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

May 9, 2011

The Liddonfielders: Dad's Shotgun

by Rosemary Reeves

Part Three of a Public Housing Family Literary Drama

If you missed parts one and two, click on the links below:

Dad was sitting on the soiled green sofa.  The stuffing was oozing out of the cushions where he sat holding the shotgun, poised to fire, looking through the site.  “Can I polish the barrel?” I asked as he aimed the empty weapon at the wall.  My fascination with it had overshadowed the fear I had of him.  The bullets were in a box which Dad had placed on the coffee table.  I tugged at the fabric of the itchy blue trousers I wore as I sat on the floor near the table.  

Dad rested the firearm on his lap.  “Come closer,” he said.  I scooted over next to him.  “If anybody tries to break in they’re gonna get shot,” he told me.  Dad explained how a bullet traveled through the shotgun once the trigger was pulled.  “Now, watch how I put the bullets in,” he instructed.  One at a time, Dad loaded them into the chamber.  When he was done, he emptied it.  The bullets rolled as they dropped back onto the coffee table.  Then he coached me as I loaded the weapon and he emptied it again while I practiced a few more times.  

Mom had been upstairs, showering and making herself presentable.  She came down the steps, freshly washed.  “Jim, what are you doing?” she asked, alarmed, when she saw us.

“Dad’s showing me how to load the shotgun,” I said before Dad could answer.  To me, the weapon was the same as a toy.  I played cops and robbers all the time.  Cowboys and Indians, too.  My friends and I were always pretending to shoot each other.  I died a hundred times, clutching my chest and gasping as I fell dramatically to the ground.

I picked up one of the bullets and held it to the light, admiring it.  Mom rushed over.  “Don’t touch that!” she scolded as she stood over me in a frumpy blue house dress.  

“It’s better she learns respect for the weapon,” Dad remarked, “I’m teaching her the proper way to handle it.”

 “Jim,” Mom replied with a worried look on her face, “She’s only six years old!”  

Dad insisted.  Mom plopped herself down on the grimy pink side chair and sulked.  She squirmed in her seat as she watched me take the oily rag from my father and polish the barrel just like he taught me to.  “Very good,” Dad said when I was finished.  By now, he had grown weary of me.  “That’s enough,” he added, “Off you go.”  Mom let out a sigh of relief.  Dad placed the bullets in the box and put the lid back on.  He opened the living room closet.  The door squeaked on its hinges.  Inside it was an array of winter coats that smelled like moth balls.  Dad put the box of bullets on the closet shelf.  I jumped up and down, declaring, “I did it!  I loaded the gun!”  

My father yelled at me. “Knock that shit off!”  Just like that, he was his old mean self again and I ran to my mother for protection.  Dad slid the shotgun into a faux leather sleeve with a strap on it and hung the strap on the closet hook. 

“Jim, we have to get ready for church,” Mom said, “Mass starts at 11:00 o’clock.”  Mom woke my brothers and sisters up and gave me cereal for breakfast.  I wanted to play instead of going to church, but there was no use trying to get out of it.  We walked together to St. Dominic, about a half mile away, because it would cost too much for us all to take the bus.  

We passed shops and houses as we made our way along the pavement.  Traffic was heavy on Frankford Avenue and our ears were assaulted with the roar of engines, horns honking and the screeching of car wheels. The little white hat Mom made me wear to church kept sliding on my head.  I could tell by his sour expression that Dad was annoyed with the whole trip.  After a while we reached the house of worship built of grey stone.  There was a towering gold cross on top.  It was dimly lit inside.  Mom dipped her fingers into the tray of holy water on the wall and made the sign of the cross on herself.  Then we found an empty pew and waited for mass to begin.

The church was adorned with spectacular artwork and statues of biblical figures.  There were stained glass windows all around, depicting scenes from the Bible.  It had a marble altar and a domed ceiling.  Lit candles cast a serene glow upon the faces of the parishioners.  Mom told me to quit swinging my legs and then began reading her prayer book.

During the sermon, the priest said the grungy hippies who used psychedelic drugs were ruining society and what was the world coming to?  Furthermore, these young couples today were taking advantage of this new birth control pill they came out with and limiting the size of their families.  That was not only cheating God, he said, but just plain selfish.  I grew bored and gazed up at the dome ceiling.  On it was a beautiful rendering of the Virgin Mary rising up into the heavens.  Beams of light were coming out of her fingertips.  We sat, stood and kneeled.  We sang hymns.  It was the same every Sunday.

As the congregation poured out of the church, Mom and Dad exchanged introductions with new parishioners and chatted with those they saw every week.  It was all very dull, but I forced myself to be amiable and polite to the virtual strangers who asked me silly questions and told me I was cute.

On the way home, I grew nervous because Dad would be around all day.  But then I heard him tell Mom that he was going to stop at the hardware store and we should carry on without him.  When he was gone, the tightness in my muscles went away.  So did the slight trembling of my hands.  I breathed easier.  For the time being, I was safe.  

Back at Liddonfield, two of my friends came to the door and asked if I could come out to play.  Marie had a toy stethoscope and wanted to make the concrete bullpen in front of her unit a pretend doctor’s office.  Ann was going to be the nurse.  We made our way down Megargee Street to get to Marie’s bullpen.  My brother Kevin whizzed past us as he rode his rusted brown bike back and forth along the pavement.  The sun beat down mercilessly upon my fair skin and I shielded my eyes from the glare.  

It was shady in the bullpen.  Marie’s Mom had strung wet clothes out on a clothesline inside it.  Marie drew a curly mustache above her lip with her mother’s eyeliner, because everybody knew girls couldn’t be doctors.  The wet clothes brushed against the tops of our heads, but we ignored it.  After a while, Marie said she had to go to the bathroom.   She went inside her unit while Ann and I waited for her outside the bullpen.  Kevin rode by on his bike again.  Then a white truck pulled up on Megargee Street and came to a stop.  I recognized the familiar vehicle.  I jumped up in excitement and alerted Marie’s mom. “The Goodwill truck is here!” 

I told Ann I’d see her later and ran home to give my mother the news.  “Let’s go,” Mom said, “We have to get in line.”  

My sisters Jean and Sharon wanted to come, too.  I skipped along beside them and cheered.  “Hooray!”
We joined the Liddonfield mothers who stood in line for used clothing.  The driver read names from a list.  Each bag he gave out was labeled and contained clothes in the sizes needed for a particular family.  I waited in anticipation.  “Reeves?”  he called.  We came forward.  “Big family,” the man said while handing us four large bags of clothing.  

After receiving our share, I rushed inside.  I couldn’t wait to see what was in the bags and try the clothes on.  Mom helped me get into a shirt.  The fabric was threadbare at the elbows.  “It’s a little big for you,” she remarked, “but you’ll grow into it.”  There was a pair of pants that pretty much fit me with little yellow daisies on them that I really liked, but the best thing I pulled out of a bag was a powder blue dress with lace along the collar.  Mom told me I could wear it at the block party next week and at church next Sunday.  

A neighbor came by.  She was holding a pair of little overalls.  “Maybe your youngest can fit into this,” she told my mother, “It’s too small for my kid.”  Mom thanked her for the outfit.  Later, the kids on the block chatted about the clothes they got from Goodwill.  It seemed like the most normal thing in the world.  Few of us ever had store bought clothes, so we didn’t know what we were missing.

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