The Middle Years, Part One

Marian Oliver urged us to move into one of the West Philadelphia neighborhoods surrounding the University of Pennsylvania.  The University was offering low interest mortgages to its faculty and staff to encourage their migration into these moderately blighted areas.  We were not eligible for these mortgages but we were impressed by the progress made thus far.  Marian told us about the area’s Lee Elementary School which the University had ‘adopted’, putting in place, for example, a two-track system that allowed bright students to proceed at a quicker pace.  The school had a roughly 50/50 mix of black and white pupils.  “Call George Funderberg,”  said Marian.

George was part owner of Urban Developers, a realty firm that had contributed materially to the rehabilitation of Powellton Village.   He was a sun-tanned Ivy League type with closely cropped hair.  He wore tweed sport jackets, button-down shirts, khaki suntans.   He drove us around and it became obvious that Powellton Village was out of our price range.  “No matter” said George.  We cruised the fringe neighborhoods that were showing signs of new life.   He showed us  911 South 47th Street, mid-block between Springfield and Baltimore Avenues.  We bought it.

911 was a three storey, brick Victorian twin house with a front porch.   It had a Mansard roof,  a big back yard, ten rooms with nine feet ceilings, tall windows and original chestnut trim throughout.   It cost us nine thousand dollars, cheap even for 1968;  cheap because the neighborhood was a frontier, on the tipping point between abject deterioration and gentrification.  We bet on gentrification.

We turned the third floor into a three room suite for Huna.  She could scarcely afford her apartment in Wynnewood any longer.  And the train and bus ride to 911 S. 47th from Wynnewood would have been punishing.  She was spending so much time with us anyway; why not make it permanent?  Margie and I had discussed Huna’s old age early in our marriage.

Margie’s maternal grandmother, Israela Headley, had ended her days living alone in a modest rented room.  Israela’s husband, Ben Headley, had been the most successful businessman in Swedesboro New Jersey.  Israela and Ben had raised six children generously, sending them to the best schools.  Yet Israela ended up in a rented room.  Huna never forgave herself.  Neither did her brother Bob.  Nor did Margie forget.

Giving up the Wynnewood apartment freed up more that half of Huna’s income.  Now she could pursue her “extravagant but not wasteful life style” which included regular visits to the hairdresser.  She’d wear a loose fitting satin bonnet in bed to preserve her hairdo between visits to the beauty salon.  The little kitchen we had installed on the third floor proved to be mostly superfluous;  Huna took all her meals with us, except for breakfast.  Breakfast was hers alone with the the New York Times, another of her few extravagances. Her sitting room held the only television in the house.  We gathered there evenings to watch the popular shows, with Stephen flopped across Huna’s lap.

Huna continued to lunch with Helen Hires at the Union League Republican Club. Russell Hires was dead but widows could use the Club’s dining room, and bring guests. Every three or four months Mrs Hires – Aunt Helen to Margie – invited Margie and me to join them for lunch at the League.  Margie always ordered soft shell crabs, or fried oysters and chicken salad.  She and I would be the only Democrats in the room.  Huna thought I had influenced Margie to change parties; not true, Margie had decided on her own to vote for JFK.

betty-shumanHuna and Marion Shuman

It turned out that 911 South 47th was one of only two single family dwellings on our street;   The other was an old couple who couldn’t afford to move away.  All the other houses on the block had been chopped up into small apartments, many of them for Penn students.  There were no playmates for Fernanda and Stephen.  They’d find friends, we knew, once the school year began.

Two of the Deeney children – there were seven of them – came to play with Nanda and Stephen.  They lived in a small house on a side street behind our house.  The children had met at the fence separating our back yards: four little Irish faces staring longingly at the jungle gym I had set up in our yard.  The Deeney children attended Saint Francis Catholic School.  They had little in common with our children.  They had never even read Beatrix Potter, said Stephen.   The friendship petered out after two visits; no rancor, just mutual boredom.

In bad weather, Nanda and Stephen played in Stephen’s vast second storey bedroom which looked out over the backyard.  It had been a second floor living room, with it’s own fireplace.  The children turned an old book case into a toy house which they populated with the Potter family.  The family was made up from Nanda’s collection of stuffed lambs.  Sometimes the Potter’s boisterousness spilled into the real world: “He hit me, for no reason!”

We visited Philadelphia’s historic sites:  Independence Hall, Carpenter’s Hall, the First National Bank,the Betsy Ross house,  the statue of William Penn atop City Hall.  In Washington Square we stepped onto the grass to better read the plaque on a stone monument: we were standing on the site of a mass grave of Revolutionary War soldiers, who had died of sickness and plague.  Nanda stepped back onto the path.   Stephen found a stick and began to dig.

Helen Hires moved to Arkansas to be near her daughter.  Huna missed her: she missed the gossiping –  but not Helen’s snide remarks about Mrs. Shuman’s legs.  Huna missed the lunches at the Union League, the prerequisite trips to the hairdresser’s, the hats and matching gloves  She came down the stairs once, dressed for lunch.  Stephen  looked up and said:  “Huna, you look like you’re thirty-five years old if you don’t look at your head.”   Huna laughed.  She wasn’t looking for romance but she said it would be nice if she had someone to take her out to dinner, or to the theater occasionally.  She was a football fan. I took her to a University of Pennsylvania football game.  Penn was her husband’s alma mater, but Penn State was her team.  She liked a winner.

Margie and I attended the our first meeting of the neighborhood family association.  We were the only parents in the room.  The rest were landlords who had long ago converted their houses into student apartments.  Their chief concern was Penn’s plan to build a high rise student dormitory in the area.  Margie and I did not speak up and we attended no more meetings.  Then we learned the Lee School was troubled.

Marian Oliver’s information about the Lee School was outdated.  Yes, for three years its two-track system had proved very effective.  Then black parents noted that most of the students on the fast track were white:  de facto segregation!  School officials should have predicted that the better prepared children of professional parents would have gravitated to the fast track.  Before they could tweak the system, the protestors swept it away.  White parents pulled their children out of the school:  if the needs of their children were not to be met, why should they keep them in?   The mix of students jumped to about 80/20, black to white.  Behavior problems crept into the classrooms and into the school yard.  Margie and I were not willing to put our children into that environment.

Others, caught in the same dilemma, were sending their children to Friends Central School which was a long way off.   A station wagon collected the children in the morning and it delivered them in the afternoon.  Nanda was accepted in pre-first. We were pleased because Friends Central School was Margie’s alma mater. We found a nursery school for Stephen at a nearby Presbyterian church.   I would drop him off in the morning and Huna would pick him up at noon.  Finding weekend activities for the children was challenging and wide-ranging.

I’d drive them to the Narberth playground on Saturdays. Narberth is a suburban town near Huna’a old apartment complex in Wynnewood.  We had used the playground whenever we visited her.  The playground was located in a park-like setting, yet we could walk to Narberth’s main street for ice cream cones..

Sundays were cultural, to be spent in Philadelphia institutions: The Academy of Natural Sciences, the Franklin Institute, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Art Museum.  We attended children’s programs at these sites whenever we could, but mostly we returned to our favorite exhibits:  the medieval armor hall on the second floor of the Philadelphia Museum; the dinosaur skeletons  at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Nanda and Stephen were titillated by, drawn to the Egyptian mummies in the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania: the mummies grinned out from thin leather-like lips.

Nanda made friends with Sarah Mendelson, one of her classmate at Friend Central School.  Sarah’s mother became Margie’s lifelong friend.  One evening in April we and the Mendelsons attended a celebration at the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia’s League Island Park.  The celebration included a typical Scandinavian meal in the tastefully rustic dining room –  we drank mead.  A Scandinavian folk dancing group performed before dinner.  After dinner we found ourselves outdoors in the darkness, holding hands with about fifty other guests.  We sang, shrieked, and danced around a huge bonfire whose flames and sparks rose forty feet into the sky. It was Walpurgis Night. We were sorcerers and witches celebrating the coming of spring, an exuberant release from the grip of a long winter.

911 So. 47th was doable

We loved our house.  We furnished it with family stuff, well-worn, loose-jointed old  furniture that had funneled down to Margie over the years:  the Edwardian dining room chairs, a china cabinet, the Jacobean table, the chipped sideboard, the Victorian love seat, two carved side chairs, the upright piano, Aunt Ethel’s pretty little Victorian desk, several end tables, Aunt Bridey’s tiger-walnut desk and  several photographic portraits.   One of them, hand-colored, depicted Margie’s father, aged two, sitting on a painted rocking horse. He looks a lot like our Stephen at two. The miscellaneous furnishings fell into place, finally at ease in a compatible setting.  We gave a housewarming party which we combined with a celebration of Huna’s seventieth birthday.

the-clanThe clan, 1939

They all showed up:  Uncle Bob and Aunt Hope, Uncle Bill and Aunt Aneta, cousin Alberta came and so did Aunt Ethel, the lone representative of the Ridge family.  She and Margie were the last of the Ridge line.   Uncle Harold came, the black sheep of the Headley uncles.  The Shumans came –  Helen Hires was not there to make snide remarks about Marion’s legs.  We put out plenty of ash trays and Bourbon whiskey.  They drank highballs throughout dinner and nonstop coffee from our wedding gift urn.  No wine.  Grace Washington came to maintain order in the kitchen, just like old times.

margie-at-the-apexMargie at the apex, 1932

Huna was radiant, at her prettiest and gayest.  She caught my eye and raised her empty glass:  “A little dividend, please.”   I reached for the bottle of Old Grandad.   Margie too was radiant for these people had constituted her adoring universe when she had been her mother’s late and only child.  They were fond of me too;  I was the proximate cause of their convocation.  Uncle Bob took me aside to thank me for taking in Huna.  When he died five years later, Aunt Hope gave me his Chevrolet.  Yes, our neighborhood was troubled but we would persevere.  We were pioneers.  Others would follow.