One woman's days, strung like pearls

Portrait: Waitress Treva Walkling honored her daily life by keeping close track of it -- such close track that it is now the subject of an exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society.

March 03, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

If you ever glimpsed Treva Walkling striding down a Baltimore street in her sensible white shoes after the Purity Creamery lunch shift, you would never imagine that her life might one day rate an exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society.

Nor would she.

Yet, a serendipitous chain of events has contributed to that very thing. This Thursday, "An Extraordinary, Ordinary Life: The Life and Times of Miss Treva K. Walkling" opens at the Historical Society and continues through June 16. A series of programs will complement the show, presented in celebration of Women's History Month.

In the "great man" school of history, Miss Treva would not get a footnote. But those with a more holistic approach would view Walkling, who worked as a waitress in Baltimore for 44 years, as a shining star.

When she died at age 88 in 1997, Walkling left an astonishingly thorough record of her life. In her aunt's home in Northwest Baltimore, Eve Carr found treasure. From the humble work shoes polished nightly to every license and tag from every dog she owned to 36 years' worth of daily journals, Walkling's stewardship of her own history was made poignantly clear.

Hers were pedestrian possessions, to be sure. But because the collection was so complete, and because Treva was a spirited, loving person who had made the most of her working-class destiny, Carr, executor of the estate, knew it could be a valuable resource beyond a circle of friends and family. Walkling's effects reflected not only her life but also those of most working women in 20th-century Maryland.

"When I saw the waitress stuff and I saw how she had saved the old shoes and aprons, my old work at the National Archives kicked in," says Carr, a free-lance writer from Fredericksburg, Va. "These are really historical things."

Walkling would have chuckled at the fuss, and wondered "why everyone is making such a big deal over what was just common sense to her," says Carr, who summarizes her aunt's philosophy: "You do the best you can, regardless of the job. You take care of others, and you have fun."

In 1999, Carr took Walkling's keepsakes to the Maryland Historical Society, where curators agreed with her appraisal of their value.

"We were thrilled," says Jeannine Disviscour, who co-curated the exhibition with historian Susanne DeBerry Cole. Whereas most people would never think to preserve every-day ephemera, Walkling was "an incredible collector," Disviscour says.

Cole views the aprons, receipts, letters, photographs, compacts and newspaper clippings found among Walkling's things as a resource potentially as important to historians as the diaries of Martha Ballard, an 18th-century midwife whose writings became the basis for a Pulitzer Prize winning book, a PBS film and learning opportunities for students of early American life.

Carr's gift was also fortuitous for Historical Society curators seeking ways to interpret the lives of Maryland's more ordinary citizens, just as Ballard was brought to life in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale. In general, there is relatively little documentation of working-class women, Cole says.

Miss Treva, a trim woman with twinkling eyes and a fastidious presence, was no Donna Reed, Cole says. She was like many other working-class women of her era, who "had lives and jobs outside the home."

Never married, Walkling created her own extended family through an active social life. While employed at the Purity Creamery at Lexington and Paca streets, Walkling could bounce across the street to bustling Lexington Market where she befriended many and met poultry merchant Benjamin Gettings, who remained her companion until his death in 1967.

The exhibition places Walkling's career in the context of what the program notes call the "feminization of the food-service occupation." Even as women entered the field in greater numbers, they continued to staff inexpensive establishments, where wages and tips were low. And yet, as an American-born woman of northern European ancestry, Walkling topped the waitressing hierarchy at that time.

After leaving Purity Creamery Restaurant in 1959 (the reasons for her departure remain a mystery Cole and Disviscour would love to solve), Walkling took a job at the Randy Rock Drive-In, at the corner of Liberty and Old Court roads. When the Randy Rock closed, she went to work at the Suburban House, in Pikesville, and remained there until retiring just before her 65th birthday in 1974.

While employed, Walkling was equally busy at home, cooking, tending sick friends, cleaning house. She visited her mother's grave weekly and played with her beloved dogs, including Timmy, Max and Puggy. "It is through her diaries and carefully saved artifacts that the rhythm and reality of her life comes into focus and she is more than another face in the crowd," exhibit notes say.

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