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 . . .