By Marilyn Ferdinand
As I move into the downside of my 50s, a sometimes overwhelming nostalgia sweeps over me. I’m luckier that most people who are fond of their past to live only six miles from where I grew up in Morton Grove. A short drive west on Morton Grove’s main drag, Dempster St., will bring me into familiar surroundings. Some of the landmarks of my childhood—Lochner’s garden center, the Dairy Queen, Par-King miniature golf park, the Ground Round—have been converted into other eateries or vacant lots. Nobody today will ever know what was there before—not the way I do. But, miraculously, less than a mile further west, the house with the double lot and garden right on Dempster, hasn’t been sold, torn down, or built upon. Another summer will see another crop of corn, cabbages, and tall blossoms. The condos that were the first in town are still there and still looking very kept up. Littman Lighting long ago replaced Dolmar Pharmacy, which my uncles owned and where my mom worked and I walked from the grade school four blocks away to have lunch in the back room with her, and still sells its chandeliers and ceiling fans.
A phantom feeling of warmth always comes over me on Sundays. Sundays were the best days of all. We got to hang out in our pajamas all morning, and Dad would cook a cholesterol-soaked breakfast of bacon, sausage, and eggs on the middle griddle that occupied the center spot on our kitchen stove, its spotless chrome cover coming off only for this special occasion. Since my mother was an indifferent cook whose best friend was the TV dinner, we looked forward to this handmade breakfast as the best meal of the week. While breakfast was on, my brother and I laid on the living room floor and read the comics; I frequently pressed my favorite images with a flattened piece of Silly Putty stored in its moisture-saving plastic egg for just this opportunity. I’d pull the flexible Silly Putty to distort the transferred image, and then ball it up and start over. My flesh-colored wad of magic turned dark from its mix of inks in no time flat.
After breakfast, I had my television routine. I liked Saturday morning cartoons, but I LOVED the Sunday morning line-up on the CBS affiliate. They ran the Flash Gordon serial my parents used to watch at the movies when they were kids, and the battles this venerable character and his cohorts, Dr. Zarkov, Dale Arden, and Prince Baron, had with Ming the Merciless, Princess Aura, and the Clay People always had me on the edge of my seat. After that, there was a rotating group of regular series, including Sky King and The Lone Ranger. I was not a fan of the masked man, but Sky King had Penny, an adventurous girl whom I dreamed I could be like; I’ve probably spent more time in an airplane since then than Penny ever did, so I guess I kind of got my wish. Always, however, was The Cisco Kid (“Hey Pancho!” Hey Cisco!”) that I suppose would be terribly un-PC today, but that I found much more fun than the humorless Lone Ranger and Tonto. At noon, a Charlie Chan movie would be shown. Warner Oland was my favorite Charlie Chan, and I had a mild crush on Keye Luke as No. 1 Son. Again, the Chinese characters were caricatures, but the Chans were mighty smart, too, and always solved their mystery. Revisiting Charlie Chan in Meeting at Midnight with the less-beloved Sidney Toler, I saw how bad some of these films really were. I’m not sorry my tastes have improved, but the perfection of watching those movies as a child was a bit tarnished by this reality check in adulthood.
During the summer, we spent nearly every sunny Sunday with my mother’s sister and her family picnicking and swimming at one of the many nearly beachless lakes in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. In the days before water parks with mechanical wave makers, fountains, and giant buckets that fill with water and tip on the kids below, we made do with the waves the wind generated, an anchored raft to swim to, a pier to dive off of, and a simple water slide that was the special attraction at Lake Wauconda, distinguished only by being higher than a playground slide and slicked with cold water to make the ride down faster. Occasionally, I’d get my foot mired in some silt at the bottom of the lake, a slimy, faux-scary experience. My brother and I would swim just under the surface with one hand at a right angle to the back of our heads, pretending we were sharks.
We also spent Sundays visiting my parents’ friends and family. I didn’t like these outings as much because we kids were always shunted to the kiddie table at dinner, particularly when we went to my Auntie Ida’s house. But as long as I could keep away from my uncle’s blood-drawing pinches, I loved to explore their old Chicago bungalow, with its low-ceilinged attic apartment just the right size for a little girl to walk through; I’d sit at the window seat of the house’s “third eye” to look out on the old streets that were so different from our modern subdivision in the suburbs. Everything looked so old and mysterious to me then.
Now I’m the old one and wonder what the world will think of my memories. Already, many of the markers of my youth are gone or have been so changed by the culture of the people who inhabit them now that I no longer am connected to them by my cultural DNA. And yet, Sundays are still the best days because of all the best Sundays that went before.