Memories of a Depression baby


It was long ago and far away and lasted from 1933 until 1940 while I grew from 3 to 10 years old. It centered around 625 Eighth Ave. SE, the home where my parents and their friends held costume parties, laughed, danced, drank bootleg gin and talked about “Rosyfelt,” our president. My sister and I watched, peeking through the banisters at the top of the stairs. We learned to sing “Minnesota, hats off to thee, Farmer-Labor, we will ever be!” And every other day, one of my three little girl friends (including me) would announce to the others: “I’m never going to play with you again!” and stalk off, crying.

My grandfather, a philosophy professor at the University of Minnesota, built for our bed/playroom a “gated community.” He crafted a collapsible fence, with gate and mailbox, and encircled a child-sized table and chairs with it. Under the Christmas tree I found a string which, when followed up the great banister stairs, led to this carpentry surprise. That year, I had a birthday party and we all got “mail” from that mailbox. Jerry Eckberg, who lived on the other side of the block, announced it was the best party he had ever been to. We were 6 years old. Later, a tragedy struck that family when a family gun one child discovered and played with went off and killed a brother.

Number 625, originally a single house, had been divided by its builder-owner to accommodate family members, and eventually both sides were rented out separately. My mother and the neighbors got along like oil and water, but Mrs. Raggard did invite me to come to the circus with them. I was 4, and it was my first circus. Warmed by their friendliness, and in the spirit of helpfulness, I piped up from the back seat as we were returning home that I didn’t know why my parents didn’t like them; I thought they were very nice. Eventually, this effort at diplomacy got back to my parents through the grapevine and explained why there were, alas, no more invites to the circus.

When we graduated from making mud pies by the water faucet on the side of the house, we played in the vacant lot across the street next to the house of Graham Burlingame, my other little boyfriend. (There were lots of vacant lots in those days.)

There was also a lot of snow in the winter. I remember long, straight, over-my-head walls of snow framing the sidewalk. (I was shorter then). One year, we built an igloo in the front yard, big enough to huddle in, that lasted till spring. When my father wasn’t shoveling snow, he was down in the basement shoveling coal, which covered him from head to foot with coal dust, after which he had to take a bath in a tub with curlicue legs. Sometimes he forgot to clean his black nostril holes, which fascinated us children. Summer gave promise of the word “FREE” on well-licked Popsicle sticks.

School days

In kindergarten, I lusted after the big blocks, which were only to be played with by the boys. We girls had to stay in the dollhouse corner.

We walked to Marcy public grade school a few blocks away and run by two very old and very thin ladies in black — sisters named Miss Young and Miss Young. They did their best to keep us pure. Little girls were not supposed to speak to little boys; it meant a trip to the office. Nevertheless, I remember during penmanship it suddenly became the thing to do to lift up our skirts (we were 7 or 8) while writing. I had no idea why, except that it was a definite no-no and always got a tittering response and a teacher scolding.

One year, a grain elevator burned down, and for several months we had to walk carefully past the smoldering embers to school. After I left my tricycle (or bicycle?) on the other side of the block and it disappeared, I was refused a replacement. But roller skating, with little metal wheels tied to our shoes with keys, became the way to go. My last year there, some parents offered us the room over their garage for a clubhouse. It was filled with dusty overstuffed chairs and seemed very grand. The four of us became “pres,” “vice pres,” “sec,” and “treasurer” and held meetings.

My father taught political geography at the university and desperately wanted to move out from under his famously difficult chairman to a teaching job somewhere else, anywhere else, but it was the Depression and, across the country, no one budged for 10 years.

Love, loans and laundry

My mother’s housekeeping duties seemed to consist of sitting at the phone and ordering food from the grocer and butcher, after which she sewed or went off to an art school and did social errands. We two girls ate tapioca pudding in the kitchen from a greenish wooden table on a patterned linoleum floor and were spoon fed yucky cod-liver oil. My sister, three and a half years younger (and therefore closer to that floor) remembers the pattern vividly.

We had a live-in maid then, Margaret, of German extract, who got room and board plus $3 a week for doing all the cooking and housework and taking care of us children. The washing was carried over to a Mrs. Barfus, who lived in a tiny building behind my grandmothers’ house a few blocks away (now part of the expressway). This cheerful, troll-like widow had a miniscule garden and a large tub and took in the neighborhood laundry.

Our maid was often approached with offers of more money at those parties we watched, but she was totally loyal and simply reported the offers to my mother, who, she said, treated her with respect as an equal. Eventually, she fell in love with the iceman who sometimes stopped by the back door while we children were eating lunch or supper. They wanted to marry and buy a small dairy farm, but no bank would loan without collateral, so my father went into debt himself to provide the down payment, telling his own dubious father that the strength of their characters was the best collateral he could imagine.

With their combined industry, the farm prospered. They sent Christmas cards regularly and, 35 years later, showed up at my mother’s funeral in Wisconsin. (When the job market finally loosened, my father got a faculty appointment at the University of Wisconsin. I grew up, moved out and became a puppeteer in New York in 1952.)

Back to the old house

In 2002, I was attending a puppet festival in St. Paul when suddenly, out of the blue, I was drawn by inexorable magnetism across the river to Minneapolis and 625 Eighth Ave. Through the gate, across the lawn, up the steps and on to the porch, I was a trespasser under a spell. There was the water faucet still wetting the earth on the side of the house. I just broke down and cried. And cried again when I tried to explain it to the owner who finally answered the doorbell.

The quick look around he offered turned into an extended tour. The parlor where the Christmas tree had always been put up did not look familiar or unfamiliar, but my body knew the dimensions of the room exactly. The ceiling had been raised, which matched my adult body height, and I was attuned to that room intimately in a totally sensate way. My physical self remembered the proportions as if it were yesterday; I could have walked around blind. The upstairs had been changed and meant nothing, but the banisters where we had peeked out at the adults were there, and it was a transcendent experience of time warp back 70 years. It still gives me the shivers to remember.

Now, in 2009, as we enter an uncertain economic period, that past is looping round again. There is a lot we can learn from it. And, in a sense, I never left it.

I have always saved everything, recycled it. Trash is my favorite resource for puppet materials for my profession. I volunteer in the local flea market, and I help children in a preschool make toys — rocket ships, castles, whatever their imaginations conjure up — from discarded cardboard boxes. (In my childhood, the best toys were the ones we made ourselves: the little furniture for the dollhouse handed down from my mother, the elaborate doll clothes hand-sewn for us by our aunts.) If a new WPA [Works Progress, and later “Projects,” Administration] is created with a place for puppetry, I will be at the head of the line. So I am looking forward.

The current owner of the house, Paul White, who has been painstakingly restoring it, putting in much of the labor himself, has been looking forward too — his business is in machines that harness the wind!