‘I guess I was a Little Devil’
Editor’s note: This is Chapter One of the book “My Dear Jen,” written by Rosamond Gillespie Burns and George H. Burns III. This is another of a continuing series, which takes readers back to the struggles of World War I.
This story begins on a cold December day in 1891 when my mother, Jennie Louise was born, the third of nine children, to John Henry Schumacher and Annie Bogart Schumacher. They lived at 88th St. & Ave. K in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, New York. The family home was situated on a flat grassy salt plain located on the southern shore of Jamaica and Sheepshead Bay.
Millicent, Meta, Jennie, Henrietta, Eugene, Victor, John, Edward and George Harold completed the family, the latest branch of the Schumacher genealogy tracing back to 1829 in Oldenburg, Germany. Heinrich Schumacher immigrated to the United States with his wife, settled in Brooklyn, New York, and built the homestead in the late 1800’s where John and his brother were born. Jen always used to boast proudly that their ancestors came from Kings and Earls. Jen’s mother, Annie Bogart Schumacher’s heritage dated as far back as 1615 in the Baltics of Northern Europe, to Johannes Richaud.
To support his growing family of nine, their father, who they called “Pop,” was a fisherman, and like his father before him, fished, dug for clams, mussels and oysters in Jamaica Bay. These were then sold to the New York City markets. As an extra source of income, Pop and his eldest son Eugene harvested sea moss from the bay, which they dried and sold to florists.
Pop was a religious man who raised his children with a firm, yet loving hand. They attended the Dutch Reform Church every Sunday, sometimes without Pop, as he would preach in his own ministry to the downtrodden at the Bowery on weekends. His six-foot-four inch stature, his booming speaking and singing voice, and his unique ability to reach out to the homeless created many requests for him to preach at various churches. He was known to literally give the “shirt off his back.”
Mom was gentle and soft-spoken, short in stature, but never on patience and care. Jen had remarked over the years, “I have never seen such a loving couple. They never quarreled. Pop was always hugging and teasing mom. She would smile, act embarrassed and gently nudge him away.” Annie cooked their food on a black cast iron wood stove. Favorites were pork roasts and bacon from the pigs they raised, which were salted and hung in the attic.
Jen boasted; “All we had to do was to go up and slice off what Mom needed for the meal. It must have been much colder then. We enjoyed homemade bread, rolls, baked beans, potato salad, cake, cookies and pies.
See ‘JEN,’ on Page D3
There were many vegetables in our garden. There were chickens and fresh eggs. We never went hungry.”
The children attended public school at P.S.114 at 92nd Street & Avenue N. in Canarsie. Education was considered more important for boys who would become the breadwinners. Girls usually went only as far as the 6-8th grade as they were destined to be wives and mothers and were taught the skills they needed at their mother’s side. Jen attended school through the 8th grade. The four Schumacher girls were ready-made babysitters for their five brothers that followed.
Jen had more spunk than her more reserved sisters. The following story gives a sample of how she made things happen. It was Jen who would test her fathers resolve when she became a teenager.
“I guess I was a little devil and was often in trouble at school. You wouldn’t know it by looking at my innocent face. Many times the teacher sat me in the corner with the dunce cap on. Sometimes I was sent to the principal who was soft hearted and usually gave me bread and jelly. One day I made a face at the teacher behind her back and got the rest of the class giggling and laughing so loud that old Lady Callahan came storming down the isle toward me. She was so angry that she bit the pencil which was clenched between her teeth in two. I knew I had to get out of there! I hopped out of my seat, ran to the open window, jumped out, and ran home. When the incident reached my parents, I was given a mini sermon on respect for elders! After that boys never teased me again, either! I had gained a new status in their eyes and they knew I’d punch them in the jaw!”
Jen loved the winter. She walked to the nearby pond with her friends and made bonfires on the ice. She loved to skate and was very good even with the crude iron skates that had to be strapped to the soles of her shoes that cut into her skin. She would skate very fast and then take a flying leap over the fire, spin around quickly and skate backwards.
“Sonya Heine had nothing on me”, Jen boasted!
Jennie often took the ferry over to Bergen Beach. She was friends with the children of the McAvoy brothers who ran the boat back and forth. Although most of the trip was very pleasant, there was one point where you could see and smell Barren Island where they loaded dead horses into a glue factory. Later Jamaica Bay would become polluted with dead horses and waste from glue and fertilizer factories. This would close all shell fishing and therefore force the Schumacher’s to move to eastern Long Island to continue their livelihood.
Jen’s spunk and love of life would be a guiding force in the years to come to deal with the many problems she would face, however she was not fearless. One day when a summer storm blew up she was in the large family room with windows open at each end. A bolt of lightning hit the flat plain nearby, skipped horizontally over the ground, through the front window and out the back! Although nothing was damaged and no one was hurt, Jennie would forever cower when thunder and lightning flashed.