Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Where I Come From.....Little Houses on the Prairie

My first memory of the house and town where I grew up is looking for marbles in the dirt. The dirt in question was our was a brand new house in a brand new development (code word for subdivision) plopped down on the flat black peat like soil of southern Cook county. This was the 50s so our house, like its neighbors, had gutters, but no eaves. It was a corner lot and faced Highland Ave. I still remember the address 15032 and the phone number Fieldbrook-9-2870. One wall phone, hanging in the dining room.
 The house was originally painted white with blue trim and shutters, but the blue faded mercilessly and one year the shutters came down and were repainted barn red. That's adaptation, you know. Barns lasted longest when red or white, so why not shutters. The house had a big paned picture window in the living room. The folks have lots of pictures of two little girls looking in and out of that window. The kitchen and dining room shared the same space and the whole house was floored in indestructible brown tile, very very hard. I lost teeth to the floor and the hard maple dining room chairs. My sister lost blood and gained stitches on the corner of the hard maple hutch. One of the foolish things I liked to do in that house involved running hard down the hallway, then sliding on the floor. My parents kept the floor shiny and slick and at least twice, I sprained my ankle playing that forbidden game.
Our house didn't have a basement so the floors were brutally cold but we had nice rugs, not carpet, so the chill only bothered the bathrooms. I can remember shopping for the rug in our bedroom...we went downtown to Marshall Field's, I think, and up the elevators to the floor with the high ceilings and big rugs hanging from swinging bars.
 It was great fun to flip through the big rugs, like thumbing the pages of an enormous book. They were so beautiful; it was news to me when I started visiting my friends' homes later on and found they had wall to wall carpet.
Our living room was dominated by a baby grand piano. I don't know how old I was when we got it; it wasn't new but I don't remember it arriving. I was younger than six though, because that's the age my parents bought piano books and I started learning to read music. Music was always the background of my life. I do not recall a time growing up when my father didn't get his clarinet out and practice for a half hour before leaving for work. There were two big speakers in the dining room which played the classical music stations of the Chicago area from early morning to my parent's bedtime.
 Even then, the radio would play until midnight and sign off. That was a time of dread for me in later years when I went through a bout with insomnia. As long as the radio was on, it wasn't late. After the radio went off, there was just worry about sleep and the chiming of the clocks every half hour. The music wasn't soft; my father loved the German composers and one could not stay in the front of the house when a Bruckner symphony played. I learned the German legends behind Wagner's Ring cycle and the Copland music and Sandberg readings associated with Abraham Lincoln's birthday, a holiday in Illinois. On Saturdays there was the Texaco Opera quiz at intermission during the Met broadcasts.
I wasn't very old when we actually went to the Lyric Opera. The performance was the Beethoven opera 'Fidelio'. We were way up there so the singers were just stout and beautifully costumed figures without binoculars. Laura and I amused ourselves during intermission by counting fur coats. The story of Fidelio is highly romantic and easily captured a little girl's imagination, though even then, the idea that a woman could pass as a man was fantastic to me. I know the evening was long, but the thrill and excitement of the live orchestra has not faded with memory. We also saw Don Giovanni another year; another exciting story with the added benefit of special effects as we awaited the descent of the Don into Hell as the Commodore hauled him off. From our lofty perch, we couldn't actually see the statue speak, but we were impressed nonetheless.
The Opera house was beautiful and baroque, especially lush on the lower floors and boxes, which we could glimpse on our way up the stairs. I loved going Downtown; the train trip from LaGrange, past the zoo in Brookfield....
 ...deeper and deeper through the older suburbs like Berwyn and past the well known streets like Cicero. Even then, the train station held boundless potential....maybe, just maybe, this time we would get on a long passenger train, not a commuter, and wind up out West, looking out at pony wells from our Pullman car with the cunning little combined sink and toilet.

I engaged in the same wishful thinking whenever we drove south through LaGrange, for on the outskirts of  town was a set of Golden Arches. Maybe, just maybe, we would pull in and I could have a chocolate milkshake......

15032 Highland Ave. circa 2014: the Schlueters drove by after their family vacation.
Still a home!

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