“One hour, okay?” He looked at me skeptically. “Then you have to come back to me. We have places to go!”
“One hour – got it!” Wow, even time travel has restrictions. I turned on the machine and within a minute I was back in 1940 and walking the streets of Philadelphia. I didn’t have much time, but fortunately I had a good idea of where to go. I was a bit nauseated at first, but my focus became clearer and I could see where I was – Thompson Street. I needed to turn down Venango Street to get to Mercer Street, my first destination.
The weather in Philadelphia on April 4, 1940 was warmer than the previous day – nearly 63 degrees and dry. People were going about their daily business and the streets were not deserted – people were out walking. Cars were few. I could hear faint sounds of Big Band music coming from a house fortunate enough to own a radio. The music was great, but I also love the fashions of the 1940’s – there’s a guy in a suit and a fedora walking down the street. I look great dressed up in a skirt, blouse, and pumps – and only in 1940 could I get away with wearing a hat!
I quickly found Mercer Street. I knew the real census enumerator had been there the day before; I was just an interloper. I hoped my plan would work to avoid any suspicion as to who I really was. I tried to look official and get to know the neighbors on my way to almost the center of the block – 3553 Mercer Street. As I passed by #3505, a young girl came out carrying an even younger girl. Were they sisters? I heard the older say, “Come on, Peanut, I’ll get you home.” Oh my, I thought, that’s Rita Mroz and – no way! Rita lived with her 3 sisters, 2 brothers, and Polish-born parents, but the little “Peanut” she was carrying was definitely not her sister. In fact, she was heading right towards my destination! I watched while Rita safely delivered the young girl back home.
There it is! 3553 Mercer Street. A 7-year-old girl sat on the front step, looking quite unhappy that her younger sister arrived back home.
Wow, this is too much! If I could only tell Aunt Joan about this, she would laugh so hard! “Hi!” I said, “I love your curly hair.”
“I’m not allowed to talk to strangers,” replied the girl. And with that, she ran inside.
I knocked, and a handsome man came to the door. I was momentarily stunned, but I quickly recovered. “I work for the Government,” I stammered. Well, at least that’s not a lie. I explained that although the census enumerator had been there the day before, I was a supervisor performing a spot-check to ensure that the responses were recorded properly.
“Sure,” said the man, “come on in.”
As I sat down, I tried to look around without looking like I was casing the house for a future robbery. I could smell something wonderful – Oh my God, it’s Nan’s chicken soup! I silently wondered how I could ingratiate myself to the point of being invited for dinner. I heard a female voice call out from the kitchen, “Henush, who is it? Whoever it is, we don’t want any.” I thought, Hi, Nan! If she only knew…
Her husband yelled an explanation back and I saw her take a peek from the kitchen. She looked so young! And pretty!
“Now, let’s see,” I said. I acted professionally and began asking all of the enumerator’s questions. “Name?”
“Henry Pater.” Boy, I thought, Mom was right about those grey eyes! He’s so much more handsome than any photo I ever saw.
“Twenty-eight.” Wow, kudos for telling the truth, Grandpop. Once we got to the same question for his wife, Mae, I heard her yell, “Twenty-seven!” He looked over his shoulder and whispered, “I told the enumerator yesterday 31, but she’s really 32. Just don’t tell I told you!”
I learned about 7-year-old Joan and 4-year-old Anita, the “peanut” I saw earlier. Upon hearing her name, she appeared and hid behind her father’s leg. “This is Anita,” he said, “but I like to call her Chick!” Anita giggled.
Finally, Henry told me his father-in-law, Joseph Zawodny, also lived there. Henry told me that Joseph was married. I didn’t need to ask where his wife was – I knew she was in a mental hospital. I would visit her on another trip back to the past. Where are you, I thought. As if he heard me, I saw an older man peer out of the kitchen and ask Henry something in Polish. If only I could answer back or get the chance to talk to him! There is so much I want to know, and I’d like to know him so much.
I knew my time was running out. Reluctantly, I thanked the Pater family and took my leave, waving bye to little Anita on my way out. I’m off to see your future husband now.
How do I get from the Port Richmond neighborhood to Northern Liberties fast? Sometimes future technology has its advantages, and I found my way more quickly than I thought possible. Suddenly I was walking along Germantown Avenue. I couldn’t go up and down every street with my limited time – when I saw the meat packing plant on the corner of 3rd and Thompson, I knew I was in the right place. The census-taker wouldn’t walk these streets for two more days, but fortunately my destination was right on the corner so I didn’t have to fake my way through several houses.
Right on the corner at 1300 Germantown Avenue, I spotted a young boy sitting on the front step. I was stunned and forgot where I was. “Nick?” I asked.
The curly-haired boy looked up at me and smiled. “No, I’m Jimmy and I’m 5. I’ll be 6 this summer,” he said proudly, blue eyes sparkling.
“Oh,” I said, “it’s nice to meet you, Jimmy! I have a nephew named Nick – he’s 4 going on 5 this summer and he sure looks a lot like you!”
Suddenly a woman came to the door and she didn’t look happy that I was talking to her son. After I explained about the census, she invited me in and once again I tried to look around the home’s interior. This house rented for $5 more than my last stop, and I wanted to see if it was worth the extra money. I also couldn’t stop looking at the woman, Margaret Pointkouski. As I took down the information she provided, I questioned the spelling. “That’s with a U, not a W?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, “that’s right.”
Margaret looked so – what was the word? Young! She was 28 years old – well, that’s what she told me, but I knew her 28th birthday would actually be the following week! Just then the door opened and a young man entered. “Well, hello!” he said as he tipped his hat and leaned over to kiss Margaret.
Just as with Henry, the 29-year-old James looked so much more handsome than any photos I had ever seen. I couldn’t help but smile back. When he heard who I was, or at least who I was pretending to be, he commented that he didn’t know there were “lady census takers”.
At that, Margaret rolled her eyes, “Oh, Pop!”
I said, “They thought some people might answer more questions from a woman.”
“Sure,” the elder Jimmy said, “I’ll tell you anything!” He added, “I hope you get all of your info recorded.”
“Oh, I will,” I assured him. Just maybe not today.
The Pointkouski household was small with only the couple and their young son, Jimmy. I was bursting to tell Margaret that she would get pregnant late the following year and have a daughter, but I knew it wasn’t my place to speak of such things.
I asked my questions – not the ones I wanted to ask; I could not ask those questions. Like where are your siblings living right now? I hadn’t visited them yet. Oh, there were so many questions I could not ask. But I asked the “official” questions and I was very happy to hear the answers. All I kept thinking was: this is so cool!
I said my good-byes to 1940 and powered down the machine. Suddenly my boyfriend appeared, “Time’s up – let’s go out to eat. Did you find everyone you were looking for?”
“Not everyone, but it’s a start. They’ll all still be there when I go back.”
[Written for the 117th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: 1940!]
I actually wrote this the night before the carnival topic was announced. I’ve told a few stories on this blog, but I never presented factual information in such a fictional way. Technically, I’d call this creative non-fiction. To me, talking about finding a genealogical record (on my “machine”, aka my laptop) can sound a little boring, at least to non-genealogists. But how could a science fiction lover like myself resist seeing that search for the record as time travel! The idea took hold and would not let go. Face it – bringing up those images, walking through the neighborhoods, reading all about the families – it is the closest thing we can get to time travel!
The Census facts came from the actual 1940 Census (source citations upon request, I used Ancestry to access). I saw the path the enumerator took and learned about the neighborhood layout from a combination of current maps and a 1942 map of Philadelphia courtesy of the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network. What was the weather like on those April days in 1940? Well, I learned about temperature and precipitation totals from The Franklin Institute! I knew about fashion from the movies and my parents. I have an idea what the characters looked like from photographs. As for the personalities of the individuals – everything I know, I learned from my parents. Of my grandparents, I knew my maternal grandmother the best. Second would be my paternal grandmother, with my paternal grandfather third. Least of all, I knew, or rather didn’t really know, my maternal grandfather – he died when I was five years old and I only met him a few times. I’m glad I could get to know them all in the 1940 Census!