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In Austin

I grew up in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. I am the oldest of 14 children, and one of my jobs, growing up, was to watch my younger sisters in the afternoon after school.

We lived on the second floor of a two-flat at 135 N. Leamington Ave. on the same block as our parish church (St. Thomas Aquinas), our parish school and the convent where the nuns lived. It was a crowded apartment, as you might imagine, and “watching the kids” meant taking two or three of the youngest girls to Grandma’s apartment a couple blocks away for a visit.

I alternated this job with my brother David. I was 11 or 12. He was a year younger. I did the job until I was 13 and away at high school — at a religious seminary that was a boarding school. My sister Mary Beth, a year younger than David, took my place.

The main idea was to get the youngest kids out of the house to give Mom some breathing space. She didn’t drive, and Dad, a Chicago police officer, was often at work at odd hours during the day or sleeping to get ready for a night shift.

Sometimes, there would be two kids to care for. More often, I recall, there would be three. I would push the youngest — usually an infant of about one or so — in the stroller while the other two girls would walk along on either side, holding onto the stroller with a hand. The neighborhood was all-white then — all-Irish, for that matter — as many Chicago communities were in the early 1960s, and I remember one time, as we were walking to Grandma’s, we saw a black man walking down the sidewalk toward us. My sister, Kathy, who was maybe four or five, looked at the man, raised her arm and pointed her finger at him, saying, loud enough for him to hear, “Look at that man! He’s chocolate!”

At Grandma’s house

There was never any variation in where we walked when my brother or I watched the kids. We always went to Grandma’s apartment — we called it Grandma’s house — in a large, long apartment building on Lavergne Avenue, just off of Madison Street, the main commercial strip for the neighborhood.

Grandma and Grandpa — they were my mother’s parents — had lived in this part of Austin much of their lives. They’d moved into the apartment on Lavergne one day in about 1960. The next morning, Grandma woke up to find her husband’s cold body next to her. He had died in his sleep during the night. A short time later, her brother, Eddie, my great uncle, whose own wife had recently died, moved in with her.

The trip to Grandma’s apartment was generally uneventful. We’d always walk down the alley past the convent and the school gym; down another alley past the school; and then down Lavergne past the church and across Washington Boulevard.

In the spring and summer, there would be a bright array of flowers growing along the fence and elsewhere in the backyard of the home — another two-flat — on the west side of Lavergne, just south of Washington. In the fall and early winter, there would be the nearly full-size Christmas stable outside the church, with its almost (but not quite) life-size figures of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the angels, the Magi and Baby Jesus. On more than one occasion, we stopped there to play. Picture this: As the baby sits in the stroller, swaddled into immobility by her thick snow suit and mittens and scarf — -only her eyes in view — -the two slightly older girls wander around in the stable amid the Bible figures, smaller than normal adults and thus close to the girls’ own size. I stand there, hands in my jacket pockets against the cold, wishing I was young enough to play make-believe games with the plastic statues like the little girls. It was a scene of sweet weirdness and beautiful other-worldliness. At least, it was until Father Fitzpatrick, the bitter, irascible pastor leaned out of his rectory window and growled at us, “What are you kids doing there?!?!”

At Grandma’s apartment, I would go into the front room and watch the Cubs game with Uncle Eddie — I can’t recall what we would watch when the Cubs weren’t playing — while my sisters would go into the kitchen with Grandma.

Grandma and Uncle Eddie

In a neighborhood and a family culture that valued stability and a sort of stay-at-homeness highly, Uncle Eddie was an anomaly. He was something of a rover and something of a world traveler, at least through the military service. He’d served in Europe in the American Army in World War I, and, when told he was too old when he tried to enlist for World War II, he joined the Canadian Army and was sent overseas again. He was a great reader, mainly of history, and he would pass on to me his history books as he finished them.

Grandma was an earth mother, all smiles and treats for “the little ones.” She had a candy dish that she always kept filled. When we’d arrive, our first stop would be the dish for one — but only one — piece of candy each.

Often, when we’d arrive, the apartment would be filled with the aroma of fresh-baked bread, just out of the oven or just about to come out of the oven. Where Grandma learned to bake and learned her love of baking, I never discovered. She’d spent much of her childhood in an orphanage, even though her mother was still alive. The mother, abandoned by her husband, had been unable to care for her four — I think there were four — children. So Grandma was raised very much by the nuns who ran the orphanage, and, from scraps of evidence I picked up over the years, she seems to have been something of a pet of theirs.

(Grandma’s mother, by the way, survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 as a child. Her father was a fireman and was off futilely battling the blaze, and her mother knew she had to get her brood of seven, I believe, children to safety. So she tied the kids to one another with a red blanket, and led them north across the Chicago River and out to the shore of Lake Michigan, apparently around what is now Lincoln Park, to find safety at the water’s edge.)

Grandma’s specialty was kolackies (which we pronounced, “Ko-LOTCH-keys”). In later years, at the homes of Polish friends and in Polish bakeries, I would be served a thick, heavy sweet roll that they called a kolacky. But it was the exact opposite of the kolackies that Grandma made — thin, light pastries, almost like Communion wafers, but delicately sweet and buttery. They were dainty and flaky — and, yes, they did melt in your mouth. On the top, in the center, there was a thin layer of fruit filling, a kind of jam. And over everything was sprinkled a light dusting of white powdered sugar.

A walk down Madison Street

Often, after we had visited for awhile, Grandma would take us for a walk down Madison Street. Some years earlier, Grandma had had hip replacement surgery, and, ever since, she’d walked with a limp. As we’d move down the sidewalk along the north side of Madison Street between Lavergne and LeClaire Avenues, I’d push the stroller and the two older girls would walk on either side, and Grandma would limp along with us, in her curiously up-and-down fashion, pushing her two-wheel shopping cart in front of her, almost as if it were a walker.

We walked past a cleaners named for an old football hero, an old high school football hero, I believe, named DeCorrovent or something like that. And past a tavern with an Irish name — Brady’s, I think. There was a family story — every family must have a story like this — of Grandpa taking me to Brady’s and, when I got back, me talking about all the root beers he’d drunk.

Further along, we went past other storefronts. All I can remember now are a liquor store, a bakery and a grocery in the middle of the block. But I am sure all the storefronts were filled with thriving businesses. It was a moment when the Chicago of mid-century was still alive and strong, at least in our neighborhood. It was only a few years later that the block on Madison, and all of Austin, for that matter, was hit by the effects of the movement of people and jobs to the suburbs, the flight of whites from in-moving blacks, and the weakening of the city’s economy. Now, many of those storefronts on Madison are empty, and some of the buildings have been razed.

Grandma always headed to the grocery and the bakery. She had a nodding acquaintance with the people who worked in both places. “Hello, Mrs. Thomas,” they’d say.

In the bakery, she’d get some sweet rolls — I loved the ones with thin almond slices and sweet white icing — and hard rolls. At the grocery, she’d buy what she needed for the day: milk, eggs, perhaps a couple pork chops. She was still living the life of Chicago before larger refrigerators, even though she had one — we called it an ice-box. But it was her habit to go out each day to shop for that day’s groceries, rather than stocking up. It was also an excuse for her to be out and about.

By the time we’d get back to her apartment and I’d helped her in with her purchases, it was time to head home, usually with some small package of bread or kolackies for Mom. Once home, we’d park ourselves in front of the TV with the other kids to watch the Three Stooges until suppertime.

Going downtown unsupervised

Crime was not that much of a worry in those years in our neighborhood and throughout much of the city. Nobody thought anything of an 11-year-old walking his three tiny sisters to his grandmothers, or of my friends and I going downtown in groups of four or five to play around the big buildings.

We’d walk down Laramie Avenue to the Lake Street el station, and take the train to the Loop for a quarter. We’d look around, wandering at times into Sears or another big department store. But, really, they were too grand for our tastes. Besides, we never had any extra money to speak of, except our return carfare.

We’d always go to the top of the Prudential Building, the tallest building in Chicago then, and look out over the city with the telescopes there — one minute for a dime (I think that was the charge). And we’d go to a novelty store and arcade on Randolph Street, and to the Greyhound Bus Station. The bus station had this seedy reputation back in the neighborhood, and our parents would warn us to stay away from it. No one ever spelled out what it was about the bus station that we should fear — except the vaguely sinister catch-all: strangers.

We went there anyway. You could play on the escalators and get instant pictures of yourself — four for what? a quarter? — in a booth in the center of the station. If anything, it was the station employees who were afraid, afraid to see our group of four or five pre-teen boys coming in. We often got thrown out of there. At least it seems we did.

Getting ditched

One day, my brother David went downtown with his friends, and they ditched him. That is, they ran away from him and went home without him, leaving him to fend for himself. It was a summer Sunday, and David, who was about 12 at the time, wasn’t concerned. At least, that’s what he told us later. He got on the el and started on his way home until he saw the steeple of our church and got off at that stop — -only to discover that it wasn’t our church and it wasn’t his stop and he had gotten onto the wrong el line and had no more money to get back on and reverse his tracks.

The question later was why he didn’t ask someone for a dime to call home. To the adults, this seems like a sensible thing to do. But, when you grow up in a family of 14 kids, you learn early to do whatever you can to avoid asking for help. If David had called Mom and Dad, Dad would have had to get up from his nap or drop whatever he was doing and get in the car and drive to wherever David was. He was not going to be happy. Besides, David was a city kid. He knew his way around. He didn’t exactly know what neighborhood he was in, but he knew that he’d gotten there by taking the el one way so, if he followed the el track back from where he’d come, he’d find his way back downtown.

That’s what he did. And, when he got downtown, he located the Lake Street line, and proceeded to walk back to Austin along the sidewalk under the tracks.

David had been noticed missing at some point in late afternoon that day, but the search for him was hampered when his friends, afraid of getting into trouble for ditching him, at first said he’d come home with them from the Loop.

The police and Dad (and me in one of the squad cars) had been out looking for David for two hours and were back at the house on Leamington to trade notes. After a whispered discussion, the cop in charge was sitting down at the telephone stand in the front hall to call in what was euphemistically and somewhat dreadfully known as the garbage can detail. They were about to start looking for David’s body. My father, stolid and solemn, was standing in the hall. My mother, in the doorway to the dining room, was just this side of full hysteria.

It was at that moment that David, a very tired David — he’d walked at least 10 miles we later determined — came in the back door, through the kitchen and into the dining room which is where Mom saw him. She let out a loud sob and took him in her arms (or maybe — he was already pretty tall — fell into his).

Why, she demanded between sobs, why hadn’t he called? Why hadn’t he stopped a cop for help or walked into a fire house? Why? Why didn’t he tell someone he was lost?

David, somewhat at a loss to find himself the center of attention, especially of so many adults, many of them in uniform, nonetheless had an answer for her.

“I wasn’t lost,” he said in his weary, weary voice. “I knew where I was.”

Patrick T. Reardon
January 11, 1997

13 Comments

  1. johnny says:

    were do i buy the book i just loved it and i love you too!

  2. Tim says:

    Dear Pat , I’am almost in tears,I remember mom sobing too,it’s like it was yesterday.
    God were we young then. what a great time it was,what a great family to be part of,
    thanks for shareing this with us. Love Tim

    • Patrick T. Reardon says:

      Glad you liked it., Tim. I wrote it 15 years ago, but just came across it yesterday. The only brother I haven’t heard from is the star of the piece.

      BTW, I have a piece about Alzheimer’s in the upcoming Sunday Tribune. It talks a little about Grandma Reardon. I was writing that piece when I came across “In Austin.”

  3. kathy says:

    We really enjoyed reading this.We are truly blessed to be from such a great family and to have our stories told so well. Thanks for the memories!,,

  4. Marie Barrows says:

    I don’t remember this story—maybe I was too young. I do, however remember the walks to Grandma’s. And I loved Uncle Eddy, and was so upset when he died. I remember that day like it was yesterday!!!!!! You are such a great writer!!!!

    • Patrick T. Reardon says:

      Thanks, Marie. Everyone should put down memories and reminiscences like this so that they can be passed along to future generations. Pat

  5. John McCormack says:

    Pat –
    We have traded a few emails over the years. I grew up in the very same neighborhood. I am about your brother Tim’s age … in fact, you trained me to be an altar boy. I have vivid memories of the businesses that lined the north side of Madison St. between Lavergne and Leclaire: Brady’s tavern, Fitzsimmons Medical Supplies, Schneider’s Bakery, Mofield’s butcher shop, Armanetti’s. There was a little drug store on the nw corner of Madison & Lavergne, Featherstone’s, I believe. Near the middle of the block was a little grocery store whose name escapes me …. “Jim’s” maybe. There was also a storefront knitting business closer to Leclaire called Logan Knitting Mills that produced the types of letter sweaters that were popular back then.

    I don’t know why but I get so sucked in when I find links to the old neighborhood.

    • Patrick T. Reardon says:

      John — Thanks for the comment (and thanks for the link earlier to the Austin Facebook page). I remmeber the letter sweater place as being named after some famous (previously) high school or college football player named DeCorovet or something like that. Just got word today of an all-class reunion at St. Thomas Aquinas (now St. Martin de Porres) on Sept. 30. Will you be there? Pat

  6. Concetta Mangiardi says:

    Hi Patrick,
    I enjoyed reading this article. It brings back so many fond memories of the Austin neighborhood as well as STA and Siena High School. I was in the same grade as
    your brother, David, and Mary Beth.

    Fondly,

    Concetta

  7. Austin Chicago says:

    I am slowly compiling a list of images and names of all structures on Madison st. in Austin back in the day. Here is a listing of the north side of 5000 block from about 1963.
    5002 Armanetti Inc
    5006-08 Mofields Finer Meats Inc
    5016 Jeanne Napal Cosmetics
    5022 Ven-Par Co Div Vendo Co
    5038 Logan Knitting Mills
    5040 Dr. Michael J Parenti
    5040 T & T Liquor Oscar Tavlin
    5042 O. K. Meat Mkt. Formerly Earl’s MKT 1956
    5042 W Kings Quality Market 1957
    5046 Fitzsimmons Medical Supply
    5050 W H Heitbohmer
    5054 Brady’s Le Claire Pub

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