Telling It Like It Was

Vol. III No. 2 - FALL/WINTER 1990

By: Sandee Remis

The October 20 General Meeting of EHS provided a unique opportunity to hear the history of Edgewater from a 96-year-old resident, Mary Thiry. She and her daughter Joan shared with us many delightful memories of Edgewater, their home at 1668 W. Olive, family life in general and gave informative instruction on how others can capture their own memories to pass on to succeeding generations.

They are experts on the subject, having published a book and tape, “How To Capture Your Family Story,” spoken many times before groups such as ours, and practice what they preach - they brought numerous examples of how history and traditions have been handed down through their own family.

We learned how Mary’s father, Peter Mertens, came to this country from Luxembourg at the age of 18 as an orphan immigrant. He worked very hard… and eventually built eight greenhouses and a small house on the corner of Winchester and Norwood, one block north of Peterson Avenue.

Mary has fond memories of when the “Waffle Man” came: “All the children would run out to his wagon and buy a waffle. Were they good! They were light as a feather and a golden brown and he would sprinkle powdered sugar on them. I think we only paid 2¢ for one.”

Mary remembered her youngster years, living one block north of Rosehill Cemetery: “One strip along the heavy wire fence (the concrete wall was erected much later) was reserved for Chinese people. At the cemetery’s side entrance, a small altar was built and about four times a year the Chinamen would come from their church in Chinatown to honor their dead.”

As Mary recalled: “When we smelled the incense burning we would rush over there to watch their ceremonies. They believed in supplying food for the departed, who were buried standing up. They said prayers over small bowls of rice, then offered them up. They cooked chickens and put them in the graves. They also brought fruit; sometimes they would hand us an orange or apple through the fence.

“They were always dressed in their Chinese costumes and had that long braid down their backs. On one occasion, we saw them bring a whole roasted pig on a large frame that they offered up too. They also brought many beautiful flowers. The custom no longer takes place. We heard they took all the remains that were left and shipped them back to China.”

Mary’s husband had his own business, an electric appliance shop on Devon Avenue. She used to go to the store and help him. He had four booths on one side of the store with a record player inside. People would come in, play records and then buy them. Mary took care of the record sales and especially enjoyed the walks home in spring, when you could smell the honeysuckle blossoms. Those were beautiful years, until the Depression hit and they lost everything.

Joan recalled the lean years: “Once we didn’t pay our bill on time and the gas was shut off. I still remember mom cooking one egg at a time for her four children, in the center of the kitchen on a little electric toy stove from dad’s shop.” Paradoxically, Joan remembers, they were considered one of the richest families around because they had a player piano with 100 rolls of music - garnered only as a matter of barter trade. (People who couldn’t afford to pay merchants money during the Depression paid with belongings they could afford to relinquish for what they truly needed.)

Mary was coaxed into showing off the exquisite feather hat she wore to our meeting. It seems that in 1947 one of her sons-in-law, who loved to hunt, shot a particularly beautiful pheasant, which she took to her milliner. (Stylish hats were still made, not ready-bought in those days.) Fourteen dollars later, she was the proud owner of a chapeau which she has worn for three months of every year, September through November, since that time. She recently declined an offer to sell the hat for $100!

Mary’s regimen today includes getting up each morning, having breakfast and starting in on making her homemade cards (approximately 300 per year to satisfy her ever-growing family). This last October alone she completed 80 Halloween cards with braids and real autumn leaves. She makes pillows out of washcloths and last Christmas stuffed nearly 100 home sewn net stockings for her cherished brood with her traditional “pink popcorn,” candy and nuts. She got very upset with helper Joan when the walnut-in-shell was not always in its specified place, in the toe of the boot.

By the way, Mary is blind in one eye and has a cataract in the other. She is one energetic 96-year-old lady, and Joan is a very devoted daughter.

For the benefit of those who missed this wonderful presentation by Mary and Joan, I’d like to quote from a chapter in their book on heritage:

For Christmas… Mother and I worked on a gift for Bill, my brother… In a beautiful, old, turn-of-the-century book that my Mother had, we put together a family album… We started with pictures of our grandparents, parents, ourselves as children, weddings and the new family units thus created, bringing it up to date and leaving empty pages so that Bill can continue to fill it and pass it on to his son. Bill said it was the best present he ever received from Mom and me.
 
(One day) my Mother declared… “Guess what I’m doing? I’m writing my life!” Mom wanted to be sure that her Life Story, her most precious legacy, was left to us - just as she wanted it to be told!
 
It was then that we decided to have Mom’s story typed and bound in a simple spiral-bound booklet for which Mom designed her own cover and title page. The booklet was duplicated so she could give her life story to her grandchildren, her children and her friends for Christmas of that year…
 
By sharing her story, Mom realized that the gift of her Life Story was more valuable than any gift bought with money.
 
Mom’s 14 grandchildren… became aware of Granny-the-storyteller and Granny-the-wise-woman, with lots to share besides embroidered shirts and doughnuts.
 
As for us… Mom’s four children, we had a long-to-be-cherished session as we shared memories. We subsequently found our children more interested in “the olden days” of both their parents and their grandparents. Since two families have been in California for most of their children’s lives, we have become aware of what vital links parents are in the story and traditions of their family.
 
Our “sound-album” of family memories accompanies this book. It was recorded in the home where we grew up. The sound album recounts some of our memory-gathering sessions, while this, our “how-to” book, recounts many of the projects that mushroomed out of my Mother’s first effort. Our memory sessions and our projects have tied our family’s loose ends together in a new and warm way.
 
In our way we have put together a living history that is a slice of our national history - a story of one family’s beginnings in Europe, their emigration to America and the growth and change that has occurred during four generations.

Mary and Joan, thank you for the presentation, the memories, the recipes for “pink popcorn” and other delectable delights which you distributed to meeting attendees. Most of all, thank you for showing how easy it is, although not without effort, to pass on a legacy beyond price to our loved ones. Maybe some lucky children out there will receive a “special gift” this very Christmas.