Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.


Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Mar 28, 2011

Breaking a Housing Authority Rule

By Rosemary Reeves

Mom's Rosebush

“All I want are some roses,” Mom said as she looked out the back window at the grass behind our public housing unit.  She longed to plant a rosebush, but that was against housing authority rules.  They wanted all the units to conform to a sterile, institutional standard and individual gardens were not allowed.  It was the 1960’s and I was six years old.  Mom decided to call the housing authority and ask if it would be all right anyway.  After all, it wasn’t asking for much.
“Can’t you just bend the rules a little?” she asked the person on the phone, but they said if they bent the rules for her, then they’d have to do it for everybody, so she could not have her rosebush.  Mom hung up the phone and plopped down on the shabby green couch, looking very disappointed.  The couch was second-hand. My teenage brothers found it a few blocks from the project where people lived in real houses. It had been left out for trash collection, but instead they hauled it all the way back to our unit, because the couch we had was done for.
Mom sulked and talked about how unfair it was that the project residents couldn’t plant flowers.  After a moment, she seemed to have new resolve.  ”I don’t care what the housing authority says,” she declared, “I’m planting my rosebush anyway.”  Mom had been saving up to buy a sapling from Green’s Nursery.  I went with her to the garden place and we picked one out that they said would produce pink roses.  Pink roses were my mother’s favorite.
At first, I found it very exciting that we were going to have flowers, just like the people who owned the homes nearby.  I loved my mother dearly and it was nice to see the happiness it brought her to buy that baby rosebush.  My father was an abusive and violent man who beat my brothers and sisters frequently.  We were all frightened of him.  Mom was the opposite extreme, as she was loving and tender. She doted on me, partly because I was the youngest child and partly, I think, to make up for the wrongdoings of my father.  Because of the turmoil in our household, I had no sense of security and needed constant reassuring that I was loved.  Mom was the shining light of my world.  Even though I had seven brothers and sisters, I couldn’t bear to think that mommy loved anyone or anything more than me. 
Once the buds sprouted, mom doted on the rosebush, watering it daily, admiring it, talking about how beautiful it was and that she finally had the thing she wanted most.  The more attention she gave to it, the less attention I received.  This was an unexpected turn of events.  I was determined to keep my rightful place as the apple of my mother’s eye. The rosebush became my rival.  It stole my mother’s affection away from me and I began to view it with resentment, much the same way as an only child might resent a new sibling.
One day, as I watched through the window while she tended the roses, I wondered, what does mommy love more?  Me or the rosebush?  It was then I decided to test my mother’s love.  I got a pair of scissors out of a drawer and hid the scissors in my pocket.  Later on, Mom came back inside to make some sandwiches for lunch.  I asked if I could go out and play for a few minutes until lunch was ready.  Mom said I could, but instead of playing I went around the back where the rosebush was and methodically cut off all the roses.
I gathered them into a bouquet.  When I heard Mom calling me I went back inside, having rehearsed what I would do and say.  “These are for you, Mommy,” I told her, and offered her the bouquet of cut flowers in my outstretched hand. 
Mom gasped in horror.  “What have you done?” she cried.  Immediately, I regretted my decision to test her.  This was a big mistake. “You know how much that rosebush means to me!” she said.  She slapped the hand that was holding the flowers.  The precious roses fell to the floor, their petals scattering from the blow.  I was crushed.  It was the only time my mother ever hit me.  I was stunned by this betrayal, thinking only of myself, when she burst into tears and slumped on the floor, sobbing.
All of a sudden, I realized how much the rosebush meant to her and I was filled with painful remorse at having destroyed something she cherished.  More than that, I was horrified that I made my mother cry.  ”Oh, why, oh why, did you do it?” she asked, distraught that her own child would wound her like that.
I wanted to say, “Because you loved it more than me,” but thought better of it.  I just wanted to take it back, to undo the terrible thing I did to her.  Filled with compassion and empathy for my mother, I fell to my knees, wrapped my arms around her and began sobbing, too.  “I’m sorry! Mommy, please don’t cry,” I whimpered.  To my surprise, she began rocking me like she did when I was a baby.
“I should never have hit you,” she said, “I swore I would never hit my little girl,” and then she wept not only for the cut roses, but for me.   Even after destroying something she cherished, I was still treasured in her heart.  It was then I knew she loved me more, after all.  Filled with regret for having tested her love, tears flowed down my cheeks.  Mom promised she would never hit me again and I swore I’d make the rosebush bloom once more by tending it for her, the both of us sobbing, with fallen petals at our feet.
After that, Mom no longer sat happily by the window, gazing outside.  I knew it only upset her to see the bare branches of her beloved rosebush, though she never complained.  Mom did her best to pretend it didn’t matter, but I could tell the light was gone from her eyes.  For weeks, she appeared listless and sad, though she tried hard not to show it. 
Every time I saw the rosebush, I was reminded of the consequences of a selfish act.  I watered it daily and brushed the bugs off, determined to make it bloom again.  For weeks, I desperately searched for signs of a bud, but nothing appeared.  “Please grow,” I whispered to it each time I gave it care.  I feared I had killed it.  Just when I had almost given up hope, a bud sprouted.
I ran inside to get my mother.  “Look!” I said as I led her around the back.  We stood staring at what seemed like a miracle.  “It’s a bud,” I remarked, as Mom got teary-eyed, “I told you I’d make it bloom again.” In the days that followed, more buds sprouted, until the little rosebush was in full bloom, pink roses bringing beauty to the projects.
“From now on, we’ll tend it together,” Mom told me, “as we should have done all along.  And one day, when we have a home of our own, we’ll plant all the flowers we want in our garden, the two of us.”
Not long afterwards, the housing authority inspector came.  Mom made sure to have the curtains closed, to hide our forbidden rosebush.  The inspector looked very official, wearing a suit and hat.  He held a notepad in his hand, and wrote things down as he walked through the rooms of our public housing unit.  “Almost finished,” he said after a time, “I just need to have a quick look out back.”
Mom looked worried and so was I.  What would we do if he told us to get rid of the roses after all that happened?  He left and went around to the back of our unit, then returned within a few minutes.
“There’s a rosebush out back,” he said, “That’s against the rules. Individual gardens aren’t allowed.”
“It’s only flowers,” Mom replied, “Are you going to report us?”
“I’m supposed to,” he told her.  The pen was in his hand, poised over the notepad, ready to record the infraction.  Just then, like a second miracle, he paused to reconsider.  “But between you and me,” he remarked, “I never saw it.”  That summer the rosebush continued to bring forth life, due to the compassion of a stranger.  No wonder Mom cherished it so much.  With every good deed, it blossomed.




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