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

Dec 5, 2011

The Taming of a Public Housing Child Part 3

by Rosemary Reeves

If you missed the first 2 parts of this series about a Liddonfield kid attending St. Dominic parochial school, click on the links below:

In the 1960’s many of the families who lived in Liddonfield Housing Project were of Celtic or Mediterranean descent.  Some of us were first generation Americans.  We were the children of poor immigrants who had come to the United States to escape poverty or war in their homeland.  Before coming to America, our parents believed the streets were paved with gold.  They found out otherwise as they struggled to support their families on low wages.  Their pride in having become American citizens never faltered, however, and they had great hopes for their children who were born in this country. 

My mother had dual citizenship because she was born in Scotland.  Scotland was an English colony and therefore part of Britain.  The British didn’t seem to accept any relinquishment of citizenship as that would be insulting.  No, they informed her, you are still a colonist from Scotland and we don’t bloody care if you obtained citizenship from America.  So, she was a citizen of both nations by default.  My mother could vote in the United States and she did in every election, though until her death, she was obliged to show her citizenship papers.  A life-long Democrat, she was loyal to that party.  I don’t think my mother understood how political she was or that I was actually absorbing her political ideas as much as a little girl could take in.

Conversations in our home in the projects centered mostly around two things – money and politics.  The two were inextricably intertwined.  My mother spoke of social class and politics to anyone in the house who would listen, including me when I was little, whether I understood what she was talking about or not.  Dad read the Bulletin daily, which was the local newspaper, but he wasn't one to discuss news in America, let alone Ireland. 

His parents had come to America by ship from Ireland, but Dad was born here and had little interest in "the troubles." My father was an island unto himself, silent and brooding until erupting in yet another fit of anger, mainly from the stress of being poor.  My teenage brothers and sisters had tired of all Mom’s Irish vs. bloody British talk.  They liked the British because the Beatles came from Liverpool.  I liked the Beatles as well, but I was steadfastly intrigued by my mother’s tales of oppression and rebellion.

She told me, too, how my Irish Catholic grandmother fell in love with my grandfather, a Protestant Scotsman.  He loved my grandmother so much that he converted to Catholicism so they could wed.  “This family is an emotional lot,” Mom said, “We lead our lives by our hearts, God help us.”  And that is why I was attending St. Dominic Elementary School, because of this long chain of events that started in a place far away, long before I was born.  

After Mom mended the hem of my uniform with safety pins I went to school the next day, embarrassed and hoping no one would notice.  I made it through Sister M’s class without incident for once, so I thought.  Just as the bell rang and I was leaving, she stopped me.  “Why is your uniform catching the light?” Sister M asked as she sat at her desk at the front of the room.

I thought to myself, darn it!  Sister M got up from her chair.  Her eagle eyes zoomed in on my hem and she made an inquisitive face.  “Is that a safety pin?” she said.  She took my arm and slowly twirled me around.   “My goodness!” she added, “There are safety pins throughout your entire hemline.  You’re lit up like a Christmas tree!”

“My mother said she was too tired from working all day and safety pins would have to do,” I told her.

Sister M crossed her arms and replied, “Safety pins will certainly NOT do!  You tell your mother that you are not to come to school tomorrow unless your hemline is properly mended with a needle and thread!”

“Why couldn’t she let it wait until the weekend?” Mom said when I told her what happened.  “I’m home on the weekend!”  I was hoping Mom would be too tired again and I wouldn’t have to go to school the next day.  She grumbled the whole time, but she sewed my hem properly.  It passed inspection by Sister M and I was glad she made my mother do it because I didn’t have to be embarrassed anymore about being lit up like a Christmas tree.  So, finally, everything was set right and I was a proper St. Dominic girl.  

Then the bell rang for recess and I was in the schoolyard minding my own business when someone came from behind and snatched the hat right off my head.  I turned around.  It was Richard.  “Ha ha!  I’ve got your hat!” he said mischievously.  

“Give it back, Richard,” I told him.

“Sure,” he replied, “Here, take it.”  But Richard tricked me.  When I reached out for the hat, he pulled it away and laughed at my expense.

“That’s not funny!” I told him, “I want it back.”  

Richard stood there, teasing.  “If you want it back,” he said, “Then you have to come and get it.”

He was taller than me and every time I reached for the hat, he held it up too high for me to grab.  I grew very angry with him.  “You better gimmee that hat back right now!” I warned him, but he would not listen.  So, when he did it again, instead of reaching for the hat, I pushed him.  He fell to the ground, still holding the hat in one hand and wearing a surprised look on his face.  I jumped on top of him to pin him down and began pummeling his face with my fists.  Other children in the school yard gathered around.  They roared in laughter at our scuffle.

Someone said, “Richard’s getting beat up by a girl!” and more children flocked around the spectacle.  I was possessed, concerned only with serving Richard up a cold bowl of revenge.

“I warned you!” I yelled at Richard as I hit him once again in the face.

“Ow!” he said, “Quit it!  Ow!  Cut it out!”  

I was so angry I considered forcing him to say “uncle.”  Just then, I heard Sister M telling the others to move aside.  “Break it up, boys!” she said sternly as she moved through the crowd of students.  I stopped hitting Richard and looked up.  Sister M stood with her mouth agape when she saw it was not two boys fighting.  She gawked at the two of us, speechless, as I had him pinned to ground.  Sister M moved her lips but no words came out, only parts of words.  Then she blurted out, “What is this? A boy…and…a girl…fighting?  I never in all my days!”

“He took my hat,” I said.  Richard was still holding it.  I snatched it out of his hand and got off him.  Sister M looked at me as if I was the devil himself.  She told Richard to get up.  Then she grabbed both of us by the collar and marched us off to the principal’s office.  

I had to see the principal first while Richard sat waiting in the hall, contemplating his fate.  The principal was a nun, too, and older than Sister M.  She looked ancient.  “So, you’re the one!” she said sternly, “Little Miss, this is the first time in the history of this school that a girl was caught fighting with a boy!  What have you got to say for yourself?”

I said, “When a boy takes your hat and won’t give it back, you have to clobber him.”

“For shame!” the principal replied, “For shame! That is most unladylike behavior, totally unacceptable and unworthy of this school!”

All of a sudden, she had a way of making me feel bad about it.  I hung my head.  “But what am I supposed to do when a boy is picking on me?” I asked her.  It was time to turn on the water works.  “My mommy gave me that hat and I love my mommy.  She would be very upset if anything happened to that hat.  I had to get it back, didn’t I?”  I took the distress of being scolded and magnified it ten times over in my head, then I thought of my mother being upset.  Presto!  The water works came.  Tears were streaming down my face.  It just about broke the principal’s heart.

“There, there now,” she said in a kinder, softer voice, “I love my mother, too so I know how that hat must be very special.”

I sniffed and wiped away a tear.  “It is,” I replied, “It’s very special and what kind of terrible boy would take a girl’s hat, anyway?”

The principal agreed.  “He is a terrible boy,” she said, “and rest assured, he will be punished.”

I turned on the water works some more.  “I’m not going to be punished, am I?”

“Well,” she said, “I was going to let you have it good, but I’ve decided that you’re not such a bad little girl after all.  You seem very upset and I suppose that’s punishment enough.  But you are never to fight anyone again, do you understand?  If someone is picking on you, then you must tell an adult.  Little ladies never, ever fight.”

“Never?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Never, under any circumstances, does a lady fight.”  The principal made me promise to ask Jesus for forgiveness and say a bunch of Hail Mary’s.  She also wrote a note for my mother telling what happened but that she was convinced I was truly sorry.  

“You had a fight with a boy in the school yard?” Mom said when she read the note.  I nodded.  

My father thought it was a hoot.  I was just glad he wasn't angry.  But winning a fight was one of the few ways to please him.  Dad despised weakness.  He used to say that he was hard on his kids because he wanted us to be tough.  We hated it.  Once, my teenage brother confided in Dad that he was being bullied by another boy who was bigger and stronger.  Dad called him a weakling then ordered him to fight the bully.  My brother lost the fight.  Dad beat my brother up again for losing.  

In our home if you accidentally spilled a glass of juice, Dad would hit and berate you until you wished you were dead.  But if you bloodied another child’s nose he’d pat you on the back and say, “Well done,” even if you were a girl.  

Part 4 will be posted on Monday, December 12, 2011.

Related Stories on this blog:  

Public Housing as Segregation Video  

For Your Viewing Reference on YouTube:  
Northern Ireland in the 1960s/70s
British Soldiers Who Served in Northern Ireland

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