As I sit by the lake today, trying to get centered, I need something to focus on. So I pick this tiny white flower from the grass and just stare at it for a moment. I hold it to my nose as I feel the breeze coming off the lake. I don’t recall these being fragrant. They’re actually sweet.
Suddenly I’m transported back to childhood and being 5, 6 and 7 years old growing up in Oak Park, Il.
I remember waking to the sound of a lawn mower next door which sounds my internal alarm. “SCHOOL’S OUT! IT’S SUMMERTIME !!!!”
I can feel the anticipation of what the day might bring. Who should I play with? Will we play house? Run in the sprinklers? Jump rope? Go to the pool? Or play “train” with our bikes?
“Train ” appeals to my wanderlust. You can take a “train” to New York city or Paris or just Chicago. There are scheduled destinations around our restricted perimeter of 2 blocks. Leaves serve as tickets, Schwinn bikes, the trains, and Ricky Storto’s house is always central station. (They had the only color TV in the neighborhood.)
At lunchtime I have peanut butter and jelly with mom (or the babysitter) and my 5 sibs, accompanied by a tall cool glass of grape Kool-aid. If however, I’m too busy playing house to go home, I have spaghettio’s across the street at Margaret Mary’s house. (We never eat a hot lunch at home unless it’s one of grandma Steber’s amazing soup in the winter time.)
At dinnertime we retreat back to our houses. As soon as dinner is over, having cleared the table, the excitement of our nighttime summer rituals begin.
Like a nocturnal tribe, all 16 kids descend into the street. The few who were absent during the day (because of camp etc.) are back among us. We range in age from 4 to 12, most being 7 to 10 years old.
Invariably there is an argument about which to play first “Kick the Can” (in the alley) or “Ghost in the Graveyard”. It’s usually settled by a coin toss (between the oldest), or a quick game of “Rock, Scissors, Paper”. Occasionally, democracy creeps in and majority rules.
“Kick the Can” often wins out because “Ghost in the Graveyard” isn’t really fun until it gets dark outside. These arguments are silly to me because by the time it’s settled, it’s often too dark to see the can anymore. So much for the intelligence of hierarchy.
There are only three things that can disrupt “Ghost in the Graveyard”. Nope. It isn’t being called in by our parents. (Which always elicits a loud plea of “Just 5 more minutes!”)
The first is a surprise visit from the mosquito truck slowly driving down the street to fog the air with DDT. Does this toxic fog drive us indoors to safety? HELL NO! (TOXIC? What’s that?)
Our parents sit laughing on the front steps as we chase the truck, donning our own individual fantasies. The boys find themselves morphing into Dracula, Frankenstein or a Werewolf.
Not me! I’m Cyd Charisse in Brigadoon waiting for Gene Kelly to appear before the town disappears again into the fog.
It’s my dream to make a crowd gather with my rendition of “The Heather On The Hill”. Everyone will clap, and I’ll be discovered. Maybe I can meet Judy Garland or Mary Martin or SHIRLEY TEMPLE!
No one pays me any notice. Maybe the next time my ellusive “special effects man” rolls around, I’ll be ready with something REALLY BIG! (If only I had time to run and change into my “dress up” clothes…like mom’s old red and white dress with the crenolin skirts. I could be Mary Poppins singing, “Supercalifragilisticexpeallidocious!” Or I could put a slip on my head and sing “The Trouble With Maria” from SOUND OF MUSIC, or dirt on my face and become Liza Doolittle, singing “Loverly”. I’ll figure it out, even if it’s trial and error.
It never occurs to anyone that this nocturnal revelry might be harmful. But even if we were so informed, it wouldn’t stop us anymore than the time we were told to stay indoors and not look at the sun during the solar eclipse. Not to touch the mercury from a broken thermometer. Not to play in the shiny black, newly tarred streets!
Up close, in spite of the smell, the shiny black gravel looks like black diamonds. Who can resist that? (Unless of course I get burned or it gets on my clothes. OOPS! After that, I hate the stuff.)
Several times a week, the sound of playing is interrupted by the sound of music coming down the street. Day or night, it doesn’t matter… Everyone freezes. Can it be? Where is that coming from? Suddenly someone shrieks at the top of his (or her) lungs, “GOOD HUMOR MAN!” Aka, the man who drives heaven on wheels!
No. He’s not a man of good humor. In fact, he usually doesn’t stop until he has hoards of kids chasing him.
Like the sounding of an alarm, we all scatter. Much like a fire drill, everyone is quickly given jobs. Some to run for money, some to stop the truck by running in it’s slow path, while others are used as collateral to stall “the man” while we get our allowance money. It isn’t long before a line forms along the curb.
“MOM! Good Humor Man! Can we ? Can we? Where’s your purse?” (She rarely says “No”.)
I feel I’ve reached a milestone in maturity when I learn to my disdain, that Nellie Walsh got the last popsicle.
There’s no way I’m leaving empty handed, so I opt for a toasted almond bar. (This and chocolate éclair bars are from the “adult menu” of the ice cream truck , if there is such a thing.)
We take stock, like a bunch of pirates that just dug into a treasure chest.
“I got grape! What’d you get?” Asks, Billy Dunlap.
“I got orange” Tommy Russell replies.
“I got toasted almond!” They look at me like I’ve got two heads.
“Nellie got the last popsicle! I hate those stupid ice cream cones . After you eat off the topping of those ice cream cones, the rest is just gross! And thode stupid dixie cups are for babies ” I proclaim in my defense, having crossed into the enemy camp of “grownup territory”.
When I open this (sweet and crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside) treat, I hesitantly take the bite of a Lillipution. I LOVE IT! It’s GREAT! (Still my favorite by the way.)
The last thing to interrupt our nocturnal rituals, is the spontaneous, miraculous light show randomly brought to us by LIGHTNING BUGS!!!!
Every summer, the first time one appears, it’s like magic. (I still get a thrill!) I remember the very first time I saw one, it scared me. I ran to our front steps to seek refuge with mom and dad. They tell me it’s a lightning bug. I hear “lightning” and I’m afraid it means a storm is coming. (I love the excitement of lightening, but thunder scares me. The… “It’s only God bowling up in heaven” explanation assuages my fears only briefly before I ask him to please “Knock it off!”)
“It’s called a “lightning bug” because it lights up. It can’t hurt you.” Mom said.
How cool is that? A light show performed by little flying bugs with orange heads! Yay!
The new game becomes, how many lightning bugs can you catch and put in a jar? I put grass in the jar so they have something to eat. A grownup always pokes holes in the lid (or plastic cover) at my request, so they can breathe in what I believe will be their new home.
much toy chagrin and amazement, the jar is always m
empty the next day. I assume they used their “lightening butt magic” to light their way out of the jar. It never occurs to me that mom or dad set them free so we don’t feel like murderers finding them dead the next day.
I LOVE growing up in Oak Park, Il. It lent itself perfectly to my enormous fantasy life.
I love riding down the middle of the street in the summer on my bike. The enormous hundred year old trees creating an exquisite arch of green overhead, where they meet in the middle. This is my palace and I am the princess waiting for my prince to arrive on horseback.
But life is cyclical and eventually, summer comes to and end. St. Giles school is less than two blocks away. (I actually ditched kindergarten the first 4 days by going to my best friend’s house. It wasn’t until school called mom that I was found out.)
Friday morning rolls around and we’re all seated at the breakfast table when mom says, “Julie, Sister Marie Imelda called.”
“She did?” Uh oh…Why is she telling me this?
Everyone knew Sister Marie Imelda. If they didn’t know her by reputation, they knew her by her tiny stature. She taught both my parents. If EVER the church needed to canonize someone, Sister Marie Imelda should be it! She was 4’11”, (making her significantly less threatening than her counterparts) taught 50 kids in the morning and 50 in the 2fternoon, with the patience of a saint. She had one assistant and I NEVER heard her raise her voice. Not once!
“How do you like school?” Being the fourth of six kids, mom’s learned a thing or two by now.
“It’s ok. I like the statue of the Virgin Mary. She’s pretty.” Evidence that I was there.
“That’s nice honey. What have you been learning?”
“I don’t know . Just stuff.” I just blew it!
“Did you bring your dental card like you were supposed to?”
“I forgot it the first day.”
“Did you tell the teacher? ”
“No. I didn’t want to get in trouble so I hid behind the statue of the Virgin Mary until everyone left.”
“Then what happened? ”
“I went to Margaret Mary’s house.”
“What happened the next day?”
“I brought it. But it was supposed to be signed!!!”
“So what did you do? ”
“It was supposed to be signed! They won’t let you in it unless it’s signed. So I went to Margaret Mary’s house because I knew they wouldn’t let me in.”
“So you didn’t go to school?”
“I forgot. I just went and played with Margaret Mary between the houses so no one could find us. ”
“Why didn’t you just get the card signed?”
“I was scared. They’re so many kids! I don’t think I want tu go to school. ”
I thought for sure if be in big trouble. Mom handled it like a champ.
“Ok. Well you have to go. Just like your brothers and sister. You’ll like it. You’ll see.”
I dont think so. But I’m so grateful that I’m not in trouble, I sit silently.
” I will walk to school with you today and we’ll turn in your signed dental card. Ok?”
“Your dad and I expect that after I drop you, you will stay there until school is out. It’s only a half day.”
I find school to be a major hindrance to my daydreaming. Then one day something happens to change my whole outlook on life forever.
Fast forward to first grade. I hate 3-ring binders because I’m always pinching my hand in the rings by mistake. I often shove my papers and homework inside without opening the rings.
It’s early autumn as I’m walking home from school with books and note books in hand, when suddenly my math assignment along with several other papers, is taken by a gust of wind and scatters off onto sidewalks, bushes and trees. It’s already been a lousy day. I got in trouble talking in class and I didn’t do well on my math test.
I have a slight girl crush on my new teacher, Sister Catherine de Ricci, because she has an optimism and sense of kindness about her that I’ve rarely, if ever, encountered before. I want desparately to please her by excelling in school.
As I frantically chase my papers down the street and through the bushes, I’m trying not to cry. I decide to give up on my math assignment, because I have no idea where it landed.
As I make my way hime, fighting back the tears, I see a piece of paper up ahead squirming in the bushes in hopes of taking flight again. Could that be mine?
I take my time, I even consider passing it by, as though I could care less. I feel like it’s a tease. I walk past it to make sure the wind isn’t playing games with me.
When all remains calm, I turn back to retrieve it. In so doing, I get scratched reaching deep into the bushes. (How did it even get here?)
Once it’s in my hand, I can’t help but notice something shining just below it. It’s a silver dollar!!!!! Whoa cool!!! I look around wondering if anyone might have dropped it when I realize, of course not! At the base of gnarly bushes? No way.
It’s mine now! And if I hadn’t lost my papers, I never would have found it. A silver dollar means a veritable treasure trove and feast a Ben Frank’s, the five and dime. This will keep me pumpkin seeds, Sen-Sen, Beeman gum, dots on paper and licorice for weeks. I can even buy a couple “punks” and pretend I’m a movie star smoking a cigarette!
How did this happen? Is it a fluke? I race home long enough to put my books in the door, grab a sheet of paper and draw arrows on all four corners facing outwards.
“Julie? Is that you? ”
“Ya mom!,I’m home. Gonna go play at Margaret Mary’s.”
“Change your clothes first. Get out of your uniform.” (In retrospect, I’m not sure if we attended catholic school as much for the religion as the fact that we wore the same clothes everyday, making getting kids ready for school a much easier task.)
I run up and change, grab my piece of notebook paper, and run outside.
Like a lab technician or scientist, I wait for the best testing environment, in this case, a big wind. When it comes, I let go of the paper and watch it fly until it lands in another set of bushes.
I start to run towards it and change my demeanor to one of total nonchalance and confidence. I approach the paper with the cautious enthusiasm of a scientist hoping that after it incubation period, his Petrie dish will reveal something miraculous.
I look down to see what each of the four corners reveals. Wow! I find a silver key chain shaped like the insert of a 45 rpm record. It works!!!
I let it fly again only to discover a miniature porcelain doll the size of a thumb. I’m ecstatic! It’s amazing the little various trinkets or coins I come across in my experiment. Invariably, I always found something. Always. Things that somehow got separated from their former owners, have now become part of this fantastic journey of mine called life.
You may think I’m a few bricks short of a load by now. And that’s ok!
I learned the most valuable lesson of my life that day, and many thereafter. That being, behind adversity something much greater can emerge. Particularly if you engage your sense of wonder and curiosity. That has seen me through a lot of stuff.
What may seem like a handful of disgarded junk to most, to me it was treasure, each and every time. (To the point where, for a short time, I slept with this piece of notebook paper next to my bed, tucked in alongside my barbie doll in her bed. A little eccentric? Maybe…)
As cliché as it sounds, it was a simpler time. I’m so grateful to my parents for the wonderful childhood I had growing up in Oak Park, Il.
The beauty of this is, it doesn’t matter how big the obstacle, or how long the road ahead may seem, I’m still checking all four corners, knowing in my heart that there is a treasure to be found in at least one of them. I LOVE THAT!!!
My family didn’t stay in Oak Park. When I was in fifth grade, mom and dad built a 5 bedroom house in Oakbrook. It was a whole other world. Instead of blocks, there were winding roads and subdivisions. Instead of the school playground, there was Ginger Creek. It was a great life, but not quite the same. My siblings often commented on the fact that my younger brothers grew up with country clubs and snowmobiles, while we grew up with ice cream trucks and kick the can. We always felt they got the short end of the stick.
What started as a blog post, has turned into a short story. In the event you’re still reading, THANK YOU! I love writing almost as much as singing.