Feathering the Nest
“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Mary with a baby carriage.” – jump rope rhyme
Everyone was getting married in 1948. The war was over, and the guys came home, met girls, proposed and walked down the aisle. Getting an apartment was tough, but Mary and Ted had an in. Mary’s parents owned a seventeen-unit blond brick building on Glenwood Avenue in the Andersonville neighborhood, and one of the units became available when a renter passed away. They even got a break on the rent, paying fifty dollars a month instead of the non-family rate of fifty-five dollars.
The second-floor apartment was on a tree-lined street of brownstones and other brick apartment buildings and overlooked a grassy little courtyard with pretty shrubs. When they moved in, Mary spent an entire day scrubbing the oven in the tiny kitchen. She thought the oven’s interior was black, but after lots of elbow grease she discovered it was blue with white speckles. The kitchen was just big enough to tuck a rolling cart in between the stove and the sink to serve as a breakfast table. A small refrigerator featured a freezer that could store a couple of ice cube trays and a pint or two of ice cream. Behind the fridge was an opening in the wall, a leftover from earlier days when an iceman would come down the alley and deliver ice to anyone who displayed a sign requesting a twenty-five, fifty, or even one hundred pound supply to keep their food cold.
The dining room was on one side of the little foyer, the living room on the other. Down a hallway with creaky floors was their bedroom and bath. In the living room a Murphy bed was hidden away in a large closet with a crank-out window. By July 1949, the Murphy bed was removed and my crib took its place. The following summer, my brother Tim’s crib was tucked in there too.
Mary and Ted headed to the Fred B. Smythe Furniture Store on Lincoln Avenue to purchase their frizze sofa and easy chair — one green, the other a deep red–, a tufted hassock, and leather inlaid step end tables and coffee table. They drove north to Haeger Pottery in Dundee to find a pair of chartreuse antelope head table lamps, and then Mary made draperies in a trendy chartreuse, black, and white print. Ted created a wooden cornice to finish off the contemporary look. Ted’s cousin Mary Wade worked for Bigelow Carpets in the Merchandise Mart, so they got a good deal on two wool rugs, a sculpted gray for the living room and a green one for the dining room.
( #1 — Dad and Tim are posing at the front door of the building. #2 — Tim and I on the big chair. Note the snazzy drapes and the Christmas tree in the play pen. #3 — Tim and I on the couch next to the end table and the antelope lamp.)
Their bedroom set, banged up but still in use today, was a wedding gift from Mary’s parents, the dining room set from Ted’s. Mary’s cedar hope chest sat in the bedroom, packed with pillowcases, sheets, and towels that her mother had been collecting for her since she was a teenager. As for laundry, Mary had her own washing machine, a new spin dry model that didn’t require the tedious wringing of soggy clothes. The washer stood in the basement of the building, accessible by heading outside, down the back stairs to the gangway, to the cement basement steps. After washing the clothes, Mary hung everything on the basement clothesline to dry.
Mary and Ted splurged on a Philco television set, with an eleven inch screen and a wood cabinet that was about twice as deep as its width. Since their friend Austin White worked for Philco, they were able to buy at a discount, but the TV still cost about three hundred dollars, a hefty sum for a couple who lived off Ted’s fifty-nine dollars a week salary. Mary and Ted justified the extravagance, knowing that with a new baby, their frequent evenings out at the movies were over. With a TV, they could be entertained at home, even though programming – mostly just boxing, wrestling, and Milton Berle — was limited. On one of the first nights of TV ownership, Mary set up the card table in the living room so they could eat dinner while watching a big boxing match that Ted was dying to see. Just as the fight was about to begin, the TV went black. What had happened? Was the TV broken? Had they wasted their money on a dud? Later they learned that viewers across the country faced the same blackout when someone in Cleveland cut a cable that ended reception for everyone. Over the years, the TV occasionally needed some tubes replaced, and the rabbit ears on top often needed tweaking, but it kept the family entertained until it conked out for good when I was a sixth grader.
Living at 5310 Glenwood was pleasant. They were only a block or two from Clark Street, a bustling street with a grocery store, a deli, the Swedish Bakery, clothing and shoe stores, a movie theater, and several taverns. Mary’s best friend Pat lived in one of the building’s basement apartments with her father, a loveable ne’-er-do-well, and when Pat married Bill Harvey in 1950, they kept the apartment. With Pat and Bill as neighbors, there was always someone to share a laugh or a beer.
When Ted’s father died in December of 1950, his mother moved into another apartment, and having a grandmother so close was a godsend. She especially liked taking Ellen to the grocery store on Clark Street so that the grocer could ooh and aah over her pretty little granddaughter. Grandma Dineen could be counted on to take the little ones to a nearby playground on laundry days, and an often-told story of hers describes the day when they were caught in a summer thunderstorm. Both children were screaming as she hustled them along the street, finally taking refuge in a vestibule of a building around the corner until the worst of the storm passed.
But there were some downsides, too. In a span of twenty-two months, the newlyweds had expanded into a family of four, and the two little ones were crammed into an oversized closet. Then, there was the laundry. Mary had to leave the babies in their beds while she hurried down to the basement to wash and hang to dry the endless piles of diapers. The final straw was Ted’s commute. He worked on the South Side at 63rd and Narragansett, and every morning he rode the el into the Loop, transferred to the Archer Avenue bus, then to the 63rd Street bus — a trip of about ninety minutes in good weather. In the evening, exhausted from a day’s work and a long commute, he sometimes fell asleep on the el, waking to find himself at the end of the line on Howard Avenue in Evanston.
Something had to give. Ted looked at some new Lutgert-built homes popping up in the St. Denis Parish not far from his job at B.T. Babbitt, but the down payment was a non-starter. Then, when Mary’s father died in 1951, Mary’s mother gave the couple $1500, part of the life insurance benefits she received, and she asked Ted’s mother to do the same. The $3000 provided the couple with the necessary down payment for a new home in another Lutgert development, Scottsdale, on the site of the Auburn Flying Field, a pilot training field and Chicago’s first airport, established after World War I.
In July, Mary and Ted packed up their belongings along with their two little kids and headed south.