seemed to have more, perhaps, I thought resentfully as I grew older, by putting less in the collection plate.
Our furnishings were over large, most of them purchased when my parents married in 1937 and were now out of style – fat upholstered pieces with squat ornate legs lavished with corded fringe, their arms and backs covered with crocheted antimacassars. A mahogany suite overwhelmed the dining room where the table more often functioned as an office for the church, its surface heaped with files, Sunday school projects and mimeographed newsletters. In the front hall a reproduction of Sallman’s “Head of Christ” was displayed in a three-way lighted frame draped with palm fronds. The space abounded with East Baltimore kitsch, crocheted crosses and towel holders, and plastic placemats worthy of a John Waters movie set. My mother’s propensity to hold onto old and unused objects rendered our space perpetually overly full and our basement became the catchall space for the endless things being saved “just in case”. The terror of the Depression never left her.
My mother’s frugality and capacity for work was remarkable. She canned much of our winter food supply, sewed and patched our clothing, made dish towels out of flour sacking, and produced unappealing soap from rendered animal fat and lye. A small crocheted turtle in our bathtub held barbed splinters of soap, allowing every bit to be used before starting a fresh bar. Leftovers from meals, no matter how small the portions, were saved. If not eaten promptly, I was charged with carrying them to Mrs. Otto, a widow who lived on our street – two meatballs, a portion of stew, a withered chicken leg. Although Mrs. Otto seemed pleased to receive them, I was embarrassed, even at a tender age, to be bearing such poor gifts.
Mrs. Otto collected newspapers and cardboard for resale and did sewing and laundry for many of our neighbors. Her small cemented backyard sprouted rows of pronged wooden frames on which she stretched lace curtains and tablecloths to bleach and dry in the sun. Everyone was shocked when upon Mrs. Otto’s death, her son and sister found so much money in her house that they had to carry it to the bank in shopping bags. She had the same disease as my mother.
I expect that my mother’s frugality brought her a sense of safety. I think that her behaviors also rose from a desire to do things as right as she knew how to do them, to achieve some level of envisioned perfection, to build a life arranged to fit some rigid standard. I think it made her serious and harder than she meant to be. But the messages I absorbed were clear: Disaster looms. Be cautious. Follow the rules. The world is not safe. And there will never be.