A History of the Burns Family
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PART EIGHT: The Burns Disapora  

Chapter One: Rugs to Riches

Somewhere in Michigan
March 19, 1941

1 - Rugs to RIches
2 - Ebba Ties Knot
3 - Love and War
4 - The Prodigals
5 - Trick or Treat
6 - Star-Crossed

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Description: 1941 HudsonAda’s been riding in the 1941 Hudson sedan for five long days and they are finally nearing the end of the line.[1] The car is sleek and fast, and Russ, her travel companion, drives well, if too fast for comfort at times. When the speedometer hits 85, she stiffens, but does not complain or gasp aloud, as she would if Guy were driving. She feels very lucky to be the rear-seat passenger catching a ride at little expense – it’s the very best 57th birthday gift she can imagine.[2] To calm her nerves as the telephone poles fly by at a terrifying clip, she simply shuts her eyes and thinks her thoughts, undisturbed by the steady flow of front-seat conversation.

Guy always vowed they wouldn’t return to Ohio until they “had the look of prosperity,” and they’re still quite poor. But her promise to come out and help with Ebba’s matrimonial preparations could not in conscience be postponed any longer. And anyhow, she figures that the events of the last few months might have bumped them up a few rungs on the economic ladder.

Because D.A. Burns is on the move! Ever since last month’s windfall, they’d been looking for a roomier facility. She still vividly remembers the encounter that started the ball rolling, and is already mentally sketching a letter to Binks about it, particularly since it was his advice to contact local dry cleaning establishments in the first place.

The New Shop at 1008 Yale Avenue North

At the close of a hectic day a Packard deposited a gentleman at our door who asked to see the boss. Of course, I was slinging hash at the kitchen sink, so Dad was the next in line. Thinking he was Mr. Hobnob, looking for a used rug for Johnnie’s canoe house, his royal welcome was delayed until he said, “Mr. Burns, I have been informed that you people are the best rug cleaners in town and I have a problem that I would like to discuss with you. My name is Thorpe and I am superintendent at Pantorium [a well-regarded dry-cleaners on nearby Denny Avenue].” Of course it was like a blow between the eyes, Dad standing alone surrounded by his meager equipment, and one keyhole pressed by two critical ears (me and Helen) hoping and praying that Dave and Don would soon appear to add support and prestige to their stammering father. They came, and made an appointment with Mr. Anderson, who is the president and owner....and I am glad to be able to tell you that things seemed to actually drop into our lap. Dad met Mr. Anderson at the appointed time, and our poor family is working like mad to get ready for the initial trial, which will take place the first of April.

-- Letter from Ada to Ebba, March 4, 1941

Ebba had counseled caution, chiming in with a parable about a man who, given the chance to own all the land he could walk around in a day, had tried for too great a piece and lost all. But the Seattle group was in a decisive mood, and the prospect of an extra $6000 per year was simply too tempting to pass up.[3] Over the objections of their conservative “silent partner” in Cleveland, Guy located a larger site just ten blocks away, and rented it. They aim to prove to Pantorium  that their reputation is well-deserved!

The new truck (click to enlarge)

Boasting twice as much room with a cement floor, an upstairs office area, an elevator, and space to drive the truck inside, 1008 Yale Avenue will allow them to take on much more business. Even without the Pantorium contract, they’d been cramped and cranky over the tile shop. Back in January – with the new orders from Frederick & Nelson and Woodcraft – they’d had so many cleaning jobs they’d stacked furniture in the bathtub! As Ada thinks back on it now with a wry grin, all that cussing probably accounted for Patty’s outbreak of profanity this winter. 

Bumpity-bump, and the Hudson lurches right, causing Ada’s eyes to snap open in panic. But it’s all right, just a rough patch in the road. Nothing to worry about, Russ assures her. She gazes into the bleakness of March in Michigan. For they have turned north from Ohio and are heading to Detroit to drop off one of the passengers, then cutting down to Cleveland. It’s not as direct a route as the train, but beggars can’t be choosers. And this brand-new car is a whole lot more comfortable than any train.

Ada hopes with all her heart that there are no big bumps back home as Guy and the boys outfit the new shop and start doing business there. Updated equipment has been purchased – a Mirza cleaner, a large wet-dry vacuum, a gas heating unit for rug-drying, and a 3-horsepower boiler for steam-cleaning furniture and carpets – all of which should make things easier and faster than ever. But Ada shudders to think about the primitive living conditions awaiting her on the second floor. Right now it’s one step up from camping, and so perhaps it’s just as well she is away from home now. 

She reflects on all these changes with her usual mixture of excitement and fear.  But she's fortified by the way her children have joined in the cause. Without their loyalty and talent, D.A. Burns would fold in a week.

Since their decision to move to Seattle last summer, Don and Helen have been vital to the company’s growth, taking on the bookends of solicitations and deliveries. Interested and content, Don has injected new energy and ideas into a business that had been struggling for direction. Ada sees “his patient and unhurried attitude [as] a steadying factor to an electrified atmosphere.” She still remembers the thrilling results from November, when they made more money on one month -- $600 – than ever before. And if Guy was worried about Don’s comrades, the “mad Russians,” showing up, he need not have been. Don is much too busy for political shenanigans just now.

Helen is a natural saleswoman – so much better than Ada herself would be. Guy chalks it up to that old-fashioned Southern charm and the gift of gab, but Ada knows it’s more than that. Helen really likes meeting people. And feels free to express her affections – like the time last fall when she’d kissed Ada and given such sincere thanks for all their help. People surely do know when you like them! In Ada’s mind, there’s little doubt it was Helen’s social graces that had made their advertising blitz so successful last fall. She and Don had distributed 150 fliers and canvassed 200 homes in just a few days, with only one turn-down. Though there had been the occasional misstep – like the time she introduced herself as a representative of D.A. Burns Fug and Rurniture Company – Helen’s sales ability is remarkable to Ada, who is the first to admit she “really doesn’t like people very much.” Except for her family members, of course – that unshakable core. Now augmented by two daughters-in-law and one beautiful two-year-old girl, little Suga.


A bolt of recollected fear jolts Ada. Even now, the memory of that terrible day and what might have been has the power to sink her. Patty Lou’s arm took so long to heal, and although the bandage came off at last, it revealed a disfiguring scar. The doctor says they can try another graft when Patty’s eight or nine, but for now the scar stands as a visible reproach to Ada’s carelessness, for which she can never forgive herself. In her lap, the thumbs begin their familiar twiddling, calming the anxious feelings inside. She wills herself to think happier thoughts, to keep that upper lip stiff with courage. Isn’t that what she’s always telling Ebba and Binks to do when she’s too far away to help them herself?

The Hudson slows and Russ steers it into a gas station. He and Mr. Detroit get out to clean the windows, and Ada savors the quiet isolation of the car. She pictures darling Patty Lou in her Scotch plaid dress, the one that she and Helen made for Christmas. It’s probably too warm in Seattle – where “flowers are already ablaze in early spring glory and the birds are bursting their throats to welcome each sunny day” – for the matching bolero and hat, or the little puff Ada made out of the lambswool they’d brought west from Apple Creek. Is she riding the little hobby horse with the blue yarn mane? Or playing in the sandbox with her pail and shovel, wearing her little poke bonnet and looking for all the world like Mary Quite Contrary? Is she playing house with Malinda and the matching Dorinda doll Ada sewed in two straight days and put under the “Kiffin tree” as a gift from “Tanta Cause” last Christmas? Or sitting with Wilma looking at her First Picture Book or the Mother Goose that Ebba says reminds her of the old tattered one from Newberry Street days? [4]   

Little Patty Lou is growing up so fast now, like a “bad weed” Guy alway says. She wants to do everything for herself, learns quickly, and remembers everything. For months after Ebba left last summer, she’d said “Ebba, train come” every time she heard the whistle blow. More than anything she loves to help – with the stirring, and the sweeping, the vacuuming and dusting, even the lawn mowing. Mary Rebecca has nothing on this little ball of energy! 

The Hudson hums along into the afternoon. A light snow is starting to fall, but they’ll be in Detroit soon, and in Cleveland by tonight. At a crossroads, they stop to wait their turn, and Ada catches sight of a tall young man with dark curly hair trudging along the road ahead, collar turned up against the cold. From behind, he looks for all the world like her youngest son. 

Dear Binks, what would he be doing just now? Still studying “like hell,” she hopes, echoing Guy’s advice to his youngest son. For their Wee has done the family proud at Whitman this year, there’s no doubt about it. 
He had left on August 27th, his paltry possessions packed in Don’s old trunk. They’d fixed him up as best they could, and he looked fine in his new glasses, and the green sweater and grey pants. Ada had talked him into taking a berth on the train rather than hitchhiking, and off he’d gone, the last little fledgling to depart the nest, like little Hughie of the old Irish song.

He's gone to school, wee Hughie,
An' him not four,
Sure I saw the fright was in him
When he left the door.
I watched him to the corner
o' the big turf stack,
An' the more his feet went forrit,
Still his head turned back.
I followed to the turnin’
When they passed it by,
God help him he was cryin',
An' maybe so was I. [5]

They all miss him terribly – from “his ‘Blitzkrieg’ on the family meals” to his willingness to bear the brunt of his older brothers’ teasing. But he’s worked hard to get where he is – not only the scholarship, but the $300 he earned driving Amos Haas’s delivery truck last summer. There was the minor incident of getting stuck under the overpass, of course, but Bobby had figured out a way to back the truck out without too much damage [6]
Description: lyman house
Lyman House

His initial report from college was reassuring. In it he described the favorable gender ratio – “120 dizzy dames and cute little cookies” to 80 boys – on the positive side of the ledger, to which Guy conveyed Dave’s retort: If there were 120 girls and Bob was the only male it would make no difference because he lacked his brother’s sex appeal. On the negative side of the ledger were the too-small meals at Lyman House, where he rooms with Don Broadhead in Room A22. Ebba’s recent shipment of two weeks’ worth of cookies was consumed in two days (Ebba wryly called it “a well-ingrained domestic pattern”), so there’s some evidence he is still able to mount a Blitzkrieg when needed!

He writes rarely, but does report sporadically on his successes, like being elected secretary of the freshman class, or being invited by Ms. Reynolds to work in the library. Or having the highest GPA of all the boys at mid-semester, and scoring third highest in the class on the English placement test and second highest on the vocabulary test. 

How these accomplishments will help him avoid the inevitable reach of the Conscription Act is another question entirely. Still, even with “three sons apt to be involved in this thing,” she gets by with “a measure of serenity and peace” by refusing to “cross that bridge until she reaches the stream.” This despite the alarming snippets she receives from time to time from Ebba, who is very worried about Binks and reads the Cleveland paper religiously, passing the news on in her letters. Some of it makes no sense to Ada. What does it matter that one-seventh of the U. S. Navy is parked in Hawaii apparently guarding the estates of the banking Biddles and other wealthy families, as Ebba noted sarcastically last month? Isn’t this the way the world works?Description: Marian Anderson Playbill

Outside the car window, dusk is gathering, and the snow is falling more heavily. All at once there’s a sudden slip of the tires, and Ada jerks to attention, eyes open wide. But it’s nothing. The Hudson’s back on track and purring along just fine. Russ turns on the radio as an aria commences, reminding Ada of the Marian Anderson concert she and Guy had seen just before she left. What a heavenly release from their everyday cares! What balm to a pair of weary souls! 

And in just a matter of hours, another sort of balm will commence – the long-awaited reunion with Ebba. In what condition will she find her daughter? Last fall, Ebba had endured a siege of physical ailments, including sinusitis, neck and shoulder pain, ringworm on both feet, and a chin boil. Had she followed her mother’s advice and taken better care of herself? Or is she wearing herself out studying for May’s comprehensive exams? As Ebba herself said, thank God she has only one life to give for her masters!

Ada has not seen Gerald Burke since 1934, despite Ebba’s annual threats to bring him to Seattle for a vacation. What a confusing picture he presents! Courageously climbing 10-story smokestacks and fighting his way through a long-delayed college education, but undone by a mere cow patty or lowly inchworm! Still, Evelyn is as committed to him as ever, and seemingly very happy with the man she has chosen. Is Evelyn still “shrewishly” tutoring him after last term’s disappointing grades, Ada wonders? Will they be married this summer, as Ebba hopes, and live “scrappily” ever after? Will Gerry be called to service?

So many unknowns! 

Although there is one compass point she’ll always be able to steer by. Her own dear Guy. Since Indiana, she’s been mulling over some fragments of verse. A poem is forming. It’s too dark to write now, and even if it weren’t, she’s hasn’t any pencil or paper at hand. So she just twiddles her thumbs, and stares out at the harvest of snow growing in the fields.

If I knew the heart of you.
And you the soul of me.
We’d laugh and cry together, always,
Friendly as could be.
You’d know the very minute
I said a hasty word,
And think, “The dear, she’s overtired”
And pretend you had not heard.

And if by chance you hurt me – well,
I never would complain,
For I would know you did not mean
To cause me hurt or pain.
And never would we lose our faith,
Though near or far apart,
If only I knew the soul of you
And you could read my heart. [8]

-- A. M. B.

Author’s Note

Snow in Detroit delayed Ada’s arrival in Cleveland until the wee hours of the morning. 

Scene at dormitory at 3:30 a.m.

Me:  Good-by, Russ, and thanks for a grand time.

Me (approaching rear entrance to Harney House): What! Door locked. I’ll try front. Tramp, tramp, tramp to Euclid entrance. ‘Nother locked door. Well, there must be a way. I try another door. Locked too. Ah, here’s a bell. This should do something to the sleepy house. And it did. I poured out my woe to a little old friendly man who gave me instructions about what to do. So picking up my baggage (am I glad I just had a toothbrush and a pair of hose) I went back to Euclid entrance and rang the bell I had overlooked on my first visit there. Soon a kindly face with a big brass badge on his bosom cautiously opened the door a wee crack.

Me:  Indeed, this is an unearthly hour to be calling, but there is nothing else I can do about it. I am compelled by circumstances to disturb this sleepy house. I’m wanting to contact Miss Burns.

He: It is indeed quite the unusual thing, and against all rules of the house to admit under any circumstances callers at this hour. His attitude:  I cannot disobey orders but neither can I be discourteous to such a friendly person. Again he attempts conversation. After struggling for words to justify his actions, says he: Who are you? A nurse?

Me: No, I’m Miss Burns’s mother.

That was the magic word. Had I known it sooner, they might have carried me on a magic carpet.

-- From a letter from Ada to home

She and Ebba finally found each other, Ada was put to bed, and they both slept until late the next morning. This was followed by a lengthy “gabfest,” interrupted at intervals by multiple fits of hysterical laughter requiring trips to the bathroom.

Ada stayed for more than a month and had a glorious time (including an unusual – and detested – glass of wine at a restaurant with Evelyn and her girlfriends). Among other things, she patched, cleaned, and darned all of Ebba’s clothes, attended to her daughter’s calloused and aching feet, dined out often, and attended the Metropolitan Opera. She could not bring herself to go to Cuyahoga Falls, which offended her in-laws no end.  On April 27th she left for Seattle by bus, a ghastly experience she vowed never to repeat.   

On May 10th, Gerry received his induction notice. On May 17th, Evelyn, now calling herself “Lyn,” took her masters exam and passed with flying colors.


[1] All details taken from contemporaneous letters, later letters, and Bob's recollections.

[2] This paid passenger kind of arrangement was not uncommon in those days.

[3] Ada describes the family as “emotionally upset for two days, weeping and laughing in turns.”  The Pantorium deal was huge for them.

[4] The First Picture Book Patty received was written by Mary Steichen, wife of Edward Steichen, the famous photographer. A first edition of this book goes for around $300 today. These were the first of hundreds of books Ebba gave her nieces and nephew over the years.

[5] Ada wrote the long version of this poem to Bob at college on September 20, 1940.

[6] Amos Haas never paid Bob the money, but eventually paid it in trade with D.A. Burns. The overpass was located in the industrial district. Bob was trying to evade police detection of the truck’s lapsed registration by taking a less-traveled route.

[7] The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was passed by the Congress of the United States on September 14, 1940, becoming the first peacetime conscription in U.S. history when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law two days later. It required men between 21 and 35 to register with local draft boards. Later, when the U.S. entered World War II, all men aged 18 to 45 were made liable for military service, and all men aged 18 to 65 were required to register.

[8] Written by Ada for Guy, March 31, 1941.