Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Ten Apartments That Raised Me--Part 5

You might say that there was never a dull moment when you had 10 families all moving around you during the day. Everyone had their own stories, their joys, and their woes. Most tenants stayed for the duration of my days living there, but some did move on. When an apartment became vacant and cleaning and repainting followed, the apartment created another playground.

Remember, my Auntie Mary was the owner and sole caretaker of the building. This was her livelihood for sheltering and raising her daughter Sharon. She was not only to be a landlord, a mother, and an aunt but an angel of sorts to my brother and me. She was the glistening gem/rock of the building--strong, sensible, genuine, authentic, positive, Bible-reading, sweet, quiet, meek, calm, and always smiling. She never raised her voice--it wasn't in her to do so. And Auntie Mary had the largest apartment, Apartment 5, which allowed me to have my own room next to my cousin Sharon when I reached middle school. Where would I be today without my Auntie Mary?

My cousin Sharon kept us all entertained. She was full of energy, intelligence, creativity, curiousness, uniqueness, outlandishness, the unforgettable, the extraordinary, and quite the challenge for my Auntie Mary. As a child, I remembered Sharon's puppet shows, costume parties with skits, and treasure hunts with string leading each attendee to their own treasure!!! It looked like a roomful of laser lights only made of string. Sharon met Gene Autry, country singer and actor, on her own because she sought him out after a stage performance. She wrote Queen Elizabeth of England on her coronation day in the 50's, and so Sharon's life continued with adventures, sometimes including me, unwilling as I might be! Sharon was the opposite of me, but let me know there was more out there than what was in my small world.

My family had one of the smallest apartments, Apartment 8, with 3 rooms--kitchen, living room, one bedroom, and the tiniest bathroom you could ever find! If you stood in the middle of the bathroom, you could touch the sink, toilet, and tub without moving!!!! Yes, 4 people lived here day in and day out. I slept in a crib until I was 5 and then slept with my mom in the bedroom, and my brother slept with my dad on the pull out couch in the living room. I didn't think much of it because that was the way it was.

My dad was a mill worker until he got cancer, and the mill would not allow him to work there anymore--a liability, I guess. This did happen in those days. He was on disability the rest of his life, never having the desire to do anything else. He sat all day mostly in the living room, playing with his coins in his pocket. I don't think he ever recovered from losing his job, and there was no counseling services at that time either. My mom worked retail at W.T. Grants Co. in downtown Gary and then later as a clerk at the Lake County Library. My dad was home every day but not really "there." My mom was gone a lot with work, friends, and the like. My two-year-older brother Richard was a playmate when I was younger and then became involved with his own boyhood friends. Sadly, we never really connected until we were both in our fifties, and that was cut short upon his death at age 57.

In Apartment 2 in the basement, my Russian maternal Grandma Mary or "Baba" as we called her, lived with her son, my uncle, Walter. Baba knew best and was the best cook ever. She never knew how to write or read except for her name to become a citizen of the United States of America. Uncle Walter was known for his love of chess, cheese, apples, Coca Cola, fruit pie-making, and listening to the singer Dean Martin!!! I could really hold a conversation with him about anything. This apartment was a refuge for me--smelling/eating the hot soups, learning chess, and talking with someone about life and what was good for me.

Can't forget the basement and the coal room and furnace that heated the boilers to bring heat to all ten apartments. My aunt shoveled the coal most days until my brother got older to help out and me on a occasion. Coal was delivered through a small hole on the east side of the building. Then the shoveling of the coal began--into the metal bucket, open the fiery furnace with its latched handle, throw the coal in, and watch and feel the burning fire! Besides the coal bin and furnace and the weekly wash in the old agitating washers, the basement hosted roller skating and Halloween scares.

Many more people existed in the memories of my apartment home, but not as strongly as the people I've mentioned by name. These were the apartments and people in the building that raised me.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Backyard That Raised Me--Part 4

What better way to recollect my childhood backyard behind the apartment building that raised me than to sit on my own porch today with my laptop, looking out into the full backyard that I "play" in today.

In my life after college, I've never missed a beat living with a full backyard. I am blessed and grateful for this. I watched my one set of grandchildren, Noah and James, play two days ago on the ground, tumbling, running, jumping, and laughing in the soft, green, sweet-smelling odor of dirt and grass!! Also, nothing can beat lying on your back and looking up into the big, blue sky, feeling and being a real part of the green earth. Lawns can never be underrated!

In May of 1965, the year I graduated from high school, I wrote an essay about My Backyard for English class. I had forgotten about some of these backyard memories I wrote about, and the essay helped me remember. I guess my backyard left an impression on me even into my high school days when the yard was vacated as a playground and traded for teenage tanning and Kodak photos.

I have alluded to my backyard in my post about The Clothes Line. The lines became the basis for huge tents out of blankets and clothespins besides being where the weekly wash hung. My yard also became a sandy beach when I wanted it to become one. The tide that came in was the slow descent of the sun behind a large tree that cast a shadow. The yard also became a ballroom where my partner, the hoola hoop, and I danced and twirled under the bright sun and breezy evenings. Countless tag games took place with neighborhood kids. I remember playing here and around the neighborhood in the summer evening, becoming sweaty and thirsty for water that tasted "Oh, so good!"

There was also a low point in the middle of the yard that became my caldron filled with a mixture of sour lettuce, mud, and green onion tops from the garden behind the white cement bricks that kept the raised garden from the grass. It was sometimes my job to plant the umpteen onion bulbs every year. There were also rose bushes, tulips, daffodils, and many other plants. Next to our yard was the property where Mrs. White lived with her sister. She had sweet smelling lily-of-the-valley plants galore. Bright, fragrant, fuscia four o'clocks grew by the back concrete steps which was a good place to sit and think or cry and wish.

Winter days were filled with heavy snows that led to snowball fights with my brother Richard and his friends. The snow was so high, we could build tunnels, caves, and forts.

As I write about my apartment home so far, I am realizing that I had praiseworthy, outdoor memories of the building on 6th Avenue. This leads me to my next and final part of my childhood home--the ten family apartments and the basement.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Apartment Building That Raised Me--Part 3

Remember, we're on a youthful and unsophisticated tour of the best memories of my ten apartment childhood home on the banks of the southern most tip of Lake Michigan, of course, with the Gary Steel Mills between me and the beach! The closest accessible beach is ten miles away and called Miller Beach, a place to hang out like the corner drug store, or so it seemed.

Since the eastside of my brick building had a wooden porch, glider, and steps with access to the best alley playground ever with its dramatic rain flow to one of the city's sewers, many hours were played out during sunny or stormy days.

The front side of 517 East 6th Avenue definitely had its own glamour, and the west side presented itself as a place to play pretend and more games. I want to leave the backyard last as this was the best and largest playground ever!!

When you walked down the 6th Avenue sidewalk, coming from my school (2 blocks away), you noticed as you approached the red brick building, the east side porch, of course, and the three floors of windows. The building had two stories but also had a basement and three basement flats. These basement windows always had blinds or curtains, so people on the outside couldn't look down into the apartments--never liked this floor of apartments except for one thing. My grandmother or as we called her "Baba" lived there later with my Uncle Walter. It was below ground, lower than the world, dark, and gloomy. More on the basement later.

As you walked past the first set of windows, you could see the front door to the building. This was home. It was a heavy brown door with a large window at the top and small windows on either side. There were also paned windows above the door. The door opened heavily and closed itself with ease. On the right were steps going to the first floor and on the left were steps going down to the basement. Since both sets of steps were curved, I remember falling down and up them frequently.

Before you chose which stairs to take, a set of 10 golden-like mail boxes all in one row were right in front of you. The apartment numbers were on the front with the last names of tenants inside when the postman opened all of them at once. One had to have a key in order to get the mail. If you looked above the boxes, you would see a short runway of a hall with a wooden bannister and two apartments on either side. I rather liked the looks of the entrance--plenty of light, open, and 10 friendly mailboxes where birthday cards, Christmas cards, and letters arrived--a highlight to everyone's day!

Out the door again and on to the west side of the building, we had bushes instead of a fence surrounding this side of the yard. I remember having to trim them when I was older and keeping them even. I also had other jobs to do around the apartment building because my Auntie Mary owned it, and my family lived in it.

On this side was an enclosed porch on the first floor the second with a large set of 7-8 (?) concrete steps with concrete bannisters leading down and out of the building. The steps were where the game Captain May I was played over and over. It was also the best place to take group pictures for birthday parties or to just sit on especially on the bannisters. The enclosed porch housed a pretend store and newspaper office. One summer, we held play weddings because some how we gathered fancy and formal clothing.

We also waited for the Dixie Dairy Man there who gave us pieces of ice out of his truck and then delivered the gallons of milk to our apartment doors. We also watched for the ice cream man and bought banana popsicles! There was an egg man who also delivered "fresh" eggs in a basket to whomever, but who bought them, we don't know. The sidewalk in front of the west side was where one could be pretty much alone, playing under the trees or walking down the block.

Those are the good thoughts/memories of the front and west side of the brick apartment that raised me. Thanks for being with me as I try to picture my home as I remember it.