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."