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

Sep 19, 2011

FROM THE PROJECTS TO PENN STATE

by Rosemary Reeves



When I was little and my family lived in Liddonfield Housing Project, my father was an abusive man.  (See The Liddonfielders series on this blog).  I escaped as soon as I turned eighteen.  Until then, my relationship with my father was much like the movie, This Boy’s Life, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.  When I saw this movie for the first time, I was startled by the resemblance to my own family in my childhood years.  I was even more stunned by the similarities between the way De Niro spoke, acted and carried himself in the movie.  It was practically a spot on re-enactment of my father’s actions and personality.  My father even looked a little like De Niro, but with glasses.  (Warning:  there is a spoiler if you read on).
There is an especially poignant scene in the film toward the end where, after the boy endures a brutal beating by De Niro, during which the mother intervenes, she says to her son, “I could leave with you right now, couldn’t I?”
Her son declares, “Yes!  You could!”  Then they both run out of the house and escape her abusive husband forever.  That scene made me cry.  There were many times I dreamed of the day my mom would do that - run out of the house with me by her side, never to return home. But that was not to be.
I walked out the door by myself three days after my eighteenth birthday.  We had moved out of the project ten years before, first to a house in Philadelphia and then overseas.  Since I had no college degree or marketable skills, the only job I could find was as a dishwasher.  The manager was a demanding British woman in her fifties.  The first day she hovered over me, barking orders.  “Those dishes aren’t getting clean enough,” she said, “Scrub harder.” 
Steam was rising off the hot water into my face.  I sighed and wiped the sweat from my brow.  “Okay,” I replied.  I scrubbed until my arms and shoulders hurt.  Perspiration trickled down my back. 
“We’re running out of clean dishes,” she said a few minutes later, “Hurry up!”  I scrubbed another stack and they were whisked away as soon as I had finished them.  Someone brought another pile of dirty plates.  In no time, I was exhausted.  I paused to catch my breath and the manager chided me again.  “What are you stopping for?” she asked, “We have a lot of customers waiting to be served.  We can’t serve them until we have clean dishes!  Pick up the pace!”

I was relieved when she walked away and barked orders at someone else.  After a while, she came back to check on my progress, dipping her finger into the sink.  “This water’s not hot enough,” she noted.
“But I’m sweating from the steam as it is,” I told her. 
She glared at me.  “Make it hotter,” she answered sternly.  Someone told her the bus boy didn’t come in.  She pointed at me.  “You,” she said, “Collect the dirty plates from diners who finished their meal.” I walked through the dining area pushing a cart, looking for dirty dishes on the tables.  I was to put them on the cart and bring them back to the kitchen.  I wore a stained apron over a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers.  My hair was tied tightly back and wayward strands dangled at my temples.  I felt ugly and stripped of my femininity, but dirty old men made passes at me anyway.  I was astounded at how physically strenuous the job was, and I learned first-hand about the difficult life of a service worker.
Both Dad and Mom were retired.  We had moved to England when I was sixteen.  Our English relatives helped us get social housing.  A year after I left home, Mom said she wanted to go back to the U.S.  She wanted me to come, too.  I returned to America as well, but lived by myself.  My mother had insisted on spending her golden years in the country, so they moved once more, to upstate Pennsylvania this time.  Homes were far too pricey to buy in the upper middle-class hamlet Mom chose, so they rented a spacious house on Main Street.  It was a fancy address and once again Mom and Dad were living beyond their means.  Their only income was social security and the equity from the sale of the house in Philadelphia, which wasn’t much.
Mom and I corresponded regularly to save the cost of toll calls.  She kept trying to persuade me to come upstate.  I was wasting my talents working at unskilled jobs, she wrote, when I had the potential to do so much more with my life.  Penn State University had a campus  not far from where my parents now lived.  I could apply for a grant that would cover the tuition, Mom pointed out.  She made it sound tempting, but I refused because I didn’t want to live with Dad again.
For a few years, I held a series of minimum wage jobs that weren’t much of an improvement over dish washing.  By the time I was twenty-one, I knew I couldn’t go on like that.  My life was at an impasse.  Mom’s persuasiveness began to take effect.  I thought perhaps I could give living with my parents a try.  It would not be the same as before, I told myself.  I was an adult now and could leave anytime I pleased.  Besides, Dad was in his sixties.  He was too old to be violent and I was not a helpless child anymore.  After thinking it over, I paid my parents a visit just to see the house they were in.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  It had a fireplace and a huge back yard.  There were cardinals and blue jays nesting in the trees.  The air had a clean and flowery scent.  I wondered how my parents could continue to afford such a place. 
I stayed overnight and rode a bus to the campus the next morning.  While there, I looked over a list of available courses and found myself drawn to political science.  I thought if I could learn how politics and power work in America, I might find a way to get a piece of that power.  I took the entrance exam and passed.  Shortly after, the government grant I applied for was approved.  I moved in with my parents and enrolled at the university with a major in political science.
Dad and I barely spoke.  He was outdoors a lot, keeping up the back yard to stave off boredom.  All the leaves were changing color.  Upstate Pennsylvania was very beautiful, particularly during autumn.  Now and then, my siblings would come to visit.  Whenever they came, Mom bought a variety of lunch meat for sandwiches and a cake.  She always did that on special occasions.   On the first chilly night, Dad lit the logs in the fireplace.  Sharon, Jean, Barry and my ten year old nephew Brian were there.  We all gathered around the fire and talked about the time my siblings and I were small, but only the good things.  We talked about the games we used to play when we lived in Liddonfield Housing Project.  My nephew ran around the room with a toy airplane.  Dad let the boy indulge himself.  My nephew had no fear of him.  “Look, grandpa!” he said, as he held the airplane in his hand and imitated the roar of the engine.  My father smiled and started to play with him.  I felt as though I was gazing upon a different man.  I didn’t know what to make of it.
Dad said, “Let’s toast marshmallows.”  He went into the kitchen and got some wooden skewers.  He opened a bag of marshmallows and speared one.  The others speared their own and held their marshmallows over the flame.  I took a turn and ended up burning mine. “Here, let me do it for you,” Dad offered. 
I hesitated.  I was still filled with resentment toward my father because of his past abuse. He sat with his hand extended, waiting for me to respond.  I took it as a gesture of good will and so I handed him my skewer.  He tossed aside the burnt marshmallow and speared a fresh one.  He held it over the flame that was flickering in the fireplace.  When the treat was golden, he passed it back to me.  “Thanks, Dad,” I said and ate it. 
The others continued to talk about childhood friends and such, but no one mentioned the bad things.  I thought in a way it was hypocritical but why ruin this moment?  Dad seemed like a nice old man and I wondered - why couldn’t it always have been like this?  I felt as though I was gazing upon the father I might have had all along.  Questions ran through my mind during the chit chat.  Why did he make us suffer so much when we were kids?  Was it the stress of having no money?  Sitting there in his red flannel shirt, there was contentment in his face.  At last, he was living the life he always dreamed of.  I didn’t think he deserved to be this happy.  I wanted to keep hating him.  But it was difficult to retain bad feelings when the fire was crackling so sweetly on the logs and the scent from the chimney gave rise to warm and pleasant sensations.  For a moment, I pretended I was small again, but things were like they are now. 

I’m little and my dad just toasted a marshmallow for me, I thought.  We live in a pretty house in the country and we’re all gathered around the hearth.  I never learned to hate my father.  My father tells me he loves me.

And for a moment, I was filled with regret for the loving father I never had and the loving daughter I never was.
*See the series, A British Housing Project on the True Stories of Project Life page to read more about my time spent in England's social housing.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for commenting on PublicHousingStories.com!