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

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.

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