Even in the 1950’s and 1960’s, people in the northern Seattle neighborhood of Ballard found it hard to believe that our family did not own a car, but it was true. Dad said that in a good year, our family was in the middle-to-low income bracket, but if he were to purchase a car, we would drop to the much feared low-incomebracket for sure. Anyway, that was the reason he gave us kids for not buying a car. Naturally, not having a car forced us to walk or take the bus in order to get anywhere – a constant challenge and irritation. We envied any family that did have a car, which meant we envied just about everyone we knew. Many of these car-owning folks were generous enough to give us rides from time to time. One such person was Marguerite Reiten, whose house was directly across the street from ours. Marguerite belonged to St John’s parish as we did, and for a period of time she gave our family a ride to church on Sunday mornings.
Marguerite and her ancient, invalid mother lived in a large white Craftsman style house; I thought their house was particularly impressive because it had two sets of steps. One cement set climbed from the street to a paved walkway in the Reiten’s front yard; the second set, very wide and made of wood, adorned the front of the house and led to a grand porch. The front of the Reiten’s house had several windows and a dark wood and brass front door. Since their house was on the crest of a knoll (as was the entire street on the east side of 12th Ave N.W.), there was a tuck-under garage built beneath it. In that tuck-under garage was a large, domed, curved, billowy blue, full-sized Nash automobile.
(Here is my older brother Bob’s response when I asked him about what kind of car Marguerite drove: OH my goodness, Teri. Yes I remember Marguerite Reiten’s car. It was a Nash. The full size model. It looked like an upside down bathtub. I think it was a two-tone blue color. Marguerite was a BIG girl. She was quite religious too. I think she tried to enter the convent at one time. It didn’t work out. I don’t know why but as a kid I kept trying to paint her as a mean person. However every time I had dealings with her, which was not very often, she was quite kind and soft-spoken.”)
It was in this voluptuous car that Marguerite drove us – my Mom, and “X” number of kids – to mass on Sunday. (Dad walked the ten blocks to St John’s so that he could say the rosary.) Marguerite herself was large and curvy, like her car. She was tall, fair-skinned, dark-eyed, and wore her thin black hair in a braid on the top of her head, arranged in a band that went from ear to ear. She was missing one of her teeth, too, although I can’t recall which one. She was an impressive sight to a child; as impressive as her car, almost. And as Bob mentioned, she was very kind to all of us.
One puzzling thing about Marguerite was that even though she had only herself to get ready for church, she was never ready to leave on time. Mom had all of us scrubbed and polished for church by 9 am, but we waited for Marguerite every Sunday. As we stood on the sidewalk below her house, Marguerite would call to us from the windows so that we could have the minute-by-minute description of her final preparations. She encouraged us to “Be patient! I’m looking for my missal! Hold on! Mother needs her knitting! Don’t panic – mass won’t start without us. I will be right out!” When she finally did appear from behind the doors of the tuck-under garage, she caused us little girls to stop and stare. This large and elegant lady invariably wore a floral dress, was bedecked with jewelry, had deep red lipstick artistically applied, and wore a Spanish mantilla over her hair. She was a showstopper. When the garage doors were fully open, we Kings would file into the garage and climb into the car. Mom would sit in the front seat with the youngest, and the rest of us would find a space in the wonderfully expansive backseat of the Nash. Magically, there was always enough room for us.
Now the epic journey to church would begin. In the front seat, Marguerite would be talking like a mad hatter to Mom while shifting gears on the Nash like nobody’s business. From the backseat we could look out the windows of the car and see the neighborhoods of Ballard and Greenwood from a vantage point we rarely had – elevated and enclosed. It was an entrancing time. And there was an element of suspense, too We knew the clock was ticking – 10:45 Mass would start any minute, and we were still blocks away from the church parking lot. But we were covering ground! It was amazing how quickly we could get to church in a car. And yet I could tell Mom was concerned – her eyes had a thoughtful, serious look, even though her lips were smiling. I don’t ever recall a time when we were late to church, but on the Sundays when we rode to St John’s with Marguerite, we were often still looking for a place to sit as the priest approached the altar – which was perilously close to late according to King family rules. I think it was this tendency to tardiness that eventually caused Mom to gently refuse Marguerite’s offers of a ride, and forced us kids to be content to walk to church.
My sister Margie and I had a weekday connection with Marguerite, too. When I was six and Margie was eight, Marguerite offered to teach us how to crochet lace at her home. I don’t know if I really wanted to learn to make lace, but I definitely wanted to look inside that big, white house. What would we see when the dark, wooden door was opened and we walked in to Maguerite’s?
Stay tuned to this blog for the next entry in Life Before Starbucks – Marguerite Reiten – Part 2