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?”
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. . .