Block Party

Returning to my hometown for my fifty year class reunion primed me for a talk with Mom the next time I visited her. Her recollections of the pain of neighborhood politics, gossip and our outsider status fused uncomfortably with my mostly happy memories of the time we’d lived on Eleventh Street in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. My foggy and innocent recollections were in for an awakening.

“I drove by our old house on Eleventh Street,” I said. “It looks the same but so much smaller. Do you remember anything about that time?”

“I remember it all,” she replied ruefully.

“I loved it there,” I broke in. “From our back door, you could see everything. The whole square block. Neighbors sitting in lawn chairs, mowing the grass or working in their gardens. All the backyards, so nicely kept up, right up to that grassy middle section that was like an empty field in the center. Remember that field? We’d go out there all the time and play with the other kids. And how the grown-ups would sit out there and visit. You and Dad did that, didn’t you, Mom?”

“No,” she shook her head slowly. “We never felt welcome. We really didn’t fit in. I think it had something to do with Dad being a policeman. Remember Sandy who lived around the corner? She always had beer parties in the afternoon on her back porch. I was never invited.”

“Well, you were the wife of a policeman, Mom. Maybe that’s why. You were never the afternoon beer party type anyway.” This seemed to ease her a bit.

Before moving to Eleventh Street, we’d lived in several different towns and rental homes because Dad was transferred each time he was promoted. I’d just begin to fit in and we’d be moving. After becoming a sergeant, he figured this was his last upgrade so we finally bought a house. A place where we’d be staying forever. For me, that was from elementary school through my high school graduation in 1963.

Fond du Lac was a blue collar factory town; back then most people worked at Giddings and Lewis Machine Tool, Mercury Marine and John Deere. In the nearby villages of Rosendale and Lomira, the jolly Green Giant provided seasonal employment during harvesting and canning season. In high school, city kids would ride a bus out to work in the fields or the factory. I wanted to but Dad wouldn’t let me work there. He said my baby sitting jobs gave me enough spending money.

It’d been fifty years since we lived on Eleventh Street but Mom’s memories were clear and precise. Most often she’d be sitting without her hearing aid, staring at the TV blasting a program she couldn’t understand. But, I’d soon see, there was nothing wrong with her long-term memory.  That day, she filled in the details of her life on Eleventh Street.

For instance, Mr. and Mrs. Gill, who lived next door, presented a challenge for my people-pleasing mom. There was no getting on the good side of Mr. and Mrs. Gill. They seemed proud to announce they’d had no children and held me and my five siblings in absolute disdain. We didn’t dare step a foot, not even a big toe, over the imaginary line they insisted defined their property. Robert Frost’s wisdom about fences and neighbors surely applied here.

So, it was surprising the day Mrs. Gill knocked on our door. Her problem with her husband was unique. “Can’t get him off the toilet” she anxiously reported. Could Mother come over and help? Which, of course, she did.

When Mom found out our family and the Gill’s had the same doctor, she called Dr. Huebner’s office and he made a house call. They got Mr. Gill into bed and Dr. Huebner left with no 911call or ambulance. After that day, friendly relations between my family and the Gills’ returned to pre-crisis mode. But Mother was undeterred. She continued to occasionally take home-baked goods over to the Gills’ with no better results.

A little less serious was the milk delivery clash between my mother and the neighbor who lived next door on the other side. We’d moved to Eleventh Street from a rental and arranged for Borden to transfer milk delivery to the new house. Seeing Frenchy, the Borden milkman, was one of our weekly delights.

We’d hear the rumble of Frenchy’s white panel truck with Elsie the cow painted on the side as it turned the corner. Then as it stopped, out jumped Frenchy in his white uniform with monogrammed name tag; his crinkled white hat with the Borden insignia covered the few wisps of hair that still remained under the visor. The jokes and questions were unending. When he asked how my time at camp had been the week before, I felt pretty special. How, I wondered, did he get his route done if he spent so much time talking to kids all along the way?

According to Hazel, the woman next door, we’d committed a great faux pas. Borden was not the right milk company. Everybody knew that. Borden, a national company, probably was squeezing out a local mom and pop dairy operation. But Mother stood strong, bore the scorn of Hazel and we continued to look forward to seeing and talking to Frenchy twice a week.

Hazel’s husband, Francis, often cornered my dad for a driveway conversation. Dad wasn’t outgoing like my mom; he mostly listened. Francis worked at a local factory and wasn’t too happy about that. He’d been raised on a farm, still went out there to help his parents but seemed to think farm work was demeaning. Once he told my dad that he could have become a policeman himself if he’d wanted to, since “there wasn’t that much to it.” According to Mom, Dad cleared his throat as he was accustomed to doing, puffed on his pipe and just listened.

Mom chuckled as she recalled the Millard’s. One day, Mrs. Millard began insisting that the family name was MillARD with emphasis on the last syllable. She thought it was classier to be called MillARD than Millard. Maybe she’s the inspiration for British television’s Mrs. Bucket. But any special refinement she thought this gave her was dashed when their son ran into some juvenile delinquency problems. How fortunate for my family that Dad was on the Wisconsin State Patrol and not a city or county officer. For quite some time the shades were all drawn at the Millard house and no one seemed to be around.

Because this was an era where mothers said “go outside and play,” all the kids on the block became close, forming alliances and special play activities. My younger sister enjoyed playing football with the boys. Quite a crowd showed up the day we had a funeral and burial for a dead bird we’d found. The brick and mortar outdoor grill on the edge of our backyard served as a house for our paper doll scenarios.

When I was old enough to hire out as a baby-sitter, these children of all ages became my economic windfall. Entering homes as an employee gave me insider information on the dynamics of family life other than my own. Sandy, of back-porch-beer-party fame, was not the best housekeeper. And behind the closed doors of her home, she screamed unrelentingly at her husband and children. The high school English teacher down the block left a clearly written encyclopedia of instructions that covered every possible emergency. The everything-in-its-place sterility of this home left me wondering if these children ever had any fun. Out of control partiers. Marital challenges. Struggles with rambunctious children. The block’s openness left little to the imagination and I sometimes wished I’d known less.

Inevitably, my feelings about the neighborhood evolved in my later teenage years as my awareness came clear of how stifling a small town could be. Fondy was a place where you either got married and started having children or you got out of town. I was happy to leave for college and a new life and look back now with mixed emotions.

Talking with Mom that day helped me balance my childlike perception with her adult realism. What I’d experienced was fairly typical. Fond du Lac was an average and usual small town filled with the undercurrents of personal conflicts, unspoken rules and agendas and small town politics. But it was also where neighbors could call on neighbors when in need. Maybe too, it was the beginning of my understanding and acceptance of the microcosm of humanity that can be found anywhere. I’ve decided to cherish the great time I had growing up on Eleventh Street. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything!

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