1953, Reading, Writing & Building!

Why do we read? Author and avid reader Maureen Corrigan suggests that we read for a lot of reasons, “but two of the most compelling ones are to get out of ourselves and our own life stories and—equally important—to find ourselves by understanding our own life stories more clearly in the context of others.’”1

I suggest that we bloggers write for similar reasons! Writing this memoir/blog takes me down unexpected avenues–often with many wrong turns and sometimes dead ends–as I seek new takes on my own past. New realities may dawn on me slowly or hit hard like a bumper car. My understanding of my own life story can shift and even swivel as a I research and write. I’m finding it an unexpected journey during this pandemic.

Banished to nowhere
Fall of 1953 my younger brother Karl and I entered a slapped-together elementary school named Springview Elementary. I had been reassigned to this new school. I left behind girlfriends at Miami Springs Elementary unaware that I would reunite with them five years later in junior high school. As a third grader, I couldn’t know that in the future some of those girls would became my best friends in that next decade.

As a child, I had to adjust to this new reality. This school was not a prize—some days, with a westerly wind, we would be overwhelmed by the acrid smells of slaughtered animals from a nearby glue factory. The “portables”, as the classrooms on cider blocks were called, were stuffy and hot. The playground was a sandy lot.

Karl and I could ride our bicycles to Springview Elementary. He was a first grader biking to school with his big sister. Marsha, born in 1950 and Lea, born in 1952 kept Mother busy caring for a toddler and an infant while we were away at school. “The girls” as they became known in our family were born only 18 months apart and as children were quite close.

My role of mother’s helper at home, continued at school. Almost all of our teachers in grades one through six were women. I was comfortable with them, usually. I paid attention and completed assignments. In those years we were also graded on comportment which was later called conduct. I was generally eager to please. I was my mother’s good girl, until I wasn’t….

The Springview teachers were a committed bunch and learning to read meant I could go to the library with my mother. We frequented the Miami Springs Public Library at 401 Westward Drive—too far to walk, but mother took us there almost weekly. I’ve learned that this little library, which seemed so big as a child when I stared at all those books, was started in the 1939 by the Miami Springs Women’s Club.

Part of the general federation of women’s clubs nation wide, the Miami Springs Women’s Club, like many other women’s clubs, created a public library as one of their first projects. The Women’s Club housed the library in the club’s building at 200 Westward Drive for ten years. In the 1950s the library moved to its own building–the one I roamed as a girl. Sixty-five years later this library is still in use as part of the Dade County Library System.

Reading became a valuable skill as well as a window into other lives. Later, as a young woman in the early 1970s, all the feminist books I encountered “made me see myself differently and gave me a wider sense of the world.”3 Reading would “nurture the path of resistance” for me—a phrase I’ve borrowed from author Tara Westover. I tripped over this eloquent phrase last week when reading her memoir Educated.

Four kids slept in two bunk beds wedged into the small second bedroom of the house at 336 Linwood Drive. We needed more room. Both my parents were resourceful people. Neither wanted to move–they liked the neighborhood and their close friends had bought the house next door. Marie and Paul had a thirty year mortgage and fully expected to pay it off someday (unlike most home owners today).

Paul and Marie decided to fix the problem themselves. They would make the house bigger. The lot was 50 feet wide and almost 150 deep. Dad already had a small workshop he’d built in a back corner of the lot. Popular Mechanics magazine was his tutor. The magazine was full of build-it-yourself projects of varying difficulty. It’s subtitle for each issue was “Written so you can understand it,” and was geared to an ambitious amateur handyman/electrician/carpenter. Paul tackled the project of doubling the size of the house with enthusiasm. He designed the two large rooms they wanted to add. He worked weekends and vacations for about two years. Mother and all of us helped–sometimes this meant staying out of his way.

The addition became a work-of-art! Leaving the dining room of the original house, one entered the large Florida room/enclosed porch. Beyond was a huge bedroom where Marsha, Lea and I each had our own nook. A full bath occupied one corner. We each enjoyed our own large walk-in closet outfitted with a built-in dresser drawers–all carefully crafted. The walls were a warm knotty pine, a real wood paneling popular at the time.4 The bathroom was the only part of the addition that had required outside help.

Sharing a space with my sisters helped prepare me for dorm living. In both situations there were nights when each of us lay in bed as we talked and laughed sharing stories from our day. Large windows in our joint bedroom insured good ventilation to keep us cool all summer. Cozy electric blankets kept us warm on the few winter nights it was cold. Often, on Christmas day, we usually had on shorts by lunch time. Christmas day in a tropical climate is a study in contrasts. We would wake up in the chilly dawn, the youngest kids in footie pajamas, and then gather around a live tree weighed down with ornaments and a thick layer of tinsel. Sleigh bells jingling in snow were unknown, but that fir tree was surrounded by mounds of wrapped surprises.

During those years of building on weekends our family outings were limited. But we sometimes would drive the short distance to the Miami Airport. By parking along an access road we could watch planes lift into the sky and other planes as they touched down–roaring along the runway. As a girl, I had no inkling that I would someday sail the skies covering five million miles in my sixteen years of flying.

Writing here, I revisit my girlhood and that home built on the edge of the Everglades because it is full of stories, memories and love. Why am I detailing the details of our home? This building is tribute to the father I knew as a girl. This is the house he created with sweat and ingenuity and just plain grit. I’m in awe of the man who, as a child never lived in a house his family owned. Paul enlarged a small house to shelter his family of six.

Dad was a self-trained artist in many ways—he worked with his hands and his imagination. He was a magician able to transform a blueprint into the comforting bedroom my sisters and I shared for decades. Additionally this story is a tribute to the value placed on self-reliance which I experienced growing up in the south in the 1950’s. Others built too–Dad’s youngest sister Rosemary and her husband Darryl built their own house in North Miami during that same decade.

Today another family lives within those walls at 336 Linwood Drive. According to public records, that family has lived there for 36 years enjoying, still, the everyday artistry my father crafted for his family in the early 1950s.

1 Maureen Corrigan, Leave me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books p. 34
2 “when women began riding bikes in the 1800s, they were required to wear heavy skirts. The low bar allowed them to mount the bikes “modestly” and was a space for their skirts to go. Back then, bikes also had “clothes-guards” that would keep women’s skirts from being caught up in the mechanics of the bike. Picture is from the 1890s.” from: https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2016/08/26/insisting-on-boys-and-girls-bikes/
3 Maureen Corrigan, Leave me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books p. 62
4 Pickwick paneling: some of my readers work with wood and may be intrigued, as I am, by the paneling and its features. “Pickwick refers to the unique edge profile of each piece of this tongue-in-groove pine paneling. Stare at the profile edge from the side and you can see: Pickwick consists of two beads with a hollow in between on one side of each board… this pickwick side also includes the tongue and on the other side of the board, there is a groove. Sometimes referred to as a “butterfly” pattern, or “WP-2” in the industry. Today, it seems that you can get Pickwick panels that are 4″, 6″, 8″ or 10″ wide.” from https://retrorenovation.com/2014/05/19/pickwick-pine-paneling-3/

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