Back to blogging with my three co-bloggers! Each week, one of us chooses a topic and we all post a blog entry on that topic, usually on Thursdays. (Usually we are on time. Usually. Ok, mostly. Sometimes? Don’t judge me.)
Here are the links to the other fabulous blogs:
Froggie chose this week, and she said: My childhood home.
I’ve written some about the neighborhood where I grew up, a place I am proud to call home, a neighborhood nestled on the Far Northwest Side of Chicago, right at “The Junction,” the spot of road where the Kennedy and Edens expressways meet – or diverge, depending on which direction you’re heading. I grew up in Jefferson Park, in Chicago’s “Bungalow Belt,” an area known for bungalow houses, some wood-frame, some brick. A sprinkle of two-or three-flats rounded out our neighborhood, which also featured a shopping strip we referred to as The Avenue, but which my cousins (who also lived in Jefferson Park) called going “up Jeff.” There is an actual Jefferson Park, but we spent more time at Wilson Park, even though both were in walking distance and even though the former housed a pool. Wilson Park was closer and involved fewer busy streets. We did, after all, live in the city.
I grew up in a two-story, wood-frame, aluminum-sided home parked so close to the houses on either side, we could pass things out windows if they’d aligned. Our house sat seven down from the railroad tracks, the ones that run up along Avondale (Street? Avenue? I’ve no idea), close enough that the wood house shook every time a Metra train rolled past. We didn’t really notice. In front of the house was a small expanse of grass, only a few feet, enough to build a snow fort but not much else. The city parked a maple on the parkway of each property; ours sat under the tall green streetlight that shone directly into my bedroom window. Three giant evergreens grew up against the house for years until my parents paid someone to cut them down. I never knew why, though now that I’m a homeowner, I assume it involved roots and pipes and lack of sunlight. Only the maple remains.
A concrete walkway ran through the gangway alongside our house to the west in the space between our house and the one owned by the Wenseritts. Bushy green and white hostas grew on both sides, forcing us to dodge bees as we ran down the gangway to the water spigot attached to the side of the house. Beyond that sat the chain-link fence that contained the small backyard, a yard that housed a blue and white metal three-foot above-ground pool that was the center of our childhood summers until my Dad took it down. He never told us why – and he never kept his promise to replace it. Grass grows there now, a postage stamp of sod surrounded by my Mom’s rose bushes and a line of marigolds. A two-car garage, sided to match the house, sat at the back of the property, it’s large door facing the alley, the small door positioned between a bush and my Dad’s “Italian” garden, the one containing everything he needed for his salads, especially his well-tended tomatoes.
Our home had two stories, plus a creepy unfinished basement where my Mom did laundry and stored extra supplies: paper towels, canned goods, a freezer full of meat. My sister and I jokingly called it “The Larder,” though we knew it made our parents feel safe, growing up, as they did, in the aftermath of the Great Depression. The basement terrified me when I was small, and I would venture down alone only when someone stood at the top of the steep wooden staircase while I dashed for a bottle of ketchup or a can of peas. Later, I played in that basement, rollerskating around the uneven cement floor with my friend Patty while we played K-Tel albums on the ancient stereo, the one that gave off electric shocks when you touched any part containing metal. Even then, a mild terror remained; when Patty had to go home, I turned off all the lights and quickly followed her up the stairs.
Our home had one bathroom, a tiny tiled room with a toilet, a sink, a medicine cabinet, and bathtub. It was so small, you could put out your arms and touch the wall and the mirror. It wasn’t much larger going the other way. The four of us shared the tiny space, which was a source of endless frustration, as my Dad seemed to possess a second sense about when you needed to use it. We always deferred. The bathroom was located on the first floor, nowhere near my bedroom, which was on the second floor, and nowhere near my sister’s room, which sat across the small hallway from mine. We pleaded for them to turn the even-creepier-than-the-basement attic into a bathroom, but they declined. Both of my parents grew up in homes full of people who shared a single bathroom – along with beds and clothes and everything else – so our protests fell on deaf ears.
My bedroom had angled ceilings and a white asbestos tile floor held down by this weird sort of tar stuff that seeped up through the seams and got on my clothes when I forgot and sat directly upon it. I didn’t have a dresser because my room had shelves and drawers built into the walls; if I slammed the drawers hard enough, my next-door neighbor, Todd, the youngest Wenseritt, could hear it in his bedroom. In 8th or 9th grade, I painted my room a light purple, and if you look out my former window, you can still see an old metal speaker, placed there by Bob, Todd’s dad, who ran the P.A. system for our annual block parties. The block party started at noon, every Fourth of July, and more than once Bob used his microphone to tell me to get out of bed already, as the fun was about to begin.
The main part of the house consisted of a combined living room/dining room, lined in dark faux wood paneling and covered in carpeting, off of which sat two small bedrooms. The bedroom on the east side of house held the stairs leading to the second floor. I was a pro at climbing over the piles of clean laundry my Mom placed on the landing for me to carry upstairs. Artwork hung on the space above the couch, and family photos lined the walls of what was technically the dining room. I say it that way because we never had a dining room table and chairs, only a breakfront/hutch placed along the far wall closest to the kitchen. My Dad refused to use the dining room table in the actual dining room, claiming it became nothing more than a dumping ground for detritus. Looking around my friends’ homes, I saw he was right, though I would have never admitted it, since most of the mislaid junk likely would have been mine. My parents used the dining room table as the kitchen table, and for large gatherings we either carried the table into the dining room or else we simply left the table in the kitchen, putting in the extra leaf and adding a card table for the kids.
The house came with a tiny kitchen, which my parents smartly enlarged many years ago by knocking down the wall between that room and the enclosed back porch. I still remember my Dad and my Uncle Richie taking down the wall, two men reveling in the joy of demolition. The new kitchen was huge and seemed so modern, with its restaurant-grade carpeting (!) and its dark wood cabinets and faux wood countertop and in-wall oven. A huge picture window faced the backyard; wood shingles covered the angled ceiling, which bumped up against the faux brick wall. It’s dated now, so out-of-style that it might actually be considered modern one of these days. It was always the most-used room of the house, the place we did our homework, where we all came together for dinner (mandatory if Dad was home), where my parents would sit in the evening, drinking wine and talking, where we’d join them before heading to bed. Mom put in an under-the-counter radio, which always seemed switched on to WGN. Eventually, a small TV made its way onto the butcher-block cart built for my parents by Bill, my Dad’s police friend who remodeled the kitchen in his spare time. The TV shared space with an alarm system control box we used for maybe a year or two; the bottom shelf of the cart held old newspapers, neatly stacked by my ordered father. I have vague memories of the cart being used as a bar during family parties. Knowing my family, I’m sure I didn’t imagine this, a kitchen filled with my aunts and my uncles and cousins, drinks in hands, happy, laughing, making memories in my childhood home.
* * * * * *
Throughout this post, I’ve struggled with verb tense. I’ve written about my childhood home as if it was my home only in the past, which I suppose is true. But it’s weird to think of it that way because my parents still live in that two-story, wood-frame house, all these decades later (almost five decades, to be exact). I don’t like to think of our family home in the past tense, as it continues to have a living, breathing presence in my life, like a relative or an old friend. My children know the house well, particularly my eldest daughter, who has spent the most time there, not only because she’s the oldest, but also because my parents babysat her part-time when she was young. For a long time, my Mom kept a hand-me-down crib in one of the bedrooms to accommodate the spate of grandchildren. It’s gone now; has been for many years. Yet the memories remain, for all of us.
Most of my aunts and uncles are gone now, too, the house outlasting so many of its visitors. The exterior is no longer white; the new siding is a light brown or beige color. My old bedroom is still purple, and a poster of Jon Bon Jovi still hangs next to my twin bed. These things remain, but I left more than twenty years ago. My “home” is a two-story new build in Middle Tennessee, more than 500 miles from my childhood home. One of my regrets is that my kids will never have a “childhood home” in the way that I did; we have moved too many times for that. I doubt this house will be my “forever house”; I like Murfreesboro well enough, but I cannot see retiring here. And, anyway, the house will be too big once the kids are grown and gone. I am not emotionally attached to this house, and don’t imagine I ever will be. And that’s because a home is more than the house, more than the walls, the yard, the appliances, the garage. It is the feeling of home, the memories, the stories. I know we will make those here, but they will never hold a candle to those we made in that two-story, white-sided wood-frame house that sits on Leamington Avenue, in Jefferson Park on the Far Northwest Side of Chicago, the house that, to me, will always and forever be the place I call home.