Altrua St. Trudy bore her mother’s shame with bitter tears.
Though if not glamorous or beautiful, she was pretty by any standard, and though she bathed regularly and dressed neatly and in the appropriate fashion, yet she was not popular among her classmates at Jane Wardlow Prettyman Public School. On the rare occasions, she was asked, she could dance a mean foxtrot, and she sang solo soprano in Glee Club. Still, she was shunned by her classmates. And most of the boys – especially those who had nothing else to recommend them – would brag that they had had their way with her under the bleachers. Since it is so much easier and so much more gratifying to believe a disparaging rumor than to refute one, everyone soon began calling her Hotsy St. Totsy, even to her face. Occasionally, when she raised her hand in class, the teacher would call on, not Altrua, but Hotsy.
Her own sins of neither commission nor omission could be blamed for her social failures, for you see, her mother was widely known in the community as Hog Head Mama, and Altrua was forced to live with the stigma of her birth.
Hog Head Mama, the former Mrs. Abigail St. Trudy, owned and operated the River Rat Café down by the river. The River Rat catered primarily to the dockworkers and barge crews but, as her fare was palatable and cheap and her portions generous, she enjoyed the patronage of traveling salesmen and local businessmen as well. During prohibition, she augmented her income with a reasonably priced, but scrupulously nonlethal, illicit beverage, which she served in teacups, as was then the fashion. Because of her location down by the river, and because she was reputedly a soft touch, she often passed a sandwich or an apple out the back door of the café to the railroad bums and local winos who came calling.
But one day in October of 1929, the world changed for Mrs. Abigail St. Trudy and her daughter, as well as for her customers and neighbors in the community. Many of her patrons who had regularly enjoyed her hospitality and had tipped generously were now unable to afford even the reasonable prices she charged, and one-by-one they began to appear shamefacedly at the back door among the hoboes and winos. Soon more hungry people came to the back door seeking sustenance than to the front, and the River Rat Café became a de-facto non-profit organization.
Though Abigail St. Trudy was not a wealthy woman, she had been prudent. During the years of plenty, she had saved and invested well, and she had maintained a vigilant ear to the conversation of the businessmen over their three-martini lunches. Early in September of 1929, she had converted her stocks and bonds to cash, which she deposited, not in a savings account, but in a safety deposit box. When the crash came and many banks went under, Abigail St. Trudy could count herself among the lucky few who survived the calamity relatively unscathed.
Though she didn’t share the misery of her neighbors, she saw everywhere the hunger of the children and the desperation in the eyes of their parents, and she determined that no one who came to her door – front or back – would be turned away hungry. She purchased, for a ridiculously reasonable price, a nearly new Model A Ford pickup truck, which one of her back-door patrons graciously taught her to operate, and each day she would drive down to the stockyards and bring back a load of hog heads. She set up a cauldron over a fire pit just outside the back door and maintained a constantly replenished stew of hog heads and leftover vegetables. Out of work fathers and welfare mothers would fill coffee cans or pickle jars to bring home to their families. Winos and hoboes, who had acquired soup bowls and spoons for the occasion, would enjoy their meals in the ambiance of the parking lot behind the River Rat Café.
Naturally, some who could well afford to enter by the front door preferred to go ‘round back, but most felt the prestige of front-door patronage was well worth the price of the meal, and they lingered over their steaks and fries and washed them down with teacup cocktails. So, though her income seldom exceeded her outlay, Mrs. Abigail St. Trudy’s generosity didn’t unduly strain her resources. At some point during this period, an anonymous wit christened her Hog Head Mama, a name that she would wear with pride to her dying day.
Altrua, unfortunately, did not share her mother’s pride.
Of the heavenly virtues, we may now and again overlook instances of chastity and temperance – off-putting though they may be – but we can never forgive the people who have inflicted charity upon us. We find the acceptance of their generosity so demeaning and diminishing of our self-esteem that we feel compelled to retaliate. Perhaps if Hog Head Mama had invited folks in through the front door, perhaps if they hadn’t had to sneak their pickle jars and coffee cans home under their jackets, perhaps if their every unvarying meal of hog head stew hadn’t reminded them of their utter failure as self-sufficient providers, they would not have felt so angrily indebted, and their children would not have retaliated so viciously against Altrua.
But there you have it: Those who suffered the most indignity, those who may have been forced to wear Altrua’s hand-me-down clothing, those who had eaten so resentfully of hog head stew were the most likely to taunt her with the “Hotsy St. Totsy” chant, and the least likely to offer a kind word or a hanky to dry her bitter tears.
Somehow she endured. With no social life to distract her, she buried herself in her lessons, and in due time she graduated as valedictorian of her class. She received scholarships to several prestigious liberal arts colleges, and she accepted the one most distant from the circumstances of her birth, the one where she would be least likely to meet anyone who ever had heard of either Hog Head Mama or Hotsy St. Totsy.
She fell madly in love with the first boy who asked her out, and then she fell every bit as much in love with the second, and then the third. College life was so much more satisfying than high school had been. She was popular! She found she was witty in a darkly Dorothy Parker fashion. She became the heartbreaker of the freshman class . . . until she got her mid-term grades, at which point she put her social life on hold and buried herself once more in her school work. But now she had made good friends among the co-eds and had acquired admirers among the boys, none of whom claimed to have seduced her. She had left Hog Head Mama far behind, and though she now and then cried silently to herself, as all college freshmen are wont to do, Altrua’s tears were of short duration and not nearly so bitter as Hotsy St. Totsy’s tears had been.
During semester breaks and over Christmas vacation, she returned to help her mother with the café, sometimes driving down to the stockyards for a load of hog heads, sometimes preparing the stew or waiting tables, but longing all the while to get back to school and to her new friends. She stayed in school during the summer sessions and was, therefore, able to graduate early, just as America entered the war.
Suddenly, jobs became available for all who needed work. Though Hog Head Mama kept up her ritual of feeding the hungry out the back door, the need was far less now and the urgency was gone. She drew less satisfaction from the operation of her café, and she converted most of her hoarded cash into War Bonds. With the permission of the city council, she set up soup kettles at the railroad depot and the bus station dispensing soups and sandwiches to the traveling troops, and she paid to staff them around the clock. Meanwhile, the River Rat Café sank ever more deeply into degradation. Finally, during the second year of the war, she closed it entirely and devoted all her time and attention to her soup kettles.
Still averse to returning to her life as Hotsy St. Totsy, Altrua at first considered volunteering in the USO, but imagined she might end up serving soup to the troops – an occupation for which she entertained no burning ambitions. She also thought about joining the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps but, with no appropriate military skills, she feared she would end up in a typing pool or as a driver for some obnoxious and self-important senior officer. Eventually, she heard through a friend of a rumored airplane delivery service that would employ women pilots, and without a second thought, she drove over to the local airfield and registered for flight training.
By the time the Women’s Auxiliary Flying Service was established in September 1942, Altrua was a qualified pilot and eager to enlist. Her service in the WAFS and later the WASP took her all around the country and introduced her to hundreds of new friends and colleagues of both genders, and not once did anyone utter the words, “Hotsy St. Totsy”.
But in 1945, with permission of neither mother nor daughter, the war ended and their services were no longer needed. The pillars of the community closed down the railroad depot and bus station soup kettles, and the WASP sent Altrua packing without so much as a bus ticket home.
Abigail St. Trudy returned to the River Rat Café, which, for all practical purposes, had stood empty since early in the war. Only the kitchen had seen service in the preparation of the soup and sandwiches that she dispensed at the railroad depot and bus station. The effort of painting and repairing and bringing the restaurant up to code severely taxed her energy, which had already been depleted by her wartime duties and, though she served a diminished clientele, she hired a manager to oversee the day-to-day operations. The cast-iron cauldron, which had catered to the hungry all through the depression, remained idle, and no one ever called her Hog Head Mama again.
Altrua was just twenty-four when the war ended; she was still pretty, petite, in good health, and she enjoyed connections in the airlines. Since a nursing degree was no longer required, she applied for and acquired a job as stewardess with Northwest Orient Airlines. The international travel significantly broadened her horizons and her pool of friends, but though in the WASP she had often flown B-17 Flying Fortresses, B-24 Liberators and even B-29 Super Fortresses, her hopes of flying the big Douglas DC-4s soon vanished. It was only on rare occasions during trans-Pacific flights that she was surreptitiously allowed to take the controls. The rest of her time she spent coddling cranky and demanding passengers, half-expecting at any moment to hear that dreaded sobriquet, “Hotsy St. Totsy”.
Early in 1948, upon learning of her mother’s failing health, she tendered her resignation and returned to help and to comfort the aging restaurateur. Among the most satisfying things she accomplished upon her return was the demotion of the restaurant manager, whom she recognized as a former cheerleader, homecoming queen, and one of her most abusive classmates. She then set about rebuilding the clientele, largely with friends from her college days, as well as from her service in the WASP and the airline. She also placed ads in newspapers and radio, and she was one of the first to take advantage of that new phenomenon, the television commercial.
When, late in the year following a period of tight fiscal policy, the country fell again into recession, she found there was a need for the services formerly provided by her mother, though she didn’t reinstitute the backdoor service of hog head stew. She preferred to serve the needy from the take-out menu while extending limitless and indefinite credit. Still those who remembered the old days began referring to her as Hog Head Mama Too. This comforted her ailing mother no end, and she passed happily away early in 1949.
Altrua St. Trudy now wore her mother’s name, not with pride perhaps, but with dignity.
About the author
My stories/essays have appeared in the Eunoia Review: the Blue Lake Review: Firewords Quarterly, the Beorh Quarterly, and The Mensa Bulletin, Buried Letter Press: and Novella T, among others.