House on Berwyn Place, Downstairs Apartment
(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)
The charm of Mary and Hugh’s Walnut Hills “castle” crumbled within a few weeks.
It happened on a Saturday when Mary was dusting furniture in the living room. From the corner of her eye she caught a sudden blur of movement on the floor. She stopped, stood still, then ventured a glance over her shoulder.
She waited a minute, then shrugged and resumed her dusting. Must have been my imagination. Again she caught a sense of movement on the floor. She turned quickly, then screamed.
“Eeeek! Hubert…there’s a creature in here. Help!”
Hugh had been drying breakfast dishes in the kitchen and came quickly. “What is it, Mary?”
“There!” She pointed in the direction of the wall and suddenly another little black figure darted, then stopped with its long feelers exploring its surroundings. Hugh grabbed a section of newspaper, rolled it, swatted the insect before it could run again, and disposed of the corpse in the trash can.
“It’s okay, honey. It’s just a roach.”
“A roach? That’s awful! Where did it come from? How many more are there?” She shivered as she spoke.
“I don’t know,” Hugh said, comforting her with a hug. He started searching the baseboard and found some more. A little investigation revealed the source of the roaches. There was a laundry right behind the apartment. It had a wooden floor that stayed damp most of the time. That’s where they were coming from.
They lost no time finding another apartment, unaware that they were starting what would become a two-year period of apartment jumping.
Without leaving Walnut Hills they found an efficiency apartment–one room with a sofa that opened into twin beds. Behind two doors they discovered a kitchen complete with a small sink, two-burner hot plate, small refrigerator and two shelves. There was a nice bathroom, and the price was right, so they took it. Since it was summer they left the windows open during the night to gain some breeze. They’d hardly gotten to sleep when some nearby neighbors got into a heated argument. Since they were still in honeymoon mode, this became an intolerable intrusion.
Moving again, they found a furnished apartment with an in-a-door bed they could roll out of a closet each night. A small kitchen featured a full-size stove and refrigerator, and there was a nice bathroom. A large house next door had a fenced yard where two Irish Setters with red satin coats lived. Mary enjoyed them greeting her each evening as she came in from work. All was well until night when they discovered the man upstairs beat his wife several times a week. They stayed until they couldn’t endure this any longer, then went apartment hunting again.
“Honey, why don’t we look over in Norwood where you grew up?”
Hugh agreed and the soon found a second-floor apartment on Madison Street. It had a private entrance, living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom and bath. This place felt good. They settled in.
It wasn’t long until Mary visited a doctor and learned that she was going to have a baby. She shared the news with Hugh that night and they reflected on their situation.
“I’m so glad we have this place,” she said. “It’s going to be just right for starting our family.” They had a romantic dinner and then sat holding each other while he sang songs to her softly. Things were looking up.
Hugh had a new job that required travel, selling machinery related to manufacturing bottle caps. The drawback was that it required out-of-town travel, so she was alone many nights. The landlord couple downstairs had a twelve-year-old daughter who would come up and keep her company. They talked, and laughed, and she gave the girl manicures and fixed her hair. Mary remembered herself at that age and enjoyed the relationship. One evening the girl said Mary seemed to be unusually happy and wondered why.
“I’m happy because in a few months we’re going to have a baby. Then you can come up and help me take care of it.”
When the girl told her mother about it she was forbidden to visit upstairs, and Mary was told that she and Hugh would have to move because small children weren’t allowed. Hugh was upset about this and asked the husband why they objected to a baby upstairs. The man seemed embarrassed and apologetic.
“It’s nothing personal,” he told Hugh. “You two are great people and we like you, but we lost a baby early in our marriage and my wife just can’t emotionally handle having a baby around. I really am sorry, but you’ll have to find somewhere else to live.”
That took the wind out of Mary and Hugh’s anticipation of childbirth. He went to work and found a better apartment on Berwyn Place in the Oakley section of the city. They rented the downstairs of a house located on a cul-de-sac that featured a garage and a wooded backyard. Hugh had recently traded in a Model A Ford he’d been driving, for a Chevrolet. The garage would come in handy.
The owners of the house were two older ladies of German descent, Anna and Doris Stenning, who had never married. When they found out this new couple renting their apartment were expecting a baby, they were delighted. Mary and Hugh settled in.
The baby was due in March and as the date drew near storms began blowing dust clouds into the area from the Midwest Dust Bowl. Mary went into labor one stormy Saturday morning when it was raining mud. Hugh took her to Christ Hospital. Rain falling through the dust clouds created a muddy smear on everything, including the hospital windows. Suddenly through the air came an unmistakable cry. Mary’s first child had just been born! They named him Hugh.
It was customary then for a new mother to remain in the hospital for ten days after childbirth. Mary enjoyed this special time with her tiny offspring whom they had decided to nickname “Hughie.” When they came home Hughie was an immediate hit with the Stenning sisters. They spoke with a noticeable accent and called him “Little Chu.”
Mary was thrilled to have built-in baby sitters. Anna and Doris were constantly around Little Chu, making sure he was safe. One day Mary left Hughie in the playpen out in the yard and went shopping. While she was gone Hugh decided to take his car apart, literally. She returned to find the entire driveway filled with auto parts. She was flabbergasted. Hugh said there was nothing to worry about. He just wanted to see how it was made and could put it all back together.
In a state of shock Mary looked toward the playpen. It was empty! “Where’s my baby?” she yelled at Hugh. He looked completely baffled by her reaction.
“Oh, he’s alright. He’s inside. The Stennings have him.”
Of course. That explained it all. Her anger abated and she went inside the house. The first thing she noticed was loud banging coming from upstairs. She dropped her shopping bags and ran up to see what was going on.
The banging was accompanied by joyful laughter coming from the bathroom down the hall. She stopped in her tracks when she reached the door. There was little Hughie sitting in the bathtub, banging away with a bath brush. Anna and Doris were applauding and rolling in laughter. Mary couldn’t help but break laughing herself.
That day became etched in her memory. Life had surely shifted for the dairyman’s daughter who now had a husband with all the parts of his car spread over the driveway, a small child banging recklessly on the sides of a bathtub, and two old ladies nearly going berserk with laughter at the sight and sound of it all.
Elmer had told his daughter she would never have a dull day if she married Hugh Harris. He was right! What would happen next?
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris.)