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