Thursday, April 14, 2011

Contest II: Life With Mother

Synopsis: A memoir of my life and my ambivalence about my mother. She was a beauty who looked like Jean Harlow and married a coal-miner's son from Indiana. She always viewed life as not agreeing with her fairy-tale expectations. The result was a mean antagonistic woman who drove my father to drink and an early grave. Growing up in the late '40s and '50s in Chicago was a symphony of events, impressions and characters overlaid with a harridan who could take joy out of Santa's visit at Christmas. Think "Catcher in the Rye" meets "Mommy Dearest."

Barefoot Boy

It’s possible for a young boy to grow up wise and strong and well-mannered in a big city. It happens all the time in places like New York, Boston, Detroit or Chicago. I could have grown up in Chicago exactly that way. I could have, but I didn’t. I grew up partly in Chicago and partly in the country. I was damned lucky.

Sure, there are parks in the city and you can have friends; pals to play ball with and roam the neighborhood with your imagination running wild. You can be a scout and go camping to a forest preserve just a few miles from home, but you’ll know all through the night in your tiny tent by the campfire that just the other side of that row of trees is Cumberland Road and just across that four-lane are houses packed shoulder to shoulder with electric lights and refrigerators and the ghostly blue glow of televisions tuned to I Love Lucy.

Summer in the city has its smells and sensations, but they aren’t of new-mown hay or ripening raspberries on a wild bush. More likely they are melting asphalt on the flattop roofs of stores baking in the hot sun outside your bedroom window, or maybe the garlic laced spaghetti sauce simmering and then burning on Mrs. Salvatore’s stove on the first floor of the apartment building. The sounds aren’t of birds chirping in the cherry trees or a squirrel scolding the dog in the backyard. It’s the rumble of the street car on Milwaukee Avenue or the thumping of the compressor on the industrial reefer that cools the butcher department of the Del Farm supermarket that abuts the area behind your red brick apartment. A boy can grow up here without the country, but it’s not as good.

I was very lucky. I had my Aunt Ellen who lived in Terre Haute, Indiana in a small white clapboard bungalow on a big grassy lot on the last street in town before the cornfields started. It wasn’t a farm, but it was right next to one. The street was gravel and the surrounding lots weren’t built yet. There was a coal burning furnace in the basement and an honest-to-god water pump that you had to pump to drain water out of the cistern when she did the laundry on Monday mornings with her trusty old wringer washer. There was a big garden in the back surrounded by a white picket fence. It always produced green beans and the best tasting tomatoes anyone had ever eaten along with a few onions, maybe some carrots, and even strawberries in some years. Then there was corn and a variety of other vegetables that had looked good in the seed catalog but somehow weren’t quite right for the Terre Haute climate or the soil in Ellen’s garden. They didn’t make it, but she would try again in a couple of years.

Ellen’s husband, Dominic, was known to everyone as Babe. He was one of those tall, wiry individuals that looked like a cross between American Gothic and the Marlboro man. He was good with his hands and had forgotten more about machinery than my father would ever know. Let Babe loose on an internal combustion engine and there was no way that it would refuse to run. Business, on the other hand, was something that seemed to elude him.

Babe was partnered in a small bus company with a distant cousin who was linked to the Hulman family, those scions of Indiana industry that were most well known for being owners of the Indianapolis Speedway. The company had a string of half a dozen coaches in various vintages and degrees of repair. Babe did the maintenance, scheduling and quite a bit of the driving while his cousin managed the books and took care of the financial end of the enterprise. It should have been no surprise that Babe worked hard and didn’t net a whole lot of the profits. Babe didn’t even own a car, he simply brought a bus home in the evenings and parked it in the two grassy wheel ruts that strung from the dirt of Fifth Street past the front of the house to the barn-like wooden garage that loomed in the back of the property next to the garden.

For an eight year old Chicago boy, however, the lack of a car was no short-coming. The ownership of some full-size, honest-to-Pete buses that could be explored and ridden in to exotic Indiana towns like Paris and Clinton and Brazil made up for the lack of more conventional transportation. Yep, add it all up and it came to a pretty impressive package when I was eight. A garden and a yard, cornfields and a garage, buses and a water pump. And, don’t forget to add in that Ellen was an incredible cook who whipped together field-hand, coal-miner, bus-driver, working-man meals that simply melted in your mouth. My mother, on the other hand, was master of gray meat and olive drab vegetables.

When school let out for the summer there was nothing I looked forward to more eagerly than a trip to Terre Haute. There were protocols, however, that needed to be followed. One of the parental responsibilities that my mother took very seriously was her obligation to not let anything happen too easily or be considered too much fun. If I wanted to go to Terre Haute, it would require some discomfort for me before she would relent. It would require some begging and pleading, cajoling and threatening. It would have to be a trip that was in jeopardy from the beginning and held in agonizing doubt until the very moment that I set foot on the last descending step out of the Pullman car of the Bluebird, the Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad’s not-so-limited train from Chicago to New Orleans. There would have to be a suitable amount of angst connected with the trip, regardless of how many summers I would make it.

Aunt Ellen and Uncle Babe wanted me to visit. They liked having a boy in the house, particularly since I was the only child, other than their own daughter Barbara in the entire Rasimus clan. None of Ellen’s brothers or sister had children, only my father and her. Six Rasimus siblings and only my father had a son. Barbara was more than twelve years older than I, so she was already away at college by the time I was old enough to summer in Terre Haute. Her old bedroom was always waiting. Space was no problem and Ellen was eager for me to come. Regardless, the first order of business was the phone call. I had to call and ask to be invited.

Calling, in those days, wasn’t a thing of cellphones and digital touch-tone dialing. It was old-fashioned manual operators and “number pleeyyuzze.” It was trying again and again until there was an open circuit. It was talking fast because “long distance” was very expensive. It was noisy connections that required you to talk very loudly to insure the person at the other end of the line could hear. In short, for an eight year old who wanted to visit his aunt for a few weeks in the country, it was a trial by technology. 

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