In the 1930s, my father bought property on a beautiful lake in central Wisconsin. His plan was to have a home built for us, a white clapboard house we eventually called White Caps.
In the meantime, we would live in a near-by town. The Great Depression was full blown and people were scrambling to survive. The Fennesseys were one couple devastated by the financial crash. They were an impressive pair. You could tell they had been through difficulties, but had kept their dignity and sense of purpose, their heads still unbowed. To this day I can recall a steely strength in them, especially Mrs. F. Mr. Fennessey had retired from his executive position with a well-known tire manufacturer. He’d actually invented a pneumatic tire, but had lost the race in the patent office and now his invention was collecting dust in the attic. Mrs. F had shown it to me along with the stacks of drawings and papers. She said not to say anything to Mr. Fennessey as it was a source of pain for him. I never did.
There was no Social Security then, stock prices had dropped to mere pennies, and the banks had closed, wiping out hard earned savings. So now, in their seventies and rattling about in a spacious house, the Fennesseys had their upstairs converted into a roomy apartment. Just perfect for my family while our house was being built. And so we moved from a small town in Minnesota into the Fennessey’s apartment.
The house was an old Victorian, built of wood with extensive ornamentation. Huge trees surrounded the large lot. Eight steps led to a porch, which covered the front of the building. It had a swing that seated two comfortably. Two battered rocking chairs sat side by side. A large front door led to a spacious entry hall. To the left was the door to the Fennessey’s living space. To the right was a solid wooden stairway with a carved balustrade that led to the second floor and our apartment. The upper hallway curved around to a door that opened to the attic stairs. Although the door to our quarters had a lock, I never had a key. In fact, I don’t believe any of the doors were ever locked. It was a more innocent time.
When you entered our living room the first thing you noticed were tall narrow windows (there were 12-foot ceilings). Second were the sliding wooden doors, which led to my parent’s bedroom at the front of the house. The doors slid smoothly but never quite closed. A faded carpet covered the floor. Mother placed overstuffed chairs on either side of the radio as it held a central spot in the room. The radio was new, encased in a fancy wooden cabinet. I’m sure mother listened during the day when my sister and I were at school. Every weekday, after dinner, Mary Ann and I listened to “Annie,” “The Lone Ranger,” and scariest of all, “The Shadow.” Sunday evenings were almost sacred as we sat around the radio and listened to Eddie Cantor and Rudy Vallee (my father’s favorite. “Now there’s a voice!” he said as he sang along with his wobbly tenor). The dining room was narrow. Mother placed the table so it abutted the window making room for the five of us. We were five as we had Mary Jane, a “hired girl,” who lived with us. She was Sister Mary Kathleen’s niece. (Sister Mary Kathleen was my piano teacher. She’d asked Mother to take the girl in as she was bound to get into trouble if she stayed at home. Mother tried, but that’s another story.)
The bathroom was ancient; the faucet in the tub made loud gurgling sounds before water burst forth. Everything was a bit worn but it all worked. The kitchen was awkward. Mother was a wonderful cook and I’m sure she sputtered as she made our meals. Mary Jane slept in a tiny room off the kitchen and there was a screened-in porch you could use as a second refrigerator during the winter months.
The best room of all was the bedroom I shared with my sister. It was huge (to this nine-year old). The wallpaper was a dusty pink silk fabric with garlands of flowers woven throughout. Recessed into one wall was a basin with an elaborate brass dolphin spigot with large white handles surrounded by pink marble and mirrors. At the far side of the room were four tall slim windows that looked out over the roof of the sunroom below.
But the hero of this story is not the house. It’s Mrs. Fennessey. She had lost everything that had once filled her life, all her worldly goods, and they had been plentiful, but she never complained. I often wondered where her strength and good humor came from. For me, she was a perfect model of honor and dignity. One afternoon, she called on mother and invited her to join a bridge group. Mother was pleased and offered Mrs. Fennessey a cup of coffee and piece of chocolate cake. Mrs. Fennessey refused politely, and then explained. When their only child was very small, she became ill—so sick the doctors feared she would die. Mrs. Fennessy, a devout Catholic, promised that if God would spare her daughter, she’d give up the two things she loved most in the world—coffee and chocolate. The child lived. And Mrs. Fennessy, some 30 plus years later, was still keeping her promise.