Mama and I liked to go window shopping on Congress Street, especially at Christmas time. Window shopping was what people did when they didn’t have money to buy stuff. We stopped at the Hub Furniture Company. The original Hub, which was a department store with a jewelry section that my Uncle Ellis managed. Ellis was my newest uncle. He had married my mother’s younger sister. There was a bit of a kerfuffle when my Aunt Barbara married Ellis. And it wasn’t because Ellis was a Jew, but because he was 20 years older than his 18-year old bride.
That winter afternoon gazing into Hub’s show window, I spied a clown doll. He was perched on a stool and looked right at me. It was love at first sight – for both of us. I asked Mama If I could have that clown for Christmas. “Do you know how much he is?” Nope, I didn’t. “Ten Dollars!” We moved on to even more lucrative store windows, such as Porteous Mitchell & Braun. Very fancy stuff in their windows. Porteous even piped Christmas music to the sidewalks for everyone to hear, whether they could afford it or not. Bing Crosby sang White Christmas. Snow fell. I had a new muff. I’d lost the other one – or two. Everything was picture perfect except for one thing. There would be no Dodo for me. Yes, I had named that clown doll.
Unfortunately, this was also the first year I no longer believed in Santa Claus. Timing has never been my strong suit.
Christmas morning came. I probably got some underwear, pajamas, maybe a coloring book or paper dolls. Then, as always, we traveled to my aunt’s house, by bus, where we became spectators, as my Aunt Barbara opened her boatload of presents. At the end of that painful display, there was a present for me from my Uncle Ellis. It was Dodo.
Throughout his life, Ellis was part of my life. When I got married, Ellis helped us pick out wedding rings. Twenty years later he helped with more wedding rings – same bride, different groom. In the meantime, when I was a single mom, Ellis twice moved out of his apartment in Florida so my little girl and I could move in for February school vacation. My Jewish Uncle was originally named John Yaffin. Ellis was a nickname. Since everyone called him Ellis, he changed his name. Ellis came to the United States from Russia when he was four, with his parents, older brother, David and sister, Betty.
It’s because of my Uncle Ellis that I appreciate sardines on Ritz crackers and chicken liver pate. Pate, which, I must admit, I am alarmingly good at making. And, it’s because of my Uncle Ellis that this little girl felt valued.
The day I received my social security card at age 15, my mother told me I would be getting a summer job. She also may have said something like, “Or it’s Reform School.” About ten minutes into summer vacation, Mama and I went to Portland’s Union Station, by buses, two of them. I applied for work at the Armstrong Co. restaurant, to become a soda jerk. Mr. Pride (Austin Pride – file that name away for a few minutes.) hired me on the spot and I was told to report for duty the next afternoon to work the 3 to 11 shift – 6 nights a week. That’s what a normal work week was back then, 48 hours. Teenagers were treated just like every other worker. I was told to buy a white uniform and a hair net. Eeew! The pay was paltry. The experience, priceless.
Probably the most appealing person at Union Station was Tate Cummings, Red Cap. His name was really Leslie but no one called him that. He’d been a football hero at Portland High School. Tate and all of the Red Caps were black men. Tate was my friend. I supposed that he was everybody’s friend. If I missed the bus to Congress Sq. or if the weather was awful, there was Tate offering me a ride home in his truck. Picture this: 1953 Black Man gives white teenage girl rides home from Union Station to Cape Elizabeth at 11 o’clock at night and no one thinks anything of it. Not my parents. Not the other Red Caps. No one at Union Station. All of the Red Caps were gentlemen. But Tate was more. I felt safe with Tate. He protected me. That was just how he made me feel.
Anne Pride was the wife of Austin Pride, Armstrong Co. restaurant manager. Austie taught me that there was no job at the restaurant that I couldn’t learn to do. Even make 100 cups of coffee in an urn that required a step stool to access and well developed biceps to pour the water. I did that.
Anne Pride taught me how to go after what I needed for my special needs kid. And, that that particular job never ends. Advocating becomes job one if you have a child who is developmentally delayed or needs any kind of help beyond what parents alone can supply.
In 1962, my first “wedding ring” husband and I adopted a baby girl. Four years later and at least that many pediatricians, we were stumped as to what to do and where to go to find answers for Diana’s behavior and slow development. We were told that there was only one place that could assess Diana and that it was an all day affair and would involve learning about all aspects of Diana’s daily life, and ours. The place wasn’t in Portland, the largest city in Maine. It was at St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston. We arrived at St. Mary’s at 8 a.m. and left around 5 p.m. At the end of the day, the answer was: Diana was a little slow. IQ wasn’t quite what it should be, but within the so called normal range. This was the advice from the Dr. in Charge: Take her home and treat her like any other child. Sure, we could do that, but how was the rest of the world going to treat her? There lies the rub.
The term “autism” had not yet crept into anyone’s vocabulary – and wouldn’t until Diana was a senior in high school.
In 1966 there were no resources in Greater Portland for these children. Then I met Anne Pride. I will paraphrase from her obituary:
Anne C. Pride was born June 23, 1916 and died Feb. 22, 2012. She was predeceased by her husband Austin and her daughter, Barbara Ann. After learning of their daughter’s severe handicap a decision was made that would impact the world of “No Child Left Behind.” ….. a letter was submitted by Anne and Austie to the Portland Evening Express “We Hear” column expressing the need for a program for special needs children. The next week seventeen mothers met and decided to create and support the Pride Training School. Anne also formed the Greater Portland Association for Retarded Children. It wasn’t long before Pride Training School had to move out of the Preble Chapel on Cumberland Ave. to larger quarters at 1777 Broadway and Pride Rd., South Portland, where over 100 kids would spend their school days that very first year. In time, Pride Training School and the Greater Portland Assoc. for Retarded Children merged with Goodwill Industries.
The obituary does not mention that Anne was a huge fan of saxophone player, Boots Randolph. Or that Anne always wore bright colors and even brighter lipstick. Nor did it mention Anne’s holding group therapy sessions, with a local psychologist in tow, every Thursday night for mothers of “The Kids.” I must admit we mothers spent more time talking about our husbands than we did our children. Anne Pride showed me how to be an advocate and to never, ever, give up.
There you have it. A snapshot of a few people who helped me while I was on a portion of my life’s journey.
My Uncle Ellis made me feel Valued and Deserving.
Tate Cummings made me feel Safe and Protected.
Anne Pride made me feel Capable and Effective.
From Maya Angelou:
People will forget what you said.
People will forget what you did.
But people will never forget how you made them feel.