Stories my Mother, Eileen Kathleen D___*, Told Me About Her Life

By Thomas F. Swezey - October 4, 2015

I've tried to write down everything I remember, some of it is admittedly ordinary, but that has it's place too.
Each paragraph is a separate story.
They were told to me over a life time,
I have tried to put them into historical order as best as I can figure.

Early memories

My mother was born in 1910 in Maple Lake, Minnesota (U.S.A.). Her father, who I was named after, was the railroad station attendant / telegrapher there and her mother was the post mistress for the town. She was the youngest of three children. The oldest was her brother Frank and then her sister Mary. Frank married but it didn't work out. Mary never married. Neither had any children.

Frank worked for a travel agency and once took a trip on a ship from New York through the Panama Canal to San Franciso. He smoked heavily and died from lung cancer.

Mary worked for many years at the Dayton's Department Store in downtown Minneapolis in the gift wrapping department. She had worked during World War Two in a war plant making ammunition in Arden Hills, MN.

Growing up they all lived in an upstairs apartment over the town's post office right near the railroad station. The railroad station is long gone but the apartment building is still there. It hasn't been the post office for a long time. I think for a time it was "The Souix Line Bar". My grandparents retired in the 1930s and moved into Minneapolis with my aunt Mary. There they lived in a brownstone apartment building on Spruce Place, near Loring Park.

To me today, they seemed very poor, my grandparents never owned a car or their own home, my grandfather worked seven days a week and they never took a major vactaion until he retired, but my mother never described it as being "poor", it was just the way things were back then.

My grandfather once got a big pay raise that basically doubled his pay. The son of one of the railroad owners had been learning the ropes by doing every job in the railroad and decided that station attendents were grossly underpaid.

My mother had an uncle Will who was a railroad engineer and was killed in an major train accident. During the crash he told the firemen to jump one way and he jumped the other. The engine rolled over and killed him. The fireman survived.

In the winter time, they would get a good fire going in the stove when they went to bed but it would go out by morning. My grandmother would always get up first and start the new fire. My mother always, shuddered to think of her putting her bare foot out onto that cold floor each morning.

One time when they were playing on the outside basement steps, my mother fell down the steps and hurt her back. She said she always had back trouble after that.

My aunt Mary once told me that they would play marbles at the station and when they wanted to get some candy, my mother would tell her to ask their father for a few pennies to buy it, because he always liked her best.

They were Irish Catholic, but my grandfather couldn't afford to send them to Catholic school so they went to the local public school instead.

During World War I, my grandmother collected for some sort of a war relief fund. The wife of the town banker was German-American and had one of the few cars in town. My grandmother pressured her into driving her out to visit the nearby farms as part of the drive knowing she didn't dare say no owing to the intense anti-German sentiment at that time. My mother seemed to imply that my grandmother got quite a kick out of ordering this rich women around.

When World War I ended, the news was released in the US one day early by mistake. My mother remembered the celebrations there where they burned the Kaiser in effigy and were dancing in the streets with joy. When news came that it was really the next day, they celebrated all over again the next day.

The 1920's

Few people had cars then, but trains were much more common. They would frequently take a train into Minneapolis for the day and see a show or do some shopping.

One time in a hurry to catch a train back, my mother bought an Eskimo Pie ice cream bar and stuck it in her coat pocket and forgot about it. It later melted and rotted out the coat and they had to throw it away and buy a new one.

Movies were much more popular then, since there was no television, and farmers would bring their families in to town to see them on friday nights as a treat. The movies were silent then and many of the farmers were illiterate immigrants. They would have their children read the titles out loud for them. This was really annoying because they would stumble over big words and read so slowly they didn't always finish in time. Also, by reading them out loud it distracted you from reading them yourself.

The older cousin of a friend of my mothers was an actual 1920's "flapper" who had moved down to Minneapolis. They were amazed at her independence; she drank, smoked, wore her hair short, ran around with a lot of guys and even had a real raccoon coat.

My mother was in High School when the town put in electricity and indoor plumbing. My mother thought electricity was the greatest invention ever, since it could drive so many other things.

Indoor plumbing meant no more quick trips to the outhouse during those cold Minnesota winters. They used to use old discarded catologs and junk mail as toliet paper.

Prior to having electricity they had an "icebox" instead of a refrigerator to keep food fresh. My grandfather would get ice from one of the railroad "reefer" (refrigerator) cars when the train stopped at the station. Every few days he and another guy had to climb up on top of the car with big ice tongs. They'd get out a big block and then man handle it down from the car and up the stairs to their apartment. (When I was a kid, my mother always referred to our refrigerator as "the icebox", and I frequently still use that term today).

My uncle Frank brought home their first radio. It had two earphones so two people could listen at one time and they were amazed they could hear a voice coming all the way from Minneapolis on it.

1930's Great Depression and College

During the Depression, my mother dated a guy for a while who always carried a $100 bill around in his wallet. She said he was actually one of the cheapest guys she ever met, but he felt like a big shot flashing that $100 bill around.

My mother attended the college of St Cathrine's in St Paul, MN.

She originally was planning to be a Math teacher but the first day in math one of her friends asked the Nun teaching it how to do a square root problem. The Nun berated her and said if she didn't know how to do something that simple she shouldn't be in Math. Anyway that scared off my mother and a few of her friends and she switched her major over to English instead.

My mother had an appendicities attack and had to have her appendix out. Operations were still tricky in the 1930's but she survivied it all okay. She said she was walking along one day and suddenly had to keel over in intense pain. She said they gave her a spinal tap for anesthesia and she always had back pain ever after.

My mother graduated and was valedictorian of her class (that might have been High School). My grandparents gave her a sewing machine for graduation that we still have.

She went on to work on a master's degree at the University of Minnesota in English Literature and used to quote us Kipling's "ask me no questions - I'll tell you no lies".

When she got close to completing her degree she started to look around for a teaching job in various small town schools but without any luck. Finally a school principal in one town told her "the school board here will never hire a Catholic - why are you bothering to apply?". She was surprised by this and asked one of the priests at St Catherine's about it. He said that that was technically illegal but what could you do. Anyway she dropped out of her Master's program and went to the Minnesota School of Business to train to be a clerk typist. She never taught a day of school in her life. She always said she understood how black people must feel when they're prejudiced against. A friend of her's who had stayed in Math also never found a job until World War II. Most math teachers were men and were away in the war. She told my mother she was the only one on the staff that had graduated from a Catholic college.

My mother worked as a clerk typist at the Minneapolis Public Library for a time. She said she knew how to touch type numbers which most typists weren't good at and there were a lot of numbers.

She also worked for the Federal Government in the Seed Loan administration. It was a New Deal program to lend farmers money to buy seed with to be repaid at harvest time. She talked about how they would sort things by sitting in a circle with a bunch of forms and manually say if they had the next one alphabetically.

My mother went on some vacations in the 1930's and 1940's. She went with my aunt Mary out to Harrisburg PA and Washington DC once. When they were in Harrisburg my mother asked the hotel clerk if there was a Gray Line type tour of the city they could take and he laughed at her. In DC they went to the mint and according to my aunt Mary when they left the cab driver asked them if they took any of the money. He meant it as a joke but my aunt said my mother got very upset at the accusation and felt very defensive about it.

My mother went on a vacaion up to Montreal at some point and went aboard the Athenia, an ocean liner that was later torpedoed by the Nazis in World War II.

On another trip she went out to San Francisco and one of the highlights was to see Harry Owens and his Royal Hawian Orchestra there.

My parents met at a big dance hall in south Minneapolis. My dad actually asked my aunt Mary to dance first but kept asking her about her friend (my mother). My dad was from Buffalo MN, a town near Maple Lake, and he and my mother knew a lot of the same people but they had never met before.

World War II

My parents got engaged shortly before the war broke out but my dad said he didn't want her to be a widow if he got killed. So they didn't get married yet. I'm not sure I believe that exactly, my dad was sort of a playboy when he was a young man. Anyway, he told me once that he told her he wouldn't come back to her, after the war, if he didn't come back "clean" (no veneral disease). She evidently told him not to worry about it and that she understood if he was out with the boys, far away.

My dad was real lazy about writing home and my mother wrote into a sort of "Mr. Fix-It" column in the Minneapolis paper, complaining that the navy wasn't delivering the mail, that she hadn't heard from him for a long, long time. That really hit a nerve. My dad said he was called into the Captain's office one day and ordered to write a letter home every week from then on. I'm not sure he ever knew what caused that.

My mother saved all my dad's letters from the war and I found them in a box after she passed away. I was a little hesitent to read them and decided I'd stop if they were really personal. But they weren't. In fact it appears my mother would let my grandmother (dad's mother) read them whenever she got them.

You can really feel my dad's personality in the letters. They don't say much more than "everything's okay" but they're still interesting to read.

My dad converted to Roman Catholicism during the war. I'm sure that was for my mother's sake, he told me once he went to whatever church his girlfriend went to when he was a young man.

My mother said she gave up listening to the war news everyday. She said it was the same everyday and never really said much.

During the war things were rationed and she complained that all the butcher's friends got the best meat. She said there was a scandal about a butcher in North St. Paul selling horse meat.

* Since relatives may be using my mother's maiden name as a password (at banks, etc.), I am uncomfortable revealing it here.

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