Continuation from Customs and Celebration
by Elisabeth Teicher
- ON TO LOVE AND POLITICS
After our graduation from the eighth grade in June 1928, Mary and I, free of school at last, were expected to help put food on the table and/or help pay the rent (food and lodging being the two unconditional necessities.) However, housework was usually the only work available to us.
By working, we could supplement Pa’s minimal living wage and make a few extras possible. Prices were low, and Ma, a good cook, looked forward to enjoying her craft and having good meals for all of us. With bacon at nineteen cents a pound and hamburger a nickel a pound, Ma had a spree (as we grew older, we gradually came to call our parents Ma and Pa).
Poor Mary! She worked all summer doing housework full time, which meant living in. However, she loved their four children, and a fifth on the way made no difference to her.
As for me, I was lucky. In Pa’s Deutche Herald we found an ad for a waitress who spoke German (muss Deutch sprechen). Ma accompanied me to the restaurant. The law required waitresses to be 16, but since I spoke German, the proprietor put a finger to his lips, which meant I was hired. The pay was $5.00 a week, plus carfare and tips, and my hours were 11:00 A.M. until 8:00 P.M., with an hour off in the afternoon. “You can take a walk in the park,” he told me. The large old building was in a square off Washington Park, which had such happy childhood memories for me.
I loved the work. My boss trained me, and he had an established German clientele who were good tippers; my apron bulged with quarters, and the family ate better than we had in a long time. All that silver bought fresh fruit, which we usually couldn’t afford. I was, however, let go at the end of summer with the same finger to the lips, which explained why I had to leave without notice. I knew better than to ask questions; I felt lucky not to be in jail for breaking the law.
The school system was introducing a new program, in which any kids not entering high school would be required to attend the Vocational School a few hours a day, five days a week, until age 16. I did this for two years.
Since I could work only half days after my morning of school on 5th and State, I got a part-time job as a nursery girl for Mr. and Mrs. Katz, who had a three-year-old daughter named Judy. I took the streetcar from school to their house in Shorewood and spent the night there, but I had all day Sunday off! Mrs. Katz liked to cook; she prepared dinner in the morning while I was at school. Later she went shopping or somewhere to play bridge while I took Judy out in her stroller for the afternoon. Then I served dinner and washed the dishes. My wage was $5.00 a week, the same as Mary’s, who worked more hours with less time off. Poor Mary had only Thursday afternoons and every other Sunday afternoon free. Thus did some unscrupulous people take advantage of the times.
My grade school friend, Martha, whose parents were also German immigrants, and I would have Sundays to do things, which usually meant a matinee and then supper at Martha’s. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I arrived at Martha’s house, and she said, “Let’s stay home today,” and I agreed. In a short time she answered the doorbell and brought in a handsome young fellow she introduced to me as her cousin, Bobby. I’d heard all about Bobby and his beautiful baritone voice, but my first reaction was to worry about the new pimple on my forehead. Bobby as a junior at West Division High School—more than two years older that I! Since I hadn’t met anyone who was a student, I looked forward to hearing about high school, but all Bobby said about it was, “My German teachers are always asking me to sing German songs in class.” So that brought up his singing.
We spent most of the afternoon that way. I mean, he sang, and I moved my lips to the words. He urged me to sing along, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. “Only with a whole class,” I told him. He was not really a show off; he really loved to sing, and I loved being his audience. He insisted he would see to it that my name would become Betty, since one of the latest songs was “Betty Coed”. I blush to think that I thought Coed was her last name! I learned many new things by happenstance. It didn’t really worry me until something embarrassing happened. Then I quickly put aside the desire to die and went on from there. You might be interested in the words of “Betty Coed”. How about if I write them down? Such a sign of those goofy times!
Betty Coed has lips of red for Harvard.
Betty Coed has eyes of Yale’s deep blue.
Betty Coed’s a golden head for Princeton.
Her dress, I guess, is black for old Purdue.
Betty Coed’s a smile for Pennsylvania.
Her heart is Dartmouth’s treasure so ’tis said.
Betty Coed is loved by every college boy,
But I’m the one who’s loved by Betty Coed!
Think the Beatles would sing it?!
It was 1928, election year, the first one that I was really aware of. Bobby had gotten my work telephone number from Martha, and on election eve, while I was serving dinner, the telephone in the hallway between the kitchen and the dining room rang. I answered it before closing the door. It was Bobby!
“Hello, Betty.” His mellow voice made me feel faint. “Well, it looks as if our man is going to lose.”
“What do you mean?” I rallied. “Hoover is way ahead!”
“Who said anything about Hoover? I’m for Smith, and I don’t care if he is Catholic!” There was a sudden commotion in Bobby’s parents’ tavern, which he was calling from, and we had to hang up. I looked up and saw the Katz’s looking at me. I mean, really looking at me for the first time. “Your friend’s family are Democrats?” Mr. K. asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “I can’t imagine why.” I didn’t want them to look down on me as a Democrat and hated myself as soon as the words were out of my mouth. I knew the Katz’s were Republicans.
“How did your parents vote?” asked Mr. Katz. I wanted terribly to say “Republican,” but the Ten Commandments had been so thoroughly instilled in me I could not for the life of me bring myself to bear false witness now.
“Well,” I quickly filled the hanging silence. “My parents can’t vote.” They both looked slightly alarmed. “They still haven’t gotten their papers,” I finished desperately.
“Oh? Where are they from?” I’d never liked the sound of the word Yugoslavia, and Germans were called Krauts, so I quickly said, “Austria.” It seemed less a lie than Germany. They seemed satisfied and left early for an election party; I had the whole evening to be ashamed of my behavior. After awhile, however, I began to realize that, until tonight, my employers had known nothing whatever about me except my name, and tonight I’d learned they weren’t really much interested in my family either—just so I did my job.
I have memories of my mother asking me probing questions about any new friend I brought home. It seemed important to her. I knew that I mustn’t forget that. When I went to bed—early because it had been a long day—I realized that I hadn’t thought about Bobby all evening. It seemed a victory of some kind, and I felt at peace.
This seems like a good time to bring in a later part of my history for the sake of future clarity. My father, due not only to his difficulty with the language, procrastinated about applying for his citizenship papers for many years. As Mary and I reached our teens, we began to nag him about it, but he still waited until my mother had her papers before he got down to business.
By the time he received those important papers, however, Mary and I had passed our eighteenth birthdays, which meant we had to apply for our own, which we did. I hate to admit that we didn’t do it immediately. Family habits seem to be hard to break. Truth to tell, I’d felt like an American ever since the first time I recited the Pledge of allegiance with my class at Nazareth Bethel School and never have stopped appreciating my adopted country.
In view of the tragic situation that persists today in the very area of my homeland, I still bless my parents in my prayers for bringing us to America. Whenever I see a newscast that shows an old woman scrounging for firewood in war-torn Croatia, I realize that I could have been that person!
- THE GIFT AND THE BETRAYAL
It was Christmas Eve 1928, and the family, except Pa of course, had just returned from Hansi and Helen’s Christmas Eve program at church when there was a knock on the door of our humble rear cottage. It was I who opened the door to find a smiling Bobby holding out two holly-wrapped Christmas presents!
I was stunned but managed to ask him in and awkwardly introduced him around to my equally surprised family. The details remain foggy. “Come out to the front with me,” Bobby said in his nice voice. “I want you to meet my sister and her fiance. They brought me here.”
I put the gifts on the table, and he led me to a nice car at the curb. I had never met his engaged 18-year-old sister and wouldn’t have recognized her or her fiance if I were to meet them the next day, nor do I remember what we talked about. Eventually I started to shiver so violently that Bobby put his arm around me and started to walk me away. I managed to call over my shoulder, “I’m glad I met you both.”
“We have a couple more stops,” Bobby told me at the door, “so I’d better not come in again.” I saw that Pa was already a bit tipsy, and Ma glared at me with the words, “There’ll be no more of that, Liz. You’re not even 15 years old yet!”
“Open your presents,” Hansi begged, jumping up and down in anticipation. I opened the bigger one first, a box of chocolates which I passed around. I put off opening the second one as long as possible. It was flat and rectangular in shape.
“Oh, look!” Breathlessly I held up a beautiful beaded evening bag, a kind I had never seen before except in a store window, usually a jewelry store.
Ma increased her show of displeasure with an angry, “Honestly” (richtig). Ma need not have worried; I never did get around to bringing Bobby home. The little we saw of each other was always at Martha’s house. I never lied. She never asked. I never told her.
In the spring, however, things picked up. Martha had a brother, Gus, who was a senior at Washington High School, and Gus had a friend with a car of his own. The two of them dropped by one Sunday afternoon, and Mary and I went for a ride in the country with Bobby’s prolific singing as a lure. Sunday afternoon drives soon became a regular thing. Bobby’s ability to sing harmony against five of us singing melody continued to seem like a minor miracle to me. I’d never been able to carry a tune by myself and had been teased about it all of my childhood. In German, singing on key is called singing die Weise—which almost sounds like weiss – the white. When you sang off key, you were teased about singing die Schwarze—the black. Poor joke for tone-deaf people like me.
It worried Mary and me never to have the group at our house. There were two reasons for this, Pa’s drinking and the house. We still rued the day that Ma had allowed the relatives to persuade her to buy the inhospitable oak dining room set instead of a sofa and chairs. Useless regrets…
At the end of May, Martha’s parents, who really liked Pa in spite of his drinking, invited the family to attend the school picnic with them. It was on a Saturday at a new location, the Lutheran Alten Heim (Home for the Aged) out in the country on 76th and North Ave. “We’ll pick you up. There’s plenty of room in the two cars,” they said.
I felt good having my old schoolmates seeing me with handsome Bobby. Mr. Maas gave me a hug; he was the only one I introduced to Bobby. After mingling for a while, Bobby asked me to go for a walk. We started down the road that bordered the grounds to a country cemetery, which we had seen earlier. It seemed like a miracle that we both liked cemeteries. We walked happily about, hand in hand, reading the inscriptions on headstones.
With one accord, we sat down on a wide, low stone and embraced in a long, sweet kiss. Our first real kiss! There had been quick little hidden pecks on my cheek on our drives…one didn’t kiss openly in the company of others. This was the first time we were truly alone with each other.
I have no idea how long we sat there. I was painfully aware of the brilliant blue sky with the floating fluffy white clouds. Butterflies flitted from flower to flower. A bee buzzed endlessly about a spicy red geranium at our feet. We talked softly about these things, between more kisses. When we finally rose to our feet to leave, we looked sadly around. I think we both knew this experience would not, could never, be repeated.
At bedtime, Ma really tied into me for leaving the picnic. If only I could have told her how innocent the whole thing had been. As usual, I hadn’t the vocabulary–in German, this time. Schuld means blame, so unschuldig is blameless. Blame, I reasoned, is brought on by accusation, and there was no accusation, so I had no way to defend myself, at least not in German.
Hindsight now tells me it was Pa who Ma was really angry at. He’d managed somehow, to get a drink or two on Saturday morning before the picnic, spoiling this day the family had been looking forward to.
I could have told my mother something about Martha’s father that would have made mine look pretty good. One day when Martha and I were alone in her house, she showed me some dirty pictures her father carried in his suit coat pocket…the same coat he wore to church! I mean these were really dirty pictures that made me feel sick but didn’t seem to affect Martha one way or the other.
There were only a couple drives in the country after that picnic. Martha told me that Bobby had to help out in the tavern more than he did before. She added, self-consciously, “Besides, he’s seeing that girl again; the one he was going steady with when you first met him. The one whose name is Estelle.” My only comment was, “What a pretty name.”
My heart felt raw and heavy for longer than I cared to admit. Why couldn’t we at least have said good-bye? I felt dumped…horrid word, but accurate. Then I saw a Joan Crawford movie in which, after breaking off a love affair, she had sent all her lover’s gifts back to him. That’s what I would do! I had to do something! I did it but never heard, even from Martha, whether or not he’d gotten the evening bag in the mail. I never mentioned to anyone what I had done.
I was always sorry I’d done such an unkind thing to Bobby; my only excuse was that I was angry and hurt. I wrote notes of regret in my mind, but never sent one. It was Mary who suggested that fall that we start turning down those regular Sunday night suppers at Martha’s. She was afraid of running into Gus, who had dropped completely out of the picture.
It seemed like the end of the world, just thinking about it, but when you are part of a family, other things are going on at the same time that you can hide behind. Besides, endings invariably lead to new beginnings. Although this was not the ending I would have chosen, there was nothing to do but go along with it.
- BACK TO THE FAMILY
It never rains, but it pours. I know it’s a timeworn word cliche, but it fit perfectly the weeks after I stopped seeing Bobby. I resented most bitterly the multifaceted interference of my feelings over my loss. I’ve never been one for half measures; my feelings were very real and represented real life, and I wasn’t ready to put them aside before I’d had enough time to deal with them.
Our house was too small for the most minimal privacy, and what happened to any one family member was literally forced on the others. It was not two weeks afterwards that my ubiquitous grandparents appeared at our door, followed by the taxi driver carrying their suitcases. This could only mean trouble, but Ma wasn’t really surprised that Grandpa, after arriving in America, and his daughter-in-law (my Uncle Jake’s wife) in Ohio had tangled before the first year of living together was up. It was our turn, I guess.
Grandpa Kehl, always at his best while making new plans, was full of them, and our immediate future together was all laid out by him before Pa got home from work. Grandpa always had some money hidden away in a little velvet bag he wore on a cord around his neck, and not even Grandma knew the contents! All of his life this man never lost consciousness for a second. He was a light sleeper, and if I may project once more, at his death the bag was empty, but it wasn’t empty now. He promised that he’d pay half the rent if we moved into a bigger house, and we’d all live happily ever after. Leaving this dismal cottage, which still reminded me of Bobby’s visit, was, indeed, something to look forward to.
Grandpa said that first he and Grandma wanted to start their new life here with a complete set of new false teeth for each of them. I was chosen to help them find a dentist who could speak German. That being accomplished, we would look for a bigger house. I will never forget the day the two of them came home smiling broadly, and showing perfect, even white teeth that looked grotesque in their wrinkled faces.
We moved into the big house in July. It was almost in the country, north of Capitol Drive, on North 24th Street. The house had a big, comfortable country kitchen, living and dining room on the first floor and two bedrooms on both the second and third floors. Of the two third-floor rooms, Grandma and Grandpa would have the front one, and Mary and I would have the one overlooking the fields at the back. I looked forward to seeing stars and snowflakes from my bedroom window.
We foresaw trouble almost at once. Grandpa had started an old habit of rolling his eyes back into his head. Then he took Grandma for a long walk one day, and when she returned, she had a job at the local cemetery, trimming graves marked.
“Perpetual Care”. She was, of course to earn the money Grandpa had promised to add to the rent. It was an old story. Whenever the little velvet bag was relieved of some of its contents, nothing would do but for Grandma to find a way to earn the money to replenish it. This time Grandpa got her that cemetery job. In all my life, I had never seen him take a job of any kind.
Well, Grandma loved the outdoors, working with flowers in the fresh air (frische Luft). Mary and I sometimes walked over to visit Grandma at the cemetery, and she would show us the stone markers shaped like little lambs. We’d read the names of the babies buried there, and Grandma would weep over every one of them. With all the changes in our lives, we knew one thing would never change, and that was the gentle heart of our grandmother.
My new commercial classes at the Vocational School turned out to be a bitter disappointment. I found bookkeeping to be too much like the hated arithmetic. As for typing, my naturally clumsy fingers came down between the keys more often than on top of them!
“I guess I’m not smart enough for office work,” I told Ma. “You mean you don’t like it,” she came back with her usual accuracy. “Of course,” she conceded, “you haven’t been getting enough sleep lately.” That’s the next part of this story!
Grandpa, by then, was reaching the end of his acceptable behavior. The fights in the next bedroom would start just about the time Mary and I had settled down to sleep. I should have put the word fights in the singular; it was Grandpa’s voice we heard—without being able to make out the words. We heard only an occasional “Nein, nein,”from Grandma. “Bitte lass mich schlaffen!” (Please let me sleep!) We still didn’t know at this time that Grandpa constantly accused her of his own sin of infidelity, even checking up on her at the cemetery. “Aber die Manner hier sind alle tot!” (but the men here are all dead!) brought not a smile from him. It was, of course, an old story. The wonder is that we never suspected Grandpa was probably mentally ill for many years—not until these things began to appear in the newspapers and the public started to get educated.
After a while, we heard more than the usual amount of scuffling, accompanied by raised voices, and we grew alarmed enough to start for the stairs. We met Grandma screaming that Grandpa had hanged himself. One look, and Ma grabbed Pa’s straight razor from the bathroom and cut through the leather belt.
Grandma picked up the belt and moaned, “Oh, that nice, new belt!” Pa arrived on the scene just in time to hear Grandma’s misplaced concern and had to cover his mouth in the familiar way. Pa never failed to be amused by Grandma’s ways of dealing with her recalcitrant spouse.
Of course, there was nothing funny about this incident, and both my parents kept the two grandparents up until the next step was settled. This is the only time I knew my father to take a stand, and this was the last time we all lived together under one roof…for one brief and turbulent summer.
All of my life I have suffered from a condition some call “looking on the bright side”, which, I believe I’ve touched on before, and of which my mother never approved. I think maybe it did get monotonous (one of my grown children definitely found it monotonous). I’ll have to work on that. The thing is if you don’t get something out of a bad experience, it’s a waste of whatever time it took.
It’s confession time, and I admit there have been some really dumb things that have happened to me for which a current cliche has a good answer. Who need it? Well, maybe you don’t need it now, but some lessons need time and seasoning to become relevant. Why else would we remember some of them so vividly and store them away?
My next job, during that period right after I stopped seeing Bobby, was one I never expected to have. Right at home! I came in from hanging clothes on the line that Monday when my mother called me into her bedroom. She was lying on the bed, her face the color of ashes. “Go and call on Tante Kate. Tell her I’m bleeding real hard and don’t know what to do.” I ran the three blocks and found Tante Kate hanging clothes too. She cautioned the oldest of the little ones to all stay in the house and said that she would be right back. Tante was the kind who always knew what to do. She told me to go call a German doctor on Center Street just two blocks away and added, “He always helps Germans, no matter what.” He had a kind manner and drove me back with him, as his morning office hours wouldn’t start for 15 minutes.
A tumor the size of a grapefruit was his diagnosis, and right away he made the arrangements to have Ma admitted to County hospital. I fell on my knees and prayed until I didn’t hear the ambulance anymore. I’m no good at long prayers…God has enough to do, I reasoned.
Mary was still working for that big family who loved her so much, and the mother had a brother who was an intern at County. She arranged to have him meet Pa, Mary, and me in Ma’s room that evening. He was very kind and said very simply, “The tumor is in your mother’s womb, and so she may lose it.” He seemed to be addressing me. I was used to being the family spokesperson. I tried to reassure him, “My mother has four children; my sister her and I are the oldest.” My mother mouthed, “Cancer?” and he took her hand and said, “I don’t think so, Mrs. Ochs, but we can’t be sure until after the operation.”
It was Pa who seemed ready to fall apart as we waited the eternity through the surgery. When the doctor came out, he said, “No cancer.”
Pa broke down and cried, saying, “Mami, Mami,” over and over.
I stayed home the first two weeks to take care of Ma and then saw an ad in the paper. “Housework five mornings a week. No weekends.” Ha! Just what the doctor ordered!
I didn’t like what I saw when I showed up there at 8 o’clock the next morning. Three grown men were sitting at the breakfast table, along with their mother, terribly crippled, with what I now know as rheumatoid arthritis. She introduced two of them as Fred and Clarence, both high school teachers. The youngest was Babe. He wore a cast on his right hand and wrist and was a dentist, his mother said. “He’s divorced and living here until he can go back to his profession.”
I worked four hours a morning, doing the dishes, cleaning, starting the evening meal, etc., with the mother supervising when she felt well enough. Babe sat around reading magazines, playing solitaire, or listening to the radio.
It was the third Friday I was there, and I hated it more every day. I’d planned to ask Ma if I could give a week’s notice to quit, but then decided I could stand another week. Ma was picking up, as she put it, and the extra nutritional food my $5.00 bought was helping her.
So that was the day it happened—my once-in-a-lifetime experience which was once too often. Babe was alone when I arrived; his mother was spending the day at the hospital for tests, he told me. I did my work and finished up in the kitchen. On my way to the hallway, I saw my $5.00 on the table with a note saying “Betty’s wages”. “Oh, Betty,” Babe said, “I wonder if you’d be kind enough to file my nails on my good hand.” I said, “Sure,” and sat down beside him on the sofa. His arm with the cast on it moved slowly across the back of the sofa, half resting on my shoulders.
By the time I’d finished the last nail, his hand was clutching my shoulder, and I said, “Don’t you feel well, Mr. H.?” He started breathing hard, and before I could get up, he swung his feet up on the sofa and buried his head, face down on my lap. I could feel his hot breath through my thin cotton dress. He started to moan in a way that made my skin crawl.
I jumped up so fast he almost fell off the sofa! In a split second decision, I decided to run down the long hallway towards the front door (picking up my money on the way), which faced 27th Street with its traffic, rather than risk an empty parking lot at the back. I was almost there when I heard him call, “Betty, Betty, I’m so sorry. Please come back!” With my hand on the doorknob, I called over my shoulder, “Tell your mother I won’t be back.” Let him make up his own story, I thought, as I flopped on the single stoop to get my breath.
I decided to walk home and stopped at a sweet shop half way to rest and have a coke. By the time I got home, I felt normal enough to tell my mother, “My lady (employer) is in the hospital. They said they’d let me know when to come back.”
“Well, this time go to the employment Office at the Vocational School. I think it’s probably safer than the paper.”
I felt like saying, “Ma, you took the words right out of my mouth.” I was later getting home today, I thought. That was probably why she said what she did. Ma wasn’t the best communicator, but she usually had a nose for trouble before it started.
- WHAT MAKES A JOB A JOB?
I went to the Vocational School on Monday and was given the address of a beauty shop on Mitchell Street. The tall, angular woman wearing a hair net over a stiff finger wave was not exactly what I expected. She took me up to the most unfriendly-looking apartment I’d ever seen.
“I want you to dust and vacuum one day and always scrub the kitchen and bathroom the next, but first I want you to serve breakfast to me and my husband. It’s all ready cooked.” I did as I was told, in three courses. When I brought in the second course of oatmeal and prunes, the husband said, “Ah, prunes, they keep you open.” I have a lively visual imagination. This would not be a place to start every morning. I was surer of it when she came to the kitchen before going down to her shop. “I forgot to give you this,” she said, handing me a big black comb. “I want you to be sure to comb the fringes on the rugs after you vacuum them.” That set the tone for the week.
On Friday, when I handed Ma the five dollars, she gave me a long look. “You look funny,” she said. “You looked funny all week. Was ist los?” I told her about combing the fringes on the rugs. To my disgust, my voice shook. “Vell, you go back to the employment office Monday morning! They must have something better than that. Die Frau ist veruckt” (This lady is nuts!”).
When I showed up at the employment office again on Monday morning, they had another 8-12 A.M. job opening, and it was only then that I told them about combing fringes on the rug. We had a good laugh about it, and they gave me a new address with a “better luck this time!”
This one was in an upper middle-class neighborhood. The downstairs door was open. I walked in and knocked on the dining room door. A perky voice called, “Come in.” A white-haired woman lay on a hospital-type bed. “Well, don’t stare like that Girl! I don’t bite. I got only two good fingers on my left hand, and I know where every single thing is in this house. All you got to do is follow my instructions.” She was as good as her word, and cheerful besides. By noon I had cleaned the house, cooked the dinner for that evening, and ironed a basket of clothes until the pot roast was done. This was more like it! When I work, I like to work!
On Friday, I put my jacket on, and she called, “Come in here and get your pay.” It was always embarrassing for me to make that move. As I approached the bed, she squirmed and managed with one shoulder to move a flat purse onto the sheet. She motioned me to pick it up. “Now open it and take out your fifty cents,” she said. I stared at her. “You heard me, Girl. I said, ‘take out your fifty cents’ “. I did so and walked home wondering what Ma would have to say to that. She laughed, is what she did! Grandma was there, and she said, “Das ist eine kraftige Frau. Die taht den Grossvater gut verhandeln” (That is a crafty woman. She would know how to handle Grandpa!)
When I walked into the employment office that next Monday morning and told my story, we had another laugh, “At your expense, Betty,” they said ruefully, “but today will be different. We told Mr. Kelly, the Dean of Young Men that we had just the girl for his wife and their baby.”
Mrs. Kelly was a jewel, a real lady! There was a nine-month-old little girl, their first baby, and they were in their mid-forties. My ease with the child, they told me, was the best thing that could have happened to them. “We were still a little afraid of her,” they said.
I learned so much from the Kellys. I learned how to grow paper-white narcissus in January, how to set a table, and that it’s possible to eat by candlelight every evening without being a snob. Mrs. Kelly belonged to the Book of the Month Club, and we found that we both usually liked the alternate choice better than the other. We wept together when the kidnapped Lindbergh baby was found dead. We were friends!
Later, when they moved to San Francisco, we corresponded. Mr. Kelly, in Milwaukee for a conference many years later, telephoned and took me to dinner. His wife called when he died watching a baseball game, and we kept in touch until she died. She taught me what gracious living is all about. Bless her!
- THE LAGOON
The extra month the family lived in the big house after our grandparents moved out turned out to be one of our luckier times. Renters for empty houses were then a dime a dozen and we could afford to be choosy. Fortunately for us, we hadn’t made a deposit on one, when our Tante Katrin, the one we’d lived with when we first came over, showed up on our doorstep.
This aunt never took the streetcar but walked everywhere she went. It must have been about five miles from her house on 27th and Lloyd to ours, but after all, she walked to her husband’s grave and back several times a week, that is, from her home on 27th and Lloyd to Wanderers Rest Cemetery on 60th and Burleigh, about seven miles round trip. Figure it out, Milwaukeeans.
Tante K. owned two flats on 27th and Lloyd, which meant four tenants to worry about in those hard times. The downstairs flat in the rear building had been vacant for two months and had been left by deadbeats two months before.
“I can’t go on like this,” Tante told us. “I got to thinking about keeping it heated for the winter. You can have it for $15.00 a month.” I don’t know about Mary, but I was ready to fall on my knees as we had done to get the dresses for her daughter Lena’s wedding. It turned out to be unnecessary. Ma and Pa merely exchanged a look. Pa was working and Ma was enjoying a surge of good health. Ma went for her purse and handed her sister-in-law a $10.00 deposit.
Mary and I talked it over and decided to ask Ma (beg, if necessary) to buy some furniture for the parlor. To our surprise, Ma answered, “Yes, I think it’s time.” Somehow, she had saved enough for a down payment on a parlor suite, consisting of a sofa and two matching chairs. Pa hated them, probably because they were like everybody else’s. He called the ensemble gemein, which the German/English dictionary defines as common, ordinary. “O.K., a rug and a floor lamp yet, and that’s all,” said Ma. We would have to use our imaginations for the extras.
Life seemed too good to be true! We finally felt like Americans, like “other people”. We lost no time having little get-togethers for girl friends we’d been owing for a long time. I thought about Martha but put that off for a while.
That fall we started to go to the Eagles Million Dollar Ballroom on 18th and Wisconsin for Sunday matinee dances. This place, we raved, lived up to its name. A large, oval-shaped ballroom with a stage that was frequented by nationally known bands. During the dreamy waltzes, the lights were dimmed as colored lights roamed over the dancers. Little balconies surrounded the entire dance floor, where couples sat holding hands and watching the dancers. The balconies also served as meeting places for small groups to find each other.
I had a Sundays-off job like Mary, and we really hoped to go together and meet new people. However, Elmer started to come around, and soon Mary gave in to him again. He continued to drive us both home, and that was a convenience in cold weather. There was a very personable young Irish man named Dan, who had a terrific crush on Mary. He kept asking her to come to supper at his house to meet his mother, even asking me to use my influence, all to no avail. Elmer’s woeful face did its job; she felt sorry for him and gave in every time.
The following summer we went to the Washington park pavilion to dance on Saturday nights. There was a lagoon adjoining this popular place, where couples rented canoes at intermission. I set my sites on such an interlude by the end of the summer! This was, I knew, a long shot, as I was most discriminating about being alone with any fellow I knew nothing about. After all, there was no way to leave on a body of water. However, by a stroke of luck, I did get my wish.
Since no regular girl friend had yet replaced Martha for me, I had seen a bit of Katie from the big family lately. The week before the first dance at the pavilion, I stopped at her house and met a friend of one of her brothers. His name was Johnny, and he entertained the whole family, playing his guitar and singing popular songs in his pleasing tenor voice. No match for Bobby, but nice.
Later in the evening, an admirer of Katie’s stopped by. He had a car with a rumble seat, and they took Johnny and me for a ride along the lakefront—the dream of every Milwaukee girl! That’s what I called progress! After they took me home, Katie told Johnny I was going to the pavilion to dance on Saturday and come Saturday, there he was, cutting in on me and a fellow I knew from the Eagles. We had every dance together after that.
As we waited for our rowboat during intermission, he took out his wallet and showed me a picture of a pretty blonde girl. “What a pretty girl,” I said. “Who is she?”
“She was my girl,” Johnny replied, and I couldn’t believe my eyes! He removed the picture and tore it into bits and threw them over his shoulder. “Some line you have,” I said.
“No line!” he answered.
Then he told me he wouldn’t be coming here for the next two Saturdays. “Oh, how come?” I asked as casually as I could.
“Well, you see, I’m in the National Guard, and I’ll be spending the next two weeks at Camp Douglas.”
I had no idea what either the National Guard or Camp Douglas was all about (I’d often wished I had an older brother at times like this, instead of one that was four years younger). I made some kind of noncommittal answer. He still asked to take me home, and my excuse was legitimate enough…”I always go home with my sister and her steady boy friend.”
“O-kee-do-kee!” he said. “I’ll see you in two weeks then. Mind if I write to you? I’ll get your address from Katie.”
He did write me a very funny letter, which I decided not to answer. “Never be too anxious,” a very popular girl once told me. Not that I didn’t want to write to such a darling fellow. It was almost two years since Bobby, and I was as boy crazy as any other girl. Oh, yes, I was but tried not to let it show. I didn’t want to give myself away as I had seen other girls do. It just wouldn’t look good.
It was my Saturday at the Triangle and quieter than weekdays. I was planning to go to the pavilion with Mary and Elmer again, Johnny or no Johnny. I started to watch the clock, and it was just four o’clock when a nice-looking fellow came in, sat down on the farthest end of the counter, and ordered two hamburgers and a soda. He ate slowly, and I caught him watching me a couple of times. In an hour he ordered more hamburgers and took his time eating these as well. In my mind I labeled him the “Idler” and hoped he wouldn’t try to pick me up. I never did have this problem the way some girls did, not because I didn’t know the ropes, but because I didn’t care to get picked up. Ma had drilled safe behavior into us through the years.
At five o’clock Mr. Steinborn, an older man who had a photography studio around the corner, came in. He called, “Hello, the usual Coke, Betty,” to me and sat down and talked baseball with the Idler. They were still talking when my replacement arrived, and I got ready to leave.
“What are your plans for this lovely evening, Betty?” Mr. S. asked. “I’m going dancing,” I answered, almost singing the words. “May I ask where to?” It was the Idler who asked the question. “That’s for me to know and for you to find out,” I answered smartly and left.
I stopped at the grocery to buy a lemon. We used Fels Naptha laundry soap for our shampoo. It was a great cleaner but left a kerosene-y smell. The juice of a lemon took care of that as well as highlighting the reddish gold in my brown hair.
Elmer and Mary dropped me at the park. Elmer had a family party to stop at but promised they’d be back in time to take me home. I’d never gone to a dance alone before and was nervous going up the stairs of the pavilion. The first person I saw was the Idler of the afternoon…his name was George! *
“What are you doing here?” I asked on impulse. “I’m waiting for you,” he answered. Of course I didn’t believe him, but it was early, and I saw no one I knew, so I accepted his request for the first dance. He was a smooth dancer, much better than I could ever be, having the natural sense of rhythm I lacked. We talked very little. A couple of my Eagles friends cut in, but George cut back in almost at once!
He asked me out for an intermission boat ride, and I accepted. “What could go wrong in a boat?” I asked myself. He parked the boat awhile beside an island that offered a view of the moon’s reflection. When our time was up, instead of the pavilion, he turned me the other way, back to the very lamppost Johnny had chosen the week before. To my complete astonishment, he took out his wallet and showed me the picture of a dark-haired girl, asking, “What do you think of her?” “She’s very pretty,” I said. “Who is she?”
“She was my girl friend,” he replied. Then he removed the picture, tore it into bits and threw them to the wind. “Not anymore, though,” he added. “What a line you have,” I said. “It’s not a line,” he answered simply, as we climbed the stairs to the pavilion to dance the rest of the evening away. A little while later he told me, “By the way, Mr. Steinborn told me what a nice girl you are.” I guess he was trying to pay me a compliment.
When he was bringing my soda across the room, I watched him, and for the first time I realized how handsome he really was. That wavy auburn hair! I wondered why he wasn’t happy and remembered to bless Mr. S. in my prayers.
The next Saturday Johnny was back at the Washington Park pavilion. He arrived later than George and cut right in our dance. George cut right back in. They kept it up, just minutes apart. I began to wonder who would give up first. It was Johnny. I was sure it was all a joke to him. I thought it probably was for George too, but then, maybe not. Time will tell, I told myself, and that’s as far as I’d let myself think.
On Wednesday evening, Johnny stopped at my house with his guitar. “Your cousin, Katie, told me you don’t have a phone, so I thought I’d just take a chance,” he said. It wasn’t that easy to talk with him. He was more of a kidder, and I was glad he had brought his guitar. “Come on, play and sing something,” I said, and he seemed glad to oblige.
The doorbell rang, and there was George with his violin case. He gave Johnny a dirty look, and then reminded me that I had asked him to play some classical music for me some time. “Oh! Oh! That’s my cue for an exit,” said Johnny. “It’s just jazz to me.” He left, and that was the last I saw of him.
I felt so happy that I lay awake for ages that night. “Thinking time should always be this good,” I thought. Here I was, without a phone, and two fellows stopped in during the same evening. How lucky can you get?
|*George Teicher and I were married on September 15, 1934 in Milwaukee, WI.
CATCHING UP ON MY EIGHTIETH BIRTHDAY
…Last Mother’s Day, my friend and pastor, Gary Erickson, ended his sermon with a modification of writer Robert Flugham’s words that I think are so wise and true. There is no title for these seven “rules”, but since I have seven children, I’ll call them
“THE LUCKY SEVEN”
- Abide always in God’s love for you and depend on it.
- Change your children by changing yourself.
- Don’t take what your children do too personally.
- Don’t keep score cards on them; a short memory is useful.
- Don’t worry if they never listen to you, but worry that they are always watching you.
- Learn from them. They have much to teach you.
- Love them long by giving them“roots”. Let them go early and give them wings.Although I heard these rules for raising a family after the fact, everything still turned out so well. With God’s help, maybe George and I did a few things right… “nicht wahr?”.
Elizabeth Ochs-Teicher celebrating her 90th birthday in Milwaukee in 2004 with her seven children: Kathy, twins Ellie and Mary, Julie, Pat, Mike and Barry.
Left Photo: Lola Hirsch and Family, 1969
Right Photo: Eva Mueller-Ruppert, daughter of Heinrich, was Jakob Kehl’s next-door neighbour (# 111 and #112) when Mother was a little girl and also went to school with our Aunt Mary. She told Robbin and me that the hat was an Abe Lincoln-type stovetop hat. We met Eva when she came to our house with a cousin in December 2005 to talk about Hrastovac and some other things that we all had in common. We had a great time. Mother was born on January 26, 1914, and Eva on November 21, 1914. We visited Eva in January 2007, two months after Mother died, and she confirmed everything that she said two years ago. At age 92, Eva is as sharp as a tack!
From Left to Right: Mary Ochs-Lippert, Helen Ochs-Kirch, Arturo Hirsch from Brazil, (grandson of Mike’s grandmother, Anna Maria Kehl Ochs’ sister, Elizabeth), Elizabeth Ochs- Teicher, and Lola, wife of Arturo. Brookfield, WI 1990.
When asked about writing my life history, my reply (most tongue in cheek) was always, “It’s not easy. It’s like living your life over again. Who needs it?” I have always felt that I really never had an identity crisis during my lifetime, but once I began to write my memoirs, I wasn’t so sure! However, hopefully no one was hurt, and I’ve grown considerably wiser.
First and foremost, I would like to express my thanks to all of my family, their spouses and children for supplying me with years and years of material needed to write my story—and theirs.
Thanks to my granddaughter, Mike’s daughter, Pam, for her illustrations and special lettering, and to my daughter, Kathy, for her special editing. She supplied the “fresh eyes” of a person reading the book for the first time.
My sincere and everlasting thanks to my daughter-in-law, Robbin, for typing, editing, and proofreading my manuscript. Robbin offered to type the book directly from my handwritten pages because she knows how hard I find typing to be. It was a difficult task, and the process took us countless hours, many phone calls, letters, and visits to my home. Even though Robbin has a basic fear of electronic gadgetry, as I do, under Mike’s tutelage she and the computer became friends.
Many thanks to my son, Mike, who edited and proof read the manuscript and provided the final page layout. Since he is my oldest offspring and has been blessed with a good memory for detail, he served as a valuable resource for me (although he confessed to me that he had to go to the cemetery and brush the snow from a few tombstones to get a date that both of us had forgotten). Without Mike’s and Robbin’s help throughout the writing of this book, I doubt the job would have ever been accomplished.
Five Generation Teicher: sitting: Elizabeth Ochs-Teicher, her granddaughter Pam Teicher holding her granddaughter Mariah Ann Teicher; standing: Mike Teicher, son of Elizabeth Ochs-Teicher and his grandson Nathan.
Below: Grandparents Robbin and Mike Teicher with Granddaughter Sofia (pink outfit) and her friend. 2006.
Below Right : Elizabeth Ochs-Teicher in 2006. Elizabeth, the author of this Memoirs died in 2006.