Monday, August 24, 2009



When I was growing up most of my life was spent outdoors.  We didn’t have computers or television, but we did have radio.  Our home was small and crowded, over 10 people in a one bedroom apartment, but outside we had lots of space.  We were poor, but didn’t know it.  Everyone we knew was poor, after all it was the late 30s and early 40s.
Our entire neighborhood in Chicago was our playground.  We knew everyone and they knew us.  If we did something bad, any neighbor who saw us felt comfortable enough to confront us and insist that we change our behavior.  Our favorite place was the vacant lot across the street from our home.  We could play baseball in the spring and football in the fall.  Boys and girls played together; we didn’t care.  In the winter the lot became a skating rink or a place to build a snowman.  Sometimes we would go to the playground at Fuller Elementary School.  It had real swings and a jungle gym.
There were so many games to play:  Red Rover, Little Sally Walker, Jacks, Come and Get It, etc., and we even had cussing contests.  If we had cliques, I don’t remember them.  We played with whoever was outside and it was safe.  We had to be home “when the street lights” came on but we didn’t have to go into the house.   We could stay outside after the lights came on as long as we were on our block.  We would sit on the porch and tell stories, especially ghost stories.
During WWII, the lot became a victory garden.  Anyone could plant fruits or vegetables without permission.  I don’t know who owned that lot, but it was a common practice.  We also had rations during this time.  With the ration stamps we received our allotment of necessities like sugar and shoes.   Since you couldn’t buy shoes as needed, you bought sensible shoes that you knew would last.  Women wore make-up on their legs to simulate stockings and with an eyebrow pencil someone would draw a line up the back of their leg to mimic the seam.  Everyone knew it was fake but looks mattered.  Sugar was at a premium along with stockings and elastic waist panties.  (Our panties were tied together with a string and sometimes that string broke!  Yes, your panties fell down.)

Nothing was wasted.  We saved grease from cooking, flattened every can we opened, had meatless Tuesday, and took our hangers to the cleaners if we wanted our clothes returned on hangers.  We listened to President Roosevelt on the radio and took part in air raid drills.  When the sirens blew you didn’t take chances. Chicago was a big railroad stop and most soldiers traveled by train.  There would be a knock on the door and an African American soldier would appear, asking for a place to stay overnight.  There was always room for another person and of course,this added income to our home.  It was especially exciting when a soldier came by that we knew.  He would jingle his pockets, like he had a lot of money, and allow us children to put our hands in to see how much we could grab.  Sometimes they had souvenirs from faraway places and stories of exotic locations.  Homes had banners with stars, announcing their sons’ participation in the war.
My favorite time was the first snow.  No matter what time it was, all of the children in the neighborhood would run outside to throw snowballs or ride their sleds.  Our parents would bundle us up in snowsuits.  Do children still wear snowsuits? It was exhilarating, letting the snow touch your tongue, or building your first snowman.  It was cold–we called the wind, The Hawk.
Another favorite time was after a rainfall and the street would flood.  Then the street became our swimming pool.  We didn’t know or care about dirty water because we weren’t that clean to begin with.  We were lucky if we got a bath on Saturday night.  We did have to be clean for Church and if you had any morals your family went to Church.
The two most important things in our lives were Family and Church.  Almost everyone in our family, extended and otherwise, went to West Point Baptist Church for Sunday service and during the week for meetings and choir rehearsal.  

We would walk to 36th and Cottage Grove and it was difficult staying clean that long.  Adults had service upstairs and we had a children’s church downstairs.  My sister and I would listen for our mother getting “happy.”  When the choir sang certain songs or the minister preached moving sermons, some of the parishioners would become moved and “feel” the Holy Spirit.  They would shout, dance, throw their hands in the air, and need the help of the ushers who would fan and try to get them quiet.
We weren’t allowed to go the movies on Sunday.  This was the Lord’s Day and after dinner we would visit and talk.  We always made extra food because somebody would drop by.  If they did, you had to have something to offer.  I never remember anyone turning down my mother’s food.  My mother was 41 when I was born and already a grandmother.  She was known for her good cooking.

My mother was a terrible disciplinarian.  In those days, everyone whipped children if they did something wrong.  My mother couldn’t bring herself to hit us and would cry if we did something wrong because she knew it meant a whipping and she just wasn’t up to it.  Sometimes she would ask Uncle William to come and whip us but he was as bad as my Mother was.  He would look at us and tell us to be good and then say to my mother that he couldn’t whip those children.  We were amazed at their utter dislike for whipping children. 

My nemesis was another student named Margaret.  For some reason, she got a big kick out of taunting and teasing me.  It meant many fights and many punishments.  No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get her to leave me alone. I never did discover why she had it in for me.  One day, when I was in seventh grade, she disappeared.  I didn’t know what had happened to her and frankly, I didn’t care.  Soon we were told that she was dead.  I felt so much relief.  At last I could walk to school and get home safely.  But I thought I had better check.  I went to the neighborhood funeral home when her body was ready for viewing.  I looked into the casket, and thought to myself that it was true, she was dead.  

My older sisters and their husbands lived a totally different life.  They went to real parties and clubs like the Club De Lisa.  They would put on their best clothes and men would look fine in their double-breasted suits and highly polished shoes.  They would tell us about the famous people they saw and heard.  Billy Eckstine, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, etc.

A big night in the neighborhood was a Joe Louis fight.  We would gather around the radio, listen to the announcer, and “see” the fight in our heads.   People left their windows open so people who didn’t own a radio could hear the commentary. He was the biggest hero in our world—Joe Louis, Heavyweight Champion of the World.  There was no one we admired more.  If he won a fight, we all won.  After a victory, everyone would run out of his or her home and we would literally dance in the street.  An even bigger thrill was hearing when he was in town and trying to get a glimpse of him and his beautiful wife. 
My mother did daywork; in other words she cleaned homes.  During the summers and on Saturday, I would accompany her and help.  My sister, Ruby,  cleaned houses sometimes, while Susie, another sister,  and Lee, my brother-in-law, worked in a laundry.  After the war, Delawerence, Ruby's husband,  was hired as a mailman.  A number of family members had jobs in the stockyards and made what we thought was real money.  No one had a professional job but everyone worked.  


  1. Hi Chris, You had a great time of it growing up. While I didn't live in a big city, I did many of the things that you did. This is interesting and I will return often.

  2. My life mirrored everything you wrote. how I loved reading this!!!! Wonderful!