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Friday, 08 May 2009

Oh! You're John's Girl

By Nancy Leitz

My Dad was the world's worst driver and my Mother and my brothers would not ride in the car with him. He drove a 1932 Chevy with the spare tire on the side. The trunk had giant straps to hold the lid down. The car was dark blue with yellow wheels,had gigantic headlights and two long bugle horns protruding out the front that Harry James could have played.

I know it sounds like a circus wagon, but believe me, it was a beauty - almost as nice as our neighbor's Packard that sported flower vases on the side. They just don't make cars like that anymore!

So, because no one else would ride with Dad as he zipped along completely oblivious to any other traffic (actually in 1932 there was very little traffic), it was up to me to go with him on official family business such as getting the fried oysters at the tavern on Friday night, taking Father Murray to his dental appointments and attending all wakes for members of our large Irish family.

We lived just outside of Philadelphia and my Dad had eight sisters and innumerable aunts, uncles and cousins who still lived in South Philadelphia. So at least once a month, one of these people would go to their Heavenly reward and it was up to Dad and me to see them off.

When word was received that one of these relatives had died, we waited until the obituary was printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer and then made our plans. So far I have forgotten to mention that at this time I was four years old and actually enjoyed going with my Dad to say goodbye to our loved ones.

It really did take a little planning to find the best route to the wake because almost everyone was laid out at home in their living room - or "parlor" as it was called then. So Dad would spread out a large map of the city on the floor and begin to trace the route we would take with a crayon (no highlighters in those days).

When he was satisfied that he could find cousin Gertie's house, he would fold up the map and tell Mother what time we were leaving so she would have time to put my hair up in rags and iron my dress. All little girls had to resemble Shirley Temple as closely as possible, so when the rags were removed I had golden ringlets and a beautiful dress.

Then the evening would come and Dad and I would hop in the Chevy (I sat in the front passenger seat; no seat belt for either of us) and we would head to South Philadelphia.

As we crossed the Passyunk Avenue bridge, I knew we were getting close because of the distinct odor of rotten eggs that emanated from the Atlantic or Gulf refinery. Sulphur was a by-product of the refining process and no one complained about the smell because almost everybody worked at one or the other of the refineries. Everyone knew that the day the odor went away, it would take their livelihood with it. (Note: Both refineries are still there but under different ownership.)

Soon we would be on a typical, narrow street designed for horse and carriage and barely wide enough for one car to get through. Rows of houses lined either side of the street. Each house had four, white marble steps that were scrubbed by the "Missus" every morning, and each house had a huge window in the front that served a definite purpose.

Because all wakes were in the home, the casket had to be placed in the parlor and the only way to get the huge casket into that small house was through the window space. The window would be removed, the casket would go in the house and the window would be reinstalled.

Dad would find a parking spot and taking my hand, he would lead me up those steps into the house. It was a sight I have never forgotten. The deceased would be lying in state surrounded by banks of flowers and all the female family members and friends would be sitting in folding chairs provided by the funeral director.

These ladies were all dressed in black and there was the low, hushed murmur of conversation among them as they spoke softly to each other. From the kitchen, you could hear the beer and whiskey bottles clinking and the men were toasting the deceased with drink after drink.

There used to be a story about Pat and Mike leaving the pub after a night of drinking and as they walked home, they spotted a house that was having a wake. Looking for a free drink or two they staggered in. The custom was to kneel in front of the deceased and say a prayer for them. But Pat and Mike, instead of kneeling in front of the casket, mistakenly knelt in front of the piano. Pat turned to Mike and said, "I don't know who this fellow was, but he sure had nice teeth."

A great fuss would be made over Dad and me as we entered the house. Don't forget, he was the only boy out of nine children and was the youngest. After we paid our respects to our dearly departed Aunt or cousin, Dad would go into the kitchen with the men and I was left with the ladies, any one of whom would have made a terrific CIA Agent. They were experts at interrogation and pumped me for information I might have about any other friends or relatives. "Does Mrs. O'Brien still live on your street? Is Mr. O'Brien there, too? No? Hmmmm.”

As new visitors would come in, they would call me over and say, "And who might you be?"

"I'm Nancy McGarvey. My Dad brought me."

To which they would exclaim, "Oh, you're John's girl."

So, that's how I was usually introduced to everyone. "This is Nancy, she is John's girl."

If I hadn't been so young and self-centered, I might have looked around the room and realized that this was happening to most of the children who were there. "This is Kevin, he is Nora's boy." Or "Oh, it's Georgie and Moira. They are Michael's kids."

I went to all the wakes with my Dad until I was about 13 years old and we moved away from the old neighborhood. I truly missed seeing all the cousins and aunts and uncles, and I especially missed being known as "John's girl."

[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Nancy, like my Elly you will always be "John's girl."

Another great story from you.

Second try. Don't know why my posts won't post...
Takes one to know one. 2728 S. 10th St. to be exact, the house of my grandmother. All of my ancestors come from South Philly. Mostly of Irish descent but with some Germans mixed in.
You should hear the stories about the Spanish Flu in Philadelphia.

Another funny story, John's girl. I'm glad my grandfather (The other poor driver) didn't make me go to wakes with him. Amazing that we both survived our male drivers.

It must have been hair-raising going home from a wake after your Dad spent time in the kitchen. ;-).

Hello Grannymar,

Thank you for the nice comment. Yes, I know Elly was another John's Girl and I know how proud he would be of her and the success she has made of her life.

Hi James,

Well, what a coincidence! 2728 S. 10th St. is just below Oregon Avenue and very near Johnston St.

My Mother was born in St Joseph, Missouri and when she was 18 years old she was engaged to be married to a boy who lived near her home. Then the Great Flu Epidemic struck and her fiance was one of the first to die. My Mother was heartbroken.

To console her my Grandmother sent my Mom to visit her sister who was married to a Naval Officer stationed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Now, guess where they lived? At 10th & Johnston St.

And guess who lived next door to my Mom's sister? My Father and his parents and his 8 sisters!

My Father and Mother fell in love and were married in 1920 at St. Joseph's Church in Willings Alley.

Final piece of this story. My
Mother did not go back to St Joseph,Missouri until 1933 with my two brothers and me. And you know how she got there? She drove us in the 1932 Chevy mentioned in my story...

The story of that trip is just waiting to be told......

Hello Darlene,

I never thought of that!! I was so young I didn't realize that my Dad was probably "Three sheets to the Wind" as they used to say.

But, you know what,Darlene, my Father was such a terrible driver anyway, I suppose it was hard to tell the difference after he had tipped a few at the wake...

He probably wouldn't last 10 minutes on the road today. Sober or not..

My mom used to put my hair up in rags for church every Saturday night. I thought it was the strangest thing in the world and that no one else did it. My eyeballs almost bounced onto the keyboard when I read that part!

Hi Nance,

Yes, putting my hair up in rags went on for years, and it was better than what was to come later. The dreaded Toni Home Permanent.

Did your Mom subject you to that torture? I gave a Toni to my daughter once and she hasn't forgiven me yet. Her hair was so frizzy she looked like she had put her finger in a light socket.

Say, maybe those rags weren't so bad after all!!

Nancy, you tell more stories than anyone I've ever known - and I am happy to be able to read them!!

Hello Judy,

And I am happy to have nice,kind readers like yourself to read and comment on them.

Happy Mothers Day! I know you have been working all week to make other Mom's happy today, so I hope your day is wonderful,too.

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