So It Goes, Part 8

September 13th, 2009

The happiest years of my life were the ones before I was born. Before I was tossed into this world full of cares, I was in touch with the places and customs of a different age. Don’t ask me how I know this; I am only convinced that it must be true.

In those days I saw my father sitting by his grandfather’s Philco radio, chubby-faced, red-cheeked and tanned, wearing a little cap, in his shorts and stockings, having completed the feeding of the chickens and his chores on the farm in Wisconsin. He grinned as he heard the song about Ralston Puffed Rice, “the cereal shot by guns,” and then the announcer saying “It’s time for Jack Armstrong, the A-l-l-l American Boy,” and after that the adventure show Terry and the Pirates. That scene faded, and I seemed to be floating through the air and then peering through the window of an apartment on Wrightwood Avenue in Chicago. My mother, slim, her jet black hair piled atop her head, was putting on her socks and then her saddle shoes, and calling to her sister in another room. She half-listened to My friend Irma, and then The Adventures of Maisie, a show about a city girl who was always getting into trouble simply because she was irresistible to men. She was preparing to go to the Chicago theater for a show and then to Kranz’s ice cream shop and candy store. Those were such happy times for all of us. Things are much easier when you do not get to know someone, and then grow fond of them, or foolishly begin to love them. When that happens you are doomed to a world of pain. In those days I knew no one, and knew nothing but happiness.

When I was growing up, yoked to this body, I developed a hunger to be in touch with the old days. Not just to know what happened on a certain date, as a historian might, in an academic sense, but to be physically connected to buildings and places that were of a different age. In a neighborhood that has been in existence not much longer than you yourself, the term “old days” doesn’t mean much. In the city of Des Plaines there were just a few homes that looked like they might date from the days when my parents were growing up. Des Plaines was never much for history. The grist mill that dated from the 1850s and that was of the reasons the town was originally incorporated was demolished long before I was born. The shack occupied by Socrates Rand, one of the first settlers, was bulldozed with nary an effort to preserve it.

Once, during my days at the Suburban Times, there was a fire that destroyed a great frame house owned by a doctor. It was right in front of Rand’s shack, next to the river. It had a turret with a roof made of copper. The roof was usually green. But as the fire reached it the green melted away and the shiny copper blazed forth, then crumpled and melted. Today an ugly apartment building sits on the site, within steps of the train tracks, so commuters are required to exercise as little as possible before boarding their trains for work.

It was not actual history that fascinated me but the feeling of history. In the city, you could find buildings that were built in a year that began with 18, not 19. This seemed amazing to me. In the “old days”, people were not isolated from one another. Extended families lived together. Neighbors played bridge. Women got together for kaffeeklatches while their husbands were at work. Women spoke over fences while hanging out laundry at clotheslines that seemed to crisscross every backyard.

You sensed a trace of another time when we went to visit our grandmother in the town of Evanston. She had known things that I could only read about. I did not know what muslin was, or chrinoline, or chiffon, or brocade. She did. She had a cool pantry that smelled of heaven. She told us to sit on the davenport. She had grown up on a farm in Northern Wisconsin, and waded through snow that came nearly to her waist. She had sold vegetables she grew herself, moving from town to town with a little cart, only to have her father take all the money she made.

Old people were the key to the days when people were connected to one another. There was an old woman who lived a few doors from our house. She had three ne’er-do-well sons. One was named Sonny. She lived all by herself. Once I came to her home and she showed me a jewel with a piece of the true cross encased in amber. Such things opened my imagination. You sensed an expanse of time. You sensed the slow passage of events that went far beyond the present events and the news of the day. Here, everyone seemed obsessed with the news of the day, reading papers on the train and on benches waiting for the bus, sitting and watching the evening news with Walter Cronkite every night. Young people spoke to the television. Old people spoke to you after they slapped down their 35 cents for a newspaper. They wanted to know what you thought of President Carter, and Iran. They spoke to one another knowingly, their conversations coming out of a different time, an old tradition. Then they shuffled home, alone, to read the paper, to sit by the window, to watch the children play.

I wanted to tell them about the creatures I had seen beneath the earth: beings who were never alone, but who seemed to work and move as one, who could read each other’s minds, who always kept one another company and did not even need to speak. I wanted to tell them that all parts of the earth were connected by the roots of the trees, that a tree cut down in Iran affected the network of trees here in the shadow of Chicago’s airport. But I had no words for this. Not then at least.

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