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“I hope the days come easy and the moments pass slow,

And each road leads you where you want to go.” —- Unknown

On our first full day in London, we could have jumped right in and started checking off the biggies…. Buckingham Place, the Changing of the Guard, Westminster, Big Ben, the Tower of London. Instead, we took a more low-key  route and didn’t see even one tour bus.

We headed for Kensington Gardens and walked through lovely streets lined with stately homes, the kind that might have employed a Mary Poppins or housed those Disney Dalmatians. At the south end of Kensington Palace, we came upon the golden gates laden with memorials where today a small group of mourners sat, paying homage to their beautiful Princess Diana, who died nineteen years ago today.  We toured the Kensington Palace, but saw no sign of the young Royals who live there. This palace seems rather modest, as palaces go, but an exhibit of gowns worn by the Queen, Princess Margaret, and the beautiful Diana was a delight, and we got a peek at the life of Victoria and Albert as well.

Most  of our day was spent outside, however, just meandering through the vast gardens and Hyde Park. “Vast”? For over two hours, we walked to the admire the carousel, then past Round Pond, down the South Flower Walk that led to the Albert Memorial, and across West Carriage Drive to see the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain. More of a circular stream, today the fountain was bustling with kids.  Families lolled on the lawn, and parents kept an eye on their children splashing, shrieking, soaking themselves in the cool water. Wouldn’t Diana be smiling?

We stopped for lunch at a cafe next to the Serpentine Lake, where paddle boats shared the water with swans and ducks. After lunch, we found the Peter Pan statue and the Italian Garden,  then took a woodsy path to a bird sanctuary where we spotted no birds. Now on the other side of the lake, we passed beach chairs, rented by the hour, where Londoners sunbathed or simply frittered away an afternoon, and then we savored the rose garden.

The paths today weren’t too busy, but we encountered plenty of locals enjoying the sunshine, riding bikes, pushing strollers, sketching at the Italian Garden, hanging out under a shade tree, or simply walking, just like us. Our favorites were two little girls, Alex and Sophia, about three years old, who whizzed past us on mini-scooters. We asked their mums where we could find the Peter Pan statue and had a chance to chat with these two little cousins… “cheeky”, one mum said. Adorable, we thought.

We’re sure to love those biggies on another day, but today was perfect. And, we have the luxury of many more London days.




Landing in London

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“Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.” — Dali Lama

Our London apartment’s official check-in was eleven o’clock, so Mike emailed last week. Peter, the rental agent promptly  replied, “Yes, of course you can check in early!” Then, he explained how we could “collect” the keys at a massage parlor just down the street. It would open at ten am, just about the time our limo would be dropping us off on Old Brompton Road. Perfect!

Well, at least it wasn’t raining.

The driver delivered us to the door of our building right around ten, and Mike left  me with our three suitcases and carry-on paraphanalia while he headed down to the massage parlor. I stood on the sidewalk, nearly swooning from exhaustion. Sleeping on a plane is impossible for me, and I was ready to plop down on our couch for a brief sinking spell before heading out to explore.

In a few minutes, Mike returned. “We’ve hit a bump in the road,” he announced. That massage parlor that was opening at ten? Today’s opening would be at noon.

And, we and no phone number for Peter.

We could hardly sightsee with all our luggage in tow and blocking the aisles of a little coffee shop with all our stuff didn’t seem like a good idea, either. Yeah, I know… Why did we bring so much? Couldn’t we have packed lighter? I suppose, but one of the  suitcases is just a small one, mostly packed with shoes, with enough space to fill it with any purchases we might make. Besides, London weather can be iffy. We needed options.

So, how to kill two hours? We crossed the street and sat on the wall surrounding an old cemetery. Here’s Mike perched there, taking in the view of the traffic and the pedestrians passing us by. Weird looks? Yes, we got plenty, especially from Londoners who passed us while out on an errand, then passed us again on their way back. A street sweeper pushed his broom around us, eying us quizzically. We wondered if the young mom warned her toddlers not to make eye contact as the bustled by.

I wish I could say that the two hours flew by. They didn’t. But, eventually the massage parlor opened and Mike got the keys. We hiked up the 57 steps to our top floor flat, Mike chivalrously making three trips to carry the suitcases. And here we are.

Did we collapse on the bed and conk out? Hell, no! Off we went to have our first pub lunch, then tallied over 11,000 steps on the Fitbit, getting our first look at London. My goal is to stay awake until seven pm, and tomorrow, rested and ready, we’re out the door. London is waiting! Stay tuned!


The Five of Us

“One thing they never tell you about child raising is that for the rest of your life, at the drop of a hat, you are expected to know your child’s name and how old he or she is.” — Erma Bombeck

Dineen five kids

“Mom, let’s do a story about some funny things that happened when you were raising us five kids,” I suggested.

“There’s nothing funny about raising five kids,” she quipped, but her chuckle told me that she didn’t mean it. Of course, we must have been a laugh a minute, right? Mom thought a bit, and the memories tumbled out.

She started with me. When I was a little kid, phones were tethered to the wall by cords, and those twirly ones that extended hadn’t been invented yet. When Mom took a phone call in the dining room, she was forced to stay put. Seizing my opportunity, I’d hightail it to the kitchen, where she couldn’t reach me. There, I opened the fridge and feasted on all the raw bacon I could jam into my mouth. The thought of eating slimy raw bacon has long since lost its appeal, but I guess my palate was less refined when I was a toddler.

Even as a two-year-old, my instincts for teaching language arts were blossoming. As my one-year-old brother Tim sat in his playpen, I leaned over him, finger wagging in his direction, saying over and over, “Say shit, Timmy! Say shit!” My mother claims that she and my father didn’t use such coarse language, but boys playing baseball in the alley employed the term loud and clear. It must have struck me as a word that Tim ought to know, so I was happy to guide him in expanding his vocabulary. My lessons paid off. Tim can say shit.

Tim, next in line, rarely had much to say, but he did like seeing his name in print. He carved it into my parents’ maple dining room table, and most books in our house were emblazoned with his moniker along with his oh-so-clever embellishments; for example, Nancy Drew with a mustache. Even though Tim generally kept a low profile as a little kid, one day in first grade he was told to stay after school by Sister Somebody. While Sister marched the other kids out for dismissal, Tim and some partner in crime were told to remain in the classroom. But Sister never came back; perhaps she’d forgotten her two delinquents awaiting their sentencing. Tim got tired of sticking around, so he climbed out the window of the one-story building and dashed home. Somehow, my mother found out, but today she doesn’t recall the punishment for the escape. Probably there was none.

Then, Mary Pat. Certainly she never got in any trouble. My mother wracked her brain for a Mary Pat misadventure, then recalled a time when my little sister got lost coming home from kindergarten. Back then, we kids did not get escorted to and from school by our mommies. If we were old enough to go to school, we were old enough to get ourselves there and back with no help. One day, though, when school let out, Stevenson Elementary and its playground, the big lot that surrounded it, and the cinder path that students walked on was shrouded in fog. Mary Pat was supposed to walk home with the more grown-up Cynthia from across the street, a first grader. But in the fog, Cynthia and Mary Pat never found each other. Mary Pat couldn’t find her way to the sidewalk, so she huddled behind a fence along the backyard of a house on Kilbourne, edging the school’s lot. A mom inside saw the little waif weeping and brought her in. Mary Pat, one smart cookie, knew her phone number, so her rescuer called my mother. Mom sent me to fetch her, since my mother had to stay home with the two little kids of the family.

By fourth grade, and in the accelerated class, Mary Pat had become a perfectionist when it came to her school work. Every night she sat at the kitchen table crying over her homework, heaped on her by Sister So-and-so. In the morning, Mary Pat was often so distraught about the possibility that something might not be perfect in her pages of long division or diagrammed sentences that she threw up. Mom would jolly her along, reassuring her that everything would be fine. Then I, an eighth grader, had to escort her to St. Bede’s as she trudged along at a snail’s pace. Many mornings we were a block away when the first bell rang and I had to beg her to run to make it in time.

Next in line is Michael, a Cubs fan who taught himself to read the daily stats in the Trib each morning. One year he received a tool kit as a Christmas gift, so he put his carpentry skills to work and nearly sawed off the leg of his bed. Family lore also has him head-butting the washing machine, getting a running start in the living room and charging at it like a bull. Ole! Egged on by Tim? Maybe. And has my sister Laura ever forgiven him for punching in the face of her doll Katie, a big-as-life cloth cutie with a plastic molded face. Michael’s left hook bashed in Katie’s cheery expression which burst open and spewed stuffing.

Michael took up golf at a young age, riding the CTA to the Marquette Park golf course in the early hours of the morning. On golf days we could count on a hole-by-hole replay of the entire round to entertain us at the dinner table. “So on the first hole, I landed in the middle of the fairway. Then I hit near the green, but not on it. Then I got on the green with a seven iron…” You get the picture.

Last but certainly not least, our little sister Laura. Once my mother took four of us to a Sunday afternoon movie, leaving two-year-old Laura home with my dad. When we arrived home, a pantsless Laura greeted us at the door with a plastic potty seat strapped to her butt. Seems that when she woke from her nap, my dad strapped her onto the potty seat, a contraption that hooked to the toilet. Giving her a bit of bathroom privacy, Dad returned to his La-Z-Boy and dozed off. How long had Laura waited to be freed before she managed to get herself off the toilet? How long had she wandered around the house with the weird apparatus hanging off her backside? We can only speculate.

Laura was the Dineen kid who shrewdly convinced our parents to do something they swore they’d never do – get a dog. In the Spring of ’70, a few months before I got married, our neighbor Buddy found a cute little abandoned puppy at Stevenson School and brought it home. He begged his parents to let him keep the dog in their garage, but his folks weren’t having any of it. So, Laura brought the fluffy black bundle to our house. “Can’t I just keep her overnight in the garage?” evolved into “Can’t she just stay in the garage until we found the owner?” to “Can’t she just sleep in the basement?” Pretty soon Muffy was settling in, inching her way from the basement, to the landing by the back door, to the kitchen, to the living room, to the run of the house. When Laura moved out, Muffy slept on the floor next to my mother’s side of the bed, and each morning Mom maneuvered her feet so she wouldn’t step of the little creature. My dad was Muffy’s biggest advocate, sneaking her baloney and other treats when no one was looking, spoiling her until the day she died.

What fun Mom and I had as we  reminisced and retold these old Dineen tales. But, I was struck by how unremarkable our stories are, how unremarkable WE are. We’re just one family– five kids, a mom and a dad– who lived our unremarkable lives under one roof on the Southwest Side of Chicago and, to borrow a phrase from the cotton commercials, created “the fabric of our lives.” I don’t expect any non-Dineen to be amused by the retelling of our stories, but I’m betting that there might be some who say, “That reminds me of a time when…”



London Calling

“Go chase your dreams. You won’t regret it. Anything can happen if you let it.” – Mary Poppins

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I’ve been to London hundreds of times. Well, at least in my mind’s eye.

The first time I saw London was when I crouched in the corner of the Darling children’s nursery, watching Wendy repair Peter Pan’s shadow.

Later, I trailed the Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist through their squalid hideout on Jacob’s Island, and saw Fagin teach Oliver to pick pockets.

Then, I encountered Eliza Doolittle, caterwauling in the bustling Covent Garden flower markets.

Jane Austen showed me Regency London, and I strolled down the lovely Grosvenor Street with Jane Bennet, hoping to catch a glimpse of the eligible Mr. Bingsley.

I shared high tea with the prim Miss Jane Marple, when she put her perceptive powers to work in order to catch the murderer At Bertram’s Hotel.

Through the sordid streets of Soho, I shivered at the transformation of the affable Dr. Jekyll into dastardly Mr. Hyde, lurking there.

Sophie of Roald Dahl’s The BFG snuck me into the Queen’s bedroom in Buckingham Palace where she created a nightmare for the Queen herself – all done in order to save the friendly giants of the world.

With authors Alison Weir and Phillipa Gregory, I traveled back to 1536, as Anne Boleyn was brought to the Tower of London, then beheaded for her crime of treason against her husband Henry VIII.

Several years ago, I met Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs just after World War I, wearing her cloche and carrying her leather document case up the wooden escalator at the Warren Street tube station, ready to solve a crime by employing her knowledge of psychology and human nature. With each mystery that Maisie unraveled, she took me to various London neighborhoods – Pimlico, Belgravia, Chelsea.

Rachel Watson, The Girl on the Train, sat next to me on her ride into the city of London each day, and I learned of her envy for that perfect couple, Scott and Megan, whose lives she observed each day as the train whizzed past their apartment.

Just recently, I huddled with a young woman named Mary, from Chris Cleave’s Everybody Brave is Forgiven, in the basement of a jazz club, hoping that the bombs of the Blitz would not strike her or her companions. A few weeks ago, Jojo Moyes introduced me to Lottie in Windfallen, a young evacuee who was sent to live with a family in England’s countryside during the War.

On all of my literary trips to London, I’ve loved its regal splendor, and I’ve been charmed by its history, its majestic castles and cathedrals, its stately neighborhoods, lively pubs, vibrant markets, and the lovely Londoners themselves. Soon, I won’t have to rely on my imagination to see this magnificent city. We’ll be visiting there for three weeks and soaking it all in, from Notting Hill to Knightsbridge, Mayfair to Marylebone, Regent’s Park to St. James.

I’ll savor it all, every step of the way. I’m going to remember to look skyward, too. Who knows? Maybe I’ll catch a glimpse of Mary Poppins hanging on to her brolly and her carpetbag, flying to the home of Jane and Michael Banks. Spit-spot!

Mom’s IITRI Years

“Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” — Unknown

This week, I brought my mother to a restaurant near her so that she could join some of her former work pals for lunch. My mother retired from Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute (IITRI) in 1990 after a twenty-year career there, but once a year the group still gets together. Their numbers have dwindled a bit, but the little party spent a lively two hours sharing new and old stories. Along with my mother were Marilyn, another secretary like my mother: Otto, now 92, a metallurgy engineer; Cris, another metallurgist; Mary, a former teacher who was the ex-wife of my mother’s now-deceased boss Maurice (yes, complicated); Bill, a retired technician; and another guy whose name I didn’t catch, still working for IITRI. Cris traveled from Winnetka, drove to Hyde Park to pick up Otto, then drove to Crestwood just for the occasion. A cursory glance at a map of Chicago shows that a trek like this is hours long. Yet, it was Cris who arranged the date, and happily drove the distance to see his old friends.

After staying home to raise her kids, Mom went back to work in 1967. By then I was in college, and my mother had time on her hands along with the costly task of educating the five of us. She began working for a temp agency with the Mad-Man-esque name of Right Girl, as in “Send me the right girl for the job!” Right Girl sent my mother to lots of offices and she made a strong impression in every one of them with her typing and organizational skills and task-oriented work ethic.

Frequently, she was sent to IITRI, to various offices on campus. Sometimes she worked for chemists in the tower building, and at other times she was sent to the separate building that housed the metallurgy department. Before long, the IITRI metallurgists wanted Mom as a permanent employee, not just a temp.

In January of 1970, she took a permanent position, under the stipulation that she would not work from June to September. She didn’t like the idea of her kids at home for the summer fending for themselves. IITRI agreed, and bought out her Right Girl contract. Then, in ‘75, Mary agreed to work year-round.

Mary worked as a secretary for Maurice, an engineer in metallurgy research, and when Maurice became the director, Mary supervised seven other secretaries in the department. Mary typed proposals for research funding, often for various government departments, including Defense. One of the big projects that Mary remembers was a coal gasification project. Its purpose was to create a system for extracting gases from coal mined in Illinois, a type of coal that is heavy with gaseous pollutants. The IITRI engineers eventually designed a machine that successfully extracted the gases, after millions of dollars had been spent toward this solution. Then, the government cancelled the project, never seeing it to its completion– a terrible example, according to my mother, of government’s wasteful spending practices.

Of course, there were always other projects going on. As my mother typed letters, proposals, and reports, she often didn’t understand much of the content of her work, loaded with scientific jargon. However, she recognized the correct context for phrases and words, and when the usage was incorrect, she made sure to address it. Spelling was always my mother’s strong suit, even before the autocorrect was there to help her with words like “metallurgical”.

Accuracy was of paramount importance, especially on proposals, and when an error was made, the secretary would often have to start over. Sometimes, though, a secretary would “Cut and Paste”. One of mom’s colleagues was an expert at this process. With surgical precision, she meticulously cut out the offending word from a document, using a sharp knife, and the pasted in the replacement typed on a teensy piece of paper. She was so skillful that the naked eye was unable to find the incision. Today, “cut and paste” is featured on every word processing software, but no knives or glue are required for the process.

When my mother began working at IITRI, she used an electric typewriter. If there were twenty letters to type, each letter was done separately. Then, Eureka! The word processor was invented, and the lives of secretaries changed forever. IITRI sent my mother and the other secretaries to classes to learn all that the word processor could do. No longer did each letter have to be typed separately. The word processor could simply change the name of the addressee. She was able to insert passages that had been saved into the processor’s memory. Imagine that! And no one needed to start over when an error was made. The task of “cut and paste” was changed overnight.

What did my mother love about her job? The people. In her department, she worked with people from a variety of cultures – Indian, Chinese, Russian, Korean, British, Filipino, and of course, Americans. She also loved a group she called the Lunch Bunch. Each day, she’d head to the main building to join a group of women from various departments at their round lunch table. The table was meant to seat eight, but chairs were squeezed in to accommodate the overflow crowd. Many of these women are still lunching together today; in fact, next week I’m taking my other to another lunch spot so she can catch up with a few of them.


I’m including a picture of the Lunch Bunch, seated at my mother’s dining room table soon after she moved into her condo in 1989.

Work was a pleasure for my mother. Her days were filled with interesting challenges and meaningful accomplishments, along with the camaraderie and friendships that have survived for decades. Isn’t this what makes all of our professional lives fulfilling?




European Vacation: 1937

Clark peers down at a village in the hills and tears come into his eyes.

Clark Griswold: There it is, kids, the motherland.

Rusty Griswold: Grandma’s from Chicago.

Clark: Shut up, Russ.  (From the movie European Vacation)

When my grandparents emigrated from the German region of Romania in 1923, my grandfather told my grandmother that the move was “only temporary.” Well, it was not. Chicago became their home, and as soon as they could they became American citizens. But in 1937, my grandmother had the chance to return to her homeland to see the family she left behind.

That summer, my grandmother, my mother Mary, age 12, and my uncle Jack, age 7, took the trip of a lifetime. My grandfather stayed home to run his store, and my aunt Liz, a recent high school grad, was also left behind. After all, someone had to cook and clean and do my grandfather’s laundry. In June, the adventure began. First, they took a train from Chicago to New York. Then they boarded the German ocean liner, the Europa, the beautiful, modern sister ship of the Bremen, complete with a nice dining room and some shuffleboard courts to keep Mary and Jack entertained. Their cabin slept four, so the fourth bunk was occupied by a woman they’d never met who was traveling alone.

Mom, Jack, Grandma 37 Here’s my mother Mary, my uncle Jack, and my Grandmother boarding the train in Chicago.

Aboard Bremen 1937 Aboard Bremen '37

Aboard ship… Jack is standing in front wearing a crown. My mother and grandmother are behind him. In the adults only party  photo on the right, my grandmother is seated in the first chair on the left.

After a five or six day voyage, the ship docked in Bremen, and the family’s journey continued by train to Budapest. There, they stayed overnight in a sparsely furnished room overlooking a courtyard. The next day, another train took them to Arad, Romania, where a family member met them with a horse and wagon for the journey to Neu Banat, the little village that my grandmother called home.

For Mary and Jack, Neu Banat was a step back in time. Back home in Chicago, a city of skyscrapers and streetcars, electricity and running hot water were not considered luxuries. Not so at Grandma and Grandpa Heinrich’s home. Like everyone in the village, they lived in a thatched roof, stuccoed home that featured a large great room, furnished with tall feather beds and a table and chairs, and a kitchen with an immense hearth and a wood-burning stove. The formal living room was off limits, too fancy for every day. Water? That came from a pump outside. Bathroom facilities? An outhouse. Laundry? A horse trough right outside the kitchen door. Kerosene lamps kept the darkness away. Attached to the house was a stable for the horses and cows. Pigs and rabbits resided in pens, and chickens had the run of the yard. Flower pots decorated the half-wall that surrounded the house.

The villagers farmed the land surrounding the town. Each family owned their own acreage, but their plots of land weren’t contiguous. As farms were divvied up among descendants, one might own a chunk of land over here, another over there, like random patches on a quilt. When a farmer went out in the fields for the day, he would travel from plot to plot to tend to his crops – corn, wheat, soybeans.

Once a week, Grandma Heinrich baked. First she heated up the clay hearth by burning corn stalks in it. Then she prepared seven enormous loaves of bread and pushed them in the oven with a flat wooden shovel, then closed the hinged door. When Mary and Jack were visiting, she made them each a small loaf of their own – hard crust on the outside, soft and steaming hot on the inside.

The three Wolfs from the States were quite the celebrities that summer. Every relative insisted that they come for dinner, and since my grandfather was one of twelve children and my grandmother one of six, that meant a circuit of celebratory chicken dinners. They travelled to the city of Timisoara, where the big shot of the family, Uncle Joe Wolf, lived with his wife whom they called “Titzy Tante” and his two kids, Hansel and Gretel – yes, those really were their names. Somehow Joe became educated and was a banker, quite a step up from his siblings who worked the farmland. Lena, Mary, and Jack spent a week with Joe and Titzy Tante. These rich relations not only had electricity and running water in their fancy house, they also had a maid named Kathy to take care of it all.

Mary and Jack both understood German, but didn’t speak it, but by the end of the summer, they were fluent. They hung around with the local kids, who congregated every night on the felled tree trunks next to the gate. There was typical horsing around, but Mary was taken aback to see young couples, some only twelve or thirteen, necking, away from the watchful eyes of their parents.

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Neu Banat '37

My mother in traditional dress; my mother with the some Neu Banat family; my uncle Jack in Uncle Frank’s uniform; Grandma, my mother, and Jack with some relatives.

While the necking seemed “fast” to Mary, the long, full black skirts, dark stockings, and aprons that the women wore seemed to be from another century. Both the women and girls typically pulled their hair back in buns, and married women wore starched white caps. Mary, in her breezy cotton skirts, white anklets, and strappy shoes, must have caused quite a stir.

My uncle Jack created a bit of mischief of his own. My grandmother, prepared for any emergency, had packed X-Lax for the journey. Jack convinced the local kids it was American chocolate and doled it out. Still, Jack was pretty cute, and no doubt was doted over by his aunts and uncles. Frank, my grandmother’s brother, dressed him in his army uniform and let him pose for a photo on horseback.

The visit lasted all through the summer, and Lena, Mary, and Jack immersed themselves into village life. They attended Mass in the little village church, and joined in the fun at local dances, where neighbors polkaed to traditional tunes played on accordions and concertinas. The children played with the family’s rabbits, and refused to eat them when one was served for dinner.

During the visit, the family made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Maria Radna, a basilica high above the shores of the Maros River outside of Timisoara, dating back to 1325. Mary and Jack were awestruck by its magnificence as well as by the crowds of worshippers, especially the ill and the disabled who crawled up the church’s steps to seek healing. My grandmother bought Mary a souvenir of their visit, a porcelain coffee mug, white with red polka dots. The mug rests in my mother’s kitchen cabinet today.

When September came, it was time to head back across the ocean to Chicago. But, their return ship was quarantined in New York harbor, and alternate plans were made. They returned on a smaller ship, one not equipped for the crowd of passengers it transported. The ship took a stormy North Atlantic route, and my grandmother spent several days in their cabin, suffering from seasickness. Mary and Jack ventured into the dining room for breakfast, but by the time they were served, the food was cold and their stomachs were churning from the roiling of the ship.

School had already started when they got home, so Mary and Jack quickly shrugged off their European adventures to resume life in Chicago, hopping on the street car to head for St. Matthias School, flipping on the radio to listen to Jack Armstrong: All-American Boy. Mary was soon yakking on the phone to her pal Peggy, maybe planning to see the new Marx Brothers movie, “A Day at the Races.”

I wonder about my grandmother Lena, though. I know she must have missed her husband Jacob and her oldest child Elizabeth during the several months she was away. But how she must have savored her time with her mother, her stepfather, her sisters and brothers, her cousins and all her friends back home. Did she regret coming to Chicago in the first place? Or was she grateful to have left the hard-scrabble world behind, and to live in a beautiful city home, to have hot water at the turn of a knob, lights at the flick of a switch? When I asked my mother about this, she shook her head. “I never heard her express any regret at leaving her home. She was proud to be an American.” That’s the Grandma I remember, too.




Oh, Those Rowdies!

“Hail, hail, the gang’s all here.

Leave your worries at the door, boy

They’re not going anywhere.

Hail, hail, the gangs all here.

When the going gets tough, I know my friends will still be there.” …Lyrics to The Gang’s All Here

When I was around eleven years old, my parents mentioned that Salmons, Egans, Whites, and Harveys were coming over on Saturday night. I knew them well. Any time these couples got together, tidal waves of raucous laughter punctuated the atmosphere. Under a blue haze of cigarette smoke and lubricated with martinis, manhattans, and old-fashioneds, the friends shrieked, guffawed, giggled, and har-d-harred while we kids, trying to sleep, couldn’t tune out the racket emanating from the living room until the wee hours.

“Oh, it’s your rowdy friends,” I commented.

My parents liked my choice of adjectives, and later on that evening, shared it with the group. The name stuck. It was no longer “that group of friends”; it was the Rowdies.

Rowdy 3     Rowdy 1   Rowdy 2

Rowdy 6 Rowdy 4 Rowdy 5 Rowdy 7

The guys — my dad Ted, his pals Austin, Pinky, and Jim — all went to high school together and when World War II began, they joined the Navy. They began their military careers at Glenview Air Station, just north of Chicago. Then, they went their separate ways – my dad to Scotland, Jim to officer training at Notre Dame in Indiana, Austin to the Pacific, Pinky to New York.

A whirlwind of weddings followed the war – ’46. ’47, ’48. ’49. Jim married his South Bend sweetheart Mary, and all the rest married Chicago girls. Babies began to arrive and beers at the bowling alley soon became highballs in each other’s homes. My mother’s friend Pat and her husband Bill were adopted into the group. For years, the couples – Pinky and Sarah, Austin and Anne, Jim and Mary, Pat and Bill and my parents Ted and Mary — took turns hosting parties.

No matter where the party took place, it was quite a big deal. Everyone dressed up in their Sunday best. The guys wore suits and ties; the women dolled up in high heels, cherry red lipstick, and stylish dresses, like Mom’s black shantung sheath with its lacy insert to hide her décolletage. When it was her turn to host, Mom set the table with her best dishes and prepared some culinary specialty like chicken divan or a pork roast. She’d mix Lipton’s French Onion Soup Mix with sour cream and serve it with ridged potato chips in her fancy myrtlewood chip dip set. Those chips, the bridge mix, and the fancy mixed nuts were verboten to us kids, along with the maraschino cherries and the jumbo olives set out to garnish the drinks. On the Sunday morning after the party, we scrounged around in the kitchen in hopes that there might be some delicacies left over.

My mother recalls that an aching jaw was a consequence of partying with the gang, the result of nonstop laughing. Stories were told, retold, and told again. One of their favorites was a Glenview story. So it goes… the guys were assigned a truck and were sent to pick up an airplane wing and some office furniture. They loaded the truck, then drove it under an overpass. The wing, standing upright, hit the overpass, and it and all of the office furniture ended up on the sidewalk. As the guys worked to reload the truck, someone stopped and called out, “Can we help you?” Our sailors shouted back, “Buy war bonds!” No story was ever funnier, at least not to them. Just who was in the truck – surely not all of them were – was inconsequential to the tale. The two Marys, Anne, Sarah, and Pat all knew to laugh in the appropriate places, and Bill, who had the misfortune to be the only “outside” male, politely feigned amusement. It took a little while, but before long Bill was a contributor to the story-telling and wackiness.

On Labor Days, the whole gang descended upon my grandmother’s lake house. The gals lounged on the lawn, the guys yukked it up. Babies grew into toddlers who grew into kids old enough to swim in the lake without a dad or mom at their sides. Austin, a worrywart, once fretted when my brother went off in a row boat, and looked to my grandmother for affirmation on his concerns. “Yes,” she agreed. “The boys shouldn’t be out in the row boat. What if they fell in? Their clothes would be all wet.” Poor Austin was mocked for his mother hen-ness.

That wasn’t the first time that Austin was on the receiving end of playful derision. As young couples, they collected dues at their house parties, saving up for a night on the town. Austin had a better idea. He suggested that their dues be given to the Purgatorial Society at his Catholic church, to pay for Masses for the poor souls hovering around outside the gates of heaven. As if! The group screamed with laughter at this wild suggestion. No dues ever paid for anyone’s walk through the pearly gates, and a fine dinner at a nice restaurant was enjoyed by all.

Every get-together had its own hilarious antics to add to their repertoire. Once, when the Egans were hosting, Jim hung a pair of his boxers on the mailbox for his guests to see when they arrived. At another Egan party, Pinky backed out of the driveway at around one am, smashed into the mailbox across the street, but kept going. The neighbors, no doubt awakened by the ruckus of departing guests across the street, saw their mailbox demolished and called the police. At around two am the police were ringing the Egans’ doorbell. Did Pinky pay for the damage? Probably.

One party at the Harveys in Hoffman Estates ended around 2:00 and Ted, who’d been overserved, was in no shape to drive. Mary took the wheel, trying to navigate through dense fog. The only way she could follow the road was to keep her eye on the white lines edging the roadside and to follow the dim lights of a car in front of her. After a long while, she followed the other car into the O’Hare Airport drive. She managed to find her way out, but the ride took hours. They arrived home as the sun was coming up, around 5:30 am. While Mary had warned the babysitter that it would be a late night, she hadn’t prepared her for this. The Simmons girl earned her fifty cents per hour that night.

The get-togethers continued for years. Once, there was a road trip—kids included — to the Egans in St. Louis, where we all stayed in a Holiday Inn, our family’s first time in a motel. There was a kids-included Sunday afternoon at Jim and Mary’s posh Wilmette home. I was an awkward high school freshman and Kathy Egan took me with her to a high school football game. Kathy was kind, but she was a junior and very North Shore in her perfect Bobby Brooks outfit. I felt like a complete dud, no fault of hers. As the kids grew up,  there were couples’ trips, once or twice to Door County where Egans owned a summer cottage.

But, beginning in 1985, deaths began to diminish the group. My dad was the first to go. When he died, the task of calling Pinky to give him the news fell to me. It was one of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever made.

At some point, Pat and Bill moved to Arizona, and my mother saw them when she went on her annual trip to stay with my sister. By the early 2000’s, here in Illinois, it was down to Pinky, Anne, and my mother, and they’d meet for lunch once in a while. I took my mother to Anne’s funeral. Then to Pinky’s.

Pat, my mother’s friend since high school, was a special guest at my niece’s wedding several years ago, and the two beautiful old friends, sat side-by-side, laughing and enjoying the celebration together. Then Pat’s health declined, and she was gone, too.

Now, Mom’s the only one left. One of the cruelest burdens of old age, it seems, is to be left alone, to survive the deaths of friends.

But, oh, those memories! My mother’s eyes twinkle with mirth as she recalls some of the nuttier stories of those dear, delightful people who always lived up to their name: The Rowdies.