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.
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