You're Gonna Make It After All

Patricia Sheasley Sicilia

© Copyright 2010 by Patricia Sheasley Sicilia


Photo of a Victorian mansion in Philidelphia's Holmesburg section.

I have no idea where the past 35 years has gone. I blinked and I was a grandmother. I may be old and stout and gray and not in the best of health now, but once I was young and vibrant with chestnut hair cascading down my back, eyes of gold that flashed, a bikini figure and legs that wouldn’t quit. The joys and sorrows of the years have come and gone, but during the low times, I looked back and remembered when I was fearless, healthy, and determined not to let life beat me down. This story is one of those times.

Sing it, girls! "You're gonna make it after all!" Ah, yes, that familiar theme of the 1970s "Mary Tyler Moore Show," an anthem to young women just dipping their toes into the river of independence. That was me, at 23, moving into my first apartment, at last, mistress of my own destiny, a starry-eyed idealist embarking on a new life, taking the world on with my smile (and a few other parts, if I don't mind saying so myself).

I was soon to learn that first apartments are one of those life experiences that not only build character, but provide one with the opportunity to fulfill the oft-repeated prophecy “Someday we’ll laugh about all this.”

The Holmesburg section of Philadelphia is graced with a number of grand old mansions, remnants of its days as an estate. As children, we were fascinated by these relics, and would crouch inside a snowball bush at dusk and spin tales about the tragic ghostly figures we swore appeared in dormer windows after dark. We were certain that the aged women who inhabited them were witches.

In May, 1975, I moved my few possessions, my four-year-old daughter and her truckload of possessions, into a three-room apartment in one of these 100-year old converted mansions, reputedly the residence of a former mayor of Philadelphia, and three blocks from my parents' home. Time and tide had dictated the end of the sanctuary I had sought there after my divorce, and when the real estate agent led me to a theater of childhood romanticisms, visions of gothic novels danced in my head.

It didn't matter that the sum total of my furnishings consisted of two single beds, two dressers, a tiny kitchen set and a shabby black-leather trash-picked recliner. I proudly gave tours to friends and family, gushing "What 'til you SEE this place!” -- ignoring Mother's raised eyebrows and Daddy’s mumbled "Oh, geez."

The three-story anachronism dwarfed the two 60s-era cinderblock apartment buildings that flanked it, and overshadowed a row of 50s-era stuccoed bungalows across the street, providing a dramatic contrast between the 19th and 20th centuries. A faded green wooden porch supported by imposing whitewashed columns wound around three sides, the railing missing a post here and there. Century-old oaks and maples graced the sprawling hedge-ringed front and side lawns. Dutch doors led inside to a foyer, where French doors opened to reveal a wide, well-worn staircase. The oak banister wound up and around to the third floor, elaborate carvings adorning the stair posts and floor and crown moldings.

My second-floor apartment was entered through a spacious linoleum-floored living room/kitchen, with a bricked up fireplace on one wall (I had to assure my little girl that Santa would indeed find a way in), and on the other a curtained alcove housing a fourth-hand refrigerator, a tiny match-lit stove circa 1940, white metal cabinets and a stationary tub which served as a sink. In my naiveté, I dismissed remarks as to its inadequacy by declaring the kitchen to be “quaint.” The two bedrooms to the left were hardwood- floored, and three steps down from the back room was the “sunken bathroom,” which, to my delight and my daughter’s consternation, contained a clawfoot bathtub. (It didn’t matter that these steps were near fatal at times, giving literal meaning to the name of my favorite drink back then, “Harvey Wall Banger.”) Every room was graced with lofty, window-seated sash windows, and the ten-foot high ceilings were like harbingers of heaven.

Finally, squeals echoed through the halls and hugs traded all ‘round when I discovered that the girl across the hall was a childhood friend, whose husband turned out to be the superintendent. Could it get any better than having a friend next door and an “in” with the super?

I was enchanted with my Victorian paradise and reveled in my new-found independence. I’d sit on the windowseats late at night when my cherub was asleep, and bask in the occasional cool whiffs of air that ruffled through the leafy branches of the maples as they rustled against the house. Sometimes I’d go down to the porch where “Old Bill” from the first floor, back from his nightly motor scooter ride, would regale me with tales about the good old days. When the weather got particularly insufferable, I’d take refuge across the hall in my friend’s air-conditioned apartment where, newly-married and eager to start a family, she fawned on my mop-haired toddler.

With all the responsibilities of a single, working mother, meals became an adventure in economy and speed vs. variety and facilities. After I learned to light the ancient stove without singeing my hair, I immersed myself in “101 Ways To Be Creative with Spam And Get Your Kid to Eat It.” My daughter has turned into family lore the story of the time I glazed and baked a can of Spam and told her it was a baby ham.

Charming as the apartment was, however, it desperately needed a cleaning. So, despite the early heat wave that hit that May, I embarked on a massive week-long sterilization project. These chores were often dropped in mid-stream if a call came in announcing where used furniture could be had (usually the night before trash day).

The heat was unrelenting, but I was young and healthy and “on a roll” so, on a night when he rest of the city was cheering the Flyers to their second Stanley Cup, I pulled back my long hair and proceeded to attack the linoleum with a solution of Spic’N’Span, Comet, Clorox and ammonia. With what I now know about chemical reactions, it’s a miracle I lived long enough to get disgusted with the job. Perspiration ran into my burning eyes, the skin peeled off my once-dainty hands, and breathing difficulties reminded me I was asthmatic. After an hour, my knees screaming out for mercy, I realized how large this room was, how tired I was, and that Spic’N’Span wasn’t going to make a damn bit of difference to this floor. I leaned back on my haunches, plopped the scrub brush into the pail, scanned what had been “charming” a couple weeks ago, and began to cry into my bucket.

Or I thought the drops that disturbed the surface of the lethal concoction were tears. When something plopped on my head, I looked up to discover brown water leaking from the ceiling. This is when I learned the meaning of the term “superintendent.”

Now, the last two minutes of the last period of the seventh game of the Broad Street Bullies’ second, consecutive Stanley Cup victory was not the best time to knock on the super’s door. But, banking on my friendship with his wife, I spent a few frustrating moments tearing a rubber band out of my hair, rinsed my tear-stained face and summoned him. He surveyed the problem, one eye constantly checking the TV through his open door (through which the aroma of an illegal substance drifted), and said he couldn’t do anything without the owner’s approval. When a goal-announcing war whoop echoed across the hall, he handed me a beer, darted out the door and yelled “Put a bucket under it until tomorrow and come on over!”

In the three days it took for the realtor to get back to me, my mansion in the sky began to self-destruct. The leak into my kitchen was coming from the third-floor toilet and had spawned little brown roaches. One night it overflowed in a virtual waterfall, not only flooding me out, but Old Bill downstairs. Neighbors came running one night as a deafening crash rattled every window in the place when the hinges supporting my weighty oak door pulled away from the jamb and it fell into the apartment like a gangplank. The stationary tub backed up and no amount of plunging or Draino would keep it clear for more than a day or two. The old refrigerator, its rumbling motor protesting the sweltering conditions, had decided to self-defrost in an era before self-defrosting refrigerators, and a puddle ran from the ‘frig to living room area.

When the realtor finally showed up, he insinuated that the sink and refrigerator malfunctions were my fault, and was particularly boorish concerning the door, not believing it just “came off its hinges,” suggesting that one of my gentleman callers had been impatient. Doing what I considered an admirable job of self-control, I assured him that I had done nothing to precipitate these breakdowns, and he finally promised to take care of things as soon as he could.

When “as soon as he could” stretched into mid-June, I started complaining daily, and at the end of June he personally served me with sixty-days notice. Possessing a slightly more fiery temperament then, I told the s.o.b. what he could do with his papers and slammed the French doors on him, breaking one of the panes. Not a good way to win friends, influence people or retain your security deposit.

Heartbroken and distraught, my illusions shattered, I spent July and August apartment hunting on the steaming streets of Philadelphia, determined to never again let another landlord take advantage of me. I finally found a place in a converted Tacony rowhouse with wall-to-wall carpeting, decent plumbing and a real kitchen. It lacked the charm and location of the mansion, of course, but at this point practicality had begun to jade my idealism. I informed the realtor that I’d be leaving “Dante’s Inferno” over Labor Day weekend.

Just in case any trace of the optimistic Pollyanna who moved in that May still remained, the fates conspired to have a last-minute lovers’ spat cause moving day to arrive with no boyfriend, ergo no truck. And, of course, more record high temperatures. With the help of my brothers and a “spare boyfriend,” I managed to get settled in my new place.

Two apartments, one house and 35 years later, I still occasionally go by the old mansion. The porch and trees and hedges are gone now, the sash windows have been replaced by Anderson storms, and it has been painted a horrid yellow-beige. My friends have long since moved away. I heard they finally had a baby girl. Old Bill has died. The realtor has joined him (God rest his black soul). My four-year old is now a 39 year-old wife and mother of three. Her only memories of this place are “the nice old man on the first floor,“ “how high everything was,” and the “steps that went up to heaven.” The boyfriend who bailed out on me on moving day is now my husband of 29 years, who prefers not to discuss my “wild child” period (or the “spare boyfriend.”)

Time has served to help me put the experience in perspective and, as I pass by, I glance up at the second floor, smile wryly, and move on. But every year, when the first warm breezes of spring waft through the air, I wistfully drift back and yearn for the windowseats, the high ceilings, the porch on a warm, breezy evening, the rustling leaves, and all that magnificent carved oak.

We romantics never learn.

Contact Patricia

(Please type author's name
in the subject line of the message.)

Patricia's Story List and Biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher