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.
“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.