As I began clearing out my late mother’s house, all I could do was sigh at the magnitude of paper there was to sort and probably throw away. There were folders of cancelled checks, bank statements for accounts long closed, boxes of maps, calendars, and clippings dispensing advice on topics from arthritis to investments. And there were the spiral notebooks — dozens of them around the house. Always a note-taker and list-keeper, my mother kept notebooks on seemingly everything, whether for a course for credit or a senior center seminar, and her daily “to do” lists were jotted in small pads kept on the kitchen counters. When she became more ill in her last couple of months, I found her notes on her daily medications scattered around the house, written on whatever open notepad page was available. Later, others kept up a spiral notebook for her, recording medicine, meals, and bodily functions.
Sifting through the notebooks labeled by year, I realized that they were much more than the account books they appeared to be. They did serve as check registers, lists of charitable contributions, documentaries of capitol gains and losses, and Christmas and birthday gift registries. But the line items were the interesting part, such as my brother’s college freshman yearbook expenses ($70) and living allowance from 1970 ($425). A younger brother’s expenses for falling in the bathtub in 1965 (x-ray, suture, and taxi to emergency room) were only $34.75. My sister’s birth in May, 1950, (“Rosemarie born 5:55 AM”) is inserted after the accounting for the previous Friday’s shopping trip (“vegetables, .97, meat, .82; garden tools – rake and dirt claw — $1.47”) and before the notation “Cigars $5.00.” The next year, in July, 1951, “Michael Stephen born” appears right after “groc. (vege.) .71. I went to hospital,” and “Bread .18. Birth announcement cards .63.”
Sometimes, the accounting notebooks got more personal and reflective, as on the page with the heading, “Resolutions for 1955.” It begins, “We smoke average per wk. R. = 1 pk. day (7) I.=1 pk. day (7) + extra evenings (4) equals 18 pks. per week.” My mother continues to compute that both she and my father spend $2.16 each per week on cigarettes. “Resolve to save ½ cigarette money to be put toward TV set. Ergo into piggy bank goes,” $1.08 from each of them per week. The $2.16 of cigarette allowance is then computed to buy more cigarettes (14 each per day) by the carton rather than by individual packs (11 cigarettes per day). The resolution was initialed by both my mother and my father. In July of that year, there’s a notation that she gave my father $39.00 in “TV money.” There must have been cutbacks in other areas as well for the piggy bank to fill so quickly.
My own birth announcement notebook entry from August, 1956, “Susan Therese born 11:05 PM,” is followed by an accounting of the hospital bill ($145.15) and the doctor’s maternity bill ($200.00). I came cheap by today’s standards. The next item is a listing for 2 adult airfares (my mother and grandmother) and two children’s fares (for my sister and brother, because, as noted, “Susan on lap”) from New York to Washington, D.C.: $47.52 total. But here’s where the notations for furniture movers and train and plane fares don’t really begin to tell the story of a family in transition that spring and summer. But fortunately, I found more information in a box of letters I hadn’t seen before.
A notebook entry states that my father left New York City for Washington, D.C. and a new job on April 23, 1956 (“Bus leaving at 1:10 A.M.”). My father was starting his civil service career with the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. My mother, five months pregnant with her third child, stayed in Brooklyn with the kids. Apparently, she had been working, probably part-time, until February of that year. Now, home with four and five-year-old children, facing a move with a newborn to a strange city far from family and friends, she wrote to my father for the first time.
“This is a strange experience for me,” my mother writes to my father, the day after he left town. “How does a girl write to a man she has lived with for 6 ½ years? All day I thought of writing to you. Only small everyday happenings came to mind…like…The scab on Rosemarie’s eye fell off.” She writes on about meeting her sister at the bank, walking over to her mother’s, taking the iron to the repair shop, and my father’s suits to the tailor. And then she feels guilty about the mundane reporting. “It seems a little disgusting…It is all so unimportant to someone who has a million other new and different experiences to adjust to and to absorb.” She’s anxious too: “The day you left, I had to take a pill and I couldn’t sleep well during your trip” (“Pep-up pills, $1.75” in the notebook).
By May, her letters exhibit mood swings, with her feelings toward my father reflecting whether they had a good telephone conversation in between. She’s clearly resentful of his absence, and her trip to DC for Mother’s Day didn’t seem to appease her for long. There’s the description of a last-minute 6th birthday party thrown for my sister, buying a cake and party favors that afternoon and rounding up the neighborhood kids. She was disappointed that my father didn’t send a birthday card and more disappointed when he called late that evening, unaware of the birthday. On page three she recounts how she told her sister that she could “get along quite adequately without a husband,” but by the end of the letter she misses him and looks forward to seeing him.
My father’s letters in reply also included mundane expense accounting, which not only reflected my parents’ financial concerns at the time but help to illustrate daily life in the mid-century Nation’s Capitol. My father was in a new job in a strange city, where he knew practically no one. He was staying in the home of the more senior Misses Heseltine on Ashby Street N.W. One sister was a retired teacher; the other sister had been working for H.E.W. for 20 years. “The dog they have,” my father wryly noted, “is much younger.” “The deal here isn’t bad,” he continues. He got a ride to work from Miss Heseltine (“about a half-hour” commute – probably much less time than it would take today to drive from that Foxhall neighborhood in Northwest to Southwest DC during rush hour), and an offer to borrow the sister’s car to go apartment shopping. Still, the ladies went to bed by 9 pm, and he was left with trying to keep himself occupied in the evenings to combat his loneliness. Some days he took in a movie (such as “The Ladykillers” with Alec McGuiness; admission $.95, unless he hit the bargain theater for a fifty-cent double feature) or walked the streets “trying to find a shoe store and a place to eat supper.” Sometimes it was a choice between catching the earlier bus and eating dinner: nighttime bus service after a 6:00 movie was apparently infrequent, and not eating downtown meant no hot meal at all. He looked up the few connections he had for a local dinner invitation, such as my mother’s uncle and an old army buddy. There were a half dozen train trips back and forth to New York by mid July and one trip to DC for my mother on Mother’s day. Besides the Continental Hotel room where they both stayed, my father’s DC quarters changed during that time from the spinsters’ home to the YMCA, and then to the Hawthorne Hotel near 21st and G Streets NW. At $12.50 per week, the Hawthorne was “hot, and has no ventilation. There are several chunks out of the wall and the paint is peeling, but it has several advantages over the Y –
1. It has an air conditioned lobby with a TV
2. It has a sink in the room
3. It has a cleaner bathroom
4. It has two small fans in the room
5. It is $5 less than the Y.”
While my father was writing about washing his socks in the hotel sink, my mother was getting impatient for him to settle on a permanent address for the family. After her Mother’s Day visit to DC to apartment shop, she wrote, “Wednesday, May 16th, 1956. … I have just completed a tentative budget for 1956 at your new salary rate. I worked until 2:00 A.M. this morning and all day today on it. It is a distasteful and thankless job. However, it is my contribution to this task of settling on a new apartment in D.C….Conclusion #1. We can well afford $135.00 per month for rent including utilities. Your salary allows an adequate increase in many items… With the new rent and new increases (in salary) we can still have a cash savings of $ 780 per year, which is $15 per week, or $65 per month.” Her subsequent conclusions were to rule out a three bedroom on one level apartment in Congress Heights for $116 (“all living and eating would have to be done in the living room”). A three bedroom, three level Congress Heights apartment for $130, including utilities, was acceptable, as were the Serene Apartments in Langley Park, for $135, “complete.” She had seen an intriguing ad for another apartment complex in that area with air conditioning – Oakton Apartments. Ironically, I moved into the Oakton Apartments in Adelphi, Maryland myself as a college student some 21years later – not so cutting edge by that time.
In late May, my father went to see the garden apartment community of Naylor Gardens in the far Southeast section of D.C (“Washington’s most attractive apartment development” reads the advertising on the change of address card). Rent would be $128 per month for the three bedroom apartment — $125 if they brought their own refrigerator (which would cost about $15 to ship from New York). It sounded ideal for the young family. “You would be about three blocks from a big shopping center (new Sears Roebuck included – and a movie) —Kids walk to school – kindergarten ½ day – across the street and up the hill is a playground.”
My mother was delighted with the news. “On reflection and discussion about the Naylor Garden apartment you spoke of, [it] is not too much for what you are getting. You would pay $135 with electricity for the Serene Apt. in Langley and that is not in the District. True D.C. itself is hot, but you got an air conditioner. It sounds wonderful. It sounds great! Take it.”
There seems to be no more surviving correspondence from my mother for the rest of that summer. The spiral notebook entries fill in the specifics. August second –moving day (for the furniture only). Two days later, the furniture is delivered to the Naylor Gardens apartment with a bill of $ 259.45. I was born the next day in New York. I remember my mother’s story about her sister taking her to the hospital. My father was on a train from DC to New York and didn’t know that I arrived before he did. Two weeks later, we were all in DC. My father didn’t get to enjoy apartment life with the family for too long, however. By September, he was traveling again for his job — to New Orleans and New York, to Santa Fe and Seattle. His correspondence from that time period is mostly briefly written during post-travel exhaustion. The next year the government sent him on 14 different trips. His letters reveal his longing for his wife and family. My mother continued to write budgets and record the expenses of life—both ordinary and extraordinary — in various spiral notebooks for the rest of her life.
Forty-some years after those letters, I moved back to the Southeast neighborhood where my parents rented their Washington, DC apartment, and later owned two homes. The Sears store and the movie theater are long gone, along with much of the neighborhood retail businesses of that era. Still, I feel lucky to have gotten a peek, through letters and expense accounts, at the city as my transplanted parents first saw it. I know I didn’t inherit my mother’s fascination with finance and bookkeeping, but, I can appreciate my mother’s diligence at recording and keeping those budgets and day- to-day financial details. And I still have all those spiral notebooks.