People often ask me where I’m from and I tell them Philadelphia. Some of them look at me with a little half smile and say, “but you have a Southern accent.” Yes, I have a Southern accent because I’ve lived in the south for 47 of my 64 years, but I was born in Philadelphia and I consider Philly my home.
This is a picture of my god-parents, Felix and Lessie Belyeu – aka Big Mom & Big Daddy. Anytime I write about childhood memories more than likely one of them will be mentioned. As a neophyte genealogist, I’m well aware that when we build our family trees, it should only include blood relatives. However, there are many people like me who were raised in part or altogether by grandparents, godparents, aunts, uncles, sisters and brothers. I spent most of my first eleven years with my god-parents and their daughter, Gladys. Even though they’re not on my tree, I consider them my family.
Life on Cambridge Street
We lived on Cambridge Street in West Philadelphia – a narrow street of row houses. I remember most of the homes on our block were well kept brick homes, with white accents and green shutters. Almost every home had a white flower box on the front porch. I don’t know about the other neighbors but Big Daddy bought and paid for his home.
Our Sundays were spent in Church – no washing cars, going to the movies or chores of any type. If our Sunday clothes were not ironed before Sunday morning, we had hell to pay but we still had to go to church. On Saturday mornings, Big Mom made pancakes with fresh blueberry syrup. Saturday evenings in the summer was when Gladys and I took our weekly walk over to Master Street for a cheese steak or hoagie and a Black Cherry Wishniak.
Summer was my favorite time of year, not because school was out but because we always took trips to Atlantic City or Coney Island. We went to Atlantic City several times during the summer but Coney Island was a special trip.
One of the things I didn’t understand when I was a child was our trip taking routine. Our car was packed down with everything we needed: food, water, blankets and all sorts of other things including a pee jar for my little god-brother. We took baskets of fried chicken, potato salad and cole slaw to the beach. At the time, I didn’t know that it was because there were limited places where we could eat. I didn’t understand that if our car broke down we might have to sleep in the car if we couldn’t get back home.
Racism was never discussed in my presence. I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing because I was always told that I could achieve anything I wanted if I worked hard enough.
Several times a year we had block parties. Most of the neighbors participated but some were just annoyed by the street being blocked off and all of the noise – we just ignored them. During the winter when we had record snow fall, we would have snowball fights and build igloos in the street. I don’t know how it is now, but our block was too narrow for snow plows so it allowed the kids to have all kinds of snow related activities.
Our neighbors had an eclectic mix of jobs. They were small business owners, school teachers, policemen, beauticians, salesmen, painters, repair men, cooks and domestic workers. With a few exceptions, everyone worked hard and tried to better themselves. Of course, there were some trouble makers and alcoholics who were often the source of amusement and gossip, but I don’t ever remember the police having a presence on our block.
We knew all of our neighbors and respected our elders. If any of us kids got in trouble, our parents usually knew it before we got home. By the time we got home we had probably already been fussed at by one of our neighbors.
Most of the families on Cambridge Street were either Catholic or Methodist. We were the only Pentecostal family on the block – the neighbors called us holy rollers.
Both of my god-parents were from Alabama. Big Mom was one of eight children, most of whom moved to Philadelphia. Big Daddy had siblings but I’m not very familiar with his side of the family, except for his brother Thurston. I believe most of Big Daddy’s family moved to Detroit.
Big Daddy was a door-to-door salesman of Watkins products. Big Mom was a homemaker who never worked outside of the home. She made artificial corsages and boutonnieres, had an in-home child care of three children and sold home-made pies and cakes. She was an extraordinary baker.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
Big Daddy died of heart failure in 1957, he was 54 years old. Big Mom died at age 67 of kidney failure in 1977. In 1962, my mother came to Philly and took me to live with her in Tennessee, but until I got married, I continued to spend summers on Cambridge Street.