In 1957 amazing things were occurring in the world but none as important as my connection with the old woman that lived next door. I was seven years old that year and she was ninety-seven. Let that sink in just a moment. She would turn 97 the same year Soviet Russia successfully launched "Sputnik," the first man-made satellite into space.
My history, my becoming aware of the world begins with the era of the hula hoop, the slinky, Old Yeller, cars with fins that made space-ships look slow, the cold-war, the baby boom, segregation, Eisenhower, erector sets, watching re-runs of The Three Stooges, and only 48 states in the nation.
I remember so well looking directly at her face, studying the wrinkles, spots and furrows while she spoke. Her words were coming at me but were heard as though filtered through the deep end of a swimming pool. I'm pretty sure she asked me what year I was born but I was lost for the moment in paying attention to her well-traveled old face when distinctly and clearly, I heard her say, "I was born in 1860."
Snapping out of it, my head darted back and forth a couple of times and I answered, "Wait, what, what did you say?"
Slowly and distinctly, she said again, "I was born in 1860."
Looking at my fingers and realizing I didn't have enough digits to count, my response was, "as in almost a hundred years ago 1860?"
Her body leaned forward so close we were nearly nose to nose, and she said, "Niney-six to be esact, be niney-seven in a minute."
My little seven-year-old brain had a flash of pictures of everything I knew about 1860.
Which of course wasn't all that much but I'm sure the look on my face was just what she had hoped it would be -- one of curiosity, wonderment and awe.
"When I's born, Abra'm Lincoln was elected Pres'dent of the U-nited States."
"Abraham Lincoln, the Abraham Lincoln? Nuh uh." I brilliantly responded.
"It's true," she said.
The 16th President of the United States was alive and well when this old lady was born, and I was sitting here talking to her. In 1860 there were only 33 states, the telegraph was a new-fangled method of long distant communication, trains didn't connect the east coast with the west, the civil-war would not start for another year and she was not spared being born a slave.
"Dang," I said to myself. Fireworks were going off in my head.
Mrs. Garrett was a light-skinned negro woman. So much so, I didn't know she was an African-American. I saw plenty of black kids on the occasional visit of her relatives and should have been in and of itself a pretty big clue. My parents told me she was an American Indian, and I believed them.
My dad kept all personal views about race and such to himself. I was aware his father, Hillard, my grandfather, had views I didn't understand, but the jury was still out on silent Bill, my father. My mother, grand-daughter of Irish immigrants on the other hand, didn't care about who her neighbors were as long as everyone kept out of our affairs. I thought it odd the old Indian woman had black friends and relatives and we didn't, but I was naive that way.
George Magielda was my best friend. Kenny Walker, the only black kid at Todd Elementary School, was my next closest play pal and there was no mistaking him for a native American. Ms. Garrett appreciated how the three of us played and wrestled around in the front yard and that my parents treated them like their own, she told me so.
At any rate, it was my understanding from my parents and relatives that asking her about whether or not she was colored or an Indian or part of each, was not appropriate and frankly none of my business. But I was seven -- guess what happened.
Back to her being ninety-six and all that implied -- her back story did not come to me all at once, she provided small tidbits about herself with timed precision over the course of the most fulfilling and interesting summer of my life. First, we had to meet, become accustomed to one another and trust each other. And we did in short order.
I didn't have to be older or educated to know to appreciate someone that old. The fact my little friends didn't get the significance of her age made me feel wise and informed and superior to them but that's generally how I felt most of the time.
Not long after my family moved into the house on E 61st Street from our shabby top duplex on Hubbard Avenue she scolded me for cussing.
Peering over the railing from her rocking chair, she said, "Boy, if I ever hear you cuss like that again I'll come off this porch and switch you like there's no tomara."
"Well excuse me Ma'm," I said mockingly, "but I didn't do any such thing." Not that I wasn't capable of it but I surely didn't get caught at it. The words had no sooner left my mouth when she stood up and in a slightly elevated voice gave me instruction not to my liking.
"Go over to that tree and pull off a switch. And you better make it a stout one or I'll give it to ya-what-for on the legs." I had never been switched before but I heard stories about it and I knew I was too old and could run too fast to be switched by the likes of her.
I don't know why I said it, but I did. With my face scrunched up in a pained expression I replied in a challenging manner, "Why don't you just come down off that porch and try it." Oh shit.
She stood up like a jack rabbit and I darted the other direction straight for my back door to report the incident to my mother, thinking I better tell her what happened before the meanest woman I had ever met, so I thought, got me in trouble for something I didn't do.
Mrs. Garrett, as I learned later was a tad bit hard of hearing and she truly thought I said a pretty bad word. My mother told me to be tolerant of old people but made me very much aware if I needed to be switched, she would let the old gal do it and left it at that. I had come to expect swift justice from my mother and believed her.
* * *
My first encounters with Mrs. Garrett confirmed she was watching and listening from her porch to what we did and said as we played in our yard, all while sitting there quietly rocking and keeping busy with knitting and clipping coupons and such. Every so often I would look at her and our eyes would meet. Once she even smiled before she looked away to pay attention to whatever else it was that kept old women busy and at the same time stealthily paying attention to what kids like me were plotting. The outcome of our first meeting would not have foretold we would become friends but the universe had other plans.
She didn't talk much, hardly at all, really, about her parents and what she knew about their life -- I surmised it was not for my understanding. I do know she married a cowboy that mess'd-round on her so she got rid of him and married a law man in Kansas that was part Indian from Oklahoma and moved on from there.
That was just the beginning. In one sitting she regaled me with the abridged version of her adventures in horse drawn wagons and her association with people from all walks of life, such as the likes of Isom Dart, Nat Love and many kind and generous interactions with the Melungeons of Appalachia that called her one of their own.
Like Mrs. G, Isom Dart was born a slave. He though, became a desperado and a cattle rustler and gambler. His gang of desperados were ambushed by a posse of some sort and killed. Dart was spared because he found and hid for hours in a nearby grave. Surviving that, he went straight and rode the cattle range hiring out as a bronco buster and cowhand. In his later years he took back to rustling and was killed at the age of 51 in 1900 by the bounty hunter Tom Horn. Speculation had it Horn was paid to kill one of Dart's gang members, Matt Rash, then laid in wait for Dart as well because there were warrants out on him. Horn was never charged for Dart's murder but was hung years later in 1903 for the murder of a sheep herder's fourteen-year- old son. Mrs. G was 40 when Isom Dart was killed and 43 when Horn was hung.
Nat Love was born a slave in 1854 and left his native Tennessee in 1868 for adventure in the west. He worked as a cowhand in a vast area encompassing Texas, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), and states adorned by the Rocky Mountains. She assured me he had quite the man's man story, being captured by and escaping Indians, witnessing and participating in gun fights and riding with the likes of Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill Cody, Kit Carson and Jesse James. About the middle of his life, Love left the cowboying business and took a wife. He was employed as a bank guard and as a Pulman porter before he died in 1921 at the age of 67. Mrs. Garrett was 61 years old at the time of his death.
I was spellbound by the very thought of her encounters with the likes of them, people I hadn't heard of, yet (in)famous in their time. She revealed to me how it was necessary to discuss things quietly among her folk back in the day, how she survived reconstruction of the South (whatever that was) and how exciting it was to be around for the invention of the telephone, phonograph, photographs, movies, automobiles, airplanes, vaccinations, atom bombs, and so forth. She had at least one recollection for each topic mentioned.
At every sitting, thousands of miniscule explosions would go off in my head. It was easy to launch into my own imaginings about her adventures as though I was there with her. I was hooked -- that summer, that porch and that old lady was my entire world.
* * *
Our neighborhood centered around St. Hyacinth Catholic School and Church, Todd Elementary public school, Meyer Dairy, Republic Steel and the Dandee Potato Chip plant. It was bordered by Francis Avenue on the north, Bessemer Avenue to the south, E. 55th Street on the west and the Kingsbury Run section of the rapid transit tracks on the east. Yes, the same area of the Kingsbury Run torso murders of the 1930's.
Every block, it seemed, had a small mom and pop storefront with a house attached in the back. They were places for life's stuff: bread, milk, eggs, soda pop, candy, cigarettes and beer. Some had fresh deli meat, sausage and fresh bakery. Each store had its own smell and its own vibe and every sign posted on the window were done so in at least two languages, usually Polish or Czech and English. All in the shadow of the smoke and grit of the steel mills and manufacturing that followed the Cuyahoga River in the industrial "Flats" of Cleveland, Ohio.
You didn't have to look far to find people of all creeds, colors and religions from around the world as well as different parts of the United States.
World War II ended just twelve years before my first run-in with her. In the time after the war and especially during the 1950s, immigrants from Europe arrived in numbers not previously seen since the turn of the 20th Century at Ellis Island.
From the southern states people moved to cities like Cincinnati, Dayton, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh for good paying factory jobs. My father worked for Republic Steel at the time, then for Meyer Dairy and was within walking distance from home from both places for lunch.
I mentioned there were all kinds of people in my neighborhood. There were. My family was from West Virginia. Others were from Kentucky, Tennessee and exotic locales like Alabama. We were just one of many hillbilly families in the area but my best friend, George was born in Germany.
Nearby were Poles and Italians (Dagos or Wops depending on what state you were from), Croatians, Hungarians, Czechoslovakians (all bo-hunks), and southerners of all persuasions looking for the same opportunities. I doubt the census could have determined for sure how many people from around the world (it seemed) were coming to the 7th largest city in America. All of them looking for a better life despite the smoke, the bitter winter cold and hardships known to all too many, young and old.
The common thing about our little corner of Cleveland was that nobody appeared to have any more money than the next -- except for the fellow that owned Smokers Tavern. Smokers had a constant flow of drinkers, gamblers and women that wore too much make-up, if you catch my drift.
Other than the owner of Smokers bar and the mysterious people that came and went through his door the people we had contact with certainly had one thing in common -- we were scraping by as best we could.
To our neighbors I'm sure our family met all the expectations of every stereotype a northerner could find about people from the south. There were (eventually) six children in our household, meeting the first criteria -- a bunch of kids. None of the Smith's spoke a language other than English and the King's English it was not.
More often than not you would find our dinner table displaying an abundance of southern comfort food including corn bread, buttermilk, grits, gravy, cream style corn, hominy and pinto beans with an ample supply of hot dogs and fish sticks. The menu was cheap and satisfied the unrefined palate. Nutritious? Maybe not. My go to steady diet consisted of hot dogs, tuna and grilled cheese sandwiches. Admittedly, on occasion my mother would make mash potatoes with real meat and vegetables -- we weren't totally barbaric.
If you wanted homemade sausage, pierogies, chicken noodle soup or homemade cheesecake it was George's house you wanted to be at. I caught on, accidently, that the delicious chicken noodle soup George's mother made was actually his dad's racing pigeons that failed to win races.
George's dad showed me his prize racer one day and a few days later I noticed it was not in the coop. After asking where it was, George interpreted his father's explanation spoken in German as, it just never came back from the race. As the three of them exchanged information back and forth in several languages, I saw his mom's eyes glancing back and forth from her husband to George as if to say that's the story and we are sticking to it.
George and I were inseparable for much of our child hood. His good- nature was tolerant and accommodating of my irreverence and ill temper. It was a friendship destined to be. He was the good boy and I was the ... well, you get the picture.
To illustrate, one summer morning George and I set off to explore the abandoned warehouse buildings in our neighborhood and was still within sight of my house when a stray dog came within sight. It wasn't aggressive nor necessarily friendly and made no attempt to growl or show its teeth. It was just a stray dog minding its own business looking for food or its owner.
There was no reason for me to pick up a stone and throw it at the dog but I did. I found two other stones and offered one to George. He declined. As I drew to throw the second stone, he put his hand on my arm and asked me to not throw it. He told me his mother said God comes in many forms and asked me to consider if that dog might be God -- would I throw the stone at him?
"Even if it's just a dog, it's just not a kind or nice thing to do." He hammered in the point by telling me his mom was familiar with a boy in Germany that was cruel to animals and God disfigured his face because he tortured one. "That might happen to us," he said.
I put the stone down. I didn't believe a word of it, but said nothing on the off chance it might be true and I was reluctant to express my disbelief because doing so would have been the same as calling his mother a liar.
What did register with me was the fact that George wondered about things I had not. From then on, I wanted to know more about God. So, when the old priest showed up in my front yard, I was ripe for the picking.
* * *
There was always a gang of boys playing in our street or in my yard. We were loud, obnoxious and rowdy. The only boy I knew that attended church regularly and didn't mind doing so was George. The rest of us were just heathens, as Mrs. Garrett called us, until one day, the old priest that walked by most Saturday mornings stopped and gathered us around.
I noticed he always watched us as though he was reminiscing about his youth. This day he stopped and spoke to us.
"What church do you boys go to?"
George proudly spoke up to inform him he attended St. Hyacinth's. The old priest was diminutive in build and appeared to be frail beyond his age but was actually spry in his walk and possessed a joyful persona.
He pointed to me and asked "What about you?"
"I don't go to church, Father."
Several of the other boys chimed in, "Church? We don't go to church."
The next thing we knew Ms. Garrett called to him and they spoke privately over the railing of her porch -- he turned and looked right at me as though she pointed out the one that needed it the most. Thanks a million, lady.
"Come here son," he said. "Go get your mom or dad for me, will you?" Hesitantly I did and he spoke with my mother for a while in a huddle with Mrs. Garrett. Conspirators, obviously planning my demise, or worse, my salvation.
Our fun was interrupted by the little old man with the funny hat and collar. Don't get me wrong, we all knew he was a priest and deserved respect and even reverence for who he was and what he did. But we were kids and wanted to play and even I knew if he was going to bring anybody to Jesus it certainly would be a waste of time to try and convert me or my family. Disinterested, the other boys wandered home and about looking for a play area that did not have a priest poking around.
That day however, was the beginning of a friendship with an old man, like it was too with Mrs. Garrett, a friendship that was destined to provide something bigger to a kid that didn't know what he wanted or how to get it.
Father Martin allowed me to visit him regularly at the chapel at St. Alexis hospital where he was assigned upon his retirement as a parish priest. He allowed me access to the hospital library and taught me to play chess. He would often sit and visit with Mrs. Garrett, his new friend, and me on his Saturday morning walks.
Mrs. Garrett again played a role in pointing out the one that needed a nudge in the right direction and perhaps the one that would appreciate it as well. In the coming years the old priest never asked me to become a practicing Catholic, although eventually I did. It goes without saying he inspired me to be better than I was and to know the difference. He was a kind and gentle holy man and was my friend until his death in the mid 1970s.
* * *
The intersection of 55th and Broadway was the economic center of our life, as it was for those that lived within a mile or so in all directions. It was a small town in and of itself. The area didn't have a moniker or historical marker to designate any particular heritage or way of life back then as it does now, it was just known as 55th and Broadway.
Everything one needed was there, including the S.S. Kresge 5 & 10 store, the Carnegie Free Library, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Fisher's clothing store, an abundance of mom and pop shops, banks, pawn brokers, lawyer offices and thank God almighty for the Olympia movie theater and the #4 bus that could take you downtown without a transfer.
* * *
The omnipresent and ever listening ear of Mrs. Garrett was realized early on, as was her willingness to co-parent from her porch. Looking back, I wonder if I said certain things just to get her attention. Whether our interactions were provoked or not I looked ever so forward to hearing her invitation to come sit with her a minute.
Kenny Walker, George and I were bored and rough housing in the front yard when a car approached us carrying a load of teenage boys. The car slowed down to a near stop while they stared at us for a moment and shook their heads to each other in some kind of recognition of something unspoken and clandestine, then slowly drove away.
Geoge asked us, "What was that about?" We shrugged our shoulders signaling that we didn't know -- although I had my doubts, I was pretty sure I did and didn't want to say.
Kenny, I'm sure had seen that look before, that disapproving shaking of the head, that smirk, the rolling of the eyes and manufactured disgust. He didn't seem to take it personal.
It was just a moment later he said, "I don't think they like polaks or hillbillies." Even at seven years old we knew that it was a funny thing to say to break the ice. Although the experience itself was brief, it was nonetheless foreboding and made me sad. There was something going on that I just didn't have a full grasp on, yet.
Later that day, I asked Mrs. Garrett if she saw what happened. She did. I had questions, and we talked.
After our discussion about the boys in the car which encompassed much more than shared here, she said, "I think we can talk about something else now." She changed the subject at just the right time.
My old friend had a folksy demeanor -- a very easy home spun style of getting her point across. She knew a lot about the human condition from a perspective of one whom experienced the short end of life's abundance. Never did she complain or seek pity or blame from anyone, nor apologized for being who she was. On many occasions she said "Who we are is an act of God."
In one of our meetings after a long silence between us, she leaned in and said, "Boy, you are going to have to quit thinking of yourself as just some hillbilly kid, and don't you pay no mind to folks saying y'all are white trash." Direct and to the point. Ouch. Shall I turn the other cheek now?
Pretty easily, I guess, she saw through the false bravado and the I-don't-care-what-people-think façade. The hillbilly part I understood, but the poor "white trash" part kind of stung. I added the "poor" to the white trash tag because I knew that we were.
"George," she said, "he has a bit of an accent and him being a DP has its own set of built-in handicaps." Looking at me, she narrowed one eye to a slit while raising the brow of the other, and said, "It'll mess with your head, mind you."
A "DP" for the uninformed, was officially the shortened version of how the government identified a Displaced Person, an immigrant or registered alien arriving in the U.S. after the war, but on the street, it just meant dumb polak. Even at seven years old, I knew I'd rather be called a stupid hillbilly than a dumb polak and knew also it would take a heavy mental toll on anyone forced to bear it like a modern-day scarlet letter. It was mean and saying it was tantamount to proclaiming superiority, as only the shallow and narrow minded can do.
What many people never knew is that my buddy George, seven-year-old George, spoke three languages. His mother was German, his father was Polish, and he was fluent in their native tongues as well as English. I learned in later years that George's dad was relocated from Poland to Germany by the Nazis as slave labor. Without being paid, they had him work in a factory where he met and fell in love with his bride to be. As a German, she was paid a wage and able to provide clothes and medicine and shared her meager food source to keep him alive to the end of the war and whatever fate awaited them in the future.
Mrs. Garrett made sure I was aware that Kenny couldn't hide who he is and assured me his path would be different and much more difficult than mine, especially in those days. His future would be filled with unavoidable trials of assimilation even in the enlightened so-called liberal northern states. I knew it was true. I also knew he didn't have a mean bone in his body and didn't deserve the road ahead, nor did his parents. Kenny's dad was a large robust man with a laugh to match and his mom was quiet and charming. My visits to his house were filled with good humor, fun and good food.
* * *
Rather braggingly, I informed Mrs. Garrett I saw a dead body at Merrick's funeral home when the body was left unattended. It was a funeral of a child of about one year in age that I was not allowed to attend because of my own tender age.
"Curiosity," she said, "is not a bad thing, but there is a time and a place for it and you peek'n through the curtains at a baby's funeral at seven years old just ain't what seven- year-olds should be doin." Pointing her finger at me, she said, "Minding they parents is what young boys, white and black, should be doing."
"Okay, stop right there," I said. "Why do you do that?"
"Do what?" she asked in earnest.
"Sometimes you use good English and other times you don't -- but it's kind of like you do it on purpose."
"Is that so? In what way?"
"When you said 'mind'n they' parents, instead of 'their parents.'" I hardly finished my observation, when she cut in, in a tempered scolding manner, "Boy, I've been here for a great many years and I can talk anyway I see fittin -- don't you dare ... why, you're one to talk about how I talk ..."
With a quickly spoken Yes Ma'am, I shut that down as quickly as I could and never questioned her mannerisms again. Not in front of her anyway.
After a moment of silence, she said, "Did you get those wires like I told you to get?"
"Yep," I replied.
"Don't yep me, a yes Ma'am every time would be nice. You ain't no Little Lord Fauntleroy, that's for sure." I didn't want to ask who or what the heck a Fauntleroy was, but I did acknowledge her request, if only to prove I had the ability to exhibit good manners every so often.
After a few moments of listening to her rocking chair squeak, I did ask her a question. "Why weren't you at the wake or attend the funeral? You know those people well enough."
Busy attending to her crocheting she didn't answer.
"Ma'am? Mrs. Garrett?" The only sound was the creaking of her rocking chair. She was lost in thought and our counseling session was over for today.
The wires she spoke of were to become the stems of roses she taught me how to make using red, yellow and green crepe paper, bunches of which were to be given to the old people at the nursing home. I always thought that was funny -- her referring to them as old. Before the summer was over, I was an expert at assembling the flowers made from what I had cut, wrapped and tied together with sewing thread.
She talked over the noise made by the back and forth of the rocking chair over the loosening boards of the porch while occasionally sipping orange pekoe tea from a tall glass filled with ice. A little bottle of Pepsi and freshly made brownies at the ready was always my inducement to join her.
She told me story after fantastic story of her youth, her family ... negro, Indian, slave and Freedmen, of campfires and Klan fires, making her own clothes, about brave and handsome husbands and beaus, and so many other adventures strewn with measured doses of hardships and joy with a bountiful number of kindnesses received from events she experienced first-hand. Most were stories of tender and fragile relationships proportionate with those that were sorrowful and frightening, all of which undeniably meaningful to her, as they were inspiring, captivating and intriguing to me.
In our lifetime some of us are lucky to enjoy a sampling of all of those things. She had lived through all a human being should be subjected to and endure and I can confirm her conviction that all were blessings from God. Never did she speak of hatred or jealousy for a life she couldn't or didn't have. To this day I wonder if her grandkids knew as much about her as I did.
My well-meaning and learned friends point out, sometimes in an all but too condescending manner, that many of her stories might have been embellished somewhat. No doubt I concede the possibility.
Most anecdotal tales and yarns are told with the anticipation of eliciting certain reactions from the listener. My reaction to her narratives was consistent -- my body leaned forward and my eyes looked deep into hers as I breathed through my mouth and fidgeted in my chair hanging on to each word.
That is how my summer in 1957 went -- an old neighbor lady shared amusing stories and advice and unbeknownst to me, a certain amount of counseling in disguise, to a kid that couldn't keep his mouth shut, his feet still, or his mind wandering.
What about the details of her stories, you say? I'll tell you when I'm ninety-seven.