Monday, November 7, 2011

The Old Neighborhood

Funny how certain details stick in one's mind. I still remember the phone number and address from my childhood home.

A social media party at The Yarden on the eve of the 2011 Independent Garden Center Show in August provided an opportunity to visit Albany Park, the northside melting-pot immigrant neighborhood where my family lived during my early years. Wanting to avoid Chicago's infamous rush hour traffic, I headed up north early enough to visit the Peterson Garden Project, and to take a walk through the old neighborhood, just a few minutes' drive from the event later that evening.

The neglected front yard would probably mortify our old landlord. He took great pride in his postage-stamp front lawn, mowing it every week with his green rotary mower whether it was needed or not.

Going back to the old neighborhood last summer brought a flood of happy memories. Although the Jewish bakery our delicious challah and onion rolls came from, the ice cream shop Dad took us to every time we lost a baby tooth, the school store where a child's allowance could buy a big bag of penny candies, and the Treasure Island our groceries came from are all gone now, the neighborhood where our family spent our early years looks much the same as it did over forty years ago.

the dining room window

Back then breakfast and lunch were sit-down family meals, usually in the kitchen on weekdays, and in the dining room on the weekends. Sometimes our milkman would be invited to join the family for breakfast. Dinner was always in the dining room. Even with the shade drawn, the dining room window evokes memories of our antique, upright piano piled high with sheet music, and the beautiful dining room table and buffet with thick, hand-turned legs where we found nooks and crannies to hide the peas and lima beans on our plates when Mom wasn't looking. (That is, until we were busted by that funny smell she noticed.)

I remember sleeping in the dining room under that window with my sister so Aunt Natalie could have our room the week she came to help Mom take care of us after our youngest brother was born.

Across the street where Rachel, one of my best friends lived, is a front yard much like the ones I remember - neatly-manicured lawns, and lots of flowers. New windows and siding were added to many of the buildings, and most of the front yards are now fenced. Otherwise, the old block looks much as I remember it.

My first sleepover ever was at Rachel's house. I've always thought "sleepover" was a misnomer - we were up all night.

Rachel's mom made the best tamales in the whole neighborhood. She and Mom were good friends, and, Rachel's mom always shared a big batch of her tamales with us. Some were savory, and some were sweet, and besides Mom's cooking and Dad's chocolate chip cookies, they are among my favorite food memories growing up here. That's saying a lot in a neighborhood where moms from all over the world made their specialties and shared covered dishes with each other so we kids could grow up loving those wholesome and delicious from-scratch ethnic foods. Fast food and sit-down restaurants were rare treats in our world. We grew up loving real food made in our mothers' kitchens, and learning to cook when we all pitched in to help with dinner.

I haven't seen Rachel since we were kids.

I wonder how her life turned out. I still see her as a sweet, carefree, smart, pretty girl with shining dark hair and big brown eyes.

Our neighborhood was religiously and ethnically diverse. We had a synagogue at the end of our block, but my siblings and I went to church and Saturday catechism a few blocks away. Standing atop a gleaming copper dome, Our Lady was a beacon in the distance as we walked to church.

As a child I thought she was beautiful and mysterious. (That was before I had a zoom lens.)

I was never too excited about the outside of our church. It seemed kind of imposing, austere and dreary.

Once inside though, it felt completely different. I thought it was a beautiful, magical, spiritual place where I could feel close to God.

I remember feeling awed by the scale of things, the stained-glass windows, and the ornate altar. Even though I didn't speak Latin and understood little of what the Mass was about, I was never bored since there were so many interesting things to look at.

Nearly everything seems just as I remembered, including the baptismal font. I expected it all to be much smaller than I recalled. Instead I came away surprised at how big it still seemed.

Father Reardon lived here, in the rectory. He was young, handsome, compassionate, and gave the easiest penance. The line outside his confessional was always the longest!

As a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be a nun so I could marry Father Reardon.

I changed my mind about being a nun when I found out they couldn't get married.

Nuns could garden . . .

. . . but I could garden too, and still get married and have kids. That was about the time I fell in love with Mitchy Braun next door. For our first date we went to the soda shop. He bought a hot dog and a malt. We split the hot dog and had two straws for the malt. Allowance only went so far for seven-year-olds, even in the 1960's. Mitchy's and my love life consisted of picking out furniture and baby toys from the Sears catalog for our future family, and hanging out on the front stoop with the other kids until our moms called us in for dinner.

The school at the end of our block, where I spent my early elementary-school years. At least from the outside, the school was every bit as big as I remembered.

In kindergarten, we sat on this little ledge when the bell rang, waiting for Mrs. Meyerbach to shepherd us up the stairs and into our class. She was a stocky, grandmotherly woman who wore bejeweled cat-eye glasses, stockings with seams, and thick orthopedic shoes with black laces. I loved Mrs. Meyerbach, until, at the end of my first year of school, she told Mom it wasn't good for me to be left-handed, and she should teach me how to use my right hand before sending me back to school in the fall. Thankfully, Mom ignored her well-meaning advice. It took a while, but eventually I forgave Mrs. Meyerbach.

All of our teachers played piano, and there was a piano in every classroom. Music wasn't a special class. It was part of the curriculum throughout the day. Since we lived so close to school, we went home for lunch every day.

While the school looks much the same as it did over 40 years ago,

the gardens are new.

It was wonderful seeing prairie blooms and grasses growing where once there was only lawn. After enjoying the school gardens, I took one last walk to the middle of the block to say goodbye to the old house before heading off to party at The Yarden.

Kindergarten class photo. That's me - top row, first on the left, in a dress Mom made me.


  1. Wonderful story, Linda. I loved taking the tour of our old neighborhood with you. It was some of our neighbors, including Ya-Ya upstairs and Rachel's Mom, who first got me interested in ethnic cooking of different types. I was a very young mother who was kept close at home in my growing up, and I hadn't been exposed very much to the foods of other cultures.

    There are so many other memories your piece brings back. Remember the lady on the 3rd floor across the street that used to look out from behind her lace curtains with a little spy glass? She would look in the front windows of other people's homes and then spread rumors about them.

    And then there were the times in summer that your Dad would spray all of the laughing kids with the garden hose. And the "end of summer" sidewalk parties we put out for all the kids - cookies from the oven, Kool-Aid, etc. And the family games we played that involved some of Mitchy, Gail and her sisters, etc. You kids would tie us up in the dining room and then go hide - usually enlisting help from the neighbor kids, while we untied and came hunting for you. What a lovely neighborhood life that was!

    The only remembrance that isn't quite accurate is the old, upright piano. Your Dad got that for me after we moved to the south suburbs.

    Thank you for the photographic tour of the neighborhood.

    Love you lots.

  2. I thought you'd enjoy that walk through the old neighborhood Mom!

    I'm so glad you added some of those other fun times. I remember them all too. I remember life in the old neighborhood more vividly than I remember things that happened last week!

    But oh, I beg to differ about the piano. We had it back then for sure. I clearly remember you sitting there playing it when the dining room window was open and we were playing outside. It was also one of the hiding places for the bad stuff on our dinner plates.

    I remember climbing on the bench when I was little and poking out the fragile old silk in the cutouts in the wood case with a pencil point and my pinky fingers. I even remember the debate when we moved about whether to take it with us. It was so heavy and hard to move, but you were clear about not wanting to leave it behind like those childhood treasures of yours that were lost in a move.

    I remember playing chopsticks on the piano, and the cardboard keyboard I had so I could practice when babies were napping. And I remember sitting on the bench with you playing simple duets like Heart and Soul, and whatever that song was where we rolled a fist over the ivory keys and used our fingers on the ebony keys.

    I remember when we rearranged the dining room and switched the buffet with the piano after Dad refinished the dining room floor. I could write a chapter on memories about that old piano, and I remember for sure it was there. :)

  3. And who could forget the wiry, petite, red-headed lady who smoked like a chimney and peeped out on the neighborhood with her spyglass! I remember the other moms in the neighborhood visiting on front stoops, tsk-tsking about her spy antics, and how she spoiled her young-adult daughter.

  4. What a lovely post, Linda. I always love Chicago houses and all your stories are so nostalgic--even to me, and it didn't even happen to me! Being a freak, I loved lima beans as a bid (and still do), but I love (LOVE!) the image of you kids hiding them in scrollwork of the table (buffet?) legs!! Thank you for making me smile this morning. :)

  5. Reba - I remember the piano!!! It was in that apartment.

    Great story Linda - thanks so much!

  6. Enjoyed the post greatly and have been reading bits out loud to my family.

    Parallels my childhood a lot, right down to all the teachers being able to play the piano and it being standard equipment in each classroom.

    The only significant difference (perhaps the only one) is the sharing of food. I grew up in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood too but we didn't swap dishes. However, I used specially to enjoy the birthday feasts laid on by the mums of my Greek friends.

  7. Your post brought back lots of memories. We owned a two-flat that looked very similar to yours on the far south side. My family lived on the first floor and my aunt and uncle upstairs. My aunt is the one who taught me to be a young gardener, following her around on my hands and knees in that tiny little backyard.

    I am the one who used to mow the lawn with that heavy reel mower barely being able to drag it up the stairs from the basement.


  8. I guess your memory of the piano is more accurate than mine! Somehow, I'd forgotten that we had it in Albany Park.

    Remember when we all - 5 kids and I - went grocery shopping? We walked with baby in the stroller, and older kids holding hands with younger. One child on each side of stroller holding on. No such thing as running around all over the store getting into things.

    I don't know if you remember the little fabric shop on Lawrence Ave where I bought remnants and made little girl dresses for you two girls, and shirts for your brothers. There are a couple of those I wish I'd kept.

  9. Glad you enjoyed it Monica!

    I like baby lima beans, baby peas, snow peas, and snap peas. Big lima beans and peas still aren't my favorite veggies, but I can eat them without gagging now!

    I forgot to say the table had ledges too - we found lots of hiding places for the stuff we didn't like, much to Mom's chagrin when the dining room started to stink!

    Glad you enjoyed it Rhonda! You and your girlfriends brought fun and good memories into the house too with all those 45 records and dancing in the living room with all of us littler kids. You turned us on to the Beatles, and I'm still a fan to this day!

    Esther, our landlord's family was Greek, along with several other families in the neighborhood. YaYa upstairs was a wonderful cook. We kids were often up there in her kitchen with all those good smells. She would give us lemons after she squeezed them for all those delicious dishes, and we would eat the pulp from the skins. (I still do that sometimes!) I still love Greek chicken, lamb, rice, potatoes, and a number of other delicious Greek dishes Mom learned to make, and I cooked them for my kids years later too.

    I think those pianos in our classrooms helped us learn a lot of things beyond the music itself.

    Eileen, I'm glad I didn't have to mow the lawn. Those old reel mowers were very heavy!

    Those city lots, whether north or southside, sure did have tiny yards. We had a 1/2 acre when we moved to our house in the suburbs. It was a thrill having all that space, and our own home and garden, but I sure did miss the diversity of the old neighborhood, and missed all my friends. It was a big adjustment moving to the suburbs.

  10. Oh, another thing I know you remember: Getting up at 2:00 am on your Dad's whim, packing the sleepy little ones in the car and taking off for Paducah to get barbecue, or to Detroit to visit Greenfield Village and the Ford Museum. We did a lot of fun, spontaneous, zany things.

  11. Mom, I don't remember the fabric shop, but I do remember the clothes you made for us. My favorite dresses were ones you made.

    I loved those last-minute weekend trips we made. You and Dad were very brave packing up five kids for last-minute trips. I loved the spontaneity and the surprise of Dad coming home with his paycheck on a Friday evening and saying "Honey, pack up the kids, and let's go to . . ." (fill in the blank - St. Louis, Kentucky, Michigan, etc.) And then there were all those fun field trips to the beach, the museums, the zoos, the conservatories, etc.

  12. Hi Garden Girl
    What lovely memories you shared with us. Thank you! I could see it like in a movie... you must have a great childhood.
    By the way, I hope you took more care about the clothes your mom made than me :o). I was so fond of the white little dress my mom sewed for me, that I wore it while playing with the boys in the sandpit. She wasn't happy about that :o).
    It's nice to have so wonderful memories, isn't it?
    Greetings to you and your mom

  13. What a wonderful post. I enjoyed reading every bit of it. And what wonderful memories. Good for you. Lovely, just lovely. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Alex, I still can see those memories like a movie, and even more vividly and nostalgically after visiting there again - I've been back there several times.

    I took very good care of the clothes Mom made me, and my younger sister got to wear them after me.

    Hmmm. . . you just sparked and idea to look for my class pictures. I wore dresses Mom made me in most of those pictures. Maybe I'll scan one and add it to the end of the post!

    Glad you enjoyed it Victoria! I enjoyed living it, and having those sweet memories throughout my life.

  15. That was fun Linda and boy were you a cutie pie. Your Chicago neighborhood sure looks like the ones I knew in St Louis~I guess all Midwest cities look alike! I've made a point of visiting my old neighborhoods, too. Great fun. gail

  16. Hi Linda,
    I loved this trip down memory lane with you. I especially enjoyed reading the comments between you and your Mom. It was like listening in on our 4 party telephone line :)
    Your upbringing was much like mine..Weren't those years the best?

  17. Glad you enjoyed it Gail! I just love those old stories - such happy times.

    Mom grew up in St. Louis, and her parents returned there in retirement after spending years on their little farm in the MO Ozarks. We visited the farm, and St. Louis after they moved back there. We took several sightseeing tours of tree-lined St. Louis boulevards and neighborhoods that looked very much like our Chicago neighborhoods.

    I loved those innocent wonder years Balisha! Glad you enjoyed the trip down Memory Lane.

  18. What a fun trip down memory lane with you, Linda! Doesn't it seem like life was so much simpler back then? I laughed at the thought of you and your sisters hiding lima beans in the table legs--I would have, too:) I once wanted to be a nun, too--and I wasn't even Catholic! I grew up in a rural area that was much less diverse than yours, but I have the same fond memories of a close-knit community. Ah, the good old days!

  19. Thanks Rose! Life definitely seemed simpler back then in the good old days!


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