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.


  1. It's so interesting to hear your story, & make the connections with my own, although I grew up in a small town. I too had my 'Auntie Mary' & scads of other relatives that I stayed with when I wanted. It truly was a community of parents, as you describe. And those games and puppet shows happened too, with cousins. Thanks for the memories; you told them so well.

  2. Your post reminds me so much of Tomie dePaola's books about his homes and extended family and also Sanda Cisneros stories about the people in her neighborhood. You created fascinating images. Each apartment could be a chapter or vignette in a book. Enjoyed reading your post very much.

  3. I agree with Diana--this could be the start to several little chapters. So interesting to meet these relatives and hear about the situations, people and places that shaped you.
    Can't wait to see you tomorrow night!

  4. I also agree with Diana and Ruth. As I was reading, I kept thinking your memories would make a great book. Your descriptions about your relatives made me curious and wanting to know more.

  5. Dear Tam,
    When you said in April that you were going to write about your childhood home I wondered how it would turn out. Today I read your writing- all 5 parts in a row. I am impressed. I agree with the ladies above. There is a book waiting for you to write it. The house, the backyard, the apartments, the people. In this post I especially loved the list of adjectives for your aunt and cousin. I wish you all the best in continuing with this writing.

  6. I love reading about your apartments. It has brought back many memories of the many houses I lived in.