Jorie Blair Long – Memoir Fragment

For background, first read my mother’s obituary; then come back here.

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My late mother, Jorie Blair Long, had hoped to write her memoirs, but our lacking the room to get her papers out of the boxes where they’ve been stored for nearly four decades made that impossible. She did make copious notes for her memoirs, but these are mostly on small scraps of paper (with all-too-frequent lapses into Gregg shorthand), likewise scattered among many boxes. I hope to make use of these eventually.

My mother did, however, compose one somewhat more coherent and continuous document intended as notes for her memoirs. The document (from perhaps a decade ago?) is labeled “1926-1936,” so it covers only the first ten years of her life (apart from some digressions to later periods), and is far from complete even so. But I think it might be interesting even to those who didn’t know her. I’ve added a few explanatory notes.

Quick background: My mother’s parents were Charles Roderick McKay (8 July 1873–9 February 1954) and Marjorie Blair McKay née Conway (30 June 1889–1 July 1982). My mother was named Marjorie after her own mother; “Jorie” was originally a nickname until she started treating it as her legal name and the government, in those less bureaucratic days, took her word for it. I’ll call her parents D and M as my mother does.

D, as a poor youngster from Prince Edward Island, while on a family trip to Chicago got a job as a runner for a bank. This began a career that eventually led to his developing a numerical check-clearing system for the whole country, and later becoming Deputy Governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He met M when she was his secretary. D was a cold fish; M was a brilliant, charming, and manipulative sociopath. Their marriage was not happy.


by Jorie Blair Long

Born March 2, 1926, (consult birth certificate for time), Grant Hospital, Chicago, IL. CS1 practitioner Joseph Shields treated my mother, and birth was quick and painless in contrast to nightmarish process when Charles (hereinafter called C) was born March 10, 1924.

Moved to Wheaton when I was a baby.

My first memory was lying on my back in my crib with something covering the side bars so I couldn’t see out in my parents’ bedroom with my feet facing toward the bay window. I knew I had to be quiet so as not to waken my mother. I was not yet able to sit up. I waited until my mother got up and leaned over the crib. I almost cracked my face grinning at her and trying not to coo and gurgle. She smiled and picked me up and said I was a good baby. My joy was overwhelming. I don’t know how I knew to be good, i.e. quiet.

I remember age 2 with my lifesize doll baby Bubbles on the front porch. Aunt Kate was visiting. I scolded Bubbles for something and Aunt Kate was amused. “Look how Tiny is acting like you,” she said to my mother.

Age 3 I’m sitting on the front porch steps, thinking about forever. I know it means a long long time but more. No end. But everything ends. People and animals and trees all die. Buildings fall down. No one and nothing lasts forever (how do I know this?). I decide it’s unknowable because no one has experienced it. I think maybe God lives forever.

I know these memories are real. But the next must be a false memory. My mother opening the morning newspaper and saying excitedly go up and tell your father that Lindbergh has flown his aeroplane across the Atlantic. But I was only one year old!

I don’t remember when Grandma McKay was up and about and downstairs and out in her beloved garden, but I’ve been told she just brushed away the mosquitoes, which never bit her. And they never bit me, although my mother had to stay inside to escape them. She never mentioned them to me.

Later when Grandma McKay (hereinafter called GMcK) was confined to her room with Miss Waters (her Roman Catholic nurse) one day she was in her wheelchair in the upper hall outside my bedroom. Charles (I always called him that, although before I was born he was called Charlot) and I teased her by popping up on one side saying hello and then by the time she turned her head, popping up on the other side so she couldn’t see us. I stopped, because I realized this was mean, not funny to her. She taught C to love the color green. As her mind started to waver she sometimes thought he was my father – blue eyes and black hair. She went into a nursing home soon after, so I must have been only three.

When three, while Grandma Conway was visiting, she saw to it that I was enrolled in CS Sunday School. My teacher was Miss Angel. There was one naughty boy Teddy. I thought his behavior was incomprehensible. He was silly and stupid. I had no playmates and didn’t understand small children.

On the Cosleys’ farm sometimes there were families – either their cousins or ours (Dad’s?) A bossy little boy would ask me a question and then follow it with “Are you sure?” and then “Are you positive?” This irked me.

Their black Labrador dog Major licked me with smelly drool, his face being on a par with mine, and he had mangy bare spots that reeked. He was harmless, but I was scared of all dogs because when I was 2 (so I was told – I didn’t remember) a Police dog (i.e. German Shepherd) knocked me down by putting friendly paws on my shoulders.

Edna Cosley would laugh. She sounded like a parrot which was ironic because at one time she had a parrot that mimicked her laugh. She had had a baby that died and ever since she laughed at everything. Her husband Harvey had a joke book he consulted before having company or visiting, so as to keep things light. I had my first Black Cow on their porch (ice cream with root beer). She cooked en masse for the two of them. A huge pan of custard that would last for days. Or piles of lima beans, so that she only had to cook them once. Or dozens of ears of corn just picked. They had pie for breakfast, as had their folks.

C was enrolled in the first grade of the public school, 60 in the class. M (my mother) organized other mothers in a protest and eventually the class was split into two. The Minion twins always knocked Charles down. Mother had Dad phone Mr. Minion and he offered to fight Dad, mano a mano. Dad did not rise to the bait. Wrestling, not boxing, was his forte and that of course within “Marquess of Queensbury” type of rules.

Because of this and besides this, the school was merely a free child-sitting service. Mother found out about Miss Portia Gilpin who tutored children in the home (808 Irving Street) which she shared with her Swiss mother whose marvelous bread both white and whole-wheat we took home while still and fragrantly yeasty. Chris the gardener (why not Charlie Woodruff the chauffeur?) escorted Charles, and, to get me out of the way, me to Gilpin. It was about a mile, snow or rain.

Miss Gilpin later referred to us as the bright McKay children. Charles continued first grade he had begun in the Wheaton public elementary school. I sat in the back of the room with some toys, but soon was doing kindergarten work. Even then, I watched and listened and learned everything Charles was learning (no doubt a thorn-in-the-side). Thus when he was doing second grade work I was only one year behind him (although two years younger). I learned faster than he. This created a problem in Parker School later when they always wanted to promote me two grades or at least one – but then Charles and I would have been in the same grade, or I one a year ahead – so it could not be.

Charles and I played together but not too well. He resented me and made my life miserable for years to come.2 Mother often told me Charles was good as well as happy until I was born. When I came the whole family happiness went out the window. This worried me because I had no control over my being born or being Charles’ sister. All I could think of to do was to be very good to offset C’s unhappiness and resulting naughty behavior. Yet I know that I was a happy child just as I’d been a happy baby.

C had sucked his thumb until it became thinner than the other thumb. They tried a cardboard thing on his right elbow. This was before I was born (so not my fault!). He also defecated on the living room floor deliberately I believe and this was after my coming (hence my fault). This went on for a while. Sibling rivalry was not yet a current phrase. However I was told from age two on throughout my life that the immediate and long-term cause of Charles’ behavioral problems lay at my feet. I had made the irreversible mistake of being born. So the real problem was jealousy, was it not? Yet there is a photo of me standing on the bench around a tree in the backyard at Wheaton in which Charles appears to be protecting me from falling – and looking worried. I adored him. What was his role vis-à-vis his baby sister?

A nurse we once had dubbed me an angel and C a devil.

Years later when the word neurotic became current, my father said Charles was neurotic which he had inherited from my mother. (I might as well refer to my parents as M and D.) Long before this, my mother talked about writing to Angelo Patri, an expert on delinquent child behavior. But she never did (too ashamed).

There were violets on the north side of the house and lilies of the valley. The south side held the backyard with rows of pink peony bushes, lavender lilac bushes, roses, tiger lilies, hollyhocks, zinnias, a cherry tree and on the east side a vegetable garden with rows of Golden Bantam corn, carrots which we pulled up and chawed with the garden soil still on them, asparagus, rhubarb, etc. Some silly person told us to plant lollypop sticks, which we did, and felt cheated. There was a cherry tree which C climbed.

One day I heard hammering during my nap. I was naughty to get up and look out my parents’ bedroom bay window. A man was building a playhouse in the back yard. When I came out he was painting it white with green shutters, just like our big house! My very own house! Promised hours of delight – one promise that was fulfilled.

Every adult I met either pulled my curls or pinched my pink cheeks. The latter always hurt enough to bring tears to eyes, but it never occurred to me to say don’t. It was my idea of being a Spartan, Trojan, or Good Indian – like my brother C – to not cry when I hurt, like Charlie Woodruff the chauffeur’s vise-like grip when he picked me up under my arms and lifted me into the back seat of the Cadillac. I could get in by myself – but maybe it was his concept of serving my father. I always held my tongue, always eliciting the non-question, has the cat got your tongue. The first time I didn’t know what that meant.

I preferred mercurochrome on cuts and scrapes because it didn’t hurt, but usually got iodine, which did (brown stain vs. red). So, being a sissy at least in my own mind, I didn’t tell my parents when I stepped on a rusty nail on a board left over from the building of the playhouse, which penetrated the sole of my Ked into the sole of my foot. When my mother found out she told Dad and they both said I might get lockjaw, like some prominent person got. This mindset may have been the reason we couldn’t swim in ice cold water or until a half hour after eating, lest we get infantile paralysis (now called polio) like FDR.

The public might not have known, but because Dad visited the White House regularly to brief FDR, D knew he was paralyzed from the waist down and remained in a wheel chair.

McDougal, the Director (now chairman) of the Chicago Fed was the official briefer but everyone knew he was a dunce. Hence Dad as Deputy Director accompanied him. He had a thorough understanding of everything. FDR always remembered his name and greeted him so nice to see you again Mr. McKay. Great charmer. Dad did the briefing. (McDougal had cut short Dad’s honeymoon in Europe for no good reason.) A paradigm of the Peter Principle.

Wheaton house: white clapboard with green window boxes filled with salmon pink geraniums in summer and tiny Christmas trees in winter. There was a sort of cyclone-type fence completely around the yard, with a gate at front and gate at rear just beyond the brick green-painted incinerator, in which we burned trash (you could, then, and burn piles of leaves in the fall). The back fence at the south extremity of the yard was continually breached by the Cheney children who played on our swing set which also had a trapeze and rings. Dad at age 60 could still chin himself and do somersaults backward and forward (in Arizona).

The Cheney children were untrammeled. I’d see them climb through their window right onto their dining room table. At the northwest corner of the block lived, Eddie O’Malley, a nice kid whose nose was always dripping who sometimes came and played with C. East of us on the side street lived the Llewellyns in a Tudor I think house. D only chatted with Mr. L. once at which time they discussed the amount of oil they burned in their furnaces. Although D had the old Scotch PEI3 dollar consciousness, he couldn’t tolerate such limited conversation, and since M paid household bills he didn’t even know how much oil we burned.

When we visited GMcK in nursing home it was horrible. The smell of urine in the whole place and then she was strapped onto her bed and she thought C was young D. Sometimes C and I would swing on a swing outside or a glider on a porch. Dr. Rock told M to put her there “for the children’s sake” but it always made me sadder than when she was home with us. I always wanted everybody to be together. How good a doctor could he have been when he put a thermometer in our nursemaid Evelyn Schrek’s (her name I think) mouth when she had diphtheria and then put it right back in its velvet-lined case without washing or wiping it.

The same thing happened in 1945. After taking me out of Rollins in June just before end of school year, I had an extremely bad throat so I went by taxi (we still didn’t yet have a car) to a Southern doctor on the Daytona side (i.e. not the beach side of the Halifax River where we lived) who lanced several pustules in my throat. We went north on a crowded wartime train where I had to sit up all night in the bar with tonsillitis. Once arrived in NYCM took me to a Park Avenue doctor who took my blood. Test showed I had anemia (not pernicious) from poor food at Rollins, but later I found it was M’s idea to see if I had syphilis (I did not). We went to Cape Cod and visited this doctor in his posh summer home in Osterville. He took me upstairs, looked in my throat and took my temperature, whereafter he inserted the thermometer uncleaned into its holster.

Years later Dr. Moessner tried to get a blood sample from me, failed to find a vein, – it was during my thin phase – and his nurse easily did it. Fast forward to ANC:4 Again a failure to find a vein, necessitated using one on the back of my hand (physical exam part of job). In Ithaca Dr. Ambis wanted blood test and I went to Tompkins Hospital which was under reconstruction of some kind. Blood drawn OK but under very unsanitary conditions with sawdust, just dust, paint chips etc. falling on us. Then I had to ask for the supposedly obligatory small cup of orange juice.

Dr. Bacon who brought both C and me into the world was called upon when I had a cough at the Belden Stratford Hotel. He was a lovable old grandpa with cough syrup, hard to believe only a year or so later he had attended M during pneumonia at 2430 Lakeview Ave. and sick as she was and old as he was came on to her.

I digress. Wheaton. Spring and summer M had window boxes planted with geraniums a shade between red and pink. Green and white awnings went up over every window as well as rolled up on the front porch. Fall and winter small fir trees went into window boxes. She had the south porch (screened) enclosed with bay windows and tile floor and light green motif. Heavy velvet portieres in living room were replaced with English flowered linen. My bedroom had stars, reflective, on the ceiling and wood floor painted teal like ocean, and pink rug, pink toy chest, dressing table, etc. My room was on the southeast corner. By removing the south screen we could walk out on the roof of the sun porch to see the moon.

A giant elm (our yard was full of them before elms disappeared from the world) crashed down outside my east window during one of our frequent ear-splitting thunderstorms – struck by lightning. If it had fallen another way it could have smashed through my window onto my bed with me in it. Next morning our yard was a wonderland of fallen giant tree trunks to climb up on and play king of the hill. You could see close-up the nests in the what-had-been tree tops.

Our fireplace was always crackling on winter evenings. M couldn’t abide a piddling fire. Glass doors with curtains closed the living room off from the hall on one side and the dining room on the other and curtains were drawn over bay and other windows. A cosy place and also the coolest room in summer, especially if lying on the cool velvety Oriental rug. We children could only use the living room at specified times. It was tidy, attractive, and always ready for company.

The hall and vestibule (shuttable off from the large hall by a door) as well as the living room had Oriental rugs (before the days of wall-to-wall carpets). The south porch had been enclosed to make a “sun room” and we had meals there sometimes instead of in the dining room. The chintz curtains had a greenish motif with grapes and such. And there was my green upright piano.5 M could play a little and read music – but it was my piano, a small sized but full keyboard Cable.. Lessons began at age three – I forget the teacher’s name, but she came to our house. At that age I learned to read music as well as words. I was a self-taught reader. I mean when someone read to me – M or my nurse – I would follow the words on the page and learn spontaneously that way. Of course I had memorized all the nursery rhymes and stories, but I wanted to unlock the code of the letters.

What had been called the radio room originally housed an old dark wood upright piano with a goldfish bowl on it. One gofdfish jumped out of it and landed on the keys, but was too light to make it plunk. I recall eating on a little table in there. C had a green tray and mine was red. GMcK had told C that green was to be his favorite color and it always was. Was the radio a crystal set, as David Fine insisted?6 I don’t recall, but a radio later in the living room was definitely not. This room was converted into a bedroom for Esther Knudsen, our non pareil Danish cook and housekeeper.

Esther was golden blond, ruddy-cheeked, slender, brisk-moving, clean-scrubbed and even-tempered. Twentyish? Her fingers were large and red from milking cows from an early age. She was as economical of words as she was of movement. She reputedly couldn’t make pies. If true, this was her only shortcoming. A cordon bleu chef couldn’t have outshone her. What’s more, she housekept a four-bedroom house even dusting daily. A friend told her about a new Electrolux vacuum, extolling its new features. M wanted to get one but D said no. If you did the vacuuming yourself OK, but that’s why you have help. They are paid and so don’t need new equipment. (A fore-echo of bosses I would have.)

Esther came with us when we moved to Chicago, but found the giant two-floor, five-bedroom, five-and-a-half bath apartment, with walnut paneled library, two fireplaces, Louis XIV furnishings, etc. too daunting. M had given Esther a copy of Science and Health, since she had learned about Christian Science. D gave her investment advice which also proved beneficial, she said. She was paid $30.00 monthly, if I recall rightly. How could she scrape together enough to invest? But I like to think those two gifts of a sort helped make up to her for her perfect performance. Moving to Chicago was a boon for her. Help got lonely in Wheaton – no social life. Later I learned she got a good job in Chicago for a Jewish family. Still later she married a Kansas(?) farmer and had a roadside stand which she stocked with her marvelous cakes, doughnuts and cookies.

Chris the gardener in my pantheon of kindly men.7

Elsa Mueller was my dear nursemaid, the only one I could ever stand. A Jewess, she had left Germany for London, then the US. She came to us in 1928? My mother was fairly fluent in German. Elsa went back to Germany from which she sent me a yellow silk hand-embroidered handkerchief holder. It was 1933. Years later I worried about her fate under Hitler. M believed she escaped to London.

China’s missiles have capacity to shoot down our GPSs global position satellites.8

RTL’s Notes

1 Christian Science. D and M were not committed to Christian Science as a religion (unlike M’s own mother), but they made pragmatic use of it as convenient health care.

2 This is an understatement. By his own admission C tried to kill my mother three times – once by holding her head underwater while they were swimming, once by dropping a rock onto her from a great height, and once by trying to strangle her. He later said he would have tried more often but for fear of consequences. D and M were vaguely aware of the problem in a somewhat denial-ish way. They hired a babysitter for her when she was a teenager, to prevent Charles from “teasing” her. On an ocean voyage they urged her to stay away from the railings lest C “accidentally” knock her overboard. He died of alcoholism when I was around three.

3 Prince Edward Island.

4 Better known as Aerojet, for which she worked in Idaho in the 1970s.

5 This beloved piano survived our family’s many waves of loss before succumbing to a warehouse fire in 2017.

6 A friend of mine, then a journalism student at Cornell, once interviewed my mother for some of her reminiscences. When she told of hearing the news of either Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima (I forget which) on the radio, he misdescribed the radio as a crystal set. It was hardly an “insistence.”

7 My mother told many stories about Chris; I wish I remembered them better. One was about Chris patiently helping a bird by pulling out of its mouth a string it had half-swallowed in mistake for a worm. Another story (but this might have been a different gardener, a Chinese one – Albert?) had him coming to comfort her when she fell off her tricycle and hurt herself, and my mother being astonished because (given her experience with her parents) it had never occurred to her that comfort rather than scolding might be a possible adult response to her falling off her tricycle.

8 This note was obviously intended for a different destination, but I’ve left it where I found it.