My Own Story
Mary Ellen Wilson Pollock
I was born April 19, 1923, in Hammondsport, New York. My name was Doris Jean Percival and my mother's name was Beatrice Percival.
When I was 7 weeks old my mother surrendered me to the Children's Aid Society. I was in foster care until July 18, 1923, when Mrs. Swan, an agent for the Children's Aid Society, took me to Pettis, Missouri, to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles D. Ritchie. They were nice people but he was a traveling salesman who was home very infrequently and though they were attached to me, they agreed that a more stable family setting would be better.
In September, 1923, I was placed with Harry and Ida Wilson and I was adopted on December 2, 1924. My name was changed to Mary Ellen Wilson.
The Swans and my grandparents, Mary Helen and Fred Stallard, were good friends in Sedalia, Missouri. My Dad, Harry Wilson was the son of Mary Helen. His father had died when he was 4 months old.
I grew up as an only child in East St. Louis, Illinois. My father worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad in Dupo, Illinois.
The first thing I remember was having my tonsils taken out when I was four. My cousin, Joe, who lived next door, and was 9 months older than I was, also had his taken out. During our recovery my mother and I went next door to my aunt's house to listen to their new radio-we didn't have one. During the evening my aunt served ice cream and root beer. My cousin was very angry and cried when he wasn't allowed any root beer because of his recent tonsillectomy.
At mealtimes, I sat next to my dad at the table and he always cut my meat and helped me with my food. I had my own knife, fork and spoon with my initials on them but my knife was never used. When I was old enough to go to a restaurant by myself, I always ordered a sandwich because I didn't feel that I could handle a knife and I was too embarrassed to admit it. I finally learned to cut meat when I was married.
My dad was called upon all the time, it seemed, to fix something for a relative; I always went along to help! My dad and I did all the shopping. Mother never went to the grocery.
My mother was a very religious person and she believed the Ten Commandments literally. Especially difficult for me was the commandment to keep Sunday as a day of rest. Mother prepared all the vegetables and cooked what she could for Sunday dinner before we went to church, then finished cooking our meal when we returned from church. The rest of the day was spent napping and reading until time to go to evening church. When I got older, I did sneak out to my girl friend's house where a lively game of Hearts was usually in progress. My girl friend, Annabelle Rogers, lived 3 doors away and had five brothers and sisters. I was a constant visitor at her house. Annabelle and I spent many afternoons on her porch swing singing popular songs from music sheets her older sisters brought home. We played all the usual games of childhood: jacks, jump rope, and hop scotch in season while her brothers were playing marbles and cork ball. In the evenings we all got together with 9 or 10 other neighbor kids and played games or roller skated until bedtime.
At our house it was a yearly ritual in the spring to make root beer. My dad and I washed all the bottles which had been kept in a big barrel in the basement. I don't remember the recipe, but I know Daddy bought the ingredients from a grocery store. We capped the bottles and stored them in the basement to "cure" so they would be ready to drink when summer arrived.
My dad was chauffeur for Mother and her friends as she did not drive. I occupied the front seat with my dad; Mother and her friends sat in back. When Daddy was working, Mother and I took the streetcar to her evening meetings which were very frequent since she belonged to all the societies at church. I was taken along and expected to behave. At the time when I was small, children were to be seen and not heard. Many times I have heard that statement. Whenever we went to visit relatives the children were taken outside by an older cousin to play while the adults conversed in the house. Consequently, none of us heard any information about our ancestors.
Mother and I made many trips on the train to visit her parents in Sedalia. We took our lunch in a cardboard box. At Jefferson City a black man would get on the train selling ice cream cones, a treat I always looked forward to so expectantly. While we were at my grandparents, Mother and I occupied the front bedroom and I can still recall the clomp, clomp of the milkman's horses when he was delivering milk.
Grandpa and I would sit on the porch and swing while he recited the alphabet backwards. I thought that was so terrific. I could never master it no matter how much Grandpa encouraged me.
On Sunday, Grandpa would go to town and get a Denver Post and I would have lots of comics to read. I spent a great deal of time with sheets of wax paper tracing the comics with pencils. (Do children do that, anymore?) I was allowed to take the comics home so I could continue with my wax paper fun.
In the evenings at home I had many paper dolls to play with. It was lonely in the evenings when Daddy was working but I had a great imagination playing with my dolls. I had lots of dolls as my aunt gave me one for Christmas every year.
In the winter I sat by the warm-air register, we had a coal furnace. Mother would warm my clothes on the door of the oven so they would be comfortable for me to put on. I had to wear long stockings; I would ask Mother if I could roll them down below my knees before we went into someone's house.
I went to Slade Elementary School two blocks from home and walked to Junior High School four blocks away. East Side High School was too far to walk so I rode the bus. If I wanted to save the bus fare, I walked home. It took a long time to save for something as the bus fare was 5 cents. A young man on this block sold hanging baskets in the spring and I always bought one for Mother on Mother's Day. He sold a lot of flowers to students walking to the bus.
I graduated in June, 1940. Daddy had a ring made for me for my present. It had a diamond out of his ring set in the center and a small diamond on each side from his mother's ear rings. I treasure it and take it off only to have it cleaned.
When I got old enough to drive I took over some chauffeuring duties from Daddy. I had the car whenever I wanted. If Daddy had to work in the afternoon, I often drove him.
We lived near Scott Air Force Base so my parents had many young men come for Sunday dinner. At that time in the 40s it was considered your duty to pick up soldiers. My girl friend and I were adept at finding young men to pick up. That's how I met my husband in 1941.
I have been married 52 years and we have 3 children: Chris(Judy) and their sons Chris and Brian live in Texas, Suzanne(Danny) and their son Jason live in Antioch, Illinois, and Kevin(Tomi) live near us in Troy, Illinois.
My youngest son gave me a book for Christmas entitled Miracles. I was complaining because nothing like the stories in the book had ever happened to me, when Kevin said, "Now Mother, you had your "miracle" when you were five months old." He was correct. I can not imagine growing up in a more loving family.
My dad wrote in a book every day when he came home from work in which he noted the time and the men he worked with. He had written on April 19 (my birthday) "Mary Ellen was born." So you see I would have no thought that I had been adopted. None of my relatives or friends of my parents ever mentioned the fact that I was adopted. I think people of my parents' generation didn't want a child to know she was adopted. I was never told I was adopted.
I did, however, discover that I was adopted. I had heard children at school whisper something about me between themselves. One day when I was about 10 and was home after school alone because mother hadn't yet returned from some church function, I decided to look in the strong box she kept in a closet. Maybe I would learn what the other children were saying about me. In that box were my adoption papers.
I never told my parents. I knew that it would hurt them too much, and I was so well established and loved in my family that it really didn't make any difference to me. I was happy as things were. I was never spanked or harshly spoken to, so you can see I was pretty spoiled. Daddy died in 1947 and Mother in 1948.
I finally acquired more information about my adoption following a reunion meeting of the Orphan Train Heritage Society. A retired Executive Director of the Children's Aid Society, Vic Reamer, gave everyone who had been brought west by the CAS a form to fill out. Later he sent me copies of all he could find in my file. A flood 25 years ago had destroyed some of the files. I learned that I was taken first to the Ritchies in Pettis, Missouri. There were copies of reports from neighbors and friends recommending my parents, there was a report of Mrs. Swan visiting our home to check on me. One of the reports states "Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and all their relatives and friends are in love with Doris Jean. She has been christened Mary Ellen Wilson."
I don't remember the Swans although I do remember my grandparents speaking of them. I have a picture of Elsie Swan holding me. In Evelyn Trickel's Orphan Trains to Missouri one of the chapters mentions the Swans and says that they had adopted Elsie when she could not be placed in a foster home because her face was disfigured. Sedalia residents remember that the Swans would have as many as seventeen children living with them at times.
Recently I contacted relatives of my biological mother and know that she did marry and had two more daughters and two sons. My birth mother lived until 1989. She is buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Brockport, New York. Her husband died before she did. His name was James Smith. Her two daughters died.
In the 1920s having a child and not being married was a disgrace to a family. Today no one would think anything about it. I have now contacted my cousins in New York and expect to learn more about my blood family. I have a copy of my birth certificate, but there is no name for my father, probably my mother wouldn't tell who he was when I was born.
I visited Hammondsport with my own family in 1986. My husband flew "the hump" in the China-Burma-India theatre of World War II and is still interested in airplanes. He enjoyed visiting the Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport. We have visited other aircraft museums, too. Both of us go to the reunions of the Orphan Train Society and to genealogical societies, and I work on tracing my adopted parents' ancestors. Recently, I have been helping school children with their history projects. A group of students from Advance, Missouri, produced a video of me telling my story, and they won seventh place in the nation in the History Day Contest.
© 1999, Mary Ellen Pollock