She was born in 1924, at a time when world’s were colliding. Automobiles were driving changes in American culture. The way people worked, played, and traveled was changing. At the same time, milk and ice were delivered to doorsteps in horse-drawn wagons and the mailman walked his route twice daily. Streetcars still ran down the center of the streets—vying with the new personal passenger vehicles that puttered and banged down the roads.
By the time that Mary Eileen was five years old, the Great Depression had gathered the world in its smothering embrace—an embrace that included the small town of Riverside on the outskirts of Chicago where she lived. Families lived in closer proximity in those days. So it was with her family. Mary Eileen and her younger sister lived with their Irish railroad man father and Swedish mother next door to their Swedish grandparents in Riverside.
Her father’s family was an archetypical Irish Catholic family: The oldest brother was a priest. The oldest sister was a nun. All the other brothers were either railroad men or Chicago cops. Outwardly, they were a friendly bunch: gregarious and welcoming. Her mother’s family, however, was a bit different.
The Paulsons—for all their stoic Swedish heritage, displayed a well-disguised warmth. They may have appeared cool on the outside, but they took care of their own. Grampa Paulson had managed—through frugality and outright stubbornness—to acquire not one, but two residential properties (side-by-side) in Riverside. He lived in one and rented the other out. One of his tenants was his daughter and her husband—Mary Eileen’s parents.
Grandpa Paulson, in industrious Swedish fashion, had even dug a tunnel between the two houses he owned so that he could go back and forth to stoke the coal furnaces without having to face the chilling Chicago winters. Even though the tunnel was only about 25 yards long, in Mary Eileen’s young mind, is stretched on nearly forever, and she was always relieved when she made it safely to the opposite side.
It was a simpler time. But sometimes we romanticize simplicity. Without question, it was a time that didn’t know many of the complexities and flurrying activities that we take for granted today. But there were other things that weren’t known in those days. And some of those things were significant. Though medicine had made great advances, there was still so much that was undiscovered, and diseases that we rarely face today would rise like specters and wreak havoc on the population.
When Mary Eileen was still a young girl, her mother was stricken with tuberculosis. Treatment at that time was not always effective. And although efforts were made to remedy her illness, she lost her battle with that dreaded disease and died when Mary Eileen was only 10 years old. That loss left her father with two young girls to care for—a task he was ill suited (and it must be said, ill inclined) to accept.
The degree to which he was incapable soon revealed itself. During the summer months, the family (grandparents, children, aunts and uncles) would often gather outside in the yard between the two Riverside houses to socialize, eat, drink, and—in those calmer days before television—listen to the Cubs game on the radio.
In those days, children truly were “seen-but-not-heard.” And frankly, sometimes they weren’t seen all that well, either. It was often as if children didn’t exist in the eyes of the adults—especially the men folk. So it was that while Mary Eileen was playing quietly in the yard that she overheard one of her relatives talking to her father about the recent loss of his wife.
“It must be a great comfort to you,” said the relative, “to have your two girls with you in this time of distress.” Mary Eileen pricked up her ears to catch her father’s response.
And then came “the terrible words.”
“Not really,” came her fathers crushing reply as she sat—unobserved—mere feet from him. “To be honest, I don’t really enjoy the girls all that much. Maybe I’ll enjoy them more when they’ve grown up.”
It’s hard to imagine the impact of those words on a 10-year-old girl. And who could know how those terrible words would play out in her life.
Times were hard for everyone in the 1930s. Depression didn’t just describe the financial situation the country was in—it also described the state of most of the populace. People were out of work. Often there wasn’t enough food to go around. Most of the people with means enough to invest or save had lost it all. And there were lines everywhere. People waited in lines for jobs. They stood in lines for food. But they soldiered on. As Mary Eileen would later muse: “You did what you could with what you had.”
Children weren’t exempt from the malaise that permeated society. One repeatedly hears how resilient children are—and it’s miraculously true—but those trying times were tough for them, too. Children in those times may not have been as burdened by the financial devastation that gnawed at their parents’ hearts and minds, but they somehow felt the tension. Children may be resilient, and innocent, but they’re not stupid. And yet, some children felt the bite of those trying times more than others.
This was Mary Eileen’s world. She was still reeling from hearing her father’s admission to his relatives that he really wasn’t all that interested in his own young motherless daughters—even as time dragged on. Some say that time heals all wounds, but for some, time only allows the hurts to burrow deeper into the heart. It’s one thing to live with am emotionally distant parent. It’s quite another thing to be openly dismissed and disregarded before others—even if the others are family. But in those days—and in that family—no one asked a girl like Mary Eileen what she thought or felt.
Of course, it didn’t help that for many families in those dark days, relatives simply didn’t have the means to help much—financially or emotionally. Every family had its hands full trying to keep their bellies half full. And so, for Mary Eileen life went on. It was a bit of a hardscrabble life at times—punctuated by brief periods of joy and certainly moments of childhood happiness—but always somehow overshadowed by the terrible words her father had spoken.
It’s perhaps impossible to forget words that tell you—and the world—that you’re unwanted and unimportant. And yet, more terrible words were still to come. One morning, Mary Eileen’s father came into her bedroom with a cardboard box in his hands. “Put your belongings in the box,” he instructed her. He didn’t ask. He didn’t explain. He simply told her to do it.
Obediently, Mary Eileen filled the box with her earthly possessions. It is perhaps telling of the times that all of her worldly goods fit in one cardboard box. And of course it didn’t take her much time. And while she was filling her box, her younger sister was instructed to do the same. Their father led the two young girls—again, without explanation—to the car. They climbed into the back of the car with their boxes, and their father drove off.
Their queries about where they were going were met with stony silence. After some time, they arrived at a place outside the city that they had never seen before. The girls were walked through the front door of a large house where their father told them that they would be staying. He then turned and walked away without saying another word.
The two sisters didn’t know where they were—or why they were there. They soon learned that they had landed at a place called Ridge Farm—outside of the city. But for girls who had never ventured outside of their small Riverside neighborhood that meant nothing. They might as well have been dropped at the edge of the wilderness. It felt about the same.
The main building was a large place, with dormitory-style rooms on the second floor in which beds stretched from one side of a long room to the other. If you’ve ever seen “Annie” or “The Cider House Rules” you have an image of what it was like: bed after identical, small bed, side by side, taking up the entire second floor. The girls (there were only girls staying at this “home”) weren’t permitted to keep any of their personal belongings by their beds.
The fact that there was no room for the girls’ possessions at their bedsides was only part of the equation. Keeping their belongings in boxes in the (locked) attic prevented the girls from gathering their things together and running away. Some tried it anyway, because on Sunday’s the girls were allowed to go up to the attic and put on their Sunday dresses in case they wanted to go to church.
Some took advantage of that freedom—changing into their Sunday best (and somehow stowing away their other possessions) and then making a run for it after church. Almost all were tracked down and returned to Ridge Farm.
The intent of the place was to care for girls with no place else to go. But for many of the residents, it felt like a prison. Although Mary Eileen and her sister never tried to run away, their position was very clear to them. They were just two more girls living with other girls nobody wanted. They were “throw-away” children, surrounded by other children that adults had discarded.
They remained at Ridge Farm for the summer. Then–for reasons unknown to them—they were sent back to live with relatives. The one comfort the sisters had was that at least they were together. But even that comfort would later be taken from them. After their summer in exile, the girls would return—but it could hardly be said that they returned “home.” That place, it seemed, no longer existed.
Oh, the houses were still there in Riverside, but the situation was no longer the same. Grandma and Grandpa were still there, but with the passing of time and the toll on their aging bodies, they were increasingly unable to care for the girls. Mary Eileen also sensed that Grandma and Grandpa were not pleased with her father and wanted him to step up to his role as father and take care of the girls. It was a job, Mary Eileen came to realize, that he did not want—or accept.
None of their relatives could absorb the financial burden of caring for two extra souls. So the girls were constantly split up and sent to live with a variety of relatives. Each time Mary Eileen would arrive at the doorstep of a different relative’s home, she would enter knowing that she was an unwelcome burden in a place where there was already too little to go around. She was an outsider who was tolerated because she was “family.”
And when one relative family could no longer shoulder the burden of an extra child, the sisters would be moved to the next relative for a period of time. Each time they landed with another family, however, they were reminded that they didn’t belong. They spent much of their childhood being the children that nobody wanted.
Mary Eileen would never return to live permanently with her father. Even the occasional times she returned for a brief stay were not much comfort. It was, in fact, during one of these visits that Mary Eileen would hear yet more terrible words—this time, words of accusation. These stinging words came one day, when she was accused of stealing money from the top of her father’s dresser.
The truth of the matter was that Mary Eileen had indeed taken a small amount of money from her father’s dresser. But she was no common thief. There was, of course, more to the story than met the eye. Some years had passed since the death of her mother. Mary Eileen was now a young adolescent. And for a female the passing of those years brought with them certain physical changes that would have been accepted and appropriately dealt with in a normal family.
She was becoming a young woman and had begun to cycle. Her father was totally unprepared for this situation and unwilling to deal with this new and uncomfortable development. In his mind it was a “woman’s” thing that he didn’t even want to acknowledge or talk about. He informed her that her mother had dealt with this “problem” without involving him—and that he expected her to do the same.
But “dealing with the situation” was easier said than done. Mary Eileen had no job—no source of income. Skilled and able-bodied adults couldn’t even find employment, much less adolescent girls with no marketable skills. And so, she was faced with a dilemma. She was expected to go to school and run errands, and work around the house, and carry on as usual. But how could she do that in the condition she was in?
Her father was unwilling to even speak about “the plight of women”—much less help his daughter deal with the situation. So one day Mary Eileen took a small amount of money from her father’s dresser in order to buy the “female” supplies she needed. And when her father discovered that some change was missing—she was branded a thief.
What made it worse, of course, was that her father—who should have loved, supported and encouraged her (no matter how clumsily, or inadequately)—had condemned her. She was reminded again that she was the girl that nobody wanted. And his words of condemnation tore into her heart. And it ate away at her sense of trust, because if you can’t rely on your one father to help you—who can you trust?
Mary Eileen didn’t remain with her father. She was sent off to live with Swedish relatives in LaGrange (beyond the edges of civilization as far as her father was concerned). She had a new place to stay, but she still didn’t have a home. And it would not be the last time she would hear terrible words.
Even though the world around her continued to change, things didn’t change dramatically for Mary Eileen. The country was coming out of the Great Depression—and heading toward war. Financial stability was still more of a dream than a reality for most of her relatives. And that meant constant moving for Mary Eileen and her sister.
Anyone who’s ever had to move during their junior high or high school years knows the feelings of being an outsider and having to build relationships from scratch. Younger children seem to handle it better. By the time one hits high school, most cliques have been fairly well established and outsiders remain on the outside looking in.
That was Mary Eileen’s experience, changing schools, teachers, and classmates every six or twelve months. It’s hard to build deep relationships when you know you may not be around to enjoy them.
Then, of course, there were the academic gaps she had to overcome. There was no counselor to monitor her progress and guide her through the maze of courses and classes until she reached her senior year of high school. At that point, her high school counselor told her that if she didn’t make up some ground, she could never expect to get into college.
College! Mary Eileen was stunned. The prospect had never crossed her mind. She’d assumed that higher education (despite her intelligence) was out of her reach. So she applied herself with fervor and made up all the classes she’d missed out on. And by the time she graduated, she’d been accepted at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.
One problem, however, remained. Even back then, a university education wasn’t free. And while the amount required at that time seems paltry to us today, it was more than a young high school girl could come up with on her own.
Mary Eileen’s options, however, were limited. There weren’t that many options for scholarships. So she swallowed her pride and went back to see her father—to ask for his help. She met him on a street corner and poured out her plight to him—thinking he might be proud of the fact that she had bootstrapped her way through school and now had the opportunity to study at the University.
But when she brought up her financial need, and asked for his help, she once again heard terrible words from her father: “I have my obligations to the Church. I can’t spare any money for you to go to college.”
After staring at him for a horrible moment, she spun on her heel and walked away without another word. She ended up borrowing the money from her Swedish uncle, and went off to college without her father’s help—or encouragement. It would be years before she would talk to him again.
Later she would reconnect with a man she had known in high school—a man with his own experiences of familial rejection—and marry. But the constant feelings of rejection and abandonment made it extremely difficult to trust, to feel loved, and to love in return. Many years later she would confide that: “I don’t think I ever really learned to love.” It was a deficit that would color and—to a degree—cripple her marriage.
The day after her wedding she told her relatives that she thought she’d made a huge mistake. But her relatives told her in no uncertain terms that she had made her own bed and would need to sleep in it. Once again, she was on her own.
She felt trapped, chained—not merely by a marriage she wasn’t sure she wanted—but even more so by her perceived inability to love.
It was a chain, however, that would be broken.
By now, it is certainly clear, that Mary Eileen is my mother. But whatever loss and sense of abandonment she felt was never passed on to my sister or to me. Our home was characterized by a sense of belonging. Both of us knew that someone (both Mom and Dad) had our backs. Home was a safe place. And we were always welcome there and we were loved—whether we deserved it or not.
When I would carouse during my high school years, I knew that my mother would be waiting up for me until she was sure I was home safe. There were times when I thought my parents were hopelessly rigid, strict, and out of touch. But I never once questioned that they loved me and were there for me. I was aware of sacrifices they made for me (without ever complaining about making those sacrifices). And I now know that there were many others they made that slipped under my radar.
My sister and I weren’t simply tolerated. We were prized. We were cherished. And, yes, we were disciplined! But our mother rejoiced in our accomplishments, and felt the burning hurt of our disappointments and failures.
As she became an old woman, my mother would confess again, that she felt she’d never learned to love. But I begged to differ.
I will never forget as her father was dying of lung cancer. I was in high school at the time. He and my mother had somehow reconciled. I don’t know the details, but I suspect it had a lot to do with his remarriage and the loving woman who reshaped his character.
But in the last week or so of his life, my mother brought him into our home. She and her younger sister (who came up from New Mexico) tenderly nursed him and cared for him at a time when he could no longer care for himself. The terrible words, while not forgotten, were forgiven.
My mother now lives less than two miles from me here in Colorado. I talk to her every day—and visit with her several times a week. There are days when she can remember clearly what happened 50, 60, or 70 years ago. And there are days when she cannot. She has only been out here a bit more than two years, but she thinks it’s been longer. There are days when she can’t remember some of the homes she’s lived in, but she never forgets the home with her grandparents in Riverside where she and her sister lived with her mother and father—the days before the terrible words.
But there’s something else she never forgets. Every time I call her, as I tell her good bye, she says, “I love you!” And she means it.
I love you, too, Mom!
[My mom has now been gone for two years]