Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sander Street Summers: Concrete Yard Stories

Sander Street Porch.  L-R:  Linda, Phyllis, Me, Donna

Summertime in the late 1940s and early ‘50s were spent outside, for the most part.   Television was still new, and programs were televised only in the evenings.   No computers of course.  Moms liked kids out of the house.  One way to accomplish that was to let you know, if you stayed inside, you would be given chores.  We’d practically bust the door down getting out of the house.

Even when it rained…especially when it rained, when the sidewalks could fry eggs, we stayed out, amusing ourselves from  morning to sundown.  I don’t remember what all we did, but I also don’t remember being bored.  We didn’t know what that was. 

Our backyard was half concrete and half grass.  The grassy part backed up to a building on Jefferson Avenue, the next street over, going up toward Vine Street…now called “Short Vine.” 

On either side of us were houses, so we were pretty much enclosed in the back yard.  A low steel fence separated our yard from the one on the left.  There was no yard on the right, just the side of the neighbor's tall house which extended along our side yard and a short row of concrete steps leading to a side door.  

The concrete side yard is where we had family parties, what you would call today “cookouts.”  Mom and Aunt Vera cooked the food inside.  We didn’t grill out.  The prepared picnic food would be spread on a long, narrow table borrowed from the school’s cafeteria.   Dad and Uncle Norb would have a big ice barrel for beer and pop. 

Leading up to street level was a wide concrete staircase, separated in the middle by an iron pipe handrail.  A big landing was halfway up the steps.  It was a perfect spot for us to put on live plays. Neighborhood kids including my siblings and cousins upstairs would act out the scenes which I wrote.  Another one of the older kids would be the director.  

Two Potato Salads

The concrete yard parties were mostly held to celebrate either a church related event, like a first communion or eighth grade graduation, sometimes a baby’s baptism.  We looked forward to these fun get-togethers.  

Everything centered around the food.  It was a chance to  get some of Aunt Vera’s German potato salad.  Mom made her American potato salad too, which was always one of the best of any of the neighborhood moms. 

I was a picky eater, but I filled up a plate with the two potato salads and maybe just a small piece of Mom’s cold friend chicken.  Other than cakes and pies and cookies, that’s all I ate. 

The potato salads were not anything alike.  Aunt Vera’s had a sweet-sour vinegar dressing and bacon. 

Mom’s was extremely creamy with mayonnaise and the only other ingredient was celery.  Because Dad detested onions, we were not allowed to use them in any cooking.  Aunt Vera pretty much told him where he could go and he didn’t have to eat her potato salad.  Everybody thought that was funny because after a few beers, Dad would be eating and raving about that German potato salad with onions.

If Mom had put onions in anything she cooked, we’d all hear about it.  The whole neighborhood would hear about it.  I grew up learning to cook from an early age and never used an onion all those years.  Dad said he was “allergic” to onions, but we’d see him eat them not only in Aunt Vera’s potato salad but White Castle hamburgers and even, when he was really partying, a five-way chili. 

When he came to visit me after I got married, I had to be careful to not have any onion odor in the house.  He’d walk in my house and say, “I smell onions.”  Mom and I would just look at each other and roll our eyes.

The yard parties would last usually an entire day, until the sun stated going down, and after we cousins were getting tired from playing so hard all day.  Me,  Phyllis, Terry, Linda, Marylou, Tommy, and Ruthie were the oldest of the cousins and were allowed to roam around the neighborhood.  I’d take them down the street to my friends’ houses and we’d play tag, hide and seek, and sometimes just running up and down the street enjoying  abandon wildness.  Everybody got along just fine.  Including the adults, the aunts and uncles. 

The Cutting

On the left side of the backyard, where the yards were separated  by the fence, a little girl named Linda lived.  Her mother’s name was Celeste.  My cousin who lived upstairs from us was also Linda, Aunt Vera and Uncle Norb's daughter. 

The reason I remember Celeste is because she was one of the few women who could go up against my Aunt Vera.  They had similar personalities that said, "You don’t push me around."

The other Linda next door was very, very spoiled.  She had long blond hair and clothes a lot nicer than me or my sisters and cousins. 

My job was to watch the little kids when we were out in the yard.  Terry was almost as old as me, but I was definitely in charge, according to Aunt Vera.  Besides Terry, there was Linda, about the same age as my sister Phyllis, and my cousin Cathy, who was about the same age as my sister Donna.  My sister Nancy was a new baby.  My brother Ray wasn’t born yet, nor Aunt’s Vera’s boy Kenny.

This particular day, watching the kids play outside in the yard, I noticed my cousin Linda talking over the fence with the other Linda.  Then an argument broke out, but I just watched.  Then  the other Linda went into her house, and our Linda began playing with the other kids. 

A few minutes later, I saw the other Linda come back out and climb over the fence.  She seemed to be mixing with the other kids, so I didn’t think there was a problem.  I was swinging Donna around in circles, making her laugh. 

Then our Linda ran over to the fence, and the other Linda ran after her, got up behind her and did something with her hand on Linda’s back.  My cousin Linda, was wearing one of those little sundresses with the elastic at the time and a strap that tied at the back of the neck.  Her whole back, in other words, was pretty much exposed. 

I didn’t think anything was wrong until the other Linda moved away, and I saw a red line running from one shoulder town toward the other side of her back, stopping at the top of her dress.  I remember being confused about the red line, but only for a few seconds.  The red line began getting wider and fresh blood began running down Linda’s back.  I ran to the fence, where the other Linda was climbing back across the fence  to her own yard.  I screamed.  I remember screaming.  I didn’t know what to do but just scream for help.  I must have screamed loud enough, or Terry ran upstairs to get his mom, because Aunt Vera was suddenly there. 

Of course, her shocked eyes rested on me only for a second, but I understood I was in trouble for allowing something to happen to one of the children.  I said nothing, but when I looked down at the wood crosswise rail of the fence, there lay a razor blade.  The same kind my dad used in his razor when he shaved. 

Then my cousin Linda began to wail, the other kids began to cry too, and Aunt Vera yelled so loud, “What happened,”  that Celeste opened her door and came out.  My mother had heard the commotion and ran back inside for a towel, which Aunt Vera took and began applying pressure to Linda's sliced-open back.  

I showed Aunt Vera the blade and told her quickly what had happened.  She looked over at Celeste and began chewing her out for having such a sicko kid.  Celeste spat back that her little girl wouldn’t have done anything like that unless she was hurt first.  I had to relay to Celeste, on Aunt Vera’s orders, what I’d witnessed.  Aunt Vera picked up the razor blade and showed it to Celeste, who looked shocked.  She could not see our Linda’s back, but Aunt Vera spun her daughter around and showed her as she held the blade up.  Celeste turned and went back into her house and closed the door.

Linda had to have stitches, but I don’t remember how many.  That cut was the meanest looking thing any of us had ever seen.  I still remember that incident and how unbelievable it was, like seeing it in a nightmare, which I did more than once, waking in middle of the night and being glad it hadn’t happened again for real.

Cousin Linda Dean

Needless to say, Aunt Vera, and really none of the other neighborhood women, were friends with Celeste after that, and none of the other kids would play with her Linda.  They were too afraid.  They didn’t need to be told not to get around her.    

The other Linda was a little smaller than my cousin, so she was maybe five or six.  She was scary.

I believe that's the goriest thing I've ever watched, that cutting.  One of those memories you don't forget.

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