Not too long before my mother passed away, she wrote her memoirs on three-hole punch college ruled paper along with photographs and assembled the contents in a 2-inch three-ring binder which she then passed on to me.
I have decided to transcribe and present her memoirs here thus allowing her to have her voice heard.
The First 50 Years of My Life
1928 to 1978
by Dorothy Patricia Dobbs DeBacker
Tampa, Florida, and Louisville, Kentucky
The big black Hudson finally arrived in Tampa at Aunt Rose and Uncle Jamie’s house. There were hundreds of relatives there. They were Beanie’s brothers and sister and their spouses and children. Besides Rose and her husband Jamie, there was Arthur and his wife Bess and their children, Betty Ann and Kelsey. I remember Uncle Arthur telling his story about the hurricane that blew his roof off. It was very funny. He had everyone in stitches. Betty Ann and I were sitting on the floor while she painted my toenails. She was 14 years old then. Shortly after that, Beanie and Jojo returned to Louisville, and mother, Joie, and I moved into two rooms upstairs and Aunt Rose’s house, where we stayed for a while. She enrolled us in ballet classes, but that didn’t last long as she couldn’t afford to pay for it. Joie and I ate our meals at a little table and chairs. She set the table with bread-and-butter plates on the left and taught us to use the little butter knives.
There was a lot of talk about mother’s furniture and things in storage in Dallas. It seems she expected my father to pay for it, but he didn’t, and she lost everything. I heard that story for years.
Sometime later, we moved into a house mother rented. She was working for the Health Department in Tampa. I was six and started the first grade. Because of the depression, Uncle Arthur wasn’t working, so he and Joie picked me up after school, and he stayed with us until my mother came home. We called him Uncle Artie. I was trying to learn to read. Sitting in his lap, Joy would tell me the words I was having trouble with. She did better in school than I did. I was a slow learner.
Aunt Bess and Uncle Arthur were separated. I don’t know where he actually lived. After school, Joie and I each held a hand, and we walked to a big bakery and bought two loads of white day-old bread for a nickel. He made us margin and sugar sandwiches. Sometimes margarine and onion.
Other days we would walk along Bayshore Boulevard, where he would tell us to look out over the water for his ship to come in. I really believed him when he told us all about the wonderful things on board that we would get when the boat arrived.
On the weekends, he would fish from the drawbridge. We ate lots of fish. Besides the red snapper that mother stuffed, my favorite foods were fried chicken, okra and tomatoes, turnip greens, black-eyed peas, and white beans. Now it’s called “soul food.”
In December, when the nights turned cold, Uncle Artie brought in a kerosene stove which was placed in the dining room. The chimney was hooked up to a hole in the upper wall. We would run from our bedrooms to get dressed in the dining room. Afternoons were warmer, and I usually left my coat at school.
Even though mother was working, she couldn’t afford to pay the bill, and our electricity was turned off for a while. In the light from the kerosene lamp, I took cold baths. We used the gas for cooking but did not light the gas hot water heater in order to save money on the gas bill. Mother dated a nice man we wanted her to marry. He was short and fat and drove a little car. I liked him, but Mother fell in love with Bob Coarsey, who also worked for the health department. He had a degree in animal husbandry and worked as a milk inspector. When she took us to meet him, we were told to be nice to him. Joie was nice, but I hated him before I even met him.
Mother and my father were divorced in 1936. She and Bob Coarsey got married that year. Two years before that, while I was still in the first grade, Joie and I both came down with measles, chickenpox, and whooping cough. Then we had our tonsils out, and I got sick with a kidney infection and spent three weeks in the hospital on Davis island, which was out in the bay across from Tampa.
Since I had been sick most of the school year, Mother took me out of school. In 1935, Joie turned five. She was so advanced for her age mother lied and put her in the first grade with me. I was seven then.
I was happy that year. Uncle Artie took us to the circus. When the circus arrived by train in Tampa before going to Sarasota for the winter, there was a parade. I love going to the circus, especially the sideshows, to see all the weird things. I’m glad they don’t do that anymore.
Then there was the Florida State Fair and the Gasparilla (I don’t think I spelled it right) Parade. He was a famous pirate. Gypsy Rose Lee played at the state fair that year. I wanted to go, but kids weren’t allowed.
Other fun things I remember were going to Ybor City on Saturdays for Spanish Bean Soup at the Columbia Restaurant. At that time, the restaurant was very small on the corner of the building. Later on, the owner took over most of the building. The owner’s son was a classmate of Kelsey’s.
The year mother married Bob Coarsey, Joie and I went up to Louisville to enroll in a Catholic school so we could make our First Communion. Mother took us up there on the L & N train. We got on the train in Tampa to change trains in Jacksonville. I remember standing on the platform outside the small wooden train station. We set up on the train all night and arrived in Louisville the next day. The train stopped at the corner of Gaudet and Third Street before backing all the way to downtown Louisville Union station. Mother asked the conductor to let us off before the train started backing up. Then we walked across the street carrying our luggage to the alley behind the house at 1528 S. 3rd St.
Sometimes, when we traveled to Louisville, we slept in the Pullman car. I guess mother couldn’t afford it this trip. Mother went back to Tampa, and Beanie enrolled us in a Catholic school about six blocks away. My father was a Protestant, and Mother never went to church. That really upset Beanie. She was a very strict Irish Roman Catholic. Jojo was a Catholic but never went to church. Because of the depression, he lost his job as a certified public accountant. He walked around the house all day with the rosary in his hand. He and Beanie argued a lot. I thought it was funny that he would be praying and at the same time yelling at Beanie, “Goddammit, woman!”
One day Beanie gave me a dime and told me to walk a block away to buy ten cents worth of soup vegetables. The grocer filled up a paper bag with vegetables and gave me a free soup bone. We ate the most wonderful vegetable soup for two days.
The nuns were mean. We had to genuflect to the sound of a little mechanical cricket held in their hands. Their other hand held a ping-pong mallet which they hit us with.
I finally passed the catechism test after memorizing the words which meant nothing to me.
In the evenings, before bedtime, we would listen to the radio. Kate Smith was Beanie’s favorite. I liked Baby Snooks. I thought it really was a little girl. Many years later, I learned Fanny Brice was a grown woman playing Baby Snooks.
Our bedtime was 9 o’clock; when we heard the train stop before backing into the station. Then Beanie and Jojo would play pinochle. As I fell asleep, I could hear them arguing about the game until Jojo finally knocked the card table over in anger. He had lost again.
Beanie bought Joie and me lovely white organdy dresses for the first communion ceremony. Also, white veil, white shoes, and fancy white prayerbooks and rosaries. When mother arrived and saw the dresses with ruffles and lace, she said it was not suitable, took them back and bought very plain ugly dresses. I was devastated.
We had a nice time anyway. It was Mother’s Day, my birthday, and Derby Day. We celebrated.
Then my happy days with Beanie were over, and we went back to Tampa, where Bob Coarsey was waiting for us in a house on Tyson Street near Ballast Point. Aunt Bess and Betty Ann were living in an old house nearby, right on the water. One evening mother, Joie, and I went over to visit, but they were not at home. When the tide was out, I loved the fishy smell. Right outside the back door was a pump. Mother primed it by pouring some water down it in moving the handle up and down so we could have a drink. The water tasted awful.
Aunt Bess’s German mother lived with them. She didn’t speak English. She was nice to me and talked to me in German, which I didn’t understand.
At this time, Kelsey was home. He was 25 then and back from Chicago, where he had been playing piano with a jazz band in a nightclub. He and Sally had been married and divorced. They had been living on a boat, and I remember she was always sitting on his lap.
One day Mother told Joie and me she was going to have a baby. I asked her if she would have a kitten for me. Around that time, Kelsey met Betty. He brought her over to the house to meet us. I was eight years old and taking a bath when they arrived. I could hear them talking when I got out of the tub and ran into the living room stark naked. I was so embarrassed. Mother ordered me to go back and get dressed.
Bakelite jewelry was all the rage then. Joie and I were playing dress-up in mother’s high heels and bracelets sitting up in a tree when the little girl from across the street told us Jean Harlow had died. I started to cry. I loved her movies.
Sometime after that, we moved into an apartment in the area called Palmacca. On April 9, 1937, Joie’s seventh birthday, Bobby was born. He was a beautiful baby with lots of dark curly hair. Joie and I both had straight blonde hair. We played with him as though he were a doll. Helped mother change his diaper and bathe him. He was so good-natured. Not like his father.
In the backyard of this apartment building with two large brown aluminum laundry tubs which we were forbidden to touch. We would turn them over and jump up and down on them. Mother warned us that she would tell our stepfather if we did it again. He spanked us with his leather belt. He told us not to cry. Joie didn’t cry, but I did, and he kept whipping me. Mother finally told him to stop. Another thing he loved to do was pull my baby teeth when they were loose. I was told not to cry.
Mother paid a colored woman a dollar once a week to wash our clothes in those tubs. Early in the morning, she washed, rinsed, and hung on the clotheslines all of our laundry. While it dried, she came into the house and cleaned. After lunch, she did all the ironing; even the socks were ironed. Sometimes mother gave her a nickel for carfare, or we went along in the car to take her home to “n****r town.”
We were told not to say “n****r.” I wondered why all the houses were unpainted. They didn’t even have indoor plumbing. Mother told us not to call them “ladies.” They were women – not “ladies.”
When I was that age, I didn’t understand segregation and bigotry.
In the second bedroom of that apartment, there was a Murphy bed where Joie and I slept. I remember hearing weird noises at night. I found out years later they were frogs. A girl named Jackie lived next door. We all three got Shirley Temple dolls for Christmas. Jackie and her parents had been visiting her grandparents and, after the holidays, went back to New York. Joie and I cried the day they left. A teenage girl who lived nearby taught us how to do the latest dances-the Big Apple and Trucking. We also love to play hopscotch and jacks.
One day mother handed me a $20 bill and told me to take it to the landlord. That was the month’s rent. I thought that was a lot of money for rent!
By that time, Aunt Rose and Uncle Jamie had sold their big white house and were living in two rooms over a garage. While visiting Aunt Rose one day, she offered us tea and asked me if I wanted lemon or milk in it. I said I wanted both. Mother said it would curdle. I didn’t understand what she meant, and I insisted on both. It looked and tasted awful mother made me drink it anyway.
Beanie didn’t like Uncle Jamie. He was a retired school principal. Before the depression, all the Bannons had money and Beanie said he married Aunt Rose for her money. He was getting senile, as they called it. He would say funny things, and Joie and I would laugh.
With the arrival of Bobby, Mother wasn’t working for the WPA anymore. Then my stepfather lost his job. We moved out of that apartment and went to Lakewood, where we lived in a two-room apartment. We shared the bathroom down the hall with other tenants. Swans walked into the yard from the nearby lake. They were tame enough for Joie and me to pet. Bobby slept in a dresser drawer.
After a few months, we were back in Tampa, living in a house in Hyde Park. Tampa was a small town then. All the different places we lived in were within walking distance of the bay. I was 10 years old then. It was my job every day to empty the pan under the icebox. Up in Louisville, Beanie had an electric refrigerator.
In the backyard of this house, there were three fruit trees – pecan, grapefruit, and guava. After school, I would eat pecans that had fallen on the ground, and I climbed the grapefruit tree to eat that fruit, peeling it with my teeth. My mother told me not to eat the guava seeds, but I did anyway. It’s hard to eat guava without eating the seeds.
One day I ate a mango while sitting up in that tree. The next day my mouth was covered with blisters. Mother said I was allergic to that fruit and not to eat it. Mary Ann lived behind our house across the alley. We played with her every afternoon. Her father forbade us to play near his prize papaya trees. I think they take many years to bear fruit.
One night aunt Bess called on the phone to tell us to turn on the radio. She was very excited. Something terrible was happening to the country! It was Orson Welle’s radio show “War of the Worlds.”