Our Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” the black-suited reverend began, “look down upon this family, these friends. Give them the strength and the courage they need. Let them know that you’re too wise to make a mistake. You’re too good to do wrong . . .”
Sitting in a wooden chair in the front row, her bloodshot eyes fixed upon the cleric, Gloria Williams was not so sure. Those were the charred remains of her 19-year-old daughter Laverne closed up in that gray pine box between her and the preacher. Laverne’s five-year-old daughter Keyata sat quietly in Gloria’s lap, her cheek pressed against her grandmother’s. Laverne’s two other children lay in beds in a hospital burn unit, heavily sedated, thoroughly bandaged, and connected to ventilators and IV units.
Gloria had last seen her daughter a week before the fire. Laverne had talked a long time about a girlfriend of hers who had been neglecting her kids, aged six and younger. “I would never treat mine like that,” Laverne had told her. “She’s goin’ off leavin’ ’em in the house by themselves.” Gloria couldn’t shake herself of this conversation after the fire. “See, them people get the lucky breaks,” Gloria would say later. “And Laverne, she always watched her kids—if she didn’t have nobody to watch ’em and she goin’ somewhere, she’d take ’em with. The ones who go off and leave ’em, ain’t nothin’ happen to them.”
The day after Laverne died, the story on the top of page one in the Chicago Tribune had been about another west-side teen mother who had left her seven-month-old daughter on a pile of frozen rags in an abandoned building for five days. (The baby was malnourished and severely dehydrated, and her feet were frostbitten, but amputation was unnecessary.) The article on Laverne Williams’s death could be found on page six of section two, halfway down the page, beneath a headline three-sixteenths of an inch high: “Mother dies saving 2 children in fire.” In one paragraph, the paper summed it up: “A teenage mother was killed and her two toddlers were critically injured in a house fire. . . . Witnesses saw Laverne Williams, 19, handing her children, Derrick, 3, and Delina, 1, out of a rear window of the home, but she was unable to get out herself . . . ”
The city’s black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, gave Laverne’s death more attention: “W. Siders mourn brave fire victim” read the headline of the front-page story the paper ran three days after the fire. The nine-paragraph article was error-filled, but the comments from the neighbor across the street were right on the mark, Gloria thought. “You look around and you see all these young mothers leaving their children abandoned in filthy buildings, and then something like this happens to somebody who is trying to take care of their kids,” Floyd Bagget, 75, was quoted as saying. “She didn’t do any drinking or hanging out in the street like so many young women do today. She spent all of her time taking care of her children . . . ”
Laverne was a high school dropout, a public aid recipient, and an unwed mother who had, by her own frequent admission, become a parent much too soon. But she was devoted to her kids, say her relatives and friends.
And on an overcast February morning one week after her death, family and friends from her Garfield Park neighborhood had gathered in this funeral home on South Sacramento.
Laverne came from a big family—seven brothers and sisters, including an identical twin, Lavette, and numerous aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and nieces. And she was outgoing and popular. So the place was jammed. There wasn’t an empty chair among the 130, and many laps were filled with youngsters, the girls with their hair all French-braided and barretted. Others lined the wall in the rear and on both sides, five deep on the wider side. Latecomers filled the foyer. The chapel had been overly warm before the visitors arrived; now the throng’s body heat made it oppressive. Many fanned themselves with the funeral program, whose cover featured a blurry, underexposed, head-and-shoulders photo of plump-faced Laverne, smiling as always.
Even more would have attended had the service been in the evening, as Laverne’s family wanted—most folks around here who are employed can’t afford to take off a half day. But public aid was footing the bill for this funeral, and it wouldn’t cover the extra $75 the undertaker wanted for an evening service. Public aid pays for body preparation, the casket, the services at the funeral home, and burial, but this left other expenses for the Williams family: $135 for flowers—arrangements of pink and white carnations in stands on either side of the casket, two heart-shaped bouquets of white and red carnations on the gray box; $110 for the “family car”—the limousine ride to the cemetery; $60 for 200 copies of the funeral program—and 200 copies hadn’t been enough; $35 for the organist; $10 for the book for those attending the service to sign. Relatives contributed what they could to defray the expenses, and so did friends in the neighborhood, most of them chipping in two or three dollars.
Making the funeral arrangements had been a mighty test for Glo (as Gloria is known to most); she couldn’t have gotten through it, she would say later, without the help of her daughters. In the week since the fire, she had not eaten much; her clothes already felt looser. In bed she tossed and turned; she only slept when sitting in a chair and not trying to. When she brushed her hair in the morning, a lot seemed to be coming out. Visits to Cook County Hospital to check on Derrick Jr. and Delina occupied some of her time, but the sight of those two feeble little ones in their hospital beds provided no relief.
It was a week-long battle to maintain composure. And today, before the service began, in the stuffy chapel, while people were still arriving and the organist was playing hymns softly, she had come unglued; she began sobbing uncontrollably. “Oh, Laverne, oh, my baby, mama’s comin’, baby! Ohh, God . . .” Her children took turns trying to comfort her, wrapping her tightly in their arms; but soon her daughters set to wailing and shrieking too, drowning out the organ: “Oh, God, it hurts so bad!” “I want my sister back!” Those filing in found a seat or a place along the wall and watched and listened silently, many eyes moist. The screaming sirens of fire trucks racing by on Sacramento entered the room a few minutes before the service commenced.
Glo and her daughters managed to calm themselves when the reverend stepped up to the microphone. “We’d like to thank those here today who stayed home from work to come out and show your support for this family on the departure of their beloved daughter,” he began.
“I came to warn you that you don’t know for whom the bell tolls. It may be her today and you tomorrow.” (“Uh-huh.” “Amen.”) “Everybody that are here today, I don’t care how beautiful you are, how strong, how tall, how swift—we gon’ leave this world. And chances are when we leave, we ain’t gon’ wan’ leave. But you leavin’ anyhow. Your cycle is runnin’ out right now.” (“Tell ’em ’bout it.”) “Don’t think that you’re invincible. Don’t think that you’re incredible. Death will catch you somewhere and at some time. . . . Death does not discriminate against any of us. We all must come this way . . . ”
Maybe death doesn’t discriminate, but it’s impatient in certain neighborhoods: the bell tolls early and without warning more frequently in Garfield Park than it does in Norwood Park or West Lawn. Blacks in Chicago are burned, beaten, stabbed, and shot to death at much higher rates than are whites; and the racial differences in the rates of sudden, violent deaths are greatest among the young. One of every two Chicagoans 19 and younger is black, but in that age group, two of every three fire fatalities and three of every four homicide victims are black. The disparity is the greatest with the very youngest: among homicide victims four years and younger here in 1986, 23 of 24 were black.
The reverend needn’t worry about these people fancying themselves invincible; from early in their lives, there’s too much evidence to the contrary—too many tragedies, too many deaths—and so often the type necessitating closed caskets. Consider Keyata: Her natural father was shot to death by a gangbanger three years ago (he was 19); now her mother has perished in a fire, and her two siblings have been badly burned. Keyata won’t be six until August.
Laverne herself had fretted about dying violently. “Don’t want nobody findin’ my body in the street, killed by somebody,” she’d tell her twin, Lavette. “I rather die in my sleep or have a heart attack or somethin’.” “Me either, Laverne,” Lavette would reply. “I don’t want nobody find my body all shot up or stabbed to death.”
The people in the chapel knew, especially, the potency of fire; rare is the Garfield Park resident who has never been chased by flames to the street, and there are vacant-lot and blackened-building reminders everywhere. Fire was a “constant and agonizing worry” for Chicago’s blacks in the 1940s, declared a 1949 Chicago Defender; and that hasn’t changed much in four decades. Carelessness of the poorly educated is one cause; but so is their dilapidated housing—old wobbly structures with rotting wiring. Hazardous attempts to warm flats that had little or no heat led to many fires in the 40s, and today many tenants here still rely principally on electric and kerosene space heaters, if not on their oven or stove. A kerosene heater apparently ignited the blaze that killed Laverne.
It was the third fire of her brief life. Lavette started the first one when the twins were two. The space heaters in the Williamses’ apartment did little to keep the place warm at night, and so Glo kept the oven lit and the oven door open all night. Early one morning, Lavette crept out to the kitchen, lit a piece of paper from the oven flame, and carried it back to her bedroom. Glo woke up to the shrieks of her kids and the smell of smoke. She carried the twins and her baby from the apartment; the rest of the kids were able to run out themselves. Most of the little ones’ clothes were destroyed.
Five years ago, Glo and her kids were occupying a basement apartment when a malfunctioning space heater touched off an early morning blaze on the first floor. The Williamses escaped the building safely, but three children on the first floor died. The man living there “woke up out of a drunk,” Glo says, and just ran straight out of the apartment. The three children, all younger than five, were found dead in a closet. “If I ever be in a fire again, I’m gon’ know what to do,” Laverne told a friend afterward.
The fire that killed her broke out in her first-floor apartment in an old two-story red-brick building at 2512 W. Flournoy. The building sits on the back of the lot, right along the alley; wire grating on her front room window obscured the view of the alley. Laverne had only lived here two months. The woman upstairs had been here three years, and this was the second time fire had routed her and her kids from the building; two years ago, someone started a blaze in a garbage can in the alley; it caught on some wires and soon the roof was aflame.
Another two-story apartment building sits on the front of the lot. I talked with a tenant there the day after Laverne died, inquiring about the fire. I noticed a burner on her stove turned up full with no pot atop, the blue flame dancing four or five inches high. She shrugged when I asked her about it. “The heat don’t kick in too good here.”
The windows of Laverne’s apartment were already boarded the day after the fire, but the door was open. Inside, the air was bitter and damp, the firefighters’ water still drizzling from sooty ceilings. Most of the damage was in the front room and Laverne’s bedroom, which had been stripped to their skeletons, the two-by-fours in the walls exposed by the plaster that had melted or been hacked away, the front-room couch and the bedroom mattress reduced to springs. In the bedroom closet, empty hangers dangled above a heap of sopping, blackened clothes; alongside the pile lay a charred Barbie doll, welded to a red scarf. A plywood sheet covered the window through which Laverne had passed Derrick and Delina.
The fire had transformed this building into one more image of death and decay in a neighborhood in which such images abound: the rambling, littered vacant lots—on some blocks, the few remaining buildings look like the surviving teeth in grandpa’s mouth; the auto junkyard a block west down Flournoy, with its array of rusty axles, mangled bumpers, and dented body clips stacked upside down; the mounds of tires discarded by truckers near the viaducts on Flournoy, Lexington, and Polk—dusted by a winter’s snow, they resemble a heap of glazed doughnuts; the hulking, five-story former mattress factory on Polk, with its big, dark, unboarded, jagged-paned and glassless windows glowering down on the neighborhood; the old men nudging down the street their grocery store shopping carts glistening with crushed aluminum; the mangy stray dogs; the No Help Wanted notice taped behind the caged window of the small steel-parts factory on Flournoy; the graffito on the overhead door of the former warehouse on Lexington: “I Have a Big Dick—Will Kill.”
Laverne started her life in this neighborhood and stayed glued to it. She was raised in a three-flat at 2746 W. Lexington (now another vacant lot); she died in a building just a block north and two blocks east. She was born at nearby Cook County Hospital on a summer morning in 1968; unlike her neighborhood, she radiated energy, was “full of life and fun,” her sister Dovie, 26, says, ever joking, teasing, scheming; then on a winter afternoon in 1988, a fire department ambulance returned her to County, where she was pronounced dead.
But young people here seldom go far. Only one of Laverne’s seven siblings has left the west side, and just one graduated from high school. You have to grow up quickly in Garfield Park, which is another way of saying you never really get a chance to; no wonder the place you stay is not your home but your “crib.” Laverne’s oldest sister got pregnant at 15, the next-oldest at 13, Laverne and her twin also at 13. Like her sisters and numerous other girls here, Laverne spent much of her teen years chasing after babies, fixing countless bottles, changing Lord knows how many diapers. It’s one of the few occupations beckoning young females in Garfield Park that won’t get them arrested. (When I drove up on Flournoy the day after the fire, two women in their late teens or early 20s waved at my car, yelled to me. When I parked, one bummed 50 cents “for the bus.” “You wan’ get into somethin’?” asked the other. She could have meant sex, she probably meant drugs; white men who visit these side streets usually are hunting one or the other.)
Laverne’s life traced almost exactly the two decades post-Martin Luther King Jr.: she was born three months after his assassination and died two months before the 20th anniversary of his death. Two years before he died, King had moved into a six-flat in North Lawndale, just two miles southwest of Laverne’s neighborhood. “We have come to end the slums,” he had said. An eight-year-old resident of the building into which he moved was “probably the happiest of all” about King’s arrival, according to a Chicago Daily News story: “Now maybe we’ll get some heat in our rooms,” the boy told a reporter. King pressured Mayor Richard Daley for an end to city policies that hemmed blacks within slums like Lawndale and Garfield Park. He was unsuccessful; only after King died and west-side residents rioted did the City Council pass an “open housing” ordinance—a watered-down, token measure that never threatened to change the city’s housing patterns. It went into effect on July 30, 1968—the day Laverne Williams was born. Garfield Park then was 98 percent black, 34 percent of its residents lived below the poverty line, and the area was marked by high rates of both early birth and early death. Nineteen and a half years later, Garfield Park is 99 percent black, more than 40 percent live in poverty, the early birth and death rates still soar, and Laverne Williams is a statistic, having contributed to both.
THE REVEREND stepped gingerly into his eulogy but quickly picked up steam: soon his voice was leaping and filling the room, then plunging, allowing feeble sobs to dominate. He crooned key words but stuck mostly to a cadence of short measures:
“Ah, sister Williams / is not dead. She’s just resting / for a little while. But on the last day / everybody got to get up / and stand before Jesus. Can I get a witness?” (“Amen.” “Yeah.”) “I don’t have heaven or a hell / to put sister Williams in. And I don’t know what she told God / as she was goin’ dow-wnn / in the flames. But I heard Jesus say / that if we confess our sins / he’s faithful to forgive us.” (“Uh-huh.” “Amen.”)
“. . . Don’t you leave here thinkin’ that maybe she coulda did somethin’ [to save herself]—it ain’t so. God said come home . . .”
Wednesday, January 27, was cloudy and raw. The temperature snuck up to the mid-teens in the after noon, but icy southwest gusts kept the windchill well below zero. The boyfriend who had been living with Laverne for several years, Derrick Hall, 22, rose first in the morning and left for work. Hall—known to most everyone as “Manny” (after his idol, the Cubs’ Manny Trillo)—grills burgers for minimum wage at a Wendy’s on Belmont. Then Laverne got Keyata, Derrick Jr., and Delina dressed and bundled up, and they walked the block to the King grammar school on Campbell, where Keyata is a first-grader and Derrick is enrolled in a morning preschool program.
Laverne apparently spent most of the day in her bedroom with Delina, watching soap operas. Around 11:30 AM, they walked to the school to get Derrick. Soon after they returned, Laverne’s brother Tyrone stopped in her room to chat. Tyrone, 27, Glo’s oldest son, and his girlfriend, Cheryl Hunter, 28, had moved in with Laverne and her family a week before. They had to leave their former apartment because the landlord wanted to rehab it. Laverne’s apartment had a second bedroom, and although she and Manny had moved here so they could finally have a place of their own, they didn’t hesitate when Tyrone and Cheryl asked if they could stay with them awhile.
Tyrone and Laverne talked only a few minutes. “It’s cold in here,” Tyrone said with a shiver. It had been even colder in the apartment most of the two months Laverne and her family had lived here. She and Manny owed the gas company money from previous apartments, and so hadn’t been able to get the gas turned on. From the day they moved in—November 29—they had spent their time in the apartment mostly holed up in the bedroom near their only heat sources—a small electric space heater, which they kept on a chair near the window, and a kerosene heater they kept on the floor near the doorway. A woman across the street had lent Laverne the kerosene heater, which was like new. The kids slept next to each other on a pallet on the floor between the bed and the window, although Delina frequently woke up during the night and climbed in the bed between Laverne and Manny.
Then Laverne’s twin, Lavette, had told them to put their new account with the gas company in her name, and the heat had come on two days ago. But while the heater in the front room kept that room warm, it didn’t do much for the bedrooms. So Tyrone and Cheryl continued to use the kerosene heater in their bedroom, and Laverne and Manny kept using their portable heaters. This morning, though, Laverne’s kerosene heater was on the stairway to the basement, where the landlord had told Manny to put it. The apartment’s water pipes had frozen, and the landlord had suggested they try thawing them by putting the heater up next to a hole in the wall where the pipes were exposed. After talking with Laverne, Tyrone went out for a while; when he returned early in the afternoon, he noticed that Laverne had moved the heater back to her bedroom.
Keyata returned from school shortly after 2:30 with Lakisha, 11, Tyrone and Cheryl’s daughter. (Tyrone and Cheryl’s three children live with Cheryl’s mother, but Lakisha often came by after school.) Keyata joined Lakisha on a trip to the laundromat; they got back around 3:45, and left again for a nearby corner grocery store for a can of pop.
Tyrone and Cheryl were watching television in their bedroom. It was just a few minutes after four o’clock; Vega$ had just come on. Then they heard Laverne.
Tyrone got up and walked down the hall toward Laverne’s room.
Laverne’s door was closed. It hadn’t sounded like anything urgent at first; now Tyrone could hear the alarm in Laverne’s voice.
“Open the door, Tyrone, open the door, hurry up! Look!”
Tyrone shoved open the door. The kerosene heater, just beyond it on the floor, was enveloped in flames. Laverne was standing on the bed, Derrick under one arm and Delina under the other. Tyrone was scared, but not panicky; it looked like a situation he could handle.
Laverne had a stack of folded blankets and sheets to the side of the doorway. Tyrone grabbed a blanket; he planned to try smothering the fire. But suddenly, flames were shooting along the floor in several directions. The laundry sacks stuffed with clothes that Laverne kept in the room’s corners were ablaze in seconds, as was a garbage bag.
“Run past it! Run past it!” Tyrone yelled.
“I’m scared! I’m scared, Tyrone, I’m scared!”
“C’mon, run past it!”
“I’m scared! I’m scared!”
Flames were dancing around the bed now and leaping to the ceiling. Tyrone could hardly see Laverne through the smoke. She just wasn’t going to run out the bedroom door; and he probably couldn’t race by the heater and back out with her and the kids. Maybe if he ran outside and busted open the window they could get out that way, he thought.
This wasn’t going to be easy, he realized as soon as he got outside. The window was composed of three skinny panes, separated by the wooden sash; he didn’t know for sure whether Laverne—five-foot-one, 195 pounds—could fit through one of the sections. Plus, the windowsill was seven feet above ground level, and there was nothing but snow around to hurl at the glass.
“Throw somethin’ out!” he called to Laverne.
An iron flew out the window. Tyrone wrapped the cord once around his hand and began flinging the iron at the window, knocking out more of the glass. There were neighbors outside, too, now, throwing stones at the window.
“Tyrone! Tyrone!” Laverne shrieked continually.
“Pass the kids out!” Tyrone hollered back.
He couldn’t see anything beyond the window—just flames and smoke. He turned, planning to race back into the house; but then he glimpsed two little legs dangling over the windowsill. He reached up and pulled Derrick down. The child’s face and hair were blackened, and the skin on his face was flaky, looked like it might fall off if you touched it. He wasn’t crying—just seemed dazed. Tyrone handed him to a neighbor.
“Put the other one through!”
Again, Tyrone was set to sprint to the apartment entrance, when two tiny legs appeared over the sill. Tyrone got Delina down—she was burned even worse than Derrick—and handed her to Cheryl.
Laverne was still screaming for him. He raced to the apartment entrance. But by this time, the fire had moved through the apartment, and it engulfed the entryway. He hurried back to the window and called to Laverne. But she didn’t answer.
Tyrone’s head was swimming; he couldn’t believe how fast all this had happened. He stood there, waiting for the fire fighters, praying that Laverne was somehow still alive. But he knew she couldn’t be.
Cheryl and the young guy holding Derrick carried the kids to the house on the front of the lot. Their eyes were rolling around, like they were trying to focus. The people in the front building welcomed them in. Everybody was afraid to touch the kids. Cheryl and the neighbor laid them on a bed and walked to the front of the apartment. “Miss,” the neighbor said to Cheryl, pointing behind her; the kids had followed her down the hall.
“Cheryl—I want my mama,” Derrick said.
Keyata and Lakisha returned from the store, and stood in front of their parents’ building, gaping at the fire. One of Laverne’s brothers, Atkins, 24, came on the scene; he had been visiting with a friend on the next block, and someone had run over and told him about the fire. Atkins took Keyata and Lakisha away to another friend’s house.
A police car arrived. The two officers, assigned to gang crimes patrol, had been cruising the neighborhood when they saw the smoke. They carried Derrick and Delina to their squad car and gingerly loaded them into the backseat. The two groggy kids sat silently as the officers raced them to County.
Both children had third-degree burns over 15 percent of their bodies, with most of these burns from the neck up, and on the hands and forearms. There was significant lung damage as well. Delina was in worse shape: she had burns of various degrees over 38 percent of her body (compared with 25 percent for Derrick); her scalp was almost completely charred; her eyelids were singed, and so swollen by the time she got to the hospital that you couldn’t see her eyes, even when she tried to open them; her fingers had been burned to the bones. The doctors were not optimistic about her chances. The kids were immediately hooked to ventilators, and nurses began treating and wrapping their wounds.
To Tyrone and Cheryl, it seemed like hours before the fire trucks arrived. But it wasn’t until 4:23 that anyone made a 911 call reporting the blaze, according to the Fire Department’s report. Engine 107 reached the building at 4:26. The firefighters had to beat back the blaze on the stairs, in the hallway, and in the front room before they could get to Laverne’s bedroom.
They found her body at 4:35, lying beneath the window.
“Careless use of space heaters” was listed as the cause of the blaze.
But it’s impossible to tell exactly what started the fire, says Emmet McShane, the fire marshal who studied the scene afterward. Kerosene on the floor of the bedroom is probably what caused the flames to shoot along the floor and the fire to fill the room so rapidly, he says. He speculates that the electric space heater ignited the fuel on the floor; but this doesn’t square with Tyrone’s account of the blaze beginning with the kerosene heater, then spreading along the floor. And McShane doesn’t know how the fuel got on the floor in the first place. Maybe the heater had been faulty; but it was too badly burned to tell. Maybe Laverne spilled some of the kerosene when she carried the heater back up to the bedroom; or maybe the heater had been improperly filled.
However the fire started, McShane has strong feelings about kerosene heaters: even when they don’t malfunction, he says, they’re too easy to misuse. “They should never be used in a home. The things are awful, just garbage.”
Laverne might have managed to fit through the window, McShane says, but probably was overcome by smoke before she could try. “Probably with her last gasp, she fell backwards.”
Laverne’s last minutes were “really heroic,” McShane says. “She saved her kids. Usually they don’t. Usually there’s so much chaos that the kids get lost. I mean, we see this time and time again. And she stayed with ’em, and she got those kids out. She did a helluva job. Without me even knowin’ her, just from the circumstances—everything she did was strictly for her children.”
“ON THE EVENING of January 27, 1988, the Angel of Silence came and sealed the lips of Laverne Williams,” read the program with which many in the funeral chapel fanned themselves. “Her soul winged its flight from this world of sickness, sorrow and pain to a place of eternal rest . . . ”
She entered “this world of sickness, sorrow and pain” on a cloudy summer morning—Tuesday, July 30, 1968.
The big story in the newspapers that morning was the encyclical on birth control Pope Paul VI had issued the previous day. Population control might indeed improve conditions for “children already born,” the pope had said, but the only acceptable forms of birth control were abstinence and the rhythm method.
Glo Williams wasn’t reading the papers that morning. She was enduring contractions in County Hospital’s common labor room. Glo had given birth to her first baby at County at age 15; now, at 26, she already had six children and was about to make it eight. “I was havin’ ’em so fast, I started doublin’ up,” she says today.
During a prenatal checkup at a Garfield Park clinic, a doctor had told her: “Gloria, I hear two heartbeats besides yours. You’re going to have twins.” “Two heartbeats besides mine? No you don’t,” Gloria said. Glo didn’t return for any more prenatal examinations. “I didn’t wan’ believe I was gon’ have no twins.”
When she arrived at County in labor, the doctor in the examining room told her twins were on the way. “But when I got to the delivery room, this lady doctor, she didn’t know I was gon’ have twins,” Glo says. “So after Lavette was here, she was mashin’ my stomach, she said ‘Mother, push so I can get the afterbirth out.’ So, you know, I’m just strainin’, and the other doctor came in, he said ‘Wait a minute, doctor,’ he said ‘That’s another baby up there.’ And she said ‘Oh, I didn’t know’—she got me in there pushin’ for the afterbirth, After Lavette came, I didn’t feel no more pain. That’s why I didn’t think I was havin’ another one ’til that doctor came in—I felt good, I was ready to go to sleep.”
Lavette was born at 10:27 AM, Laverne at 10:35.
“When Laverne came, the doctor, she said ‘Oh, you got another little girl, twin girls, identical,'” Glo recalls. “She said ‘But this one a little puny.'”
They put a band on each of Glo’s wrists, and “that let people know that you done had twins,” Glo says. “So everybody come to my bed—’Oh, you the lady that had twins.’ I say ‘Yeah.’ I was proud, mmhmm,” she says, smiling widely.
Lavette weighed four pounds, 13 and a half ounces, Laverne just over four. They put Laverne in an incubator for a month. “Made 30 days, they called, said she’s ready to come home. Lavette and Laverne was lookin’ just alike, so my mother says ‘Keep that band on her arm so we can tell who’s who.’ So I kept the band on for a long time. It just grew to me to know who was who.” Laverne’s features were a tad sharper, Glo says. Shortly after the twins started walking, Laverne took a tumble on the sidewalk and cut her forehead, a tough break for her but lucky for everyone else, who thereafter could distinguish the twins by Laverne’s forehead scar.
Both of the twins resembled their father, Ernest Miller, more than their mother; they had his mouth, his perfect teeth, and his build, Glo says. “They had his big ol’ wide shoulders. ‘Cause they would tell me ‘Mama, why we gotta be with these big ol’ wide football shoulders? Why can’t we have shoulders like you, ‘stead of our dad?'” Glo tosses her head back and laughs. “I said ‘Gotta favor somebody.’ I said ‘If y’all didn’t look like him he’d probably say it’s not his.'”
Glo had met Miller in the lounge he owned on Pulaski at Monroe. Miller had just gotten out of the hospital, mending from bullet wounds he received from a gunman in the bar. Glo, feeling sorry for him, talked with him regularly, and started helping him out in the lounge. A year later, she got pregnant with the twins. Glo and Ernest never married or lived together, but Ernest was a good father to Laverne and Lavette, Glo says. “He was so happy when the twins was born—’I got me two twin girls,’ he’d say. He was buyin’ ’em two of everything—two baby beds, two high chairs.”
One of the nicest things Glo ever owned was the twin stroller Ernest bought her. “I used to love pushin’ it down that street. People stop and look—’You got twins.’ They was the cutest little things. I was very proud of them twins. I still is proud of them.”
“I’VE HEARD THAT TIME heals all wounds, so I’ll take consolation in that for now,” read the dedication from Lavette to Laverne in the funeral program. “I’ll never forget the times we shared together. Because being twins we shared more than just times together, we shared feelings. You were a part of me then and you’ll be a part of me always. I love you, Laverne and I’ll miss you very much.”
Lavette and Laverne were inseparable as children, and their fondness for each other did not fade as they grew. As kids, they’d play together all day, and if one should be put to bed earlier for some reason, she’d usually lie awake until the other climbed in next to her. Quarrels were brief. They could communicate without words; sometimes they’d just look at each other and start giggling, perplexing their brothers and sisters. “We start bustin’ up laughin’ ’bout somethin’,” Lavette says, “and my sisters say ‘What y’all laughin’ ’bout? Y’all laugh at anything.'” Lavette always relaxed more when Laverne was near. “If I be at a friend’s and I be sittin’ there quiet? When she come in I just start talkin’, laughin’. And everybody say ‘You weren’t even doin’ nothin’ ’til your sister come, and now look at y’all.'”
The rest of the family learned to mind their own business when Lavette and Laverne were arguing. “If one of us got into it, both of them would get on us,” says Glo’s oldest daughter, Denise Turner, 29.
“We used to always signify on [razz] each other,” Denise says. “And if you signify on Lavette and make Lavette mad, Laverne automatically would get mad too. You could not talk about one without the other one getting mad.”
Laverne was more self-confident socially than Lavette, and much more anxious to speak her mind. The family called the twins “Sweet ‘n’ Sassy,” and Laverne wasn’t the sweet one; her features weren’t the only thing sharper than Lavette’s. “She had a smart mouth,” her sister Dovie says. “She liked to kid around a lot, crack jokes. Lavette sweeter, more free-hearted. You borrow some money from Lavette and you didn’t pay her back, she wouldn’t run you down for it, but Laverne would.”
“When they was small, they was takin’ turns,” Glo says. “One of ’em be nice one week and the other one wouldn’t, and then they’ll switch over. When they started growin’ up, Lavette just started bein’ the sweetest one. Laverne, she stayed evil.” Glo smiles. “Just evil. She would tell you where to get off at. You said somethin’ to her, she’d snap you up real quick.”
Laverne was fond of dancing. At family gatherings, she’d jump up suddenly, flip on the radio, and start dancing in the living room. “Y’all better get up and dance, all you deadbeats,” she’d say. She taught new steps to Keyata and other little girls in the neighborhood; at summer block parties, all of her pupils would be on the street bopping.
The twins didn’t use drugs and rarely drank, but they had their weaknesses. “They liked pop, potato chips, candy,” says Rhonda Prince, 21, their best friend. “If you gave them a bag of junk, they were happy.” They also watched a lot of television. Laverne enjoyed late-evening reruns of Night Heat, and found staying up very late no big sacrifice if a karate film was coming on.
They liked playing softball, and were pretty fair hitters and outfielders. It was in a neighborhood softball game about seven years ago that Laverne met Manny. Manny lifted a fly to the outfield, and Laverne pulled it in. “Don’t you be doin’ that.” Manny called to her; she smiled at him and he smiled back. They got to talking the next day, and soon were going together. They broke up, and Laverne started going with another boy, by whom she got pregnant with Keyata; but two months after Keyata was born, Laverne and Manny were a couple again, and together they had Derrick Jr. and Delina.
“My glamour girl,” Manny called Laverne. They liked going to movies, sharing a meal, just being with each other. Manny played the father role for Keyata as well as for his own two. Manny and Laverne had their disagreements, but neither could stay mad long. After 10 or 15 minutes, one would ask the other to do a favor “to make up,” Manny says, and they’d soon be laughing about their fight.
Laverne moved out of Glo’s house at age 17 to live with Manny. Lavette and her kids shared quarters with them off and on the last couple of years. Before Laverne had taken the apartment on Flournoy, she and Manny and the kids had been living with Lavette and her three children in the cramped basement apartment on Jackson that Lavette still occupies. After Laverne moved, she still spent much of her time at Lavette’s. Lavette didn’t go over to Laverne’s much because of the lack of heat. “When you get your gas on, you’re gon’ get tired of me comin’ there all the time,” Lavette told her.
They never lacked for things to talk about. Certainly they could relate to each other about the different stages their children were going through: they each had three kids, ages one, three, and five. The five-year-olds were three months apart, the three-year-olds five months apart, and the babies just five days apart. The twins did everything together, having babies included.
Lavette and Laverne were in the hospital—Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke’s Medical Center—at the same time for their last deliveries, in June of ’86. Laverne, who wasn’t due for two months but was having some problems with her pregnancy, was already hospitalized when Lavette’s labor started and she came to the hospital. After Laverne heard Lavette was in labor, she started having contractions,too; but they proved to be false labor. The doctors speculated that they were sympathetic pains.
The day of the fire, Lavette had a sense that something was wrong. The previous day, Laverne had agreed to put some extension braids in Lavette’s hair this afternoon. Lavette figured Laverne would come over to do it after Keyata got home from school; but it was 3:30, and Laverne hadn’t showed. Neither twin had a phone, so they couldn’t check signals. Lavette got her kids’ coats on, and they rode two buses to Laverne’s.
Lavette saw the smoke the moment she got off the Harrison bus. She raced the half block to the building, tried to run into the burning entryway, was restrained by neighbors.
Manny arrived on the scene a few minutes later, returning from work. He saw the fire trucks, hoped it wasn’t his building, realized it was, prayed everybody had gotten out OK. Lavette had to give him the news. A police officer drove Manny to County, and his attention shifted to the kids. Laverne’s death didn’t sink in until that night.
It didn’t hit Lavette, either, until that evening. Back in her apartment, she would begin screaming—”I want my sister! I want my sister!”—aware of her children’s confused and anxious expressions but unable to explain anything to them. She’d do more hollering at the funeral, but the anguish wouldn’t seem to diminish. Two weeks after the funeral, she was still waking up thinking Laverne was alive. Then the truth would hit her like a fist.
She’d endlessly replay conversations with Laverne in her head: how Laverne hoped Manny would marry her; her concerns about dying violently; how she wanted to live to see her children grow up and have children.
She found it a little hard to picture Laverne in the hero role. “I know how Laverne is—she scary ’bout things. Like if we see a rat, me and her jump up and run—she’ll hop in the bed or somethin’—she’ll knock me down tryin’ to get away. I say ‘Look at y’all, you just run off, leave these kids—you gettin’ out the rat’s way, ain’t you, Laverne?'”
She probably didn’t run from her bedroom for fear of getting any part of herself burned, Lavette figured, especially that precious face of hers. “She always talkin’ ’bout her face—’This girl look good, don’t care who call me up, I look good to myself’—always lookin’ in the mirror.”
If only Laverne had come over that afternoon, Lavette would think, or if only I had been there during the fire—”I would’ve pulled that girl’s butt on through.”
LAVERNE AND LAVETTE got in their share of street fights growing up, always backing each other up, of course. “If one fight, you better watch out because the other one comin’,” their friend Rhonda Prince says.
Rhonda knows; before she and the twins became friends, they got in each other’s eyes regularly. Keyata’s father had also fathered a baby by Rhonda’s cousin, and so Laverne had no use for Rhonda back then. When Rhonda started going with one of the twins’ brothers, Atkins, Laverne took exception to that, too. Laverne and Rhonda bloodied each other’s noses and scratched up each other’s faces several times, with Lavette and Rhonda’s cousin often serving as seconds. The scar on Lavette’s right forearm is a memento of one such brawl. One day Rhonda and Laverne were hollering at each other again, and got to thumping. Soon Rhonda’s cousin and Lavette entered the fray. Lavette didn’t know whether this fight was over Keyata’s father, or Atkins, or what. “I don’t know what they really fightin’ ’bout, I just jumped in—’cause every time my sister fight, I jump in.” The cousin pulled a knife and cut Lavette on the arm.
Rhonda persevered in her relationship with Atkins, Laverne’s animosity eventually dissipated, and Rhonda and the twins grew close. They had things in common other than a tendency to jam it out in the streets; like Lavette and Laverne, Rhonda had gotten pregnant at 13. Like the twins, Rhonda was short and stocky. “People said I looked like them,” Rhonda says. “I guess we be together so much that we start to look alike. We would fool people on the bus: they’d say ‘Y’all look alike! I’d say ‘Well, we all triplets—I’m the oldest though, I’m 20, they 19.’ Them people, they don’t realize—I’m 20, they 19, how is we triplets?”
After the three became friends, they fought as a team. “We fought barehanded,” Rhonda says. “We ain’t the weapon type, me, Lavette, and Laverne. If somebody wan’ fight, they can c’mon with it, we gon’ throw down with our hands. But guaranteed we gon’ win. We comin’ out on top.”
One time they were at Altgeld Park, watching another of the twins’ brothers, Greg, play basketball, when three girls jumped on Rhonda. Laverne was holding Keyata and Lavette had her oldest, Jerome, but the twins weren’t about to shirk their duty to Rhonda. “Laverne jumped in and said ‘Y’all ain’t gon’ do nothin’ to her,'” Lavette says. “Then one of ’em hit Laverne, and I jumped in. Both of us was fightin’ holdin’ our babies in our arms.” Then some other friends took Keyata and Jerome so the twins would have both hands free.
Their hands had been full often since they became parents. In recent years, Lavette and Laverne regularly bemoaned how much of their youth they had sacrificed by having babies so soon. But both were proud of the attention they lavished on their kids.
Maybe they could have spent their welfare money more judiciously. But when they blew some of it, it was not on angel dust or Mogen David but on children’s clothing and birthday parties at Showbiz Pizza.
“They kept their kids dressed from head to toe,” Dovie says. “Kept ’em lookin’ pretty. And they didn’t have a lot of money to do that with.” (Lavette and Laverne each got $386 a month from Aid to Families With Dependent Children—more than half of which usually went for rent—and $252 in food stamps.)
“We used to get compliments on how our kids were dressed,” Lavette says. “You know—’For y’all to be so young, y’all sure have your kids lookin’ nice.'”
The twins didn’t spend just on their own kids. If they came across an outfit they thought a niece or nephew would like—well, they couldn’t resist.
Rhonda usually joined them on their various special outings for the kids. The three teens would round up the children—often not just Laverne’s and Lavette’s and Rhonda’s daughter, but some or all of the twins’ numerous nephews and nieces—and take the whole crew to Showbiz, to Kiddieland, carnivals, museums. They helped chaperone on school field trips, too; usually Lavette would stay home and watch the babies, while Laverne and Rhonda went on the trip.
“Every time you saw me and the twins we had all these kids behind us,” Rhonda says. “People’d say they don’t know how we put up with all them kids. But the kids, they always had what they wanted. If we didn’t have the money we’d borrow it, just so we could take the kids to have fun.
“One day last summer we had took ’em to Showbiz for a birthday party, and we comin’ back, and they see this carnival on Kedzie. They said ‘Ooh, we wan’ go there.’ We said ‘We done spent all that money on Showbiz, now y’all wan’ go to a carnival?’ It was about seven or eight that night, we got all the kids, we walked to the carnival. We had so much fun that day. The kids, they was so happy.”
With all those kids, the outings could quickly get expensive, Rhonda says. “You give one kid a quarter, they go show the others, and pretty soon all of ’em—’We wan’ a quarter, too.’ After you give ’em all a quarter, you be out $10. But you can’t give one somethin’ and don’t give the other. We didn’t wan’ tell ’em no, because we didn’t wan’ ’em to think that we didn’t have it. We didn’t never want the kids to be sad.”
“We said we gon’ always give our kids what our mother never gave us,” Lavette said.
“Money wasn’t nothin’ to the twins,” their sister Denise says. “They loved to have it, but by the time they got it, they spent it. We would tell ’em ‘Don’t be spendin’ all your money on the kids, buy yourselves somethin’.’ But they loved to spend it on their family.” If Laverne and Lavette identified closely with the family’s youngsters, they weren’t, after all, that old themselves. Says Denise: “We used to always say they was nothin’ but big kids themselves.”
Laverne helped pay for the outings and the clothes purchases by “doing hair” for women and their daughters in the neighborhood. She picked up $10 to $20 for a hairdo, which would take from an hour to three. She did her sisters’ and nieces’ hair for free.
“Everybody loved for her to French-braid their little girls up,” Denise says. Glo had taught French-braiding to Denise, who taught Lavette, who taught Laverne. But Laverne quickly surpassed the others; she could braid that hair tight. “Your brain be hurtin’,” Dovie says.
Last year, the twins enrolled in the Wilfred Beauty Academy downtown. Maybe we can become beauticians, Laverne told Lavette, and get off aid that way. Manny drove them to school every weeknight and picked them up after their three-hour class. Lavette had a hard time following the lessons; Laverne seemed to absorb them easily. But after less than two months, Laverne told Lavette she was tired of going, and the twins quit the school. “Laverne said she was tired of workin’ on dummies, she wanted to get out and do it on real peoples’ heads,” Rhonda recalls. “She said ‘Rhonda, this junk all boring. If you know how to do somethin, you wan’ go ‘head and do it.'”
The twins made their last Showbiz trip in early January. They took all six of their kids, and Rhonda’s six-year-old, LaRhonda. Denise’s husband gave the crew a ride to Kedzie, and the group took the Kedzie bus to the restaurant at 50th and Kedzie. “The kids had pizza and played the games,” Lavette says, “and we bought them balloons and cotton candy and a coloring book and a little puzzle thing they was playin’ with.”
Rhonda decided not to accompany them, preferring to stay home with her other child, a six-month-old, rather than tote her along—a decision she now regrets. “They said ‘C’mon, Rhonda, since you had the baby you don’t never wan’ go no place,'” Rhonda remembers. “I said ‘Go without me this time, I’ll be there next time to go with you.’ There wasn’t no next time, she’s gone, now we can’t go together anymore.”
Rhonda was informed of the fire as it was in progress. A friend ran over to her apartment and told her, and Rhonda raced the three blocks to Laverne’s. She found Lavette, dazed, in front of the building. The firefighters had the blaze almost out.
“Laverne can’t be in there, Lavette,” Rhonda said.
“Yes she is.”
“No she’s not, she can’t be in there, Lavette,” Rhonda said.
“Yes she is, Rhonda, my sister ain’t never got outta there.”
“I’m your sister, I’m here,” Rhonda told her.
“TO THIS BEREAVED family today,” the preacher continued, “I’m not gon’ say to you ‘Don’t cry.’ But come to Jesus. Let him give you the rest you need. You may not understand what God is doin’. May not agree with what he’s doin’. But this is part of God’s work . . . Mother Williams here. The remainder of your family. Look up and lead. Hallelujah. You gon’ overcome. . . . ”
Glo quit her job as a hotel maid after the fire to take care of Keyata. The two of them, along with Tyrone and Cheryl, moved into Dovie’s high-rise apartment in the Rockwell Gardens housing project. This arrangement had to be temporary; along with Dovie’s husband and three kids, there were nine people in four rooms. Manny was staying with his mother. The family looked for a place for Glo, Manny, Keyata, Derrick, and Delina, with the plan being that Glo would take care of the kids while Manny worked. The doctors at County didn’t know how long Derrick and Delina would be hospitalized.
There was shopping to do, too: Keyata, Derrick, and Delina had lost all their clothes, and the few toys they had, in the blaze.
But there were not enough tasks to ward off the sorrow the fire had brought the Williams family, and particularly Glo. Though Derrick and Delina had survived and their condition slowly improved, the doctors made it clear that recovery would be long and painful, especially for little Lee-Lee, as the family called Delina. One morning ten days after the funeral, Delina’s doctor called with bad news. Glo looked bewildered when she got off the phone. “The look of things, they’re gon’ have to—you know—take some fingers off,” she told Dovie softly. “I asked how many, he said—far as they can see, it’s six.” Glo dissolved in tears. “Oh, my baby, poor thing—goin’ through so much, and she never did no harm to nobody.”
Laverne didn’t harm anybody either, Glo and her family kept thinking, didn’t deserve the hand fate dealt her. Her heroic final act softened the blow a bit, gave the family something positive to point to. “She was crazy about her kids, and she saved ’em,” Laverne’s brother Atkins said. “So in that way, her death wasn’t a total loss.” Said Glo: “It makes me feel better, knowin’ she saved her kids even though she was afraid.”
But not much better. In the days following the funeral, Glo found herself often just sitting and staring, or bursting into tears.
As with Lavette and Manny, it had taken Glo a while to absorb Laverne’s death.
The afternoon of the fire. Glo had just stepped off the California bus, returning from work, when a neighborhood man known as Uncle Smoky spotted her from his car. “Let me take you where your kids at!” he had called to Glo. “Their house on fire and they’re trapped up in there!”
“G’wan, Uncle Smoky”—Glo waved her hand at him—”You don’t know what you’re talkin’ ’bout.”
But then a girlfriend’s car pulled up. There were a bunch of people in it, all wearing anxious expressions. “C’mon—get in,” the girlfriend told Glo. Then Glo knew that Uncle Smoky hadn’t been playing with her.
At the scene, informed her daughter hadn’t escaped the building, Glo went numb, switched onto automatic pilot: she would tend to business, do as she was told. The police wanted to know who Derrick and Delina’s grandmother was; someone pointed her out. “You’ll be needed at the hospital,” an officer told her. So she got in a squad car and they drove her to County. At the morgue that evening, the medical examiners urged her not to view Laverne’s body, and she didn’t insist.
Now she regretted not demanding to see Laverne—she wished she had had a final look, no matter what the fire had done.
Glo was thankful for the comfort her kids provided: they gathered often at Dovie’s, reminisced about the good times they had with Laverne, brought back memories that made Glo laugh.
“We believe in lookin’ out for each other,” Denise says of the Williams family. “All we had growin’ up was each other. Love was the most important thing in our household. Muddear taught us that—’We don’t got much, but we got a lot of love,’ she used to say.”
Muddear—that was Mary Doyle; Denise’s grandmother, Glo’s mother, “the backbone of the family,” Denise says. “She taught us everything—she really raised all of us.” It was probably from Muddear that Laverne developed her affinity for kids, Glo says—and her sharp tongue.
“Muddear” is a common black expression from the south, derived from “Mother dear”; it’s an affectionate title given a mother figure who was typically both hard-boiled and loving, and whose influence usually extended beyond her family. The Muddears of the south played crucial roles in black life, says Grace Holt, professor of black studies and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “These people aren’t in history books, but they were very important to their communities,” Holt says.
“Muddear” certainly fit Mary Doyle. A big woman who moved to Chicago from Mississippi in the early 1950s, she was an imposing figure in not only her family but the neighborhood. “Everybody in the neighborhood called her ‘Mama’ or ‘Muddear,'” Atkins Williams says, “and she called [neighborhood] kids her nephew or niece. We call each other cousins. We mainly one big family in the neighborhood.”
The west side was changing rapidly from white to black when Muddear, her husband—Jesse Doyle—and their four children settled here. But when they moved into an apartment on Lexington just west of California in 1959, they were one of only two black families on the block, and they had to be cautious: “After the sun go down you couldn’t be outside,” Glo recalls.
In 1961, the Doyles moved across California onto the first floor of a three-flat at 2746 W. Lexington. Muddear’s apartment became an unofficial neighborhood social center—part boardinghouse, part soup kitchen, and part casino, and a daycare center and playhouse for Muddear’s children, then grandchildren, then great-grandchildren, various nephews and nieces, and their friends. It stayed that way until Muddear died of a heart attack in 1984, at age 61.
Jesse Doyle was a construction worker, usually employed only six months a year, and the family struggled to make ends meet. But Muddear was always ready to share what she had.
Says Denise: “If you didn’t have a place to stay, she was the type—’Well, come on in.’ You could stay all night.” You didn’t have to be black, either; though the neighborhood was almost all black by the 60s, Glo’s kids remember a homeless white girl staying there one night, and a Puerto Rican girl another time.
Muddear’s Sunday dinners were legendary: friends, neighbors, and distant kin stopped in to taste her down-home cooking. She never hesitated to fix a stranger a plate, either. Denise recalls the time a peculiar man was hanging out on ‘the front porch—he had run away from a mental institution. “My grandmother said ‘You hungry? Then come on in,'” Denise says. “She cooked up some pinto beans. The man came in and ate. And the police came and they were settin’ to handcuff him, and my grandmother said ‘Don’t handcuff him, he’ll leave, let him get through eatin’.’ And sure enough, when he got through eatin’ he said he was ready and they took him out with no problem.”
Muddear was fond of gambling. She visited the racetrack occasionally, or asked one of her sons to bet a horse for her. The card games went on incessantly in her living room, the grown-ups playing for a few dollars on a table, the kids on the floor playing for nickels and dimes.
For kids, Muddear’s was a dream house. “She didn’t care how much noise they made,” Glo says. “Lotta times, you couldn’t even talk for all that noise. Everybody else house be quiet, ’cause all the kids at Muddear’s. I used to say ‘Ooh, Mama, how can you take it?’ She say ‘Ain’t bother me none.'” It bothered her husband; after Jesse Doyle got out of a hospital in the late 60s, recuperating from tuberculosis and a weak heart, he moved across the alley to escape the racket. (Glo, too, managed to find some peace, moving into the third-floor apartment when it was vacated.)
The curtain didn’t necessarily fall on the circus at bedtime. Muddear had an ample supply of blankets and pillows, and many a night there’d be kids sleeping throughout the house—on the floor, on couches, and even on dressers.
Though Muddear tended to be a softy when it came to kids, she could be hard as stone at times. Those who crossed her soon found themselves on their knees, with a belt or an extension cord singing down. “Give yo’ soul t’God and yo’ butt t’me,” Muddear would say. She “whupped” Glo more than anyone, and she didn’t completely quit when Glo was grown. Glo slipped out of the house one time when Muddear thought she ought to have stayed at home, and when Glo returned, her mother coldcocked her with a two-by-four. “See, my mother didn’t play. She not gon’ kid you. She pop you upside the head with that left—you couldn’t hardly duck that left hand, ’cause it was so fast, ooh.
“She didn’t do nobody wrong,” Glo says. “She just tried to tell ’em the right way to go, best she know how.”
Muddear’s razor tongue was just as fearsome. “She’d cuss you out in a minute,” Lavette says. “She hate somebody be around her smellin’. She would tell you off, she would give you a towel—’Get yo’ fuckin’ butt ‘way from me! Get in that washroom and wash yo’ butt off!’ She would embarrass you in front of your company. Like my son Jerome’s daddy had come over one day to feed Jerome. And my grandma say ‘Where yo’ black ass been?’ You know, just cussin’ him out. And she hadn’t never met him before.”
But it’s not Muddear’s harshness that endures most in her grandchildren’s memories; it’s the attention she lavished on them, and her generosity. If she scored with a lottery ticket or a horse, the grandchildren were the real winners: she’d divvy up her payoff between them.
Later, she was instrumental in the raising of her granddaughter’s children, the primary caregiver, in fact, for some of them. She was the main caregiver for Dovie’s youngest, Jason, now seven, in his first three years. When Dovie moved out of Muddear’s to Rockwell Gardens, Jason stayed with Muddear; after Muddear died, it took Jason a while to get accustomed to living with his parents. “This is your home,” Dovie would tell him. “Uh-uh—my home over there,” Jason would say. Muddear handed down her numerous, special baby-care remedies to her granddaughters: taught them to brown flour on the stove and apply it to a diaper rash, to feed a baby with diarrhea some thick flour water. “Don’t take that baby to the doctor,” she’d say about a baby with diarrhea. “Doctor ain’t gon’ do nothin’ but make it run off more.” From Muddear, too, the granddaughters learned the importance of whippings, which they rely on today in disciplining their children.
Muddear apparently was ambivalent about her granddaughters’ early pregnancies. On the one hand, she frequently voiced her disapproval; on the other hand—well, how she did love kids! “It’s better to have ’em young,” she told Dovie during Dovie’s first pregnancy. “That way, they’ll grow up with y’all.”
Some adults considered Muddear’s house too unruly a place for kids. Her grandchildren today staunchly defend Muddear’s permissiveness; by providing a place where kids were welcome, she kept many off the streets and out of gangs, they say.
Linda Johnson, 27, a distant cousin to Glo’s kids, lived at Muddear’s off and on when she was small, while her mother was institutionalized with a mental illness. Some of Linda’s relatives didn’t want Linda at Muddear’s, but Linda would run away from foster placements to stay with Muddear. Her relatives thought Muddear’s was “a bad influence, ’cause everybody over there had their babies young,” Linda says. “Now I—I agree and disagree. It was unsupervised a lot—we did what we wanted to do mostly. But she did love us, and she taught us to love each other. That’s what made us a close family.
GLO SAYS SHE cautioned the twins about the dangers of sex, but that such warnings were a waste of breath. “The twins had a mind of their own. Hardheaded, that’s all. Like a brick wall—what you say go to ’em and bounce straight back.
“They wanted to do what they wanted to do. They ran me so, ran me ’til I just got tired, I say ‘I give up.’ Them girls was tough. I mean, I whup ’em, I be so tired, I be sweatin’. And it look like when I hit ’em it would just bounce off. You know, they built, and they can take some whuppin’, and I just didn’t have no more strength. So I just throw both my hands up, I say ‘I leave ’em in the hands of the Lord.'”
The twins also ignored advice from their older sisters. Denise offered to get them on birth control pills if they thought they might become sexually active. “Y’all gotta protect yourself,” Denise would tell them. “Y’all see the hard time I’m havin’—I’d hate to see y’all do the same thing.”
Glo, Denise, and Dovie had each had three babies as teenagers. Lavette and Laverne followed their example and not their advice.
Muddear was often the first in the house to know when someone was pregnant, thanks to her fish dreams, which meant someone she knew was expecting. “Somebody pregnant,” she’d say. “I dreamed I catched a fish last night—I threw it back in, it was too little.” Her fish dreams were as accurate as a blood test. And Glo and her daughters kept her snagging fish for years.
Glo was the oldest of Muddear’s seven children, and Muddear expected the most from her. “She always used to brag on me,” Glo says. “But I didn’t be what she wanted me to be—’cause I always said I wanted to be a nurse.” What happened? “I got pregnant.” At 14.
“See, then there wasn’t no birth control out,” Glo says. “If it was, we didn’t know about it.” They knew about rubbers, but that was about all. “Make him put a raincoat on,” Muddear would warn Glo.
But Glo got pregnant anyway. Muddear cried when she found out, called Glo a “fast wench.” Glo cried, too, told her mother she hadn’t meant to get pregnant. “Well, you know—the Lord fix it like that,” Muddear said. Muddear wouldn’t consider abortion; babies aren’t fishes, after all—you can’t just throw ’em back. “She’d always say ‘If it wasn’t meant for you to get like that, the Lord wouldn’t let it happen,'” Glo says. “I guess that was true.”
Glo tried to conceal her expanding middle from her eighth-grade classmates. “It be hot outside, I’m wearin’ my coat.” She quickly broke up with the boy who got her pregnant. “I didn’t like him no more—didn’t like how he got me pregnant.”
Glo returned to school after the baby—Denise—was born. Muddear tended to Denise at night and during the day while Glo was in school. But Glo found motherhood at 15 no picnic: she rose early every weekday morning to wash diapers before school, and took charge of Denise after school. You’d see her in front of her house in the afternoon, skipping rope with the baby on her hip.
Subsequent pregnancies were due to ignorance about birth control and a lack of money for contraceptives, according to Glo. “It was just nothin’ really out here that we could afford to use—it was on a hope and a prayer.” She was pregnant again at 16, and again at 18. A sophomore at Crane High School the third time, she decided to drop out.
She went to work. But her abbreviated education and frequent pregnancies limited her to menial jobs. She made minimum wage in factories, warehouses, and nursing homes, and relied on public aid when unemployed.
She had nine kids in 11 years. One of them—Lacy—contracted diphtheria and died 15 years ago at age seven.
Glo vowed that her daughters wouldn’t follow her path. But Denise had barely turned 15 when she got pregnant.
Glo cried; Denise cried, said she was sorry. Glo’s final baby—Andre—was just two years old. “Guess I’ll have another one to take care of,” Glo thought; and, “Only 31, and I’m gon’ be a grandmother.”
And soon she’d be a grandmother a second time: Muddear announced a fish dream one morning a year later, and pointed her finger at 13-year-old Dovie. More tears and apologies. Dovie took to wearing a big coat.
Then it was Lavette, and then Laverne, Muddear knew who the culprits were—”them little hot-tail boys” the twins hung with under the viaduct down Lexington.
Glo and Muddear took primary charge of Glo’s daughters’ first babies so the girls could continue school. But then they’d get pregnant again; and after their third, they’d give up and drop out.
The twins never had much use for school, Lavette allows. They were enrolled at Manley High School, but preferred spending school hours in a neighborhood game room. Glo frequently escorted the twins to school and spied on them to try to reduce their ditching rate. “They didn’t know I was peepin’—they couldn’t see me behind them bushes. Somebody pass by, say ‘Glo, what you doin’?’ I say ‘Watchin’ them twins goin’ to school.’ That’s what you gotta do, ’cause I’m not gon’ have ’em out there rippin’ and runnin’ the streets, and I’m at home babysittin’.” When the final bell rang, Glo would often be there waiting, making sure the twins headed home to their babies.
Lavette and Laverne may have been attentive parents the last couple years, but they weren’t so much at first. Reluctant to wave good-bye to their free-and-easy days, they often took advantage of their mother’s or grandmother’s baby-sitting.
One afternoon, Glo agreed to baby-sit while the twins went to a park to watch their brother Greg play basketball. Glo told Greg to make sure the twins came straight home afterward. But the twins gave their brother the slip and didn’t come home until the following afternoon. “I had went in their room to get a Pamper for one of the babies,” Glo recalls, “and I saw a shadow go ‘cross the window—they was peepin’ through the window. I said ‘Yes, yes, you can run—you can run all ‘roun’ the house, I’m not gon’ chase you. But you gotta come in sooner or later.’ They stayed out there long as they could, stayed out ’til it started gettin’ dark. Laverne says ‘We’re gon’ get it.’ Says ‘We might as well go and get it over with now.’
“I’m through watchin’ your kids after school,” Glo told them. “I’m not gon’ baby-sit for y’all so y’all can be in the streets ‘roun’ some boys who’re meanin’ no good.” Glo says today, “I thought ‘That’ll teach ’em—teach ’em not to get pregnant no more.’ Shoot. Didn’t teach ’em nothin’. My mother, she started babysittin’ for ’em—’Yeah, bring the baby ‘roun’ here.’ And they got pregnant again.”
On the rare occasions when Muddear couldn’t sit, there were plenty of other possibilities—Denise, Dovie, Rhonda, Linda Johnson. But the twins found it a little harder to get sitters after their second babies were born. And once they had three—well, as Linda says: “Who wants to watch three kids? And you got your own. So they knew that they were limited. So I guess they decided then to settle down.”
As they settled down, they also spoke often of their regret over becoming parents so soon. “We was barely goin’ out,” Lavette says, “and most everywhere we’d go we had to take the kids with. We said ‘The way we like to run the streets, we had our kids too early.'”
Considering what a burden it can be, why do girls here get pregnant so early? That’s a question Lavette—and Denise, and Dovie, Rhonda, and Linda—say they can’t really answer.
Some do it because they’re envious of other girls who have babies, Lavette says. And some really have babies just to get on welfare or to fatten their aid checks, according to Dovie.
But why did they themselves get pregnant in their early teens? That question elicits mainly shrugs. “I wasn’t tryin’ to get pregnant, just happened,” Lavette says. “I was just doin’ somethin’ I had no business to,” Dovie says. Their first pregnancies resulted from ignorance about birth control, they say, later pregnancies from failed attempts to use contraceptives. (Denise, Dovie, and Lavette got headaches and nausea from birth control pills, and so mostly used less reliable contraceptives. Laverne, too, used to say the pill made her sick, but Glo didn’t buy that; Laverne just didn’t like taking pills, Glo says. “I used to say to Laverne ‘You take your pill?’ ‘Yeah, I took my pill.’ When she go to school, I go and check behind—she don’t be takin’ nothin’. Sometimes she’d hold it on her tongue, wait ’til she go outside, and spit it out.”)
The contraceptives aren’t the heart of the problem, Glo says; it’s that “once they get out there with them little boys, they don’t think ’bout nothin’—nothin’ goin’ on in their mind but pleasin’ those boys.”
Males are, indeed, in the driver’s seat in male-female relationships here, catered to for traditional sexist reasons but also probably because of demographics: males are in short supply in slums like Garfield Park, many of them gone to cemeteries and prisons. Young girls are left to compete for the remaining ones, to bicker and fight over them and allow them to “get over” early and often.
“Any guy tells you ‘I love you’—you be so gullible,” says Linda Johnson, who got pregnant at 16. “I was, and I think the twins were, too. I was always thinkin’ that the boyfriend I be ‘with gon’ stay with me the rest of my life, we gon’ be married, you know. But, it didn’t never turn out that way until I met my husband.” (She has three children, ages 11, 7, and 3; she got married two years ago.)
“You always be searchin’ for love,” Linda says. “You get love from your families, but—it’s just somethin’ else that be missin’.”
One thing missing is consistent love from fathers. They’re present for conception, but they often let the women handle everything else—from child care to funeral arrangements. They’re elusive figures, drifting from one family to another when they’re around at all. Glo’s natural father never lived with her (Jesse Doyle was her stepfather her nine children were fathered by four different men, none of whom lived with the family more than briefly. She did marry one of the men—Dovie’s father, when she was pregnant with her. But he soon entered the service, and they got divorced shortly after he got out. “He didn’t wan’ work,” Glo says. “I couldn’t take care of him and three kids.” Perhaps things would have turned out better for her kids had there been a man around steadily, Glo says—but she doubts it. “Some men play a big part, if they down to earth wan’ be fathers,” Glo says. “Some of ’em just be in the way. Most of ’em be in the way.”
Her four daughters were unmarried when all 13 of their children were born, though Denise and Dovie have married in the last four years. Those 13 children fit the neighborhood norm: 75 percent of black births in Chicago today are to unwed mothers (compared with 29 percent of white births). Blacks born to teens are born to single mothers 96 percent of the time (compared with 64 percent for whites). Economics scare many women away from marriage; with the area’s high joblessness, a husband is seen by many as just another mouth to feed on a meager aid check. More often, though, it’s the man who gets sweaty palms when marriage is mentioned, or splits the scene when a pregnancy is announced.
“Can’t depend on the fathers,” Rhonda says, “’cause you don’t know what they’re gon’ do. So you always gotta keep your mind set to doin’ everything.”
Glo’s daughters all plan to fill their daughters in on birth control and try to discourage them from having sex too early. Denise and Dovie already have had such discussions with their 12-year-old daughters. But they doubt they’ll have similar discussions with their sons. It wouldn’t do any good, Dovie says. “Boy gon’ be a man someday. A man gon’ do what he wan’ do.”
Says Glo: “See, if the boys get someone pregnant, they not gon’ bring the baby home with ’em. Girls ain’t gon’ have nothin’ to do but bring ’em home to Mama.”
“You always gotta take your daughter’s kids,” Rhonda says. “But them sons, you ain’t gon’ be able to take all theirs in—they might have some all over Chicago.”
Lavette was luckier than Laverne, their sisters used to say; with three sons, Lavette didn’t have to worry about raising grandchildren. But with two daughters, Laverne had better watch out: “Pretty soon, y’all gon’ have two grandkids in the house,” Denise would kid her. “Hope not,” Laverne would say; “Hope they don’t be like me—have kids too soon, don’t finish school.”
When the twins were small and playing house, they’d talk to each other about the kind of family they wanted as grown-ups. “I only want two kids—a boy and a girl,” Laverne would say. “That’s what I want, too,” Lavette would reply.
“We done passed two quick,” Lavette says today.
But things tend to happen quicker in Garfield Park. The best contraceptive is a real future, the teen-pregnancy-prevention advocates often say; give teens hope and some promising options, and they’ll quit having kids. But there isn’t a lot that looks promising in Garfield Park, and with youngsters being struck down so often, many adolescents must wonder whether they have a future at all. Whatever you want to do, you do quickly, while you still have the chance. Maybe they wouldn’t have babies so young here if they didn’t have funerals so early as well.
“AT LEAST we got to spend that last day [before the fire] together,” Lavette says.
Laverne had come by Lavette’s shortly before noon that day, with Derrick and Delina. Keyata was in school. The twins and their sister-in-law, Rose, 26—Greg’s wife—sat in the small front room of the basement apartment and talked. Around 1:30 PM, Linda Johnson, who had finished waiting tables for the day, joined them.
The four women talked away the afternoon, their conversation laced with interruptions by the kids. As usual, the subject of children dominated. And as she often did, Laverne was lamenting having kids so early.
“Man, Lavette—we ain’t even got a chance to see our teenage years, we so busy with the kids,” Laverne said.
“Sure is true, Laverne.”
They laughed about how the twins used to take advantage of Linda’s willingness to sit for their kids. “Y’all always stayed gone so long,” Linda said. “I tell y’all be back a certain time—y’all would never come back when I say. Then when y’all come back, I say ‘I ain’t keepin’ ’em no more. No more.'”
“But then y’all’d keep ’em again,” Laverne said, chuckling.
Lavette got out the Sears catalog that had come in the mail the day before, and Laverne studied it carefully. She made a list of clothes she wanted to buy her kids.
Around 2 PM, she left to walk over to the school and get Keyata. Not long after she returned, Rose went to the kitchen to fix some spaghetti for supper. Laverne started talking excitedly about the surprise shower she wanted to throw Rose, who was expecting a baby in April.
“Laverne, you’re talkin’ too loud,” Lavette cautioned. “Rose gon’ hear you!”
“I ain’t talkin’ too loud,” Laverne said. She turned to Linda, whose advice she trusted in important social matters. “Linda, do they have lasagna at baby showers?”
Linda laughed. “Girl, you can have anything you want at a baby shower.”
“When we get our checks this week, we gon’ buy the shower cards [invitations],” Laverne said.
“Hey—I ain’t got any money to get the baby somethin’ yet,” Linda said.
“No, no—we ain’t havin’ the shower yet,” Laverne said. “We just gotta get the cards out, let everybody know ’bout it early. ‘Cause Easter comin’ up, people gotta get their kids’ Easter clothes. We gotta let ’em know so they can get their Easter clothes and a baby gift.”
Laverne turned back to Lavette. “When we get our checks Friday, me and you gon’ rent some videos, look at ’em at my place. [Tyrone had a videocassette recorder.] I’m gon’ cook us some tacos, since they got my gas on. Hey, Jerome! Anthony!” she called to Lavette’s older two boys. “This Friday y’all come spend the night with Auntie. I got some heat!”
Rose had to go over to Altgeld Park to pick up her seven-year-old, Patricia, from a dance class. She asked Lavette to keep an eye on the simmering spaghetti sauce. Laverne volunteered to accompany Rose.
At Altgeld, Laverne intervened in a dispute between a 15-year-old cousin of hers, Michelle, and some other girls. The girls had been threatening Michelle, who had angered one of them by talking with a certain boy, the father of one of the girls’ baby. Laverne told the girl she didn’t have cause for a fight. “If the boy gon’ be with you he gon’ be with you—it don’t matter who talk to him.” In any case, Laverne warned, “You mess with her [Michelle] again, you gon’ have deal with me.”
After dinner at Lavette’s, the women turned on a Bulls game and talked some more. “Laverne, I’m thinkin’ of buyin’ some of these extension braids,” Lavette said. “I’m goin’ to Daddy’s house tomorrow, he tol’ me come out there, he gon’ give me some money. When I go get the money I’m gon’ stop and buy me some of them braids. And I want you to put ’em in my head.”
“Why you wan’ me do it? I don’t know how,” Laverne said.
“By you knowin’ how to French-braid real good, I thought you probably would know how to put these in.”
“OK,” Laverne said. “I’ll try.”
Linda said she wanted to visit Dovie for a short time. Laverne walked there with her.
Dovie’s two daughters, Tracy, 12, and Margaret, 10, were delighted to see their auntie. Laverne combed and braided Margaret’s hair. She told Tracy to come to her place on Friday when she got out of school; Laverne was going to take her shopping to get some new gym shoes. “You come too, Marg, and I’m gon’ do your hair again,” she said. “I’m cookin’ tacos, and y’all gon’ stay the night, I got some heat.”
When they got back to Lavette’s around 9:30, Manny had just pulled up in his car and was ready to take Laverne and the kids home. He and Laverne drove Linda back to her place on the south side. The kids nodded off on the way back.
They got home around 10:30. The place was quiet; Tyrone and Cheryl were already asleep. Keyata, Derrick, and Delina stirred as Laverne and Manny got them into their pajamas, but all three were fast asleep moments after being tucked into their pallet next to the bed. Laverne turned on Night Heat. During a commercial, Laverne brought up marriage again.
“When you gon’ marry me, Manny?” Laverne wanted to know.
“On your birthday.” It was Manny’s standard answer lately. As usual, it didn’t satisfy Laverne.
“I don’ wan’ wait ’til my birthday, I wan’ get married now.”
“I can’t marry you now, Laverne, ’cause it’s night time,” Manny said. “The place closed.”
“Oh, you don’ wan’ marry me no way,” Laverne said.
When Night Heat ended, they shut off the TV and went to sleep. Sometime during the night, Delina crawled into the bed and snuggled between her parents.
THE PREACHER was on the home stretch of his half-hour eulogy, but showed no signs of wearying or wilting in the heat. “Come to Jesus—the answer in him. Put that wine bottle down, put down that strange cigarette, put down those strange women.” (“Yeah.” “All right.”)
“You know that there’s some folks here today that is so secure that they don’t need God or nobody? But I’m gon’ tell you somethin’—don’t leave here without him. Don’t go out in the street without him. Don’t ride the bus without him, don’t go to work without him. Take him with you everywhere you go. Because you don’t know when your time is out. Life is uncertain. But death is for sure. Glory hallelujah . . . ”
Derrick Jr. was discharged from County March 5. He doesn’t look too bad, all things considered, Glo says. Skin was grafted on his forehead, on various parts of his scalp, and on his forearms and hands. The hair on his head is patchy; the grafts for the scalp were taken from his legs, and on those spots not much hair will grow back.
On April 5, Delina came home. Her face was disfigured quite a bit more than Derrick’s; it had required more extensive grafting. Her head is hairless and it’s unlikely much hair will return. The delicate procedure of grafting her eyelids went extremely well, though. But the doctors had to amputate the top bone of the two bones in each thumb and the top two of the three bones in each of the other eight fingers, leaving her with mittenlike hands. Someday, when the grafts on the hands are fully healed, perhaps surgery can deepen the grooves between the fingers and make her hands more useful.
Derrick and Delina both wear “Jobst stockings” on their hands—glovelike garments that keep pressure on the grafted areas to minimize bulging. Soon they’ll have to wear Jobst stockings on their heads, too, from six months to two years. Their grafts don’t hurt them now, but they itch all the time; Glo is constantly reminding them to pat, not scratch. Thanks largely to Derrick and Delina’s youth, their lungs have recovered fully.
Three days a week, Glo takes the kids on a bus to County, where they receive physical therapy and have their grafts cleansed and examined.
The doctors and the nurses in the burn unit couldn’t have been sweeter, Glo says. “They spoiled Derrick and Delina,” she says with a laugh, “always pickin’ ’em up and huggin’ ’em, talkin’ to ’em, takin’ pictures.” Both children made many friends, but they were delighted to come home, and Glo says it’s done her heart good to have them back. They still laugh and smile a lot, like their mother used to, she says.
Derrick, Delina, Keyata, and Glo still stay with Dovie, and Manny with his mother; Glo and Manny hope to find a place for themselves and the kids soon. Manny visits his kids at Dovie’s daily.
Sometimes, Keyata tells Glo that she misses her mother. “Grandma miss her, too,” Glo says.
So do Laverne’s sisters. “We all wonderin’ who’s gon’ do the French-braidin’ now,” Denise says.
On the west side, the beat goes on. In the two months following Laverne’s death: a 19-year-old girl was stabbed to death by a 17-year-old girl in an argument over a boy; a 13-year-old girl was shot to death by a gangbanger who mistakenly thought she belonged to a rival gang; a five-year-old was beaten to death by his stepfather because he couldn’t get past “G” on his ABC’s; a two-year-old fractured his skull but survived after being tossed out a second-floor window by a naked, mentally disturbed man. And two-year-old twin boys and their one-year-old sister were killed in a fire started by another child who ignited a piece of paper with a space heater, then tossed it behind a couch.
Laverne was buried at Mount Vernon Cemetery, in the southwest suburb of Lemont, in a grave that will remain unmarked. Glo would have preferred a closer cemetery, but Mount Vernon is where the funeral home does its public aid burials.
Many of those who had attended the funeral service did not own autos, and had to crowd into the cars of others for the drive to the cemetery; but the procession still stretched for a block and a half behind the hearse. “Look at how many cars,” marveled Denise during the drive. “She’d a been so proud. You don’t know how many people did love you, Laverne.” It took a half hour to get to the cemetery, a 20-mile drive from the funeral home. To Glo’s best knowledge, it was the farthest Laverne had ever been from Garfield Park.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.