Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Story for the Holidays

Photo: "Warmth of the Season" by Cathy McLain

Bethlehem on Madison Street

by Anita Solick Oswald

Staring at the ceiling didn’t help.  I tried lying very still under the silky magenta-colored down comforter, but it was no good.  I rubbed my feet on the sheets and tossed around. Counting sheep didn’t work.  Finally, I whispered to Barb.

“Still awake?”

“Yes, I can’t sleep.”

“Me neither.”

Although we usually pushed our bedtimes out as late as we could, Christmas Eve was different.  We’d donned our nightgowns without an argument and gone to bed early, hoping that we would fall asleep, wake up and it would be Christmas Day.  But our little girl excitement about the holiday and the gifts and visiting with family was proving to be too much.  We were both wide awake and Christmas Day wasn’t arriving any sooner.  From the living room, we heard the muted sounds of Rosemary Clooney’s Christmas carols coming from the television that Mom left on to keep her company when Daddy was at the firehouse.  Mom dozed on the couch; between the Coke and the M&Ms, she never slept well when Daddy was not home. 

Madison Street was quiet; a heavy, blowing snowfall muffled the sounds of the streetcar on its way to the barn.  Occasionally a car would drive by—maybe a fireman or policeman taking a few hours off to spend time with his kids?  Last minute shoppers had carted their packages home hours ago.  The shops and restaurants along our street always closed early so that the employees could spend Christmas Eve with their families. 

BZZZZZZZZZZ!  The buzzer squawked announcing a visitor.  I heard Mom mumble, “Who the heck is that now?” and shuffle down the long hall to the intercom.

“Who’s there?” Mom’s standard greeting was to the point.

“Who?  I can’t hear you.  Noreen?”

By then we’d snuck out of bed.  Barb and I peered down the hall, the thoroughfare that connected the rooms in our apartment.  Mom was in her nightgown, robe and slippers, hair in pin curls.  She’d lit a cigarette on her way down the hall.  She took a drag, pausing for a moment, and then yelled back in the intercom.

“Noreen, c’mon up.  I am going to buzz you in.” 

Mom hit the intercom buzzer that opened the heavy oak door in the tiled entryway to our apartments.  She walked to the front door and opened it.  By then we weren’t hiding—we wanted to know what was up.  We followed her to the door and waited to see who the nocturnal visitor was.  Mom leaned over the railing at the top of the stairs.  This was our extra security system.  If we bent over the banister at just the right angle, we could see people coming up the stairs before they saw us, giving us plenty of time to run in and slam the front door before they reached the top.  Mom often said, “If anyone wants to climb those three flights of stairs and steal something from this dump, they can have it.”  The heavy oak door of our apartment was impregnable and we always felt safe on the third floor. 

Slowly, breathing heavily, holding onto the banister for support, a tall, thin woman holding a paper sack in one hand ascended the stairs.  In the other, she held the hand of a little girl, smaller than Barb and I, but not a toddler.  Each step the woman took seemed more difficult for her.  When she got to the second story landing, where Mom could see her better, Mom hurried down the stairs to help her.  Mom took the child’s hand and the paper sack and led them up the stairs to our apartment.

Noreen stood in the entryway, perspiring, near the big walnut desk that held the telephone and served as a reception area for our guests.  Her coat was a thin, worn, loden green cloth coat, not much protection from the bleak Chicago winter outside.  She had no gloves or boots, and a rayon scarf was tied over her head and knotted at the chin.  Her daughter was dressed in warmer clothes, a snowsuit, mittens and boots.  The little girl yawned and leaned against her mother.  Noreen hesitated, embarrassed.

“I don’t want to get your floors wet.”

Mom replied, “Aw, don’t worry about this dump.  Come on in.  Stand on this rug while I get you some slippers.  Anita, go get the little girl—what’s your name?—a pair of your slippers.  I’m sorry, what’s your name, honey?  Christine?  Oh that’s pretty.  A pretty name for a pretty girl.  Your nickname is Cookie.  You’re my Christmas Cookie.” 

I ran to the bedroom closet and pulled out a pair of my old slippers, Chinese silk backless beauties with a rose embroidered across the toes that I had saved long after I grew out of them.  Gram and Gramps had purchased them for me when we visited San Francisco and I could not let them go.  I had huge feet that grew quickly for a small girl and, pretty soon after we bought them, my heels were hanging off the back of the slippers, so I put them away in the closet.  They were too big for the little girl, but I thought that maybe we could stuff them with toilet paper.

By the time I came back with the slippers, Mom had ushered our visitors into the living room, hung their coats in the bathroom, and was offering them goodies.

“Do you want a Coke?  How about some Christmas candy?  Some chips? Dip?”

Mom was no cook, but she always had a great supply of snacks available.  Noreen shook her head and declined softly.

“No, thank you, Helen.  We’re fine.”

It was pretty clear they weren’t.  The entry hall was dark but now I could see Noreen in a better light.  She was tall, very frail, and seemed timid.  Her hair was a mousy brown—once it must have been much lighter, and the hairstyle was dated, like the styles I saw in Mom’s old photos from the 1940s.  I thought she had a nice face, kind, with high cheekbones and she could have been attractive, but she was so slight.  That was saying something since our Mom was always skinny and prided herself on her petite frame.  Noreen wheezed and coughed, but her breathing seemed less labored now that she was resting on our sofa.  Her daughter, cheeks still rosy from the cold outside, curled up in the corner and promptly fell asleep, smiling, wearing my slippers. I poked Barb and gave her a knowing look and nodded. Mom won’t even let us sit on that sofa.  She must like this woman.  Some old friend?  No, she’s too young.  She looks familiar, though.  She seems to know me. 

Mom left us for a few minutes while she went to the kitchen to heat some coffee—she could drink coffee night or day.  Noreen smiled at Barb and me.

“You girls have gotten so big.  Do you remember me?  I used to play with you and read you stories sometimes.”

Then I recognized her.  And I felt shocked and sad.  Noreen lived in the apartment next door when Barb and I were tots.  She was a teenager then and had some kind of live-in arrangement with this couple that had two small children.  Even though I was quite young, I remember wondering why she wasn’t in school like my babysitters, and why she didn’t live with her parents.  I asked Mom one time and she said that Noreen’s parents were “drinkers and couldn’t take care of her” and that she’d been passed around to different relatives who did not want her.  Noreen was always nice to Barb and me, and when she was not working for the couple, she’d play games with us or read to us on the back porch or on the landing in between the two apartments.  Mom always had a soft spot for any person down on their luck, and she took a special interest in the young woman, giving her clothes and slipping her money sometimes, when she could afford to. 

Mom came back into the living room with the coffee and suddenly we were on her radar again.

“Why are you two up?  Get back in bed—NOW!”

We wanted to hear Noreen’s story, too, and why she was at our house on Christmas Eve instead of her own, but that was not going to happen.  Mom shooed us out of the living room and back to our bedroom.  It didn’t occur to me then, but she wanted to protect Noreen’s privacy and her feelings.  We would not hear her story until later.

I strained to hear what they were saying but the walls were thick and I couldn’t hear anything clearly without getting out of bed.  Mom had x-ray vision and she would know that I got up so I figured it was pointless.  Then Barb and I saw her walk down the hall and come back with a nightgown, blankets and pillows. 

I guessed that Noreen and Cookie would be staying the night.  That was no surprise.  We’d had many visitors staying with us over the years.  Mom always found the room.  We became aware of hushed conversations over the years between Mom and Dad. 

If someone was in trouble, if someone needed money or a place to stay—folks knew they could turn to Mom.  Daddy might protest a bit—“Helen, I can’t afford it.  I’m busting my butt now”—but he always came through and his second job at Bantam Books down by the Chicago River helped bail out those in need.  I don’t think my parents ever got the “loans” paid back and they never asked for repayment.  Mom had time for everyone.  All the down-on-their-luck men who lived in the flophouses along Skid row and haunted the bus stops in the Loop knew her by name.  They’d wave and call out, “Helen!” and for a moment a smile would come over their faces.  She knew all their stories; she loved to talk and always had a few bucks for every one of them.  It made her feel good to give.

I was drifting back to sleep when a thought alarmed me—we had no presents for Cookie!  I panicked.  What would we do?  It was too late to go shopping; the stores had closed hours before. 
Barb must have had the same thought, too, because she whispered, “Maybe we could give her some of our presents.”

“Barb, that’s a great idea.  Good thinking.  But what should we give her?  We don’t know what’s in the boxes.  They’re wrapped.”

I pondered this dilemma for a moment and then had a brainstorm.

“OK, listen, how about this?  We sneak in before Mom gets up and rip the tags off the presents and give them to Cookie.”  Barb agreed this sounded like a good plan.

“You know, Aunt Camille always gives us a nightgown or pajamas, and that little girl has no pajamas.  We’ve got a bunch.  Mine would be too big for her, so you get your box from Aunt Camille and rip off the tag.  Grandma Lillian always gives me a book, so I will give her mine.  But ya know, those aren’t very fun presents.”

Barb spoke softly, “What about a game?  We always get a game or two for Christmas.  There has to be a game under the Christmas tree.  Those Milton Bradley games are all the same shape.  We’ll be able to find it.  She doesn’t have any toys with her, so she’ll need a game.”

“Yes, that’s it.  Now, listen—if you wake up first, wake me up, and if I do, I will wake you up.  We are going to have to be really, really quiet.  Mom won’t hear us because she likes to sleep late, but Noreen and her little girl might wake up.  We don’t want them to see us—that would spoil the surprise.”

Barb and I were soon off to sleep.  We could rest easy now that we had Christmas presents for Cookie covered.  A few times I was roused and thought I heard coughing, but went right back to sleep.

Next morning we were up early.  We dressed in our matching quilted robes, but left our slippers off, and tiptoed down the hall to our living room.  Noreen was on one sofa, in one of Mom’s best nightgowns; while Cookie lay on the other sofa in exactly the same spot she had fallen asleep.  Someone had covered her with a hand-knit baby blanket.  Mom probably.  Barb, the artist, had cleverly brought her supplies—a little round-edged pair of scissors for cutting off the gift tags, and a colored pencil for printing Cookie’s name on the newly assigned boxes.  We worked quickly in silence.  We located the boxes and Barb cut off the gift tags and shoved them in the pocket of her robe.  I had the best printing, so I wrote the new greetings right on the paper.

“Merry Christmas, Cookie, from Santa.”

I didn’t believe in Santa, although I still made my annual trip to Madigan’s Department store to tell him what I wanted, but this is what Mom and Dad always wrote on our presents, so I thought I would do the same.  Cookie was pretty young and I bet she would not recognize my handwriting.

“Let’s go back to bed.  We’ll have to wait until they get up or we’ll blow it.”

Barb crawled in my twin bed while we waited for what seemed like forever for the rest of the household to get up.  Finally, the Babies, Donna and Jackie, started to make some racket in the back bedroom and I heard my mom moving around in the kitchen, making more coffee in the old aluminum percolator she used every day, and dialing someone on the telephone.  Nothing out of the ordinary there.  Mom was always on the phone.

“It’s safe.  Let’s get up.”

We ran into the living room, festooned with Mom’s decorations, tinseled tree—Daddy’s pride and joy—mantel covered with ceramic holiday figures rubbing elbows with the oriental knickknacks Mom collected then, and gas fake fireplace aglow.  It was a glorious scene.  The Babies were all over the presents and started tearing the gift wrap off anything they could reach.  Noreen and Cookie gazed from the sidelines, seeming a bit overwhelmed. 

Then Mom was on the scene, putting a halt to the mayhem.

“Hold on.  Your father is on his way.  He has a few hours off today and he wants to see you unwrap your gifts.”

"Awww, Mom.  He won’t be home for hours.  Can’t we open some, puh-leeze?"

Mom caved in—it was an unusual Christmas anyway.  “OK, but you have to save some of the big ones.  He’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t get to watch.”

This gave me my opportunity.  I poked Barb and we grabbed the presents we’d regifted for Cookie.  The little girl had slid off the couch where she slept and was snuggled close to her mother now.  We marched up to her and, unceremoniously, presented her with the boxes.

“Here, Cookie.  Santa left these for you.”

The little girl popped off the sofa, still wearing my slippers and reached for the gifts.

Noreen protested quietly to Mom, “Oh no, please, you’ve done enough for us.”  She bit her lip and looked as if she might cry.

Mom spoke up, “This is their idea; I didn’t know anything about it.”  But we could tell she was pleased with her girls.

While the Babies tried to derail the Lionel train set up under the tree—a gift from Gramps—we all snacked on Pillsbury cinnamon rolls straight from a tube.  Mom had managed not to burn them this time and the spirals, dripping with thick, sugary frosting, tasted pretty good with the Fannie Mae chocolate Santas from our stockings.  Barb and I set up what turned out to be a Captain Kangaroo game.  I read the instructions to Barb and Cookie, and we all played a few rounds.

Mom turned serious for a moment. 

“You girls get dressed.  Father Shaughnessy and Father Riordan are coming over.” 

We hurried to the bathroom to wash up and then to our bedroom to get dressed.  I wondered what this was all about.  Mom was pretty friendly with all the priests and nuns in our parish but they usually only came to the house on special occasions like Holy Communions, weddings, and to give Extreme Unction.  I thought they’d be busy saying Christmas Mass or something.  Wasn’t this one of their big days?

Now this was long before anyone thought of the War on Poverty and safety nets for women and children in need just did not exist.  Many destitute mothers and children fell through the cracks in those days.  Jobs were few and opportunities very limited for women.  Many would turn to their families—but what if there was no family?  We knew Mom was there for anyone who told her they needed help.  She loved St. Mel–Holy Ghost Church.  She grew up here and was married in this church.  She supported St. Mel’s and the church was there to back her up.  I realized the early phone call must have been to the priests who ministered to our parishioners.

The doorbell rang again and Mom went to welcome the two priests.  Father Shaughnessy greeted us and Father Riordan patted me on the head.  She offered them coffee and Pillsbury rolls, but they declined.  They were still on call to say Mass.   Father Shaughnessy, the young energetic, activist priest who headed all the youth programs in the neighborhood, hair prematurely thinning, looked dapper in his Roman collar and black suit.  He removed his fedora as he stepped in the door.  Father Riordan accompanied him.  Wire-rimmed glasses, dark hair graying at the temples; he was the more mature of the two.  Mom saw the older priest as a father figure; he’d married Mom and Dad and baptized me. Mom often turned to him for counsel.  She introduced them to Noreen and Cookie and then shooed us out of the living room. 

“OK, you two, get outta here, go play with your presents or something.  I need to talk with Father Shaughnessy and Father Riordan.”

We knew better than to argue.  This order from Mom signaled adult conversation and we’d better move it.

We overheard some of the conversation from the front bedroom.  Mom telling the priests about how she knew Noreen, how Noreen had been baptized Catholic, but not raised in the Church, something about a deadbeat husband and nowhere to go, and how she needed their help.  Noreen’s faith did not matter to the priests; they were here to offer aid.  I thought I heard someone crying very softly.  Then just as quickly, the priests were off, back to their holiday duties at the church, but not before they gave us all a blessing and wished us a “Happy, Holy Christmas.”  Father Shaughnessy said he’d be back a little later to pick up Noreen and Cookie.

Mom went to work; she requisitioned a small suitcase from the hall closet where all the large items, including a stove, were stored.  Rummaging through closets and drawers, she pulled blouses, sweaters, skirts, stockings, a hat and gloves for Noreen.  It was a challenge since Noreen was much taller than Mom and nearly gaunt, but Mom found some clothing that would work.  She dug through the cedar chest and located some pants, skirts, and blouses I had grown out of for Cookie.  She’d been planning to pack them up and send them to my cousin Kim; and Barb was so petite, it would be years before they would fit her.  And then Mom pulled a mouton lamb fur coat from the closet. 

Noreen protested, “No, no.  I can’t accept that, Helen.  Your fur coat.”

“Take it—it’s cold out there and I’ve been after Jack to buy me a mink.  Now he’ll have to.”  Mom laughed, but it would be many years before she got her mink. 

It seemed like he’d just left, but the buzzer rang, and Father Shaughnessy was buzzed up again.  His
big, black, donated Cadillac was parked at the curb downstairs in front of Solick’s Restaurant.  One of the perks for a lifetime of service, his Caddy was a shuttle bus for anyone who needed a ride.  He picked up the suitcase in one hand and carried Cookie in his other arm downstairs to the car. 
Noreen stopped for a moment on the landing and gave me and Barb a kiss on our cheeks.  Then Mom walked Noreen downstairs and we watched Mom as she hugged Noreen and waved goodbye as they drove off with Father Shaughnessy. 

The decorated lamp posts and the Solick’s restaurant sign were so glittery and festive.  The neon Christmas trees decorating the sign that blinked by turns in a row made it seem like an enchanted forest.  But that morning, the holiday trimmings seemed to highlight the fantasy world we lived in, and even to my child’s eyes, were a stark contrast to the harsh reality that had entered our safe house that Christmas Eve.

When Mom came back upstairs we badgered her with questions.

“Are they coming back?  Where did they go?  Where is Father Shaughnessy taking them?  Are they going to have dinner with us?”

Then Mom told us that Noreen and Cookie would not be coming back soon.  She said Noreen was very sick and had to go to the hospital.  “TB,” she whispered.  The disease was dreaded, especially among those of Irish descent.  Mom had many relatives who’d succumbed to tuberculosis and she was paranoid every time we caught cold, even though we insisted our Bohemian blood would save us.

“Noreen’ll be away for a long time.  Father Shaughnessy and Father Riordan found some nice people who have a lot of kids and they are going to take care of Cookie while her Mom is getting well.”

“But what about her dad?”

“Cookie’s dad was not nice to them.  He hurt them.”

We couldn’t imagine it—Daddy and Grandpa treated us like little princesses, and never got angry with us.

“Girls, be thankful for what you have.  Noreen had a very hard life.  She lived with one family after another who did not want her after her parents took off.  She got married young—don’t you ever do that—and the man was mean to her and her daughter.  Then she ran away from him, but she’s been sick.  She told me she was just walking the street last night in the snow, no money and no food, and then she saw our lights on and rang the bell.  Thank God she did.”

We nodded our heads in agreement, although we did not completely understand the gravity of Noreen’s situation.  Then Mom said, “I was so proud of you, giving Cookie your presents.  You are my stars!”  Praise from Mom was the best present of all. 

Later Daddy would come home and watch us open some gifts while he grabbed something to eat. He then went back to fight the inevitable holiday fires.  Gram and Gramps would come by and Gram would cook a feast for us all to eat together.  Gramps would slip us a “sawbuck” when he thought no one was looking.  Barb and I would play with our toys until we got sick of them. The Babies would get into all our gifts and rip up more wrapping paper, making a mess of the living room, and Mom would laugh.  A pageant of aunts and uncles, cousins and friends would stop by our apartment with gifts to wish us Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  But somehow I knew this holiday was even more special and that I was a very lucky girl.

Years later we moved from our beloved West Garfield neighborhood to a small bungalow on the Northwest Side.  I was in a Catholic girls’ high school now and had grown at least a foot.  Barb was a freshman at the same high school.  Donna and Jackie went to the local parochial school and Mom had gone back to work.  It was a nice Saturday in spring; the trees were budding and my allergies were kicking in.  The doorbell rang; I thought it might be the postman and ran to see if my new Beatles magazine had come in the mail. 

A young, nice-looking woman holding a baby boy stood on the stoop.  A girl stood next to her.  

“Are you Anita?  Oh my gosh—you’ve grown so much.  Is Helen—your mom—home?”

By then Mom was behind me.  “Noreen, is that you?  Oh you look great!  Is this your baby?  He’s beautiful.  Look how big he is!  How old is he?  Hi, sweetie.  Is this Cookie? You’ve grown up!  What grade are you in now?”

The young family was ushered into our tiny bungalow living room and provided with Mom’s favorite treats for guests—Coke, potato chips, and onion dip.  Mom and Noreen chatted. Noreen caught Mom up on her life after she left us that Christmas Day many years before.

She said she’d been very ill and was hospitalized for a long time.  Father Shaughnessy and Father Riordan arranged for her care at no charge.  She’d lost a lung.  While she was in the sanitarium, a very nice family cared for Cookie, and when Noreen came out, they helped her get on her feet.  It was this couple who introduced her to a cousin—a solid, considerate young man who became her second husband, the father of the new baby. 

“He’s an engineer.  We have a nice house now and he loves Cookie.  I am happy, Helen.  I bumped into someone from the West Side last week and they said you’d moved up here, so I thought I’d take a chance and see if you were home.  I don’t feel like I ever thanked you enough.  I don’t know what would have happened to me if you hadn’t taken me in that night.”

“I’m just happy to hear everything worked out for you and Cookie, Noreen.  I am glad to see you healthy again.  I’ve thought of you many times and prayed for you.”

“Helen, I will never forget you or your girls or what you did for me.  You changed my life.  Your apartment was like Bethlehem on Madison Street that Christmas Eve.”

Bio- Anita Solick Oswald is a Chicago native. She’s written a collection of essays, West Side Girl, that are written from the point of view of her younger self and chronicle the colorful, diverse and oftentimes unpredictably eccentric characters and events that populated Chicago’s West Side neighborhood during the 50s & 60s. Her writing has appeared in The Write Place at the Write Time, the Faircloth Literary Review, The Fat City Review, and Avalon Literary Review.

Anita grew up in the 3rd story apartment above her family’s Bohemian restaurant on Madison Street, daughter of a fireman and a housewife/frustrated writer, and comrade of a ragtag brigade of migrant children who trooped into and found both themselves and the world-at-large on their neighborhood’s streets. Her essays, set in Chicago, celebrate an era, a time of change, an urban childhood, ethnic neighborhoods, girls’ empowerment, and the benefits of growing up in a culturally diverse community.

Anita studied journalism at Marquette University, earned her B.A. in Economics from the University of California at Los Angeles and her M.S. in Management and Organization from the University of Colorado. She is a founding member of Boulder Writing Studio.

Anita lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her husband, Ralph, and her cats, Figaro and Clio.