In response to my story in the Star Tribune about fatherless youth in Minneapolis, a reader sent me her own story of growing up in a single-parent home. Teresa was one of nine kids who her mom cared for in the 1950s and 60s.
Combined from two letters Teresa wrote to me, please enjoy her touching story of family and community.
Dear Brandon, I read your article “One Life at a Time, All Ideology Aside.” The part on the loss of fathers in their children’s lives brought me to writing you this letter.
You see, I came from a family of nine children–four boys and five girls. We were raised by my mother. My father was a deadbeat. My mother met him through her best friend (not sure what her best friend was thinking.)
He was divorced with three daughters–his wife had had a nervous breakdown so he had the girls.
Well, my poor mom being naive and young, fell for this smooth-talker and they married in 1947. She took care of his daughters in a farmhouse in Hamel, Minnesota.
My dad turned old horses into dog food or something like that.
My mother got pregnant year after year for nine years (1947-1955). And my dad–well, he was capable of nothing. He left one day–left her and his twelve kids.
One day the sheriff came to tell my mom she had to leave her home. He felt so bad, he had to turn his back when she read the eviction notice. My dad never paid any bills, so we lost it all. I believe the house still stands today.
My mother was pretty much the shame of her parents and family–no help from anyone. She was alone. She had left home in North Dakota at 14, cleaned houses at this age for the wealthy, ended up in school, then of course met my dad. When she met him, she was one of the leading manicurists in Minneapolis. She lost it all, but she was not a crybaby–she was tough. The one thing she did have was faith and a rosary.
As she tells the story, she had to humble herself and ask for welfare. She got on welfare and found a house in Robbinsdale, MN in 1956. (A sick woman from church wanted to help someone out and the priests led her to my mother. She gave my mother about $1,500.00. And then my mother’s best friend’s husband borrowed my mother another sum of money, and Mom was able to come up with a down payment for a house.)
When we moved to Robbinsdale, the youngest child was one. (I was the second youngest of the nine.) So we kids were one through nine, and the half-sisters stayed for about seven or so more years.
My mother would talk to the Catholic priests, and they would encourage her to keep on–don’t give up. She would clean her best friend’s husband’s apartment buildings on the weekends until she paid him back every dollar he borrowed her. She marked off the payments in a little booklet. (I have that book today.) I remember as a little girl watching her calculate how much she earned and what she owed. I hated watching her work so hard. She finally paid him off and never had to clean his dirty apartment buildings again.
Eventually the three priests talked her into letting someone adopt the three daughters of my dad. They found a good home, and now my mother could focus on raising her nine kids.
My mother got a full-time cooking at a nursing home. Then she moved on to a sewing factory, and her final job was at the school laundry. There were also a few people who helped us along the way.
There was Dr. Strunk, our family doctor. My mother took a trip by bus with nine kids in tow to his office. He was so taken aback, he told her he would come to her house. He would come dressed up in his black suit carrying his black leather bag. All nine of us would gather around him as he sat at our dining room table to check my mother’s blood. We were his second family. He would always leave our house with a loaf of fresh baked bread and a jar of homemade jelly.
Then there was Grace from the Red Owl Store. She would save us day-old bread. We would pedal to the store on our two bicycles with the gigantic baskets on the handle bars and bring home the bread. I was always embarrassed, so I pedaled fast so the neighbor kids wouldn’t see me.
There was the man who stopped into our church looking for a needy family to help at Thanksgiving. Father Nolan sent him to our house. When he knocked on our front door, all nine of us were standing at the door with our mother. He carried in a few bags of groceries and handed her an envelop with money to buy a turkey. My mom and him shared a few words, then tears started running down his cheeks. She felt bad for him that he felt so bad. This was a moment shared with a stranger that she never forgot.
The Catholic school that let us attend tuition free. My mother felt a need to give back, so she offered to curl the nuns’ hair–give them perms. The nuns were giddy with joy. She said they acted like a bunch of school girls.
There was the man who owned the Ben Franklin drugstore in Robbinsdale. Mom would buy our school supplies from him. He always undercharged us. When she questioned his tally, he would always say, “Adie, I charged you just the right amount.” One late night on Christmas Eve, he left a bunch of toys in our front porch. He never took credit for it, but Mom was sure it was him.
Last but not least was the little old lady Mary, who lived a few houses down from ours. Mom would curl her hair on Friday nights. Mary would pour each of them a small glass of sherry. She told Mom it would be good for her iron deficiency. They would talk a bit, then Mary would encourage my mom to stay strong. She reminded my mom of all that she accomplished. Mary filled Mom up with hope.
All of these people played a role in our survival. We all have it in us to lend a caring hand or share some words of hope with a neighbor. We just have to be willing to open our eyes and see.
The best part of the story is we all turned out to be successful adults. I had one brother who was drafted and sent home drunk with an honorable discharge. We lost him to the streets for ten years, and then one day he called my mom and asked her to please come and pick him up. He was done drinking. He never drank again and lived with my mother until she died at the age of 92.
You ask how did she do it?
Well, I asked her often and she said, “I didn’t do it alone. Everyday I would wake up and say, ‘God, I can’t do this alone. I need your help.'”
He was there for her.
Everyday she would get up and walk to church. (We didn’t have a car then.) She would come home and wake us all up for school. We would come down to a big pot of oatmeal then off to school.
She cooked and cleaned and sewed our clothes. Every night after dinner I would clean up and the rest would sit together and pray the rosary out loud. Saturday we had off. Sunday we always went to church. I remember her saying we had to get there early. We need a whole pew just for us.
She never graduated from high school. So a big goal for all of us was graduating high school. And we all did, and now all nine of her grandchildren have graduated from college.
Mom preached to us that welfare was humiliating, and she never wants to see any of us kids on it. She did say, “This welfare is to give you kids a chance at life. I made a big mistake. You didn’t, and our society is kind enough to help us out. Never take advantage of it. Be grateful and work hard to always take care of yourself.”
She kept our house clean, kept us clean and neat. When we looked in the mirror, we felt proud–not ashamed. We had a clean house to bring our friends home to. We didn’t live angry. We lived grateful.
If you’d like to share a story (travel or otherwise) on The Periphery, please email me at Brandon@ThePeriphery.com. We’d love to hear all about your adventures in life.