Spending Summer Evenings On a Chicago Stoop

Grandma's wicker chair was always the first sign of summer in our house. "Outside," she would command on that first night of warm weather in Chicago. Obligingly, I would pick up the chair and move it. This was before VCR's, of course, and before video games.

Grandma still baked bread, made borscht, and did the housework. Grandma loved to work - but 80-plus years of it had made her enjoy sitting almost as much. From June through August, she never missed a night on the stoop. And neither did the neighbors.

Across the street, men in T-shirts would be grouped around a Chevrolet. The hood would be up, and the men would be arguing about the best way to fix a transmission, put in a spark plug, or catch a fish. They would argue about anything.

The Martinellis lived kitty-corner from us and they argued, too. Their fights were loud, but not long, and always ended with her laughter and his singing. Then they would clasp hands and sit together in the gathering dusk, both of them over 70 and happy.

The teenaged girl who lived next to the Martinellis and blared her records through the screen door, liked to dance on the sidewalk. Sometimes she danced alone, sometimes with a boyfriend. She was blonde, and ``a bit brassy,'' my grandmother used to say, and ``all her dance partners looked like Elvis.'' Our neighbors on either side, Mrs. Nelson and Mrs. Neilson, clustered together on alternating stoops usually to gossip about the blonde.

Kids ran after whiffle balls in the center of the street; some of the neighbors carried out card tables and played canasta. A lot of folks listened to the baseball game on the radio. It was all there - drama, romance, and the Cubs, eddying and ebbing up and down the block. Who needed TV when the world was right in front of you?

Toward bedtime, when the street lights softened the neighborhood's veneer, and after I'd played cops and robbers, stuffed lightning bugs into a peanut butter jar, and begged for a cone from the ice-cream truck, I'd join my grandmother on the stoop.

She was a large woman in a day when grandmothers were supposed to be large. I liked to lean on the arm of her chair and rest my head against her bulk.

Sometimes she'd let me unwind her braid, and I'd run my fingers through her thinning, silky hair. Sometimes, very softly, she'd sing to me. I'd sprawl out on the steps, and rest my head against her knees. I'd shut my eyes, and listen to my grandmother's crooning and the pulsing sound of life that the city never loses.

Grandma's voice still had a heavy overlay of Russian, and I couldn't always decipher her words. But her meaning, I understood. Here was security. Here was love.

Last summer I went back to Chicago and the old neighborhood. I didn't ask entry into my old home, but I did ask if I could sit on the stoop for a few minutes.

The wicker chair is no longer there, but that's as it should be. My grandmother was the only one who really belonged in it. The world of the street is gone, too. Now people seem to play out their lives behind closed doors and in central air conditioning. I know it's cooler that way, but it couldn't be as companionable.

Everything seemed different on that trip back - yet not really. In my mind and in my memories, my grandmother and our time together live on. What I had then, I have now. I carry it with me.

When I sit on my own porch and sing to my own daughter, I know that someday I will pass it on to her: the certainty that life is all of a piece, and that she is a part of it, past and future, linked by blood and love for all that has gone before and all that will come after; especially summer evenings on a city stoop.

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