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

Jun 13, 2011

The Liddonfielders: A Public Housing Diary - Part 8

by Rosemary Reeves

Part Eight: The Only Thing My Public Housing Dad Said That Made Me Feel Good About Myself

If you missed the first seven parts, click on the links below:

In the house where I lived as a child, the walls bore the scars of our unhappiness.  Every mark had a story behind it.  There was a smudge that I accidentally made and was hit for.  There was another where Mom cried and threw a plate, and a dent where Dad punched the wall in a fit of rage.  Now and then the day would come when Dad brought paint cans home from his job and with the stroke of a brush, cover up all the marks, as if those things never happened.  It was my child-like belief that with the past erased, we had a chance for a new beginning, a chance to be a happy family.  Just for a day or two Dad played the part, humming light-heartedly, for painting was the only thing he loved.
Once, Dad was painting an upstairs room and I just had to see how he did it.  I stood at the top of the stairs just outside the bedroom doorway, trying to observe him without his knowledge.  He was squatting with his back to me, applying the brush to the low areas of the wall.  A lit cigarette was lying unattended in an ashtray on the floor beside him.  He was wearing an old pair of blue slacks and a white undershirt.  That was how he always dressed at home.  I made a step and the floorboards creaked.  He paused, reached for the lit cigarette and took a puff.  Just when I thought he was unawares, Dad turned around.  “What ya doin’, kid?  Why you peekin’ round the corner?”  I didn’t speak.  “You been watchin’ me work?” he asked.  I nodded.  “Come here,” he said, but I was too frightened to approach him.
Dad looked at me like I had no sense.  “What you scared about?  I said come here.”  I took a step toward him, and then another, walking with trepidation, in dread of the punishment that was forthcoming.  I thought I was in trouble for sneaking around like that.
To my surprise, Dad asked me if I wanted to learn how to paint.  I nodded.  “Cat got your tongue?” he said, “Never mind.  Pay attention.  This is how you do it, see?  First, you gotta stir it up real good.  If you let the paint sit too long the oil separates from the color and it ain’t no good when you put it on the brush.”  He handed me a little wooden stick for stirring the paint.  It looked like a lollypop stick, only bigger.  “Keep stirrin’ it,” he said.
I did as I was told.  When the consistency was perfect, he stilled my hand.  “All right, that’s good.  Next, you dip the brush into the paint, but only the bristles.  Don’t get paint on the handle.”  He dipped the brush into the paint can to show me just how deep it should go.  “Now, don’t just pick up the brush with all that paint on it.  You glide it against the rim of the can, slowly, until all the excess paint drips back into the can, like this.”  He handed me the brush.  “Now, you do it.”
I repeated the technique, being very careful to do it just right.  When I was done, my father looked pleased.  “That’s pretty good, kid,” he said.  I was not used to him being so nice.  It felt strange, but good.  He took another drag from the cigarette.  “Now, I’ll show you how to put that paint on the wall.  Hand me the brush.”  I handed it to him.  “Make the brush strokes up and down, not sideways.  Do it like this.”  He let the cigarette dangle from his mouth.  “The trick is in how much paint you’ve got on those bristles.  Too much and it’ll streak.  Not enough, and the paint gets too thin as it dries and you’ll end up needin’ three coats instead of two.”
I made my brush strokes up and down.  It seemed to be working nicely.  Dad put his cigarette out in the ashtray.  “How old are you, kid?”
“You’re a scrawny little thing.  Your arms are like twigs, but you can paint.”  He surveyed my work.  “Yeah, that’s a beautiful job.”  He was silent for a moment then his eyes brightened.  “Hey, I got an idea.  Come with me.”  Dad had extra drop cloths sitting in the corner.  He gave me some to carry.  Together we laid the plastic sheets down in the hallway to protect the floor.  Dad brought another can of paint and opened the lid.  He gave me a stick to stir it up with and a brush.  “I’m gonna finish up in there,” he told me, “In the meantime, you paint the hallway.  Don’t worry about the high places.  I’ll come around and get that.  With you helpin’ me, we’ll get this house done in half the time.”  I just stood there.  “Well, what you starin’ at?” he said, “Go ahead and start paintin’, kid.”
I began stirring the paint.  Dad disappeared into the other room.  No one ever asked me to do a grown-up’s job before.  I felt very important.  Still, I was unsure of myself.  Having been left on my own to decide how to go about it, I used the technique I just learned.  While I was engaged in that activity, I heard the sound of keys jiggling in the front door.  The door opened.  Mom had returned from the grocery store.  She was talking to my sister, Sharon.  After a few minutes, Mom asked, “Where’s my Rosie?”
“I’m up here, Mom!” I said from above.
“What are you doing up there?” she asked.
“Come and see,” I told her.
Her footsteps ascended the creaky stairs.  When Mom saw what I was doing, she gasped.  “Your father is going to kill you!”
“It’s okay, Mom,” I assured her, “Dad gave me permission.”
“That can’t be true,” she replied, “Your father would never let you do that.”
“But it is true!”
“Stop it,” Mom said.  She looked at me and the paint can in despair.  “What am I going to tell your father?”  Just then Dad walked in.  Mom placed her hand on his shoulder to steady him.  “Now, Jim,” she said, “Don’t explode.  She’s only a little girl.  She didn’t mean to ─ “
Dad interrupted.  “Eileen, be quiet for a minute and just look at that wall.  The kid knows what she’s doin’.  No streaks, no drips.  It’s perfect.”  Mom looked as confused by Dad’s praise as I was.  Dad said, “I’ve taught grown men who can’t get it right.  I can’t believe it.  Ten years old!  I showed her once, only once, and she learned it like it was nothin’.”  Mom looked at the wall I had just painted and then at Dad.  “Eileen, that kid is smart,” he declared.  Something registered in his face that I had never seen before, or since ─ pride.  Dad was proud of me, and Mom’s eyes were shining.
Eileen, that kid is smart.  It was the only thing my father ever said that made me feel good about myself.  The smell of paint always brought back the memory of that day.

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