After graduation from Midwestern University, I moved out of the women’s dorm where I had lived for three and a half years, packed my suitcase and headed down the road toward Dallas. I was off to seek my fortune. When I think back to that time in the 1950s, I feel a connection to Mary Tyler Moore’s old television show. I didn’t grab my hat and throw it in the air but I felt like I was on my way to something grand.
I landed my first real job at the Empire State Bank down the street from Neiman’s instead of a cub reporter’s desk at the Dallas Morning News that I had hoped for, but a job was a job and I was happy to have found one.
I found a place to live close to downtown. I rode a city bus to the new address and stood on the sidewalk for a few seconds staring at the mansion before me. This was a multi-room grey stucco two story house with a basement, a fountain in the garden outside the huge bay windows and a deep porch that wrapped around the front of the building and ran along the south side. It had once been the residence of a wealthy Dallas family but had been deeded to the Catholic Church and had been converted into a boarding house for girls, thus the name in lights over the front entrance “St. Rita’s Club.” Rita is the patron saint of girls.
Boarders didn’t have to be of the catholic faith to live there. Girls of all faiths or of no faiths at all were welcomed as long as they obeyed a few simple rules. The main rule was, no male was allowed above the first floor. If a man was ever needed to perform some task on the top floor, the housemother stood at the bottom of the stairs and shouted in a loud voice so that all girls could be alerted to the impending danger, “Man on second. Man on second.”
Rent was $10 a week and included breakfast and supper six days and one clean sheet every Saturday. All sheets were flat and once a week the bottom sheet came off and was sent down the laundry chute. The top sheet was then put over the mattress with the clean sheet on top.
Meals were cooked and served in the basement cafeteria style.
I shared a large room with two girls about my age. Our room had a big bay window on the south overlooking the garden and the city beyond.
Two or three of the girls had private rooms and about 10 others had single beds in what was once a sleeping porch across the back of the top floor. There were about twenty girls living in the house. Requirements for boarders included that you had never been married, had no dependents and that you had a steady job.
There was a formal living room and library with a private bedroom and office for the housemother on the first floor. A carved walnut staircase that would make Scarlett O’Hara proud, extended from the front entry to the second floor hallway. Descending that staircase to welcome a date was an event to be savored. When your date arrived, a bell rang and a light flashed in your room, the housemother stood in the entry below speaking in a clear voice, “There is a guest for …”
I lived at St. Rita’s Club for about a year while dating my future husband and working at the bank. I enjoyed the fellowship of the other girls and our dedicated housemother who guarded our virtue with a passion. The couple who took care of the building and garden and the meals lived in a comfortable servants’ quarters behind the house and they too became my friends. The boarding house restricted to females was like a home with lots of sisters and we shared many secrets sitting cross legged on the bed and playing bridge during the late night hours. We sometimes borrowed clothes from each other and would do each other’s hair and help a friend get ready for an important date.
Something else I added to my education was an understanding of the Catholic faith. Many of the Catholic girls gathered in the living room nightly and joined together to say the rosary for world peace. I listened until I too knew the words and understood the movement of the beads.
Once I pulled on a coat over rolled up pajama legs, buttoned it up, slipped on tennis shoes, tied a scarf over my hair and walked a few blocks with my friends to the Cathedral. It was very early in the morning and there was frost on the sidewalk. I followed my friends in this unfamiliar territory trying not to look foolish when we entered their place of worship. Thanksgiving was the next week and I would be going home where my family gathered around a long table in my parents’ dinning room and we bowed our heads as Daddy said the blessing. Our protestant faith was simple with no flares and flourishes. We were almost puritan in our beliefs and simple in worship of the God we believed in. There were no statues in our little red brick church; no alter boys; no pots of incense; no priests in white robes. On this early morning I realized that religion can come in many shapes, and can be very different from the one that I knew. I listened to words that I did not understand that morning but as I knelt, I felt a respect for the beliefs of others that has stayed with me.
Several years ago, on a trip to Dallas, Tom and I rode down those streets we once knew so well. We drove by the First Methodist Church where we were married and then turned on Maple Avenue.
We parked in front of the estate that had been St. Rita’s Club, a boarding house for girls. The building was empty so I walked across the porch and stared through the beveled glass oval in the front door. In my mind’s eye I saw a young girl in a pretty green party dress descending that beautiful staircase. A handsome young man stood at the landing below, his hand outstretched to take hers.
Remembering made me smile.