94-year-old Mary Van Beke tells her son, Charles, about growing up in the 1920s.
Mary Van Beke: My father passed when I was only five years old. He worked for an electrical company, and he was standing in water and someone dropped a wire and electrocuted him. He was 29 years old. And so my mother had to go out to work, wash clothes and clean house to try and feed four children. And I remember whatever Mama would get from the people that she worked for is what we wore. And I don’t ever remember going to the store to get a pair of shoes, ‘cause Mama couldn’t afford it. I’m not saying that we looked dowdy. She said, ”You don’t have to be dirty to be poor.”
I always remember that. But when Mama couldn’t feed us anymore—we were growing—she had to place me in a home where I would work for my keep. And I would come home every other Sunday. And this is how we tried to survive.
Charles Van Beke: How long did you work for that family?
MV: Two years, ’til I was 16. Mama worked across the street from there, washing clothes. And it was a hot summer day and she was walking down the street. And I ran to the front door and called her in to visit with her. And after she left, Mrs. Blaisdell said to me, ”Don’t ever let the help come in the front door!”
And I said well, ”I don’t want to work here if my mother can’t come in the front door,” and I packed my little suitcase and came home. I can remember that so well.