In our Junior year at Mother of Mercy High School, in Cincinnati, Ohio, (1957) the Juniors put together skits to present to the Senior class of ’57. My group, from North College Hill, created skirts and blouses in dark blue to represent “sailor girls” which almost didn’t get passed the censors. (Imagine what the nuns would have thought about what the girls are wearing for sports activities NOW!) The concept of the skits was to present to the seniors the many different choices we might make in our career choices after high school.

Well, we made our outfits by ourselves (unless some of the other mothers helped—if so I didn’t know anything about it). Sewing was never my forte. Our theme song for 1957 was “Beyond the Blue Horizon” which I can still sing, all these years later.

Backing up, I enrolled in 1954, along with perhaps a dozen other girls from St. Leo’s Parish in North Fairmount, at Mother of Mercy High School on Werk Road. The first couple weeks of school were mostly frightening—a far cry coming from a parish school where one teacher taught an entire class and all subjects every day, and you never changed classes. Sister Charlene was our 8th grade teacher as well as the principal at St Leo’s. All the girls adored her and we would follow her around any chance we got.

I got lost quite a bit the first couple weeks at Mercy. Freshmen were on the third floor of the school—the second floor was the Principal’s office and the school library. No classes were held on the second floor. This meant Freshmen had to dash down a flight of stairs, across an accessible hallway to get to the other wing of the school, and back up a flight to our Science, Biology – and if I remember correctly, typing classes as well, taught by Mrs. Gusweiler.

Most memorable memory—probably the second day of school (the first day was a half-day and probably we were kept busy registering for classes and getting our books and lockers—I needed to get to the Science class on the other wing of the school. I noticed a sign reading “Cloisters” but had no idea what it meant. I blithely went through the double-doors and was suddenly grabbed by the collar, by a nun. “Where do you think you are going?” she demanded, angrily.

“To Science class,” I replied, baffled.

“Not THAT way you don’t” – said Sister Seraphia, who glared at me whenever we passed one another in a hallway for the next four years. I knew she didn’t believe my excuse that I was a dumb kid from St. Leo’s who had no idea what a “cloister” was.

(As a child growing up I often took wagonloads of home-grown apples from my grandmother to the nuns, housed in a building behind St. Leo’s School—I would deliver them to the kitchen and rewarded with a piece of hard candy—I think my piano lessons were sometimes held in the Sister’s living room). A Cloister was not a part of my vocabulary in 1954. What was even more difficult was having Sister Seraphia for my Religion Class that year. (sigh)

(*Oddly enough, at our 50th class reunion, some of us were standing in the parking lot talking—amongst this small group was Sister Seraphia! (no longer in nun attire, now dressed like everyone else) I told them – and Sister Seraphia–my cloister story. Sister Seraphia remarked “Oh, you probably just didn’t know any better!” (Really sister Seraphia, after I carried this guilt around for 54 years????)) OK, it was a good ending to my Cloister story.

I really wasn’t like most of the girls at Mercy in 1954—for one thing, I went to the school cafeteria every day using my study hour, to collect dirty dishes and run them through the big industrial dishwasher. (I got a free lunch every day, which was incentive in itself.) I worked in the cafeteria for the first two years of high school.

I also worked in the school library, maybe some of the most joyful of my time spent at Mercy. I read many of the books I dusted, and learned, from Sister Mary Adele, the librarian, how to mend books, a lesson that stood me in good stead over the years as I collected books (mostly cookbooks) and often needed to do some mending on the spines–White House related memoirs, often written by former White House employees, books about our First Ladies and our American Presidents—many of the oldest books do require some mending.

The teacher who would probably have been the most surprised by my collection of American history was our American History teacher in 11th grade, Miss Schwach. Years later, I became interested in American pioneer history and began collecting memoirs written by pioneers who made the difficult trek across country in covered wagons.

I was failing American History at the end of the first semester of my Junior year. (There was no excuse for it). Miss Schwach took me aside and offered to let me “make up” any more tests that I failed. I was so mortified—I knew that the only reason I was failing American History was because I neglected to study any of it. My grades were very good the throughout second semester—I didn’t have to make up any of the weekly tests we took.

I think it was probably ten years later that I began collecting American pioneer History and memoirs (when my husband and I made our first car trip across country in 1961, from Ohio to California with a one-year-old baby boy—then you start to get an inkling how far it is, even in a car!)

I also cleaned classrooms after school. For these duties, we (other girls, like me, cleaning classrooms) were paid 50 cents an hour, which was applied to our individual tuition.

Part of our annual tuition was paid by our parish. In return, we had to go to our parish priest to obtain our report cards every time a new report was issued. If you could get passed your Parish Priest, your parents were a breeze in comparison.

(What I find puzzling, today, is that my report cards were never that bad—I excelled in Mrs. Cunningham’s cooking class—she never knew how much she influenced me– and the other classes, such as sewing and homemaking, combined to make a major. I LOVED business classes and typing class. A couple of girls like myself were already skilled at typing and the teacher, Mrs. Gusweiler, who was also an attorney, let us do whatever we wanted four out of five days (I was writing stories by this time) —on the fifth day we would turn in all the exercises for the week. I was writing a “novel” at the time, which included a court room chapter. Mrs. Gusweiler gave me some great suggestions for my court room chapter.

Sister Joseph (delightfully quirky) taught the business class and we spent hours learning how to write checks. 😊 THAT has stayed with me all these years too.

I was a total dork in sewing class (bearing in mind that “dork” was not in our vocabulary at the time). The first week we made aprons. The teacher asked me, “do you know how to gather?” “sure,” I said and began to pleat and sew together the fabric.

“THAT is not how you gather,” the teacher told me, with instructions to remove all my stitches so I could start over.

When all the other girls began making straight wool skirts (3 pieces of fabric—a front, back and waist band) I decided to make a dress – then a pair of pajamas with French seams. Was I crazy? It took me the entire year to make that dress and those pajamas—which were so well made they never fell apart. The REASON they never fell apart was because I would wad up my pajamas or the dress into my sewing box and take them home to my mother, who would remove my crooked seams and redo them. And the dress? It was an adorable spring dress made of dotted swiss—by the time it was finished, it didn’t fit.

(Fortunately, a grade in sewing class was based on a lot of other things besides actually creating a garment- grades included knowing various types of fabrics, different kinds of stitches—a dozen other things. I remember making a large poster about sewing.

And memorizing was something I did very well. (I was in my element in English classes, when a percentage of your final grades depended on being able to write, from memory, many different poems, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and “Anabel Lee”) I began memorizing all of those poems (riding back and forth to and from school, on buses, until I was letter perfect and knew them all from memory.

I had a sudden dose of reality writing the above paragraph, after all these years. I know now why I didn’t make the same garments other girls made. It was simply this: I didn’t have any money for fabric. My mother gave me whatever she had on hand—and my mother, like my two sisters, did a lot of sewing. THAT was why I made that dotted swiss dress and the cotton pajamas with French seams (I remembered French seams for decades later). Thinking back on all of this right now, I wanted to cry. Why didn’t I ask my grandmother for some money to pay for fabric? Why didn’t I ever ask my FATHER for the money to buy one of our yearbooks? I was afraid to ever ask my mother for any money. I guess I was afraid to ask ANYONE for money. I was well aware that the tuition at Mercy was high—my 50 cents an hour volunteer work in the kitchen and classrooms didn’t begin to cover it. Consequently – I just didn’t ask for any money from either of my parents or anyone else.

One year when my brother Jim was in the Air force, I told him about my wanting a suede jacket (which all the girls were wearing—even if you needed two sweaters underneath to keep warm) – Jim sent the money to my mother to give to me. I didn’t learn unless much later that my mother only gave me half of the money that my brother sent. My mother figured I could get a jacket for half as much – and I DID—but why didn’t I ask my brother to help me out with school expenses? I have no explanation for this.

I can only tell you that after Graduation, when I was finally hired by Western Southern Insurance, my mother’s response was “Good. Now you can pay room and board” I was frantic – I wasn’t making much money – bus fare took up a part of my paycheck—paying my mother would leave me broke. So, I complained to Jim Smith, who I had been dating all year – and he said “well, we could get married”.

So, we did. The poorest excuse for marriage – getting away from home. After all the years of my taking care of my younger brothers— I even took my two younger brothers with me on dates when we were going to a drive-in, (which we still laugh about)—to the extent that neighbors thought my brother Scott, born in 1957, was my baby—they also thought my brother Jim was my husband! (Whenever my brother Jim came home on leave, I would break dates so that he and I could go visit friends –we had many of the same friends, being only 3 years apart, and before he joined the Air Force, we often went on double dates.)

(We didn’t learn what the neighbors thought until my sister, Susanne, born in 1961, was old enough to have playmates her age on Mulberry Street and their mothers questioned Susie about me and my brothers. “Oh, they are all my siblings” she told them.)

Thinking back about the years after we moved to North College Hill – whenever my other girlfriends were going somewhere, like ice skating on the pond, or to the movies. I was usually doing the family ironing—everything except my father’s bowling shirts. I rarely went anywhere with the other girls I went to high school with.

I really don’t know how I ever made ends meet. I never asked my parents for money. Occasionally I would ask my grandmother for bus fare. I always spent Tuesday nights at her house, throughout grade school and then high school. I babysat for my sister Becky and a neighbor named Mrs. Schwartz who had three adorable little girls. Babysitting money had to cover any and all other expenses I might have.

Consequently, I was almost always out of the lined school paper needed to write anything in classes. (for some odd reason, I keep a stack of lined school paper in a desk drawer to this day. I always had a lot on hand whenever my granddaughter needed school paper when she was doing homework at my house. Old habits die hard).

Going into my Senior year at Mercy, I –quaking in my shoes—told my mother I didn’t want to work at school in my senior year. We had a lot of special activities going on – and I wanted to be a part of them.

I don’t know how I managed it—but my mother never said another word about it to me and by our senior year, I didn’t have to ride city buses anymore, either. I had a BF picking me up after school along with–my two girlfriends, Mary and Nancy. Nancy’s BF, Tom, drove the three of us TO school—and Jim Smith picked us up afterwards.

Going into my senior year, I was short some credits; a counselor suggested I go back to Basic Math (which I had loathed most of my life) – she said “Well, you are older now; I think this is a good class for you to take” I took her advice and yes, I did very well – and wouldn’t you know it? Every job I had involved math—most importantly, spending 27 years at the SAG Pension & Health Plan and retiring with a pension.

I wish I could remember more of the events of our Senior year—the Winter Prom and our senior prom that I still have photographs from, our graduation day in front of the school—which my parents attended…but the day to day events are mostly lost to me now. We were all so bright and young and promising—thinking now we were truly grown-up and could make many of our dreams come true. I spent the summer of 1958 taking care of my baby brother, Scott, pushing a stroller around to visit girlfriends (no wonder the neighbors thought he was my child!) – until I received a phone call in September from Western Southern Insurance, in downtown Cincinnati, that I was being hired to work there.

I knew throughout high school that I wanted to write but didn’t know anything about getting published—that took time to learn. My first published poems in 1961-62 (now living in Southern California—and subscribing to the Writer magazine– were for a magazine called “Home Life” (one titled “A Boy” and the other “Oh Dreary Day !” and those first two checks were my inspiration to try harder, write more often – it took some time before I really understood the dictum of many published authors – to write about what you know about. Consequently, much of my writing over the years has often been focused on family and friends. I have had a blog since 2009.

Mother of Mercy high school is closing its doors permanently this spring–Mercy is merging with McCauley high school. . There won’t be, I suppose, another class reunion after our Sixtieth in April, 2018. I am grateful for the opportunity to see the school, one more time, and take pictures for my 2018 photo album.

Post Script:

On April 12, 2018, I flew to Ohio in order to attend my 60th class reunion in Cincinnati. It was fantastic—first a group photo was taken in front of Mercy, by a professional photographer. We all received a nicely mounted 5×7 photograph later.

We had a fine dinner with a beautiful blue & white cake for dessert. The lights had been left on throughout the school and anyone who chose to was able to walk through the school, bringing back so many memories.

Best of all (for me!) I was able to reserve all four of our Mercy yearbooks, which Lisa Mahon Fluegeman, a former student (now employed by Mercy to handle various events) had set aside for me to buy. The yearbooks I was unable to buy back in the 1950s came with me to California on my return flight (also providing the various names of teachers and events that sixty years later, I couldn’t recall) I have enjoyed all of the trips I have made to Cincinnati, over the years, in order to attend a Mercy class reunion, starting with our 25th reunion (I was unable to attend any of the first four class reunions).

So in closing I just want to add for Mrs. Cunningham, my cooking teacher, Sister Joseph ( Biology & Office Practice), Miss Schwach (American History), Mrs. Gusweiler (typing), (yes, and even Sister Seraphia) (Religion), Father Lizza (also a religion teacher for Juniors & Seniors), Our librarian, Sister Mary Adele, and all of the other teachers who turned us from high spirited teenagers into respectable young women—much of what I have managed to accomplish as an adult can be traced back to the four years I spent at Mother of Mercy High School—where ever all of you may be on earth or in the cosmos….I am in your debt and so proud to have known all of you.  

–Sandra Lee Schmidt Smith, Class of 1958








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