Over The River and Through the Woods….Gulag Style!

tg12In the early years of their marriage, my mother and father did what most young couples do when the time comes to decide where to spend the Holidays; they spent Christmas with my mother’s side of the family and Thanksgiving with my father’s side. As the youngest, my memory of those early years is dim. I have one snapshot-length memory of being in Oak Park at Christmas; my Aunt Bernie and Uncle Bob had a flocked tree, which was a very hip thing in the early 1960’s, and a revolving spotlight shone on it, making it turn different colors all night long. To me, this was the absolute height of Christmas elegance and sophistication.

Christmas was with the Sullivan’s, but Thanksgiving was a Maloney holiday. My grandmother Mimi loved Thanksgiving, probably because she loved to cook and entertain; her happiest moments were those spent around her dining room table with her children and grandchildren. When Thanksgiving rolled around, she made loaf after loaf of her tg7special nut bread, and we dutifully did our part by consuming large quantities, usually slathered in butter. On Thanksgiving morning in those early days when I was just a baby, before we drove to Mimi and Grandpa Din’s for dinner, my father would amuse us kids (and exhaust us as well) by devising a Thanksgiving Treasure Hunt with clues scattered through our neighborhood in Park Forest.

When my father got promoted and transferred to Milwaukee in 1963, we stopped celebrating Christmas with my mom’s family, because Oak Park too far away. Thanksgiving, though, was a different story; it was much more feasible to drive into Chicago for the day and then drive home at the end of the evening. Thus it was that we continued to spend Thanksgiving with my father’s family.

After my Grandpa Din died in 1963 and Mimi died in 1965, Thanksgiving was still a Maloney holiday, now hosted by my father’s sister, Mary Clare and her husband, Fran; they lived in an apartment in Chicago with our cousins Denny and Dona. Those first years in Milwaukee, there was no morning treasure hunt; we just piled into the car and drove to Mary Clare and Fran’s, arriving in time for the football games. I can still recall hearing the sound of commercials for Hamm’s Beer as we walked up the stairs to the McCall’s apartment. Hamm’s had a catchy jingle that started out “From the land of sky-blue waters….” and ended with a chant of “Hamm’s the Beer Refreshing/Hamm’s the Beer Refreshing…” I used to wonder why the words “beer” and “refreshing” were transposed in the song, but figured it was to give it an authentic sort of “Indian” tempo. (The whole ad, Indian tempo and all, here.)

Once we arrived, the grownups congregated in the living room to have a highball and watch football; the children just waited for dinner. It was always a bit odd to be at the McCall’s for Thanksgiving, because in addition to the seven of us, Mary Clare and Fran invited various members of Fran’s family. When we would finally sit down to the meal, there were always several people at the table who were strangers to me—people with names like “Roy” and “Dixie” and “Harriet.” No one ever explained to me who these people were, so I spent quite a few Thanksgivings dining with people I could not have identified in a police lineup.

tg9The highlight of Thanksgiving for me was the meal. My mother and Mary Clare did not have a lot in common, and Mary Clare was different from my mother in ways that I secretly liked. For example, she always served several desserts, and there was almost always something good that I never saw at my house, like expensive sugar cookies from the bakery with colored sprinkles on top. (Just to compare: the “dessert” chapter in my mother’s favorite cookbook was called—I am not making this up—“People Are Too Fat Anyway.” The Maloney’s did not make a practice of serving multiple desserts.)As an extra bonus, the size of the group at the dining room table prevented my mother from monitoring my Dessert Intake, so I was able to enjoy a good bit of those desserts without risking any raised eyebrows.

Mary Clare also did things like serve butter that was carved into roses. I was wowed by such largesse, but I knew to keep my opinions to myself, because my mother did not appreciate butter carved into roses when the McCall’s bathroom floors weren’t quite as scrubbed as my mother would have liked. My mother liked a clean house, and no amount of rose-shaped butter was going to make up for a ring in the toilet bowl.

After Thanksgiving dinner (and dessert), the adults would head back to the living room, tg11where the party got progressively louder and more festive-sounding. For the seven of us children (me, my four brothers and sisters, and our cousins Denny and Dona), there was not a lot to do. Sometimes all of the kids would play games like Hide and Seek. Hide and Seek is not typically a game that nearly-teenagers would enjoy, but our version of the game should have been named, “Let’s All Kill Ourselves, But Not Quite.” (This is another moment when my spouse and my siblings’ spouses in later years invoked their theory of the Four Missing Maloneys—see here.) We would do things like “hide” by teetering on the narrow windowsill of an open window that had no screen—on the second floor. We would also sometimes go out into the neighborhood, which was a bold thing to do at night in the middle of a major city in the 1960’s. Even with our willingness to court death, there just weren’t a lot of hiding places in a two bedroom apartment whose living room was out of bounds, so we could play Hide and Seek for only so long.

We were never exactly banned from the Adult Party in the living room, but we entered at our own risk; we might be inadvertently burned by a waving cigarette as someone made a sweeping gesture, or we might be pulled into a raucous conversation about something about which we had no strong opinion. The better alternative was for the boys to play records in Denny’s room while the girls talked about boys in Dona’s room.

As the youngest, I cared for neither records nor boys; thus, I spent long hours laying on top of all the coats on Mary Clare and Fran’s bed.  I would listen to the adults laughing and yelling and try to guess whose voice was whose; when that got dull, I would watch the minute hand on the bedside clock move, or examine the pictures on Mary Clare’s dressing table and make up stories about the people they portrayed. Time slowed down painfully as Thanksgiving wound to a close. At some point, I would fall asleep, and eventually be awakened as my parents gathered themselves and their children up and herded us out to the car for the drive back to Milwaukee.

Thanksgiving changed forever in 1968. In May of that year, my cousin Denny died in a car accident. He was a passenger in a car driven by a friend of his; the friend lost control of the car and hit a parked car, crushing Denny’s skull. The friend emerged with just a cut on his hand. Mary Clare and Fran buried their only son just days shy of his twentieth birthday, and while they soldiered on as best they could, they never really recovered. The McCall’s and the Maloney’s spent Thanksgiving apart until 1971; in August of that year my brother Johnnie got married, and Fran died of a heart attack while driving to the ceremony. When Mary Clare realized that her husband was dead in the driver’s seat as they hurtled down Interstate 94, she grabbed the wheel and steered into a light pole in order to stop the car. Right before we were due to leave for St. Florian’s Church for the vows, my father got the call that his brother-in-law was dead and his sister was in the hospital with severe injuries.

That year, when November rolled around, my parents hosted Thanksgiving, and Mary Clare and Dona came to Milwaukee. Mary Clare was still in a walker, and we were all still fairly numb from the shock of two such terrible losses in just three years. With so much to mourn and so much to survive, my father resurrected the family treasure hunt, which he hadn’t done since we lived in Park Forest. I think perhaps he saw it as a way to get everyone out of the house and moving around, something to focus on other than sadness. As much as anything can in such a situation, it worked. The Thanksgiving Treasure Hunt was rebooted, up and running.

When we lived in Park Forest, we were little children, and so I assume that the treasure hunt was small-scale. When my dad re-instituted the Hunt in 1971, however, he had five children ranging in ages from twenty-six to thirteen. Marbeth and Johnnie were married, so there were grandchildren and in-laws. My father’s goal was to challenge us all with clever clues and keep us out of the house for long enough to let him watch the football game in peace.

He succeeded. In those first years of the Reboot, the Treasure Hunt took us about four hours of solid walking and running to complete—IF we interpreted the clues correctly and went to the right sites. Many years, that was a big “if.” If we guessed wrongly on any given clue, we might end up walking miles and miles out of our way only to have to circle back and start over in a new direction. For example, one year my team’s clue alluded to “Italians,” “finishing things,” and “grandchild.” We thought long and hard, and concluded that we were we were supposed to go to an Italian pizza place for our next clue. Wrong. We were supposed to go to an apartment complex about half a mile from our house, because it was called “Serafino Square.” (My parents’ second grandchild is “Sarah.” The Italian word for “finish” is “finis.” Sera—Fino. And that was one of the easier clues.)

tg6There will never be any greater testament to the persuasive powers of my father than the fact that an entire family (adult children, babies, my mother, significant others) acquiesced to a scheme that involved hours of walking in whatever weather we were graced with that particular year. My dad would put us into teams and send us off to find our clues; one year we all walked for at least five miles in a monsoon. Another year we all trudged through a significant snowstorm. No one ever quit halfway through, or gave up. Next to us, the Kennedy’s with their touch football games looked like hothouse orchids.

One year, each team had a clue that was taped to the bottom of the city swimming pool at Hoyt Park. In the deep end. My brother-in-law Mel, a respected and successful dentist,

Swimming Pool at Hoyt Park Wauwatosa, WI
The Swimming Pool That Mel Climbed Into To Retrieve a Clue: At Least It Was Empty At the Time!


had to climb a chain link fence and then climb down into the empty pool to retrieve his clue. Another year, we had to sneak up to the house of a famous Mafia family in town to snatch the clues from the lannon stone exterior of their home. Over the years, we walked to and through golf courses, area colleges and churches, apartment buildings, bakeries and Chinese restaurants, no doubt breaking trespassing laws right and left.

Great relief always greeted the final clue, which was some version of “You can come home now.” At home, the winners would celebrate and taunt the losers, and we would compare stories as we sliced, buttered and ate entire loaves of Mimi’s nut bread. Even Mary Clare would be laughing as she heard us tell each other stories of our various Treasure Hunt Misadventures.

2337Sometimes there was a prize; sometimes it was all about honor and glory. We never knew which it would be. One year, the winners were given their choice of cleaning products produced by Johnson and Co., a company my dad insured. Another year the prize was for everyone, winners and losers alike–a family trip to the theater to see Fiddler on the Roof together (by this time, there were a LOT of us), followed by my mother’s spaghetti back at the house. (My mother’s response: “What? I never agreed to this. I walked for four hours and my prize is that I will be cooking spaghetti for twenty people? What?) At one point, my sister Marbeth and her husband Mel presented my dad with a specially made trophy, a golden turkey mounted on a wood plaque with space for the names of the winners year after year. (We kept the trophy but stopped engraving the names after a minor dust-up over whether a winning Significant Other should make it onto the trophy or not. After all, he might not end up in the family and then we would have his name on the trophy, which might be awkward down the road. We eventually decided to allow the Significant Other his rightful place in the winner’s slot, and sure enough, my sister Susan dumped him shortly after Thanksgiving, thereby insuring a cascading chorus through the generations of “Who is Bill?”)

tg8My father kept the Treasure Hunt going until he was well into his seventies. My nephew took it on for a while after that, and when my dad died my brother Jamie bought a big house in the woods and started hosting Thanksgiving there, treasure hunt and all. Whereas we used to play hide and seek at the McCall’s in the open windows, now we walk in the woods while Wisconsin hunters shoot guns (we hope they hit deer and not us.) tg10Whereas my childhood’s “fun after dinner activity” was laying on the coats and making up stories about people I didn’t know, our family’s current youngsters can choose between pool, shuffleboard, and a giant bonfire outside. My brother’s clues are often just as clever as my dad’s had been, and they still do a fine job of keeping us all out of the house and building up our appetites. When we come back, there is still nut bread, and we still eat far too much of it as we vie to tell the best story. My dad must be tickled to see it all unfold without him; now there are great-grandchildren he never got to meet hearing and telling their own tales. Of course we Five Original Maloneys (or, as the spouses call us, the Five Surviving Maloneys) will forever claim to have survived the toughest treasure hunts of all, scaling walls, crossing highways and trespassing onto golf courses in rainstorms and blizzards. The younger generation will just have to put up with listening to us.

heaney-paystub-1I do believe that if there is a heaven and my father makes it there, he will be waiting for us all, just as he waited for us to return from those gulag-style hunts of our youth; this time, though, he will be holding that most welcome clue of every single Hunt—the one that finally, happily, brings us home.




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