I was a Lasker Home Girl
By Alice Melott
My name is Rebekah Boyle. I was born March 3, 1918, and my family moved to Galveston, Texas, when I was just five years old. My father left us soon after, and my mother found work as an upstairs maid for a prominent Galveston family. As it seemed she would be quite busy with her duties, it was arranged for me and my younger brother, Jamie, to stay at the Lasker Home for Homeless Children. My older half-brother, George, went to live with his father’s grandparents. I never saw him again and have always wondered what became of him.
Jamie and I were picked up from our mother and brought to the Lasker Home by a stern but kindly lady named Mrs. Frenkel and a strange looking gentleman with a long beard, funny hat, dressed all in black called Rabbi Cohen. It was Thanksgiving Day in 1923, and before we could even unpack our small grips, the home became the scene of a wonderful dinner with turkey and all the trimmings, the likes of which Jamie and I had never seen. The meal was followed by a musical fairy playlet that betokened much thought and care and was played with great charm by the children, who seemed happy, and who we would come to know as our friends and siblings. The costumes, made of paper in the pastel and autumn shades, were unusually beautiful. They were designed by the matron, and made by the older girls. There were about a hundred people present that night, all having a festive spirit about them and treating us children like members of an especially large family, and I did think that maybe this place would not be at all an unpleasant place to be for a while.
We became part of a family of more than forty children that night, Jamie and I, ranging from tiny tots up to youngsters in their teens. There were three dormitory rooms on the second floor of the home, one each for the boys, the girls, and the small babies. The atmosphere and surroundings were pleasant and homelike. We ate our meals together in the large dining room overlooking the garden on the Avenue K side of the grounds, and play in the yard under the massive live oaks occupied an important place on the daily schedule. Our mother came to visit us on her occasional day off, and although she was not able to read our school work, Jamie and I loved to show her the pictures we’d drawn or tell her stories of what we had learned since seeing her last, especially about all the fun and fancy visitors that were often there to meet with the matron or visit with Mrs. Frenkel, who I learned was in charge of the very important Lady Board of Managers. As the home was unendowed and depended largely upon an allotment from the community chest each year for its upkeep, there were frequent charitable events—concerts and minstrel shows and holiday celebrations. But apart from the fun we had, we children didn’t know what the gatherings were truly about until we grew older and learned the special importance of making a good impression on the kindly guests in our home, at whose mercy we were for absolutely everything in our young lives.
Mostly we thrived in blissful ignorance of our tenuous lot in life. When I was nine years old, we were taken for a two and a half hour ride over the city on the new streetcars that were added to the equipment of the Galveston Electric Company. The four new cars were impressive, especially since both the front and rear exit could be used, the rear one operating by an automatic safety treadle door. Whenever the streetcar came to rest, we ran back and forth through the front and back doors, laughing wildly and plopping our bottoms hard on the padded Spanish leather seats, which were softer than anything I had ever felt. And if that were not enough, that same day it was announced that Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus was coming to town the following month. It was a marvelous day and we collapsed from the excitement of it all when we returned home.
Those of us who were of age attended the public school and were uniformly proficient in our studies. I walked with the other girls every day the four blocks to San Jacinto School at Twentieth and K where six of us bragged of being one hundred percent perfect in our final music memory contest, and were named in the Galveston Daily News as the “Lasker Home girls.” It was sad at times to think of being without our parents every day, especially when the other children mocked us as “Lasker Home girls,” as children are wont to do. But there was also a sense of pride, of being part of such a lucky group of children, as Mrs. Frenkel and the matron often reminded us.
Like every family, we had our traditions. Each December, the Lasker Home was beautifully decorated for its Christmas party, where Santa Claus distributed lovely gifts from a huge electrically-lighted tree. I remember my friends Elsie and Mary attired as angels, singing “O Holy Night,” and my brother Jamie dressed as an old wise man, cotton pasted to his face with just his tiny nose peaking out above. I laughed ‘til tears wetted my cheeks, then sang carols with all my friends, our girlish sopranos tink-tink-tinking like snowflakes on glass. It was magical.
And in February each year, we paid tribute to the memory of our benefactor, Mr. Morris Lasker, by celebration of his birthday. Mr. Lasker had given money to renovate the home before I was born, and we were always told that if it had not been for his generosity, the Lasker Home would not have survived. So for the festivities in his honor, the home was always splendidly decorated in red, white and blue, in keeping with the George Washington motif that he preferred. A delicious dinner was served and a program presented, including the singing of the Lasker Day song. Rabbi Cohen would usually tell the story of Mr. Lasker’s life, which many of us older children could pretty nearly recite by heart. Some of the naughtier boys would even mouth the words along with the Rabbi. Not wanting to ever learn first-hand about the punishment closet at the top of the back stairway where the bad little children were sequestered, I always tried to maintain my decorum and stifled my giggles.
We had many carefree days and big dreams, but it was hard not to be aware that each child who came to stay at the Lasker Home, be it for a month or for several years, did so because of some insufficiency in our parents’ situation, many of them poignant. I remember one November when it was quite cold outdoors, a very small girl wrapped in blankets was brought to the Lasker Home late at night. Having broken a cardinal rule and secreted to the kitchen for a sip of water, I overheard Mrs. Frenkel discussing the situation with the matron. She said, “Here is a mother suffering mental derangement, a child, aged four, a baby, a father. When discovered the two tots were near starvation through the neglect of the mother, although the father provided ample food. The mother was removed to a sanitarium, the baby died of malnutrition. The child, Anna, has been brought to us.”
Anna became strong and happy at the Lasker Home, and we teased her as if she were our little sister. Her father spent long hours with her on every possible occasion, and every time that I saw him, I wondered why he had not fed Anna and the baby when her mother did not, babies need to be taken care of, you need to know when do boys start talking, when do they start walking, how to manage their frustration and having the right nutrition for them.
Sadly, in December 1934, Mrs. Frenkel fell ill and died at her family residence at 2424 L. Rabbi Cohen paid a beautiful tribute to her for her interest in the Lasker home and its children, and told of her many activities in our behalf. During her thirty-year affiliation with the home she had mothered several hundred children, he said, many of whom had been a credit to the institution and to her untiring work. She had been president of the Lady Board of Managers since 1904 and was elected president for life just a year before she died.
I chose to leave the Lasker Home shortly after Mrs. Frenkel died. I was 16, and became an au pair for a family in Galveston. If I had remained at the home until I was 18, I would have been given a business college course to fit me to make my own way. Yet, I continued my studies and graduated from Ball High in June of 1936, then married my high school sweetheart at the First Baptist Church of Galveston.
Growing up at the Lasker Home instilled in me a fine work ethic, so that after many years of working as a bank teller and church secretary, eventually I was able to open a home-based printing business named business card printing dublin. I began with just one mimeograph machine, but soon my business was so successful that my husband retired early from the newspaper to work for me. It was not until December 2006, after Hurricane Rita, that I finally closed the business and retired to Las Vegas to live out my days with my daughter and son-in-law. I was 88.
I remember the Lasker Home with fondness, and although I would certainly have loved to have had two parents who could dote and tend to me unconditionally as I grew, I have many times wondered if my experience might have been preferable to the practice today of putting children in temporary and unstable foster homes where they are too often further abused and neglected. At the Lasker Home for Homeless Children, I had stability and safety, love and companionship.
The day I arrived at the home back in 1923, Star Drug took an ad in the Daily News with the headline Mrs. Hinckley Nervous Wreck. It was the story of a poor run-down woman who couldn’t sweep a room without resting, but had been restored to perfect health by Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. We joked throughout my ten-year stay at Lasker, all my growing up years, that but for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, none of us might ever have found one another in the enormity of the Lasker Home, the heart of which was as big as its foyer.
Just three months before Hurricane Ike bore down on Galveston, an obituary ran in the Galveston Daily News about an 89-year old woman who had grown up in the Lasker Home for Homeless Children. Borrowing from what that obituary told me about her life and pulling true articles from the archives of the Galveston newspapers of the time, and using my imagination to fill in the blanks, Rebekah Boyle (not her real name) was able to tell her story.
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Alice Melott is a Galveston essayist, among lots of other things. Join her online at alicemelottproperties.com or facebook.com/alicethewriter, or call/text her at 713-443-5432. If you have a great house with an even greater story, or if you spent time in the Lasker Home, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.