Dandelion Days in the Old Neighborhood
By Carol Martino
Root beer Fizzies, snickerdoodles, penny candy, hopscotch, “Howdy Doody Time”, Romper Room's magic mirror, dandelions, and playing hide and seek as fireflies blinked like tiny stars within our reach. Ah, the sweet memories of growing up in the 1950s.
It’s been more than half a century since my family lived on South Prairie Street in Bradley, IL. I was only nine when we moved from the “old neighborhood” in 1959. Since then, I’ve returned many times in memory and in recurring dreams of living in a tree-lined child’s paradise filled with friends my age – Patty, Lillette, Margie, Mary and Brenda -- and a bunch of other kids a bit younger or older, including my three siblings.
For the first few years after our move, my friends and I shared letters and drawings through the mail, but eventually we grew up, grew apart, and moved in all directions; our correspondence dwindled to the occasional birthday and Christmas cards. Then on my 55th birthday, I received a package in the mail from Patty. The heart of a child that had once belonged to me was beating inside. She had saved every one of my letters. It was the best gift ever! Shortly after, we decided to return to the old neighborhood.
They say you can’t go back, because “back” isn’t there anymore. But in memory,
you can go back, and we did. As Patty and I walked through the old neighborhood, our senses were alive with the raw joys of childhood. It was absolute magic!
Through the rosy glow of our memories, Prairie Street was like a Norman Rockwell portrait of quintessential America. Yielding to nostalgia’s ache, we traced the steps of childhood and embraced its innocence and simplicity.
In memory, we clenched pennies in our tiny fists as we walked to Bispings, the neighborhood store where penny candy lined shelves behind the counter – root beer barrels, Bazooka bubble gum, flying saucers, candy buttons, licorice whips; and for a nickel we could buy a Popsicle or a colorful pack of Nik-L-Nip wax bottles filled with sweet juice. On the way out, if we had a penny or two left, we'd feed the gumball machine. What a thrill it was to see trinkets or pop beads roll out with those chewy little morsels.
Dandelion days of summer
Summertime was the best. I'd get up early, but Mom wouldn't let me go out to play until around 8 a.m. I'd head straight to Patty's house. She usually wasn't up yet, but I’d sit on her front porch until I heard her mom puttering around in the kitchen. Then I’d stand at the door and sing “Paaaaaa-ty.” Back in the ‘50s, kids didn’t knock on doors. We just sang the names of our friends, over and over, until someone answered. Patty's mom was one of the prettiest moms on the block, and she always opened the door with a warm smile that made me feel special. Sometimes, she'd ask me to join Patty for cinnamon toast and Bosco.
Before long, screen doors slammed up and down the block as our friends greeted the day, ready to play. We usually gathered at Lillette’s house because she had the biggest front porch, the nicest garage, the smoothest sidewalk, and a paved driveway that was great for skating. Besides that, her mom grew petunias.
We sat pretzel-legged on her porch playing jacks, challenging each other with onesies, twosies, and scooping eggs in a basket. When the game was over, we turned our energies to hopscotch, the “sky blue” version. One of us usually had a stub of chalk to draw the game on the sidewalk, and we often carried "markers" in our pockets -- old jewelry chains worked best, but linked bobby pins, trinkets, or even a rock would do. Sweat dripped from our sun-kissed cheeks as we hopped the squares from one to nine, trying to reach the sky without stepping on a line.
During our visit to the old neighborhood, a wistful smile graced Patty’s face as we walked past her childhood home. The maple sapling her dad planted years ago has grown beyond Patty’s “knee-high” memories and now towers above other trees on the block. As we made our way down the street, we noticed that the gnarl-limbed crab apple tree no longer stands on Mary’s corner. Each spring, we waited for its glorious pink blossoms to produce fruit so we could sink our teeth into its tender flesh. By season’s end, our tummies were tired of those tiny red apples, but oh what fun it was to squish-pop them with our bicycle tires.
There was a great sense of peace as we relived memories of playing on Margie’s face-to-face glider swing, making up silly songs until our moms called us home. Well, as Patty reminded me, my mom never actually called me home -- she whistled me there. Seems like Mom’s whistling caresses the memories of all my childhood friends. When it was time for lunch, a nap, supper, or bed, she’d slip her index fingers between her teeth and whistle a strong, clear tone that told me and my siblings it was time to come home. There, she’d be waiting for us, whistling a tune while hanging clothes on the line or doing dishes as the scent of warm cookies, usually snickerdoodles, filled the kitchen.
On summer nights, all the neighbor kids played freeze tag or statue in Patty’s backyard, because she had the softest grass. Sometimes we’d just be silly; spinning around until we were so dizzy we’d fall to the ground giggling. Our favorite game was hide-and-seek, which had a four-yard boundary, beginning at Patty’s house and ending at mine. Nobody’s parents cared if we accidentally bent limbs, squished shrubs, or trampled petunias. Some of us had younger siblings in tow as we searched for a good place to hide, often swatting bagworm cocoons from our faces if we chose a spot near an evergreen. The intoxicating hum of cicadas diminished the night’s inky blackness as we silently waited for the kid who was “it” to sing, “ready or not, here I come.” Later, the lucky ones who couldn’t be found would run to base, moonlight shining on their faces, as “olly, olly oxen free” rang in the distance.
As Patty and I walked through the alley behind our homes, I thought about the alley-picking days of my youth, prying mustard jars from ashes for lightening bugs. However, she recalled the times we hung out in my dad’s garage, which he called "Bob's Bicycle Shop." He fixed bicycles in his spare time, and for a nickel he’d patch flat tires, fix broken chains, replace spokes, and straighten bent fenders for all the kids. When they picked up their bicycles, he'd always give them back a few pennies to spend at Bispings.
As much as we loved summer, we looked forward to school each fall. Most of the kids on our block attended nearby St. Joseph’s Catholic School. One of the most memorable years was second grade when we prepared to make our First Holy Communion. Our loving teacher, Sister Mary Judith, taught us our prayers - The Hail Mary, Our Father, and Glory Be, along with the Ten Commandments. She explained that we had reached “the age of reason” and were now accountable for our sins. Sister warned us about the devil, who would follow us through life trying to trip us up in sins, like lying, fighting with our siblings, disobeying our parents, or having poor penmanship.
When the big day finally arrived, we received beautiful prayer books edged in gold, rosary beads, and cloth scapulars that were worn close to our skin to keep us from the devil’s grip.
That summer, hoping to get a glimpse of the devil himself, Margie and I brushed Popsicle sticks back and forth on the sidewalk, sharpening them to a point. This was the tool we used to dig a hole so deep it would reach hell. But, the devil must have been out tempting kids the days we dug, or maybe we didn’t dig deep enough. Eventually, we just gave up.
After decades of absence in the old neighborhood, it was quite surreal for Patty and me to revisit our dandelion days on Prairie Street when our greatest challenge was licking Popsicles fast enough so the juice wouldn’t drip down our wrists. We didn’t face the unimaginable pressures of kids today. We were simply allowed to be kids until we weren’t anymore.
Times have changed. But it doesn’t really matter if kids grow up in the ‘50s or in he new millennium. They still thrive on happy memories of their childhood home -- a place where they can return with an old friend and relive the innocence, the simplicity, and the warm-fuzzy feeling that all is right in the world.
Note: This recently revised article was first published in The Daily Journal, Kankakee, IL.