MID-AMERICA MELTING POT
PREFACE: On Thanksgiving week-end–2014, my husband, daughter and I drove to my old neighborhood in Kansas City…just out of curiousity. It had been 57 years since I had seen it. It had changed a LOT. The elm trees that arched over the streets so beautifully had all died of the dutch-elm disease, and most of the houses were in disrepair. Some looked as though someone still cared though (thankfully, the two I had lived in during grade school, and Jr. & Sr. High School looked great–they were only two blocks apart). Still, it was fun to say, “so & so lived in that house, etc…and to try to remember the neighbors names. Many of the shops had been torn down, so several of the areas looked rather eerie and bleak .
Our old Church was still standing and looked pretty good…the church where I grew up and got married. I’m glad I went…with many of the loved ones of our family now gone…it was re-assuring that I really DID experience these wonderful things I’ve written about below, and that I was BLESSSED beyond measure to have those “care-free” times etched in my memory banks so lovingly.
When our autistic son, Ben was at KU Medical Center being diagosed in 1966…my husband and I each had to talk with a Psychiatrist during that procedure. He asked me about my childhood, and I told him honestly that my parents loved each other, and I had pleasant memories, etc. In years later, I got to see what he had written, and he had exclaimed, “She idealized her childhood!” That bothered me at the time (I was young then). As the years have gone by though, I have seen and heard what many other people have been through while growing-up. I can imagine that with what all he probably heard from others, he could not believe someone could have been so fortunate. I rejoice that God knew what was ahead of me…in dealing with autism for so many years…and gave me a loving background to strengthen me to deal with it. PRAISE BE TO GOD!
STORY: Mid-America Melting Pot
My growing up years took place in a neighborhood so varied and flavorful that it exemplified America’s “melting pot”. Our home was located among other comfortable middle-class bungalows in the central portion of Kansas City, Missouri. We lived side-by-side with Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant families who originated from many different national origins. I, a Norman, played with children whose last names ranged from Goodbinder, Holzapfel, Hopfinger, Finkelstein, Ceule, and Mingucci…to Palmer, Gill, Murphy, Lowe, and Eber. It seemed quite normal then for children of such varying ethnic and religious persuasions to pool their imaginations in order to pass a summer’s day, enabling it to come alive with memories in later years.
What did we do for fun in the 1940’s? Our enjoyment came from simple pleasures, or so they seem now. I remember eating my home-made lunch out-of-doors with my neighborhood chums. We sat on the foundation rocks of a home that had burned down years ago; the adjacent rocks serving as our tables. It was fun just being together outside with no direct means of supervision in sight. There was a freedom in the long, languid days which provided a respite from the school year with all its rigorous demands; a time to heal and recoup after dealing with tests, bullies, and expectations we weren’t positive we had met.
The shade of the full-grown elm trees with the sunbeams filtering through their boughs, seemed to give that setting a magical, wooded-glen aura. It provided a cool breeze on a hot summer’s day that seemed to exist only in that one particular spot. We made dolls out of the ruffled hollyhock blossoms that bravely fought their way out of the little gatherings of soil caught between those rocks. We fashioned skirts out of the full-grown blooms. A small twig held a new-formed bud to the body as the head, and two more small twigs made arms for our dancing girls; their gowns designed by Mother Nature. The lazy caterpillars that we fondly called “woolly-worms,” observed our creations approvingly as they perched amongst the flowers. We would stop periodically, coercing them to crawl the length of our ticklish arms. Their fuzzy coats were so pleasant to the touch. It was a sensation long-remembered.
Many of our neighbors had Victory gardens during World War II in order to raise their own vegetables. The lady across the street from us wanted her produce sold door-to-door…so provided a wagon (with her two-year-old son sitting in it)… and put my 11-year old sister in charge. The entire neighborhood gang (of varying ages) was always looking for something new and exciting to do, so we all tagged along too. We covered about a three block radius and had great fun while also learning the art of salesmanship. The older children looked out for the younger ones, and we all benefited from the experience. No one was scared of knocking on doors, or being taken advantage of. We did so with our parent’s approval. and met some really nice people!
On especially hot, muggy summer afternoons, the whole neighborhood crew boarded the street-car and traveled southward to Swope Park…to the public swimming pool available there. It was a long ride, followed by an even longer walk. We traveled past the zoo, then down the rocky and wooded slopes which harbored winding stairways built into the native stone. They eventually led to a mysterious swinging bridge which we always found excuses to linger on, traversing it several times. Then, we endured a trek around a lagoon that fishing enthusiasts especially enjoyed. Finally, we arrived at our destination. We stayed the day, and were so exhausted and sunburnt by the time we ventured home that we could hardly make it back through the labyrinth to the bus turn-around on our corner. On Spring or Fall days, when the weather was more relenting, we would again make our journey to the park, and hike through its woods, over the giant rocks, and back down through the manicured lawns and gardens so foreign to our small neighborhood plots.
Several times throughout the summer, when we were longing to feel a refreshing breeze, we would beg my father to take us to the Liberty Memorial. It was located in the downtown area, and was high on a hill directly opposite the Union Station. The monument was built in tribute to those who had died in World War I. Its tower was topped with a flame continually aglow in honor of those soldiers who had performed acts of bravery or given their lives for their country. Massive stairways covered the steep hillside, and impressive statues graced the battle displays. These features, plus the fact that the stars were so clearly visible and the downtown skyscrapers loomed so majestically, made it almost more than my sensitive spirit could withstand.
My sister and I took piano lessons in downtown Kansas City at Jenkin’s Music Company. Sometimes a neighborhood chum would accompany us. My mother would come shopping there on those days and meet us afterwards. My father would pick us up on his way home from work at Swift and Company in Kansas City, Kansas. We would then drive out Main street to the Country Club Plaza, which was one of the very first suburban shopping centers in the country at that time. It was beautiful — its fountains and Spanish motifs so far removed from anything I was familiar with, that they stirred my imagination. We ate at Winstead’s close by, even now featured in National Geographic for its famous hamburgers. They served frosty malts too, and I can still remember how they tasted after a hard day’s play, a trip downtown on the bus, and a difficult half-hour piano lesson. I was starved to death!
Our trip back home took us by the Nelson Gallery of Art, and through a beautiful neighborhood, which was considered quite exclusive in those days. The front lawn of the Gallery was an expanse of greenery like I had never seen before, and I marveled at its beauty. I did not realize at the time the extent of acclaim that the Gallery enjoyed, or its appeal in the national world of Art! We had visited all the wonders housed in its interior during the school year, and I was in complete awe of the whole edifice. When we returned home in the summer evening, we forgot all the stimulation of our urban travels. We collected lightning-bugs as they flickered in the still darkness of the summer twilight; their glow illuminating our yards like stars close enough to reach out and hand-pick. It was almost a nightly ritual as bedtime approached; a ploy to spend more time in the evening coolness after a hot and humid Missouri afternoon. Also, the smell of honeysuckle permeated the air, giving us a new lease on life and restoring our limp bodies with one last burst of energy before the day was done.
Periodically, we marched up and down the sidewalks spying locusts’ shells on the enormous elm trees that arched their leafy branches like a giant arbor over our neighborhood. Equipped with sticks and jars, we knocked them off the trees, eager to see who could accumulate the greatest number of specimens. Their shells were eerie; brown, bug-eyed caricatures of the creatures who had come to life and escaped their bondage. The rhythmic whir of the emerged locusts’ wings brought a comforting sense of peace and tranquillity to my surroundings as the sun descended.
In the evenings, we rode our bicycles down to the turn-around. No matter what our ages, we always seemed to have a special “someone” whose company we diligently sought. We tended to pair off, and each boy soon found himself carrying a girl on the front bars of his bike; his willing arms encircling her as he clasped the handlebars to steer. What bliss! It was so simple and innocent, but just the feeling of being close and protected was enough to build a dream on. My particular boyfriend sang a song to me as we rode along that I will never forget. Its message thrilled me, as it was the first words of endearment I had encountered from someone of the opposite gender. It went something like this, “Rings on my fingers, bells on my toes, say that you love me, my little Irish Rose.” I don’t know what ever became of that boy, but I still remember how I felt that summer evening as we rode along, and the sweet contentment that can only be experienced by sensing that the attraction you are feeling, is mutual!
As I grew closer to adulthood, and it was destined that I move away from the old neighborhood, it became necessary for me to sever some of my relationships; though not my memories. To this day, I can close my eyes and recapture all of the sights, sounds, smells and feelings that I experienced in those long-ago summer days that were so spontaneous and full of joy. It was truly an era when the descriptive term “melting pot” meant just what it said…that we were able to live, work, play and even disagree with some semblance of harmony…always growing and learning from each other and our many shared experiences.