DiAna Hart Smith and Bobbi Wolcott




Bobbi Wolcott  — Sanctuary


Bricks Outlined in Snow — DiAna Hart Smith


Snow caught in the mortar joints outlining the brick façade. Each brick looked as if Mom had gift-wrapped it for me in her prized white tissue paper. Snow dusted all four of us as we started up the eight concrete steps of this small Philadelphia row house that would be our home. Eleven year old Joey was talking to Dad. My five-year old hand—warm in a wool mitten–was wound around Mom’s hand as far as it would go.

What a gift this move was. Mom had prevailed. She had leaned on Dad night and day until he moved us out of the stucco and stone farmhouse, out of isolation, out from under Mr. and Mrs. Hansome’s watchful eyes.

We would live catty corner from the house we had left over a year ago–out of financial necessity–to move in with Mr. and Mrs. Hansome in rural Lima, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Hansome’s voice, “Don’t touch my things. Don’t tease my dogs. Don’t make noise.” would now be silent. My clenched body was beginning to relax.

Neither this house nor the Philadelphia neighborhood was ideal, but we were back in our old neighborhood and knew how to navigate it. Now I could roam the warren of narrow side streets filled with houses just like ours. Behind each portal were kids my age, ready for spontaneous games of hide and seek, hop scotch, red rover, stick ball, and tag, played as we dodged cars passing us in the street. Adults sat in rocking chairs on small front porches and corrected all the children—not just their own. Everyone paused to pass the time as they ran errands.

Tight living made secret-keeping impossible and added juice to everyone’s life story. Under my observant eye the neighbors were all like characters in my live soap operas mimicking Mom’s televised ones.

It’s only now that I’ve circled the sun for so many decades I realize my life choices began here on South Ruby Street. These were the people who informed my world and framed my future.

Helen Hyashi’s father was Japanese and her mother American. Mr. Hyashi drove a city bus. Mrs. Hyashi was a skilled homemaker and decorated their small home with fine textiles and Japanese art. Helen was an exotic beauty with straight hair that moved like a black satin curtain across her back or was wound up into an intricate shiny chignon.

Helen was a decade older than I. Her parents adored their bright only child, who eventually snagged a well-paying job. She wore expensively tailored suits to work. Her purse always matched her shoes. She passed our house on the way to the bus stop. A Yellow Cab picked her up whenever she went to an evening event, dressed in slim silk cocktail dresses, fiery rhinestone jewelry, and strappy spike heels. Helen moved on to a life of luxury. Helen deserved it. She was gorgeous. She worked hard toward her goal. Helen found her perfect life. Would I find mine?

During my early years my neighbors got a one-hour-a-week reprieve from my scrutiny, courtesy of Dale Evans. I adored Dale Evens who partnered up with Roy Rogers for an era of fame and financial success. No one ever referred to her as Mrs. Rogers. She had her own name, her own horse, and her own role in their television show. As “Queen of the West” Dale didn’t shadow “King of the Cowboys” Roy. Why they even sang together. Dale wrote their theme song, “Happy Trails to You.” Equal partners–imagine that in the fifties! I wanted what I saw although I couldn’t label it “equality.” The seed was planted. A future feminist was germinating.

Neighborhood girls got pregnant and had to leave school. Whoa, what were they thinking? Dale, Helen, and Mom kept me on the straight and narrow. I wanted to traverse only Dale’s happy trails.

Several of the living soap operas playing in our neighborhood exhibited what I did not want.

Mrs. Mean-Mess, as we secretly called her, sat on her ample bum on her top porch step and interfered in everyone’s lives. Her four young children were overloaded with chores that they performed poorly. They lived in squalor.

Mrs. Mean-Mess turned the air blue yelling profanities at her children. I liked playing with her oldest daughter Patsy, but was startled and scared when Mrs. Mean-Mess would call, “Patsy come here. I’m going to beat you. You didn’t do what I told you to do.” Then she would haul off and hit Patsy–even slap her in the face. It was hard to take. Mrs. Mean-Mess showed me that I didn’t want to end up trapped. She was like the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.

Religious messages confused the daylights out of me. Occasionally, Mrs. Mean-Mess sent her children across our narrow street to slip Catholic literature under our front door. To me she didn’t seem to walk with the faithful.

Even young boys taught me who fit where in our cultural matrix. When we turned seven my first heart throb, Bobby Yeager, took on the hard job of explaining that the nuns insisted that Catholics could never marry publics—those who attended public schools. He and I could only be friends. Then it happened again. When we both turned ten, my second heart throb, Ruben Cohen, gave me a similar explanation after my Sunday school class visited his synagogue for a lecture and tour. Although Ruben’s Rabbi explained the Jewish faith in terms we in the Sunday school class could understand, it didn’t stop Ruben from making it clear that I was still a gentile. He and I could only be friends.

Mom warned me, “Don’t be alone with Mr. Nolds. He’s too friendly toward little girls. Something isn’t right.” Instinctively I knew what she meant. He made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t know exactly why. I couldn’t put it into words—neither could Mom.

Mr. Nolds wasn’t nice to his family and that was another clue to avoid him. I still remember being astounded when I was waiting for his daughter, Lily, while they ate dinner. Mrs. Nolds warned, ‘Don’t eat the lima beans. I bumped the dish against the refrigerator bulb and it broke. There could be slivers of glass in the limas.” Why didn’t she dump them rather than serve them? Mr. Nolds responded, “Everyone eat your limas. Spear them one-by-one with your fork. Look them over. You’ll see any glass. We’re not wasting food in this house.” Even at eight years-old I knew such fine glass fragments couldn’t be detected. Was I ever convinced to steer clear of controlling people and those who set off my alarm buzzers! An early lesson that’s lasted a lifetime.

Ours was a wildly diverse neighborhood in transition. As people advanced they moved to the suburbs to better neighborhoods and schools. The civil rights movement was gearing up. White flight struck. House values plummeted. Those families who kept the rhythm of civility–caring for your neighbor and property–were gone. Uneducated and prejudiced people moved in. Threats and violence erupted. Mom again leaned on Dad and convinced him to move–the second gift of her devising.

I translated what I learned in my live soap operas into what was then termed having it all: marrying in my late twenties, having a child, and a career. But, when I was working full time, raising my son, cooking, gardening and doing housework, I wondered if do-it-all Dale Evans was ever as sleep deprived as I was. Was this what equality looked like? Was Helen Hyashi mired in routine tasks ruining her manicure?

You’d think with all of this data collecting that I could have assembled the perfect life—not so. Life is good—not perfect. I did the choosing. There’s satisfaction in that. I have lots of friends—we still play well together. Who would I be if we had stayed at the farmhouse in Lima?

My life has been solid as that brick facade on South Ruby Street that kept the outside chaos at bay. My observant eye keeps me safe and entertained.

I defer to my little granddaughters who advise, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” That’s exactly right. . .philosophy as solid as a brick outlined in snow.


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