Sometimes I wonder if people who have gone quietly about living good, decent lives will ever be remembered for having lived their good, decent lives. Here is a story of a devoted mother and her only child that was told to me by my mother.
In the first decade of the 1900s, Katharine and Johann Saar were members of the German Methodist Church on the corner of Broadway and West Elm, in the Munichburg neighborhood of Jefferson City. My grandparents, who lived next door to the church, were also members of that small congregation.
The Saars lived less than a block away in the smallest brick house I have ever seen. It measures not more than 12 x 24 feet. Remarkably, it is still standing in good shape with few modifications, like the addition of an indoor bathroom. It sits alone on its own very small piece of land behind the Schaefer House, 618 Broadway, with hardly any yard; parking and driveways surround the house.
Made of soft, porous brick, this little house was probably built in the 1890s. It had only two very small rooms, each about 10 x 10 feet with separate flues, and a microscopic attic above. Today it still serves as a residence. Sadly, the inconspicuous house was overlooked when the grander neighboring buildings facing directly on Broadway and Dunklin were put on the National Register of Historic Places as the Munichburg Historic District. It should have been included.
Franz Pietsch, reportedly a railroad worker, died shortly after little Paul’s birth. Marie Pietsch was left to raise her son by herself. Those were tough times for a widow. Marie moved with baby Paul into the tiny brick house to live with her also widowed mother. Somewhat later, Katharine Saar moved south to the Brazito community, leaving Marie Pietsch and young Paul alone in the tiny house.
In order to make a living, Marie Pietsch took the job of charwoman, or scrub woman, at the old U.S. Post Office on High Street, which was across the street from today’s Arris’ Pizza Palace. My mother described to me how Mrs. Pietsch not only wet-mopped the rooms of the building but also got down on her hands and knees and hand scrubbed all the steps—cleaning them of spat tobacco juice and whatever else. Those steps were used every day, winter and summer, by hundreds of people. Everyone using those steps literally looked down upon her as just a simple scrubwoman. There was no more menial job in public sight, but Marie had a child to raise.
Paul attended Jefferson City schools and turned out to be a stellar student. He graduated from the high school in 1919 no less than class valedictorian and champion debater. He received the coveted A. M. Hough Medal given annually to the student who ranked highest in scholarship. According to the yearbook, his fellow students voted him the “greatest athlete.” Within a few years out of high school he had a respectable Missouri state government position as an assistant chemist. Marie Pietsch must have taken great pride in her son, having risen from such humble circumstances, and he, in turn, must have thought the world of his devoted mother.
World War II came in 1941. Paul, still single at age thirty-nine, entered U.S. military service. Then no one heard anything more about him. When asked, Mrs. Pietsch, now living alone in that tiny house, said he was doing “just fine” and had not been sent overseas.
Mrs. Pietsch died while the war was still raging. She died alone. All alone. According to my mother, the U.S. military would not allow Paul to come home from wherever he was for his own mother’s funeral and burial. Not a single family member was there to mourn Marie, the devoted mother who scrubbed the post office steps on her hands and knees.
You see, Paul had a supersecret job with military intelligence, and he was so indispensable to the war effort that, though he was still in this country, he was not allowed any time off, not even for his mother’s funeral. That bothered my mother very deeply. As a mother herself, she imagined how grieving Paul must have been not to be able to say goodbye to his dear mother.
I think about him and his mother whenever I see that tiny brick house, and I wonder if the devoted mother Marie Pietsch and Paul, her high-achieving son, are ever remembered by anyone else.
Now that I have told you their story, you can remember them, too.
Copyright 2013 by Walter A. Schroeder.
Southside Sketches: Essays on Jefferson City’s Old Munichburg
200 pages, paperback
$12 (available at Downtown Book & Toy, the ECCO Lounge, J Street Vintage, and the Schaefer House, all in Jefferson City, Missouri)