There is an idea that if you lose something it’s because the energy of that thing isn’t right for you anymore and it is for whoever else finds and needs it. I hear this as a relief from the guilt I feel and take comfort in it when I consider the things I have lost. I am sure that this applies to houses I have lived in, and took memories from.
This journey back to the North Shore of Chicago has been a time of remembering, and a lot of letting go. The other day, Mr. Henry, my faithful dog, and I toured around my childhood stomping grounds of Winnetka. The following skims the surfaces of memories, with more to unfold some day.
This tour was on a warmer day than what we have had, all the snow had melted by 40+ degree weather. Henry and I stopped in front of each of the 3 houses I lived in during my childhood.
As I stopped to snap a photo in front of each house, I was certain that I was stealing something that belonged to someone else and I was sure someone would come out to yell at me for stalking or stealing the image of their home.
I was stalking. Some part of those houses still felt as if they belonged to me. The houses certainly belong to my memories.
1083 Oak was the first house my folks owned from 1951-1960. They moved there from an apartment in Chicago. I was one year old and my brother was turning five. I remember that my parents paid $18,000 for the house and they talked about how exorbitant that seemed to them at the time. They borrowed from the matriarch, my great aunt, to make it work, as they wanted good schools for my brother and me, and Winnetka was touted as the place to get that. My dad was a traveling salesman for Bell and Howell at the time, a step up from the bread truck driver he had been and was fired from for being in an accident. I think my mom was owning and running a knitting shop with her sister or working at Carson Pirie, Scotts.
It seemed important to take a photo of the front and the back of 1083 as front and back are packed with recollections. When we moved in, my Great Uncle Benny, one of the ten siblings from Ukraine, would come and remodel the kitchen, which was at the back of the house. There he put in the wonderful picture window, added a bathroom upstairs for the two bedrooms that were my brothers and mine, built a table saw in the basement for my dad, and a darkroom for my dad’s photography. I took much comfort from having Benny around. I remember getting a kiss from his scratchy 5 o’clock shadow each morning he came to work, and I remember my mother being happy that he was there.
It was at an early age that I knew things in the house were not right. The Borden’s Milkman, Nick, came to deliver milk at the back door once a week. He would always give me a free chocolate milk but that wasn’t why I liked him. I liked him because every time he came, it was like a little adventure, he was a new conversation with me and my mom, and with his Borden’s Milkman uniform on, he brought in a fresh energy, a sweetness, a light, something about the world outside. I wonder now if he knew what he gave us.
The back held lots of memories like digging to China under the plum tree, and when I dug enough and dreamt enough about where in China I would pop out, I would climb that tree and watch my dad garden. Around the edges of the yard were my mom’s Lily’s of the Valleys and Pansies and the Peartree my dad tried to train to grow a crooked way. There were the times my dad could get my very reticent brother to play catch in the yard and I would watch, wishing I could drip sweat like the two of them.
We lived in that house in the 50’s, during the Cold War. I knew for sure that we could turn our garage into a bomb shelter. That or the hinged tornado doors to the basement would also work. I knew more than a kid should know about how radiation traveled, and how to design a safe bomb shelter. I knew as we all did, covering our heads while crouched under a desk, was just stupid. So I educated myself about radiation, it’s movement and bomb shelters via TV ads and World War III movies like On The Beach. My mom took the practical stance of not wanting to live if there was an atomic war. She said that she’d rather die than have to turn away people who had not built a shelter, for lack of food and room. I’m pretty sure my dad agreed with her.
The front held the steps and front porch door embedded with other moods, yearnings, and desires. I was always waiting for something, really most anything; for my brother to come home from school, or my dad to come home from work, or someone I didn’t know, to just show up and be a new person around to talk to.
I felt bored a lot, something in me had closed down; my aunt said that at about the age of three I had become sullen. I didn’t learn until much later in my life, that my mother would go into the garage to take Phenobarbitol to settle herself after one of my father’s depressive outbursts or just when she had had enough of him. The garage served as her “bomb” shelter. I know she was grateful that her first cousin and best friend had married a doctor when in need of a prescription for Phenobarbital. Though I am pretty certain that my mother’s air was trustworthy and sincere, and when asking a doctor for help, getting it really wasn’t a problem.
None of us seemed happy including my brother and I. The best thing was that we had our dog, Peppy, a part Collie and part Shepard rescue. Really, I had our dog, Peppy, he was my appointed protector, he followed me to school almost every day, spent the night on my friend’s front porch when I did overnights and just stuck by me. It was as if he knew what I needed, even more than I did.
After about 6 years in that house, my dad had seen Death of A Salesman and decided to stop being a traveling salesman as he didn’t want to miss out on my brother’s and my childhood. So he borrowed more family money and opened a camera store, Powell’s Camera Mart #2 on Elm Street, just down from The Fix-It Shop. He kinda missed our childhood in some ways anyway because when he was home, he was in an angry depression…a lot. Many years later he was diagnosed with diabetes and I have wondered if his blood sugars were causing his loud yelling and bad behavior.
Some years ago, I had visited the Oak Street house with my girls. We knocked on the door and we were invited in by a lovely elderly lady. She told us that the house was called The Stern house. Now that was a fun fact, as my parents didn’t build the house. So who did and who was there before us? And why did my parents get the recognition? I knew dad did good things in the community like supporting The Hadley School for The Blind, the Lion’s Club, and some other charitable causes. I also knew his store had a great reputation. So there is that.
After achieving success with Powell’s, my dad decided to take a big, risky step and buy out his partnership in order to open his own store. He struggled for weeks over whether or not to use his own name. My mom and I said, of course, he should and so Stern’s Camera and Sound Center became the name. He was on his path of success. Though he had had only a few classes in business, he had a natural ability to run a camera store.
1442 Asbury Avenue was purchased for $42,000 and we lived there from 1960-1969. I couldn’t get a picture of the backyard without asking permission and I wasn’t in the mood to do that as this was one of my moments of wanting to be more private. But the backyard once held the Japanese garden my father made and took great care in raking and making patterns in the sand. The backyard also held the fence between our house and the kid that lived behind us. My parents always disparaged his parents saying they were shysters so of course, I dated the kid. There weren’t many ways to rebel in my family but this was one. He was a jerk, so it didn’t last long. Quiet parental pressure worked on me and I needed it.
While living in that house, my brother went off to college, after his high school years of drinking, while making straight A’s. On his visits home, he asked to have use of the attic room, asked for the paisley bedspread from India, and the arty hooka my parents had sitting around as an interesting artifact decorating the living room. They happily and naively gave it all to him and there lay his den of iniquity. He would invite me up to have a smoke but between no desire to lose track of an already off color reality and being a good girl, I turned the offer down, at least while I still lived in the house.
905 Grove Street from 1968 to 1982 really wasn’t a home I lived in but I visited often. My folks bought it after I left for college for a whopping $68,000. My brother was already out of the house. My folks again did a major remodel adding a second level. In the backyard, despite my father’s encouragement for us to “live together longer”, I got married at the age of 19, barefoot with a flower wreath on my head. The guy I was marrying was not a jerk, but we were not a match. He was a wounded guy doing his best to make life work, and couldn’t seem to help the fact that he didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t talk. The marriage lasted a long seven years, with a lot of suffering due to the fact that I had had such a limited vocabulary when it came to speaking up for myself and I was so fearful that I couldn’t even tell myself what I wanted, let alone anyone else.
There is a storehouse of many more memories, suffering, wounds, and joy that is being asked to be told another time or not at all.