Blame Where Blame Is Due

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned a personality quirk, specifically, my OCD. This is – of course (how could it not be?) – my dear mother’s fault. Totally! The crazy compulsion to make my bed everyday? Yep, that’s my mom. Just about the time I started walking, she was already training me to smooth out the wrinkles and plump up the pillows on my youth bed. It only went downhill from there.

Ellis Cottage / Pennsylvania

My mother attended boarding school from the age of six. This was in the 1930s and the first things she learned were: to do as she was told, to follow the rules, to conform and to be a good girl. I think the cottage shown above was home for eight to twelve girls plus a house mother. (This may not have been her actual home, but hers would have been nearly identical.) There were multiple other cottages housing other groups of girls on the property. The girls lived there year-round and attended school on the property, visiting relatives for only a week or two in August and December.

The death of my maternal grandfather resulted in my grandmother having to seek a job to support herself and my mom. They were living in New Jersey at the time, and grandmother didn’t wish to leave my mom to her own devices or to the negative influences close at hand. Providentially, someone told my grandmother about a boarding school for fatherless girls located on the outskirts of Philadelphia. The school had been founded by a philanthropist named Charles E. Ellis and was known in its early years as Ellis College.

During his lifetime, Mr. Ellis had become aware of philanthropist Stephen Girard (who died in 1831). Girard’s legacy provided for a school for “poor, white, male orphans” and Girard College was created. Mr. Ellis took inspiration from Girard’s example and in ordering his own estate, Ellis instructed the endowment of a school for girls. When he died in 1909 from a gunshot to the head (reports differed about whether it was suicide or an accident), his bequest (about $4 million) was set up to provide “free education and maintenance for fatherless girls” allowing for education and maintenance “until age seventeen.

Ellis College / Admin Bldg & classrooms

The first girls were admitted to the school in 1919. My mother’s dad died in July 1932 and only weeks later, Mom was enrolled in Ellis College, a wee six-year-old, fatherless and no doubt, totally perplexed by the sudden changes in her life. When I think about how these events contributed to the resourceful and self-reliant individual she would become in adulthood, I am in awe.

During the years the school operated, the gift Charles E. Ellis ensured for fewer than 1500 fatherless girls can never be accurately measured. My mother received an excellent education and benefitted from numerous advantages she’d never have been able to access as the fatherless offspring of a widow woman of limited means. The Ellis campus spanned over 300 acres with a summer camp, a swimming pool and lots of outdoor activities. The girls received all the requisite instruction that upper-crust prep school girls of that era received. In every sense, it was a privileged education … except for the fact these were fatherless girls, that is.

I often wonder about the philanthropic works of men like Charles E. Ellis and Stephen Girard. Both Ellis and Girard created institutions that allowed countless children to benefit from an excellent education, in spite being disadvantaged due to fatherlessness. Girard College opened for students in 1848 and exists today on a campus of 40+ acres in Philadelphia PA. Ellis College closed to students in 1977 but the campus at Newtown Square is still a marvelous place (though some of the acreage has been sold for development).

[In case you’re interested in reading more about Ellis, author Thomas J. DiFilippo has written an excellent history that also offers some information about Girard College where he attended.]

Living and growing up in the Ellis College cottage setting, my mother also learned the fundamentals of housekeeping, including making her bed everyday and pitching in with the kitchen duties (though a cook was on-site). The house mother lovingly tucked in her charges at night (standing in as best she could as the on-site “parent”). Because the girls in each cottage varied in age, the younger girls were matched up with a “big sister.” A warm sense of family togetherness permeated these cottage homes.

Unmade-bedWith the formative years of my mom’s life spent learning this sort of army regimentation, it would have been natural for the experience to inform her adult life. She taught her children the spit-and-polish, everything-in-its-place model she’d learned at Ellis. As a consequence, I suffer this deeply-embedded case of OCD! Even as I’ve relaxed in more recent years, leaving a bed unmade (even when I’m not looking directly at it) is disconcerting (a disturbance in the force, if you will).

So, there you have it, blame properly placed where it belongs! For anyone who’s curious, no, I’ve never managed to bounce a quarter off my made-bed. Whether that’s a movie- or military-based myth, I can’t say, but I’ve never managed it!

17 thoughts on “Blame Where Blame Is Due

  1. Thank you for sharing this information on the Charles Ellis School for Girls. Both my mother and my aunt went there in the 1940s and both graduated high school there and went to camp there. Their father died when my mom was 3 and my aunt was 5. My grandmother never remarried. They were from Philadelphia. A relative told them about the school and helped get my mother and my aunt into the school. Both my mother and aunt got a wonderful education there and both loved going to school there. They both had a lot of pride that they were graduates from the Ellis School for Girls.

    1. Thanks Leslie for reading and for your comments. My mother (now 90 years old) has such fond memories of her years at Ellis! And I recognize I’m also a beneficiary (indirectly) of the Charles Ellis legacy.

    2. I was lucky enough to be able to go to The Ellis School in 1976/1977 but unlucky in that the school closed at the end of my only year I was able to attend. It was a very special place! My mother [at five years old] and her two older sisters were sent on a train from NYC to a boarding convent school in French-Speaking Canada (they didn’t speak French!). As it is for you, its hard to imagine how these little girls survived such disruption in their lives at such a young age, yet it also explains their parenting styles!

      1. Jenni, thanks for commenting! What a disappointment it must have been for you to have the school close after you’d been there only one year. As for your mom and her sisters, were they orphaned? There’s no doubt schools like Ellis had a huge impact on young (mostly bereft) girls … and as you point out, my mom’s parenting style (order and discipline) reflected her upbringing in the Ellis environment! That said, I acknowledge I’m a “second-generation” beneficiary of the Ellis legacy. Again, thanks for stopping by!

        1. Thank you. For writing this. Ellis closed my jr. Year. It was rough. But happy I spent 5 years there.

          1. Hi Bridget. Thanks for connecting. Your experience must have been difficult, but I’m glad you had 5 years there. I’m sure your life has been enriched for those years. Keep in touch!

  2. thank you for sharing as i was an ellis student in 1965-1969 as a tuition student. the school at that time had a mix of both scholarship and tuition and it made a interesting blend of girls that were privileged and those that were not. i loved the fact we had this blend and i remember saying to some of the snobs … we all wear plaid skirts here and we dont care what your father does. it shaped up the mix and made it great.

    1. So nice to read your comment, Cheryl! (I believe you’re about my age; I graduated from high school in 1967.) My mom (now 90) was so blessed to receive her education at Ellis! Even though she endured the pain and confusion of losing her dad when she was 6, we’ve always believed Ellis was God’s divine provision for her. I will be forever grateful to Ellis. Thanks for reading and interacting.

  3. Perhaps your mother was a product of her generation. When I got to Ellis in the mid-‘60s it was a Country Club paradise compared to the private school for fatherless girls my sister and I had come from. My memories of Ellis are nothing but ease.

    1. Thanks, Joyce, for your comment. Yes, my mother attended Ellis in the early days. Having lost her dad in 1932 when she was barely 6 years old, her mother looked at Ellis as a godsend! Ellis was the only school (and home) my mother experienced through high school graduation. By my mother’s recollection, she and her classmates enjoyed many privileges of a Country Club-like upbringing, but they also learned the importance of working hard, being habitually responsible and conscientious about taking nothing for granted. Definitely (as you say) a “product of her generation.”

  4. I was. Student there for just 3 months, it was all I could stand. I was one of the first paying students. My clothes were stolen, It was run like a reform. School. We were not allowed to leave the cottage unless we had a guest. I had 3 roommates. After I left a roommate wrote to tell me one of the 3 roommates killed herself. It was a horrible place. To get my mail to my mother, I had to sneak it into a mailbox while an evening at synagogue. What they did with my mail at school, I can only imagine. As soon as my letter got to my mother, she arranged my Aunt to get me out of there. I could go on, but you get the picture.

  5. I was wondering if girls who may have been pregnant at high school age were allowed to attend Ellis? Or did they go somewhere else?

    1. Eric, my mother attended Ellis in the 1930s and 1940s. Hope you find your family member. Sorry I can’t help you out.

  6. Cheryl, do you remember if any Ellis girls in 1967-68 were pregnant? I’m looking for a family member, Marsha Getchell- she didn’t have a mother or father and graduated in 1969.

  7. My Grandmother (Ethel Hines) work in the kitchen and my Grandfather (James Hines) worked as a maintenance man.
    I’m not sure of the exact dates,but in the 1960-70. They lived on the property, on the South East corner of RT 262 & Goshon Rd.. If anyone remembers them I would like to hear from you.

Comments Are Always Appreciated!