“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
“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…”