We’ve been in Lombard, IL for two and a half months, much longer than our normal stops. On June 1, when we should be flying from Athens to Vienna, we will be leaving Lombard, IL for Conneaut, OH, the last town before the PA border.
Lake Erie, for starters. We’ve never been there, and our new house overlooks the lake. There is also beach combing. Cleveland and other places threw all their trash into the lake for about a century and today pieces rounded by the water and sand wash up waiting for people like me to see them. I’m looking forward to new surroundings, and a lake for swimming.
The change of seasons has also gotten to us. Our cute house is cozy and warm in cold weather, but it doesn’t have air conditioning. Chicago has sneaky spring weather, staying cool, even chilly, into May. There’s a reason that people don’t plant their gardens until mid-May. One day, though, you open the front door and step into a cloud of hot steam. Step outside and it feels like you are breathing through a hot washcloth. Summer has arrived in Chicago! It will be hot and humid on many days between today and September. For us, it’s time to move on.
Our stay here began just before the official start of spring. We went for walks and started seeing birds, even when we had to bundle up in heavy coats, hats, scarves, and gloves. Back when the branches were bare, we got used to spotting smaller birds that we had barely seen before.
Birdwatching is made for the current times. We walk slowly, scrutinizing the sides of the path or looking up into the trees, turning away from anyone who may be passing on the other side of the path. Watching for a flicker of wings among the twigs and brambles my mind wanders, testing the cold, the wind, checking the angle of the sun. I understand how people who spend their lives outdoors know the season and the time by the feel of the day.
We occasionally stop and chat with people who are fishing or who ask what birds we have seen. Most park walkers are polite and observant of social distancing. Sometimes we meet a regular birdwatcher who points us toward a better viewing spot, or a new bird. That’s how I spotted a Blackburnian warbler.
Dupage County has more parks and forest preserves than we have been able to visit, places we never set foot in when we lived here for twenty-four years, but now we appreciate them day after day. The knoll at the center of Lincoln Marsh, its grove of tall trees ringed by a vast spread of brown reed stems, reminds me of The Invisible Island, one of my favorite books growing up.
There’s a list of the sixty-three different birds we’ve been able to identify at the end of this post. We’ve seen surprising animals, as well. I didn’t realize that beavers had made such a comeback in this region. There must be quite a few living in the Dupage River system, as we’ve seen beavers swimming by several times. One day, a beaver swam by us, and as we watched, it climbed out of the water (below), waddled into the reeds and returned with a stick in it’s mouth. It set off swimming down the river until we lost sight of it.
As the days passed, we got better at spotting woodpeckers up in the trees. I don’t feel like a walk is officially over until we’ve seen at least one woodpecker. They are so funny-looking, hopping up the tree like a colorful squirrel. The brush on either side of the path became slightly greener as the trees budded. It was a bit more difficult to see birds, but improved our spotting of warblers and kinglets.
Over the weeks, we visited more places, and through other birders, discovered the hotspots in Dupage County, like Elsen’s Hill, in W. Dupage Woods, where we saw bushes full of warblers.
There was a Great Horned Owl mother and baby at Lincoln Marsh, and the tiny nest of a blue-gray gnatcatcher, barely the size of a baseball, at Fabyan Forest Preserve. Every colorful bird is a marvel. At the top of a tree we spotted a male cardinal, scarlet red in all his glory, facing a Baltimore oriole in bright orange and black.
Now our stay here is ending, just as the goslings and ducklings are hatching. We saw a multi-mother flock of goslings on the Fox River, spreading out across the water as their mothers looked on. We must have gotten a bit too close, because one of the geese gave off a short sharp sound, and in seconds the group of more than 20 goslings merged into a single ball of fluff.
The brush along the trails has gone from a handful of gray sticks to a dense mat of green. There are wild phlox in little gaps in the trees and lining some of the picnic areas. The migrating birds have moved on toward Canada and the Arctic for the summer, leaving the permanent residents to raise their chicks, and often, to make another nest and do it all over again before fall arrives. We are moving on as well. Every day, I think about my family, and miss being able to visit them, and to hug each one. Instead, I am grateful for the company that nature has provided.
Clockwise from upper left: Eastern bluebird, Red-headed woodpecker, Swainson’s thrush, robin’s nest on our drainpipe, palm warbler.
Lombard, Illinois has a particularly interesting mix of housing from every period since its founding in 1833. We are staying in a house built from a kit purchased from Sears Roebuck in 1926, and there are several of these around town, but there is another experimental type, the Lustron House, that has more than a dozen surviving examples in Lombard. We took ourselves on a self-guided tour of some of these very intriguing houses.
Lustron Houses were developed as part of the post WWII effort to construct housing for returning GIs and their families. Carl Strandlund, a Chicago industrialist and inventor, was going to build gas stations for Standard Oil, but was told he could only get an allocation of steel if he were to build homes. He came up with the idea of building an all steel house using enameled steel panels for a maintenance-free exterior, pitching his homes as a way for families to maximize their free time together.
Between 2500-3000 Lustron houses were built, and many are still standing, due to the sturdy steel panels, the same material used to make enameled cookware, though heavier. Even the roof tiles have lasted 50 years or more. These are relatively small houses, 700-1100 sq ft. and those that have been demolished were generally removed to make way for larger homes. The enameled steel construction was quite strong and durable, but didn’t lend itself to remodeling or additions. As anyone who has chipped the corner of an enameled pot knows, the chips can’t be mended. Most surviving examples are in their original form in one of the four colors that were available. On our tour, we wondered whether the relatively small size of these houses has turned some into rental properties. About half of the Lustrons we saw had minimal landscaping and outdoor maintenance.
The built-in metal bookshelves and cupboards were handy, but there was no way to add a picture hook except for magnets. This might be an excellent house for a true minimalist. Having seen all four exterior colors in different settings, we concluded our tour, intrigued by the concept. Today Lustron houses are a collectors item, though the use of steel in home construction was ahead of its time.
College admissions is a competitive sport among brainy kids and I was a top player.
For me, high school was all about getting good grades. I wasn’t interested in sports (something to do with thick eyeglasses, perhaps). I played in the band, went to music and art events, and I loved working behind the scenes with the theater club. I may have sung in the chorus. I excelled in standardized testing, making poster projects, and being on committees.
On Saturday afternoons in the fall, I marched with the band at football games. We jostled each other in our uncomfortable uniforms, cheeks pink from the fall wind, blowing into our instruments to keep them warm as we waited for halftime. The performance was always a challenge, to I read music from a tiny book clamped to the middle of my clarinet, walk the steps to each formation with the other players in the corner of my eye, making sure I was going the right way. Back in the band room clattering instruments, the click of cases closing, and the hum of voices played the coda to our day. Later, there were chances to meet up with other kids for illicit beer drinking. A bit like our antics at the lake, we never got caught.
I learned to drive on our green Ford Falcon with a stick shift on the column. It was the suburbs, everyone got their drivers license as soon as possible after turning 16. Dad taught me to drive in the parking lot of the high school. It was all going well until I got confused about shifting and turning at the same time and almost drove down the steep embankment onto the football field. I believe he chose a different site for our subsequent practice.
Senior year, I was able to use the car on some weekend nights, often to go to basketball games, where I met up with friends, and often went out afterward to eat pizza, or ice cream, anything to stay out just a bit later. There were no cell phones, I just had to be back home by ten, or eleven, or risk not going out the next weekend. One night, when our team had won and I was returning home in an enthusiastic mood. I drove down the driveway and swung the car around to go into the garage under the house. Rather than do a three point turn, it looked like I could do a tight U right into the garage, and so I did–scraping the door handle right off the side of the car. Ouch! I got a memorable lecture for that.
I was Vice President of the student council and loved being able to leave school for regional meetings. Toward the end of the school year, our class president and I were riding with the principal to an event when he asked how much marijuana was circulating at the school, in an “off the record” sort of voice. I began to say that I hadn’t seen any, when our class president gave me a withering look and regaled us both of stories about how many students cut classes or slipped outside during study hall or even between classes to smoke weed. Later, friends of my younger brother and sisters described cutting classes to get drunk and stoned in the woods just beyond the school. This was a different world. Mine was not scented with marijuana, but smelled faintly of chalk, pencils, paint, and lunchroom pizza. I liked to read, and could disappear into a book anywhere, any time.
Senior year, I was always happy to find official reasons to be away from school to avoid my mother. It’s not that she was mean, or even unreasonable, it was that she was underfoot. Mom trained to be a gym teacher back when teaching physical education meant knowing how to play every sport, all the rules to every game, dance every step from waltz to square dance, lead a 30 minute exercise class, and every aspect of primitive camping. My mom knew everything, and when I was in high school, my youngest sister started first grade and mom was liberated to be a substitute teacher, often for gym classes at my school. I was mortified.
Rather than being proud of her remarkable range of skills, or her gift of being able to talk to anyone (and I mean anyone, anywhere, anytime), I was comprehensively embarrassed. There was my mom, in the hallways, talking to students I didn’t know in the slightest, and worst of all, sometimes leading MY gym class. If that wasn’t profoundly disturbing for a teenager, add to it that my mother often came in for the dreaded square dance unit, when we had to pair off with random boys, sometimes while wearing our gym clothes. Mom knew everyone’s name, too, from church, from the pool, the library, PTA, her previous subbing, and mom-radar in general. I was ready to hide in the locker room for the rest of the year.
The gym teachers didn’t help. They loved my mom and her enthusiasm. One day Mrs. McBain, the newer gym teacher, asked me why I couldn’t be as interested in gym as my mom and my older sister (Paula graduated the year before me, on swim team at the local pool, and very good on the uneven parallel bars). That was enough to alienate me from physical activity for a long time. Try asking someone why they aren’t more like the sibling closest in age to them.
Dad grumbled a bit about college applications. When he was young, you went to the college closest to your home, period. He was fortunate, as he lived bicycling distance from Syracuse University. Mom told her parents she wanted to be a violinist, and though she played, they couldn’t imagine such a thing and told her so. Later, she said she wanted to go to college. Her father asked why she couldn’t become a nurse like her older sisters. She applied to the State Teachers College in Cortland, NY, and was turned down for inability to pay. A couple of months later, she somehow heard that a new dean of admissions was in place and her older sister Catherine and her husband Ralph drove her to the campus for an interview with the new dean. She was admitted, and the dean helped her get a job near campus as a nanny. She worked part time during the school year and full time in the summers to pay for it all. Cortland is where she learned her many physical education skills, even spending a summer as a camp counselor in Maine to fulfill one of her requirements.
I spent a lot of the fall of my senior year working on college applications. My guidance counselor was no help, she suggested the State College at Albany, and suggested I was getting above myself to apply to a bunch of private schools. I ignored her. Dad might have begrudged some of the admission fees, but he was a firm believer that if you don’t apply, you can’t get accepted and that we should always try for one step beyond what we expected to get.
Everything was on paper, in piles between big manila envelopes. I can’t even remember where I sat to write the essays that made the most of my summer jobs, my travels, and my grades. There must have been a desk in the room I shared with Paula, now off at college, but I only remember beds and a piano. We did a lot of homework on the dining room table, but that meant clearing up my mess before dinner every night. I applied to five schools and tried to get dad to fill out the Parents Confidential Statement (PCS), the ancestor of FAFSA. His response was that the form required too much private family information, and besides, we would never qualify.
By January, they were all submitted. My last semester of high school chugged along. I started checking the mail every day starting April 15. The anticipation made me even more restless than normal for senior year. I took to standing outside the garage door in the early evening when the sky was that deep blue that comes just before dark. Looking at the earliest stars, I’d try to imagine my future that was so utterly unimaginable.
The letters came. I was admitted to four of my five schools, most importantly Radcliffe, the women’s arm of Harvard. I had no idea what I was going to college for, or what I would do afterward, but I knew that I won the prize of my dreams and would spend the next four years at the center of the universe.
 The only school I applied to and didn’t get in was the first class of women at Yale. From what I heard later that was just as well.
Since the first day of spring, we’ve walking Lilac Park twice a week, watching the arrival of the flowers. At first there was snow that melted rapidly, then chilly wind that demanded layers, gloves, hats, and scarves that continued into April. Finally, warmer weather has crept in. Now that it’s mid-May, we’ve been through the blooming of daffodils, a profusion of tulips, and the big event, lilacs, arrived this week. The bushes of blooms smell wonderful, not too strong, and the colors range from white through many layers of pinkish and purplish to a few dark purple blooms. This is the height of the year in the garden, and very much worth a walk. We’ve never found too many people here, making it easy to visit. My first photos taken in March are at the top, and the photos from yesterday are at the bottom.
I don’t remember a thing about what we did in eighth grade World Geography, but I remember our teacher, Col. Harry Harvey, sitting on his desk, neatly parted dark hair, fierce eyebrows over a creased and deeply tanned face, swinging his legs, telling us about flying over New Guinea. As he spoke, it was pretty clear he was somewhere in the past flying that plane. The Colonel told us a lot of travel stories that year, and I loved every one of them.
I joined the AFS (American Field Service) club, sponsored by another of my social studies teachers. AFS’s mission is to foster international understanding and the club’s principal activity was running the exchange program for high school students to spend a year or a summer in another country, and for students from other countries to spend a school year in the US. There were some field trips to international events in our area, a Saturday listening to Indian music, watching traditional dance, and eating fragrant Indian food. (All of it was much spicier than anything found in our Irish-inflected household.) After some effort to convince my parents, and deciding that I didn’t want to be in another country for my entire senior year, I applied to be an exchange student for the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. There was an application and an interview or two, and then the wait.
Over several months, I nervously awaited the results of my application, alternating between the excitement of being able to go to another country, and fear of leaving everything I knew. I was accepted and assigned to go to Italy. I was not sure how I felt about that. I’d been studying French for several years, and knew no Italian at all. My parents would have to deliver me to New York for our ship’s departure. We were going to Europe on a cruise ship! My parents had been to Bermuda on a cruise, but I never imagined so glamorous a method of travel. I put things in my suitcase and took them out many times. The family agonized over what gift I should take my Italian family. (We settled on New York maple syrup.)
Ours was the final year that AFS summer students went to Europe by ship, the SS Waterman—I remember looking over it from the shore, and it seemed huge. A week later when we’d been wedged on board for a while, it seemed pretty small. I remember that my boyfriend came along to my bon voyage, but I didn’t really plan to miss him, and was anxious to be gone.
The Waterman wasn’t really a cruise ship, more a transport vessel. Four of us shared a tiny cabin. Three were going to Italy. I was from New York, Cheryl from Minnesota, and the roommate whose name we forget was also from the midwest. Lynda, from California, was going all the way to Tehran—her small group had the most exotic destination. The voyage was slow, we took ten days to cross from New York to Amsterdam. Though we didn’t see it as sea-sickness, we didn’t feel very much like eating, and the food was not very good, so we stockpiled apples and oranges in our cabin’s miniscule sink, and spent our time doing homework, writing letters, reading, talking and talking.
Every day we had language and culture lessons in the morning, activities in the afternoon and after dinner, like the costume party. Evening groups often formed around the students who traveled with their guitars. We compared notes about school, friends, family, hometowns, destination country, even what our host family said in the one introductory letter we had each received. Most of us had not traveled much, and we were hoping for the trip of a lifetime.
Lynda left us in Amsterdam. Her group flew onward, while the 23 of us going to Italy got on an overnight train to Milan with our two Italian counselors, learning to load our luggage through the windows. We crossed the Alps during breakfast. Looking out the window of the dining car scented with café au lait and croissants, I was as happy as humanly possible. There were dark green valleys, villages of white houses with red tile roofs, or maybe half-timbers. We pulled in to Milan and I got off to meet my family. A counselor shook hands with the father on the dim platform and said something to him.
“What did you say to him?” I shouted over the noise of the train station.
“I told him you were the best student in our language class!” She smiled and stepped back up the stairs to the train, waving as it pulled out.
The Fontanellas were Antonio and his wife (name now forgotten). Antonio was slight, with worried eyes, a kind smile, and a big mustache. Mamma was a proper Italian lady who knew what should be done in all situations. She never left the house without being perfectly dressed, and had her hair done every week. Lucia was a year older than I, planning to go to university, and Carla two years younger than I . Raffaello was the spoiled younger brother according to both girls. Only Lucia spoke some English. I carried my tiny dictionary everywhere, and tried to catch on to what people said. Humans have the ability to forget what is not convenient, and I, too, have forgotten any problems we may have had from my inability to speak much Italian for the first couple of weeks. I remember wishing I could go out with friends my own age, and I wished we were allowed to go out with boys. Mamma and Papa had forbidden dating to all of us, not just me.
Some of the summer we spent in the family home in Piacenza, a city about an hour’s drive south of Milan. The Fontanellas lived in a spacious apartment. What most surprised me were the marble floors. I had only seen marble in statues and museums, not in a private home. There was a small balcony off the kitchen with basil and oregano in window boxes, and a storage space/winecellar in the basement with drying salamis hanging from a beam in the roof. We went out grocery shopping, to the bakery, and went for walks. We talked. Every day at noon, Papa returned home for a formal lunch. The entire family had a pasta course, main course, salad, and then coffee. The adults drank wine, and we were served wine mixed with bottled water. Papa napped then returned to fabbrica (factory) making plastic containers that he owned with his brother. On some Sundays, the entire family dressed up and went out to lunch at the Albergo Nazionale just a few blocks away. Papa and Mamma were well known, and conversed with the waiters about what was good, what was new, and made recommendations to us kids.
I wanted to visit Florence because it was famous. When I broached the subject it was dismissed.
“We have no family there.” That was that.
There was family in Genoa, an aunt and uncle, so we took a very long and arduous drive through the mountains to get there. The aunt was an immense woman with a smothering hug, and she was a wonderful cook. She took us to the markets near the docks where the streets are barely wide enough to walk. She bought fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables that we helped carry home. She cooked one delicious meal after another. We went for a drive along the beach. The trip home seemed easier, and faster.
In July, the family moved to the country, where they owned a share in an ancient estate, Gozzoli. Each family owned a small house, but also received a share from the surrounding vineyards of Trebbiano grapes. The cases of wine were stored beneath the salami in the family’s storage area on the ground floor of their apartment building. Gozzoli was rustic. It had indoor plumbing, but was a lot like camping out inside a stone tower.
There was only one thing to do, walk in the country. Every day, the girls and I, and sometimes Raffaello, were sent on a walk, up the hills past the vines, along the ridge overlooking our tiny cluster of buildings, past a few fields of grazing cows, the occasional farmer or field hand. We’d often stop to sit in the shade and continue talking, surrounded by brilliant blue sky, the earthy smell of the fields, the dry spiciness of the uncultivated margins, staring at the road and the powdery white dust on our shoes. A big turning point in my language skills was when I managed to have a conversation with my Italian sisters about the Vietnam War while sitting under the trees on the hillside. We had to be home in time for lunch, or before dark, but there weren’t a lot of rules, probably because there wasn’t a lot going on. There were other families around, but none with children our age, or if they were, we all went on the walks together.
There was delicious food at Gozzoli. Mamma did most of the cooking, but there was a truly ancient woman, the wife of the caretaker, who also cooked. I recall her being really old, but I have no idea of her real age. She dressed in a long skirt, blouse, sweater, sensible shoes, and a headscarf, all usually covered with an apron. Outside her door was the biggest rosemary bush I’d ever seen. She cooked over an open fire—I was staggered to think about doing this every day when I remembered campfire cooking on family camping trips. On the days she cooked traditional dishes for us the downstairs kitchen was as hot as a furnace, but the frittata was the best in the world. There really was nothing to do but read, walk, talk, and let our minds wander. We made up games, talked about things I was barely able to articulate, and wished we were somewhere more exciting. I got letters from home, wrote some back, and took some photos. When I got home, I painted a view of Gozzoli from a photo taken that summer on a biggish canvas. Though it seemed 3 x 4 feet in size, it was probably 24 x 30″. It hung at home for a long time, then somehow went to my Aunt Phyllis, who had admired it. (She had a generous spirit.)
Ferragosto is August in Italy, when everyone takes the same two weeks of vacation. Our family went to Rimini, staying in a pensione, a family oriented hotel that provided full board. We swam and sunned on the beach, sometimes stopping at a little bar for an aperitivo before returning to the pensione for lunch. The adults’ drinks came in small glasses with a tiny saucer on the top holding a couple of olives and a few potato sticks. There was no table service, the adults stood and sipped while chatting with others at the bar. After lunch there was a mandatory rest period. We kids were restless, but I wrote my postcards home, read books, and talked some more. There was a minor family meltdown when I was invited by a nice young man we’d met on the beach to a dance in the evening. We were allowed to speak to boys during the day under the watchful eye of Mamma, but not to go out. I was bitterly disappointed. Later, from our bedroom window, we could hear the music playing at the dance.
We drove south to visit to the large shrine of the Virgin of Loreto in Ancona. The view out over the Adriatic from the shrine was spectacular. We had to dress nicely for the visit to the Virgin. so there was no stop for swimming despite the gorgeous water. According to the website for the shrine, the Virgen of Loreto is the patron saint of airline passengers. She has certainly looked out for me over the years since my visit.
Another day we drove north, to Ravenna, to visit the Byzantine mosaic churches, the most sublime religious depictions I know of. I was overawed by the detail, the colors of the mosaics, the craftsmanship. Solemn-faced kings and saints stood in a long procession down the nave, showing off the vivid colors of their mosaics fifteen centuries after they were installed. The mystery and majesty of Ravenna is still unmatched by anywhere I’ve ever been.
We returned to the beach, then home to Piacenza. I was sent on one last field trip, this time by myself. I don’t recall why I went alone, but I got coaching on how to blend in. I put on my Italian dress, and took a copy of the local newspaper and set off with the goal of looking Italian in order to avoid notice. Taking the train to Milan for the day was a big adventure, my first time anywhere in Italy by myself. I started with Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, at Santa Maria delle Grazie, on the wall of a long rectangular room in what was a chapel, a refectory, or a future mausoleum. Visiting long before the controversial cleaning in the 1990s, the room was gloomy and the painting was made mysterious by the darkened colors and somber setting.
I climbed to the roof of the Duomo and stood amidst the spires looking out at the city. Before heading back to the train, I strolled the high-ceilinged shopping arcades, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, stopping at the windows of antique books, fine leather handbags, and fashionable clothing, eating a typical (but to an American, tiny) ice cream cone. I blended right in feeling like a spy or undercover agent, roaming freely in another country with no one the wiser, and only a few skirmishes with men making comments. Back on the train with my newspaper, I returned safely incognito to Piacenza before dark, inordinately proud of myself.
The last few weeks included shopping for gifts to take home, carefully coached by Mamma, field trips to local sights, ending with tearful goodbyes. I boarded another train, both sad at leaving and delighted to meet up with the friends from the SS Waterman who’d been all over Italy. Rather than heading for home, we went to far southern Italy for a group debriefing. I looked forward to seeing more of the country. Despite my enthusiasm, I remember little of the group get together in Potenza other than the heat and the pale dusty colors of the town under the hot, late-summer sun.
I was set to envy the wild antics of the others, and listened avidly to tales of walking the seashore in Sardinia, fresh peaches and yogurt for breakfast, and families with both daughters and sons that made it possible to mingle with teenagers of both sexes, go to dances, on dates. We sang along with the Italian pop songs of the moment, starting to look forward to going home. An overnight train hauled us back to Paris for our flight. We were all settled on the plane full of AFS students heading back to the US, when who comes down the rows but Lynda, back from Iran! She shared the huge bag of pistachios she’d brought, perhaps a going-away gift. In retrospect, it was good we enjoyed some of them on the plane, as the rest were confiscated when she went through customs in the US.
“They showed me the little bugs,” she admitted ruefully. We exchanged addresses and promised to stay in touch. We have been friends ever since.
I was glad to be home, and full of stories of my summer. It was senior year and time for college applications. International travel was set aside.
 The SS Waterman was decommissioned/scrapped in 1970.
 I have a diary of my stay in Italy buried somewhere in our storage unit. When I find it, I will update Mamma Fontanella. With apologies, I never thought I’d forget any of their names.
We were going to France for spring break! I was a junior in high school and my sister Paula was a senior. At the time, French was the most popular foreign language class in our school. The organizer was Madame Brody, chair of the language department. Born in France, she retained a slight accent, and with her hawkish features and demeanor, she made a formidable leader for a field trip. Paula and I got our first passport photos and went to the Passport Office to submit our applications in person, apprehensive and excited.
I started working after school and on Saturdays as a checker at the local A&P grocery store. Most shifts were humdrum and I rang up and packed groceries, drank gallons of diet soda, got sore feet, and smoke blown in my face. Occasionally, stockboys with beer breath would bring out treats that had “broken open,” I managed to earn my share of the cost (Paula says it was $440. My job paid $1.80/hr).
The trip was to last beyond spring break because it was educational, almost two weeks in all, and the itinerary would take us to Paris, Normandy, and along the Loire. A lot of my compatriots from French class were going. We packed enormous suitcases that had no wheels.
We started in Paris, cruising on a bateau mouche, drifting under bridges that cast a deep gray shadow over the water, past kiosks of booksellers along the Seine. The Louvre, Chartres, and Honfleur followed, one quick tourist stop after another, until Mont Saint Michel, one of my favorite places in the world.
Walking up the curving main street of Mont Saint Michel on a very warm day, with our jackets around our waists, we goggled at the ancient buildings and bought more postcards. The cobbled street corkscrewed upward, with views out over the blue water of the bay on one side and fields on the other. The bay extends for miles, so shallow that people walk out farther than you can imagine.
Landward are fields and forests running into the distance, connected to the monastery by a narrow spit of land now topped by a bit of road. There is a museum at the top, where we looked at fragments fallen from the battlements, read about the building’s construction, and admired relics of the monastery’s more active days. Even in 1968, Mont Saint Michel was more a tourist destination than a pilgrimage site. We sat at sunny café tables, learning to be adults by buying our own drinks, discovering orangina, l’eau minerale, and biere. No one was ready to return to the bus.
We had a serious moment at the Normandy Beaches, but for us another challenge was to follow. Madame Brody was determined to have us all eat real French food and arranged lunch for us at the Lion D’Or, a famous auberge (restaurant) in Normandy. We assembled at long white covered tables, huge napkins unfolded across our laps.
Our first course was a single large Belon oyster. This was a rare treat, especially for visitors young as we were, and it was a disaster, pure and simple. It was just one oyster, but it looked long, gray, wet, and rubbery. Most of our group took one look and didn’t even lift a fork. Kids sitting to either side of me had never even seen an oyster. At least I knew what an oyster was, but I was accustomed to oyster stew, where little gray cooked blobs floated in milky soup, or smoked oysters the size of a nickel, perched on a Triscuit, not this raw monster seasoned with only a dab of lemon. I’m pretty sure the only people to eat them were the head table of chaperones and a few students from the advanced classes, my sister Paula, and her friend Jenny. Madame was mortified after arranging for such a delicacy and being unable to get most of us to eat it. That was one step toward the eventual state of anarchy that overtook us.
Our hotel in Rouen was the next step. I am sure that Madame was not aware that part of the hotel had been destroyed in a fire and awaited rebuilding, as most of the hotel was open and functioning. A group of us were looking around and found doors that led to the ruined area. We gawked at the collapsed timbers and leaned out over the burned remains that we could see just beyond, filling our imaginations with what we’d heard that day about Joan of Arc, patroness of the city where she was burned at the stake. Sure, we’d been to the gorgeous chateau of Chenonceau that day, but sooty ruins were much cooler.
Back in Paris, we were housed in two hotels on the Left Bank, the base for our last four days in Paris. These were small family-run hotels, and our rooms were basic, with as many beds as possible in each. None of us minded the lack of an elevator, or the limited décor. We were in Paris.
We didn’t know that trouble was brewing throughout France until the street near our hotel was blocked off. We had no experience with protest and didn’t know the issues, but we were fascinated, and went to the end of the street to peep at the demonstrators. The far end of the block was filled with protesting university students masked with bandannas, shouting, and pulling up paving stones and trash to form barricades. Our visit was in April 1968, and for seven weeks starting just a week or two later in early May, France was the scene of constant rioting concentrated around the Sorbonne on the Left Bank, very near our hotels. We were watching the early days of a protest that paralyzed much of the French economy, left a great deal of our Left Bank neighborhood in ruins, and led to a national general strike. It almost unseated DeGaulle as president of France.
Madame wanted us all to stay in and away from possible violence, waiting out our stay until the day we left for the airport. It was springtime in Paris, and we were not going to miss out. In what I recall as something between an announcement and a shouting match, she threw up her hands and said that she was done with us, and would expect us all to be ready to leave at the appointed time a couple of days hence but in the meantime we were on our own.
Delighted pandemonium ensued. No mandatory field trips, no curfew, no chaperones. We were wild to get out and see Paris. The group divided into clusters; mine rode up the Eiffel Tower, saw the Arc de Triomphe, visited the the canary and flower sellers along the Seine. We ate croissants and drank café au lait, bought baguettes, cheese, and bottles of wine for lunch, and walked around the neighborhood late into the evenings. April in Paris is always beautiful. We were surrounded by flowering trees, green parks, and blue skies. The air in the Jardin du Luxembourg smelled delicious. We took the Metro to Sacre Coeur and looked out across the city. We criss-crossed the Left Bank, then walked across the bridge to Ile Saint Louis, taking another lap around Notre Dame. We always returned to our hotel via a route that avoided demonstrations and possible tear gas, not thinking a thing about it.
At the appointed moment, we thumped our suitcases down the flights of stairs, crushed our hand luggage climbing into the bus, and departed for the airport. No one had been tear-gassed, no one was injured, we were all exhausted and elated. We had been to Paris on our own.
The band was massive, around 70 players crammed onto the stage. Between pieces, I shifted my clarinet from one hand to the other and stretched in the uncomfortable chair, the unfamiliar clothing, stockings, shoes. The stage lights were hot, but it was winter, and the heat felt weird. The baton went up and we dove in again. The All County Band played Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It has twittering high notes in one section, brassy clamor in another, and the final movement, the bombastic, fabulous “Great Gate of Kiev” has horns, timpani, cymbals. I was surrounded by sound, contributing to a solid wall of music, concentrating, listening, playing all-out. You don’t feel it if you’re in the audience, and this feeling has to be why musicians love live performance. That concert and ones like it repaid me for all my hours of practice.
Band: Field Trip!
Starting in fourth grade, I played clarinet. I began taking private lessons after school once a week, and by the time I got to high school, I was a band kid, marching band in the fall, concert band in the winter, marching in the Memorial Day Parade at the end of the school year. Despite our blue and white uniforms and many hours of practice, we were never going to win a band competition, but we played on. Our reward finally arrived when the band snagged a slot playing at the Montreal World’s Fair in 1967. My first taste of international travel involved jouncing up and down on a school bus full of other noisy teens going to Montreal. The whole group of us performed a couple of times and had a chance to spend the rest of the day at the fair. I remember nothing of the interminable bus ride that would have been at least six hours each way, but I remember being impressed by Montreal and the fairgrounds on an island accessed via the deepest subway I’d ever seen. It was exciting to play in public in front of an audience that wasn’t our parents. We may not have loved our music director, Mr. Force, (too many rules, too many new steps on the field), but he got us to do something great.
An unexpected award my senior year presented me with a ticket to see a play, a concert, an opera, and a ballet at Lincoln Center. By this time, my parents were comfortable with my going into the city alone, after all, my sister Paula had been going to weekend math classes at Columbia for years. Part of the fun was going alone, knowing that once at Lincoln Center, the audience would be full of high school students from all over the New York area.
Leonard Bernstein conducted the NY Philharmonic, and I’d watched his Young People’s Concerts on TV since we got a TV. The opera was a dress rehearsal of Faust, with red and black costumes and fabulous singers. It was captivating, even from the balcony.
The final event in the series was a ballet, and mom offered to come along. She’d buy a last-minute ticket when we got there. It was February, and when we emerged from the subway at Lincoln Center, a few flakes floated down on us as we hurried inside. The American Ballet Theater is always impressive, but on this day, I was assigned a seat in the third row, so close that I could see the dancers’ madeup rosy cheeks and hear their slippers squeak on the floor of the stage. Sitting up front, I paid rapt attention to every move of the program, listening to the orchestra that was seated just beyond my feet. Afterward, transported by our experience, we stepped outside and were shocked to find that it was really snowing. Mom and I hustled onto the subway and to Grand Central, boarding our train for home as usual. When the train emerged from the tunnels beneath the city, the sky was dark, and the snow was coming down even faster as we headed for the suburbs. About fifteen minutes out, the train jerked to a halt. We sat, and sat. The conductor came through and told us there was heavy snow on the tracks that needed clearing. Eventually we started moving again, very slowly making our way north. The trip that usually took an hour took almost three hours. We stepped off the train into more than a foot of snow. There was no eviidence of dad come to pick us up.
For some reason, mom was unable to call home from the train station. In the days before cell phones, we had to guess what to do. Whether or not dad was supposed to be there, he could have come to collect us. Neither of our cars could go through snow a foot deep, and no local streets had been plowed yet.
We had to walk home, something I’d never done before. The distance wasn’t that great, a couple of miles, but the road was narrow and winding, with no sidewalks, a route expressly forbidden to us for casual walks. On this night, there was no traffic and a foot of unplowed snow. We trudged from the station through downtown Thornwood, turning uphill past the elementary school and along the highway. I’d worn boots more suitable for dress-up than hiking that were wet through before we were halfway home. My feet felt frozen, my cheeks were wet with melted snow, and the tip of my nose was an iceberg. At the big circle intersection, we headed up the final mile of narrow road. No snowplow came by, no cars or trucks, no one to give us a lift. It was still snowing hard; periodically one of the few streetlights illuminated a patch of snow before we walked back into the darkness. We finally reached the top of the hill, heading down into our neighborhood and home. Approaching the bus stop, gateway to the neighborhood and just a few blocks from home, we saw a dark figure. Someone bundled up for the weather was out at this late hour. When he got close, we saw it was dad. We were overcome with relief. How he knew we were coming, and how he decided to venture out to meet us, I don’t know. We were so happy to see him, to have someone to hang on to for those last few blocks. It was an adventure we never forgot.
In a family with five children, alone time with a parent is a precious commodity. When I mooned over encyclopedia photos of gorgeously colored mineral specimens and sharp pointed crystals, Dad took me to meetings of the Westchester County Rock and Mineral Society. We listened to the speaker and looked at slides of dramatic specimens, outcrops, and quarries. We went on field trips to find mineral specimens. Sometimes we went with the club, and sometimes we followed directions in a rock-hunter’s guide to sites in the New York area. These were hit or miss.
Poking around the edge of a quarry site in Haddam, Connecticut, we found light green columns of beryl, as big as a finger, embedded in pale pegmatite rock. Half way to grandma’s one year, our search for Herkimer “diamonds” yielded a few small quartz crystals. I was hoping to find something huge and perfectly clear as we scrabbled around in the dirt, but settled for having found something. Franklin, NJ, where we expected to find fluorescent minerals, yielded nothing but a dead end at a gated site with a big Keep Out sign, or was that the time our destination had become a parking lot? In the pre-internet era, guidebooks were our source and if the page led us wrong, there was no way to correct our route. Maps and directions were entertainment, and tramping around outdoors with dad led him to tell his stories like the time he saw a snowy owl while sitting on a stump in the woods waiting for the deer.
In about sixth grade, my science project was about crystal shapes, and I glued and tied on samples from my rock collection onto my poster, inordinately proud of my work. I continued adding to my collection, a Petosky stone from a pen pal, and amethyst from India. Dad would occasionally add a piece, thinly disguising his secret wish for a scientist daughter (preferably a chemist like him).
Gore Mt., New York, produces a vast quantity of the world’s garnets, and was within field trip distance from our summer home. We toured the mine, goggling at pockets of black rock bigger than a bowling ball filled with gorgeous, deep red garnet. These weren’t individual crystal stones, but solid masses crisscrossed with cracks. I bought a small bag of garnets, not sure what I would do with them, I just wanted to have some.
For Christmas, I received a rock tumbler. With visions of turning out batches of carefully polished semiprecious stones, I eagerly set up my little humming station in a corner of the shop at the back of our garage. My squat gray machine came with bags of grit that had to be measured and mixed with water and rock. I had a few bags of stones to work with, tigereye, malachite, rhodochrosite, and those garnets. They rumbled for days. The waiting to see my prizes was agony. The day arrived and dad helped me loosen the wingnuts that held the lid on tightly. My little gray canister yielded a slurry of muddy lumps that had to be rinsed outdoors to avoid clogging the pipes. The results weren’t perfect. My batch of stones was more polished than they had been, but lacked the glassy finish of jewels. We began again with different stones, but got the same results. Polishing stones is a hobby that requires tinkering, trying a method, changing the grit, the water, or the stones and then grinding again, repeating the experiment until the results come.
Never known for my patience, my hobby ebbed, though my rock collection lived on in its boxes in the basement, then the barn, then my own basement until I donated it to the Dupage County rock and mineral group, closing the circle. I still have a few pieces in drawers and boxes, rhodochrosite and malachite partially polished, a fluorite crystal, and my precious memories.
My reading career took off when I got eyeglasses. I remember being asked about the numbers on the clock over the kitchen sink when we were learning to tell time in school. When I admitted that I couldn’t see the numbers at all, or the hands pointing to them, I was bundled off to the eye doctor, returning to school after the eye exam wearing sunglasses indoors and feeling like everyone in the class was staring at me. Then I showed up with my new glasses and found that there was only one other student in our first grade class who wore glasses, the “worst” boy in my class. Paul Bonville sat in the back of the room and if rumor was to be trusted he ate paste with the other “bad” boys. Now I had something in common with him. I was so embarrassed. I needed glasses so much, though, that it didn’t occur to me not to wear them, and in time, they were part of me.
I learned to read in first grade with everyone else, and rapidly found books to be a way to travel to far-away places. Our house was full, and privacy hadn’t been invented yet, but there was time to read, and a secluded corner might get me overlooked for a while. When I was supposed to take a nap in my parents’ bedroom, I slid open the headboard to get a book of Pogo cartoons. I was fascinated by the character who spoke in Gothic letters (Deacon Mushrat).
It’s possible to read outdoors, too, mystery and adventure with the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and stories set in tropical jungles. I went canoeing down the Amazon, hid behind dunes spying on pirates, and sailed on three-masted schooners.
Books became a way to cope with school, where the pace of learning was slow. With one nun to fifty-five students (no teachers aides in those days), the teachers overlooked my furtive reading ahead. After school was the same. There was homework, and a few chores, but mostly reading. I dove into searches for buried treasure, exotic landscapes with camels, and far away lands like the Middle East, China, and Japan. Our teachers assigned reports on countries or products about which I wrote a little, and spent much longer making creative covers. There was the report on “Rice” with the letters spelled out in rice grains glued onto the cover, and “Cork” with slivers of old wine corks spelling out the title.
I spent hours tracing maps of countries of the world and drawing national flags on my report covers. These were my favorite assignments, the research coming from our family’s multi-volume Book of Knowledge encyclopedia, that had no organization I ever understood, but taught me how to use an index. To cut down on squabbling at the dinner table, dad occasionally sent us to get a volume of the Book of Knowledge to settle questions of fact. Our other source was an encyclopedia series sold by the grocery store one volume per week. The maps were brightly colored, the volumes weren’t heavy, and the maps were easy to trace. I wondered about countries where there were palm trees and white sand. I’d been to Jones Beach where the water was freezing cold. A Caribbean island sounded like the most intriguing place on earth.
During the laborious signing of my first library card when I was six or seven, I worried that I couldn’t fit my name on the single line provided because Winifred was too long. For quite a while I wished my name was Ann, nice and compact, just like David and Ann in the reading primer we used at school. Launched by my library card, I learned to read in a moving vehicle, and under the blankets at night. I loved the library, and was happy to hang out there and read while mom was at the grocery store nearby or across the street at the pediatrician and the orthodontist.
The library had that special smell of old books and furniture polish. It was a comfortable place to sit, and there were books all around. Two of my all time favorite books came from the Pleasantville Library, Gone Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enright, and The Invisible Island, by Dean Marshall. Both books are stories of adventures found right around the corner from where children live. I wanted to live in places like these. I didn’t realize that I was already having those adventures in the woods, camping, and at the lake.
Paula read a lot more sci-fi than I, but I got to a few of the classics. Have Spacesuit–Will Travel, by Robert Heinlein is one of the all time best sci-fi books that exists. From there, I visited spaceports and space stations all over the universe.
My avid reading seems have to been well-known, as one day, a classmate who wasn’t exactly a friend, but rode the same bus, turned around in her seat and asked if it was true that I read the dictionary for fun. I hotly denied this stupid accusation. After all, the dictionary doesn’t have a very exciting plot, does it? Rosemary’s comment was pretty much my reputation from then on. I might have learned a bit sooner how to get along with people had I spent a bit less time inside books and a little more time making friends. Reading was so much easier than dealing with people that I often chose it over anything else.
One year, when we visited our grandparents in Syracuse, our big discovery was the attic, a readers treasure house. There was a door and real stairway going up to the attic, not a pull-down ladder in the roof as at our house. Once up the stairs, there were windows and all kinds of old things, boxes, fans, trunks. We were allowed to rummage a little and though in retrospect I wish I had dug around a lot more, what we took back downstairs were books. There were a lot of books my father read as a boy, and as we revisited Grandma and Grandpa, we read more of the Horatio Alger stories, the pages brown and brittle, crumbling a bit more with each visit. From that attic I got Penrod, Penrod and Sam, Tom Brown’s School Days, and other boys adventure books. Paula and I were always eager to escape boring adult conversations, and we quickly disappeared into our books.
Even in high school, when homework was done, Paula and I would sit in the big wing chairs on either side of the TV set and read. Mom was perennially exasperated with us because she’d call one or both of us to come and help her with something and get no response. We couldn’t hear her, we were reading. To this day, I have the ability to block out the sounds around me while I’m reading. Just ask my family.
We learned as kids that there was a world outside our neighborhood because that’s where dad spent most of the time. Dad commuted from our suburban idyll to 42nd St. in New York City where for many years his office was in the Chrysler Building, the heart of the city. We very occasionally visited his office on the 32nd floor, looking down at the tiny taxis in the street, and away to the river or the ocean or whatever was outside in the distance. One time, our visit was part of an adventure to see the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall, complete with the Rockettes and the camels. Another time, I went in to work on the train with dad, got to sit in his office and color, and eat lunch at Chock full o’Nuts, his favorite counter service eatery, where the big treat was to have a whole wheat donut for dessert.
Dad traveled a great deal for his work at a paper company. Once I think he missed Christmas, and called us from Japan, while one Easter he called us from somewhere in Europe. One of my sisters was born while he was somewhere else. There is a family story that after he retired, dad added up all the nights he’d been away from home and it totaled nine years. We didn’t usually hear from dad while he was on a business trip, as international calls were expensive, and he wasn’t usually gone long enough to send postcards.
He often brought home small gifts, leading to the well known enthusiastic hug on arrival, and “What’d you bring me?!!” Sometimes he brought home dolls in the national dress of the country he had visited. Those dolls were kept on top of the cornice around our dining area, brought down periodically to be dusted and admired, the Belgian dancers in tall, sequined hats, Dutch dolls in clogs, African ladies in calico dresses, and kimono-clad Japanese dolls all watching over the dinner table.
Starting when we were very young, we had an occasional international visitor related to dad’s work. For many years dad took Berlitz French classes at work, which he must have tried out on his friend Jacques Siraut, an older gentleman who came to dinner occasionally and spoke English with his strange French accent. Mom taught us to sing “Frere Jacques” so that we could sing it for him. One year, M. Siraut brought us a nativity set that is still in the family, a country landscape with tiny hand-painted figurines, not just the Holy Family, but a butcher in his white apron, a baker in a tall hat, a woman with a basket of fish, townspeople, shepherds, and animals.
Dad also talked to us about his trips, especially Japan, where he was impressed by the cleanliness and order in society. He participated in events where all the men changed from their business suits into kimonos, sat at low tables, and ate sushi and tempura. He brought home colorful kites that we flew in the backyard, and he showed us gifts that he was given as a representative of his company.
Dad would tell us about what he saw when he had time between meetings and was able to walk around whatever city he was in. When he went jogging in the mornings he’d tell us about people going to work or opening shops that he ran past. When he visited a factory in Finland, he was served herring and beer for breakfast. He’d insist that most of his travels consisted of walking around airports and staying in hotels, with very little sightseeing, but he did manage to tell us about Notre Dame in Paris, and monuments in downtown London. Late in his career, mom began to travel whenever dad had an international trip. She was even asked to launch a huge ship at a shipyard in Japan. It was one of the most memorable events of her life.
The biggest adventure by far of my young life was going on my first airplane ride. A few times, the family went to the Westchester County airport to see the planes taking off and landing, a popular activity back then. None of us kids had been on a flight until the year Paula was 9 and I was 8, when we went all by ourselves on a flight from the Westchester County airport to Syracuse. We were up in the air for about an hour and a half, very well taken care of by our flight attendant, who let us see the cockpit, help serve orange juice to the other passengers, and gave us little wings to pin on our dresses. There was time to look out the window at the blue sky and white clouds floating over the miniature landscape. Who could have more fun than that? We spent two weeks with relatives, one girl to Grandma Creamer, and one girl to our aunt Catherine Hart, with a switch half-way along.
I don’t remember what we did in Syracuse, but we picked raspberries in Penn Yan. For years, Aunt Catherine worked with other local women in the fields of Homer Fullager, a farmer in the Penn Yan area who grew grapes used for Welch’s grape juice, and berries. In early spring, the ladies tied up grape vines, then picked berries from June to August, and went on to harvest grapes in the early fall. The work was demanding, but they all seemed to enjoy being outdoors, and I doubt any of the women had to live off their earnings, all having husbands with jobs. In the 1950s and 60s, local labor managed the fields, and Catherine made some extra money while chatting with the other ladies. Paula was very good at picking, and made ten dollars and change during her week in the fields. When I found this out, I was ready to plunge in. Then we got to the field, and it turns out that I was a terrible berry picker. I didn’t see all the ripe berries, so my aunt had to go over the bushes I had supposedly picked. Before the week was up, I was sitting in the shade reading. I think I made three dollars from my week. (I lost that contest.) Our trip to Syracuse fueled reading about plane travel, and watching Sky King on TV, but it didn’t lead to more travel for a number of years.
We visited New York with increasing frequency, and by high school, we could navigate the train into New York, and the subway system. I never got as far as Brooklyn or Coney Island, but we managed to get to Little Italy and Chinatown to eat, and to the lower east side to shop. My mother discovered the discount clothing stores there, back when the garment district still existed, and she occasionally took us along. Another big visit was the day we went to buy Paula a cello. New York is the city that has everything, and we went to the district of musical instruments. Back then, it was still practical to drive into the city and possible to park near one’s destination. I remember the smell of wood, and some parts of instruments, as well as a row of cellos. I’m not even sure why I got to go along, but it was an intriguing day, and we put the cello in the back of the car and headed home.
Little by little, I got used to going to different places, seeing different things, and learning that the world included a lot of different customs, and that usually, the polite thing was to go with the flow.