I’ve spent my life swimming in an ocean of underachieving overachiement.
I never ever knew I could lead an extraordinary life. An ordinary life was all I’ve ever known. Languishing somewhere in the middle.
I was raised in an environment of protection, warmth, comfort, and safety. I had a 9 to 5 white-collared Dad who helped pioneer data processing as we know it today, carpooled 25 miles to and from work every day, listened to the Cubs and White Sox games on the radio, replaced bad tubes in the television when needed, painted the house every other year, and generally was the king of the to-do list. Our quasi Leave-It-To-Beaver stay-at-home Mom who cooked and cleaned, was a voracious reader, and loved to bake desserts like apple-dumplings, chocolate eclairs, Boston creme pie (which my younger sister Donna thought was busted cream pie), pineapple up-side-down cake, and all other kinds of delightful delights. She was my Room-Mother at school, the PTA Secretary, Girl Scout Leader, Catechism teacher on Sundays at church, VFW secretary, raised cockatiels and was the Illinois Society’s Secretary, a member of the ASPCA, and a librarian.
My folks were survivors of many things in their lives prior to meeting and marrying such as the great Depression, Mom’s father dying from tuberculous in a veterans hospital in Kentucky when she was 15, and World War II when they both served their country — Dad as a sailor for the Coast Guard in the Mediterranean Sea and Mom a Secretary for Adjutant General Ulio in the Pentagon as well as a page for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt accompanying her to war bond rallies representing the Army branch. Once married, they started having children nearly immediately where Mom quit her job with American Airlines and Dad snagged a job at Country Mutual Insurance in Chicago. After having two girls they broke ground for a new home in the suburbs. The day they closed on the house, however, Dad received the news he was being transferred to downstate Central Illinois with the company. That’s when they bought a home outside the city to which they were relocating and moved their now 3 young girls, calico cat Princess, and German Shepherd King to a village of less than 1,000 inhabitants which included the surrounding family farms in the area. That was a culture shock, for sure.
Although my parents had a many-layered fabric of experiences, I believe they strove to make their children’s environment as free from worry and worldly encumbrances as possible. We were, quite frankly, sheltered. Our school was small with only 19 kids in my whole class. We attended the small St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in a neighboring town where we found ourselves every week dressed to the nines with our hats placed strategically on our heads, white cotton gloves signifying us as proper young ladies, carrying a small change-purse with a quarter for the collection basket, and clutching a tiny prayer book in hand.
There was Mr. Cooper’s Mom and Pop grocery up the street, we walked the 2 blocks to pick up our mail at the Post Office every day (no home delivery then or now), 25 cents a week for allowance which bought 5 large candy bars (one for after school each day). I played badminton in the backyard until dark with my best friend Vicky across the alley followed by dragging out webbed folding lounge lawn chairs and gazing at the stars trying to pick out constellations by shining a flashlight on the dog-eared pages of our Encyclopedia Britannica to compare star formations. “Over there is the big dipper. Can you make it out?” We cooled off on a scorching hot day at the town pool 1 1/2 blocks away at the home of our PE and typing teacher, Mrs. Tackett. One of my best friends from school’s Dad ran the local Sinclair full service gas station 2 1/2 blocks from home where we would hand over a nickel and get an ice cold cream soda out of the old lightly rusting metal cooler. Brown’s drug store counter uptown where we’d go after school for a chocolate soda or Iris’s cafe where the milkshakes and cheeseburgers were divine. The only speed on our bikes was the one powered by our pumping legs. We walked nearly a mile to and from school no matter what the weather always in a dress or skirt. And who can say they didn’t suffer from fried stinky home permanents. We never heard of a pedicure or manicure unless you were a rich person from the city. Madge from the Palmolive commercials was our first inkling that regular folk actually went and had that done in a salon. We hung our skate key on a string around our neck as we roller skated on the sidewalk in front of the house in the summer and ice skated on the same sidewalk in the winter. Mr. Warsaw tied a sled to the back of his car and pulled us up and down the street on snow days. Dad still slid under the car to change the oil and propped up the hood to tinker with the engine. There was always one bolt or screw leftover when he was finished as he exclaimed, “Oh, it probably wasn’t that important anyway.” (Yikes!).
Our home air conditioning was a bowl full of ice cubes sitting on the fireplace hearth with a rubber oscillating fan behind it supposedly cooling the room (not!). Prickly heat ruled the day. During the week breakfast was a bowl of cold cereal, lunch was often white bread cheese sandwiches and a dill pickle. On Fridays we made pizza from a box of mix and a little can of sauce, and shared a bottle of Pepsi with my sisters making sure we got equal portions then filled the rest with ice cubes we wrangled free from their metal tray. Saturdays we almost always had hamburgers with macaroni and tomatoes for supper. (What? yep macaroni and tomatoes.) Sunday evening we shared a bowl of popcorn sitting between us as we sat on the floor in front of the console TV, and one of us had to get up to switch the channel selector to Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. “Hey I did it last time. It’s your turn.”
We were home by dark, and bedtime was at 9:00 pm every day — winter, spring, summer, and fall. Homework was done right after school and there was always lots of it. We took turns setting and clearing the table, and always did the dishes after meals. Our beds were made, and our rooms were cleaned. I wore hand-me-down dresses from my older sister and relished the annual 1 or 2 new dresses for school. Easter was always fun because we usually got a new dress and hat for that special occasion. I actually didn’t own my first pair of blue jeans until I was 19 years old and had been working in an office for two years already. That’s pretty much all I wear now.
Music was doo wop, Rosemary Clooney, and later the Beatles and Rolling Stones that we listened to on WLS 89 radio out of Chicago. Who didn’t like Records Landecker or listen to Animal Stories with Larry Lujack? After school we watched Annette Funicello and the Mousketeers. “M.I.C…(See you real soon)…K.E.Y… (Why? Because we like you!”) That transitioned to looking forward to doing the mashed potato with the kids from Hullaballo, and fell in love with Nancy Sinatra on Dick Clark and American Bandstand with her divine knee-high white walking boots became the ultimate fashion statement. “I give it an 8, Dick. It’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it.”
I ran track, sang in the chorus, and played in the band. Yes, the band. The clarinet took up 30-40 hours a week of my time. Marching band practice was also mixed in there. We went to parades, and I was in parades as though I worked for the Post Office — “neither, rain, nor sleet, nor dark of night will keep us from our rounds.” And I hasten to add freezing cold, snow, ice, and fierce winds the whole while wearing a short white skirt and uncomfortable calf-high white boots. Can you say layers of nude-colored tights?
Fourth of July was always in the next small town 5 miles away where they always had a dinky but fun carnival, and where we spread out a tattered blanket staking out our spot on the softball field, swatting mosquitoes in the sweltering summer heat, and watched as each firework was set off individually with pauses between each. This was so in the 60’s continues on through today. It’s a charming and steadfast tradition. “Oooohhhhh, aaaahhhhh…” As each explodes in differing colors and sizes in front of the large trees in the park. Just try to get the car out of there after they’re over in a short amount of time. It’s more of a big dang deal than the carnival or fireworks. “Oh, come on, it’s our turn! Let us in will ya?”
We should all have such problems. We were always given good examples and expected to be good citizens. Obey the law, do your homework, go to church, do your chores, keep your room picked up, be nice to others, get along with your sisters (okay, that may have been a stretch for us girls), and occupy your time wisely. When we were to become adults we knew were expected to be law-abiding, productive members or society, and make a living supporting ourselves living off our dime, not theirs. Take care of our own and make sure we are solvent before helping others, but helping others was always a great thing to do. Giving to communities devastated by tornadoes, sending books to the children in the Appalachians, adopting our own charitable family for Christmas, giving used eyeglasses to African children, dropping a turkey off at the Mission, donating diapers to the battered women’s shelter, taking care of our clothes so they would be good enough to donate to the church missionary collection, feed a starving cat, etc. Always look for ways to help out. Never send your family’s money to someone else, however, and then end up needing it to help feed your own. Responsibility of every kind was just expected. It wasn’t shoved down our throats, but we always knew how to stay the path.
It was the type of upbringing in the 50’s and 60’s people wax poetic about. Good solid Midwestern Americans being productive citizens, working, obeying the law, paying their taxes, going to church, being studious, and participating in society. Who wouldn’t have wanted to grow up like that? I am one of the luckiest people on the planet, and I definitively know it.
Here’s the but; there’s always a but. My life was structured around compliance and societal norms. There was always that you can grow up to do whatever you want so take typing and shorthand classes so you can be a good secretary, or whatever that was in the 60’s. My biggest expectation of myself was to work in an office as a secretary. I achieved that before I was even out of high school and was hired by a large company to start the week after graduation at age 17. I was so happy and proud to have a full-time job. I kept a steady long-term job my entire adult life going to work, supporting myself, raising our own family while driving home the same point of producing the same type of adult who would adhere to the same societal norms that were expected of me. Is any of this wrong. Absolutely not, but from my point of view we have inherited and passed down from generation to generation our greatest achievement of staying the course. You know, many of our greatest creative and wildly successful personage have come from varied and differing backgrounds that had childhoods and pasts with some kind of dysfunction or extraordinary uniqueness of thought or genius. People who weren’t just wrapped in a cocoon of comfort who looked for creative ways to reinvent themselves, their circumstances, and their world. Those of us without all that craziness become complacent with our bubble-wrapped existence. In my world I knew extraordinary people were out there, but they weren’t here. They were out there, wherever that was.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with an ordinary life, a great family, an ordinary job with benefits, in an ordinary town, with ordinary expectations; but just think if I could counsel my young self on breaking out of that sheltered comfort I came to know as business as usual. I may have been able to embark on something more fascinating, challenging, and in some way extraordinary. Then again, maybe not. I am and continue to be that happily ordinary person in a comfortable life. Evaluate your circumstances and look to be divinely unique out there!… Sandy