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An Act of Kindness in 1933 Is Still Remembered

January 22, 1989|BOB O'SULLIVAN | O'Sullivan is a travel writer based in Canoga Park

According to Webster, nostalgia is "homesickness" or "a longing for something far away or long ago." So this is not nostalgia, because I certainly don't want to go back to either the scene or the time of the incident that follows.

But I think what took place that hot afternoon in 1933 in New Mexico is worth sharing.

A friend, who had just finished reading an article I wrote about being on the road in the '30s, reminded me of it.

In that story my mother, my sister and I were traveling across the country from Denver to California in the family car, an old Essex.

Money Would Be Waiting

Trying to get the jump on winter, we had started without having enough money for the trip, but my father had promised faithfully to wire money at some of the cities along the way. He said he'd have $25 waiting for us at the Railway Express Office by the time we got to Albuquerque.

In the story I pointed out that when we got to Albuquerque the promised money had not arrived, so my mother "made do" and we continued to California.

"Hey, wait a minute," my friend said. "What do you mean by your mother made do ?" Twenty-five dollars in the '30s was almost two weeks' pay. If she was counting on it and it wasn't there, how'd she swing it? How could she possibly "make do"?

"Well," I answered, "that's not the story I started out to tell."

The answer seemed to satisfy him but it didn't satisfy me. I got to thinking about it. A woman with two children in a car packed to the windows with personal belongings, almost out of gas and stuck in what was then a small town in New Mexico in the depths of the Depression. How had she made it?

Childhood Memories

It's funny--sometimes somebody accidentally nudges a door you'd forgotten was even there. It swings open and the memories come flooding through.

It was hot and dusty and late afternoon as my sister and I waited for my mother to come out of the Albuquerque Railway Express Office.

When she did, she was very upset. She stopped on the steps of the loading dock for a few seconds, wiped her eyes, came to the car and got in.

"Was it there?" my sister asked. She was 11 or 12 at the time. Not exactly an adult, but old enough to help with the worrying. Mother shook her head and put on her driving gloves very slowly and very carefully.

When I asked if we could get something to eat she didn't answer for a moment. Then she said, "Of course we can. We have to, don't we?"

Low Voices

She drove about two blocks along the railroad tracks to the Harvey House restaurant and took us inside. It was a huge dining room, smelling of good things to eat and almost empty.

When a waitress came over to show us to a table, mother took her a few feet away from my sister and me and spoke to her in a low voice. The waitress listened and then went to the kitchen. She came back with a man who was wearing a suit.

He and my mother talked for a few more moments. He nodded and led us all to a table, where he pulled out a chair and seated my mother. My sister and I sat on either side of her.

"What would you like?" the waitress asked.

"Perhaps sandwiches for the children," my mother said, "and I'd like a cup of coffee." The girl was starting to write it down when the man put his hand over her order book.

Handsome Order

"Why don't you let me order for you?" he asked. Then, not waiting for an answer from my mother, he told the girl we would all start with hot soup and then we'd have the beef stew, mashed potatoes, bread and butter, and coffee for the lady. He asked my sister and me if we wanted milk or hot chocolate.

We both said, "Yes, sir!"

"Milk and hot chocolate for the children and some of the cobbler all around. Does that sound all right?"

"Will that be all?" the waitress asked.

"Oh," the man said, "and these people are the guests of Mr. Fred Harvey."

I saw my mother say thank you, but I didn't hear her voice.

The taste of the rich brown stew is still with me, though I've had a million meals since that one.

And thinking about it still brings up the picture of that immense restaurant, so clean it looked as if it had been polished, and the waitresses--the Harvey girls, with their bright smiles, puffed sleeves and starched aprons. They rustled when they walked.

Real Hospitality

When the last of the cobbler was gone and we rose to leave, my mother pushed a couple of coins toward the waitress. The girl pushed them back with a smile.

"Oh no, ma'am. You're Mr. Harvey's guests," she said and placed two bags in front of my mother.

"The manager said I was to wrap up what you didn't eat, so you could take it along."

"But we cleaned our plates," I said. My sister sighed and looked at me as if I was the stupidest person in the world. First the waitress, then my mother, then all of us got the giggles. Mother picked up the sacks and we left.

In the car, mother and my sister looked into the bags, which clearly contained a greater volume of food than we'd had for dinner.

"What's in them?" I asked.

"Loaves and fishes," mother said. "Loaves and fishes."

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