I found myself killing time on Saturday in the suburbs. Specifically, the suburbs where I grew up. I had my girl in the backseat with me as we were going to a Bridal Shower that wouldn’t start for another 45 minutes – I was hoping she would nap in the car, but you know how that goes – so we had time.
I entered the neighborhood from the back entrance. It’s been years since I drove through this way. As we crept slowly around the corner, my anticipation was heightened by telling my girl, “this is where mommy grew up. This was my neighborhood. This is where all my friends lived and we played together. Uncle Andy and I play play played here when we were kids.” Tears leapt into my eyes where a second before there were none.
As we wound our way down the streets, I told my girl about all the families I remembered. Now, my memory is terrible. But for some reason I can remember so many things about so many families from back then. Without ever realizing it, without ever naming it out loud, we are all part of each other. The way we grow up and the influence we have on each other is enormous and important. Both empowering and at times full of shame. Just growing up requires recovery.
I remember piling into the big station wagon – in the WAY BACK – as you waved to other cars because you were facing backwards, HELLO, and heading to swim lessons or Park District classes. Part of why I’m so fond of Chicago Park District classes for my kids is because of the memories I have. The experiences and the friends I made. The lunches with the sodas wrapped in tin foil.
I remember all of us being out in the street riding bikes and getting our rumps back home because the Thriller video was premiering that night. That is a key moment in my childhood. All of us in front of the TV watching in complete awe.
There’s the house with the sugar cereal because my mom didn’t let us have it at home. There’s the house with the fruit punch after we’d been out playing all day in the heat. Fact – a lot of my memories are tied to food. We had very healthy food at our house growing up (THANK YOU MOM), but of course I wanted junk food, so I would be filled with glee at my friends houses with the chips and soda and candy. Not much has changed on that front. People with good (relative term) food are my people.
That house had Atari when we didn’t. We got to watch Friday Night Videos during sleepovers at that house. I spent so much time babysitting at that house and I snuck my friends (and boys) in the back sliding door.
Then there’s the house where the mom killed herself in the garage. A hush always came over when we passed that house or talked about that family. A family just like ours changed forever in the most profound way.
The trees are so much bigger now. Giants. Making the houses seem smaller somehow. The trees that were babies when we arrived. There was little shade when we lived here. Everything was new. The trees are now massive and give great shade to homes and streets. The “new homes” seem weathered and while still beautiful, they seem established. No longer new construction as they were all those years ago.
This street. The back way. The shortcut. The one we rode our bikes through a million times. All the cuts and bruises. No helmets. If you got really hurt, we’d ask Mrs. White to look at it. She was a nurse two doors down. Over to the little strip mall down the way, the only one of it’s kind back when we lived there. It was an undeveloped area when we first moved in and the White Hen Pantry was the holy grail.
This was back in the 1980s, when groups of kids, or even a kid on their own, could ride around without a care in the world. Bad stuff happened all the time, we just weren’t scared of anything yet. The internet wasn’t around and there wasn’t 24 hour news to report all the bad things around the clock. Yet. I am not one of those, BACK WHEN WE WERE KIDS EVERYTHING WAS BETTER people, because it wasn’t, it was just different. It wasn’t in your face with the fear as much as it is today.
It was bliss, really. It was going out in the mornings and not returning until it was time to eat. Or you ate at somebody else’s house. It was playing with whoever was outside at the time and finding the house with the bikes you recognized in the front lawn. It was making up shows and roller skating in the court with your boom box blasting Michael Jackson. It was basketball for hours at whatever house was the gathering place that day. It was throwing a birthday party for all our Cabbage Patch Kids including cake and balloons and party games.
The kids in the neighborhood were our friends. Our next door neighbors were, by default, who we played with and with whom we formed so many of our memories. The Spindas. The Maslovs. The Whites. Along with so many others, I can still see you and your parents and your dogs and your rooms and your bikes and your basements. You’re all burned in my brain.
We had it really good back then. It seemed simple to us because our parents made it look that way. But now that we are grown and some have families of our own, we know what all goes into making it seem simple for kids.
My husband and I are raising our family in the City of Chicago. We live about 40 minutes from where I grew up, but it seems much further away and we just don’t get out there often as my parents now live in Arizona.
We live in a great little old Chicago home. A Cape Cod. By our standards, it’s massive. 4 bedrooms and 3 baths. A yard. A finished basement. Exactly as this house was that I grew up in. Somehow though, my childhood home seems so much more grown up. My parents had this house and two cars in the garage and everything handled from a very early age. I know now it wasn’t always handled, but they always made us feel as if it was. Safe. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel safe, but I feel more settled today than I ever have.
Our kids have a room all their own and the top right window is theirs.
We live in a neighborhood of Chicago where the kids play outside all the time. There is always a hockey game or baseball or playing in the sprinkler or sandbox or something going on across the street from us. And it’s beginning to creep over to our house as well, which pleases me to no end.
Our kids are just at the age where they are playing outside on their own and making friends. These neighborhood kids are the kids they will grow up with. All their childhood memories will have these kids. What stories will they tell? What funny nuances will they remember? What will haunt them? Will they remember Miss Michelle always inviting them in the backyard to play and Birdie coming over to deliver flowers and play hide and seek. “JP is my best friend”, my boy says with stars in his eyes as he watches this bigger boy play baseball across the street.
I see the kids in this neighborhood doing exactly the same things we did as kids. I saw a group of girls practicing a show the other day in the front yard. As we passed by, I wanted to join in. But instead I remembered my age and just smiled at them and thought, maybe things aren’t so different after all. I see the kids riding their bikes around until they find somebody outside to play with. I see the moms yelling down the street to GET HOME DINNER IS READY.
The neighborhood is about block parties and sharing food and sharing space. It’s about walking to school and parks and stopping to chat along the way. It’s about dogs and older folks and people that have lived here their entire lives. It’s about people like us – transplants – who are welcomed with open arms and enveloped into the fold. It’s about knowing when somebody flooded and seeing how to help. It’s about checking in when there’s a big storm to see that everybody is ok. It’s about movie night in the Summer and gathering all the kids on a front lawn to watch a big screen of some terrible kids movie with popcorn and snacks and parents having a well earned drink and conversation. It’s about snow-blowing the walks for each other – we’ve had a neighbor take care of our walks since we moved in. “No problem”, he says, over and over. “No problem.”
People don’t hide in their homes here. We didn’t have window coverings in our home for the first year we lived there and it didn’t bother me a bit. Now that we do, it’s helpful at bedtime, especially in the Summer. But we don’t hide. I don’t want to hide any longer. I did that for too long.
We live about a mile from a neighborhood Chicago Public School that is a good one, and it’s part of why we moved here. We are lucky to have landed where we did.
You’d have to have your head hidden in the sand (and many are quite comfortable there) to not see the enormous discrepancy between where we live in Chicago and the life our family has against so many others on the west and south side of Chicago. Living in fear every single day. Largely people of color, of different education and income. But mostly of different color. There are Two Chicagos. And yet we all want the same thing for our families. Safety. Security. Education. Love and respect. Why is my family afforded these basic rights when so many others fear for their little ones every day even during school hours? Fearing shots fired at any time, anywhere. Fearing no food on their tables, and none on their neighbor’s table either. And yet, there is community. There is care taken of each other in great ways and in ways we will never see. In ways we will never achieve.
There’s a group here that formed in recent years – moms – that are taking it upon themselves to make things better. Mothers Against Senseless Killings (MASK), and part of their mission includes –
We will organize to be another line of defense for one another.We will organize to bring awareness to the problems that so many of us face, that aren’t easily expressed by individual parents. We believe that if the violence is shown, much like the flagged draped coffins of soldiers arriving home, the nation and the world could see the casualties of everyday life in our communities.
Our belief is just as there are those who organize and demonstrate against unjust endless wars in this country, someone needs to organize and demonstrate against this one, this domestic war that is being waged in the inner cities and now the closest and quietest corners of this country. It needs to be the main topic in our nations discourse. Our goal is to turn our stories and concerns into more than just a mention on the evening news. Our children more than deserve it; their lives depend on it.
We all want the same things for our families. We all grow up being influenced by the people around us, and who is more around us than our neighbors? I don’t want to close my blinds and lock my doors to these people. I want to know what’s going on with them. And I want them to know what’s going on with us. That’s part of what makes us safe. We need to be all up in each other’s business (within reason, be cool now) and make sure we are all ok. Or not.
A neighborhood isn’t about the size of the houses or the cars that are parked in the driveway. It’s about the people within those houses and the care they take of those around them. The neighborly conversation and the watching out for one another. It’s about running around barefoot, yard to yard and knowing that there’s a grown up somewhere in the mix keeping an eye on things. It’s about feeling safe. Nobody should feel unsafe where they live, and yet, so many do. So we need to watch out for them too. So that these kids can safely walk to school and play just like our kids. We need to care enough to fight to protect their safety. This isn’t just their problem, it needs to be our problem.
We finally came upon our old house, my girl in her carseat in the back and me. Our house that I lived in from when I was in 2nd grade through college. Those two windows upstairs on the right? That was my bedroom. As we drove by and I slowed to take a picture, I saw the garage was open and had anybody been outside, I would have stopped and with tears in my eyes said, “I grew up in this house. And it was a great place to grow up.”
Of course it wasn’t really about the house at all. It was about the safety. The people. The community. All kids should have a great neighborhood in which to grow up. Long live the neighborhood.
Mary Tyler Mom’s Lisagor Award winning piece – A Tale of Two Chicagos
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