If I said I’m from Chicago, you probably wouldn’t believe me. And you’d be right. I’m from the sprawling south Chicago suburbs which beckoned my city-raised parents with dreams of a better life for their children. Still, I was born and bred in a hard-knock Bridgeport family, with stories about the south side so vivid and raw, it’s almost as if I lived them.
But I didn’t. I spent holidays at our community church 25 miles southwest of the city. On a clear day driving down 159th Street in Oak Forest, you can see the Chicago skyline in the distance. Church was always full with second-generation, die-hard Catholics whose turn at the donation basket more than made up for their occasional Sunday absence. At my communion, I stood chubby in front of a Mother Mary statue, wearing white and clasping a rosary as if never a more devout daughter was born.
Maybe it was the Catholic guilt or the winters spent hiding from ghosts at my dad’s aunt’s haunted house in Blue Island that gave me a rebellious soul. It could have been Thanksgiving Day celebrations huddled around small kitchen TVs broadcasting the White Sox game while my aunt and uncle chain-smoked and talked shit about Bobby Thigpen’s relief pitching efforts and argued over who’d baste the turkey.
Somewhere between my old Polish grandma swearing at me to get the hell out of her hair and tucking me in ever so sweetly at night while singing, “Come Josephine on my flying machine,” a tough-spirited, warm-hearted woman was born inside me.
Childhood was synonymous with fishing for Bluegills at Turtle Head Lake, hunting for toads, and bike riding through thousands of acres of Cook County forest preserves. Just because we didn’t live in the city, though, didn’t mean I didn’t have strong ties to Chicago’s south side. Scoring tickets to Sox Games was a favorite pastime.
Parking at my grandma’s old house in Bridgeport while my dad told us stories about the Daley’s above the deafening street bucket drummers was our pre-game ritual. Christmas Eve we’d dodge in and out of junk shops on Wentworth Avenue in Chinatown before slurping down wonton soup at Won Kow. My siblings and I would try to hide our disgust at open-air fish markets, and secretly scoff at the dirty streets which had a grit us suburban kids would come to crave later in life.
I took up smoking cigarettes at 16 and hung out with other girls from high school whose affluent hippie parents encouraged free expression and good times. I only cut class once. That day, I felt guilty for missing marching band practice while my fellow classmates undoubtedly had their ankles feasted on by mosquitos.
I fell in love with a boy from college, and on fall breaks we’d walk hand-in-hand at a pre-fabricated nature park. We “hiked” (for a lack of a better term for flat Midwestern terrain) to the top of a manmade waterfall and etched our initials into an oak tree. We’d steal kisses while walking trails covered in leaves red as the sun before it dips below the horizon. He broke up with me to chase after the next season and whoever that brought with it.
I looked up to my older sister and her Mexican boyfriend. We’d sit in tiny tacquerias practicing Spanish and eating spicy pickled vegetables. I wondered if I’d ever find a love as passionate as theirs.
In my older years, I’d come to wonder why I was overweight, but never attributed it to gyro platters on Friday nights from Mickey’s, deep dish pizza from Nancy’s, or endless brews at one of Beverly’s beer gardens. Good times were never in short supply, as everyone on the south side was ready for a misadventure. The more, the merrier. Throw beer in the equation, and what’s left to discuss? A house party in Pilsen? “Don’t get killed,” my friend joked.
During quiet times in suburbia, I’d lose myself in the forest behind my house and some early mornings, watch deer casually stroll into my front yard. Some nights I’d lay in bed, hiding under the blankets from the lightning, the rolling thunder disrupting my sleep with its roar.
During the summer, we’d attend the outer suburbs’ block parties, but nothing came close to the old days of hanging out with my dad’s cousins in Oak Lawn. With Boston’s “Don’t Look Back” blasting in the garage, burgers frying on the grill, and kids running from the sprinkler to the above-ground pool, a pool/garage party was the ultimate sign that we were living “da life.” No one could take that away from us.
After too much to drink, my parents talked about old-school Bridgeport characters from their youth like Casey with the Neck and the neighborhood witches. My dad would fondly reminisce about knocking over trash cans and jumping rooftop to rooftop. My mom told stories about the mafia on her block. My dad had his fingertips slapped with a ruler by mean nuns at De La Salle. I considered detention rough.
When grandma died last year, we all went to her funeral in the city. After her wake, we drove in a line through Bridgeport and I saw vestiges of my family’s past life on every corner: I watched my dad and mom running amuck, tavern to tavern; I saw my tough, sweet family gathered around a Christmas tree in the window of their old house; I saw my mom helping my grandma clean doctors’ offices to make a living. This was a place I was removed from, but felt so close to.
During the church service, as I helped carry my grandma’s body down the aisle with my siblings and cousins, I thought about my family’s love of the south side and their life-long devotion to it. I cried wishing I could love a place like the south side as much as my family did. Then I realized, I do.