Archive for April, 2006

Chapter 8 – Chicago’s North Side (Part 4)

April 25, 2006

Harriette was a creature of very few words and she chose those few words very carefully. She could spend hours at a time without uttering a single syllable, but when she decided there was something  you needed to hear, she didn’t mince any of her words and when she was angered they flew from her lips at the velocity of a gale force wind.

Harriette could remain silent for such long periods of time that we sometimes forgot she was with us.  On one of the trips we took every summer from Chicago to Florida to visit Mama’s family, Harriette sat silently from early morning till late evening in the seat next to me, the only parts of our bodies touching her right arm and my left. We traveled southward through Illinois, Kentucky, and most of Tennessee without her uttering a peep, even though unbeknown to me, my left foot was resting directly on her right foot.

Harriette had been very patient, but I found out that she was simply biding her time for exactly the right moment.  She waited until we reached Chattanooga, Tennessee before giving me a hard shove with her right arm, turning to me, a look in her eyes as cold as ice, and saying in very loud tone, “Get off my damned foot!”

I was dumbstruck. Any other time if any of us had used the “D” word, it would have elicited a very prompt response from Mama (remember the backhand?).  Daddy was absolutely startled and asked her to repeat what she had said.  For the rest of us, his question would have brought absolute silence and instilled fear, but not Harriette. 

She looked at the back of Daddy’s head and just as sternly told him, “I said  ‘Get off my damned foot!.'”

Daddy gave Mama a questioning look as if to say, ‘Okay, hun, where do we go from here?’  Mama settled the issue by glancing over her shoulder at me and saying, “Susan, you heard her. Now get off her ‘damned foot’.”

I got off her damned foot.

We spent two weeks of almost every summer in Florida running around like a bunch of wild Indians (well, some people would have probably referred to us as little heathens). Free from the prying eyes of close neighbors, we could run barefoot and half naked without worrying about anyone calling us a bunch of hillbillies. While Normie seemed to cling to our cousin, Billy, Harriette and I paired off with his kid sister, Jeanette, two years our junior. She was a perfect cohort, blond with a deep brown southern tan and energy enough for ten kids.

Lillian had tried her best to make a little lady of Jeanette.  Jeanette had frilly little socks, and fancy little girl dresses, but she preferred wearing shorts and t-shirts without the encumbrance of shoes or socks.  She was at her best doing hand flips and cartwheels across the yard, or running like the wind through her neighborhood.

Jeanette had once tried to be the flower girl in a wedding party, but she probably wasn’t the best choice. Standing in the rear of the church, dressed in a pretty little frilly white dress, fancy white lace trimmed socks and shiny white patent leather shoes, a white hat perched squarely on her perfectly coiffed head and her delicate little hands covered in dainty white gloves, Jeanette quickly became impatient and filled with nervous energy.  A pretty little tomboy dressed up in delicate flower girl finery within the walls of a Baptist church is a dangerous combination, and with Jeanette it was an explosive combination. Looking down that long aisle, Jeanette decided there was only one way to release all that pent-up energy.  She was about to burst from nervousness and felt that she had no other choice.  Adrenilin running at full speed, she pulled off her hat, yanked off her gloves and tossed them all onto the nearest pew, and did cartwheels down the center aisle of the First Baptist Church of Chattahoochee. It wouldn’t have made such a lasting impression had it not been for the fact that this was not a dress rehearsal.  This was the Real McCoy.  The church was full of people. That is one wedding that I don’t believe anyone alive and in attendance  that day, especially the bride and groom, will ever forget. The poor child told us she didn’t ever want to go through that kind of torture again as long as she lived.

We filled most of those lazy days during those two weeks at the end of August  walking to River Junction. Billy referred to River Junction as a suburb of Chattahoochee (if you can imagine such a thing). There was a store that sold flapjacks — huge suckers of different colors — and those long thin balloons that we could twist and form into all different kinds of shapes (we usually settled for making a balloon hat that we’d wear back home). We’d listen to Billy and Jeanette gossip along the way about anything or anyone that came to mind, never anything mean, usually just the antics of their friends, Buster and Connie Fender.

As we entered the store, the  owner would take one look at my sisters and me and say, “why, you must be Arie Morris’ younguns.”

“Yes Ma’am,” we’d answer, even though Mama hadn’t ever been a “Morris” in any of our lifetimes.

On some of those warm summer evenings Daddy would cut open a cold watermelon and pass out the wedges and we’d sit on Little Mama’s front porch and see who could spit the seed the furthest out into the yard. As the stars came out and the air began to cool, Mama would clean all the sticky sweetness off of us and dress us in one of Daddy’s soft cotton tee shirts for bed. We’d drift off to sleep listening to the hum and buzz of the adults talking out on that porch, never really being able to make out any of the individual voices or words.  We were just content to be in the security of our surroundings.

We thought that Henry could do the neatest magic trick.  He could break a peach in half with his bare hands. It wasn’t until I got older that anyone explained to me that the reason he could do this was because they were freestone peaches and came apart easily. He was an easygoing man, thin and good humored. He called Harriette “Hammerhead” because of her stubborn spirit.  It was a name that was more suited to her personality than her own.  Henry would rap his knuckles gently on the top of Harriette’s head when he invoked her nickname.

The day we were scheduled to leave for home was filled with a mixture of excitement and dread. We knew that we wouldn’t be seeing these people again for at least a year, but school would be starting in just a few days and we had to get back. Having packed the car and making sure that everything was secure, we’d start hugging and crying and crying and hugging. Poor Mama and Daddy, they had to deal with a car load of bawling kids until we passed the Georgia state line (which was just a couple of miles away) when we realized that there would be plenty of sights to see before we got back to Chicago — wonderful places like Ruby Falls and Lookout Mountain in Tennessee.

Once we made it back to Chicago, Bobbie spent most of her time taking all of us a block away to the playground across from the church. There were swings for big kids and little kids. Harriette and I would insist upon taking our favorite dolls with us (so they could have fun too). We’d throw the dolls on the ground while Bobbie pushed us higher and higher on those “big kid” swings. As soon as she was worn out, we’d let the swing die out on its own steam, hop off and grab our dolls.

I decided that my doll wanted to swing too, so I put it into the seat of the little kid’s swing and proceeded to push and push and push. I’d have done all right if it weren’t for the fact that the seat was constructed out of very heavy wood, the doll was almost weightless and there was nothing to keep it from swinging in every direction except the in direction that I was pushing. After about four or five hefty pushes on my part, that swing took on a life of its own. As I stood there watching my doll flying through the air on the seat of that swing as it twisted wildly to and fro, Bobbie called my name. When I turned my head to ask what she wanted, the swing hit me square on the side of my head. I saw stars (and I do mean stars), my left ear went numb and immediately started to swell, and I didn’t think I’d ever hear another word again. Bobbie, being the fast thinking, protective oldest sister that she was, bolted right into action.  She ran to me, grabbed my head and pulled it to her chest.  She wrapped my head in her arms, started to rock me back and forth and began to vigorously rub my by now dead ear.

“Oh Jesus Susan, I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault Bobbie, she was the dumb one,” spat Harriette, “dumb enough to think she could swing her stupid old doll.”

Stepping back and grabbing my shoulders tightly, Bobbie shook me so violently my head swam.  Then she screamed into my good ear, “Can you hear me Susan?”

All I could do was stand there, completely dumbfounded, and stare at Bobbie. Sure, I could hear her, I still had one good ear left, but she had shaken me so much I was quickly becoming very pale and extremely dizzy. I was already mad at Harriette for calling my doll stupid, even if I was a dummy for trying to swing my stupid doll, but I was maddest at myself for not standing up to her and letting her know that I could hear all of her mean remarks. Besides, I was far too woozy to stand up on my own, much less try to stand up to someone else.

That fall was the season of my first love. I was six and Kenneth was a dark-haired, dark-eyed, Italian boy who was also six. His older brothers would comb his hair into a pompadour every morning so that he looked like a seven-year-old movie star or something. Sweet kid, he even bought me my first ring, one of those imitation pearls set in imitation gold straight out of a gum-ball machine. He’d meet me in the mornings and we’d walk to school hand in hand together (accompanied by his older brothers and my older sisters).  I really miss that ring.

My love affair was short-lived, however, and was replaced by my first experience with real life crime.  We were robbed of Christmas that December. We never believed anything like that could ever happen to us, just to other people.

Mama and Daddy had done all of their Christmas shopping one Friday evening and had locked our presents in the back seat of their car.  They decided that they’d better stop for groceries while they were out so they drove up the street to the grocery store.  While Mama and Daddy were inside the store shopping for groceries,  someone opened the small vent window in the front of the car, unlocked the car doors, broke into the back seat, and stole every single one of our presents.

To make sure that her nieces and nephew had a good Christmas, Auntie Olga played Santa Claus, complete with a glued on beard made from cotton balls and one of Uncle Johnny’s plaid flannel shirts, with a matching red plaid hat,  and bluejeans. We knew who she really was, but her simple gesture helped give the spirit of the season back to us. Like all the rest of our Christmas memories, it was never the gifts we remember but that complete feeling of togetherness, love, and security. That gift from Auntie Olga turned out to be our first real lesson in the joys of giving.

Having been raised in the Catholic Church, and amassing a vast collection of cards and letters from the nuns who taught him as a child, Daddy took the responsibility of raising his children to be good Catholics very seriously.  We all became members of St. Boniface Church on the corner of Chestnut and Noble Streets.  We attended Catechism every Wednesday in one of the Church’s classrooms and finally, in the spring of 1958, Harriette and I received our first Holy Communion.  We didn’t mind Catechism classes much, they got us out of regular school for an hour every Wednesday and the walk from the school to the church was pleasant, though not very long.

Saint Boniface was the same church that Daddy would take us to every Sunday and listen to Father Rockys’ gospel according to, well, Father Rocky. 

On Sunday mornings Mama would make sure that each of us was scrubbed, polished, and combed.  She’d dress us in our Sunday finest and make us sit next to each other on the couch until Daddywas ready to leave.  He’d get dressed in his only suit, which was reserved for Sunday mass, High Holy Day services, and funerals, and pick up the Sunday paper.  He’d head for the “library”/bathroom where he’d be for what seemed like hours.  We’d sit quietly on that couch until our toes started tapping in the air, our heads started rocking from side to side, and our hands started patting our legs in time to the imaginary music playing in our heads, and we’d start shoving and pushing at each other in order to have a little more wiggle room.  Just about the time the shovee would dare the shover to a fight, Daddy would emerge from the bathroom, straighten his suit jacket and tell us we’d better be ready to leave because he wasn’t about to wait for anybody. 

We’d walk down Chestnut Street toward Noble with Daddy in the lead, his hands buried deep into his pockets.  He walked along the sidewalk next to the curb, head lowered, and kept glancing down into the gutter.  Every few steps he’d squat down, bend over the edge of the curb, and pretend to brush aside leaves or whatever other debris was lying in the gutter.  He’d motion to each of us one at a time to join him.  We’d walk over to him and he’d say, ” I thought I saw something shiny down there?  Pick it up, whydoncha?”

We’d bend over and pick up whatever coin Daddy had just placed in the gutter.  He didn’t want us to think that we were dependent on him for our collection plate money (even though none of us ever earned an allowance) so he made sure we learned how to be more resourceful.  From his change pocket to the gutter, to our hands, to the collection plate every Sunday. 

Even though each of us had a nickle, dime or quarter to put in the collection plate, Daddy never managed to get named on Father Rocky’s list of top donors. At the time I thought the list was unfair because not everyone can be rich to make Father Rocky’s top ten list of donors.  Now I know the difference.  It wasn’t ever important for Father Rocky to know just what lengths Daddy went to in order to provide for the church.  His children knew and I am just as certain that God knew.

St. Boniface is also the same church that I got into my first (and certainly not last) argument with a nun. During our Communion classes, we had to study the Catechism. We’d study the stations of the cross, and the Apostle’s Creed (you know, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, etc.), and the Lord’s Prayer, but never ever strayed from that little black book that contained the teachings of the One True, Holy, Apostolic Catholic Church. 

All I did was to simply asked the nun when we’d be able to read the Bible. That’s all it took for the nun and I to enter our first standoff in front of a room full of pious, genuflecting youngsters who knew that their ranks would soon be minus one little loud-mouthed, earring adorned Kraut who had just asked one too many questions.

“You don’t read the Bible in this class.  You learn the Catechism.”

“After we learn the Catechism, then can we read the Bible?”

“No, you won’t ever need to read the Bible, so quit asking.”

“That’s pretty stupid, a church without a Bible.  How are we going to be able to learn what the Bible says if we don’t ever read it.” — talk about righteous indignation!

That did it for the nun.  She had been so used to children obeying her without question and she wasn’t about to be outdone by one smart-mouthed little girl who hadn’t been taught any better manners by her parents than to question Authority.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person of the cloth so furious as that nun was that Wednesday afternoon.  Holding her habit covered arm out in front of her, she shook her right index finger directly at me and with a shaking voice said, “That does it young lady! I’ve had enough of you.  Get out of my class right now and go home. I want you to tell your mother what you just said and then pray for God’s forgiveness. And don’t bother coming back until you do!”

I did exactly as the nun ordered, even if I still didn’t understand why.  I went home and told Mama. Mama, being a good Southern Baptist,  didn’t quite know what to say so she immediately called Ma. Mama figured that by Ma being a devout Catholic, she’d know exactly how to handle the situation as well as an insolent seven year old.

Mama spoke to Ma for a few minutes and then Ma had Mama put me on the phone. My first thought was, ‘Oh boy, I’m really in for it now.’

“So,” said Ma, “Your Mama tells me that you’ve been fighting with nuns.  How come?” 

“All I did was ask the nun when we were going to read the Bible and she got mad.”

“What did the nun say?”

” The nun said I wouldn’t ever be able to read the Bible, that all I need to worry about is the Catechism.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, Ma.”

“Did she tell you why?”

“No, Ma.”

“Let me tell you something. If you wanna read a Bible, you just let me know. I’ve got this big family bible sitting on my dining room table that I read all the time and if you feel like you wanna read it you can read it anytime. But you’ve got to do promise me something . Okay?”

“Sure, Ma.”

“We’re gonna keep between you, me, and Gott in heaven. That silly old nun don’t need to know anything about it. Okay?”

“Yes, Ma!”

So it was that my Bible education came from Ma, a woman who believed that her “Gott” heard her prayers no matter where she was and also believed that we could hold church services anywhere, even in her outhouse.

High holy days during our youth were especially memorable.  We got ashes on our foreheads every Ash Wednesday, never ate meat on Friday, brought palm fronds home on Palm Sunday and knew the meaning of Lent.  And even though we were taught the real story of Easter, we were still just kids and Easter invoked thoughts of coloring Easter eggs and eating lots and lots of candy. Having to keep so many kids fed and clothed, Mama and Daddy could never afford to get any of us a real Easter basket but we had the next best thing — shoeboxes. Mama would shop for our shoes at the Crown Shoe Store on Milwaukee Avenue, where she could buy two pair of shoes for five dollars.  She saved the shoeboxes, and before Easter we would color our eggs around the kitchen table and stain every surface in sight, including ourselves.  Then we’d fill those shoeboxes with artificial grass, count out an equal number of eggs for each “basket,” and Daddy would load each shoebox with candy.  Mama would spend months before Easter crocheting each of us a new hat to wear to church on Easter Sunday, which always seemed to make each of us feel as if we were her favorite child.

Harriette and I were no different than any other children in that we believed that we belonged to our own solar system and everything in the world was directly linked to us and our actions.  We believed that if any good happened it was directly due to our actions.  We also believed that if anything bad or evil happened that it was somehow directly our fault.  We felt that we must have committed a mortal sin when things were bad and that God was surely smiling on us when things were good. 

We had that same belief in 1958 when Harriette and I witnessed a murder. A woman killed her drunken husband in the alley behind the house after he beat her.

We had been in the alley behind our own backyard, and saw the event up close. We had been playing close to the garbage cans behind our yard when we heard their argument begin and quickly escalate into a physical attack.  Harriette and I stopped whatever game we had been playing and stared at the nightmare unfolding directly in front of us. 

Oblivious to our presence, the woman ran to the other side of the alley, grabbed a garbage can lid (which was simply the roughly cut top of the 55 gallon steel drum that served as the garbage can), turned on her husband, and holding that lid tightly swung it with the strength of ten men, almost completely severed his head from his body. 

At that moment Harriette and I felt that this was the way normalpeople behaved, and we were really scared that one day the same thing might happen to us. We still had no real concept of the word “dead,” but felt deep inside us that (for this man at least) time simply ceased to exist.  Harriette and I were standing as close to each other as humanly possible and watched, both terrified and mesmerized, from the moment the onslaught occurred until well after that complete stranger, a woman we had never seen before and haven’t seen since, turned on her heels and continued walking down the alley. Our fingernails digging deeply into each other’s palms, we were frozen in time long after his corpse dropped to the ground in that dirty city alley. 

It was Harriette who snapped out of our joint trance first.  She grabbed my arm as firmly as possible, yanked me back into the real world and pulled me back into the safety of our backyard.  “Come on, Susan, let’s get out of here.” 

Shortly after that incident I began having seizures in my sleep and Harriette would hold me long after the lights went out to let me know that she’d protect me, even though we both understood that nothing would ever be able to protect either of us again.

During that same summer Bobbie took us to the theater on Milwaukee Avenue to watch the movies of her choice. We saw more horror movies during our years on Chestnut Street than at any other time in our lives. I came to both fear and loathe Bette Davis after all those films. I would cry, Harriette would try to console me, and Bobbie, not having any idea what terrors Harriette and I had already witnessed, would laugh at our silliness.

Saturday mornings were reserved for housecleaning and shopping. Mama had a way of getting the three older girls to clean house without making it seem like such a chore.

Early Saturday morning, Mama would tell them, “Your father and I are going to take the three younger kids shopping with us to get them out of your hair. That’ll make it a lot easier for you girls to clean house the way you want to.”

They really loved it! As soon as we left, they opened every window in the apartment, cranked up rock n’ roll on the radio, danced and sang at the tops of their lungs while they cleaned. Harriette and I thought it was terrible that they got to stay home while we had to tag along with Mama and Daddy. They thought it was great not to have us around.

On Saturday nights, Daddy would pile all of us into the car and took us to the drive-in theater. Cowboy movies were rated right up there with “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “The Ten Commandments.”

Buddy was the only one to always complain about Daddy’s movie selection, telling him, “I don’t like this movie Daddy, change the channel.”

Daddy was so determined to watch a western one Saturday night that we sat in the car during a torrential rain just so he could watch the horses on the screen sliding in the mud during a shoot out. Looking around us, I noticed that ours was the only car in the lot.

Daddy explained to us, “You know, if it weren’t raining so hard those horses would have had a much easier time of it.”

On Friday and Saturday evenings, men would emerge from their homes and walk down the block to our house to pitch pennies on the sidewalk.  I’m not so sure it was a legal form of gambling, but it never stopped them. The goal of the game was to get a penny to land on a designated crack in the sidewalk. If yours was closer than your opponent’s was, you won his penny and kept your own and vise-versa. There was a broken old storm drain cover in the sidewalk out in front of the house, and occasionally pennies would fall into one of the openings. Little did these fellows know that we kids could get under that sidewalk and pick up every single penny they ever lost!  They’d curse the sidewalk for swallowing up their pennies and we’d thank them for every penny we picked up.  After all, their loss was definitely our gain.

Other than collecting the stray pennies on the sidewalk, one of our greatest forms of entertainment was walking down Milwaukee Avenue with Mama when she had to buy some little something, or walking downtown to Montgomery Ward’s bargain basement to buy winter coats.

Mama would pick out a cute coat for each of us that she could afford, and Harriette would say, “I don’t like it.”

“What do you mean, you don’t like it. It’s adorable.”

“I said I don’t like it, and I don’t like it and if I don’t like it I won’t ever wear it. So there.” (Same pouty lower lip, same crossed arms).

“Let me get it for you, I think you’ll change your mind once we get it home.”

“I don’t want it.”

It didn’t matter what color it was, whether it was even pretty or not. If Harriette didn’t pick it out herself, she didn’t want it.

During these walks, there were all types of curiosities including a fellow we called Chicken Man. He’d dance on the street corner, with a chicken balanced on his head, while people tossed coins into the hat that was lying at his feet.

Christmas of 1958 Mama and Daddy bought me my first real book. A thick book with a beautifully designed cover. Bedtime Bible Stories held a mystery that Harriette and I couldn’t wait to unfold. Bobbie would lie between the two of us every night and read any story we wanted. She told us all about Adam and Eve in the garden, Daniel in the lion’s den, and Noah’s Ark. It wasn’t until she got to the story of Shaddrack, Meshach, and Abednego that Harriette had heard enough. After reading us that story, eight year old Harriette started her period and blamed it all on the story of those three men and the furnace.  They were the cause of her having “the curse.” She continued to allow Bobbie to read to us, but she banned that particular story forever.

Daddy bought a motorcycle. It was huge, completely dressed out Harley Indian. He really looked handsome, tall, broad shouldered and dark eyed, with a motorcycle cap on his head, motorcycle boots on, and a rhinestone kidney belt. He’d come home from work and take each of us for a ride. Shortly after that bike came into our lives, an incident happened that promptly took it out again.

Daddy sat Buddy behind him and headed around the block. He rode up Chestnut to Greenview, turned left into the alley and came around the block heading for Chestnut again. Everything went fine until he started to turn onto our block again. He turned the handlebars and they locked. Without any control over the direction of that motorcycle, Daddy attempted to stop it. It spun on it side, right under a parked car. Daddy managed to get out from under that car and pulled Buddy out behind him. Finding out that Buddy was safe, he lifted the back end of the car and retrieved the motorcycle. Once he made it to the front of the house, he put a “for sale” sign on the windshield and sold it.

In the summer of 1959, we spent Daddy’s two-week vacation building a house for Ma. In only two weeks, we tore the old house down, leveled the ground for the new one, and had her living in the new house by the time we left. The only help Daddy had other than his mother, wife and children was our cousin, Junior. Ma taught all of us how to hammer a nail into the wall while we were installing the sheet rock. She also taught us how to straighten bent nails on the edge of a cinder block.

We three younger kids usually spent our time just trying to stay out of the way unless Daddy needed us to do something. We did manage to help level the ground for the new structure until I stepped on a broken piece of an old green Mason jar and needed Ma’s cane to walk. I also managed to knock down a wasp’s nest with that same cane and got stung between the eyes so badly that my eye’s swelled shut. Never panicking, Ma made a mudpack with the dirt and covered my forehead with it.

Buddy, Harriette and I decided to try our hands at fishing in the Rock River, just across the road. We fashioned fishing rods out of twigs and twine. Harriette caught a huge white fish (I think it may have been a carp) and tried to pull it in, yelling for help the whole time. Buddy, always trying to be a grown man, thought the fish was going to hurt her, so he grabbed my pole and proceeded to beat the life out of that poor fish right there on the pier.

There we stood, three wild kids, screaming and yelling at one another. Once Buddy was finished, I was mad at Buddy because he broke my fishing pole on the fish and Harriette was mad at Buddy because he had lost her fish. Daddy just wanted to throw all three of us in the Rock River for making him think that we were drowning. He had jumped off the roof of Ma’s new house and ran across the road before counting heads or appraising the situation.

That fall Normie started taking accordion lessons. Actually, Normie, Harriette and I received six free lessons, but Normie was allowed to continue taking them. I loved the sound of that accordion; she’d play Lady of Spain over and over again until she could do it with her eyes closed. I really wanted to play that instrument, but at that point in time I figured that Normie was the “chosen one.”

To be completely honest about Normie, although I love her dearly, she had this mad scientist kind of mind that could drive a saint crazy. Once she figured that she could peel onions without shedding a single tear. Determined to educate us and prove her point, she emptied the contents of an onion bag onto the table, placed the onion bag over her head and proceeded to cut up the onions. She stayed under that bag for a very long time, and we were certain that she might finally have something concrete in her theory. We found out different when she took the bag off of her head. Splotched face and red eyed, tears streaming down her chubby cheeks, she had no choice but to admit defeat.  The onion bag had won.


Chapter 7 – Chicago’s North Side (Part 3)

April 21, 2006

Daddy’s sister, Olga, and her husband, Uncle Johnny, owned a two-story, four flat apartment building on Chestnut Street. We moved from 1426 W. Walnut Street to 1522 W. Chestnut Street by carrying most of our possessions down the street and through the alleys.  Our new home was the second floor flat right behind Auntie Olga and Uncle Johnny’s, with only a frosted glass door separating the two flats. It was heaven.  There was a kitchen and living room and real bathroom right inside the apartment with a real porcelain tub and a sink!  What was more exciting was that this place had two (albeit small) bedrooms which seemed like plenty of room for the eight of us.

October 4th, 1954 was Mama’s and Daddy’s tenth wedding anniversary. We decided it was time for a real party and Bobbie said she wanted cream soda for the occasion. At nine, she couldn’t be blamed when she came home with club soda instead of cream soda. Everyone in my family found out that night that they hated club soda.

We were a very close family, if not emotionally then at least in physical proximity to each other. If one of us came down with a common childhood illness like measles or  chickenpox, Mama made certain that we all got it. She believed that it was just as hard caring for three or four sick kids as it was to care for one.  We’d be made to sleep together, crowded next to each other in the same bed and then made to spend as much time as possible with our sick sibling until we came down with the same ailment. It never did any good to tease a sibling  who was spotted, speckled, or scabby, because we knew we were probably next in line to be spotted, speckled or scabby. While we were always angry at whoever started all our misery at the time, none of us today could tell you which one of us had.

Pop died in 1955. The rest of the kids were in school when Mama received the news.  Harriette and I walked into Mama’s bedroom to find her lying across her bed and crying. She pulled us close to her and explained what had happened as gently as she could by simply saying, “Pop’s dead.” 

We couldn’t quite grasp the concept of what it meant to be dead, but we knew that Mama’s heart was broken.  We lay on the bed beside her and held her, allowing her to wrap her arms around us. Mama may not have liked Pop very much, but I could tell that she loved him. She went to his funeral and about the only thing I can remember is her telling me is that she lost a shoe after stepping in another freshly dug grave. At the time, we were all recovering from measles, but we went along to Florida anyway, scattering our germs as we went. While we were there, two of us came down with the measles again.

Harriette and I started and quit school that fall. Harriette because the teacher she loved broke her leg. I quit because Harriette quit.  Actually, Harriette made me quit. Between the two of us, Harriette was the thinker. If Harriette didn’t like someone, I wasn’t allowed to like them — “I don’t like you and she doesn’t like you either.” If Harriette decided she wasn’t going to do something, I wasn’t allowed to do it either — “Nope, I ain’t gonna do it, and she ain’t doing it either!.” If Harriette decided to beat the living tar out of someone, I was expected to beat whatever tar was left.  Harriette would tell the object of her scorn, “I’m gonna beat you up and when I get through, she’s going to beat you up, too!”  There we were, two kindergarten toughs, five-year old dropouts, perfectly content to spend most of our time at home, right under Mama’s feet where we felt we belonged.

The only one losing any amount of their sanity was Mama who was kept busy trying to care for two young girls and a little boy while her older daughters were in school. Harriette and Buddy made a game of shoving me into under the bed (and later into the closet) and laugh while they kept me there until I was satisfactorily claustrophobic. The game that started when I was 5 years old did not end until I was 17 and was so angry that I slapped Harriette in the face.  Her only response to my physical attack on her was, “So, what took you so long?”

The neighborhood we lived in consisted mainly of Polish, German and Bohemian  immigrants,  who everyone in the neighborhood (including the Polish, German and Bohemian immigrants) referred to as Poles, Krauts, and Bohunks.  It was the virtual melting pot. Two doors to the left of us were Poles, and two doors to the right were Germans. Everyone had an accent except, of course, us. There was a sprinkling of southerners in our midst, but we weren’t counted among them. Everyone considered us “Krauts” because of our last name and our Eastern European looks.

Ten years after the end of a war we knew virtually nothing about, we were accused of  being Nazi’s because of the hoop earrings in our pierced ears. Auntie Olga had pierced them one Saturday morning after Mama and Daddy left to go grocery shopping.  Actually, Bobbie and Sissie convinced her that all of us wanted her to pierce our ears and it would be best if she pierced them before Mama and Daddy got back hom.  We stood in line waiting our turn while she pierced our ears by pushing an iodine dipped sewing needle and cotton thread through our earlobes while holding a potato behind each lobe.  She had no idea how Mama would react, but she was soon to find out.

Mama was furious when she discovered what had happened behind her back, but she still cared for our newly pierced ears.  Every day for the next week we’d have to soak the cotton thread with alcohol and work it back and forth through our ear lobes to keep the holes from closing or becoming infected.  We’d pull that soggy thread through the hole, cleaning off the crust that had formed during the night, making sure that there was no chance of that thread becoming a permanent fixture in our ears.  Thinking back on the experience, there really is nothing like the burn of alcohol soaked thread being pulled through an earlobe to clear your mind on a cold morning.  My first pair of earrings were small gold hoops given to me by Auntie Olga. 

Daddy bought a used bike and while he said it was for Bobbie, Sissie and Normie, there was no way that he could stop Harriette, Buddy or me from trying to ride it as well.  He promised a quarter to anyone who could learn how to ride our bike.  One warm Spring Saturday afternoon he pushed the bike through the gangway to the front  sidewalk.  Holding onto the back of the bike and running along side us, he’d push until he felt that we had learned how to balance and pedal at the same time. Once we got the hang of it we ran across the street to the tavern and buy a bottle of Kayo, a Baby Ruth candy bar, and a bag of YoHo potato chips with that quarter and still got change. Normie was so confident of her riding skills that she lost eight of her front teeth while showing off by trying to balance that bike in a grove down the middle of the alley while holding her hands above her head and her feet out to either side of the bike, which resulted in her flying over the handlebars. It was a “Look Ma, no hands,” “look Ma, no feet,” “look Ma, no teeth,” sort of moment. 

When Normie came into the house crying, a short, round-faced little girl with blood where eight of her front teeth used to be, she was looking for symphaty.  Daddy couldn’t help himself and told her teasingly, “You’d better get used to not having any teeth, Normie.  Teeth don’t replace themselves.”  That comment didn’t help the situation one bit and Normie’s swollen red rimmed eyes all but disappeared in her round face. 

It was quite a while before any of us stopped calling her “Toothless” or “Snaggle-tooth.” While the most embarrassing thing about the incident to Normie was having her school picture taken the day after the incident, she still wasn’t afraid to smile (even though she looked like an old, short,  round-faced, toothless granny). That’s what I call “brave.”

Not to be outdone by Normie, Sissie fell down the back stairs while trying to carry a gallon of milk up the stairs. She never was extremely coordinated, but milk jugs were made of glass and a gallon of milk must have weighed better than eight pounds. There was glass all over the place and it’s a real wonder that she wasn’t sliced to pieces. A kid we went to school with at the same time made the Chicago paper when he had to have an eye replaced because of a similar incident. He had one beautiful green eye, and one just-as-beautiful gray eye.

Sissie had the patience of Job (most of the time). She’ll be the first to admit that she just kind of “floated” through her childhood. She hardly ever displayed any sign of a temper. Bobbie and Normie tried their best to get under her skin, but Sissie never paid a bit of attention to them. She never wanted to hurt anyone, and never wanted anyone to hurt her.

Sissie’s adult attitude today toward her fellow human beings probably stems from the frying pan. She was helping Mama fry up a batch of fried chicken, and the grease got too hot. Every time Sissie moved a piece of chicken the grease would spatter her, irritating her to no end. Sissie would jump back and cautiously move forward again when she felt it was safe only to have the same thing happen as soon as she stuck her fork into the frying chicken.  It wasn’t long before her whole body started quivering in anger and she felt that she just couldn’t take anymore abuse from the burning, sputtering onslaught.  To everyone’s surprise, she leaned over the skillet and spat into the grease. Not a very wise move on Sissie’s part because that really made the fat angry.  It spat back! Needless to say Sissie has never spat on anyone or anything since and is still the mellowest sister we have.

The following Spring, Buddy fell madly, passionately, and hopelessly in love with Mary, the little girl down the street, and was threatened by her Big Brother (who was six). Buddy was in the process of preparing himself for his very first kiss from a beautiful blond haired, blued-eyed damsel.  He was facing Mary, standing tall and proud (well, as tall and proud as any 3 year old boy could stand) chest out, and head held high when her Big Brother happened along. The two little boys stood nose to nose, nostrals flaring, eyes ablaze, hands on their hips. The boys were locked in a standoff — Buddy was determined to kiss Mary and Big Brother was just as determined to protect his baby sister’s honor.

Stepping away from Buddy and setting his feet wide apart on the pavement, Big Brother placed his hands on the toy gun in his holster, and told Buddy, “If you kiss my sister, I’ll hit you in the head with my gun butt.” 

Buddy, not willing to risk bodily harm at the moment, decided that a kiss was definitely not worth a goose egg on his noggin. He probably could have kissed her, but reason and common sense got the best of him (which is rare indeed for Buddy). There would be many more girls and more threats from big brothers I’m sure, but this first encounter is the one I remember most vividly.

Buddy, being the sweet little angel that he was, also got drunk for the first time in his life. He was three years old going on four and having bed-wetting problems. Mama asked Ma for advice and Ma told her that a shot of whiskey would do the trick. Buddy would simply relax and sleep like a rock all night without wetting the bed. Having never seen one, Mama had no idea was a shot was and gave Buddy half a juice glass of whiskey.

Buddy spent half the night standing on his head in the middle of the bed, quickly  strumming his fingers across his lips while saying, “Mama-Daddy-Mama-Daddy – Pic-Co-Lo!!!”

After that night, Mama decided that Buddy would simply have to outgrow his bladder problem because she had no intention of raising a drunk.

Mama had to get rid of Tidbit because she bit our cousin (another lovable little boy who tortured dogs and other small animals). It didn’t matter much that his dog, a Manchester Terrier, bit me. They kept his dog and we were left without any furry little creature to love and cuddle.

One evening after work Daddy brought a watchdog home. Initially intended for Ma, the dog was a beautiful German Police Dog named Duke. Daddy had bought him from the Chicago Police Department. Duke had passed all of the training requirements and held promise of becoming one of Chicago’s finest. However, the police department decided they had to let the dog go because he was considered too gentle to be an attack dog, which was the only part of his training that he failed.

Duke was gentle all right, but he loved fresh meat. His first training session with Daddy came after Duke ate all our payday pork chops. Mama never even had a chance to fry the chops. Duke swore off fresh meat from that point on, and was content to spend the rest of his life on canned Strong Heart dog food. Duke may not have been little, and he may not have been cuddly, but he was the love of our lives for the next 15 years.  He would be invaluable as a protector and companion in that rapidly growing neighborhood.

When it came to shopping conveniences in that part of the city, we were pretty fortunate. There was a little candy store down the street, a tavern directly across the street from us, a butcher not too far away, a bakery on the corner and a pharmacy less than two blocks away, just across from Wells High School. The tavern sold potato chips; the butcher still put sawdust on the floor (great for sliding while Mama bought our fresh meat). The Augusta Bakery, which Daddy walked to every Sunday morning, sold the world’s best Bismarck’s, jelly-filled rolls that were sprinkled with sugar. The Rexall pharmacy had a unique scent of combined smells of perfumes, powders, and the drugs that the pharmacist mixed behind the counter. Our favorite store, however, was the candy store just a couple of doors down from our house. There they sold all types of candy in their display case, but the best was the wrapped toffee. Soft candies with different colors inside shiny wrappers and if we got the one with the “bulls-eye” in it, we won a candy bar.

Mama continued to spend her time washing, cooking, embroidering, crocheting, and making our clothes. She kept Harriette and I dressed like twins, Harriette dressed in blue and me in pink. Mama didn’t know it, but Harriette always hated blue and I always hated pink, but how was she to know? 

We were a normal, happy family (only because we had no idea what “normal” was). The only one who felt that we weren’t normal was Buddy (and that was only because we didn’t have the same equipment that he did).

In the fall of 1956, Harriette and I started back to school. We were put into the same grade and the same classroom. We didn’t lack for friendship because we had each other. After school, we’d walk up to the corner of the block to the Northeast Settlement House that was run by college students where we learned to do useful things like the Mexican Hat Dance, embroidery, sewing and making potholders on a loom. We dearly loved those students who spent their time making us feel important, wanted and loved. They’d take us to see plays, listen to musicians, see magic acts and participate in Christmas parties.

At one particular magic show, the magician’s main act was to cut off someone’s head on a guillotine. He placed a head of cabbage into the guillotine and released the blade, showing us how fast and sharp it was and explaining to his young audience that it was swift and wouldn’t cause any pain or discomfort.

Of all the kids in the audience, timid little Sissie was chosen to be the volunteer when the time came to use a live subject. Meek and mild Sissie, her eyes displaying sheer terror-stricken panic from the onset, stepped onto that stage. To calm her nerves the magician had her try to bite through inter-locked magic rings. In his booming voice he informed her that she couldn’t do it and then he proceeded to separate the rings.  He then led her over to the guillotine and gently placed her head through the hole, placing a basket in front of the guillotine in a position to catch her head after it was removed.  Wide-eyed, Sissie quickly made the sign of the cross, held her hands as close as was humanly possible in prayer and started praying for all it was worth. When the blade was released Sissie let out a blood curdling scream loud enough to startle everyone in the audience and promptly fainted. The magician actually told Sissie to hold onto her head so it wouldn’t fall off. 

Boy, that was one good magician.

Every year, the students at the Settlement House would send a big box of clothes home with us full of winter coats, boots, hats and gloves. Bobbie may have called them “care packages,” but those students seemed to know exactly what we needed. While we were poor, we never knew it because we were warm all through those cold Chicago winters.

The route to school was always the same. We’d go out the back door, down the steps, through the yard and into the alley. In the alley we turned right and walked down to the corner. Even though it was just another alley, this one had a street name, Greenview. At Greenview, we turned left and walked across Walnut Street and continued down Greenview to the next corner. Elizabeth Peabody School stood imposingly in the middle of the block, across the street.

We had to line up to get into school. Boys on one side of the door, girls on the other, we’d march into school wondering what the day would bring. The school had a boy’s playground on one side, and a girl’s playground on the other.

No wonder the opposite sex was such a mystery to us! We always had to be sure not to use the wrong side of the stairwell, and not to come in or go out the wrong door or the monitors were sure to report us.

During the early to mid-fifties, the polio scare was in full swing and ranked right up there with the Atomic Bomb, Communism and smallpox. At 10:30 every Tuesday, we’d hear the sirens go off and would have to practice “Duck and Cover” by sitting beneath our desks, Indian style, with our heads between our knees and tucked against our chest, our arms wrapped around our heads. I always felt fortunate to have been born a girl because we never had to pull down those heavy window shades.  That was boys work. If those bombs were going to take anyone out, it would have to take out a boy first.

When we weren’t learning the alphabet forward and backward, and counting paper coins from the pages of a book, we were being kept sufficiently scared. If we couldn’t find something on our own to be afraid of, society would find one for us. As a result, we not only knew how to hide and cover our heads, we knew that we’d have to have all of our childhood vaccinations (that way we wouldn’t have to worry about having smallpox or polio once the communist invaded our shores and dropped the atom bomb).

The school board figured that the best way to protect their wards was to give us the necessary vaccinations in school during classes. We lined up in the hall and walked single-file to the basement where nurses were prepared to inject all of us. Harriette was always ahead of me when we went down those stairs. The teachers kept us in the hall until it was our turn and we could still hear screaming from within the room where the shots were being given.

The closer we got to that door, the more nervous I became.

Shivering and hanging on to Harriette’s hand, I’d say “I don’t want to go Harriette.”

Harriette would calmly look into my petrified eyes, and say with absolute and complete confidence, “Don’t worry, little sister, it won’t hurt.”

We’d work our way toward the entrance, me attempting to dig my heels into the hardwood floor and Harriette dragging me along by my hand.

Once we reached the door, Harriette would let go of my hand and forcefully shove me through the threshold as hard as she could.  The she’d bolt. She ran away from that dungeon as though the devil himself were at her heels! There I stood, alone and unprotected.  I was staring into the face of a complete stranger, a huge woman dressed all in white with a sinister smile on her face and a needle in her hand.

Harriette managed to miss at least half of her shots while I got all of mine.

What we weren’t learning at school, Mama made sure that we learned more at home. Bobbie, Sissie and Normie had to help us out with our reading after school, and she’d help us learn our alphabet on a chalkboard that Daddy hung in the kitchen.

Harriette still wasn’t too keen on learning how to read. Her philosophy was that if she couldn’t read it, I could read it to her and if she didn’t like what I was reading she could tell me that what I was reading was stupid, that I was stupid and that she quit.

There was the rare occasion,  however, when I managed to get on Harriette’s nerves and that was usually when we went grocery shopping with Mama and Daddy. I’d look out the car window and read every advertisement in every store window between our house and the grocery store.

“Harriette,” Mama would say, “you should practice like Susan does.”

“Susan’s dumb.”

“She’s not dumb, she just wants to read, and so should you.”

“Reading’s dumb.”

“Reading’s not dumb, you’re going to need it one day.”

“Reading’s dumb, and Susan’s dumb, and I don’t need either one of ’em.”

Once Harriette made eye contact with you, stuck out her lower lip, lowered her head, and crossed her arms over her chest, there was no sense trying to get the last word in, she’d already had it. 

The one time that even I was inclined to agree with Harriette’s opinion of reading was the day that reading actually got me on Mama’s bad side. We had been walking down the alley on the way home from school when a garage door caught my eye.

People didn’t have overhead garage doors. Those monster doors swung out into the alley and were seldom used except by weekend mechanics and teenagers who carried around paint.

A teenager with a can of paint was a dangerous thing, especially if you’re a curious kid.

Looking like the marquee at a drive in movie, there it was, in huge black block letters, a four-letter word that started with F painted across the door of a garage, and I, being the curious kid that I was, simply couldn’t resist reading it. Knowing that Harriette wouldn’t be any good at helping me pronounce that word, I tried on my own.  After giving up any attempt at trying to figure out the phonetic pronunciation, I simply stood there long enough to memorize the spelling so I could ask Mama once I got home because I knew Mama would help me, she always had in the past.

I walked through the kitchen door, proud as a peacock, and dropped my books down on the table.

Mama was standing by the sink.  Walking over to her and tapping her on the hip, I proudly asked, “Mama, what does F-U-_-_ spell?”

Mama’s response was swift and her reaction immediate. I found out that day that no one (and I do mean No One) has a backhand as fast as Mama’s.

“Don’t you ever let me hear you say that word again! Do you hear me?”

After picking myself off the floor on the opposite end of the kitchen, my face burning like fire and the tears in my eyes stinging, I said, “Yes Mama, but how can I say it if I don’t know how?”

Furious, she again yelled, “You just forget you ever saw it, I don’t even want you spelling that word ever again as long as you live, do you understand?”

Rubbing my quickly reddening face, I replied, “OK Mama.” (I hope that Mama notices that it’s still not spelled).

Though I have never lost my fascination with the power of the written word, I now understand that the only power words really have is the power we give to them, and at the time that my attempt to learn a new word angered Mama it was that particular word that evidently held a lot of power.

Another lesson we learned on Chestnut Street was the lesson in the joys of giving.  In order to teach us this valuable lesson Daddy decided to give us our own shopping money at Christmastime. He handed each of us a five dollar bill and took us to Goldblatt’s, a department store on Milwaukee Avenue, to buy presents for each other. I don’t remember what any of the rest of us bought, but I will always remember what Buddy decided to purchase for his sisters.

Not understanding the feminine mistique, Buddy asked Daddy, “What do I buy girls?”

Daddy, in his infinite wisdom, stated simply, “You just buy them something that you’d really like.”

He did. As we excitedly opened our presents that Christmas Eve, we also came to understand the joy of giving. Harriette got a holster, Bobbie got chaps, Sissie got spurs, Normie got a cowboy hat, and I got a pair of pistols. Through our own disappointment, it became increasingly obvious that Buddy had put a great deal of thought into his gifts so each of us gave him back what he had given us.  I’m sure it was the best Christmas ever for Buddy.

In 1957, Harriette was placed into a special reading class because the school felt she had a speech impediment. While the only reason Harriette even had any kind of speech problem was the fact that she seldom spoke and, therefore, didn’t have the amount of practice that the rest of us had, she wanted nothing to do with the idea and refused to attend unless I attended as well. After all, just because she answered the phone with “Who am it,” didn’t mean she couldn’t talk. Mama told the school to go ahead and have me go with her even if I didn’t have any problems talking or learning to read. As a result, I could speed read by the end of the school year, which meant that I could read to Harriette at a faster pace and she could get her reading assignment done faster.

While Harriette’s battle was reading, Buddy was having his own battle with seeing.   He suffered from double vision. Every day after school, the neighborhood bully would corner him in the alley and try to get the kid to fight with him. He would somehow manage to get home in one piece and explain it to Mama. She figured it was time for a father-son talk. I can still see Daddy sitting at the table, still chewing a bite of food, one elbow on the table, holding his fork in his right hand (as if using it for emphasis) and talking to Buddy as if the kid were just another of a his coworkers.

Daddy asked him, “Why don’t you just fight the bully and get it over with.”

Buddy told him, “I would have if I knew which one to hit.”

Harriette and I looked at each other and spoke up; “There’s only one of ’em, Daddy.”

Daddy got a puzzled look on his face and asked Buddy to look at Mama. “How many Mamas do you see?”

Buddy’s response was immediate. “Two.”

Mama took Buddy to a specialist downtown.  Buddy had to have surgery.  The surgeon shortened the muscle in one eye and lengthened the muscle in the other. After his surgery, he spent a long time wearing an eye patch and all of us took turns helping him with his eye exercises. Patiently, we’d hold a finger in front of his face and move it from left to right, right to left, up and down and then straight toward his nose until he was cross-eyed.

He must have done his eye exercises well because after his patch was removed the only thing any of us had to worry about was keeping Buddy from beating the tar out of everyone (including us). None of us was wise enough to explain to him that he really didn’t have to fight all the time. Never having had a brother before, we just thought it was something boys did naturally.

Being proud of his maleness and newly acquired quick eye, Buddy took to bravely sliding down the banister on the back porch while wearing his cowboy hat, pistols in his holsters, until he picked up a huge splinter that pierced his entire palm. Now that was one nasty sight. His hand must have swollen to twice its normal size.

Mama couldn’t get the piece of wood out of his hand and covered his palm with strips of bacon and covered it with a long strip of clean white cloth. It took a few days for that bacon to become rancid which caused the splinter to infect his entire palm, but he didn’t mind. He considered it a badge of courage and wore it proudly. Once his palm was sufficiently infected, Mama easily removed the splinter, cleaned the wound with  peroxide, coated it with iodine, and sent him on his way.

Chapter 6 – Chicago’s North Side (Part 2)

April 19, 2006

Buddy, being the perfect little boy that he was, always insisted upon sleeping between Mama and Daddy. It wasn’t that he didn’t have his own bed, he was the only one of us who did.  Bravado aside, he was really just a softy who couldn’t stand to be very far from Mama or Daddy. Please don’t misunderstand.  I love Buddy dearly, but when he was little, he could be a real pain.

One night he shook Mama awake and handed her a large clot of blood.

Startled, she looked at it and asked, “Where did this come from?”

“My mouth,” he replied.

The next morning Mama took him to the woman’s clinic on Ashland Avenue (they took care of boys until they were twelve). The doctor informed her that he needed a tonsillectomy.  Since she was having Buddy’s tonsils taken care of, Mama decided to have them check out Sissies’  as well. Her throat was always inflamed and sore. While Buddy and Sissie were being treated, Mama walked to and from the hospital because she didn’t have enough money for bus fare. The rest of us kids were kept home from school during that time and Bobbie was left in charge. As she left, Mama told the downstairs neighbor that if anything happened while she was gone to remember to tell someone that she had four  kids on the third floor.

Up until her operation Sissie had been a very quiet and non-complaining child.  It was only during normal conversations that she seemed to be talking louder than the rest of us.  We hadn’t thought anything of it, after all, when there are so many kids in the same room you sometimes had to yell to get noticed. All that changed, however, once her tonsils were removed.

We’d been sitting in the living room one afternoon after she was released from the hospital and weren’t behaving any louder than usual (it would be a long stretch to try to convince you that six kids between the ages of 3 and 10 could ever be quiet in the same room, wouldn’t it?). 

Sissie had been lying quietly on the sofa with her hand over her eyes, trying to rest, just as the doctor ordered, when she suddenly sat up and hollered at Mama, “Can’t you make them shut up?”

Mama was stunned.  “Make who shut up?”

Stabbing at the air and pointing in our general direction, arms flailing she yelled, “Those kids, they’re driving me nuts!”

It was then that Mama realized that before Sissie’s tonsils were removed she had been hard of hearing and that was what had caused her to be such a loudspeaker when she did talk.  She evidently couldn’t even hear herself speak before the operation.  From that day forward Sissie would not only learn that she could hear herself, but that she had the ability to show her temper.

While Buddy and Sisse would eventually settle down and become part of the tribe again, Harriette and I were looking beyond the safety of our group for the first time and became absolutely fascinated by one lady who lived on our street. She lived down the block and across the street. She was a tall willowy creature with dark eyes, coal black hair and sharp features.  We never knew her name and she never spoke to us directly, but she could always be seen in her front yard with a little black and white dog.  What I remember most about her was her beautiful voice. As she was tending her flowers, she’d hum quietly to herself and as soon as she spied the two us, she broke out into song, singing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” Harriette and I would stand motionless on the sidewalk, mouths agape, staring at her, mesmerized by that voice.  Nowhere since have I ever met anyone so willing to sing to a child in such an impetuous way.

We’d play in the yard, on the sidewalk, and in the street.  Our knees would be grimy, our faces dirty, and our clothes dust covered.  Most of the time we looked like street urchins, but we were the epitome of happiness.  With five daughters, Mama had five heads of hair to keep clean and combed. Sissie’s blond hair fell almost to her waist while Mama trimmed the rest of our manes to just above our shoulders, cutting our bangs at an angle because we’d never hold our heads still while she chopped away with her scissors.

At home, one of Harriette’s self-appointed jobs was to tell us when Mama got out the fine-tooth comb. We did our best to avoid Mama like the plague. Our ruses never worked; one by one Mama would pin each of us down in a kitchen chair, hold us in place by digging the fingers of her free hand into our shoulders, and yank and pull that fine toothed comb through our hair until all the snarls were out. It’s a wonder we didn’t end up being five tough scalped, half-bald girls (only kidding Mama).

It was when we lived on Walnut Street that Mama received the gift of a dog from Daddy. This was our second dog in the City, the first having been a teacup Chihuahua who didn’t live very long. Mama named this dog “Tidbit.” The pup was a Pekingese, a really cute, hairy little beast who liked to eat rubber bands. Eating rubber bands wouldn’t have been so bad if the rubber bands had made a clean exit. Mama always had to hang onto the squiggly little rascal to remove them from Tidbit’s backside.

Buddy, being the sweet boy-child that he was, spent most of his time throwing our cat out the window and when he wasn’t busy throwing our cat out the window he was feeding our goldfish to the cat. He could be perfectly content and quiet most of the time, but as small and puny as he was, he had a quickly developing mean streak and was absolutely determined that we would become a pet free household.

Every now and then, we’d hear him quietly say, “Here kitty-kitty-kitty.”

There he’d be, a little blond haired, blue-eyed devil, with an evil smirk on his face, holding a small goldfish in one hand above the fish bowl, just above the paws of our house cat, ready to drop it in as soon as that cat opened its mouth, while his other hand maneuvered swiftly through the bowl searching for his next victim, and one by one our goldfish disappeared.

Mama and Daddy had given me a doll and cradle for Christmas, and thanks to Buddy, Tidbit ended up with the cradle after going the way of the cat and being pitched out the third floor window and breaking all four of her legs. By the time Tidbit was healed, my doll no longer had any fingers or toes, and the only thing the doll cradle was good for was kindling. 

I really don’t know if Buddy had anything to do with our next move, one block away to Chestnut Street, but I’ve got my suspicions.  I really think Mama was afraid that Buddy would graduate from throwing cats and dogs out the window to throwing his sisters out the window.

Chapter 5 – Chicago’s North Side (Part 1)

April 18, 2006

We moved to the north side of the city into an apartment on Walton Street. It was a third floor walk-up with a community bathroom off the second floor porch. Apartments like this were called cold water flats. Mama would heat water on the stove and bathe us in a galvanized wash tub in the middle of the kitchen floor. There she bathed Buddy, Harriette and I together followed by our older sisters until she realized that Buddy needed his privacy.

Actually, there’s a little more to the story than just that. Buddy was not only the only boy; he was a typical boy, complete with a very vivid little boy’s imagination. He’d had an accident in the bathwater one evening and decided to make the best of a bad situation by pretending his accident was actually a submarine.

He lifted that well-formed mass in the air and started making very loud, very strange engine sounds.  Still holding his little brown submarine in the palm of his hand, he aimed it at the water and yelled “V-r-o-o-o-m!,” breaking the surface of his private ocean in a fast dive, splashing water all over the kitchen floor before beginning yet another dive.  Racing his submarine quickly through the bathwater, he’d bellow, “Full speed ahead!,” and “Man the Torpedoes!”

“Mama,” yelled Harriette, “Buddy’s playing with his poop!”

Yep, a little boy’s imagination.  And so it was from that moment forward Buddy had the tub all to himself after the rest of us were bathed. After all, if he wanted to play submarine, it was his business.

It seemed that when Mama wasn’t washing kids, she was washing clothes and Mama was forever washing clothes. Every day was wash day. She washed our clothes in a wringer washer on the back porch and carried them to the attic where she hung them to dry in the musty attic air. All day while Bobbie, Sissie and Normie were in school, she’d wash clothes and hang them on the line while Harriette, and Buddy and me played on the dusty floorboards of that attic. She’d take down the dry clothes and sprinkle water on the starched articles of clothing then roll them neatly so she could iron them in the middle of the kitchen. Harriette and I learned to iron by the time we were tall enough to reach the top of the ironing board at its lowest level. Our responsibility was to iron pillowcases and Daddy’s handkerchiefs, a task we took very seriously. I guess Mama figured that we couldn’t ruin them and if we did, no one would see them.  It kept us busy for a while and out of her hair and besides, Daddy never complained about the scorched hankies that he kept neatly folded in his pocket.

Our evening meals in that tiny apartment were consistent to say the least. Spaghetti and meat sauce on Monday (Chef Boyardee in a box), oatmeal and frozen strawberries on Wednesday, fried chicken on Thursday, and pork chops on Daddy’s payday. There was Hungarian Kringle (also known as poppy seed roll) on holidays, high holy days, and whenever Mama had enough money left over to buy the ingredients for it. If we were really hungry before meals, there was always evaporated milk and sugar bread, pickle sandwiches, tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches (when tomatoes were in season), banana and mayonnaise sandwiches, apple and mayonnaise sandwiches, canned pineapple ring and mayonnaise sandwiches, or, before payday, mayonnaise and mayonnaise sandwiches or fried butter bread. 

Rituals were extremely important to Mama when we were growing up. It was as if she were a woman possessed.  As though she would suffer some sort of ill luck or be cursed if she missed one of her daily rituals.  Every morning she would line up our three older sisters and lift their skirts to make sure their knees were clean and that they had clean underwear on before sending them off to school. Her favorite saying was “God forbid you should get in an accident and they should take you to the hospital and find out you’ve got dirty underwear on” (uttered while she slapped herself in the forehead).  We all understood at a young age that if we were ever really in a bad accident that wearing clean underwear would be the least of our concerns.

Not a day went by that Bobbie, Sissie and Normie weren’t talking about the latest changes in fashion. At the time we lived on Walnut Street, poodle skirts, saddle shoes, and very tight cashmere sweaters were vogue. The girls always made sure to tell each other (in Mama’s presence of course) that they would never stoop to wearing the rumored new fashion, skirt hems above the knee. On school days, once they left the house, however, Sissie would duck behind a garbage can and roll the waist of her skirt up to make the hem higher. There were days, however, when Sissie could be spotted in a crowd because the hem of her slip was well below the hem of her skirt.

In this neighborhood full of bohemians, gypsies, immigrants and newly arrived southerners, we had a sense of belonging.  Everyone and everything was either out of place or out of kilter so we all fit together perfectly.  There wasn’t a single section of sidewalk on the block that was even and on the level. It was as if the ground beneath of feet understood.  One section of those sidewalks was raised and pitched severely to the right, while the next rose and pitched to the left. It wasn’t safe for a kid to run on much less try to roller skate or ride a bike or scooter, but that didn’t deter any of us.  Even the seldom traveled alley was an obstacle course.  Scattered across the ground behind the closely constructed buildings lay the remnants of coal that never had a chance of making it to the furnaces meant to offer warmth, and the rocks and pieces of beer bottles thrown by the patrons of the local tavern threatened to bruise our shins and tear our tender flesh. I once fell on cinders which became deeply embedded in the palm of my left hand. That same week Harriette got a wonderful combination of glass shards, rocks and cinders in her right knee when she attempted to learn to ride a scooter that was made of wood slats, a fruit crate, and roller skate wheels over the rough cobblestones that had worked their way up through the dirt and concrete lining the alley. Mama was able to carefully pick the cinders out of my hand, but those rocks, glass and cinders in Harriette’s knee weren’t giving up so easily.  The skin around the cinders was already red and puffy when Mama poured straight peroxide into the wound.  I sat transfixed while one by one, pieces of glass, rock, and coal popped out of Harriette’s knee. Years later, we’d learn that the fall also cost Harriette the cartilage behind her kneecap (it split).

Not one to be outdone by a younger sibling, Sissie tried to ride that same scooter down that same alley and wound up airborne over the handlebars, just as Harriette had been. Poor girl, she had to go to school with one huge scab down the center of her face, scabs down the backs of both arms, and tender ribs.  As her scabs hardened, we all volunteered to pick at them.  After all, there were just too scabs in too many places for one person to have to pick at.

Daddy worked as an automobile mechanic for a dealership, Loeber Motors on Clark Street during these years. While he might not have enjoyed his job much, all of us loved the fact that he was working there because at least once a week he’d bring home rolls of candy bars for us that were given to him by salesmen. Long rolls of Small Baby Ruth’s or Butterfingers attached end to end. Every now and then, we’d pick out a window display (a bar of wood in a candy wrapper). Other times, he’d bring home a bag of candy, toffees, or chocolates for his young brood. No one was more loved then Daddy when he’d reach into a  bag of candy and give each of us a hand full.

I can’t say that we were a fair-minded bunch in our youth.  Every now and then one of us would make the mistake of counting the number of candies in someone else’s hand. “Hey, Daddy, she (or he) got more than I did,” we’d complain.

Daddy, looking very serious and concerned, brought us both to his side and said, “Hold out your hands so I can see.” Carefully counting the pieces we had, he’d shake his head and turn to the accuser saying, “Why, you’re absolutely right you know.” Turning to the kid who had more to start with, he’d have them hold out their hand. “I figure you got four more pieces than she did.” He’d promptly take four pieces out of the accuser’s hand and place those four pieces into the hand of the accused. It didn’t take long for us to realize that Daddy didn’t like whiners.  Daddy instinctively knew how to teach fairness in his own inventive ways.

We never suffered for the lack of toothbrushes or combs or umbrellas either. Those salesmen were extremely generous to our family. The colored toothbrushes were personalized too! The only problem was that the name belonged to a complete stranger, usually bearing a very long Polish, Russian or Slovak name that we had no chance of being able to pronounce. Still, we had to remember what name was inscribed on our toothbrush in order to avoid an argument. Candy, toothbrushes, combs, and umbrellas–what more could a kid want?

To break the monotony of living in the city all week and to make sure we experienced as many aspects of life as possible, Daddy took us out of the city on Sundays. We’d get into the car after Sunday mass and drive north to Wisconsin to visit Ma, often stopping at a roadside fruit stand for apples and the Kroger in Edgerton for cold cuts, bread and mayonnaise. Daddy never wanted to impose on his mother when it came to feeding his kids, but Ma always had a big pot of beef barley soup on the stove and fresh baked bread on the table when we arrived. We still had the sandwich makings though, just in case we got hungry. 

After visiting with Ma for a short time, Harriette and I would usually commandeer the outhouse so that we could play with our dolls.  For what seemed like hours on end we’d prop our dolls up on the slab of wood that served as a hole cover on the seat and make believe we were in some kind of palace and our dolls were royalty.

Eventually, someone would need to use the facilities and Harriette and I chose to be very quiet as they pounded on the outhouse door and demanded to be let in so they could relieve themselves.

“Come on guys, I gotta go pee!”

Harriette and I would huddle together in a corner and cover each other’s mouths.

“For Chrissakes!  I really gotta go!  Unlock the door!”

We’d look at each other, eyes wide,  and do our best not to giggle. We could imagine them just beyond the door, legs crossed, arms wrapped around their middles, hopping on one foot as the shouted, “Aw man, I’m gonna pee all over myself!”

Harriette and I knew better.  They’d just go behind the shed and pee in the dirt.  We’d had to do it plenty of times.  Nobody would see them. After stomping their feet and beating the door, they’d finally leave us alone to continue our imaginary tea party.

One time somebody had the bright idea of bringing Ma along to the outhouse.  They beat and yelled while Harriette and I acted in our usual manner.  Just about the time we thought they’d gone back behind the shed, Ma started beating the walls of the outhouse so hard that the floor shook and the walls began to rattle.

In her sternest, loudest, strongest booming voice she shouted,  “Was im Scheißehaus geschieht?!!” 

Hearing those words terrified the two of us.  We had no clue as to what she was saying, but there was no doubt that she meant business and we were dead.  We slowly opened the door and peeked out at Ma, two little girls huddled together, heads bowed, trying to look as meek as humanly possible. 

She stood there with her arms crossed, glaring down at the two of us and not saying a word.  She reached out a hand to each of us and made one simple comment.  “Come on mitt you, you two sillies.”

It took me fifteen years to muster up the courage to ask Ma what “Was im Scheißehaus geschieht” meant. 

She laughed at me and asked where I had heard such language. 

“From you.”

“What do you mean from me?”

“When Harriette and I were in the outhouse with our dolls.  Remember?”

I don’t believe I had ever seen my grandmother’s eyes twinkle as brightly as they did when she remembered the incident.  Through her laughter, she translated for me.  “Was im Scheißehaus geschieht literally means,  What’s happening in the shit house.” (And to think it was such a terrifying phrase when Harriette and I first heard it!)

There were plenty of phrases that I learned listening to Ma.  While I will remember her words outside that outhouse, my favorite of all was “Mein Gott im Himmel” (My God in Heaven) usually uttered as she brought her fist to her chest.  It was a phrase she never said in anger but was often heard to utter when someone was sick or in trouble or in some perceived imminent mortal danger.

One of the drawbacks of going to the country is coming home again. We believed, rightfully so,  that every apartment in Chicago was infested with roaches. We’d sneak in the back door very quietly, stand by while Daddy slowly opened all the cabinet doors, the he’d hit the light switch, and let us attack every one of those nasty little creatures until there were no more in sight.  Boy, the Mexican Hat Dance had nothing on our fast little feet.

Chapter 4 – Chicago’s South Side

April 14, 2006

Early in 1954, a 1948 Mercury took us to Chicago. Traveling along those rutted roads bordered with tall Georgia pines left us with a kind of melancholy deep within our souls. Sun-dried red clay, churned by the tires, rose up, billowed and drifted behind the car in sienna colored clouds, settling on everything in our wake. Very slowly the pine forests of Georgia made way to the mountains of Tennessee, tall and foreboding. Daddy carefully wound his way along those roads and around the mountain. One of my sisters would roll down a window and we’d look out, seeing forever below us.  We’d pray that a tire wouldn’t leave the road.  No matter how many times we sang “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” none of us could ever envision anyone riding six white horses around this one and surviving to sing about it.

The trip took the better part of a week.  The five of us girls sat in the back seat while Buddy sat between Mama and Daddy in front.  We’d stop in small towns to shop at a local grocer for bread and cold-cuts or at gas stations (then referred to as “filling stations”).  Daddy would tell the uniformed attendant to check the oil and top off the tank as each of us piled out of the car to head for the ice-filled drink chest that stood just outside the squeeky rust covered screen door at the front of the station.  One by one we’d choose our favorite soft drink and Daddy would had each of us a bag of salty peanuts so we could dump them into the bottles of sweet soda. Daddy made sure that each of us had our own bottle of soda and told us we had to finish it before before we hit the road again.  I can still remember the look on Daddy’s face as he drank the remains of our salty-sweet peanut soda — mixtures of Royal Crown Cola and Orange Crush.  I really don’t think he realized that eight ounces of any carbonated beverage is just a bit much for three-, four-, six-, seven-, and nine -year old kids.

Mama made sure she always had a pack of Juicy Fruit gum in her purse just in case we got too restless. Midway between stops she’d break a stick of gum in half and piece by piece she’d pass the halves to the backseat so that each of us got a piece.  Bobbie was so excited about getting that half stick of gum that she carefully unwrapped it, threw the gum out the window and popped the wrapper in her mouth.

The one thing I remember most vividly about that trip is the rest stops (or lack of them).  A rest stop on a two-lane road in the early 50s consisted of an outhouse next to a “U” shaped drive off the main road.  Some were fancier than others, but they were still outhouses.  Mama would take all of the girls into the outhouse with her. Regardless of how the holes were covered, these wooden buildings reeked from years of use by thousands of travelers.  We’d cover our noses as we entered and kept them covered until we thought we could handle the stench and breathe at the same time. After Mama took care of her business, she made sure that each of us took care of ours.  She had to hold Harriette and me over the hole to be sure that our tiny rumps didn’t slip through to the other side.  My preference of rest stops were the ones that had more than one hole (you know, “two-holers” or “three-holers,” etc.) that were separated by walls and had doors on them. At least these provided some sort of privacy.  You couldn’t call them “stalls” exactly because the base for the holes was built from the same plank of wood that ran the entire length of the room, and all the holes went to the same place. The really fancy rest stops even had running water — a faucet mounted outside the structure where we could wash our hands.  None of them, however, provided either tissue or towels, so we brought our own.  In the absence of rest stops, there was always the side of the road/make your own porta-potty method.  To create your own stall on the open road, you need only open both the car’s front door and back door and position yourself between the two.  Sqatting, but not too low so that your backside shows below the bottom of the door — well, you can take it from there.  Daddy never used the between the car door method.  He always headed for the nearest brush or into the woods.  He found out early on during that trip that it’s not a good idea to squat in vegetation after dark unless you know exactly what type of vegetation your squatting in. His lesson to us is never, EVER, get too close to a plant with only three leaves and never squat in the woods after dark!

We made our way north out of Tennessee through the narrow western tip of Kentucky and its beautiful horse stables, deep blue-green grass, bordered as far as the eye could see with pristine white fences holding muscular steeds. Southern Illinois showed us a combination of all of the lower states, roads bordered with high ridges of stone, lined with pines, and dotted with farms. As we drove on toward northern Illinois, resembling Wisconsin, the weather cooled and we knew we were getting closer to our next home. Throughout that whole trip, we ate in the car, slept in the car, got bathed in the car and fussed in the car, but somehow we all survived.

Our first home in the city of Chicago was on South May Street, upstairs from Daddy’s brother, Walter and his family. We didn’t have much to start with. Buddy had a crib in the living room and the five of us girls shared a bed in the only bedroom, sleeping sideways so that we all had plenty of sleeping room. If one of us rolled over, the rest would follow, almost in unison.  Mama and Daddy slept on a pallet consisting only of a stack of old blankets spread out on the living room floor next to Buddy’s crib.  That apartment was more like camping with a roof over our heads and certainly not like anything even resembling a real home.

The only real furniture we had other than Buddy’s crib, was a kitchen table.  It was uncomfortable eating meals standing up (or sitting on the floor if you weren’t tall enough to reach the table).   Early one morning Mama took Harriette, Buddy and me down to the corner fruit market to ask the man for fruit crates to use as kitchen chairs so that we could all eat our meals together. He probably thought she was crazy, but we left with enough crates in our arms so that we could have our first meal as a family seated around the table.

I can still see the broken windowpane in the front window that let cold air blow through the apartment.  On blustery days the wind would whistle through that pane as a warning to anyone who wanted to venture outside not to forget to dress warmly.  Most afternoons I would stretch out in the middle of the living room floor with Harriette and try to catch the dust motes that danced in the sunlight through that broken pane. We’d lie next to each other, moving our arms around and round, fluttering our hands and making those motes swirl and spin until they lulled us to sleep.

Harriette and I continued to be inseparable. We slept next to each other in bed (my spot was between her and the headboard). We continued to bathe together and play together. She never allowed me to be out of her sight and she had all the makings of a very powerful and protective big sister.

Uncle Walter was a quiet man, but I really didn’t care much for our aunt.  She used to offer to let us watch her television if we would play in the street instead of the yard (as if the thought of being in the same room with her just to watch television was appealing). There was a glider swing in the back yard, the kind with two swings facing each other. It looked like it might have been nice to sit on, but it was reserved for their kids and none of us were ever allowed to occupy it when our aunt was home (which was all the time). I don’t know what caused Mama and Daddy to move on, but thankfully we didn’t live there very long. We were headed for better times and a better place, the top floor of a three story cold-water tenement building on the North side.

Chapter 3 – Florida

April 12, 2006

Shortly after Buddy’s birth, we moved back to Chattahoochee for a short time so Mama could help care for Pop after he’d suffered a stroke. Pop hadn’t been the easiest man to live with, much less try to take care of and it seemed as though his stroke made life more difficult not only for him, but for those who really loved him. Both he and Mama were stubborn, strong willed individuals, but Mama was the only member of his family who could and would stand up to him.

Their battle of wills could start over the smallest perceived infraction.  One day Pop demanded a bowl of soup, so Mama went into the kitchen to warm it for him. Almost as soon as she got the soup out of the cabinet, he yelled at her for being so slow and lazy, telling her that she was taking far too long– she should know how hungry he was and that he didn’t want to wait for Hell to freeze over waiting for something as simple as a bowl of soup. Mama was standing at the kitchen counter, a can opener in one hand, a can of soup in the other and fire flashing from her hazel eyes. I have to admit that I thought she was being very fair and calm about it.  She gave him a simple choice — the can of soup or the can opener between his eyes. To Mama, it didn’t make any difference, one way or another he was going to shut up. Chalk one up for Mama’s side.

At the time, Little Mama worked as an LPN at the Florida State Hospital. When she wasn’t working she cared for Pop and Mama and Daddy would pile all of us kids into the car and head for anywhere. I can remember Daddy taking us all to Torreya State Park on one occasion. Now that’s a place of beauty.  Overlooking the Apalachicola River, the park is the home of the Torreya tree, a rare tree that only grows along the bluffs of the Apalachicola River.

Daddy pulled into the parking lot and as we got out of the car the others took off as if they didn’t have a care in the world.  As I exited the car, however, I came face to face with the biggest, ugliest, meanest looking animal I have ever seen in my entire life. Standing in front of me, head lowered, glaring directly at me and snorting, was an enormous wild boar. That monster must have been at least twice as tall as I was, ten times my weight, and his sparse coarse hair (if you can call it hair) stuck out all over his thick, flesh colored skin at odd angles. This was also the first time I had ever seen tusks on any creature and his were very long, very pointed, and aimed right at me. Needles to say, I froze in my tracks.

“Come on Susan, let’s go,” said Daddy, gently pulling on my hand.

“No, Daddy,” I answered, not letting my eyes leave those of that boar for one second as I drew closer to Daddy’s side.

Seeing the source of my distress he said, “Aw, come on, Suzie Q, it won’t hurt ya.”

Gripping his hand even tighter, I dug my fingernails into his palm, stood my ground and shook my head.

My whole body was quivering as he lifted me by the hand he’d been holding and sat me safely on his shoulder. Still staring at that boar, I did feel a bit safer, because I knew that as long as I was on Daddy’s shoulders, nothing could hurt me.

I’ve since found out that during that time in that part of the south, the system to manage livestock was open range, meaning that the farmers didn’t have to pen their stock in. This was simply one boar that had wondered away from where he belonged and happened to end up face to face with me.  It really doesn’t matter though, I still don’t like boars.

Facing the tree-lined bluffs of the Apalachicola River at the Torreya State Park is the Gregory House, an old southern mansion that had been moved from the opposite shore of the river. My older sisters had said that one day they were going to be Southern Belles and live in that house. Fat chance, Bobbie was about as graceful as a baby elephant, Sissie was far too timid to be any kind of belle, Norma Jean’s round face would not have looked natural in one of those long flowing antebellum gowns and Harriette and I were just too rough and tumble to ever be seen drinking mint julep, fanning ourselves, and batting our lashes at anyone while looking out from below the lace brim of a fancy bonnet.  All in all, we girls were about as far from Southern Belle material as any person could get, but that was okay, we could still wander through the Gregory House and dream.

The moss hanging from the trees surrounding the Gregory House give it an otherworldly appearance.  While I’ve always found Spanish moss to be intriguing, Little Mama said it was brought over by Spaniards and that southerners “just never could get rid of that bug filled mess” (actually, I remember her referring to it as “that damned bug infested mess”). I don’t know how true her history of Spanish moss is, but to this day it continues to amaze me that something that looks so dead could be so alive and resist all efforts to kill it.

It was during the time that Mama was caring for Pop that the Army Corps of Engineers began the construction of a dam in Chattahoochee. One reason the Jim Woodruff Dam was constructed was to prevent the flooding caused by the merging of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers. Daddy drove a truck that hauled rock to the construction site. It took tons and tons of rock to mix the concrete for that dam.  The result of that dam was that the woods and farm land north of the Apalachicola River were no longer flooded because a lake was formed. That lake would be named Lake Seminole. 

While Daddy worked, Mama continued to care for us.  She regularly did our wash in an old wringer washer, and washing clothes for eight people was a full-time job, especially when one is still a baby. We tried to help her as best as we could, but only managed to cause more trouble than we were worth. I remember trying to guide a bed-sheet through the wringer, certain that I could do it right (after all, I’d seen Mama do it a million times). My fingers got tangled in the sheet which then got caught in the wringer and my right arm was pulled through to above the elbow. The rollers continued turning, trying to wring the life out of my arm and the sheet.  The wringer washers at that time didn’t have the quick release on them like the later models did that were used to disengage the rollers in the event of something (like a kid’s arm or woman’s neck scarf) getting jammed. I screamed at the top of my lungs while Mama tried frantically to pull the sheet out in a frantic tug of war with an unyielding machine. After what seems like hours, but was probably just a couple of minutes, she pulled the plug on that possessed hunk of metal and Daddy took a sledgehammer to the rollers to break them apart (while my arm was still caught in the middle). Since then my right arm has remained somewhat crooked and has always ached before a rain, but it wasn’t until almost thirty years later that an x-ray following another injury to the same arm revealed an old break at the elbow.

The winter we were in Chattahoochee I developed an ear infection that no one but Pop noticed. I had been leaning my head to one side and tugging at my ear. He sat me next to the wood stove in the front room in an attempt to ease my pain. I covered my ears and held my head as if it were going to explode. The warmth of the stove felt very good for a little while, but it also forced the infection to the surface. As I sat next to the wood stove and screamed, my left eardrum ruptured, allowing the infection to drain. Relieved of the pain, I slept like a baby that night. The resulting scar tissue and hole were just two more things that wouldn’t be discovered until many years later.

None of us realized it at that time, but that visit would be the last time any of us would ever see Pop alive. He died in 1955 while we were living on Chicago’s North side.  But then again, that’s another chapter.

Chapter 2 – Wisconsin

April 8, 2006

Ma was a tall imposing woman with broad shoulders, strong hands and deep brown eyes. She’d been blinded in her right eye as a result of a winter game played when she was a child. During a snowball fight, one of the boys that she was playing with had hidden a rock in his snowball and hit her in the eye. She also had two perfectly formed round bumps on her forehead. She’d take our hands and hers and guide them slowly over the bumps, telling us that she had been a devil when she was young until her parents had cut off her horns.

Ma walked with a cane to steady herself. She was no stranger to hard work, having done it since she was just a child. Her father had been in some sort of accident when she was a young girl and lost both of his hands. She and her siblings had to hand feed him. She grew up fast and left Hungary when she was barely seventeen years old. She had arrived in New York at Ellis Island from Austria/Hungary stating that her final  destination was Bloomington, Illinois, the home of her sister, Anna.

Ma spoke German and Magyar (the native language of Hungary). She could read and write Magyar, but she could only speak German. She often confused me when I was a child by telling me on one occasion that she was a Hungarian Jew and then telling me on another that she was a gypsy. I had always been told by her own children that she was a German Catholic.

She was a fascinating woman, mysterious in her own way. Every night she’d undo the long braids that were always wound around her head. Sitting alone in her room, she would carefully brush and re-braid her long gray hair before turning in. She absolutely mesmerized me. She’d take hairpins out of her braid and place them in her pierced earlobes in place of earrings during the night.

Her usual daily attire was Oshkosh B-Gosh overalls, a man’s flannel shirt, and work boots. If anything had to be done, Ma could do it. She wasn’t afraid of walking on a roof in it needed patched, or repairing a tool and she had the ability to construct most of her own furnishings, both inside and outside the house. Her motto was, “If I can’t get it on my own, I don’t need it.” Even though Daddy spent a lot of time helping her, she treasured her independence. Ma was a true immigrant—bullheaded, stubborn, and as capable of swinging a hammer as cradling a child. We loved her dearly.

After marrying our grandfather, she raised six children on her own without the aid of charity. Our grandfather, whom we never knew, had been an alcoholic and Ma said he only came home long enough to create another young life or discover the gender of their last child. He never claimed any children until his sons joined the military during WWII, at which time he attempted to apply for an allotment from each of them. The clerk at the courthouse, one of his drinking buddies, simply laughed at him and sent him on his way. I don’t know what it was in that man’s life that made him travel the path he took. He had been a carpenter in the trunk shops in Chicago in the 1920s. He must have been a talented man because all of his children were gifted in one way or another. Even though he was an absentee father and husband, his children never spoke ill of him and Ma admitted that she would love him until the day she died.

Immigration records show that our grandfather arrived in the United States with his mother from Russia, but according to the 1920 census, he and his mother listed their place of birth as Poland and their native tongue as Polish. While the information seemed conflicting at first, the best I can gather is that they were Russian Poles.

Listening to family members describe my grandfather’s mother, she was a slight woman with a fiery temper. My cousin, Juanita, told about one time when my dad had cornmeal cooking to make dog food for his dogs one morning.

His grandmother came over to the stove, leaned over the pot and asked him, “What are you doing?”

“Making some mush for my dogs.”

Pointing at the pot she said, “That’s for your dogs?”


She leaned over the pot that he was stirring and spat into it.

“Whaddyah do that for?”

“I wanna make sure nobody eats it.”

Juanita said that the woman was so mean that she lived to be 112 years old.

Ma lived in an old two-story farmhouse with high ceilings and long windows. Lacing the gable roof were lighting rods that had been placed there during a time when salesmen convinced people that these metal rods could divert the angry attack of the elements, not attract them. They stood as silent sentinels while the clouds in the heavens boiled and roiled on the horizon, as if searching the skies for the storm that was sure to follow as the air between the house and barn became so charged that you could smell the impending tempest in the crackling, crisp, coppery air.

The summer following our move, Harriette and I spent most of our time in an old galvanized washtub full of water behind the house and Ma acted as though she absolutely hated it. She was always yelling at us to get out of her chicken water. You see, Ma had a fenced in yard behind the house that had a small kitchen garden in it where she’d let the chickens roam free because they’d be easier to catch if they were close to the house. Early in the morning she’d start a fire under a pot of water and when it was ready she’d sit on a low bench and corral the chickens that she had selected for dinner. One by one, she’d lean over, reach out, grab a chicken, twist its scrawny neck to kill it, dip it in the vat of boiling water and quickly pluck its feathers off. She’d finally singe the pin feathers off by rotating that naked bird over the fire and turn to drop it in the washtub to clean it only to find that Harriette and I were sitting in her clean chicken water. We were used to hearing her yell, “Get out of my chicken water,” but never paid her any mind. All we wanted to do was play in water, any water, and be close to Ma. We figured we could splash and watch Ma at the same time.

 During our stay with Ma, Harriette learned that her chubby little legs could run, so running away from home became her favorite pastime. Mama resorted to putting cowbells on Harriette’s shoes to keep track of her, but even that didn’t slow Harriette down – she found out that if she stripped down to the skin as she ran she could get away faster. She’d begin her game by running down the main highway and take off every stitch of her clothes as she ran, including her shoes and cow bells. More times than not, it was a neighbor, Louie Arnst, who would bring her home—picking up her discarded clothes while she sat on his shoulders just as naked as the day she was born. Good thing he was an honest and caring man—things could have turned out much differently otherwise.

Daddy worked in Chicago and drove to the city on Monday mornings and wasn’t home until late Friday night, leaving Mama alone once again with five daughters in the midst of a family and a town that she knew virtually nothing about. After about a year of work, he managed to find employment in a munitions plant in Baraboo. He used to tell us about a man at a wheelbarrow plant who used to push a wheelbarrow full of straw out of the plant every Friday. The guard would dig through the straw, convinced that the man was stealing parts from the plant. After finding nothing in the straw, he let him pass. It took him months to realize that the guy was stealing wheelbarrows.

Our brother, Buddy (Robert), was born in November of 1952. He got his nickname because regardless of how hard she tried, Harriette could not say “brother.” It sounded more like “butter” so it was naturally shortened to Buddy (just because we lived in the dairy capital of the world was no sign that we had to name our brother after a milk byproduct). His birth was not too spectacular an event except for the fact that he was the FIRST BORN SON (can’t you hear that Heavenly Choir?) following five daughters. He was also only the second child to be born outside the state of Florida.

Bobbie, Sissie and Normie were grouped as the “Older Three,” or the “Bigger Kids,” while Harriette, Buddy and I comprised the “Younger Three” (or “The Little Ones”). They had six kids in seven years, but the division between older and younger made it appear to us as though we were two separate families. We younger siblings never felt smart enough, old enough or wise enough for the older three, no matter how old we became.

When it came to trouble, what one of us didn’t think up, another did. Bobbie and Sissie went to school in Wisconsin. Harriette and I occupied most of our time by getting into trouble. I’d tell you that I was The Good Child, but I doubt that you’d believe me. Ma threatened us with all kinds of punishments– everything from sending us all to bed without our shoes on if we didn’t behave to selling us to the gypsies. We took her seriously.

When we weren’t getting into trouble, Harriette occupied most of her waking hours torturing me. She was left-handed and I right-handed and at meals, she insisted that I sit on her left side so she could keep me in line with her left elbow. It’s a wonder that I managed to ever get any food in my mouth at all. She was forever poking me in the ribs every time I lifted my spoon (and to think that Mama was worried about me because I was a skinny child!)

Ma’s kitchen had a long table with benches on either side. It was on a bench at that table that I became acquainted with Ma’s ability as miracle worker. One evening at supper I was crying and generally making a pain of myself complaining about my finger hurting and Mama was trying to get me to “hush.” Ma came over to me and told me to show her my sore finger. I raised my hand and pointed the offending finger toward the ceiling, showing her the hangnail that was causing me such pain. She gently grasped the hard, painful skin between her fingernails and quickly pulled. After removing the hangnail, she rubbed my small hand in her large one and patting it she said, “That’s better.” It was.

Harriette insisted we sleep together, play together and get into mischief together. I felt as if I was a physical extension of her instead of being my own person. Even so, I  thought she had the most brilliant mind of anybody I knew. When she spoke to me, I felt as if I had been selected to receive some sort of divine wisdom. It was only during those times that she didn’t say anything that I knew that I must have been guilty of some terrible wrongdoing and was being punished for it. I would often wish that she’d just bop me over the head, get her anger out of her system and go back to playing with me. To this day I can’t stand being given the silent treatment.

Like Ma, Harriette was bullheaded from birth and really began to display this trait in 1952. She was becoming a feisty child and totally determined to rule me. It did no good for anyone to argue with her, “No” was her favorite word. She had to have the last word even if it consisted of vigorously shaking her head and saying “Un huh.” It didn’t matter that she was only ten months older than me either, she could have just as easily had been ten or twenty . She was still my big sister and never let me forget it for one minute. Not being very talkative, she’d wait until she did have something to say, and then let me know in no uncertain terms that I had better listen (and listen good!). However, at those times when she’d make me cry, she’d immediately come over to me and put her arms around me and gently pat my shoulders. “Don’t cry baby sister,” she’d say, and from that first time until the day she died, I have been her baby sister.

We continued to grow closer as the landscape of Wisconsin changed its colors and summer turned to fall. As the cold winds started to blow in from Canada, scattering the leaves far from the trees where they had once clung, Daddy knew it was time to install storm windows. He carried those windows to the front of the house, neatly stacking them next to the stairs. One by one, he would lift a window from the stack, wipe it off with the rag he had tucked in his belt  and take it to the far reaches of that old farmhouse, careful not to let it drop from his large hands. That’s how I remember him always doing things – in a way that was both conservative and thorough. Bobbie had been watching me and Harriette in front of the house, playing with us to keep us occupied and out of Daddy’s way. She’d stand on the side of the stairs and jump over the stack of storm windows while Harriette and I watched. At some point Harriette convinced me that I could fly over the entire stack of them just as easily as Bobbie did. Knees bent and arms held high I took off. I imagined myself sailing, secretly thrilled at the prospect of landing on the other side just as she had. That exhilaration was short lived, however, when just a brief moment later I landed in the middle of that carefully stacked pile of windows, shattering every pane on my way to the ground. My arms were still positioned high above my head with only my fingertips visible to the outside world. I was afraid to move. Bobbie screamed, and Daddy rushed around the house only to find that one of his daughters appeared to be missing. As he got closer though, he could see the tips of my fingers above the top window frame. He gently lifted me out by the tips of my fingers to check for any mortal wounds.  One shard of glass had gone completely through my lower lip just below my mouth. I still have a thick scar inside my lower lip and a thin white scar on the outside of my lower lip to prove that little girls can’t fly. Unfortunately, not a single one of those storm windows survived my maiden flight.

During that winter the snow drifted so deep that it was an exercise in futility just to try to walk. Daddy carried Harriet and me outside on his shoulders one morning and stood us one at a time in the snow. We disappeared, not being able to see each other or anything but white all around us. I guess he figured that if Harriette saw that she couldn’t make it to the highway, she wouldn’t try to run away (at least not until Spring). After waiting for some time he lifted us back out of the snow and set us each on a shoulder and carried us back to the warmth of the house.

During that first winter Ma would tell Bobbie and Sissie not to play around on their way to the school bus because if they did, they’ve have to stay home all day with her and bake cookies, which is why I believe we’ve all developed a love for homemade Snickerdoodles.

Mama would take us sledding down a nearby hill after bundling us up so tightly in our snow suits that our arms refused to rest at our sides. I imagine we all must have looked like over puffed marshmallows packed into those bright red suits. Bobbie and Sissie straddled the sled, backs straight and poised, tucking Harriette and me snugly between their knees and holding us tightly around our waists so they could hold the ropes and steer with their feet. Mama would stand behind each sled, give us one good shove and off we’d go. After we reached the bottom Bobbie and Sissie had to gather everything together and climb back up the hill again. Two duck-like sisters, dragging us with one hand and the sled with the other. We’d waddle along behind them up the hill again so we could fly down over and over again until the afternoon sky turned gray and we’d have to head back home again.

Life for us was good but somewhat confusing. We now had a grandmother who spoke with an accent that wasn’t quite German but certainly not American, and definitely not of that long southern drawl type of Pop’s or Little Mama’s that we had grown so accustomed to, and we had a Daddy that was home more often.

Relatives would often appear at that old farm house to discuss politics and farming techniques – subjects such as whether Black Angus were better than Herefords or Herefords were better than Guernseys – and if Senator McCarthy really believed that what he was doing was right or if he was just some kind of nut. Black Angus usually won out for best beef, Guernseys for best milk, and the nut opinion usually won when it came to McCarthy. Of the many relatives that came to the house, there were few that I knew then or remember now, but the talk always seemed heated and animated and I loved to listen. One of the aunts would usually spot me, click her tongue and say “Little pitchers have big ears,” but nobody bothered to send me on my way. I always loved it when Auntie Olga would make a contribution to the conversation, her arms would go flying through the air to accentuate some point she was trying to make. Someone once commented that if she had to sit on her hands she’d never utter another word.

In early Spring of 1953, I remember Daddy carrying me on his shoulders out to the barn. He pulled at the rusty hasp that secured the contents of the barn and swung those heavy doors wide, their hinges screeching with every inch of movement. The inside of that old barn smelled like weathered hay, axle grease, and ancient machine oil. He lifted me up into the seat of a well-ridden Ford tractor. My perch was so high I imagined I was looking out above the fields into the rest of the world. Quite a change from the laid back life of the south, the north is a beehive of activity long before the ground warms.

The seasons of Wisconsin hold their own memories—timothy grass, sweet and tangy, and the incessantly pungent odor of manure (even in the dead of winter). The sounds of the Indians as they beat their drums and sang their chants long into the night on a summer evening.  And I will never forget the sight and smell of the raw earth that was being turned under for planting and replanting or the feel of the winter’s clean frozen air that burns the inside of your nose as you breathe or the image of hoarfrost that paints the early morning meadows a sparkly silver.

Chapter 1 – In the Beginning

April 7, 2006

In order for you to understand Harriette, you need to know all of us and in order to know all of us, you need to meet the two people who are responsible for us being here in the first place. 

Children tend to blame their parents for all manner of things.  Even doctors will tell you that if a man is bald he can blame his mother.  Folks who don’t eat cheese or beans or spinach or whatever will blame one (or both) of their parents.  However, so little effort is made in giving parents credit for anything.  So here and now, I will give my parents credit for creating a family.  For better or worse, and at times it’s been both, that’s what we have become.

For now though, I’m, going to take you back to a time when only two people in the world were important and even they had no idea of just how important they would become.

The place is Dale-Mabry Field in Tallahassee, Florida.  The time is April of 1944.  The two people are Robert and Arie.  No two people could have been more opposite nor more suited for each other than these two. 

He was the son of immigrants– his father came from Russian Poland and his mother was from Austria/Hungary (to simplify things, they called themselves “German”).  He was a first generation American raised in Chicago, Illinois and Gladwin, Michigan and she was a small town girl from Chattahoochee, Florida.  When they met in that April of 1944 he was 24 and she was a month shy of her 19th birthday.  He was a serviceman preparing for war and she was a college student preparing for life. 

Robert found himself in love for the first time in his life and six months later the two were married on October 4, 1944.  That was the beginning of their 52 year history together.

Two days after they were married my father was put on a troop transport ship and transferred to Agra, India where he would stay for the next 18 months.  He would arrive home to meet his first born child, a daughter who was already 9 months old, and from that day forward, Robert would be known as Daddy.

My mother’s family wasn’t thrilled about having a pregnant 19 year old girl around with no husband in sight so she moved to Chicago to live with her mother-in-law until the baby arrived.

My oldest sister, Roberta (Bobbie) was born on July 5, 1945, 9 months and 1 day after her parents were married.  Expecting a boy, Mama was not at all convinced that the baby she had just been presented with was hers.  “Take her back and bring me my son,” she demanded of the nuns at the Catholic hospital.

“Come on now, mother, you’ve got a beautiful, healthy, baby girl.  Take her.”

“No, I want my son.”

“You don’t have a son, you’ve got a precious baby girl.  Now what name have you chosen for her?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t think of any girl’s names because I was supposed to have a son.”

“What is the child’s father’s name?” asked one nun.

“Robert Carl.”

“Well then, why don’t you name the baby Roberta Carlene after her father?”

So that was how it came to be that a 20 year old Southern Baptist woman from Chattahoochee, Florida became the new mother of a baby girl in a Catholic hospital run by nuns and it’s also how my oldest sister was named after her father by those same Catholic nuns in that Catholic hospital in that big City over a thousand miles away from that 20 year old Southern Baptist’s home.  This event would not only change my mother’s life, it would also change her name.  She would no longer be known as Arie, but “Mama” and lovingly referred to by Daddy as “Your Mama” (as in “Go ask your Mama”).  Life is strange.

Daddy was stationed in the BCI (Burma, China, India) Triangle at the time the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and three days later on Nagasaki, just one month after Bobbie’s birth.  He was there when the toxic cloud drifted over the Indian skies and black rain fell.

After Daddy returned home from the war, he and Mama moved to Florida.  He worked on the barges up and down the Flint River and she stayed home and took care of their babies.  There would be five babies born by the end of 1950.  Theresa (“Sissie”) was born in January of 1947, Norma Jean was born in August of 1948, Harriette was born in January of 1950 and I followed her by 10 months in November of 1950.

Mama and Daddy had built a house across the road and up the hill from my grandparent’s home (actually my grandparent’s house was below the road because you could only see the roof of their house from the road).  The local folk still call our house the “Sunday House” because that’s the only day Daddy had to build it.  I was the last of their babies to be taken home to the Sunday House. 

We called Mama’s parents Little Mama and Pop.  Little Mama because she felt she was too young to be a grandmother (she was, after all, only 17 years older than Mama) and Pop because that’s all Mama ever called him. 

Northern Florida is the land of dreams.  Too far north in the State to be covered in sand and too far south in the country to be covered in dirt.  The roads were red clay.  The trees were pine and cypress and live oaks with Spanish Moss hanging from their branches.  Azaleas grow tall and wild.  Jasmine and fig trees line the streets.  Yes, this was definitely the stuff dreams are made of.

As children we never noticed the steamy heat of summer or the absence of grass.  My older sisters would play under the pines, using pine needles to form rows that made walls of their imaginary houses.  We’d fall asleep under those same pines listening to the boughs brush and rustle in a late afternoon breeze.  At night we were put to bed freshly bathed and tucked in under clean fresh sheets.  We were clean, we were sheltered, and we were loved.

Children also never paid attention to the bug sprayer that occasionally rumbled through the neighborhoods spraying for mosquitoes.  We’d watch the older kids frolic behind the trucks as they sprayed their mists over the heads of those following behind.

In 1951 when Harriette was just a year old (and I wasn’t quite that old), a 1949 Buick transported all of us North.  We moved to Lyndon Station, Wisconsin, the home of Daddy’s mother, Ma.

Funny, isn’t it?  We never had anyone to call “Grandma or Grandpa.”

We had a strange new life, a new grandmother, and a whole new world to explore.


April 6, 2006

I’m starting this blog to keep a promise to my sister, Harriette.  I watched Harriette die in 1997 of metastasized cervical cancer.  She made me promise to write a book about us and to let women know that they don’t have to die the way she did.  I don’t know when the book thing is going to happen.  I’ve been plugging away at it since 1998 and at the rate I’m going I’ll probably have to pass on the promise to my sons in my Will. I don’t know what I’m more afraid of, failing or succeeding.

The reason I made the promise to Harriette was because I could never really tell her no.  She was 10 months older than me and when she was alive I never dared say no, so promising just seemed the natural thing to do.  The real problem is that I’ve never broken a promise to Harriette and I don’t want to break this one.

We settled a wrongful death lawsuit after Harriette’s death.  In an arbitrator’s office in St. Louis, Missouri the doctor who refused to perform a pap smear admitted that she had some responsibility for Harriette’s death.  The one thing I held out for was the ability to write about Harriette and use the doctor’s name and I got it.  Dr. Veena Gupta of Mt. Vernon, Illinois.  There.  It’s out.  It was never really about the money — it was about the human life that was lost because one doctor did not feel that one simple test was significant enough to perform and the fact that you can’t sue a doctor for criminal neglect and send them to jail (which I would have preferred).  You’ve got to sue them for malpractice and wrongful death and put a price on the life of someone who you always believed was priceless.

Have you ever watched someone you love as much as the air you breathe die?  I’ve seen many people die (I used to work in a nursing home and have bathed many deceased elderly people), but I was not prepared to watch the life go out a 47 year old woman who wanted so much to live.

I had moved in with my mother and Harriette when Mom said she needed help with caring for Harriette.  I think it had more to do with the fact that Harriette and I were so close and I needed, really needed, to be there for her. We needed each other because there were a lot of things that Harriette hadn’t finished and she knew that if I made a promise to her, I’d keep it.

Mom had gone into town on that last morning of Harriette’s life and Harriette took advantage of Mom’s absence by making me promise to put hearts and flowers on her headstone and to have something nice written on it.  She insisted on being buried next to our father.  Daddy had died 11 months earlier and Harriette felt that if she hadn’t gotten sick that Daddy would still be alive so she wanted to be as close to him as she could get. She told me what to do with all the stuff that she called her “life” that was packed in boxes in the area above the garage.  The very last thing Harriette made me promise was to write about it. She didn’t want her experience to be a secret; she wanted everyone to know what happened to her. She wanted the world to know about us–all of us. She made me promise to tell our story. I promised.

She even asked me the day’s date.  She wanted to make sure that she wasn’t going to die on my oldest son’s birthday.  Now every year I call my son on his birthday knowing that the very next day will be the anniversary of Harriette’s death.

After Harriette got every promise out of me that she intended to get, she complained about the pain in her back.  You see, when cervical cancer metastasizes, it usually hits the bladder and kidneys.  Harriette had tubes directly into her kidneys and a bladder catheter.  Her kidneys had already shut down and the back pain must have been unbearable.  The morphine patch that she was wearing wasn’t helping and neither were the hydrocodone tablets that I was crushing for her.  We had just contacted Hospice to bring out oxygen for Harriette, but they never made it for their first visit.  Mom had made it home not long before the end and she stood on one side of the hospital bed that we had moved into the living-room while I stood on the other.  We had been trying to make Harriette comfortable (an exercise in futility) when Harriette raised her head, looked past us to the foot of the bed with an expression of recognition on her face.  She asked a one word question, “Daddy?” and her head dropped back onto her pillow in death. 

I didn’t scream, at least I wouldn’t call it a scream.  I grabbed Harriette’s side and rolled her toward me, laid my head against her chest and leaned against the bed.  The sound that escaped my lips was more gutteral.  “Harriette, No!”

So here I am, still trying to make some sense of it all.  Still trying to figure out why some of us are doomed to die while the rest of us are doomed to live on without them.

I’m no longer so terribly depressed.  I do get angry, though.  I still want to wake up one morning and pick up the phone and call Harriette, telling her about the crazy dream I had last night. 

That’s why I’m here.  I figure if I can work my way backwards to the beginning or forward from the beginning, I may get through it. And then again, I may reach the same conclusion — I am still here for Harriette.