I was just thinking about Mother Cabrini Hospital and a few nurses that my mom and dad ‘adopted’. My cousin “Red” brought his new girlfriend, Carmella, over to meet the family … she was a tiny girl, beautiful dark skin and black hair, with a slight limp … we all fell in love with her immediately. Mother Cabrini was a teaching hospital, and Carmella was a student nurse, eventually she brought a few of her friends over, Regina, Cappy, etc. and my mom would feed them .. students are always hungry. I remember late one night we woke up to someone tossing stones at the bedroom window, mom got out of bed and there was Carmella under the window, she told my mom that a family at the hospital was sitting vigil for a very sick relative and they were hungry … of course, my mom gave Carmella a bunch of food to bring back to the hospital for them. And so it went on … we became so close that Pat and I were bridesmaids in a couple of their weddings …
Carmella eventually married Jack, a tall, handsome fellow who adored her, and Regina (pictured above with my sister Pat on the right) married Tom, a very blonde jovial guy. I think the last time I saw any of them was at my mom’s funeral … and years later at my dad’s. As always … I wonder where they are today.
Once, my dad called my mom and told her there were a few Italian war brides stranded in Union Station overnight, before they went on to meet their soldier husbands around the country. Papa brought them home, Mama and Aunt Ang made a fantastic dinner for them … then they spent the nite on chairs and sofas and went on their way the next morning … a few of them kept in touch with my mom for a while.
Summer in the projects was fantastic … everyone played outside, had dinner, cleaned up and went out to play again, til dark. When it was hot, the neighborhood guys would turn on the johnny pumps and put a board at the bottom so it would spray to the other side of the street … some people washed their cars that way, some girls got dragged under the spray and ruined their hairdo … one woman lost her tube top, yowza! On especially hot nights, some people dragged their mattresses from their bedrooms and put them in the field that centered the projects. The peddlers … all kinds of them, but the watermelon man was my favorite … I could still hear him singing “watamelooo”, and he would always cut you a slice to taste before you bought it. The Good Humor man, the ‘cheech’ man (nuts, etc.) yum the candy apple man … 5 and 7 cents … and he also had pizzelles and the lemonade man. The pony man with the cowboy outfit for your photo, I still have mine. The knife sharpener who would also did scissors, and there were many more.
My mom had a beautiful Victory Garden in the field in front of our place … she noticed that the veggies were disappearing … she got up early one morning and spotted an old lady all in black, returning from Mass at Pompeii Church and stealing our veggies!
My first boyfriend, Bobby, lived on the second floor above us,…
my first kiss and his arm around my shoulder, I felt so grown up … think I was 12! Music was the background for all of this …….still a big part of my life.
I have nothing but great memories of growing up in ‘the neighborhood’ … born at home at 1223 W. Cabrini St., in the Jane Addams Housing Projects, across from Mother Cabrini Hospital.
My youngest memories are of being in the basement with my mom on Tuesdays, her laundry day, … it was scary fun being down there, and all the kids played with each other. Mom washed clothes on her Maytag and hung them in her locked laundry space til they dried the next day. She was a great cook, and amazing baker … we always had fresh cake or cookies in the house, and she generously doled them out to the neighbors. She had theme parties for our birthdays, and handed out the best Halloween treats in the neighborhood. She was Polish, first generation and born with a club foot, and had a horrible childhood .. she had 4 brothers and 2 sisters and was treated like Cinderella … had to wash and iron all the brothers shirts, etc. … and they were free to hit her whenever they felt like it. And that’s why my mother visited every single nun at Holy Family School on the first day of a new grade for the 3 of us, and gave them instructions to send us home with a note if we did anything wrong and she would punish us … “don’t ever touch my child” … and they never did! She was very strict with us, but had to be, it was a tough neighborhood and lots happened that we didn’t know about … like her going out into the hallways in the morning and sweeping the ‘rubbers’ from the stairwells so we wouldn’t see them. We resented it growing up, because we weren’t allowed to hang out with the popular kids, only certain kids mom approved of, and I remember having to sit on the bench by our doorway so she could keep an eye on me. Of course in hindsight, she did the right thing.
Mama (Lil) was a great woman, and very strong .. when my parents bought their first home @4017 W Van Buren St., there was a wall that she wanted removed … my dad and brother kept promising to do it …until one day my dad came home from work and there was a hole in that wall big enough to walk thru. They took down the wall and made a chute in the floor for all the plaster and dirt and it went into a large trash can in the basement. When my brother asked my dad where all that trash went, my dad laughed and told him this … every couple of days he would take a bunch of the scraps and wrap them in brown paper, tie it with string, and put it under his arm as he walked to the bus stop. He would put it on the seat next to him for a while … then move to the back of the bus and wait to see who would sheepishly pick up the ‘package’ as if were theirs, and take it with them!!! The drivers were in on it with him, and they all had a good laugh. How funny was he???
When we were all gone from the house, Mama became depressed and didn’t go out much … at that time we just wondered why she had changed … now I see it and am sorry I wasn’t more attentive to her. She passed away much too young, from a broken heart I’m sure .. her life ended when her kids were gone … even though she had the best husband ever. I was working at a restaurant in California on xmas eve, and going thru a divorce … my good friend, Ulla, was also in the same circumstance … she spent the night at my place and we boo hoo’d about our lives and I told her it was the first year my mother didn’t send me xmas cookies … it was the worst xmas ever. The next morning I woke up to a phone call from my brother, saying mom had died … I couldn’t believe it, it was our favorite holiday. A couple of hours later, the door bell rang, it was Special Delivery, from my mom … xmas cookies! When we were kids, we would always have Christmas at my Aunt Tessie’s, my mom’s kid sister…
… my Uncle John was Santa … for some reason, the Polish Santa was mean (hilariously so) … when he came into the door my cousin Dennis would hide under the bed … Santa would tell my dad to get down on his knees and pray (which wasn’t easy for Papa, but he did), it was like a minstrel show … he told papa to pray that God would forgive him for being bad, and my dad would pray and shake. It was scary fun every year … and when we went home to the projects … there were tons of gifts under the tree, that weren’t there when we left!!! We didn’t find out how they got there til we were in our 30’s … my mom would give the gifts to Mary the widow, our next door neighbor .. she and her 4 kids would hide them for my mom, and put them under the tree when we left. Of course, my mom bought them gifts too. When you entered Mary’s house … there was an ironing board in front of the door where people put their coats … in the corner was a big tv, with a smaller tv, and an even smaller one on top, that actually worked. I loved Mary and her kids … Mary Ann, Diane, Peter and Sonny … I often wonder what happened to them.
My parents met when they were 26 and married secretly, because it was sacrilegious for a Polish woman to marry an Italian man … eventually my mom’s family adored my dad … my dad’s family never really accepted her, they called her ‘the pollock’. Mostly because she was different than the neighborhood women, who screamed at their kids out the window, and promised to take them to the doctor for a shot, if they were bad! They were loud, and cursed at their kids. They mostly had Italian Provincial furniture. we had blonde, modern…
… they bought their clothes on Roosevelt and Halsted … my mom took us on a bus out of the neighborhood for our clothes, so we wouldn’t look like everyone else … of course we wanted to look like the other kids, but as I grew older I realized how amazing she was … I still don’t like dressing like everyone else … she was way ahead of her time. We had a “Jew” … and I mean that in a totally affectionate way … Mr. Sachs came to our home every week, and my mom would give him money for our account with him … whatever she needed, furniture, clothing, appliances, etc. … he would take her to the wholesale house to get it, we even had our health/life insurance thru him … I loved seeing him on Saturdays.
Saturday was also the day we went to The Garden Show on Taylor St. near Racine, oh how I loved that place, Tony and Frenchy owned it. It only had 1 bathroom for the entire theater, it always smelled, and the floor was always wet, but we didn’t care. I remember when they painted the floor of the theater red, it never really dried and there were red footprints down the sidewalk going both ways forever. The concession stand was tiny, and they gave ‘late checks’ to us if we came in late for the movie. When the lights went on after the movie, Tony would come down the aisle and yell “late checks’ and if you didn’t have one, ‘get out’ … we were all afraid of him. My favorites were Roy Rogers and Buster Crabbe … usually the kids went home and played out the movie outside in the grass in front of our apartments … I was always Roy.
My dad was Italian, first generation and had 5 siblings, he was the favorite. He was born perfect, but woke up one day when he was in his 2’s, completely paralyzed on his right side … they called it ‘infantile paralysis’. He walked with a big limp, and kept his right arm in his pocket so it wouldn’t swing around … he used to love to threaten us with ‘the claw’ if we were bad … he would take his hand out of his pocket and shoot it like an arrow in the air … we never got tired of it, he was a very funny, lovable man. He had a lot of scars on that arm, from botched surgeries trying to fix it, which was impossible. The neighborhood kids would ask him what happened … he would tell them grand stories of how he ‘fought off the Japs’ single handedly in the war, everyone loved those stories and thought him a hero. He delivered blue prints for the Sun Times every morning, then opened his 2 news stands around 2:30-6:30 … one inside an office building and across from that, he stood outside in that Chicago weather on Randolph and Canal and NEVER missed a single day in 50 years…
… he was about 5’4″, wore a size 5 shoe and was paralyzed … he was a god to me. At Christmas time he would come home nightly with tons of gifts, his customers loved him too. There’s a story my friend Frank told me years after my dad was gone … Frank went to the paper stand and wanted to buy a Playboy magazine, my dad asked him how old he was, and he naturally lied … so my dad told him to walk around the whole block and he would give it to him when he returned … my goofy friend walked around the block and my dad gave him the Playboy (what a sense of humor). Papa was always the last dad to come home, by that time most of the kids had already eaten and gone out to play … I could still see him limping down the street towards home, my 2 girlfriends would run with me to greet him … he would grab me under the arm with his left hand and swing me onto his shoulder … then Lorilee, then Judy Lynn (who was chubby, so the 2 of us pushed her butt while Papa hoisted her up). On Fridays, tucked into that bad arm in his pocket, he would have a box of Fannie Mae mints for my mom, and a pair of hose .. he was a true romantic!
My sister, Pat, was a tomboy … I remember my mom going to look for her because she hadn’t come home with the groceries … she would find her playing baseball with the boys in the field on Taylor/Racine. Oh, and the grocery store … my mom would give us a list every day, Art would put the amount on our “charge card”, and my dad would pay it off on the weekend. Pat was fun, popular and had a huge heart, she didn’t care about clothes or girly things, and had a secret shed where she hid stray dogs she would find in the neighborhood and feed them. She was everyone’s favorite … til the day she passed. She went to Providence High School (again, my mom wanted us to go to the best schools) she ditched school in her Junior year and was thrown out of school (she took the blame for her girlfriends’ idea) … she wanted to go to nursing school, my mom made her get a job as punishment, she would have made a terrific nurse … she worked in hospitals most of her adult life. She married at 20, and had 3 children. She divorced after about 10 years, and married the love of her life, who turned out to be an unspeakable degenerate. When she mustered up enough courage to leave him, she asked one of the nurses in the hospital where she was working, to put a cast on her arm … she told ‘him’ that she broke her arm at work and couldn’t work for a few days. Every day when he wasn’t home, she would go to the basement and pack items she would need … that weekend when he went fishing, her friends and family went to her house and packed a truck with her things and her son drove her all the way to California to my place! “He” came home to an empty house … and it took him a week to finally find her with me, in California. She divorced and we lived together for a few years and had the best times of our lives … more on that later.
My brother Carmen, aka Corky, was ‘the brain’ … he hatched butterflies in our bedroom (the 3 of us shared a bedroom with twin beds til we moved when I was 13) and once made a fire cracker out of a lipstick tube with sulpher in it, it exploded and cut him. He would lay face down on the bench in front of the building, poking at the ants in the dirt, he knew what all of them did and who was the boss. My mom wanted him to be a doctor .. he went to St. Ignatius and got a scholarship to U of I at The Pier … he went one year and decided to quit and work for a year and then go back … that never happened, my mom was heartbroken. I introduced him to his wife, I worked with her, they had 2 daughters and divorced many years later. After they divorced, he met a fabulous woman, Indy, at The Hop (they are both fantastic dancers) and they dated for quite a few years, and eventually married and are living in Florida … seriously the happiest couple I know … that almost never happens, it’s wonderful to be with the two of them. I was the baby, and my mom’s favorite, even though we’re not supposed to admit that.
I had rheumatic fever for years and wasn’t able to play like the other kids … also an ulcer in my nose that hemorrhaged at times and I’d wake up covered in blood, including clots in my hair. Naturally, I was babied and spoiled and Pat and Corky teased me relentlessly. Holy Family School was fun, until 7th/8th grade when 3 girls decided they hated me and bullied me constantly (yes it happened back then) the ring leader was a fat girl, Joanne, and her partners were Sandra and Stella … I can still remember what they called me, and can’t say the word til this day. They made my life hell … and on graduation day the 3 of them wrote in my graduation book, how sorry they were for what they did … and how much they liked me. I still resent them today, and have no idea why they singled me out … except that I was ‘different’. I took classical piano lessons for years, first with Mrs. Vosella in the projects, and then at The Chicago Conservatory of Music … I was pretty good, but disinterested. Again, my mom was heartbroken. I went to St. Pius High School with the ‘bad’ girls from the neighborhood who I adored … it was a tiny 2-year secretarial school and there were only 40 of us in my graduating class. I loved hanging out with Big Dee Dee, Little Dee Dee, Grace, Lulu and a few others … I was the class Social Secretary (naturally) and Little Dee Dee was the President. When accounting class started in the morning, I would take everyone’s lunch order and go next door to the grocery store with the order (sloppy joe or ham sandwich) and never once attended that class. On Fridays we went to school with our hair in pin curls and a scarf tied in the back of our neck … that meant we had a date that night. The nuns didn’t care …I loved that school and the times I had there. When we graduated, ‘the girls’ (Marlene, Jackie, Grace, Big Dee Dee, Little Dee and me) went to the Chez Paree and saw Nat King Cole … a night to remember!
To be continued ….there’s lots more …….