One day not too many years ago, I was at work and this man comes in. He walks right past the sign that says Authorized Personnel Only, and he walks straight over to my desk in the middle of the office and says, “Were you in second grade at the Ericson School?”
I hadn’t been at this job very long, and my supervisor was not a very considerate woman, so I was a little uncomfortable having him there. I said, “Well, yes, I went to Ericson. It was the only year I ever went to a public school, when I was in second grade.”
He said, “That’s where I know you from. I’ve never forgotten your face. You look just the same.” He told me his family had been the first Italian family in the neighborhood. Then he said, “Why, that was more than 50 years ago!”
I said, “Hey, wait a minute. Not so loud. The people here don’t know I’m that old.”
He said, “Well, I’m glad I saw you again.” And he left.
After he was gone I felt so terrible that I hadn’t asked him any questions. If I’d been friendly to him I would have learned something.
I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why he remembered me. I went back in my mind to second grade, to 1921, 1922. What happened?
The reason we went to Ericson was because there was no kindergarten at Our Lady of Sorrows for my brother Ed. My mother and father did a lot of arguing, my father wanting us all to go to the public school so we could take Ed with us.
Ericson was only a block away, down to Harrison Street and around the corner, and that way we could take care of Ed. My mother would say, “No, they have to go to the Catholic school.”
So my father promised her that if we went to the public school this one year, next year we would all go back to Our Lady of Sorrows. Which is what we did.
Now the reason they wanted us all to go to school together, rather than letting Ed stay home, was because my mother was expecting a baby. The baby was born on a Saturday night in the room next to us. We were asleep. We didn’t know what was going on.
Sunday morning we woke up, and we had this beautiful baby brother, James. So we went to nine o’clock mass, and when we came home we brought all the kids on the block in to see him.
Two days later, on Tuesday morning, James was lying on the dining-room table in his christening clothes with a handkerchief over his face. He had died during the night.
The undertaker came and put the baby in this little white casket. My mother was in bed. In those days you were supposed to stay in bed for ten days after childbirth. My father carried the casket in so my mother could say good-bye.
Then Marge and I went with my Aunt Anna and my father to Calvary Cemetery, where my mother’s mother is buried and my older brother and sister, John and Loretta, who also died young. They were born naturally, and then died a week or so later. They’re all buried at Calvary, the first two children and then the seventh. My mother always reminded us of their birthdays. She would say, “We have three angels in heaven praying for us.”
For weeks and weeks I kept thinking back to the year James was born, to second grade at Ericson School, to try and remember this man who’d come into my office.
Marge and Ed and I would all walk to school together. At Sacramento and Harrison there was always a policeman to help us cross the street, and then one day they installed the new stop-and-go lights. The policeman explained how the lights worked, and he said, “Now you don’t need me anymore. You can cross the street on your own.” We were very sorry to see him go.
That was the year we used to get penny ice cream cones in the store next to the school. We went to a fair downtown at Christmastime. And we had a gym in the top of the school. I never had another gym in my life until I got to high school.
We used to go to the show that year. On payday my father would take us to the Harrison theater on Kedzie, right where the Eisenhower Expressway is now. It would be 20 cents for an adult and 10 cents for children, so for 80 cents the whole family went to the show. And for 20 cents he bought four packages of Cracker Jacks, a nickel each.
We would go on Thursday night, which was amateur night, and this one night some kids from my class were doing a Japanese dance that we’d learned in gym class. They were singing and twirling umbrellas. I knew all the girls onstage.
Anyway, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t place this man in my mind. He was small and dark, with curly black and gray hair. He didn’t tell me his name. Just that he was the first Italian in the neighborhood.
Then one day I remembered that each day there would be a boy of the day and a girl of the day. Everyone got a turn choosing. It was my turn to choose the boy of the day, and I chose Tony. The teacher called him up in front of the room and said, “Tony, did you wash your face today?”
He said, “No.”
“Tony, did you comb your hair today?”
He said, “No.”
Then she turned to me and said, “Josephine, how can you choose a boy for the day who has neither washed his face nor combed his hair? Virginia, you choose the boy of the day.”
So I think that must have been Tony that day in my office so many years later. And that’s why he remembered me.