Mary Stevenson and Elizabeth Stevenson

Recorded February 7, 2009 Archived February 7, 2009 00:00 minutes
Audio not available

Interview ID: LMN001184


Mary Stevenson, 63, was interviewed by her daughter, Elizabeth Stevenson, 27, about her life.

Subject Log / Time Code

Mary’s pitch to a publisher about the title for her life’s story
The American Dream?
First home purchase
Schmaltz family - Mary’s mother’s family
Elizabeth and Seth
Jewish identity
Fictional universe in which Mary would like to live -- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Brooklyn Bridge


  • Mary Stevenson
  • Elizabeth Stevenson

Recording Locations

StoryCorps Lower Manhattan Booth


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00:04 My name is Mary Huff Stevenson. I'm 63 years old today is February 7th 2009 and we are in Foley square and I'm here with my daughter Elizabeth. My name is Elizabeth Margaret Stevenson. I am 27 years old. It is February 7th 2009. I'm in lower Manhattan with my mother Mary.

00:29 So start you off and you have an ongoing joke that your Memoirs will be called from Brooklyn to Brookline and I'm wondering if you had like a two-minute pets to the publisher for what that story would be. How you and how you would pitch it wasn't your life Brooklyn that I grew up in was is very different from the Brooklyn that we see now as as you know from the fact that the place that I escaped from is the place that you can't afford to live in but Williamsburg, I mean Williamsburg, but the Brooklyn to Brookline is a kind of a kind of Unexpected Journey of somebody who grew up in a pretty lower-middle-class Place most of whose relatives were they are the generation before stay the Jenner.

01:29 Haitian after more or less and I left for Parts Unknown the fact that I went to a Sleepaway College was bizarre for my family and the fact that I now live in this place that is a very desirable community and is demographically in terms of Education in terms of income. Just such a totally different place from the place. I started do you think of your life as an American Dream story or would you be really reluctant to talk about the American dream being a reality?

02:10 Well, it's a mixed thing. I remember a few years ago. I read this book by Annie Dillard called an American girl hood and I was really offended because that sure as hell wasn't my girlhood and how dare she talked about an American girlhood, I think in some ways. Yeah it is it it conforms to parts of the American dream in the sense that I did grow up in a very poor family lived in public housing had this great opportunity to to get an education that really was my ticket out in a sense. I guess I'd say the meritocracy quote-unquote worked for me, but but it's the best overblown it's it's oversold as if it doesn't happen for you. It's your fault and that's the part of it that I object to I mean in some ways you're not self-made because you had

03:10 On a government assistance, right? Absolutely. I think he wants to ask me you had a project to do for one of your classes and you asked me about the the kind of help that that we had growing up and the fact that my father died young that my mother receive Social Security on my behalf. The fact that she was able to receive workman's compensation because of the way he died the fact that we live in public housing all of that made it possible for me to move up an out. I am without that it would have been very different story.

03:49 So, how did you feel when you first bought a home was that thing that you had anticipated doing your whole life or was it surprising or so it was bizarre? It was it was totally bizarre e been a renter all my life and then when your dad and I had your older brother and it was sweet. We thought it was time to buy a home, but I've never lived in a single-family house. And if it was it felt totally bizarre a little bit scary, but the Practical side of me said well, yeah sure. This is what we have to do. But but the notion that you'd actually be a homeowner that was that was supposed to our thing. I still find it bizarre as you know, I live in a two-family house now that I co-own and I know that if the people upstairs ever moved out

04:49 I wouldn't buy them out and be and become a landlord still for all that being a homeowner was uncomfortable being a landlord was even would be even more uncomfortable. So if they decide have negative absolute absolutely ever decide that they want to move since we co-own I move to

05:15 I was going to ask you to tell me a little bit about the smart family to their mother's family. Well, we only have 40 minutes. Maybe just like a quick. I don't know the old my cousins and I laugh about how every time you apply to open account at a bank and they ask you what's your mother's maiden name? You have to write down shmaltz and if it was such a source of embarrassment. My mom was the youngest of eight children and a joy to my mother Julia Schmaltz, but she started life is Julia Schmaltz, but when she was enrolled in elementary school, she was enrolled by her mother who had such a thick accent that they misunderstood her and thought that my mother's name was Schwartz and my

06:15 Mother never corrected it because her all of her older sibs had taken such a ribbing for having the name Schmaltz which means chicken fat and so she went through school as Julia Schwartz never graduated from high school. So her highest degree was her Junior High School degree when she went to vote. She had to take a literacy test because she couldn't prove that she had an education cuz her degree was not in her name. So she actually needed to take literacy tests to be able to vote, but they were

06:52 They were very poor. The my grandparents got married in the old country in my grandfather came from Gretna. My grandmother came from a little statue called Luna I assumed it was in an arranged marriage. Although I don't know what they got married and right after they got married they lit out for the United States. So all of their children were born in the United States, but they were very poor. My grandfather was a the cap maker didn't make a lot of money. I think things started to improve for them when prohibition came in and they opened up a kosher Speakeasy and it was in some apartment building was and it was just an apartment in some building.

07:46 On the Lower East Side and my grandfather was the one who brought the business in it was basically his drinking buddies and my grandmother would do the standard free lunch, which of course she made kosher and to hear the my aunts and uncles talk about it. It sounds like he was a drinker in fact died of cirrhosis of the liver, but he brought in enough of his buddies that they actually begin to to make a living during prohibition and it was up to my mom to bring some of the booze from the apartment where they lived to the apartment where the Speakeasy was a matter of a few blocks and she was given strict instructions that if a cop ever stopped her she was to drop the bottle and make sure it broke.

08:46 So she was the youngest of eight and she she live to be 93 and when she got to be really old she would talk about how much she missed all of her brothers and sisters growing up. It was wonderful to be the youngest and all the attention she got but how it got pretty lonely as she got older and they were all long gone.

09:07 And you have a course like hundreds of cousins. And yeah, I grew up in this huge extended family. So there were I had twin uncles. Yay, Savannah Trammell Schmaltz.

09:23 Jason Jason work for the knish Factory across the street. He was a truck driver for a Cabela's knishes and one time I saw him coming in. He had his uniform on and it had embroidered over his pocket and has a name Joe and I said Uncle Yusef whose uniform you're wearing and he said mine I said what your name is D nice if it was only inside the family, but one of the twin uncles lived in the apartment next door to us another twin Uncle lived in the apartment downstairs. I should mention that both of these twin uncles married sisters who were their first cousins that was the branch of the family that that went to the right. So that's part of the crazy Smalls.

10:12 Okay. Okay. I obviously we could go on and on about the family but I have other questions. So one question that I thought of which may or may not be interesting is it when did you start wearing pants?

10:26 I went to start wearing pants. Well at the time that I was going to public school there were dress rules and you were not allowed to have girls were not allowed to wear pants to school unless the temperature fell below a certain amount. So let's say was if it was under 20 degrees you could wear pants to school, but otherwise you are not allowed to wear pants to school. So my Recollections throughout high school was that I wore skirts and knee socks when I got to college. I went to I went away to school and went to Brandeis people there were very kind of beatnik hippie and people started wearing blue jeans, and I still remember my college roommate Vicky Hammer saying when she got up one morning to go to class. I still remember her.

11:26 If I can't decide within 30 seconds what to where I'm putting on my jeans and certainly by the time we graduated from college, we hardly wherever you're wearing skirts anymore and I hardly ever wear skirts. Now I sometimes well in the summertime sure in the summertime I do but in the winter time, I don't even think my niece could take it. So when you start it like was it just a fact was it was just a new trend was like, okay, and now people are wearing pants or pant or was it at all political?

12:00 There was a certain degree of you know, not not looking like the Barbie doll stereotype, you know, there was the kind of early inklings of feminist off that you weren't going to be into clothes and fashion and all that kind of stuff, but I'm fine.

12:22 I know this if you could look pretty cute in jeans too. So. There were some different messages being sent out there.

12:32 But for you is not it wasn't it wasn't like. Yes. And I Am Woman hear me roar kind of password. Would you call yourself certainly in terms of thinking that pay Equity is an important issue certainly spent a lot of my professional life wrote my dissertation or women's wages. I was thrilled when the Lilly Ledbetter legislation passed a couple of weeks ago. So yeah, I think those things are important and I think that the notion that the opportunities available to you depend on your gender is one that I really find obnoxious other than are there any ideologies that you subscribe to this Wednesday is an academic, but you know it just in life.

13:30 I think that social justice is important to me and I know so it's social justice means a lot of things to different people but I think the notion that there needs to be more fairness more equality on that one's lice life chances shouldn't be affected by where you came from and some ways we're sort of circling back to what I was saying earlier about in a feeling that even though the American dream seems to have work for me on you can over sell it and there's this lots of information out there showing that you are odds of being able to have a good secure life depend a lot on where you started out maybe even more. So now than when I was growing up and that's the moving the wrong direction.

14:30 Theorists that were you with a highly influence your work as a professor.

14:37 Well, a lot of my work now is focused on Urban issues with two colleagues Barry Bluestone and Russell Williams. I I wrote this Urban policy textbook as I've been thinking more about Urban issues and they're I think it's really people like Jane Jacobs who who talked about making neighborhoods livable making them safe making them livable thinking about ways in which cities are not like suburbs and they function very differently and I was the one who wrote the last chapter of the textbook in a lot of that last chapter really talks about making cities work for everybody. Not just for those who have means

15:34 And you're talking a lot about American Dream American cities. Give me your feelings about this country have changed it all over the course of your life.

15:43 They've changed back and forth many times. I was still in high school when John Kennedy was running for office and I still remember me I doing doing something on his campaign and handing out literature along a route in Queens that he was going to be driving by and seeing him drive by and being really excited and there was that kind of ceiling of a new age and new possibilities my college roommate the Vicky Hammer. I refer to before we end up going into the Peace Corps, which was a he had a huge impact on her life. So there was all of that idealism that that I had in in the 60s and that I was in graduate school at University of Michigan in the late 60s, Ann Arbor.

16:43 Was a very exciting place to be then so there was all this sense of change and a generation that was going to bring about change. And so remember to college reunions a few years ago saying what what happened to all that, you know, none of that none of that came to fruition, but more recently. I've been very excited again about again new possibilities then and this time I think it's your generation that that feels that more strongly

17:18 So even in the worst times would you say that you were proud to be an American or that you love your country or any of that has nothing to do with loving country. If you know it has to do with whether you feel your country is living up to its potential and I think there have been times that that I felt that it was and then you know many times in recent years when feeling that we have so much to offer and we've we've strayed away from what we're supposed to be and are not living up to two are pretty potential but it's not a matter of love. I mean, it's like, you know, it's like if you have a kid who's behaving well or behaving badly you don't you don't stop loving them you just recognize that they're Behaving Badly.

18:07 The Hangout Elgin as your child as long as there are any things about me or my brother says that really surprised you like who we've become as adults that you wouldn't have predicted about us

18:20 I think one of the things that surprises me is that in temperament, you are so different from each other and always have been hot on Seth was always this is Seth Faber Stevenson. Seth was always the laid-back child the child who was easy to control the child who you could kind of get to do your bidding without too much trouble. You were the opposite you always had a mind of your own and all the little things that I would do with Seth that would work. Like if he was if you didn't want to do something the way I would get him to do it. Like let's say he needed to wash his hands before dinner, you know in the way and he didn't want to do it. So I would say well you going to wash your hands. Would you like to be first it would you like to be second and that would work and he said to be first right and then I would say to you.

19:20 Well, you have to wash your hands off me to wash my hands to would you like to be first, would you like to be second and you would say I don't want to wash my hands and he was always the kind of cautious take a look at the lay of the land. I stay on the sidelines till you figured it out. You just we're always going to dive in from the deep end and so from the start you had such different temperaments and yet one of the things that that pleases me no end now is that you seem really devoted to each other you seem to really enjoy spending time together with him and Washington and you in, New York.

20:09 The fact that you can get together without having to go through me something that really Delights.

20:20 But you don't think that I don't know. I'm wondering if there's just anything that any choices that we made the surprise you but now

20:29 Choices

20:36 Well, I think when Seth was a little guy he wanted to be a lawyer wanted to make a lot of money seem like he was going in this very materialistic Direction, which I wasn't too happy about and so but all of that turned around and I think he always has loved to write and so it doesn't surprise me that he's turned out to be a writer. I thought from from the way that you would stick to your ground and and argue persuasively when you were four years old. I thought for sure you were going to be a lawyer.

21:20 And so I so I guess it surprised me that that you didn't become a lawyer but I think you you are addicted to social work that you want to do and and you know, you really sound passionate about wanting to work with adolescents. So it's so I guess I guess the career choices that I might have predicted when you were really little didn't turn out but I think you've both made choices that were really appropriate for for where you are. Okay, who would you say other than me and Sass and your mother? Who do you say or the people you've been closest to in your life?

22:08 Well

22:12 Some are relatives like my cousin Grace Julian who is two years older than me. She was part of that extended family lived a block away from me when we were growing up. I lived a block away from me in Williamsburg in the winter. And then of course the entire Schmaltz family went to those bungalows in Rockaway in the summer. And so Grace Gracie was a really important part of my life growing up and is still a friend when I think about the people I turn to when I really do know need need support lets people like Gracie. It's people like Marsha, this is Marsha hertzberg schoenfeld another cousin. It's my college roommate Vicky. It's my other college roommate Pat Rosenthal Canter Mane.

23:12 It's the people who I bought that house with over 20 years ago. And this is Karen Bluestone and Bruce Cohen. They have supported me through some very tough times and end in in all of these by the way, these are reciprocal relationships if they going both ways, I've given support to them as well Karen's brother Barry Bluestone who has been a colleague of mine since forever since we were in graduate school and actually introduced me to Karen and Bruce and really was the Catalyst for getting us together. But as you know, I mean we've lived in this house now for 20 years and they are extended family now, so I think those are some of the people that I feel closest to okay,

24:12 Speaking of the house, you are kind of like if you had cannabis around when you are, you know, raising me and Seth on your own after the divorce and some wondering how like, how would you describe your work life balance? Like when you are married and when you were divorced and then when you're an empty nester, how how is that changed over time? When was it tough? When was it not tough? Well, the the work-life balance was very big issue. When when your dad and I first got out of graduate school who know we were both new assistant professors and we're under this publisher Parish stuff and deciding to have Seth was, you know already

25:00 Recognizing that we would be doing something that would make it less likely that we would get tenure. So it was a struggle to to do the work stuff and the research stuff and to have a small child as one of the reasons that there is a 7 1/2 year difference between you and Seth on as I have always joked Seth is my pretend your baby and you were my post-tenure baby, but then having two kids and still needing to juggle jobs. And of course your dad was at you want John Faber steel John Fox Stevenson, your dad was at URI. I was at UMass Boston the we both had our long commutes and Annette that kind of drug lean was pretty difficult being a single parent was very difficult and it was wonderful that Karen and

26:00 Bruce where they are and that their son Alex Bluestone cone was your age and so we could really coordinate a lot of the drop-off and and pick up stuff. That was that was really wonderful. Now that I have an empty nest. My professional work is really flourishing in a way that it didn't before and and that's all very nice. But I I don't regret any of the decisions that I made, you know, if somebody were to say to me, well, you know, look at how your professional life look at all the writing you're doing now, look at you no look look at all this professional interest that you're able to devote time to have somebody that said to me don't you wish you could have done that earlier. My answer would have been no. No, I mean, I like women. Did you ever talk about it like me?

27:00 Work-life choices are sacrifices

27:03 We did and I don't think anybody figured it out very well and

27:12 Certainly a lot nicer let at my generation. I graduated from college in 1966 and it that point many of my friends were getting married right away having kids right away and they were not found Lansing work and career. They were taking years out of the workforce to to raise their kids and then coming back in time. So it's a little different from the things that I assume that you and your friends talk about because that I that notion that you can take yours out of the workforce. That doesn't apply So Much Anymore well depends on the person but yeah. Yeah, but you never that was never appealing to you you were committed more to your career than they were or

27:58 Will partly it was a career that I chose. So because I was a college teacher. I didn't have to worry about having a nine-to-five job and I still remember going to the senior man in my department. When I got pregnant with Seth and saying, you know, you've been giving me these Monday Wednesday Friday teaching schedules and I have taken them just fine, but for the next year-and-a-half, I want Tuesday Thursday schedules. And at first they were like, well nobody gets tuesday-thursday schedule 3 semesters in a row and I said, yeah, but I've been having Monday Wednesday Friday schedule's several semesters in a row. Nobody. Nobody seemed to have gotten those either and they actually were very supportive and so, you know having a kid and and having some flexibility in my time made it not an easy juggling act but a possible juggling act it meant that

28:58 I could be.

29:01 It did it. Just was it gave me a little bit more flexibility and how I spent my time, then folks who needed to be at an office or folks who needed to have FaceTime in the office for 40 hours or more than 40 hours.

29:21 What is your proudest professional accomplishment?

29:28 Proudest professional accomplishment. Okay. I think it has not. I think it's when a student of mine comes back.

29:48 Just recently and I found the tears again recently student of mine in the night in the mid-1970s. She was she's an African-American woman from Roxbury. She was coming to UMass Boston as an older students are older at that time meeting her thirties. She had kids. She was juggling work and family and she had come back to school and she took my Urban economics class really loved it. And she went on to get a degree from the urban studies program at MIT. I lost touch with her for years and years and years, but recently she found me and we actually had lunch together at the University a couple of months ago.

30:48 And you know here is this woman who has had this flourishing career who has stuck to her values. So when she does she does development work in Florida, and she said but I always make sure that the relocation is in place and that I take care of anyone who's being displaced from any project that I do she seems to have in a real commitment to to doing things in in an ethical way and you know, it is essentially in terms of any sort of displacement and you know here is this woman who who will say to me you and a handful of other professors at UMass Boston change my life.

31:37 That's pretty nice.

31:42 What would you say?

31:45 We've talked about our national identity your gender identity. We've talked a little about your age in your class which both of changed over time and we never really talked anything about your ethnicity. Are you Jewish of which of those like accies would you say there is has the strongest influence on your identity which of those demographic so it it's really hard to tell you know, that's like taking a bowl of kite string and trying to pull it apart.

32:20 I certainly do remember after the divorce when we were still living in North Attleboro because that was the midpoint between the two jobs and I North Attleboro is this, you know little Backwater town where they didn't fluoridate the water supply cuz they thought it was a communist plot and seriously you had to take floor and and I remember saying when I was married there was a reason for me to be here but as a highly educated Jewish woman who's a feminist what in the world am I doing here and and deciding to move closer to Boston closer to my job closer to my friends, but it was that it was a combination of things. It wasn't any one thing certainly the the Jewish identity. We haven't talked about much but it is

33:20 An important part of my life. I think it's an important part of how I express myself. I think it's an important part of the my sense of humor. I think it's an important part of things that are important to me as as, you know, culturally not really know. It's it's more the cultural ethnic component of it as you know that every year I do a Passover seder. I've been doing that for what now for 30-40 years not quite 40, but over 30 and I always have it on the wrong night unless the first night of passover happens to be a Saturday night because I have people coming in from elsewhere and to me gathering for Passover means gathering with the people who are important to you. And if that means that you have to do it on the weekend you do it on a weekend, but

34:20 So on the one hand, you know celebrating Passover with family and friends is a huge part of my identity on the other hand. I can't even manage to do it on the right night. Yeah, you never fast on Yom, Kippur give you a headache I did when I was young I did when I was young and then I think it was the first Yom Kippur with Seth that I realized. I can't take care of my child and fast and when it came to a choice of taking care of my child or fasting that's when the fasting went and I never went back to it. Okay?

34:56 And then I guess one of my last questions will be what is your greatest regret?

35:11 I have recently become very interested in this form of movement called the Nia technique and it's like the first time in my life that I've been thinking about the physical means that of the mental or emotional or intellectual me and I wish that had been more a part of my life. I wish I had had more physical activity in my life. But you know, that's a fairly small thing and in terms of big choices, I don't really have any regrets it again. This is a very morbid question. How would you like to die if you could choose

35:50 As you know, when my mom died it was very important to her to be in full possession of her wits and she was she was the one who made the decision to to stop treatment and I would like to be that way to I would like to die in full possession of my wits and ideally it would be, you know falling asleep and not waking up. But the main thing is that I want to be making those choices till the end just like she did.

36:29 And if you could exist in any fictional Universe, which fictional Universe would you choose?

36:43 Oh, that's a hard one. I'm such a realist that other questions a related question is if you could say that your life was most like any fictional Universe which fictional Universe comes closest to your life.

36:57 I I don't I can't even begin to answer that. No books or TV shows were like, oh my God, this is

37:06 A little bit A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Yeah, it's

37:13 Oh, Brooklyn Bridge TV show Brooklyn Bridge. Cuz if it was the guy who went to Brandeis with me and he showed some clips from it and I thought but that's my family. Yeah, anything else that you think I should know about you before we end.

37:31 I think you know a lot about me. I think the fact that you do come to when we have family reunions and we tell all those stories. I think you learn a lot about me that you might not have Otherwise Known like my cousin Marvin Maeser telling me when I was a kid. Don't be such a smart. Aleck Mary. Nobody likes a smart. Aleck. You wouldn't her there for me, but you know and in the family gatherings you hear that kind of stuff. So I'm glad that you were part of those and that Moe from The Simpsons is based on your uncle live right there interview, I guess anything at any questions for me.

38:11 I know you're the one you're the one who has the questions this time. I'll have a question to know that I'm okay, and I guess we can I have plenty of other questions, but it was open a whole other can of worms.

38:29 Thank you. Okay. Thank you. Thank you.