Archive for May, 2006

Chapter 11 – Elston Avenue (Part 3)

May 12, 2006

The basement digging summer represented the longest period of time that Harriette, Buddy and I actually got along with each other. I believe that one of the reasons we got along so well was the fact that Buddy stayed in the basement with Daddy digging and filling buckets of dirt, and when Harriette was in the basement retrieving her two buckets full of dirt, I was in the front yard dumping my two buckets and we seldom passed by each other in the gangway. Another reason was that there were a couple of teenage neighborhood boys who had volunteered to help dig out that basement and Harriette was probably trying to be on her best behavior. To be completely honest, I was trying to make a good impression as well. After all, this was the very first time in my life I had ever been in close proximity to a member of the opposite sex other than my brothers and the boys in my class and face it folks, one of my brothers was still in diapers and the other was just . . . well, my brother, and the boys in my class were the same age as me, which was totally uninteresting. Thinking back on that summer, though, I can see how both of those boys might have been impressed with my feminine appearance and ladylike demeanor. There I was, a tomboy in shorts and a tee shirt, covered from head to sneakers with dirt and dust and kept busy hauling buckets of dirt from sunup to sundown from one end of the house to the other. Yep, I can see where that would be a real turn-on for anyone. The final reason the three of us got along so well was simply due to the fact that we were too tired to fight. Not a single one of us had the energy or the inclination to raise a hand to the other after sixteen hours of that backbreaking labor. We were thrilled just to be able to walk into the house long after the sun had gone down so that we could crawl into a warm bath and scrub ourselves until our skin glowed and tingled, put on our nightclothes, and found our way to bed. While none of us ever complained about any aches and pains, that summer will forever be remembered as the summer we all hurt in places we didn’t even know we had.

To most people who witnessed the event that summer I guess my father would have appeared to be a slavedriver, but we didn’t feel that way at all. Daddy’s usual philosophy when it came to getting anything done was not to ask for help, not to expect help, and to basically do it himself. Those times that he actually included us in his endeavors (like building Ma’s house and digging out that basement) were very few and extremely far between. It gave all of us a great sense of accomplishment to think that we not only had completely dug out that basement, we had worked with Daddy and each other to do it.

By the end of that long summer we were all glad to get back to the monotony of school. It wasn’t all boredom, because that fall I learned that there were fights in the playground most afternoons after school let out so I’d sneak behind the school to see who was fighting who. While I have always been a pacifist (I don’t like pain and I don’t like to see anyone in pain), there was something exciting about watching a boy try to draw blood from his opponent. What I didn’t realize at the time was that girls fought, too and I was soon to become the target of just one of those girls.

You see, the girls in my class were just beginning to develop physically. Some of them, however, were developing at a faster pace than others and those that weren’t developing at all sometimes used whatever means necessary to give the appearance of developing. One of those means involved stuffing tissue into a bra until the empty cups were full. Then these same girls would walk around school with their backs held in amazingly painful positions so as to thrust those tissue-filled cups forward. I’m sure that grown women of today who took those measures and who have worn bras now for the past 40 some odd years wish they could have had just a few more years of freedom from those confining, binding contraptions (as for me, my bra is the first thing to be taken off as soon as I walk through my front door!).
One morning after recess a classmate pulled me to the side and told me that so-and-so had said that I wore falsies (you know, the “stuff it till it’s packed bra”). She then backed off and let the other so-and-so who the first so-and-so had told me had said that I wore falsies pull me aside and confide in me that the previous so-and-so had actually been the one who said that I wore falsies. My thoughts ran from ‘I don’t even own a bra, so how can I stuff it?’ to What do I do now?’

I pondered those questions all through the rest of that day and during the walk home. I discussed it with Harriette and she advised me to nip it in the bud. “You’re going to have to whip the snot out of one of those girls so that they’ll all leave you alone.”

“How am I supposed to do that when I don’t know the first thing about fighting.”

“Who needs to know how to fight? The first thing you’ve got to do is learn how to be mad.”

“I’m not mad Harriette, I’m scared. Either one of these girls could beat me up and you know I don’t like pain.”

“Well, Susan, if you don’t like pain you’re just going to have to beat them up first. Bullies usually stop at the first sign of pain.”

The next week was a living hell for me. Everyday when I got to school either one or the other so-and-so who had first instigated the incident further irritated the situation by passing along a new rumor by saying that I had said that another so-and-so wore falsies. Being prepubescent is the pits. Either you’re in the in-crowd or you’re the target of the in-crowd. At that point in time I was the target of every prepubescent girl in that class and I was petrified.

The following Friday I was at my wit’s end. The Big Sister of one of my classmates had told my classmate, her Kid Sister, that if Kid Sister could get me out onto the playground that Kid Sister wouldn’t have a thing to worry about because Big Sister had her back. All my classmate had to do was get me to throw the first punch and Big Sister would take over and knock me into next week. The only promise I got out of Harriette during that week was that if I didn’t whip the tar out of the first so-and-so who had started this whole mess that Harriette would be more than happy to beat the hell out of me and then I’d really have a reason to be scared. What a choice.

I finally decided to call everyone’s bluff. I told Big Sister’s Kid Sister that I’d meet her in the playground after school and we’d settle this once and for all (even though I had no plan as to exactly how to carry that out). When the 3:00 bell rang signaling the end of the school week, I headed for the playground and waited.

Evidently, the entire fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades had heard about my challenge and were quickly gathering behind the school. Big Sister showed up first and waited at the front of the crowd for her big chance to step in and finish me off. The last person to show up was Kid Sister, the person who was responsible for creating this emotionally charged monster that I was somehow expected to slay.

Kid Sister looked at me and waited, but Big Sister wasn’t about to wait for anyone to take the first punch. She stepped out of the crowd and raised her right foot, kicking me squarely in the mouth and chipping my front tooth. I hadn’t prepared myself for this. All I could think was ‘How could she do that to me? I haven’t done anything to her. Hell, I don’t even know her or her sister!’ I quickly appraised the situation and realized that Kid Sister would have to remain my target since she started this mess, and by now I was really angry. I could feel my face suddenly get very hot as my mind went completely blank. Concentrating on Kid Sister, I reached straight out and grabbed the front of her blouse. What I didn’t know at the time was that when I grabbed the front of her blouse I had also grabbed her bra, a thin training bra. I held on for all it was worth, twisted the fabric in my hand, turning my fist from palm down to palm up, and pulled as hard as was physically possible. The effect was instant. Off came the blouse, off came the bra, tissue flew and fluttered all over the playground and there stood Kid Sister, her arms wrapped tightly around her body in a vain attempt to cover her bare, flat chest. Big Sister was far too busy trying to collect Kid Sister’s clothes to have anything more to do with me (and I think she had finally figured out just how pissed I was).

The whole event took less than five minutes in that school playground all those years ago, but the result lasted me through the rest of my grade school years. From that day forward I was left alone and was nobody’s target. No one ever threatened me again. No more rumors were spread about me. What’s more, Kid Sister and I actually got to be on friendly talking terms. I guess there’s some truth in the saying that nothing gets a person going like a good swift kick in the teeth.

One thing is for certain. Hauling buckets of dirt all summer didn’t hurt a bit.


Chapter 10 – Elston Avenue (Part 2)

May 4, 2006

Mama and Daddy’s bedroom was at the front of the house just off the front room.  The stairs leading to the upstairs apartment made the ceiling lower in one corner of their room.  I guess they took that bedroom because they figured that they could keep a closer eye on my teenage sisters as they came in on a date night.  In addition, we used to think the house was haunted because the front door would often open and close on its own at all hours of the day and night (even when it was locked).  Daddy named our ghost Herman and every time the front door would open, Daddy would say, “What’s the matter Herman were you born in a barn?  Try closing the door behind you next time.”  Then Daddy would proceed to close the door and continue with whatever it was that he had been doing before Herman had entered the room.  We always seemed to sleep better knowing that if Herman did decide to make his presence known Daddy would see him long before any of the rest of us and would know exactly what to do.

Harriette and I shared the top bunk in the bedroom off the dining-room until the night that I had another seizure.  Immediately after having the seizure I stood up on the top bunk and ran off the bed straight into the door jamb.  I had no idea what I had done, but when I came to I was lying on the floor and my entire family was standing around me.  It took longer to get rid of that headache because even after the migraine left I still felt as if I had walked into a brick wall at full speed and my whole face hurt (well, duh).  After that event, Harriette and I were switched to the bottom bunk.

Early in 1963, eleven years after the birth of her last child, Mama became pregnant again.  While she wasn’t thrilled at all with the prospect of starting all over again, the rest of us kids were excited, especially Harriette, Buddy and me. We couldn’t remember Mama ever being pregnant (and it never occurred to us that she had been pregnant with us at one time), so we paid extra close attention to her ever-changing form.  One of the things that really fascinated us during the later stages of her pregnancy was when Mama would try to make herself comfortable in her rocking chair in the front room and eat her meals while watching her favorite television programs.  She’d carefully balance her plate on her ever increasing mid-section and it became a real battle for her (although very entertaining for the rest of us) when the baby would start kicking and stretching, and changing position because we could see Mama’s plate suddenly take on a life of its own as it rose and fell, jumped, rocked, and shifted, and resettled on her stomach for a just short while before it start the same gyrations again with the baby’s next move.  Harriette, Buddy, and I decided that watching Mama’s belly was far more entertaining than anything on TV so we would sit facing Mama’s rocker and watch her while she ate.  We thought we were being inconspicuous, but looking back now I don’t see how we could have been more obvious because we were seated on the floor with our backs facing the television set.  While she managed to ignore us most of the time, there were times that she’d tell us to get out of her sight, get out of the house, go away, and leave her alone.
The day after my thirteenth birthday in November of 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated.  Like most kids in the country, Harriette and I were in school when it happened. She was in history class with Mr. Karras and I was in Science class with Miss Donahue. We were told only that the President of the United States had been shot. It wasn’t until we went home for lunch and watched the noon news that we discovered that he had died. School was canceled for the rest of the day and we stayed home, glued to the television, all of us crying as though we had just received word that our world was due to end at any moment. 

The news of the assassination was almost too much for our young minds to process.  We watched the footage of the assassination as it was played and replayed, only to be interrupted by the news of the arrest of Oswald, and the subsequent shooting of Oswald by Ruby.  We recognized the name “Ruby.”  We had often passed Ruby Cleaners and wondered if there was any connection between the two and, if there was, what it was.  It seemed as though we had just seen the President’s motorcade driving along on the expressway past Brentano at the beginning of the same month.  The entire school had stood at the windows facing the highway, waiting for the Presidential motorcade to pass by, each of us trying to get a glimpse of the President that our parents had thought so highly of.  We recalled that very recent event as we watched history unfold before us now in black and white.

From the moment the world first learned that the life of John F. Kennedy had been ended by an assassin’s bullet, through the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson at Love Field aboard Air Force One where the President’s body lay waiting in a casket to be transported back to Washington, we watched and cried.  All during that long black weekend leading up to the moment that his flag draped casket was borne on a caisson, led by seven white horses and followed by the riderless horse for its somber procession to Arlington Cemetery, where Cardinal Cushing prayed over his body and the twenty-one gun salute was executed and those broken taps were played. . . we watched and cried.

Less than a month later in mid-December, Benjamin came into our lives. Who could know that his older sisters would become his mother hens? His bassinet was kept in the corner of the diningroom just off the kitchen where we could all take turns caring for him. He was warm and bubbly and smelled like a clean baby most of the time only because we were all bathing him.  He developed pneumonia from being dressed too warmly in footed sleepers and being kept in an overheated home because Daddy didn’t want him to be too uncomfortable.  Ben ended up spending a few days at Illinois Masonic Hospital in an oxygen tent.  That wasn’t so bad for Mama, she worked in Pediatrics and could see him everyday at work.  The rest of us were suffering from withdrawal because we really missed that baby and besides, the new hadn’t yet worn off of him.  Once he was brought back home again, Daddy was instructed to take him outside every evening to strengthen his lungs and provide him with fresh cold air (and believe me, the air in Chicago during the winter is very cold).  We girls often took the doctor’s orders one step further by bundling Ben up and pushing his stroller up and down Elston Avenue after school until we got cold.

The Christmas following Ben’s birth represented the last year of dolls for both Harriette and I. Family tradition held that once a girl reaches the age of thirteen, she is too old for baby dolls. We both received bride dolls, Harriette’s was blond and blue eyed, and mine had dark hair and dark eyes. 

During Christmas break Daddy sent me to the Clark gas station three blocks away to buy a gallon of milk.  I didn’t think it would take very long and the weather seemed mild enough so I didn’t bother to dress warmly.  I walked the three blocks to the store in pedal pushers, tennis shoes without socks and a light Spring jacket.  During my walk the temperature suddenly took a downward turn and a real winter storm began.  I finished my trek to the gas station during a full-blown blizzard while hugging my arms around my chest in an attempt to keep warm.   By the time I bought the milk and began walking home again, my shoes were soaked through and beginning to freeze against my feet, my bare legs were freezing and my jacket was stiffening from the heavy freezing snow that was pummeling me.

That night I developed a very high temperature and Mama told me to sleep on the couch in the front room so she could keep an eye on me. The next night I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.  I fainted after just taking a few steps from the couch.  Not realizing what had happened, I picked myself up and tried to get closer to the bathroom.  Two more steps and I fainted again.  I came to and stood up again, only to faint again immediately.  As I regained consciousness I could hear my parent’s voices in their bedroom.

“Hun, what was that?” Daddy asked.

“I think it’s Susan.  She’s not feeling well.  Go back to sleep.”

“I really think something’s wrong with her, she keeps hitting the floor.”

“Well, go check on her.”

Daddy came into the dining-room, where I had finally passed out for the last time just steps away from the bathroom.  He felt my forehead and looked at my face.  My throat was so swollen that he couldn’t tell where my face ended and my neck began.  He asked me if I was alright, but my throat burned so much that I couldn’t answer him.  I just stared into his face and weakly shook my head.  That scared him.  Running into his bedroom he quickly put on his clothes and grabbed his long wool coat.  Wrapping the coat tightly around me he lifted me into his arms and carried me out of the front door and laid me onto the back seat of his car.

Daddy drove to Illinois Masonic’s emergency room and carried me to the desk.  “I’ve got a very sick girl here and she needs to be looked at.”

Pointing to the wall the nurse told Daddy, “Have a seat on that bench over there and someone will get to you.”

We must have sat on that bench for hours before Daddy started blocking the paths of passing employees. He didn’t care who they were or what department they worked in.   “My daughter is very sick,” he would tell them, “and I want someone to look at her.”

“Okay mister, just have a seat over there and someone will get to you.”

“That’s what I keep getting told.  She’s sick and getting sicker by the minute.  I want someone to look at her.”

“I told you mister, have a seat and someone will get to you.”

By the time Daddy had stopped the fourth person who had passed us by, he was furious.  The next person he stood in front of a short stocky orderly who was unfortunate enough to be passing by our location after the previous three people had brushed him off.  After instructing Daddy to have a seat against the wall and wait, Daddy grabbed him by his white collar and lifted him well off the floor.

“My daughter is very sick and someone is going to see her now!  Do you understand?”  He continued to dangle the orderly off the floor by the collar until he got a response.

“Yessir.  Just let me down mister and I’ll get you some help right now.  I promise.”

Daddy lowered him and released his grip.  The orderly kept his promise.  Three nurses, a doctor,  and the same orderly came over the bench where I lay.  Daddy lifted me up into his arms again and followed them into an examination room where the doctor was waiting.  The doctor examined my nose, throat and ears and gave Daddy the diagnosis.  “My best guess is that it looks like she’s got a good case of  tonsillitis, strep throat, and the mumps.  It’s a wonder she’s still alive at all and she’s running one hell of a temp.  Let’s get her pumped full of penicillin.  That’ll give her a head start.  Then we’ll send you home with more penicillin to give her over the next week.  That should take care of it.”

The nurse filled a syringe with penicillin, turned me over on my stomach, explained to me penicillin is a very thick serum and the shot would sting.  She pulled my pants down far enough to expose my rump, sharply slapped me on my bottom, and shoved the needle into my hip.  She then massaged that thick serum well into the muscle of my hip. 

It took a couple of days, but I started to return to whatever form of “normal” I had been before the episode.  I vowed at that moment never to walk three blocks from home again for a gallon of milk during a blizzard without being properly dressed for the occasion.

Early in 1964, Daddy bought an English Ford. At six foot-two, he’d almost have to fold his long frame in half to sit in the driver’s seat. He’d take us for rides after supper, Buddy in the front seat, Harriette, Ben and I in the back. We’d only drive through the neighborhood until Ben fell asleep. What Daddy didn’t realize when he bought the car was that there was a small hole in the floorboard, and a very big exhaust leak.  Once Daddy realized why that the car was putting us all to sleep so fast he fixed the leak and gave the car to Mama.

Daddy rebuilt the back porch during the summer of 1964, fashioning a bedroom for Bobbie out of the completed project.  As we helped Daddy with the work of rebuilding the porch, Ben was content to play on the sidelines pounding away at the sub-floor with a hammer that he had somehow commandeered. Ben’s name and tiny hand print still grace the foundation poured for the back porch that Daddy built. Once the job was finished Bobbie had a bed and a wardrobe in a room that was surrounded on three sides with windows.

Bobbie shared her newly acquired space with a washer and dryer, the cabinet that Mama kept her pots and pans and an aquarium and life remained pretty normal, except for the snakes that Buddy brought home from the railroad tracks that ran next to the expressway behind the school and kept in that aquarium.  We continually had an assortment of snakes, mostly the harmless garden variety snakes, but there were a couple of times that they weren’t so common or so harmless.

One evening when Daddy was walking toward the back door, he noticed Buddy’s snake watching him.  The snake raised its body up off the floor of the aquarium and kept its eyes on Daddy’s every move.  Daddy was awestruck at the next action of that snake and called for Buddy.

“Hey Buddy, do you know what kind of snake you’ve got here?”

“Yeah, Daddy, it’s a black snake.”

“No, Buddy, that’s not a black snake.  That’s a Cobra.  I’ve seen hundreds of them in India and that’s definitely what that snake is.”

Buddy looked over at the snake as its hood completely flared and the body of the snake remained suspended in mid-air, weaving to and fro.

“Wadda we gonna do with it, Daddy?”

“What we’re gonna do is call the pet store or the zoo tomorrow and see if they’ll take it off our hands.  That’s what we’re gonna do.”

Daddy called the nearest pet store, Animal Kingdom, the next day and after refusing his offer of a free King Cobra they gave him the number to Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Illinois.  It didn’t take the zoo long to collect the newest collection for their snake house. The men who collected the snake surmised that either the snake or the egg the snake had been in had fallen from one of the hundreds of circus trains that traveled along that particular set of tracks. 

The Cobra episode only served to feed Buddy’s curiosity about snakes and it wasn’t long before he had another specimen in the aquarium. This one, however, turned out to be a little more frightening to us than that Cobra.

One evening Bobbie had been lying in her bed reading while Harriette and I were helping Daddy clean up the supper dishes.

Very quietly Bobbie called out to Daddy.

“What is it Bobbie?”

“Something’s in my bed.”

Walking out of the kitchen and into the back porch, he looked over at Bobbie’s ashen face.

“What’s in your bed Bobbie?”

“A snake.”

Daddy looked at the aquarium on top the cabinet beside the back door.  The cover was ajar and the tank was empty.  Not knowing what kind of snake Buddy had brought home last, he decided to ask Bobbie if she knew where the snake was in her bed.

“Between my legs.”

As soon as she told Daddy the location of her intruder, that snake must have somehow sensed Bobbie’s fear.  Daddy immediately heard a very familiar sound.  The sound of rattlers.

Walking very quickly and quietly to the side of the bed, he looked at Bobbie and held his finger to his lips as if to say,  Don’t move a muscle.’  Bobbie’s face turned a paler shade of white as her body lay frozen in place.

Reaching down and quickly grabbing the sheets, Daddy gathered them up in a bunch between Bobbie’s legs, and lifted the snake, now trapped within the sheets,  off the bed, rushing it out the back door and into the yard.  He threw the sheet away from himself and watched as the snake slithered off into the darkness.

Daddy had a long heart-to-heart discussion with Buddy about the dangers of snakes, explaining that the rattlesnake was very young and the venom of young rattlesnakes is far more potent than the venom of older rattlesnakes and it could have killed Bobbie and that if Buddy ever brought another snake into the house, he’d be very, very sorry.

After that episode Buddy settled for a Guinea Pig that he named “Pinky.”

When Daddy wasn’t rescuing us from Buddy’s snakes or from Buddy himself, he spent his evenings changing Ben’s diapers and entertaining the rest of us with his reel-to-reel tape recorder. He made a big production of setting up the equipment on the dining-room table, setting the microphone near enough to the edge of the table so as to catch all of our voices.  Daddy and Buddy acted as the masters-of-ceremonies, with Daddy doing a wonderful job of imitating the sing song voice of Lawrence Welk (“And a one and a two”). Harriette and I sang duets for his recording, Bobbie sang solo, Sissie and Normie were interviewed by Daddy on the topic of boys, and Buddy sang The Legend of Tom Dooley (with critical assistance from Harriette). All the while Ben cooed and tried to eat the microphone, but Daddy got every bit of our performances on tape. Buddy has since converted those reel to reel tapes to cassette and I have converted the cassette tapes to compact disk.  Hearing Daddy’s young voice as he entertained his kids more than 10-years after his death still takes me back to that scene around the dining-room on Elston Avenue over 40-years ago.

Harriette liked to spend her evenings fixing supper for Daddy and rocking and singing to Ben. I’d put nursery rhymes to music and sing to him as well; his most requested was a nursery rhyme called Bobby Shaftoe. We had spent the last eleven years thinking we were all there was, but when Ben arrived everything changed.

Harriette graduated grade school. A real big-shot now, and an absolute pain-in-the-butt to me. I wasn’t her best friend anymore.  Jane was. I was just her pain-in-the-butt-little-sister until someone messed with me. Then I was her “sister” and not to be messed with. She could be an absolute whirlwind when it came to defending me. Once it was all over with, the relationship reverted back to what it was a pair of pain-in-the-butts having to deal with each other.

Daddy kept all of us busy that next summer by digging out a basement under the house.  He had a dual reason for wanting the basement dug out.  Our front yard sloped toward the house and was lower then both of the yards on either side of ours.  Every time it rained our neighbors’ yards would drain into our yard and our yard would drain under our house.  Daddy wanted to save the floors of the house by leveling out the front yard and making enough space under the house so that there would be room between the floor boards and the dirt. 

 Buddy would help him dig under the house and fill galvanized buckets full of dirt. The rest of us would carry a bucket in each hand around the house and deposit it in the front yard.

This was the first summer that none of us fought and everyone got a good nights sleep each and every night. We were simply too busy to fight and too tired to stay awake. It never felt like slave labor when we were helping Daddy; the more time we spent with him, the happier we were. He kept cold drinks in an old soda machine in the garage and always made sure we had a dime to buy one and took the time to drink one.

One day during our summer long job of digging out the basement, Daddy sent me to the store for soup.  Not just any store, the store the furthest from the house on Diversey Avenue.  I didn’t think anything of his request, except for the fleeting thought that it was July and not many people ate soup in July, but I did as I was told.  He told me to make sure I got tomato soup, six cans, and to make sure that I counted my change carefully after the cashier handed it to me.  And while I was at it to walk to the corner of Elston, Diversey, and Western to see if I could get a paper, and if I couldn’t, to check in front of the Currency Exchange on Western – maybe they’d have one.  I had no idea why Daddy had me running all over the neighborhood (actually, he told me to take my time and not miss any stops), but while I was at the store Daddy was working on a surprise for me.

Daddy knew how much I loved to draw and had found an artist’s easel that someone had left under the house.   He took the easel upstairs and carefully cleaned the wood and polished it.  He set the easel up inside the basement door until I returned from the store.  When I returned my father sat me down on the bottom step leading to the second floor apartment he told me to cover my eyes.  I sat there quietly and did as I was told.  When he set the easel in front of me and told me to look, I cried.  Complete with a chalk board and a box of white chalk, the easel was everything I could ever hope for.  He had made me the happiest girl in the world when he presented me with that old easel.  I immediately picked up a piece of chalk and started drawing.  Oh, Heaven had definitely visited Elston Avenue that day!

To Be Continued. . .

Chapter 9 – From Chestnut Street to Elston Avenue

May 2, 2006

There had been a lot of history made in that small apartment on Chestnut Street and by the time 1960 rolled around Harriette and I were well on our way to becoming fifth-graders at Elizabeth Peabody School and gave no thought to the possibility of ever leaving any of our friends.  This neighborhood was where Harriette and I had learned a great many life lessons, like learning that we didn’t have a big red “S” on our chests, we weren’t faster than a speeding bullet, couldn’t leap tall buildings in a single bound, and we certainly wouldn’t be able to fly if we jumped off the railing of our best friend’s back porch. I just thank God that my best friend’s mother, Mrs. Tracey, was keeping a close eye on us as we balanced ourselves on the railing just beyond her kitchen door, an arm held out in front of us in preparation of take-off while we held fast to the porch upright   Mrs. Tracey flew out that screen door faster than the caped crusader himself and yanked us off that railing at the same time by the seat of our pants!  The most valuable lesson that Harriette and I learned, however, was that we could depend on each other during those times when it felt like the world itself was coming to an end.

As for the rest of our family, Bobbie was a fifteen year old high school student and growing ever more beautiful and  mature every day.  Sissie, now a teen herself,  continued to float through her youth, oblivious to any attempted intrusions into her reverie.  Eleven, soon to be twelve-year old Normie was an accomplished accordionist and kept busy practicing for recitals.  Harriette was secure in her position as my guardian, overseer, and keeper, and I was just as secure being kept under her wing,  Buddy remained a scrawny little kid, but was becoming more practiced at the art of instigation than he had been previously.

Mama had begun taking me to the University of Chicago’s Neurosurgery Clinic to be seen by neurologists  for my seizures in 1958 and during the two years following I realized my true passion and was quickly becoming a budding young artist.  Mama and I would leave the apartment on Chestnut Street early in the morning of my appointment, we walked to the bus stop and rode the bus to the clinic, carrying whatever specimens the doctor had ordered in a brown paper bag.  Mama kept pads of manila paper that were normally used as math pads and plenty of pencils in her purse to keep me occupied during our daylong waits on those long hard benches of that impersonal waiting room and I would practice drawing portraits of all of the other people seated on those same hard benches in that same waiting room during those long waits.  Mama usually let me be, knowing that I was at least behaving, biding my time,  and was not bothering anyone.  Every now and then she’d lean over my shoulder and check my progress.  “Look at him, Susan.  Look at the shape of his eyes.  Try it again.  That’s it.  You’ll get there,” she’d say.  Then she’d pat me absentmindedly on the arm and go back to reading whatever book she had brought for her own long wait.  I never felt closer to my mother than I did during those long waits on those long hard benches in the impersonal waiting room of the University of Chicago’s Neurosurgery Clinic.

On the night before I was scheduled for a brain-wave test (EEG) my sisters would be responsible for keeping me awake all night.  We’d have a sort of pajama party, but no one was allowed to fall asleep.  We could sit on the floor around the coffee table in the front room and play gin rummy or war with an old well-worn deck of cards or play the board game Candy Land, or do any number of stimulating activities, but we had to stay awake.  I couldn’t have any sort of stimulant like coffee, tea, or chocolate because the doctors wanted to make certain that I was sufficiently tired to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the test.  By the time Mama and I arrived at the clinic and my name was called I was usually so wound up that it took more than just a bed and pillow to get me to sleep so the nurse would give me a small glass of liquid goo to drink and then wait until I was drowsy enough to be able to lie still so they could glue wires to my head and I could drift off. It seemed like only a few minutes had passed before they were waking me again and removing the glued-on wires from my scalp, leaving the crusty residue in my hair. Not once were the results of any brain-wave test abnormal.  Without the benefit of CT Scans or MRI machines, they had no way of finding out what was causing my seizures.  All they could do was keep me supplied with the phenobarbital and dilantin that I took three times a day for eight years.  I still had seizures even though I was on enough anti-convulsant medicine to drug a small horse. 

While I never had a seizure during the day, I always had them in my sleep during the early hours of the morning, shortly before I woke up.  I always knew that I had had a seizure because the fallout from the seizure was a massive migraine headache that would prevent me from being able to raise my head off the pillow without becoming nauseous and vomiting (even on an empty stomach) and an incredibly exaggerated sense of smell.  I could smell the bar of soap lying on the side of the bathroom sink from the next room and the detergent smell of my own night clothes, normally undetectable, was unbelievably powerful. Sometime during that seizure light had become the enemy and any intrusion of daylight past my eyelids would leave me reeling and sickened even as I lay flat on my back in that darkened bedroom.  I’d usually wake up to find Mama sitting on the edge of the bed next to me and Harriette holding my head in her lap and stroking my hair. I was often scared when I woke up, not knowing why I felt so sick, not understanding what it was that was frightening me about seeing Harriette and Mama like this, and yet knowing exactly what the rest of the day would be like.  I’d have to lie still because any movement made matters worse.  The bedroom light was kept off so as not to make my headache any worse.  I wouldn’t be able to eat because there was nothing I could keep on my stomach, including dry toast or water.  Worse than anything, though, was the fact that Harriette got to go off to school without me.  She got to read (even though she didn’t want to).  She got to play with our friends at recess.  My most distressing thought was that she got to be normal on those days when I didn’t feel that there was anything about me that was even close to normal.
I was kept home from school on the days that I had a seizure.  Mama would write a note and send it to school with Harriette, explaining that I was being kept at home because I had had a “fit” during the night and was not feeling well.  Harriette would explain to my classmates that I had these “fits” and had to stay home a lot.  From the day of my first seizure, I felt like an alien because my peers treated me like one.  They’d look at me as if I were some strange creature from another planet. I’m sure that their knowledge of my “fits” cost me friendships, but they were just kids and it wouldn’t be fair to blame them.  They just didn’t know any better, and I didn’t know how to explain the situation to them.  Even though my family tried to treat me like a normal kid there was always that knowledge that none of my siblings had “fits” and, therefore,  it was their responsibility to keep an eye on the one child in the family who did.

On very rare occasions I was able to go back to school in the afternoon, but more times than not it would take the better part of the day for those awful headaches to subside.  While I’ve had some pretty bad migraines as an adult, none of them were ever as bad as those following a seizure.

Through all of the changes that we went through while living on Chestnut Street, none of us had any idea that Mama had plans — Big Plans.  Her plans included a home of her own with room enough for her entire family, not just a small four room flat on the second floor of her sister-in-law’s apartment building.  Mama did the house hunting.  Mama did the negotiating, and Mama arranged for the purchase of our next residence on the Northwest side of the city. Mama did all of these things because she was convinced that Daddy was perfectly content to stay right there on Chestnut Street in that little apartment behind his sister.

In 1960 we moved again. We moved from 1522 West Chestnut to 2938 North Elston Avenue between Western and California. Elston Avenue runs on a north by northwest tangent between Milwaukee Avenue on the South and Milwaukee Avenue on the North.  Our new home was a two-story red brick house with a small front yard,  a small concrete backyard and a garage.  The homes on the block were pretty close together, separated by narrow gangways. If you didn’t pull your window shades down, your neighbors could see into whatever room their windows happened to face. The sidewalks in this neighborhood were much more even and smooth than they had been on Walton or Chestnut Streets, making it much safer for us to run and run we did, from the time we got home from school until it was time to get ready for bed. 

My favorite feature of this house was the lilac bush in the middle of the grassy front yard.  It was the largest most beautiful lilac bush I have ever seen. But then again, you’ve got to remember that we were moving from a house that may have had a bigger backyard, but had very little grass in that yard, and no other vegetation at all. 

As we were moving into our new home a young teenage girl who lived on the corner came by as a sort of one-person welcome wagon.  She had heard that a new family was moving in who had five boys and one girl so she figured she’d make her availability known.  I can just imagine her disappointment when she discovered that instead of meeting five new jocks, she was meeting five of her competitors!

Most of our neighbors had lived in the neighborhood for years and were pretty settled in their ways. Some of them didn’t take too well to outsiders moving in and it took quite a while for us to be accepted, particularly by John and Irene, our next door neighbors.   They were a middle aged Polish couple who not only didn’t like kids, they didn’t like big dogs or noise of any kind.  Imagine their unhappiness when they discovered that their new neighbors had six kids and a German Police dog who stayed in the backyard all day (and barked every time their little white poodle, Fifi, was let out to piddle in the grass).  I had no idea that poodles were so high-strung until I saw Fifi dancing back and forth on the other side of the fence and yapping in a very high pitched tone at her new-found adversary, Duke.  Usually, though, all it took was one of Duke’s deep resounding barks to send quivering little Fifi back to Irene, who picked up “poor little Fifi,” held her tight against her chest, and carried her back into the house, all the while wagging her finger and tsk, tsk, tsking at Duke.

We tried to act like a normal family, but weren’t always successful.  It didn’t help our endeavors a bit when Buddy brought a sign home from a barbershop that read “Closed on Mondays.”  The woman who rented the  upstairs apartment kept a small lamp with a lacy red lampshade in the window seat of her front bedroom as a nightlight for her two young kids. Daddy was furious when he got home from work that evening and took in the Big Picture. There he was, a man with five daughters living in a red brick house bordered by a white picket fence, a red light shining brightly in an upstairs bedroom window, and a sign hanging from that white picket fence that told every male in Chicago that we were closed on Mondays. We never really paid much attention to what anybody thought except Daddy, and he definitely had a way of getting his point across that night.

Mama started to work as a nurse’s assistant at Illinois Masonic Hospital after we moved into that house so that she could have some spending money to get a few extras, like new underwear, material for her own clothes, and televisions. We had never realized that she never had much because she never complained to us about it.  I believe Mama’s passion for television sets probably stemmed from our aunt holding her television over our heads when we lived on South Bell Street (as in “if you kids play in the street I’ll let you watch my television”).  While Daddy didn’t care too much for the idea at first, we never heard him complain to us either. He just spent lots and lots of time in the garage every evening puttering around.

Starting to a new school can really be a bother.  We had to learn to navigate the halls of Brentano School as well as learn the names of new classmates and teachers.  Harriette may have hated school, but she loved the experience of meeting new kids.  We may have left old friends behind, but we soon found new ones.  Harriette found a new friend named Jane, and I found Dawn (or, rather, Dawn found me). Jane was loud, brash, and demanding (a lot like Harriette) and Dawn was soft-spoken, very mellow and unassuming. These  two girls made an equalizing combo. Jane lived on Diversey Avenue, about three blocks away from our house, while Dawn lived just lived down the next block on Elston, in an apartment upstairs from her grandparents. 

For the first time in our lives, Harriette and I began to travel in different circles in school.  At Peabody we were only a half a grade apart (mainly because of the ten months that separated us in age). At Brentano I became a fifth grader and Harriette a sixth grader.  It didn’t matter how badly Harriette treated me during school hours (like totally ignoring me at recess), she still insisted that we walk home together after school and walk back to school together the following morning.  Even during our walks she could be somewhat intimidating and indifferent toward me in an effort to be a show-off in front of Jane, but it was usually just bravado displayed by normal sibling name calling. I’m sure you’ve heard of an Ignoramus.  Well, that was me, right up there with Doofus, and Dumas (as in Dumb Ass).  Yep, I could tell she really loved me.  At first I was deeply hurt by this new display of cruelty, but I could forgive her meanness the minute she stepped between me and another bully who wanted a piece of me for some unknown reason (probably just because I happened to be there).  It was at those times that Harriette became Protector of the Wimps of the World (namely me).  Harriette had this innate ability to stare down anyone who gave the slightest thought of inflicting bodily harm on her kid sister without ever having to raise a hand against my assailant. 

While I never saw Harriette fight with anyone outside our immediate family, she held no reservations when it came to pummeling me.  Looking back, I think she was probably trying to teach me how to fight, but her beatings only served to instill even more fear in me because of the sheer power of her right hook.  I just couldn’t bring myself to hit her back because  I knew  how much it hurt and I didn’t want her to hurt as much as I did.

When Buddy started Brentano he was still pretty much a skinny, scrawny little kid with thick  black-framed glasses.  He reminded me of the wimp in the magazines who was always getting sand kicked in his face by the big, muscular bully on the beach.  Every morning he’d walk to school by going through the alley behind the house only to find Donald, the sixth grade bully, waiting for him.  Donald usually left us girls alone, but he’d always make a beeline straight for Buddy and block his path.  Reaching out and grabbing Buddy’s thick glasses, Donald would throw them to the ground and step on them, breaking them at the nose bridge.  Buddy would have to pick them up, turn around and head back home so that Mama could repair his glasses with black electrical tape and send him on his way again.  After a few weeks Mama started complaining about always having to fix Buddy’s glasses.

“Can’t you girls do something?”

“The guy’s gotta be at least 6 feet tall and 200 pounds.  Besides, Mama, he’s a teenager.”

“I don’t care.  The bigger they are the harder they fall.  Just remember that.  I want this stopped, do you hear me?  I don’t want Buddy walking to school alone.  One of you girls is going to have to go with him.”

Harriette spoke up first.  “Susan will, Mama.”

I was terrified.  I knew there was no way that Harriette would ever change her mind and walk with him, even with her intimidating stare.  She said I was going to take care of it and she meant it.  It was probably another one of those lessons that she was determined to teach me, but that was little comfort to me at the time.

The next morning Harriette left early for school without me and I was left to be Buddy’s bodyguard.  I didn’t have a brave face to put on so I settled for pretending to be brave.

“Come on Buddy, let’s go.”

“Okay, but you know what’ll happen.”

Mustering as much courage as I could, I said, “Not today it won’t.”

We walked out the back gate and headed for school.  Waiting as always at the end of the alley was Donald.  I put my arm on Buddy’s shoulder and told him to stay put.  Straightening my back, squaring my shoulders and walking determinedly to Donald, I put my hands on my hips, set my feet apart and craned my neck, looking up into his face (I had to look up, I was 4 foot 10 and weighed about 85 pounds and he towered above me at almost six feet tall).

“Whaddaya doin’ here kid?”

“I’m here to tell you to pick on somebody your own size whydoncha?”

“Yeah, and who’s gonna make me?”


“Yeah, right. You n’ wat army?”

“I don’t need an army.  I can handle this on my own.”

“You think so, huh?”

“I know so.”

For the first time in my life someone else was really beginning to piss me off with his taunting and I could feel  the color rise in my face.  Keeping my hands on my hips, I quickly lifted my right foot as high as possible and brought it crashing down across his left instep.  Then I spit on his right shoe and glared back up into his face.

Screwing up his face in pain, he yelled at me, “Hey!  Whaddyah do dat for?”

“So you’ll go away and leave my brother alone!”

With that task done, I straightened up, brushed off my hands, turned smartly on my heels and walked back to get Buddy and we continued on to school side by side without either of us saying a word.  Donald the Bully was left to find another target.  He had evidently been taught that it wasn’t nice to beat up skinny little fifth grade girls, but skinny little third grade boys were fair game.  I guess that’s one of the marks of a true gentleman.

Over the next couple of years I realized out that the teachers at Brentano were completely different than those I had been used to at Peabody.  For one thing, these teachers weren’t as strict as those at Peabody and they seemed to smile more.  These teachers carried on Science experiments with the zeal of a mad scientist, taught history as though they had just finished living it the previous day, and introduced the English language like it was brand new territory for our young minds. 

My favorite class (other than Art, Music and recess) was Science and the teacher, Miss Donahue was a very friendly woman with sparkling eyes who obviously enjoyed teaching.  She could explain every aspect of the world of science to us in terms that we understood and, as  I would soon discover, she could recognize raw artistic talent when she saw it.

We were in Science class one afternoon when I was overtaken by one of my distracted periods (which seemed to occur at odd times).  I had been doodling in my notebook when the boys sitting on either side of me in the back row started paying more attention to the movements of my pencil in the pages of my science notebook than the lecture that Miss Donahue was giving at the front of the class.

“Hey, Susan,” one of them whispered, “What else can you draw?”


“Anything?  Really? Can you draw a naked lady?”

“Yeah, that’s easy.”

“I’ll give ya a buck to draw one.”

A whole dollar!  My mind started whirring at the prospect of having my very own dollar to spend.  Where would I spend it?  Woolworth’s?  Goldblatt’s?  The candy store down on the corner?  And what would I spend it on?  Oh, the possibilities!  Gee, a dollar that I actually earned with my own art. Unbelievable!  This was way too tempting!

With a shrug of my shoulders, I turned to him with my answer. “Okay.”

I turned the page in my notebook and proceeded to sketch the nude.  A perfectly formed  body in repose  flew straight from my mind onto the lined page of that science notebook.  Those boys were mesmerized.  I was in such deep concentration that the rest of the class seemed to fade away — Miss Donahue’s voice fading to a drone and then to silence.  It was just me, the paper and my pencil. 

After about fifteen minutes I was done.  I laid down my pencil, tore the page from the notebook, and handed the picture to the boy on my right while taking his waiting dollar.  What I didn’t realize was that I had acquired a much larger audience than just these two curious boys.  The classroom had grown completely quiet during my mental absence, Miss Donahue had moved from the front of the class to directly behind my desk without my ever being aware of it and I suddenly felt as though all eyes were on me.

Miss Donahue calmly picked up the picture from the desk of the now very disappointed boy and looked at it with a critical eye.

“This is very good, Susan.  It is anatomically correct in every respect and while I’m sure you’ll make a wonderful artist someday, I don’t think his parents will feel the same way, so I’m going to have to keep this.”

He was beside himself,  “But, but, but . . . Miss Donahue, I paid her a dollar for that.”

“Yes, and I’m sure it was a dollar well spent, but sadly I’m going to have to ask for that as well.” 

I handed her the dollar as all my dreams of riches flew out the window.

Holding up the now folded paper that contained the sketch in one hand and waiving the dollar bill with the other, she looked at the rest of the class and said, “So, now that we’ve all learned a very valuable lesson indeed, maybe one of you can list the planets in the solar system for me.”

So much for free enterprise.   I had to settle for keeping my sketches to myself and only displaying legitimate artwork during Art class and I soon discovered that any money that I made would have to be earned by either babysitting for the woman upstairs or helping the woman down the street do laundry for her six kids at the local Laundromat.  For some reason watching television with a couple of little blond-haired munchins or separating another family’s underwear from their blue jeans just didn’t quite have the same appeal to me as selling black market nudes in Science class.

 To Be Continued . . .