Alma Vogels, my mother in law, was raised by a mother and father who each lost one parent when they were young. They had been hurled into independence as children, and so, as if by osmosis, from an early age, Alma too settled into independence, a keeper of her own mind.
Her father, Newlin Hoagland Harter*, was given over to a 12 year girl from the neighborhood, ‘Aunt Denie’, when he was 6 weeks old. She brought him up. His mother worked long hours in a luncheonette, milk and ice cream store in South Philadelphia, Harter’s Ice and Milk at 12th and Wismer.** She died when he was 15.
Her mother, Esther Banks Whitaker#, was abandoned by her father## soon after turning 10. He was “a vain man, a dude,” the only one at the dinner table who was allowed to have butter with his meals. She had to quit school after 8th grade to care for the house, but instead of her life becoming stunted, she fell in love with music and learned to play by ear. She sold her life insurance policy in the teeth of the Depression and bought a baby grand piano. She could not be happy without music.
She performed for all of Alma’s dance recitals, and she played the organ in theaters, improvising scores for silent movies; Alma remembers watching Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera and listening to her mother add her own form of breathless excitement to it.
Alma was born on July 5, 1929 at 12:05 a.m.; her father swore she had been born before midnight on the 4th. She could read before she started school. When her mother read to her, Alma repeated words and sentences and thus learned to recognize the shape of words in other books.
She read adult books and had to carry a note from her mother giving her permission to take Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea from the library after her choice was refused by the librarian. She despised the insipid reading series in first grade, but read all 30 of the Mary Jane series. Asked what she wanted for her birthday, she always said, “Books”. She liked working in the ‘play store’ where she sold the empty boxes of products and could play act at being the store keeper. They made wreaths for Christmas, placed their photos in their centers and gave them as presents to their parents, and in the hot months cranked out old-fashioned ice cream by hand. One day the principal, a tall, good looking man, disappeared. He had been “fiddling with some of the girls.”
She had her share of upsetting moments in grade school, especially in second grade when Mrs. Stover seemed to go out of her way to squash her. For example, she walked to school through old peach orchards, and in a lovely moment looked at a blossom and understood the cause and effect between the flower and the subsequent peach. She plucked off a bloom, carried it to school, showed it to her friends, explained what she had discovered – Mrs. Stover’s response: “You just killed that peach.” In her final exams she was told to rewrite her essay three times – Mrs. Stover’s written response: “Still no good! Go home.”
Strong, independent women like her Aunt Mattie, a second mother to her, gave her examples that countered the Mrs. Stovers in her life. Mattie made over one million dollars buying, renting and selling real estate. She bought bonds and invested in New York City properties, and she started all this on the mailman’s income of her husband, Uncle John, a sweet man. Alma remembers Mattie driving her rented carriage, dressed in a linen duster with leg a muffin sleeves.
She had great freedom to wander the streets around her home at 1723 Tinsman Avenue in Pennsauken, NJ. She and her friends listened for the fire whistle – when it sounded at 12 everyone returned for lunch; the 5 o’clock shriek meant dinner and the streets were scoured of children. She helped out at home – she scrubbed the bed room floors one week, the kitchen floors the next. She and brother Carl pulled their grocery laden wagons home three long blocks rolling up on each other’s heels and fighting.
She loved to dance. On May 13 and 14 of 1938 she dressed in a red cellophane wrapper and pirouetted about as one of a bunch of Lollypops in “Bored Little Rich Girl”, one of Glady’s Kochersperger’s annual ballets. Her mother provided piano accompaniment, and in one show her father played ‘Percy, the Strong Man’ and performed circus tricks and sawed a woman in half. Her mother made all her clothes and costumes, including her southern belle dress for her Shirley Temple impersonation.
In ninth grade she began attending a Green Lane Church Camp. Her parents had bought an unheated summer house on Dead End Road. She swam in Unami Creek, and she discovered boys. Before Earle, there was Spike, a senior who gave her the Latin translation key to Hannibal’s invasion of Italy.
She grew more serious. She had a sharp, curious mind and grew tired of being treated as just a girl. She told me that she “wanted to understand the world I lived in.” She ‘didn’t want to stand still.” She always “wanted to know things.” She hated being described as ‘cute’, and when she was voted “Cutest Girl” in her senior class, she felt as if she was being “patted on the head.”
This was a confusing time. Guys were giving her lots of attention, but she was also involved in her church. She wanted to see the world, and since she had “always been attracted to people who were struggling to go places,” she thought that missionary work might be her way out. She applied to colleges, but was told she would have to pay all of the bills. Her parents could not understand why she wanted a college degree. She kept “running into adult walls.”
At that moment “The Man appeared,” and everything changed on an all day trip to Washington D. C. in the softest moments of Spring.@
Alma at 16.
*12.16.1895 to 1.17.1975
**renamed Mercy Street – probably the one on the southwestern corner whose pillar stands in front of the door.
#1.23.1898 to 9.17.1973
##Edwin Wayne Whitaker
Alma and Earle in Washington D. C. on the day that changed everything.