Our Backstreets #29: Sundays Were the Best Days

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.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    17th/04/2011 to 8:41 pm

    You are very lucky. I go back to my boyhood home, Scottsdale, AZ, and it has pretty much vanished. My old house is still there, but the alfalfa field across the street, and the accompanying dairy farm, are now all buildings and parking lots. Almost none of the restaurants, stores, or fields are left. My old school is partially preserved, but most of the calssrooms are gone. The Kachina Theater, a genuine triple-projector Cinerama one, where I saw a few with the original process and projection, and a host of others, is also gone. The Pink Pony, a downtown steakhouse/bar that was a hotspot for ballplayers in spring training and a place my pals and I hung around to see the likes of Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Carl Yastrzemski, and a zillion other names and no-names pass by. The old wooden ballpark there, that used to catch fire on July 4th often, is gone as well – I used to by a cheap seat, and then drift down to the outfield fence towards the middle innings, often on days I skipped school. (Shocking!)

    I had much the same TV viewing, with a lot of westerns thrown in – it was a desert town, after all. We had radiant floor heating, and I still can feel the vent blades against the bottom of my feet – we each picked one and sat on it cold winter weekend mornings. We had a local independent station, (the last Dumont affiliate!!) and they had a slew of noirs, musicals, and every other B&W, including silents. I wrote about it on my website for last year’s film preservation Blogathon. I well remember Sky King, and The Cisco Kid always had a funny edge to it, loved that show. Thanks for the memories, I try to pass them on to my kids, and even took ‘em on guided tours of my past. What was left of it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/04/2011 to 9:11 pm

    Van – I don’t know if we can make anyone appreciate them, but I think it’s important to remember and to pass along our memories. At the very least, it’s therapeutic. I’m sorry so much of your past has been expunged. I’ve seen mine go piece by piece and wallow in whatever is left. Glad I could give you some sense that other people remember some of what you do and value it. A different kind of historic preservation for sure!

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    17th/04/2011 to 9:47 pm

    A wonderful trip down Nostalgia Lane here Marilyn! I feel the same way too as I get on further in years and always recall those weekends of my youth, the places I lived in and the vital role television played in my childhood. I could easily enough provide my own recalled itinerary, but I preferred to enjoy yours and meditate on my own correlations. Lovely piece.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/04/2011 to 10:15 pm

    Thanks, Sam, but I suspect my reminiscences will make more eyes glaze over than look back. As for television, it really was a huge influence on my ultimate cinephilia.

  • Rod spoke:
    18th/04/2011 to 8:25 am

    I love the picture of Charlie Brown and Snoopy. I still often feel like they’re my ego and superego, duking it out for command of my personality,

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/04/2011 to 8:47 am

    Rod – Interesting, and I understand what you’re saying. In this picture, they’re in perfect harmony, so hopefully that will happen with you, too. I kind of wish I were sitting with them. It looks so peaceful….

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    18th/04/2011 to 1:53 pm

    What a great piece this is, Marilyn! I’m overcome by nostalgia much of the time. And your experiences are so similar. Just the other day I got so excited when I realized the Flash Gordon serials they ran on tv were on Netflix Instant. So much of afternoon tv from the sixties through the late seventies were shorts from the thirties. Watching Flash, the Little Rascals and the Three Stooges helped make black and white (as well as having a black and white tv) feel not only normal but comfortable and inviting. In a way, it started me down the path of loving classic cinema.

    I live far from where I grew up but every now and then when I return it’s an amazing thing to see how much has changed. Most of what I knew is gone now but the memories remain.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/04/2011 to 3:21 pm

    Thanks, Greg. I know a lot of people roll their eyes when someone starts talking about the olden days, but there is so much going on with me now that pulls me toward the past and a need to bear witness in some way to the passing of a way of life I knew. I was talking to someone about how the kind of editor I am is no longer wanted. We may still be needed, but today, the heads of publishing concerns are directors of marketing and PR. I don’t think I’ve had a department headed by a real editor in a long time, and everyone thinks mastering social media like Twitter is the key to success. They’ll learn…maybe.

  • John Grec0 spoke:
    18th/04/2011 to 3:47 pm

    Great trip down memory lane Marilyn! Being just a few years older than you we still share many of the same TV shows mentioned (Cisco Kid, Sky King) along with The Little Rascals, Abbott and Costello, Charlie Chan and many B westerns (Johnn Mack Brown, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry). Television in those days, though there were fewer channels, filled the many hours with movies and in NYC where I grew up there was the treasured “Million Dollar Movie” which showed the same film twice every night and three times on the weekends, the entire week (whenever baseball wasn’t on) and I watched films like KING KONG and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME over and over until my folks say enough!

    I have not been back to my old Brooklyn neighborhood in more than 20 years and am not sure if I ever want to go back. It may be better or worse but I rather remember it the way it was.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/04/2011 to 4:12 pm

    John, I have heard more fond memories of “Million Dollar Movie” from New Yorkers I know than of anything else on TV. It really must have been special!

  • Mykal Banta spoke:
    19th/04/2011 to 10:09 pm

    Marilyn: I so hear you. I’m 54. The changes to “my world” are coming at such an incredible clip, altering the world I know so rapidly, that my instinct is to assume the fetal position or possibly huddle up with those my own age as though in a foreign country.

    I say old man things now – harkening back with affection to a time when (fill in this portion with an activity that doesn’t involve a digital application). I shudder with pity when I see those my own age try to appear technologically hip by, say, using an iPhone. Sure, many men my age and older own one, but; let’s face it – we hold it, look down at it, poke at it sparingly with our sausage fingers. compare this Neanderthal bumbling to my 21-year-old son’s absolute thumb-blurring mastery of the thing – and it is to laugh. A friend at work, roughly my own age, got his iPhone finally. He called me into his office soon afterward, closing the door softly behind us. His eyes were bright with fear and amazement. “Look at this!” he said. He tilted the iPhone on the horizontal and, after a moment, the tiny screen did a little flip, following the horizontal orientation. He looked at me with such hopeful desperation, I felt the bizarre and unfamiliar impulse to give him a hug . I even said, “that’s amazing,” just because I had to. He flipped it two or three more times, the thrill dissipating quickly. He admitted he hadn’t yet figured out “all it’s functions.”

    Jesus. I’ll probably never have a snowball fight again. I’ve read that, soon, classrooms with be a thing of the past – that education will be virtually all digital, devouring both books and teachers in the maelstrom. Life, as an experience, will be somewhere in the cloud. What cannot be done or satisfied with an app?

    I remember when I was a kid, a milkman used to come in a dairy truck and leave milk, butter and cream in a small compartment built into the side of the house near the back door – a “milkshute.” It squeaked on metal hinges whenever the milkman left his deliveries, driving our beagle, Margie, into a frenzy of toenail-scrabbling-over-kitchen-linoleum barking.

    Like Roy Batty in Bladerunner, it’s all tears in the rain, baby.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/04/2011 to 8:09 am

    Mykal – It’s nice to see you again. I, too, sometimes want to huddle away from everything. And we were almost the generation that said don’t trust anyone over 30! (Just a hair too young.)

    We had a thermal milk box that sat next to the back stoop of our house. I wonder where that box went. We used to have a knife grinder pushing his cart through the streets. Now, we have one who comes to our farmers market in the summer. What does he do the rest of the year?

    I don’t think school will become virtual – parents still need a place to send their kids while they go to work. It’s just a different skill set that the kids will have to have.

    I don’t mind progress. Where would my TV memories be without it. Let’s just hope everything doesn’t vanish.

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