For Grandma K.

My mother’s mother passed away this morning. She was one hundred five years old, closing in on 106. We all knew it was coming, but it still seems too soon to me, as if, against all reason, she would just keep on defying all the odds and the jealous doctors, decades younger, who couldn’t keep up with her on the treadmill. She was present almost until the very end with a lust for both life and learning that I have only seen matched in her devoted husband of almost 73 years, my grandfather. I lived with them for nearly 10 years, a time for which I will always be grateful. If ever there was a model for a perfect partnership, they were it. In her quiet way, Grandma made an enormous impact on my life just by being around her. She was one of the kindest, wisest and most knowledgeable people I’ve ever known and I will miss her terribly. She was my hero.

I interviewed her in high school for an English assignment once, over 20 years ago now. I still remember that afternoon, sitting on the divan, trying to take notes without missing any pieces of the amazing stories she told. And they were amazing. She was born before the car and, if she were still here, would be reading this on her iPad. This one’s for you, Grandma. I love you.

[Written in 1989]

Alice had always lived in a friendly neighborhood, the kind that one doesn’t see much anymore. One in which people knew, at the very least, everyone on their block.

She was still in grade school when she lived in Waukegan. “…in the winter time we would do what we called flipping. We’d ride on the runners of the delivery sleighs. A lot of the deliveries were made by sleigh. [They were] like pickup trucks only they had runners on them. The snow was very heavy so they’d use horse drawn sleighs and we used to stand on the runners or we’d hook our sleds with ropes through [them] and ride behind the sleighs. That was fun! I used to go out and spend half the day riding behind the sleighs and come home soaking wet ’cause we didn’t have good clothes for that kind of stuff. Girls wore skirts and long woolen underwear which they turned up into overshoes that had clips on them…they kept your feet warm but [they] would get awfully wet.”

On Sundays, when cars were still scarce, Alice rode with a Doctor friend in a rented horse and buggy helping her make house calls. “Lovely,” she recalls. “It was very nice. We rode out in the country and we rode around town – the streets were paved in town.” Since Alice’s family didn’t own a  car and didn’t often rent a horse and buggy, she just walked everywhere she needed to go – but it was pleasant she said, because then people had the time to do it.

Alice and her family moved to Milwaukee in 1917 and they were there during the Depression. “[The Depression] hit us before it hit everyone else because Dad worked for Henry Ford for the Ford Motor Co. assembling cars, and they closed the plant in ’28 and the Depression hit in ’29.”

When the Depression hit, time was pretty much all people had. Luxuries became almost non-existent. “There were men on the streets selling apples for a nickel a piece many places, just to make a little money.”

“Mother was taking in roomers and boarders, that’s how we could eat…we had 4 girls, college girls, from the State Teacher’s College who roomed 2 to a room-and those rooms weren’t big…double beds in both of them so both the girls slept together…my sister and I gave up our room and slept in the attic. We had a big attic with a big bay window on one side and windows on the front and the back so it was light, it was pleasant. [Her mother got the pay from the girls during the Depression, but later Alice and her sister split it.] She also fed the girls…they paid $4 a week each for room and board.”

There was no minimum wage then, (although there was a standard number of working hours, eight per day) so people would work for whatever they could get. Many couldn’t get enough to live on, even if they had a job, so they had to get relief money.

Alice had enough though. “I was working for the government and so I -we- were better off than most people ’cause we didn’t get a reduction in pay for two or three years after other people did. My father and mother both were scrambling, trying to work.” Alice worked for the technical staff in the IRS which was considered the last resort for people who had income tax problems. Their files were examined and if it looked like their income tax hadn’t been paid or even if there might have been something criminal about it, they would be checked in the lower offices where the returns came in. Then they would be sent to another department for auditing. If there was reason to believe that there was a really “gross” underpayment of taxes, they would be sent to Alice’s office. If she couldn’t take care of it there, the culprit would be sent to court. “Some people paid a penalty…but there weren’t too many [that] went to court because they didn’t want to go…they didn’t want the publicity, and they would settle it…some of them were crooked, they avoided paying.”

Before Alice began her work for the government, she had a job at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. and was going to school at the same time. Her starting pay was $60 per month including lunches, (hours 8:30-4:00 with 1/2 hour for lunch) which she ate only with other women, the men ate at a different time.

Her boss was a man called “Slam” Anderson. “He had really broad shoulders and he always wore tweed suits. His friends called him “Slam”…because when he went through a door he almost always slammed it.”

“He said to me one day, ‘Alice, have you ever thought about having your teeth straightened?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’d love to have them straightened but I can’t afford it, it’s awfully expensive. We started when my dad was working and then I had to quit.’ So he said, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ So he made arrangements with his dentist for me to come in and have my teeth straightened for a dollar a call, so I went once a week to have [them] straightened.”

The WPA – Works Progress Administration (a government organization)- helped to put men to work during the Depression. Alice remembers, “…there was a lot of criticism about it ’cause they were always talking about men who were leaning on their shovels. (Men who were on the government pay roll but didn’t work.) There might have been in some cases, but my father worked with men who were dentists [and] white collar engineers, and dad had never done any labor…they worked moving rocks along the levy on the river – heavy rocks by hand. They didn’t have tools. They didn’t have cranes.”

“I was principally supporting the family because Dad’s wages were very low from the WPA, and Mother was trying to sell corsets from door to door…of course she didn’t sell very many because nobody had any money. Not everybody [needed] a corset anyway. Of course in those days women were at home – women weren’t working the way they are today. They worked at home. They worked though, and they scrambled trying to make ends meet…Dad would come home from that job so tired; he’d come home absolutely ashen – just grey in the face – and so weary. He would wash up and come to the dinner table and he would go to sleep at the table he was so tired.”

Although Alice had a good job and was able to keep the family supported with her monthly paychecks, there wasn’t a whole lot left over to spend on “frivolous” things, such as gifts for family and friends. “One Christmas,” Alice recalls sadly, “the worst Christmas was one when we didn’t have any gifts at all except little things that we could do ourselves, and a gift from my aunt [was] a TIME magazine for the year – a subscription. We spent Christmas Eve going to a ten cent movie. That was the worst one, the worst Christmas.”

However, just as there were bad times dredged up from the past, so were there good times remembered with considerable fondness and warmth.

In Alice’s younger years there wasn’t any television. So on Saturday mornings, instead of watching cartoons as do so many TV junkies today, she listened to the opera on the family radio. She also loved listening to  Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, or her personal favorite, Mildred Bailey, while working around the house or relaxing in the big, comfortable, leather chair in the living room.

Fridays and Saturday afternoons she would often go to the movies. “You could go to the movie all afternoon for a nickel…,” Alice recalls with a smile, but since there were no concession stands in movie theatres then, she would have to stop and get a candy bar before she went in.” They never sold anything like that in the movies…there was almost always a candy store next to the movie house, even the little neighborhood movies.” Since the movies of the time were silent, “…there was always a pianist in the pit playing the music to fit the movie…da rump, da rump, da rump for the horses and, you know, whatever it was!”

Alice has always been a great fan of sports, participating in them as well as watching them. In fact, Alice won first place in both the first and the second  Wisconsin State Junior Tennis Championships that were held. She also could have won the third time, but the officials asked her to give someone else a chance. She also enjoyed bicycling in the summer and skating or skiing during the winter months. “I lived only two blocks from the river and there was quite a steep bank down…, probably 50 or 75 feet, and we’d ski along there.”

She’s not as agile now as she once was, but three or four times a week she still plays great tennis.

“Those were tough days, and anybody who went through it is still a lot closer to the nickel then they would be, because you’d think it could happen again.”

“That’s why everybody should learn some kind of a [marketable] skill…’cause you never know in your life when you might need it.”

4 replies on “For Grandma K.”

  1. I’m so sorry, Pixie. Thank you for sharing this lovely story. I’m sure your grandparents treasured the time they had with you as much as you treasured your time with them.

  2. Thanks, Hon, for posting this. I’m sending the link to the rest of the family, in case they don’t “drop by” on their own.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story of Aunt Alice’s life with us. It’s a keeper and a wonderful remembrance of her!

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