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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Looking for Childhood Home


Along I-80

We survived the terrors of icy, snow-covered highways (cars and trucks having overturned in the median and careened off the road providing constant wordless warnings) and an unexpected detour, until at last, near day’s end, we reached the town where my mother and youngest sister live, the place my parents moved to so long ago with baby me, forsaking the Great Plains of South Dakota for the Illinois prairie. But in the vicinity of my childhood home the prairie has been pushed far away since I was a little girl, so that all in all, the experience of visiting my mother is not so much one of “coming home” as of -- well, disorientation.

To the north of my parents’ house in my childhood was our second lot, with apple trees, a pear tree, a raspberry patch, and flower gardens. To the south was a vacant lot, with a lovely old lilac bush, a dogwood, and all kinds of interesting weeds to collect and identify. Other vacant lots provided “wilderness” for neighborhood kids to explore. There were trees to climb, and we could dig holes to our hearts’ content, holes big enough to hide in, pulling old sheets of cardboard over us for roofs. There are no vacant lots any more. The farms are gone, too. Old asparagus fields have given way to blocks of houses, while acres of corn and soybeans, interrupted long ago only by nearly hidden springs and creeks, have been replaced by subdivisions, traffic signals, and shopping centers.

My mother’s house has undergone decades of change, too, and while I’ve visited in the intervening years -- of course! many times! -- it’s the old, not the more recent, that abides in my memory. The living room, for instance: only the old sofa (recovered in new fabric) survives from my childhood, with every other piece of furniture having been added since I left home. None of the bedrooms, either, is as I remember it best. I woke early one morning and was unnerved by a "new" ceiling fan I couldn’t identify with certainty in the dark.

Mother's cookbook 
Grandma's ladle
But a few small, familiar items remain and bob to the surface from hour to hour. My mother’s old Ruth Berolzheimer cookbook (1960), like mine (1966), is falling apart but still lovingly kept tucked away in a cupboard, and my grandmother’s (my mother’s mother’s) old gravy ladle (dented) still lies in one of the kitchen drawers. (We got it out and used it Friday evening.) And naturally there are boxes and boxes of old snapshots, some envelopes labeled and dated, others a mystery, all fun to look through with my mother. 

Looking through snapshots

One neighborhood landmark that remains pretty much the same, despite a new lobby entrance, is the old Merichka’s restaurant on Theodore Avenue. Doesn't that sign just shout "Nineteen-sixty"? Cocktails! Remember those?

A Joliet institution
In the Sixties, Merichka’s was the place for many dating couples to go for dinner on prom evenings or other “fancy” dates. (No, we were not served cocktails!) 'Merichka' is the Slovenian diminutive for Mary – in this case, the Mary of Joe and Mary who started the restaurant. I was glad to see the tablecloths hadn't changed, and it was good to spend a family evening in a familiar old place.

Checked tablecloth, "boomerang" menu

David and Nora

We had a lovely three-day visit with my mother, and I can report that Sarah did nothing to terrorize the resident cats. One remained out of sight the whole time we were there, and her brother, Percy, the braver sibling, intimidated Sarah for the first day we were there. Sarah would not make eye contact with the cat but turned her head and looked purposefully in the opposite direction! By our last night there, Percy had taken up a position on the floor to my left, and Sarah lay at my right, both of them relaxed and accepting of the other's presence. 

Today we crossed the Mississippi River and will wake tomorrow to Missouri. The scenery is beginning to change....


3 comments:

Neighbor said...

I feel like I have just been for a visit home, after reading this. Seeing a smile on the faces of your mom and David have set a happy tone for the day.

Karen Casebeer said...

Love the story about how Sarah handled Percy's intimidation. Humans could learn so much from animals. Safe travels1. Karen

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks, neighbor! One writer friend of mine says she always reads my blog with her first cup of coffee in the morning. She doesn't want to start the day with bad news. But uh-oh! What about those days when I'm not all Pollyanna? Should I watch out for dark moods when writing the blog?

Karen, it was fascinating and impressive to watch the animals adjust to one another. No wrangling, no shows of aggression at all. By Monday evening we were comfortable leaving them alone together in the house. No problemos.