Diggings: Level 4

The Nutcracker Today

The Nutcracker Today

Well, Mother finally came home with baby. That was when my parents bought the studio couch. It was set up in the dining room, the geographical center of our universe, and Mother and Elise-the-baby were ensconced on it. I do believe that Mother reclined on that divan-of-command and supervised our numerous activities from that handy location for at least another two weeks. Some time later, Daddy took baby Elise, Margot, Renee and me for a walk down 67th Street to Marquette Park. Trying desperately to make some contact with my new little sister, I gave her some pretty yellow flowers which she immediately ate. She threw up yellow goo all over her pretty white blanket. My father was understanding yet firm when he told me that it was not nice to poison the baby. I was crushed but did not try that game again.

Another memorable moment, which predates new baby arrival, was when my big sister Margot carried me across the dining room and dropped me on the corner of the china cabinet. (Aha! This might explain why I feel a slight frisson of fear when I find myself staring at our newly acquired china cabinet). My head was “split open” (the historical reference) and Dr. Smith (the same one who threw me on the table in the delivery room because he thought I was dead) sewed up my head on the kitchen table. I recall saying that it felt like a graham cracker, (not the table, my poor head). That night my father came home from work with a package of swiss cheese and admonished us not to eat the holes – which I did not do. I still love swiss cheese but do not avoid the holes – some things we just outgrow. Sometime during this time, I went to the city with Daddy. We rode the street car and I remember that I was wearing an orange fluffy coat. Daddy often did proofreading and translating for extra income and this saturday we went off to his office to pick up some work to bring home. We went to a restaurant near his office and when we walked I recall asking him why people were staring at me. He replied in a most gentlemanly and cavalier way that it was because I looked so lovely in the orange coat. It was the first compliment that I recall receiving and I felt quite happy. In fact, elated. Daddy pointed out a construction site across the street where there were three or four floors without walls and explained that it was one of the first parking garages. A house for cars!! I was amazed and couldn’t understand how the cars would get to the top floors.

Now, we have moved to 6319 S. Talman and our telephone number is Grovehill 2571. I just mention these minor details to show off my phenomenal memory for unimportant things that happened a hundred years ago! My sisters, Margot and Renee, owned a small two-wheeler bike. I would sit on the front porch and admire their skill and daring on that bicycle. Whenever someone would offer to teach me to ride it I would decline shyly (I was SHY) and continue to jump off the highest stoop into the snowball bushes. One evening when everyone else was inside the apartment listening to Little Orphan Annie or Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy I stealthily removed the bike from the garage and rode it. It was like a miracle (like we kept hearing about from the nuns): I just RODE IT! It wasn’t until the second day when I did it no-hands.

A few days later it was the 4th of July and I was playing with my “son-of-a-guns” on the sidewalk. These were quarter-sized, round, gun-powder filled pellets which, when placed under the heel of a shoe, made a cap-gun type noise when you spun in circles. Some evil boys came by and threw a firecracker at my leg. I was a brave and uncomplaining heroine when the neighborhood clustered about me with my poor burned leg. The boy with the ammunition was Fatty Arbuckle whom we named after a current movie boy-star. I hated him and the next winter when the big snow came I wouldn’t help push his giant snowball from St. Rita during school at lunchtime. In fact, I kicked it to pieces.

Boys, in those days, wore knickers and high laced-up boots and they all carried pocket knives stuck into the top of a boot. These knives, a startling symbol of their emerging masculinity, were used on the playground at recess time to toss into a drawn circle in the hard-packed mud. A sort of bull’s eye thing. We girls contented ourselves with hanging dizzily and precariously from pipe-constructed fences or playing hopscotch or jump rope. The really coordinated girls played double-dutch, a terribly complicated variety of jump rope played with two ropes.

I began first grade when I was five years old. There was no kindergarten in parochial schools back in the thirties. I had a very hard time with reading which is curious because my father had been encouraging me to read at a very early age. Part of the problem may have been that dreadful shyness and natural fear of large women dressed somewhat like penguins. Well, as a result of my poor reading ability, I was sent to summer school where I was forced to walk WITHOUT MY SISTERS to St. Rita school, a hefty three blocks away. It was horrible. I wanted desperately to stay home and play. But the summer session was a success and I have loved to read ever since.

But wait! There is something to tell you that I nearly forgot! Out of time sequence but at least I remembered. When I was about three years old, Mother had gone off to Canada to visit her sister, Elda, and then went on to Massachusetts to visit Daddy’s family. On the day she was to return, we three Robitaille girls with noses pressed against the second story window (6319 S. Talman) looking eagerly for mama’s appearance saw a most exciting thing. A milk wagon, pulled by horses of course, turning left out of the alley to Talman Street, hit the curb with a wheel and it TURNED OVER. Well, this was a thrilling moment, to see dozens of glass milk bottles break and watch that hated white stuff flow like a chalky river out onto the street. We cheered loudly but regretted that this magical performance somewhat overshadowed Mother’s return.

When we were not watching overturning milk wagons or giving food to hoboes who would appear at the back door begging for work or food, we played hours and hours of monopoly or jacks. One of my most intense memories was in the late Fall when the radiators began to crackle with that first burst of steam heat. I would sit as closely as possible to the heat and play jacks. Another harbinger of Fall was Mother’s frantic activity with the paint brush. We seemed to change the color of the kitchen walls every Spring and Fall. Red was a winner in those days. Mother would paint all the accessories (table and chairs, bread box, wood trim) except one, the iron dog nutcracker. That was always my responsibility and there must be seven coats of paint on it. Another of my important responsibilities was drying the dishes whenever Mother didn’t care about breakage.

Other horse-drawn wagons were the iceman’s, the rags-and-old-iron man’s, and the Jewel Tea Company’s delivery man. The iceman would leave the amount of ice request don a card which Mother hung n the window. He wore a leather shoulder cover and hauled in the large block of ice with a curved ice pick and placed it into our icebox. We would jump onto the back of the ice wagon and quickly grab small chunks of ice to eat. This was sheer heaven on a hot summer day.

The city abounded in hoboes. This was the early thirties and we were in deep Depression. I am not talking MOOD, I am referring to the Crash of 1929. They were a courteous and amiable group who left significant and (to us) indecipherable chalk markings on garages and back fences. The cryptic signs would indicate those houses/apartments in which there was a likely chance of a hand-out; food or an opportunity to do some sort of work to pay for food and a night’s shelter in a garage.

One memorable Thanksgiving day I recall Mother giving away out turkey to a “hobo” because it didn’t taste exactly right. Later, she remembered that she had forgotten to season the “bird” but we were quite philosophical about this tragedy and I imagined the lucky hobo munching for weeks on our late, lamented turkey.

All during winter we wore long lisle hose which were held up on our skinny little legs with garters. If the garters broke and there were no replacements, we used fat rubber bands. These rubber bands would get horribly tight and there would be the inevitable deep, red indentations on our upper legs. Not a pretty sight. These hideous socks were worn until springtime when, as if by magic, all little girls would appear in anklets – all within a twenty-four hour period! It was as though all mothers communicated the night before and agreed on NO LISLE HOSE UNTIL NEXT FALL.

Wintertime was great fun. We did all sorts of arduous and exhausting things. One of these was called belly-flopping. It was accomplished by a fast sprint down the alley or street holding the sled close to the chest and stomach. Then at a certain crucial moment one flung oneself down on the sled and to the ground and sped along at an alarmingly fast pace. Especially if one sledded down the incline of the alley which led into the street. We called it a hill. For a really exciting time we would go to Marquette Park where there was an enormous hill on the golf course and belly flop down that one!

Daddy took us to the park whenever he could. Weekends were great, we ice-skated on the lagoon and Daddy pulled us all the way to and from the park. One icy cold winter day when Elise (Wesie) was still a little sprite, Mother decided to build a snow hill in our backyard. We were living on 63rd and Talman then and we had quite a large backyard with a fence at the end where it joined the alley. Mother worked for hours (wearing a very old fur coat in shades of grey mouton lamb) piling up snow against the fence and making a long run down the length of the yard. We were thrilled and played for hours that afternoon. Little sprite Wesie was now a dare-devil of sorts who took extraordinary chances at everything. She was noted for speeding down hills without benefit of sled. Margot was the most sedate. Perhaps that is the curse of the eldest child – Renee also was quite daring. Well, as a result of her labors of love, Mother caught a miserable cold and had to take to her bed for a few days. This probably the origin of the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished”.

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