Whenever I recall my hometown of Lyons, Illinois, my thoughts are flooded with memories of the house on 45th street, my childhood home. It was smack dab in the middle of Anywhere, USA…nothing special to brag about in the history books, but it was important to MY history, as Lyons shaped me. It helped me form thick skin but molded a soft heart inside that barrier. It was a town where you gave a darn about your neighbors and there wasn’t a tragedy that wasn’t comforted by the ceremonial delivery of casseroles concocted by caring hands. The homes weren’t pretentious or stately, for this was a blue-collar haven. Our family was pretty much the norm, but I guess if I could identify something notable about our abode, it would be that we lived in one of the esteemed “Charm Homes”. The name befuddled me when I first heard that my parents had bought a “Charm Home”. I expected something constructed of gingerbread with iced shutters and gumdrops for doorknobs. Imagine my disappointment when it looked very average — and in my 7-year-old mind — not that charming at all. But my opinion changed when the brood that was my siblings and I discovered a large fossil embedded in the back patio. Now THAT was worthy of a certain amount of bragging rights and smugness at the specialness of it all. We were confident that we were sitting on some Smithsonian minefield of sorts — only to have dreams dashed many years later when our home unceremoniously sold for the going rate — no price hike as a result of the prehistoric remnant embedded in our patio. Perhaps that flagstone rock originated from a town landmark known as “The Quarry”…a place of mystery and lore — and a heck of a lot of beer drinking (something I have no direct knowledge of).
Our charming abode was built in such a fashion that the front yard should have been the backyard. I think it was fitting that we lived in a “backwards” house, as we were “Pleshas” and had a different point of view anyway. But you can betcha bottom dollar that front/backyard had a home plate, first, second, and third base, all lovingly worn into it. This made our yard a frequent gathering spot for impromptu games of whiffle ball — unlike the Schwartz’s next door (AKA “The Lawn Nazis”) where passage on their luxurious lawn was verboten. Mr. Schwartz would give you the “dead eye” if one sneakered toe should brush the parameter of his glorious greenery. However, we had other places to entertain ourselves in those days, for there were no video games back then to void our brains of imagination and creativity. We would take to the streets — far from the Schwartz’s gifted grass — for a vigorous kickball session, another favorite pastime. However, kickball presented its own challenges as it was frequently interrupted by the old “coot” across the street, another dissenting dissident. For in the likely event that one of our balls landed on his lawn (more “good grass”), he would snatch it and disappear into his bungalow. I’m quite confident that when he died decades later, that no less than 1000 kick balls were found in his crawlspace, covered with lye.
I have moved exactly 20 times in my life. One would think that the bill collectors would have lost my scent by now, but alas, such is not the case. I have left behind the blazing sun of Arizona where I had been living with “My Mother, The Parrot” (My moniker for her, due to her unique ability to mimic GPS commands…then override them!) for the green and soggy existence that is Atlanta, Georgia, where the grass is green but the soil is red. I am sad to report that my hair has been neither “bouncin’ OR behavin'” since my arrival. But I digress. Some say you can’t go home again, and maybe there is some truth to that. But HOME to me will always be in the little backwards house in Lyons, IL. And in the recesses of my mind, I remember…
…running behind the mosquito sprayer truck and inhaling deeply — and later wondering if this is why I grew that tumor…
…my Second Grade nun at St. Hugh School, Sister Mary Pierre, drawing a big circle on the floor with chalk and shooting marbles with us. This only occurred when the Principal, Sister Martin Joseph, was out of the building. It was then that “Sister Cool Hand Luke” would hustle us and covet our best marbles. As I was convinced that nuns were magical and mystical creatures, I knew there was a profound life lesson that she was imparting to our formulating minds. And as I grew and evolved, I knew there was something even “deeper” in this simple act of holy larceny; and it was veiled in the subliminal imagery of “hanging on to our marbles” and the foreshadowing of all the disappointments that life held for us.
And regarding the good Sisters of St. Joseph — they fascinated me. I secretly admired their ability to accessorize with rosary beads. A budding fashionista, I thought it a stroke of genius that they faced each day in a “little black dress”, fussy as it was. As I was not one to pass up a “makeover” opportunity, I designed a new streamlined habit for them and proudly shared my sacred sketches. Sadly, I was not as well-versed in copyright law as I am today and didn’t take protective measures. To my dismay, the VERY NEXT YEAR, the Vatican ruled that they could wear modified habits. Holy plagiarism, Batman! Anyway, back to the memories…I remember…
…gathering grass snakes with my siblings from one of the over-grown empty lots (we thought of them as prairies) that our block boasted. We wisely decided to store the slithering masses of serpents in the silver metal milk box outside our door. And it was a very distraught milkman that rang our doorbell in the VERY early morning hours inquiring as to WHAT was living in our milk box. Such fun! Sigh…good times.
…and there was the time I cultivated what was essentially a weed that I thought smelled like mint and sold it door to door to raise money to supplement my 25-cent a week allowance. I told my neighbors to put it in their tea. My horrified mother was sure I had poisoned the entire neighborhood and they would all die and I would be known as the youngest serial killer in history (as a Public Relations goddess, I still say that ALL publicity is GOOD publicity!). This would bring massive shame to our prestigious family name and charming home. My buzzkill of a mother, obviously not appreciative of the enterprising mind of an entrepreneur, made me give the money back and retrieve my “product”. This was my only experience selling “weed”. Yeah, it was pretty lame, so I have no street “cred”.
…and in my mind’s eye, I recall my proud Croatian father sitting on the living room floor with a batman helmet wedged on his head — a long story there, but thought you’d enjoy THAT visual (where are vaseline and a shoehorn when you need it?).
…AND the sounds of the neighbor’s ridiculously loud air conditioning unit kicking on late at night. It was SO loud it could ALMOST drown out the sounds of the neighborhood kids we would be sneaking through our bedroom window. I often lamented and wondered why we couldn’t afford A/C? Yes, once again, we were one-upped by the superior Schwartz’s.
…And there were the OTHER sounds…like the 9 O’Clock whistle from the Armour Plant. And why in the name of all that is holy did my sadistic older sister actually tell me when I was a little girl…that every night when the whistle blew, all the poor starving hungry children of the world would gather in that big field in McCook and hold their empty bowls to the sky and sob? For a very long time, my parents would be perplexed why — for the love of God — that every night when that whistle blew, I would burst into tears like some sort of slobbering Pavlov’s dog (but more pitiful)! This was, in actuality, where the phrase “If you are going to cry, I’ll GIVE you something to cry about” was born. Years of therapy with THAT one! And oh, yes…that other burning question…
…why the bejeezus was I made to kiss Father Murray ON THE LIPS when I was a very young child? That was WRONG on so many levels. Oh, the humanity of it all!
…And then, there is that one last disturbing memory that permeates the recesses of my mind — the ceremonial lining of toilet seats with paper by my Nonnie, my germ-obsessed Croatian Grandmother. No sooner had she “laid out the landing strip”, then we would plop down and totally dislodge her handiwork. This was another character-building lesson: No matter how much you prepare, with one swift movement, you can eff it up.
As to the lessons imparted unto me by my parental units (along with the incessant reminders to always wear attractive, fresh undergarments in case I was involved in some freakish car accident), they taught me to always carry myself with dignity and to remember to be kind to others — and if you had something negative to say about someone, say it behind their back so as not to hurt their feelings (sorry, Thumper). For we reeked of class, dammit.
But there’s a point to this. Much has transpired in my life…the good, the bad, and the ugly. Some of it self-inflicted (especially in the marriage department). Some of it included shining moments, some, not so stellar. But I will always go to a simple place in my mind (not to be confused with “simple-minded”) where the only things that were required of me were to be a member of a large dysfunctional family, a productive (yet enterprising, as I was an early “weed” pusher) member of my community, and take pride in my roots (not a hair coloring commentary…especially in my current state). For Lyons, Illinois, is where I was MADE and this little Junior Miss Runner Up and Beauty School Dropout says that with a profound spirit of sentimentality and respect.
So whether it be the “New Field” or “Old Field” is inconsequential. Either place was a gathering of people I admired, and sometimes, I feared. These were folks that I loved and laughed with (and to be honest, sometimes laughed AT — when they were drinking). We spent a lot of time at both ball fields. I remember when my Dad was coaching little league and he had this young boy, Sehat, was rather unfamiliar with the game as he emigrated from Yugoslavia. This scene transpired in the “New Field”. Well, Sehat was placed in the outfield, and during his first game, he began to inexplicably keep running toward the dugout when the inning was not over. So Dad, taking seriously the heavy job he had taken on to mold the youth of our community and make them into MEN, would firmly direct little Sehat back to the outfield. It was one of those moments frozen in time that poor little Sehat wet his pants in impressive proportions, as he was holding back a massive “pee”. Dad’s look on his face was priceless as he watched the “dark spot” grow on the front of his little prodigy’s uniform. There was only one moment more humiliating to my Dad in his coaching days, and that was when my mother yelled, “Hey, Coach…maybe you’d get more respect if you zipped up your fly!” Boy, my mother knew how to deliver a line! Apple/tree, y’all!
What was I talking about again? Oh, yeah…Lyons, IL.
In closing, I am a member of a FB page called “You know you are from Lyons when…” (Please readers, don’t rush for membership as this is an exclusive group and there is a big fat velvet rope). I love stopping by and seeing all the commentaries — some warm and fuzzy and a few, not so much. But these fine folks were my neighbors and I respect their points of view and shared memories. The old ‘hood has changed and some of it is progressive and some of it has digressed. Time has been a friend and a foe to my old stomping grounds. The “prairies” were long-ago claimed by real estate, displacing generations of grass snakes in the name of progress. But I have found that although places change — much ike my residences and husbands — people generally don’t.
And for me, I’m holding on tightly to MY marbles….thanks to Sister Mary Pierre.
I can’t help but recall a couple of phrases written in my autograph book when I graduated from St. Hugh School…and it went like this…
“2 Good, 2 Be, 4 Got 10” and “Stay as sweet as you are and don’t ever change”.
The first describes my hometown to a “t” and the second doesn’t apply to ME at all anymore, but perfectly describes my memories of growing up in Lyons, IL…sweet and never-changing.