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

Nov 28, 2011

The Taming of a Public Housing Child Part 2

by Rosemary Reeves

If you missed part 1 of this story about a Liddonfield kid attending St. Dominic parochial school, click on the link below:

St. Dominic School
At the time I attended St. Dominic Elementary School the inside was painted Pepto Bismol pink, a drab and institutional contradiction to the beautiful adjacent church with its stained-glass windows and magnificent artistic renderings of Biblical figures.  It was here my classmates and I learned the essence of orderly conduct such as silently walking in single file as we exited the building at the end of each school day.  The nuns would be at our sides herding us like sheep lest one of us break from the fold, urging us all the while to mind our posture.  “Remember children, so long as you are wearing that uniform you are representing St. Dominic,” we were told during this daily march off school property straight to the street where the crossing guard stood, awaiting our arrival.  It was a public demonstration of school excellence, a parade of discipline for all the world to see and admire.  People driving by smiled in approval.  St. Dominic sure knew how to advertise, for here was proof positive that their students were children of quality, much better behaved than the rowdy public school hooligans prancing about the streets after school let out for the day, causing mayhem and annoyance to the general public.  Oh, how I ached to bolt and run as is natural when it’s time for play.  I could barely contain myself.  It was a painful lesson in patience but it helped me acquire poise and grace, two profoundly important affectations normally attributed to the well-to-do. 

But I had a long way to go.  As I grew bored in the classroom one day, I slumped further and further down in my seat, yawning all the while.  I yawned so loud that it was heard over Sister M as she was speaking.  Then I was in for it.  She came toward me down the aisle holding a ruler and stopped in front of my desk.  “Are you planning to do some wash?” Sister M said. 

I could feel all the eyes in the classroom staring right at me as the other students turned in their seats to get a bird’s eye view of my scolding.  Sister M looked none too pleased with me.  “What do you mean?” I asked.

“Your sleeves are rolled up,” she replied, “For a moment there I thought you were a washer woman!”  She had a stern look on her face that was a stark contradiction to the humorous remark.  When the others giggled, she told them to be quiet.  All of a sudden, she struck my desk with the ruler.  “Stop slouching and put your sleeves down, child!”

I sat up straight and hurriedly tried to fix my sleeves.  “Little ladies don’t slouch,” Sister M added, “Little ladies don't yawn like a mooing cow in the field and they don’t roll up their sleeves like washer women!”   

When the recess bell rang, I was glad to be going out into the fresh air.  All of the students had to line up first and proceed in single file, of course.  Once outside, we stood quietly before the American flag which was waving high up on a flag pole.  We put our hands over our hearts while gazing with wonder at it.  We were told to repeat the words Sister M recited and that’s how we first graders learned the Pledge of Allegiance.  I was very proud to be American.

“All right, children.  Now, you may play until the bell rings again,” Sister M instructed us.  This was the best time of the day.  We were allowed to hop, skip and even jump rope if we wanted to.  The air was alive with the sound of children’s voices.  I tried to make friends with two girls from my class, Sally and June.  They were nice.  Sally came up with the idea for each of us to sing a song and then we’d sing it all together.  Sally sang Mary Had a Little Lamb.  That was easy.  The three of us knew that song by heart and when Sally finished singing it by herself,  we sang it as a group.

“That was fun!” I said.  

The others agreed.  It was June’s turn next.  She sang Happy Birthday.  When she was done she said, “All together, now.  Ready?”  Then all three of us sang Happy Birthday together and we complimented ourselves on what a great singing group we made.  “Your turn!” June declared.

“Okay,” I said.  “How about this?”  I belted out a tune about Irish civil war from the Clancy Brothers album.

Armored cars and tanks and guns

Came to take away our sons

But every man must stand behind

The men behind the wire

June and Sally both made faces.  “I never heard that song before!” said June.

“Me, neither,” replied Sally.

“It’s about the bloody British!” I remarked.

“Bloody what? Eew! I don’t think I like it very much,” Sally told me.

June and Sally looked at each other.  Sally added, “We like songs like, you know, Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

“Okay,” I said, “What about this one?”  I started singing one of the Clancy Brothers’ odes to whiskey but they said they didn’t like that song, either.  

“I’m telling!” June remarked.  

“Where’s she goin’?” I asked Sally. 

“I don’t know,” she replied, “See you later!”  Sally left me standing by myself and the next thing I knew, Sister M was talking with June.  

Sister M came walking toward me.  I thought, uh oh, what did I do now?  “Child,” she said, “Sing the song you were just singing a few moments ago.  I want to hear it.”  

I started belting out Mary Had a Little Lamb.  “Not that one,” she said, “The other one.”

“Oh,” I said and broke into a rendition of Whiskey You’re the Devil.

Whiskey, you're the devil, you're leadin' me astray
Over hills and mountains and to Americay
You're sweeter, stronger, decent-er, you're spunkier than tea
O whiskey, you're me darlin' drunk or sober

Sister M looked horrified.  Her eyes were as big as bug’s eyes. “Little girl,” she asked, “Where on earth did you hear that song?”

“From the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem album my mother always plays,” I told her.  “It’s fun.  We dance to it, like this.”  I started doing the Irish jig.

“That’s enough, child!” said Sister M.  Then she sighed and shook her head.  “I’m going to have to write a note to your mother.” 

At the end of the school day I went back to Liddonfield Housing Project with a note for my mom that said I was singing songs about armored cars and drunkenness.  Sister M added that she wasn’t sure if ‘bloody’ was a curse word, but I was saying it and to be on the safe side I ought not to say it any longer.  Furthermore, the hem of my uniform was coming undone and needed mending.

“Well, she can’t be Irish,” said Mom, “If she was, she’d bloody well know who the Clancy brothers are.  I’m too tired to sew this hem right now.”  Mom put a safety pin through my uniform to hold the hem up.  “I bet she’s Italian,” Mom remarked, “Those Italian nuns don’t keep up with our Irish culture.”

Dad chimed in.  “Why would they, Eileen?” 

“And she certainly doesn’t watch the Lawrence Welk Show or else she would have seen them every St. Patty’s Day on the television.  That’s the biggest day of the year for that program and he always has the Clancy Brothers perform.  I wonder what Mr. Welk would say if he knew the sisters at the convent didn’t care for his television show!”

I watched my mother put another safety pin in the hem.  “Mommy, she said to sew it.  That’s not sewing.”

“You can tell her that I’m too tired from working all day and safety pins will have to do,” Mom replied.  Then she said to Dad, “I didn’t think Rosie would know what the words mean or that she’d even pay any attention to them.  She’s only a little girl.  What does she know about whiskey and revolution?”

Mom made me promise not to sing those songs in the school yard anymore.  Then she said the Italians are Catholic like us so they’re our brethren and we should love them, even though they don’t understand the Irish.  Also, let us not forget that the Pope is in Rome.  

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