Growing Up in Winnetka

Gazette Article by: Katrina Wolcott Kelley
Appeared in the Gazette: Autumn/Winter 2001

Winnetka Way articles are written by guest columnists who have been asked to share their memories of an aspect of Winnetka that they remember fondly. Winnetka Way articles debuted in 1994 and continue to the present.

There was a story told at dinner parties in Winnetka about a little boy who was asked by his teacher to write about the Great Depression. So he wrote, “Once upon a time there was a Great Depression. Everybody was poor. The father was poor. The mother was poor. The children were poor. The cook was poor. The maid, chauffeur, gardener and nurse were all poor. It was very sad. It was sad but the servants stayed because unemployment was so high there were no other opportunities available.”

Margaret Macleish Bruce, our Scottish housekeeper, came to us before I was born and stayed until I was nearly through high school. Although Mother and Daddy always called her Mrs. Bruce, we called her “Brucie.”

Brucie came to live with us about 1922. She was very strict with us and with the second maids who came and went. She was even strict with Mother and Daddy, which didn’t sit too well. Because even though all their friends, who received Brucie’s shortbread for Christmas, thought of her as a treasure, she was too bossy and crabby for Mother who would say to Daddy, “Ryland, you go talk to her.”

Brucie was a woman with power although she stood less than five feet. Raymond, who came once a week to put up screens or wash cars, made a little platform for her to stand on and reach the kitchen sink. Her figure resembled a baked potato and a coil of hair sat on top of her head. She told us proudly that her hair had once been red. This figures. She had a red head’s proverbial temperament.

The second maids who joined Brucie in our household were colorful. Most of them were Bohemian and at least three of them were named Ruth. There was Wastebasket Ruth, Missionary Ruth and Pregnant Ruth. None of the Ruths stayed very long.

Wastebasket Ruth must have been related to the Collier Brothers because she was a saver. We eventually discovered that she emptied all the wastebaskets into her bedroom which she kept locked. After some months, Brucies’ curiosity and an extra key helped Mother send Wastebasket Ruth on her way.

Missionary Ruth told us she had been a missionary in Africa. She turned out to be a religious fanatic, and during her brief stay, there was a lot of hollering, punctuated by frequent shouts of “Hallelujah,” in the middle of the night. It drove Brucie crazy.

Pregnant Ruth came to us from a family up the street with an excellent reference. But Mother, although she didn’t tell her, became rather cross with that neighbor, even though her daughter Edna was my best friend in the neighborhood. Edna’s mother had neglected to mention that Ruth was pregnant by their chauffeur and that’s why they had let her go. Mother eventually had to take Ruth to the Salvation Army home for unwed mothers. This was a traumatic experience for Mother. She had carried Ruth’s suitcase in and reported to Daddy that evening that everyone in the Home had looked at her thinking SHE was the fallen woman.

Mother’s little world came to an abrupt end one day in 1942 or 1943 during the war. It must have been summertime. Nancy and I weren’t there — only Mother and Jean. Daddy had been dead for five years. A bombshell! Brucie retired. There was no other help living in at the time so Mother and Jean were all alone. Jean told me that they were like kids let out of school. The first morning they didn’t even get dressed—they just sat around and played gin rummy until lunchtime. Then they walked over to Dini’s Delicatessen in Hubbard Woods for lunch. There must have been more gin rummy in the afternoon, because they went back to Dini’s for dinner.

I’m not sure when reality set in and they had to get organized, but I do know they discovered the joys—the privacy and freedom—of a servantless house.

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