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.

FIGHT THE STIGMA!

FIGHT THE STIGMA!
Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

May 2, 2011

The Liddonfielders: A Public Housing Family Literary Drama

Part Two
My Public Housing Mom and Dad

Dad was in the other room, polishing the barrel of his shotgun.  He only had an eighth grade education.  In those days, milk was delivered.  When he was out of work, he stole bottles of milk from the doorsteps of neighbors.  Now, he had a job with a maintenance crew at a large office building downtown.  Every day, he performed manual labor in the work place of men with promising careers, who enjoyed a level of prestige and prosperity to which he could never aspire.  It made him bitter and perpetually angry.  I suspect he thought their lives were perfect and that their children were perfect, too.  Dad did not seem to understand that children make mistakes.

At home, Dad flew into a rage at the slightest things.  He beat my brothers and sisters often, but I never once saw him hit Mom.  Perhaps Dad thought that if he did, Mom would walk out on him and he would be completely lost without her.  Dad was as mean as they come, but in many ways he was child-like and very dependent upon my mother.  It was Mom who made all of the important decisions, like where we would live and how we would get by.  Mom handled the finances, too.  She was the one who dealt with government agencies and charities that catered to the poor.  Dad signed anything Mom told him to.  No one else could make him see reason or calm him down when he was out of control.  Once, I saw him crying in her arms.  She cradled him like a baby, telling him that everything would be all right.  Mom was the only one who could break through his menacing exterior to the frightened little boy underneath.  Perhaps that is why she was able to love him, something I could never do.

Mom poked her head out of the kitchen.  “Jim, come and eat,” she called.  There was a disturbed look on her face.  “I wish he’d get rid of that shotgun,” she remarked, “I don’t like it in this house.”  

I sat down.  My father came to the table.  My brothers and sisters started taking their seats for supper.  There wasn’t enough room at the table for all of them.  A few would have to eat in the other room.  Mom served Dad first.  Dad gazed at the shrimp on his plate and licked his chops.  Mom grabbed the other frying pan and started serving the rest of us the beans and hotdog mixture. 

Dad had a piece of shrimp in his hand and was about to gobble it down.  Suddenly, he took a second look at his plate.  “Wait a minute,” he remarked, as his facial expression turned sour.  “There were supposed to be eight shrimp in that box and I only have seven.”

I secretly panicked.  I had begged my mother for some shrimp while she was cooking it and Dad was in the other room, waiting for his meal to be ready.  She slipped me the shrimp and whispered, “Eat it quick before your father finds out.”  I had to swallow it really fast, which wasn’t easy since it was piping hot from the frying pan.  I felt like a thief.  I pictured my father becoming furious, going into a rage, like I’d seen so many times before. 

 “For heaven’s sake, Jim, I ate it,” Mom replied, “I’m entitled to one piece since I’m the one who cooked the meal.” 

Even Dad found that hard to argue with.  “Oh,” he said.

Mom had lied again to shelter me from Dad’s temper.  The only way to keep Dad from flying off the handle when you made a mistake was to hide it from him or make up a story.  My mother and I conspired against him often in this regard. 

Mom had a high school diploma.  She loved to read, especially history books.  She knew the names of all the kings and queens of Europe throughout centuries.  She could tell you who was beheaded and who was loved by the people.  She could quote royalty word for word.  Mom knew which ones died young and what illnesses or evils had befallen them.  She knew all about their lineages and their wars.  Often, she told me stories about European monarchs as she brushed my hair.

The next day, I was excited because Kevin and I were going to pitch a tent on the grass.    Kevin cut slits into the corners of an old blanket with a knife and ran a clothespin through each of the slits.   He had saved part of a fallen tree branch that we found outside and took it with him to the patch of lawn where we planned to pitch the tent.  Kevin hammered the tree branch upright into the ground.  “Now, help me drape this blanket over it,” he said. 

 We stretched the blanket out as far as it would go on all sides and hammered the clothespins into the dirt.  The makeshift tent stayed in place.  We crawled in, crossed our legs in a lotus position and pretended to be Indians in a teepee.

“You’re smart, Kevin,” I told him. 

After a time, something hit the tent and it came crashing down upon us.  We scrambled to get out from under it.  When I saw the light of day, there was Chicky, the most feared bully in the projects.  He kicked our tent down on purpose.  Chicky stood there grinning, as if he was proud of what he had done.

“Hey!” I said angrily.  Kevin grabbed my arm.

“Don’t say anything to him,” Kevin whispered, “He’s a lot bigger.”

I pulled my arm out of his grasp.  “I don’t care how big he is,” I said, “I’m tired of him bothering us!” and walked up to Chicky.  Kevin tried to stop me, but I wouldn’t listen.  I thought for sure Chicky wouldn’t hit a girl.

“Hey, you,” I said to Chicky with my hands on my hips. 

Chicky was thirteen.  He towered over me.  “What?”

“You knocked our tent down,” I replied, “Now, you put it back up.”

Chicky laughed.  “Make me.”

“You think you’re so tough,” I told him, “You’re nothin’ but a chicken in a pot.”  I started flapping my arms and doing cluck, cluck noises like a chicken, mocking him.

Chicky got mad.  “Who you callin’ chicken?” he said, then picked me up and body slammed me to the ground. 

I cried out in pain.  Kevin ran to my side. “Leave my sister alone!”

“She asked for it,” Chicky remarked as I lay belly down on the grass, dazed and sobbing.

“I saw what you did, you bastard!” Mom yelled at Chicky.  I looked up.  She was at the second floor window, shaking her fist and cursing at him through her decayed black teeth.  Chicky stared at my mother with a blank poker face.  Then he calmly walked away.

“I told you not to say anything to him,” Kevin said as helped me up. 

2 comments:

  1. I enjoy your videos, but most of all, your stories, Rosemary! Thanks, CHeeCH

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    Replies
    1. I appreciate that Cheech! I'll be writing more dramatic true stories about growing up in the projects and hard times in Northeast Philly, so be sure to visit this blog every Monday. You can also follow me by email for free so you'll always know when I've written something new.

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