Mom and Dad met when she was eighteen and he twenty-three. Both were working full-time and had been since they were fourteen. Mom graduated from primary school after seven grades and went to work at a department store. Dad graduated from eighth grade and began to work at Milgrim’s, a local grocery store.
Dad on left in front of Milgrim’s.
Many of you have probably seen that “early-twentieth-century-test” e-mail that’s gone around the Ethernet several times. It shows just how comprehensive a “grade school” education used to be. Mom saved some of her textbooks, and when I was a senior I realized that in grade school she’d learned all I’d learned in high school. Plus more. Both of them were bright and well read. They devoured the morning and evening newspapers. They argued spiritedly about ideas. They laughed often.
They met in 1928 when Mom walked into the grocery store where Dad worked. Many years later he told me she “wowed” him when she entered the dim interior of that store. “She brought the summer sun with her,” he said.
Mom at eighteen.
Mom told me she thought Dad looked like “The Lone Eagle”—Charles Lindbergh—who’d crossed the Atlantic the year before. He knew how to listen to a young Irish woman who could tell stories that made him weep.
Dad was tall and lean with an arresting face. Mom was shorter with wavy hair and a smile to write home about. Within weeks they’d married. In the next eight years, they went to many doctors in the attempt to have their first child. Finally, Mom had some sort of operation and was able to conceive. I was born in 1936.
Mom, Dad, and me at two.
During those eight years they waited for me, they lived through the Depression. Times were hard; money short. Dad moved from working at Milgrim’s to the State Highway Department. While working on a tunnel, he was caught in a dynamite blast and blinded in his left eye. For years afterward, small pieces of stone edged upward to the surface of his face and Mom used tweezers to pluck them out for him.
I don’t know how much he received in a settlement from the state. I do know that what he didn’t give away to friends he gambled away. Mom told me after I left the convent that she’d threatened to leave him if he continued to gamble. Never again did he play any cards but Pinochle or throw any dice except for the game of Monopoly.
By the time I was born, Dad worked for the Kansas City Water Department at their yard on 40th Street. We weren’t poor by the standards of the day. We had food and clothing and Mom took me to the movies. As I’ve said in an earlier posting—my childhood was idyllic.
All that changed when they left for Parsons, Kansas, in August 1941. Things changed again when Dad tried to join the Seabees so as to do his part in World War II. When that U.S. Construction Battalion turned him down because of his blind eye, he turned to drink.
His mother was torn between being glad her son wasn’t in the war and being chagrined that others didn’t recognize his worth. She wanted a son to brag about. She got my dad. A failure in her eyes.
His biggest failure? Marrying my mother. If it weren’t for that shanty Irish slattern of a wife, my grandma thought, Dad wouldn’t have been in that mining accident. He wouldn’t be blind. He wouldn’t be turned down by the Seabees. He’d be worth something. My mother was the cause of Grandma Ready’s woes. Or so she thought. And deep down, I think my dad accepted some of these thoughts. Life was easier for him that way.
( . . . concluded on Saturday)