My Failure to Play Well With Others

not play wellIn October of 1962, when I was almost four years old, my family moved from Chicago to Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. This was, for my mother, a tragic day. Both of my parents had been born in Chicago to parents who were themselves born in Chicago. Both had fully expected to die in Chicago after long and happy lives as chic Chicagoans. My father had relocated briefly to the island of Guam during World War II, after brief stays (with my mother) at army bases in Texas and Nebraska. Living outside her beloved city during those years only increased my mother’s ardor for her hometown. When the War ended, my parents (now with a new baby girl they named Marbeth) moved to Essex Avenue in a posh area of Chicago known as South Shore, and my father used the G.I. Bill to go to “insurance school” in Boston. He had a wife and a baby to support, and he figured he could make a good living in that business. Shortly after he returned from Boston, my father got a job selling insurance for the James S. Kemper Company.

vintage shciago
My Mother’s Kind of Town

Housing was scarce in post-war America, and my parents knew they were lucky to have a nice apartment near Lake Michigan just a short train ride from downtown. My mother soon gave birth to my brother Johnnie, and when she got pregnant with my brother Jamie, my parents knew that they needed more space. They weren’t alone; thousands of soldiers were returning home to their wives and babies. The country was about to experience a sizeable baby boom; affordable family homes would be in steady demand, and so forward thinking developers got busy. The city of Park Forest was born, and my dad found us a townhouse in this spanking new “planned community.”

good planned park forestMy mother was not happy to leave the city limits, but she was also pretty tired of carrying three children up and down three flights of stairs, not to mention the buggy. The “yard” on Essex Avenue was small patch of cement, and while the lake was just a few blocks away, she longed for some open space for her children to burn up their considerable energy. Park Forest was not Chicago, but it was a fairly easy drive, and there were trains. For the good of her family, my mother moved.

After Susan came, the Park Forest townhouse was a tight fit, and my father decided it was time to buy a house on one of its carefully laid out streets. 471 Lakewood Blvd. was a ranch house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, an eat-in kitchen and an attached garage that could be renovated into a “rec room.” The developers had planted trees and seeded front lawns, but when my father’s car loaded with four children and my mother turned into 471 Lakewood, the trees were spindles and the grass was only a promise. For my mother, this was a bleak landscape indeed. Nonetheless, there we were and she was resolved to make the best of it.

Park Forest was an idyllic place to be a child. Every house on every block was stuffed park forest playwith other children, so there was a never-ending playdate happening on the street every day and every evening, rain or shine. There was a decent sized woods, with a trail for hiking and bike riding. There was an Aqua Center with several pools. There was even a fancy new strip of stores all hulking together called a shopping mall, with my mother’s beloved Marshall Field’s at the core. And while she missed living in Chicago near her sister and her parents, my mother realized that her own life was easier when her children were surrounded with playmates. The neighbors, nearly all veterans and their wives, were all in the same boat and everyone got along. When evening rolled around and the men got off of the train and came home, the adults joined their children in their own version of a playdate:  they put the kids to bed and met in each other’s houses for cocktails and conversation and more cocktails.

park forest 3While Park Forest was a paradise for children, it was no place to hail from, at least not in my mother’s eyes. No matter where she went in the world, she was at all times supremely confident that introducing herself as “Mercedes Maloney from Chicago” informed new acquaintance that she was an up-to-date and sophisticated city dweller. “I’m from Chicago” was my mother’s go-to mantra in any demanding social situation. So dedicated was she to the importance of being from Chicago, she insisted on delivering me at a downtown hospital, Passavent Memorial. When I was older, she explained that she had made the forty minute trip while in labor so that I would never be saddled with a backwater like “Park Forest” on my birth certificate. (Later in life, I wrote about this in the Chicago Tribune; you can read all about that, if you are interested,  here).

us in park forest
Easter Sunday on Lakewood Boulevard

By the time I came along, my sisters were sharing one bedroom on Lakewood and my brothers shared the other. I slept in my crib at the side of my parents’ bed in their room; it was a tight fit. My father’s salary was increasing slowly but steadily, and my parents hoped that they would soon be able to move to a bigger house in a more prestigious suburb like Oak Park or River Forest. Charming and persuasive when he set his mind to be, my father had a genuine talent for insurance sales. He sold policies to corporations and factories, and forged lifelong friendships with some of the people whose companies he insured. When James S. Kemper decided to expand into the Midwest, it didn’t take them long to choose Milwaukee as the next outpost; in the early 1960’s, Milwaukee was rich in industry with companies such as Johnson Controls, Bucyrus Erie, Continental Can, and Allis-Chalmers. My father was the man picked to be promoted and transferred. He was now the President of Kemper’s Milwaukee office.

My mother was happy that my father got promoted but decidedly unhappy at the prospect of moving ninety miles north. For two years after my father took the job, he commuted between Chicago and Milwaukee, coming home only on weekends. I was a toddler when all of this happened, and so for me my father was a festive stranger who came over every Friday night and left on Sunday. One of my earliest memories is of standing on the couch at 471 Lakewood and looking out of the window so that I could be the first to spy my dad walking up the front walk. As soon as the door opened, I would scream “Daddy!” and he would reply “Baby!” and throw his arms around me. My father knew how to light up a room, and even my grandmother, often helping out my mother on Fridays, remarked that when Jack Maloney entered a room, everyone’s spirits lifted.

Two years is a long time, and my father was tired of living in a hotel and commuting every week. Finding a house was not an easy or fast process, though, especially since whatever house we bought would have to house seven people and make my mother less miserable about leaving Chicago. The house we eventually bought had been on the market for a long time.  Since it was a lovely, stately manor on a corner lot in a prestigious neighborhood, the price was astonishingly low. To figure out why, one had only to step inside.

2337While 2337 had lovely “bones,” the previous owner had apparently developed his decorating style in Chinese brothels. Each of our three bathrooms sported wallpaper featuring naked mermaids, hungover men in boxer shorts and many martini glasses. The “rec room” above the garage was painted scarlet and every window was covered with long black draperies featuring little Chinese men in hats. The previous owner’s love of red was carried through to the kitchen; until she moved into that house, I don’t think my mother knew that Formica countertops were even available in cherry.

Our house in Park Forest went on the market but did not sell, and so for a while my dad was making two house payments. Without the money from the first house, my parents had no down payment on the home in Wauwatosa, and the previous owner must have been very ready to sell, because he accepted a down payment of fifty dollars on a house that cost 38, 500 dollars. (In 1962, that was a tidy sum indeed.) We had a double mortgage right from the start, and James S. Kemper had one of them. Family finances being what they were, there were zero funds in the “redecoration” account, and we lived with that decorating for a decade. We all got so used to it we never saw it anymore, and it was always a surprise when a friend came out of our bathroom and said, “There are naked mermaids and hungover men in boxers holding martinis on your bathroom walls” as if this might be a startling development of which we were unaware.

Mortgaged to the teeth and living in a house decorated by Beelzebub, at least we were all together again as a family living under one roof. My mother was certainly happy about that, but she did not find Milwaukee an easy place to love. The first day she returned from the bakery across the street where she had gone to buy a loaf of bread, she walked in the back door muttering, “Damned Germans!” Apparently there was a very long line at Fessenbecker’s, and the other customers were stolidly lined up single file out the door. In Chicago, no one lined up at bakeries. Everyone just shoved toward the front shouting their orders and waving their arms. Not only that, but she had to cross the street to get there, and when the light was “green” for the cars, the other people stood and waited for the “WALK” sign. (For at least the first ten years of our life in Wauwatosa, every time my mother was confronted by a patrol office for jaywalking and/or crossing against the light, she would smile at the police officer and say, “I am sorry Officer but I am from Chicago.” Once in a while, that worked; more often, the officer was not impressed.)

When my father took my mother to see downtown Milwaukee, she took one look at

mke
No Wonder My Mother Wept

Wisconsin Avenue, the main street of the city, and burst into tears. “This is IT?” she moaned. “This is downtown?” It certainly was.

My father had done his homework during those two years of living in Milwaukee on his own, and so in no time at all my siblings were enrolled in their various schools and attending classes, leaving me and my mother home alone in our new neighborhood which, my mother whispered to me at one point, was almost certainly filled with Republicans. We can only imagine what our new neighbors thought when we pulled into the driveway for the first time; the hood of our “vintage” car had flown off into a ditch on the way to our new home, so we pulled up in what looked like a wreck and all seven of us piled out of the car and onto our quiet street, a bevy of Irish Catholics in a world of German Republicans.

Republican or not, my mother knew that the neighborhood was the home of my future friends, and she set about to find them for me. After breakfast one day, we were off on our mission; my mother walked me up and down our new street with the intention of introducing me to any girls playing outside who looked to be roughly my age. She stopped in front of the first little girl she saw (later we found out her name was DeeDee Kindt) and asked if she would like to meet a new friend. DeeDee’s emphatic response: “No.”

After that inauspicious beginning, my mother took me home and gave me a popsicle, which seemed like a pretty good deal to me. Already at the age of four, I was finding food to be a much steadier and loyal companion than other people ever could be.  My mother never really forgave “That snotty Kindt girl,” as she called her for the rest of our lives.  Daunted but not undone, we ventured forth again the next day, with greater success. My mother found two little girls playing in a front yard, and introduced me to them. When she asked these two girls if they wanted to play with me, they shrugged and acquiesced. My mother turned to me and said, “This is Regina and this is Ellen. They are your new friends. Have fun!” And she was off. Without missing a best, Ellen said “We’re playing tag. My porch is gool. You’re it!” And they ran away.

This would have been great fun except I had never played tag in my life and had no idea what the word “gool” meant. I sensed that my role was to chase them, and so I did, but they made it to “gool” safely time after time. I was “it” for most of the day. (I discovered soon after that day that Ellen had a minor speech defect; she was actually saying “goal,” not “gool.” Before long, I understood everything Ellen said, and for a year or so served as her official translator around adults who didn’t know her.)

Regina and Ellen became my best friends. There was only one mother on the block who worked outside the home (interestingly, DeeDee’s mother) and so we moved in and out of each other’s homes all day.  When it was the three of us, Regina, Ellen and I usually got along and had fun, and when it was just Ellen and me, we also did fine together. Less successful were those occasions when Ellen was unavailable to play and it was just me and Regina. I had nothing in common with Regina; she liked sports and physical activity a lot, and she was a very literal girl. Imaginary play wasn’t big on her list of fun things to do. Also, Regina’s family looked and sounded like an ad for fresh, cold milk: they were achingly wholesome and clean-cut. Being the eldest girl in a family straight out of the Disney casting closet, Regina grew up in a very different atmosphere than mine. As the youngest child of a Colorful Family from the Big City, I frightened her parents a bit with my worldly ways—I said things like “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” and snuck cookies from the cabinet when I could get away with it. I was a dangerous and possibly delinquent playmate, and Regina’s father always looked at me as if I were a junior hussy, mere moments away from luring his daughter down to the docks to meet sailors or Democrats.

Despite having nothing in common, Regina and I managed on most days to find something to do together, but it could be a struggle. She liked to play games with balls and race our bikes. To me, these activities involved sweating for no good reason. Also, I hated doing things I was bad at. My idea of fun ran more toward riding our bikes down to the river and pretending to be Jews hiding from Nazi killers, or refugees who needed to subsist by eating the foliage around us. I was not averse to actually consuming the pulp inside twigs if it lent verisimilitude to the story we were weaving.

Regina (who grew up to be a psychologist) didn’t understand why it would be fun to make up stories and pretend to be people we were not, especially if such pretense included long hours “hiding” under bridges and eating sticks. After all, she reasoned, we could instead be out racing our bikes in the sunshine, stopping now and then at her house for some Choo Choo Cherry or Goofy Grape Funny Face. (Funny Face was a Kool-Aid type drink that Regina’s mom always had in a pitcher in their refrigerator. We did not have Funny Face in a pitcher in our refrigerator, ever. My mother was opposed on principle to all powdered drinks on the grounds that the process of making those drinks would inevitably result in spilled sugar on the counter, which would then get sticky in the heat, which would upset my mother. When the powdered drink industry came up with the idea of presweetened powdered drinks, my mother said that all that sugar wasn’t good for anybody anyway.)

In the name of friendship, Regina tried to spend at least some time pretending to be Anne Frank and I tried to engage in wholesome bike races and games involving balls, and somehow, we made it work. As we got older, though, our friendship faded. Once we all started elementary school, both Regina and Ellen were a year behind me because they went to kindergarten for two years. Everyone in Milwaukee attended two years of kindergarten, but I moved on to first grade after one year at McKinley School because my mother thought that two years of kindergarten was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard. The summer of third grade (for me, second grade for her) was the last summer that Regina and I still played together regularly; we really did have little in common.

One gorgeous afternoon during that last summer together, Regina for some reason I couldn’t fathom didn’t want to hang out in my basement dressing up in my grandmother’s old ball gowns and smoking pretend cigarettes made of colored pencils dipped in lipstick. She wanted to be outside, and she wanted to race bikes. I never won a bike race with Regina, not even once. For me, bikes were a form of transportation to other things, not an end in themselves. I didn’t mind riding my bike to the river to explore the mossy rocks beneath the current, or to Heyward’s to buy a dime’s worth of penny candy, but Regina thought of bike riding as a stand-alone fun activity. I didn’t understand that, but since she was my friend, I tried to please her once in a while.

On this particular day, we agreed to the usual racecourse: we would start at the corner in front of my house, race to the end of the (unusually long) block, turn the corner and continue to race down the hill for two blocks. The “finish line” was North Avenue, a busy street that we didn’t ever cross without getting off our bikes and walking them across.

The race began as it always did; one of us said “Go!” and off we went. By the time I was halfway down our block, Regina was already turning the corner and starting down the hill; she had the race won, again. I had had it. I was hot, sweaty, and about to lose, again, doing something I didn’t even enjoy doing. I was tired of losing. I jumped off my bike, let it skid sideways off the sidewalk and onto the McGuire Sisters’ front lawn, and shouted out, “Regina! I fell!” I figured she would still win, as always, but at least I wouldn’t have lost. Regina would coast down the hill to the finish line, turn around and come back, and we could spend the rest of the day doing something I liked to do, something that didn’t involve physical activity of any sort. I didn’t count on Regina’s essential goodness.

When she heard me yelling, “Regina! I fell!,” rather than letting her momentum carry her to the bottom of the hill before turning her bike around to retrieve me, Regina attempted to stop her bike in its path and turn around immediately to come to my aid. Instead of stopping, however, her bike skidded sideways, throwing her off of it and onto the sidewalk. From where I was sitting with my faked injury, it didn’t sound good. By the time I got back on my bike and pedaled to the corner to see what had happened, the woman who lived in the house next to the spot where Regina fell had already called for help. Regina had broken her jaw, rather severely. She was whisked away to the Emergency Room, and I went home.

I didn’t see Regina for a couple of days. When she was finally able to receive visitors, I went to pay my respects, dreading the moment when Regina would ask me how I was, given that I had also “fallen” that day. To my horror, however, my worry was unfounded, because Regina’s jaw had been wired shut; she could not talk at all, could not eat solid food for weeks, and had to drink Carnation Instant Breakfast for days and days.

bikeI would like to say that I spent the rest of the summer selflessly devoted to Regina’s well-being, reading to her and bringing her treats and fluffing her pillows. I would like to say that this incident was a turning point in my eventual path to sainthood, and I never again lied to get my way or let my competitive nature rule the day. That is, however, not what happened. What happened was that I stayed away from Regina for the rest of the summer. My guilt was overwhelming, and Regina’s jaw and bedside glasses of Carnation Breakfast were concrete evidence of my own calumny and small-mindedness.

Did anyone ever find out the true story of Regina’s broken jaw? No. Not even Regina. Unless she is reading this now, she doesn’t know to this day that I didn’t really fall off my bike the day that she did. If you are reading this now, Regina: I’m so sorry.

 

 

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