Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lawndale


For the first eight years of my life, my world consisted of Lawndale Avenue from 24th Street to just a little north of 23rd Street - ending at the railroad tracks. Ours was a typical blue-collar Chicago neighborhood populated with families named Blaja, Nowak, Pavonka and Novatney. Good solid working families with their roots largely in Eastern Europe. I don't think my parents would have described themselves as poor; but, I know there was some financial struggle. That was the situation for almost everyone in our neighborhood. At the time, however, I never felt in need of anything. Most of my friends' parents were first generation Americans; but, it was not at all unusual for the households to include resident grandparents who spoke little or only heavily accented English - of varying dialects. It was to this neighborhood and to the house at 2345 S. Lawndale Avenue that my parents carried me from the hospital...to share a little bedroom with my sister (and later our little brother) and to play in the hollyhocks that grew in the backyard.

In the summer, my sister, brother and I attended "camp" at Shedd Park, which was located at 23rd and Lawndale. My most memorable accomplishment at camp was the creation of a hat for the Kitchen Caboodle Contest. I made it from a strainer turned upside down, from which hung a ladle and a bunch of carrots. Shorty still has the picture of me smiling, a little toothless, from underneath my creation and holding what I can only imagine to be an award, rolled up and tied with a ribbon.

But the real fun came in the winter. Lawndale Avenue runs north and south, and after the first good wet snow, the gang of kids on the east side (us) and the gang of kids on the west side (them) would build snow forts from which we would wage war against each other. My sister and her friend, Barbara, were the oldest in our gang and were therefore our superior officers. We built our fort according to their specifications, and then fortified the battery with an artillery of snowballs. They would also send us on scouting missions to obtain provisions from friendly outposts. Mr. Blaja was the best source of bee candy (small, hard candies embossed with a bee and filled with honey), and Mrs. Blaja for plum dumplings. Shorty packed sandwiches and let us spend the entire day outside, until dusk, under the colors of our flag. But even the spoils of war take a backseat to Mother when she calls TAPS. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I don't believe it snows like it used to. Big, fluffy, wet snowflakes that came down in blizzards...so thick and fast you could lay on your back, look up and see nothing but white. We would let them float into our mouths - tasting as fresh as air - and hang from our lashes.


I remember the day we left Lawndale Avenue. It was the summer of my eighth year. We had sold the house and were moving to the suburbs. The moving van was packed and gone, and my parents, my brother and sister and I stood outside the house next to my father's 1955 pale green Ford, saying good-bye to our friends and neighbors. My best friend, MaryJackew, and I begged our parents to allow Mary to drive to our new house with us so we could explore our new digs. She jumped into the back seat next to me...we were giddy with excitement. A big new house! A new neighborhood! The suburbs! Apparently, there was a last minute change of plans. Either Mary's parents decided it would be too much to drive out to our new house to retrieve her, or my father decided he would not have time to bring her back home. Whatever the reason, despite our tears and pleading, she was removed from the car by her mother. My last memory of her and of Lawndale was watching Mary from the Ford's rear window. She got smaller and smaller, waving with one hand, wiping tears with the other. Our parents promised they would bring us back to Lawndale Avenue to visit. I guess life gets in the way. I never saw the old neighborhood, or anyone who lived there, again.


How shocked I was when I got a call from my son, Charlie, who was visiting his Uncle Rudy (my baby bro) in Chicago this past February. "Guess where I'm standing, Mom." "I give up, Charlie." "2345 S. Lawndale Avenue!" At first stunned silence. My throat closed, tears welled, then spilled over. He sent the attached photograph (Charlie on left, Rudy on right). The cyclone fencing is an abomination that must have been added over the years. And the front door has been changed. Ours had a beautiful, large leaded glass window, and big substantial brass knobs. But no matter. I would recognize it anywhere. It has the same face. The same look about the eyes. The same posture. I see myself standing in front of the house wearing my white dress and First Holy Communion veil. I'm holding the basket of peony blossoms my mother made for me. I see my little brother standing in almost the same spot, wearing his six-shooter and holster set - a gift for his birthday. I wonder if ghosts might be lingering there. Do we leave an invisible mark on the places we've lived? Mr. and Mrs. Blaja, my father, my Uncle Joe? Does the house recognize the young man standing there is my son? Standing where I once stood so long ago? If I listened hard enough, would I still be able to hear the clear, sweet, sad notes floating from my father's trumpet? If I wandered into the kitchen, with its wood-burning stove and deep porcelain sink, would I get a glimpse of Mrs. Blaja and my mother bustling about, making preserves or strudel? Would I hear my sister's voice reading stories to Rudy and me as we sat in the bedroom the three of us shared? Are the hollyhocks still there? The big, old tree is gone from the front yard. Many of the people who populated that little world on Lawndale Avenue are gone as well; but, the house is solidly built. It was a happy time and a happy place. I do not know the stories of the families that came after us; but, perhaps we left a little sliver of ourselves there - to act as a good luck charm.

7 comments:

  1. Maybe it's because this post is coming off the back of Amber's final bow, or because you write so movingly about a happy childhood that sounds nothing whatsoever like mine, but Grad, I am crying like a baby.

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  2. Oh, Doctordi...my friend, don't cry. But, thank you. I don't know why, but I've been looking backwards a lot lately. Perhaps it's age. In any event, it's like writing it all down in a book that preserves a bit of family history for those coming behind me. I'm sure I'm viewing it through a prism and remembering only the good stuff.

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  3. What beautiful memories and so well written. My parents still live in the house I grew up in that they moved into when I was 2. Visiting them always brings past and present crashing together in weird ways. When I moved to MN I got to visit the small town where my dad was born. It was really cool and people still knew him even though he hadn't been there in 40 years!

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  4. Stefanie, it must be wonderful to be able to go back to the house you grew up in. We moved three more times after Lawndale. Each time my parents got rid of "junk" stored in the attic or basement. How I wish they'd have stayed put and continued to store stuff. I'd love to see what we would have left.

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  5. Mom, that was awesome. I need to read your blogs more often. You're an incredibly gifted writer, and you're a good person.

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  6. Well, Grad, if you ask me it's the good stuff that's most worth preserving and remembering, and you're doing a wonderful job. I love these reflective posts of yours (and how nice to read your son's justified pride above).

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  7. Aww, just look at that comment from your son! I can only hope mine grows up to be as loving and charming. And of course he's quite right, on both counts.

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