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November In Chicago

Story ID:3127
Written by:Nancy J. Kopp (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Family Memories
Writers Conference:$500 2007 Family Memories Writing Project
Location:Chicago IL USA
Year:1948
Person:My family
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November In Chicago


The crisp, sunny days of October somehow slid into damp, gray ones during November in the Chicago area where I grew up. For some reason unknown to most of its inhabitants, the sun played hide-and-seek in the late autumn and winter months, mostly hiding. Wind swept across Lake Michigan, bringing a chill that seeped through warm, woolen jackets and into the bones of both young and old. Leaves which had fallen and not been raked yet, swirled around our feet with each new gust of wind, and naked tree branches dipped and swayed like ballerinas announcing that winter would soon begin. We walked faster on our way to and from school, and Mother often commented that we had roses in our cheeks when we arrived home, nice way to describe chapped skin. We paid little mind to our rosy cheeks once inside our warm apartment.

Each of the five rooms in our apartment had a large radiator with an on-off knob on the side, and a narrow deep pan that hooked over the back which Mother filled with water to bring the humidity levels up. Our large building had steam heat, fired by a huge coal furnace in a garden level basement. I guess you’d call it a half-basement. There was a window in the furnace room where the coal man inserted a chute from his truck and soon sent the coal rumbling down the chute while a group of us kids gathered around to watch. The coal man stood guard outside, and the apartment janitor stood at the delivery end of the chute in the basement. The coal man’s face matched the product he delivered making the whites of his eyes stand out prominently. Once this scary looking man finished, the kids ran around to the basement door to witness the next step in bringing heat to all our apartments. John, the janitor, grabbed a big shovel and fed the furnace from that huge heap of coal. He let us watch for a few minutes, then snarled at us. “Get out of here now. No place for you kids.” And his fierce look sent us scattering. Once, there was a coal strike, and we had very little heat for several days. We wore our coats and hats and even gloves inside until we heard the blessed sound of pipes rattling and radiators hissing once again.

We celebrated Armistice Day every November 11th, commemorating the armistice signed to end WWI at the 11th hour on the 11th day of November, 1918. Even after WWII, Armistice Day remained as November 11th. Now, we call it Veterans Day and it’s celebrated the second Monday of November. There are still parades and speeches, breakfasts and lunches served in places like the American Legion Hall, but somehow it doesn’t have the same meaning as it did when I was a child, and the date remained constant.

The next big event in November was Thanksgiving. We celebrate now much as we did then. The menu remains the same as it was when my mother and my aunts prepared the dinner—turkey roasted to a golden brown and stuffed with a moist dressing redolent with sage. One of my aunts made an additional stuffing that she baked alongside the turkey. This one was a family recipe from the French side. Sausage added to it gave it a spicier taste. We had mashed potatoes and rich gravy made from the turkey drippings, sweet potato casserole with a marshmallow topping, homemade yeast rolls, cranberry sauce, a salad called Seafoam made with lime jello, cream cheese, mashed pears and whipped cream. Our vegetables were usually green beans. Pumpkin pie and apple pie finished off our feast. Real whipped cream topped the spicy pumpkin, and vanilla ice cream and perhaps a piece of cheddar cheese graced the plate with the apple pie on it.

My father had two older sisters who lived in the Chicago area with their families, so we usually celebrated Thanksgiving with one or both of them, trading homes from year to year. My five cousins, my three brothers and I had a wonderful time together, despite the wide range of ages. After dinner, we were shooed outside to play, even when it was very cold. I suspect the adults sat around and drank more coffee, nibbled on the leftovers and did all they could to put off the dishwashing time.

No dishwashers in those days, so all the women pitched in and cleared the table, washed and dried the dishes, often with towels made from flour sacks. When my female cousins and I got older, we were drafted into the kitchen to help. Chattering women and clattering dishes, that’s what would be heard in the kitchen after dinner. We were probably better off, as we got some exercise after eating so much, while the men plunked themselves into chairs and listened to the radio, and in later years, watched the small screen TV we had.

Occasionally, it would snow on Thanksgiving Day but seldom enough to keep anyone from getting to wherever their dinner might be.

When I got married, I thought about asking my parents and my brothers to come to our house for Thanksgiving, but I hesitated to do so for fear of upsetting my mother who had cooked countless Thanksgiving turkeys. My aunts had passed away, so Mom was always the hostess. After a few years, I worked up the courage to suggest it, and Mom threw her hands skyward and said, “Finally! I’ve been waiting for someone to invite me for Thanksgiving for years.” After that, when we lived close enough, Thanksgiving for the extended family that lived nearby was at our house.

Now, my children both make the trip home for Thanksgiving every other year, bringing their families to share in the Thanksgiving traditional menu. We use a few shortcuts now, and we load the dishwasher instead of drying dishes with flour sack towels, but the grandchildren revel in being with cousins just as I did all those years ago. The faces around the table may be different, but the same warmth of a family gathering to give thanks and spend time together is there. May it ever be so.

Note: See my “Turkey in the Raw” ID# 1160 for an embarrassing Thanksgiving Day story.