– The Way Things Were –

Growing up is never easy especially to a child who isn’t getting his or her way at any particular time. But, as most parents would say, “This, too, shall pass.” My growing up wasn’t all that bad. Granted, it wasn’t perfect but, all things considered, it could have been a whole lot worse. I could have grown up in a hovel, made to sleep in bug infested mattresses with three or four other siblings. Eat off of dirty plates, if there was food to eat at all and go to school barefoot and in rags. But no, my life was better than that. My mom and my dad saw to that. Being an only child didn’t hurt either.

After the age of one, my parents moved from a walk-up apartment in a downtown suburb to a three bedroom, two story with a full basement on Rutherford Street which is the Oak Park area on the west side of Chicago. They purchased the house mainly because of my arrival in 1947 so I guess they purchased the house sometime in 1948 or 1949. My mom’s mother, Grandma Anne, who was in her seventies, was living with us and needed caring for as well, so she was another reason for the purchase of the house.

I remember it had white lap siding with dark green trim. The garage was a single car detached and faced the alley in the rear. The house itself was huge to me at the time but I have since put that into perspective thanks to Google Maps street view. Everything seems bigger when you’re small.

Every yard had a trash burner incorporated into the back fence. Paper, leaves and anything burnable would end up in the burner. Dad would set it on fire before trash day and anything left would be placed in a can and picked up by the garbage men. I also remember dad burning piles of leaves in the backyard in the fall. Everyone did it while standing guard with the garden hose handy. If everyone did it on the same day you would think the whole neighborhood was on fire with all the smoke billowing up.

We had a coal furnace in the basement that dad had to keep stoked during the winter months. A dirty, thankless job I would have to repeat at Fort Gordon, Georgia during my stint in the Army some sixteen years later. It was only then that I realized what dad had to go through to keep us warm at night.

The man who delivered the coal would have to carry the coal down the side of the house to the coal shoot and into the bin one huge bag at a time. He would repeat this six to eight times for each house and be covered with black coal dust from head to foot. When he walked, a cloud of coal dust would follow behind him.

I would follow him from house to house as he would make his deliveries carrying one heavy sack of coal after another, seemingly tirelessly, to each house as the truck moved slowly down the street. The only clean spots on the man was the big smile on his face and the whites of his eyes as he watched me watch him. And, when the end of the block came, he would jump on the step at the back of the dump truck, wave a dust wave and would be off to another street for some other boy or girl to follow him through his rounds. I always wondered what he looked like before he started work each day. It must have been quite a chore to get clean when he got home at night.

Back in those days we still had horse drawn carts and delivery wagons delivering things mainly in the downtown area. Not many mind you but a few. This was do to the fact that horses had a tendency to make a mess now and then. When trucks and vans were designed to replace them, they were slowly but surely phased out in favor of the mechanized models.

You could still see push carts being used in neighborhoods with their owners yelling “RAGS, RAG MAN HERE. ANYONE GOT OLD RAGS? RAG MAN HERE.” and on he would go down the street continuing his chant until out of ear shot.

Or the guy that would sharpen anything you needed sharpened. He, too, would have a push cart with a string of sleigh bells that he would ring constantly as he pushed his cart. “KNIVES SHARPENED. KNIVES AND SCISSORS SHARPENED. ANYTHING YOU GOT, I CAN SHARPEN IT. KNIVES SHARPENED.” and ringing the bells all the while. And, of course, the kids followed him as well.

The nice thing about living back then is that children were able to play outside in relative safety. Parents didn’t have to constantly worry whether something weird was going to happen to their child or not. Neighbors would watch out for one another and their neighbors kids. No one had to ask, it was just something everyone did. Everyone knew laundry had to be done and meals had to be cooked. It was just one of those things.

Another thing, we are a sue happy nation and that’s a fact. Back then it was unheard of to have one parent sue another because Johnny broke his arm climbing the neighbors tree. Or, to sue the school because Susie twisted her ankle jumping off the swing set. They just sucked it up, attributed it to growing up and everyone signed the cast. It was and is part of life. Get over it!

My dad bought a new 1950 Oldsmobile, 2 door sedan, it was dark green and had the trademark blue plastic center emblem in the middle of the steering wheel with the rocket ship shooting through space. I thought that was the neatest thing I had ever seen and would sit in the car and just stare at it. Television wasn’t much to watch back then, you see and I was a simple kid. Easily amused.

When I was four or five, I would wait for my dad to get home from work right out front and, if his day wasn’t too stressful, he’d put me in his lap and let me steer the car around the block once or twice before going inside. I always looked forward to that. Every once in a while mom would let me do it but, it scared her to death so, generally, she’d make me wait for my dad to get home. There were times, though, when I’d really luck out and both of them would let me do it in the same day. Boy oh boy.

One day, during the summer I think, I was three years old and full of ‘piss and vinegar’ as they used to say. I would never walk anywhere. When I finally learned how to run, walking was out of the question from then on. I was always going full tilt and ‘Katie bar the doors’ let the world look out ’cause I sure wasn’t. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there and I was going to get there just as fast as my legs could get me there. This morning was no different. I ate breakfast, put on my shoes and ran down the side steps to the mud room door through the screen and stepped on the cement pad outside. Then I froze stiff.

It was the fastest stop I have ever made and I couldn’t move. I was literally scared stiff. My mouth, however, worked just fine and I yelled at the top of my lungs “MOM HELP ME, MMOOOOOMMMMMEEEE”. I was standing in the middle of a nest of snakes and they were crawling all over and around my feet.

Apparently the garter snakes had come out to sun themselves on the cement pad and I had just disturbed them. They are not at all poisonous but at three years old, what did I know. Mom came running down the stairs not knowing what to expect. When she saw the snakes and me in the middle of them, she let out a scream that scared me worse than the snakes. The next thing I knew I was jerked by the arms out of the snake pit and into the safety of the house. A little crying on my part and a few reassuring hugs from mom and I was fine. I never exited that door quite the same after that. I was a lot slower and much more vigilant. No explanation needed, right??

I haven’t been right with snakes or lizards since then. It took me a while to learn to bait my own hook with night crawlers after that, which didn’t make dad happy at all. He would always take me fishing with him and the guys and it would embarrass him when he would have to bait my hook. I finally got over it with the worms but never did with snakes and lizards. And at sixty plus, I don’t think I ever will either.

Dad, being a machinist by trade, was quite a do-it-yourselfer. Guess that’s where I got it from. He would do all the repairs and painting on the house himself, with a little help from his little man, me. I was mostly better at getting in the way but dad didn’t seem to mind. Well, not all the time anyway.

Dad was doing something on the roof or cleaning the gutters or exactly what I don’t remember. He had this big, wooden extension ladder against the side of the house. When he climbed down and went inside for something, that’s when I decided to go up. My mom came out first and was looking for me when dad came out and started up the ladder. That’s when he realized I had decided to go up first.

Mom was screaming bloody murder while dad was trying to calm her down and figure out how to get me down in one, unbroken piece. Tell you the truth, I was fine and enjoying the view. I think I was four or five then and wasn’t scared a bit. Mom, on the other hand, was scared enough for all three o f us.

After dad finally got mom quieted down, he looked up at me and said, “Now don’t be scared Eddie, just climb down the same way you went up. One step at a time.” Dad climbed up a few steps and waited for me to come to him which I did. I couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about but mom grabbed me and started crying all over again. She carried me in the house and held me on the couch for a long time before letting me go. It was hard to get away from her for a while after that. She would follow me outside and just stare at me while I played. I can understand now but then, it was annoying.

I didn’t know it then but mom and dad weren’t going to be together for much longer. Before my seventh birthday in 1954, mom had put up with enough of my dad’s drinking and carousing and coming in at all hours of the night. He would stop after work at one of his favorite haunts and come home loaded to the gills well after dinner was over and be mad there wasn’t anything out for him. Mom would tell him if he got home on time there would be if not, there wouldn’t. Simple as that.

This one night in particular, dad didn’t like the answers he was getting and started toward my mom. I was scared what my dad might do so, at five years of age, I grabbed a frying pan and with tears streaming down my face, hit dad across the knee just as hard as I could. This stopped him in his tracks and, I think, made him ask himself what he was doing. I don’t know where he went but he didn’t stay at home that night. I had never seen him act like that before nor, did I ever see that kind of thing again, ever. It didn’t stop mom from leaving but I think my dad did some soul searching after that incident.

Accept for summer vacations and a few Christmas’, my mom was the main driving force in my life. I would spend guy time with dad and the friends mom and dad had back east on vacations. Then, when I got back, mom would try and break all the bad habits I had developed while in my dads supervision. I guess that’s a normal situation among divorcee’s.

Mom had quite a job being both mother and father to a growing boy and once in the teenage years, well, need I say more. Like most boys, I was quite a hand full. She worked awfully hard and did very little for herself. Everything she did was for me and to make me happy and, as I think back on it, I didn’t show my appreciation as much as I should have and, mom, I’m sorry for that.

Mothers suffer in silence, for the most part, and just do what needs to be done because that’s the way it has always been. Work, sacrifice and pray everything comes out right. What more can a mother do?

Divorce changes everything, it has to, it always does. It’s for that reason that I swore that when I got married it would be forever. Well, for me, forever lasted almost twenty years. I made some mistakes and picked up a few bad habits along the way. I think my ex would agree that there was more than enough blame to go around but, to what end? My ex is a wonderful person who I care deeply about to this day. She did a wonderful job raising our three girls with little or no help from me and for that I both praise her and apologize to her.

Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandma’s and grandpa’s, friends, neighbors, school mates and the rare individual you meet but once but remember forever. They are all part of the way things were and, for now, the way things are. All memories, some pleasant, some not so pleasant but they’re all rolled up into one album which you call your life. When you flip through the pages in your mind, it will all come flooding back with total clarity. So much so that you will feel you are reliving it all once again. The voices, the laughter, the tears, the smells, the sounds and the feel of the moments once lost to you in time all returning as if by magic.

Trust me when I say, it will happen. Wait for it and when it comes, enjoy each and every minute of it. It won’t happen all at once but a little at a time. Each memory triggered by something in that moment. It will be wonderful. It has been for me.

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