When Mary Van Beke was growing up in the 1920s, she lived in Newark, N.J., and was the oldest of four children. Her parents were immigrants from Europe. And as Mary tells her son, Charles, her parents managed a modest life for the family, until an accident changed everything.
Mary's father, William Luis, was just 29 when he died; Mary was 5.
"He worked for an electrical company, and he was standing in water — and someone dropped a wire and electrocuted him," she tells Charles.
When William died, Mary's mother was pregnant with her youngest sister.
"And so my mother had to go out to work, wash clothes and clean house to try and feed four children," she says.
As for clothes, the children wore whatever Mary's mother, Eva Hornyak, managed to bring home from the households where she worked.
"I don't ever remember going to the store to get a pair of shoes, 'cause Mama couldn't afford it," says Mary, now 94.
Still, her mother, who had grown up in Czechoslovakia, taught Mary and her siblings to take pride in themselves.
"I'm not saying that we looked dowdy," Mary says. "She said, 'You don't have to be dirty to be poor.' I always remember that."
But eventually, the four children needed more than their mother could provide. They were growing up, and there wasn't enough food to go around.
Mary says that her mother "had to place me in a home where I would work for my keep. And I would come home every other Sunday. And this is how we tried to survive."
"How long did you work for that family?" Charles asks.
"Two years, 'til I was 16," Mary says.
And she has a vivid memory of her last day on the job.
"Mama worked across the street from there, washing clothes. And it was a hot summer day, and she was walking down the street. And I ran to the front door and called her in, to visit with her."
The two talked — but the visit didn't go down well with Mary's boss.
After Eva left, Mary says, "Mrs. Blaisdell said to me, 'Don't ever let the help come in the front door!'
"And I said, 'Well, I don't want to work here if my mother can't come in the front door.'
"And I packed my little suitcase and came home. I can remember that so well."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.