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