An older sister’s need for a babysitter was the occasion for Vickie Williams’s first trip away her childhood home in Louisiana. She traveled to Chicago in a brand new ’67 Malibu, reveled in a Motown concert, and took her first airplane ride in a 20-seater plane. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
By Vickie Williams
Winter slept, as spring leaped forward. Orange-black butterflies suckled on still magnolias during the day. The scent of honeysuckle perfumed the night air. Plum trees fully laced with white blossoms attracted black bumblebees and early birds sang morning, delightfully feasting on their prey.
Dewdrops nestling on blades of grass quickly evaporated in the rising sun as day progressed and lazy dogs lay sluggishly in humid Delta heat. Old trucks with live chickens for sale rumbled through the neighborhood and children took to competition playing box hockey, shooting marbles, jumping rope and racing up and down the streets.
Sunshine drew elders to their rocking chairs on their garrets. Winter wear packed in mothballs were stored in old footlockers and cedar chest awaited the return of winter.
Backyard gardens planted in late March blossomed, looked hopeful as yellow flowers flourished on tomato vines signaled future possibilities. Chickens laid eggs in their coups and cackled. Toddlers played in dirt painting their faces with mud, and manicured lawns looked like shags of green carpet.
March winds hummed loudly and danced with fury. April showers brought heavy rains as fluffy white clouds mushroomed into blackness. Crystal sheets of rain poured heavily and thunder roared loudly with sharp bolts of lightning.
I loved playing skinning the cat, draping my knees over the T-shaped poles that held up our clothes lines, as the remainder of my body dangled toward the ground. These were springtime snapshots of my familiar, where I lived in the South.
The school year had ended. March winds and April rains had passed. It was mid May 1967, when I received the good news. I was going to Chicago for the summer. I had just turned fourteen years old on May 7th that year, a poor, proud young colored girl with my chest stuck out after receiving the exciting news. I wasted no time packing mother’s gray Samsonite suitcase she let me borrow. I needed no encouragement to do so. Her approval was all I needed, such a wonderful belated birthday gift.
My sister Gertrude, who lived in Chicago, needed a babysitter for the summer. Going to a big city was a dream come true. She and her husband had come home to visit with their two-year-old son and upon returning to the Windy City, they needed someone to look after him.
My nephew and I bonded like glue. His dark dreamy doll eyes stole my heart, when our eyes first met. He quickly became the magnet of my affection. He was soft, serene, and sweet as a velvet breeze. I was happy to show off his good looks. It was love at first sight.
“Be good. Behave. Do what they ask you to do,” mother instructed. “I’m gonna miss you.” “I’ll miss you too, Ma Dear.” “I love you.” “I love you too.”
Hugs and kisses flourished between us, as we said our good-byes. Mother stood at the edge of the front yard waving, loudly issuing more instructions. “Keep the doors locked when you are home alone. Don’t talk to strangers.”
My nephew and I proceeded to the back seat of the car waving good-bye, as the car took off. My father had said his goodbyes the night before. He woke up with the chickens to go to work.
Christmas arrived early May for me. I felt as light as a helium balloon in my own orbit. I gladly left my dusty tracks behind, spinning dreams in my mind, headed Midwest. Little did I know what was in store.
Leaving my hometown for an entire summer was a long stretch, bigger than my imagination. I did not know what I had bargained for. My young mind took no time to think about it. I relished the opportunity to get away. I embraced the journey.
I knew of no other kid on the block as fortunate as me. Poor folks like us never took vacations. My vacation was usually around the corner to Uncle Eddie’s, my mother’s brother, for a week. His children were close to my age. All of my siblings were much older.
My hay fever resonated, spring was in full bloom, as my nose and eyes watered for relief. Pollen rode the air, as the humidity, not quite oven-like was heating up. Leaving home sparked adventure in my mind. Nothing could tarnish my exhilaration.
I had visions of seeing the world some day, as I sometimes drifted into wonderland daydreaming, watching planes sailing across iris-blue skies. Opportunity embodied my dream. My day had come. I often pondered what other places would be like beyond the South. Good weather along our journey made traveling provisions ideal.
We pivoted from the Deep South headed North in a brand new burgundy 1967 Malibu Chevrolet. It was spick and span, stylish and smelled new. As we advanced to the Windy City, I could not contain my excitement. My eyes, riveted with curiosity, drank in the scenery along the way. I inhaled countryside fresh air, soaked in intriguing landscapes: rainbow meadows, fields of yellow, purple, red and pink wild flowers, green pastures, orchards of trees, spans of cotton fields and unknown crops. Crossing bridges and witnessing steamboats meandering on the Mississippi River grabbed my attention. I had never seen so many big rigs ambling down the highway.
I dared not sleep. All the excitement made me feel like a rookie advancing from the minors to the big league. I felt so lucky. The sparkling beige interior made me proud to be a passenger in such a plush car.
The dung of cows, sheep, and goats grazing in fertile pastures created a lasting stench, as we traveled through the countryside. I was relieved to inhale the fresh breath of pines and towering oaks once we passed the stench. I was enchanted with stylish southern brick homes sitting on acres of grassy green carpet, rustic red barns with stacks of golden hay, and men plowing farmland on industrial tractors.
I saw silver strands of moss draped on trees and wondered what was in the thick bush. I cringed to know. Eerie thoughts came to mind.
As night unfolded, I felt like a junior astronomer enamored with clusters of stars sparkling like tinsel in the jet-black sky. I was moonstruck and awed. We listened to Wolf Man Jack on the radio spinning Motown jams and danced in our seats. It was about a day and a half before our arrival in the city.
My first view of Chicago was not impressive. Houses crunched next to each other startled me. The buildings appeared drab, mostly grey stone, dark, dirty, and dingy. No grass anywhere it seemed. Soot veiled the city. The air smelled stale and rancid.
Washburn Ave, a main artery in the inner city, teemed with hustlers. Old women sat at bus stops weighted down with grocery bags and laundry carts. Peddlers pushing their products selling everything from fine jewelry, clothing, Chicago dogs, and Polish sausages crowded the streets.
Young women in hot pants and go-go boots hung out on street corners. A man smiling with gold front teeth tapped on the car window trying to sell watches while we waited at the stoplight. Colored men dressed in bright yellow, red, green, and purple suits with matching wide brim hats, and shoes paced the streets.
My eyes ablaze with so much color, my ears overwhelmed with such commotion. The streets reminded me of a busy circus. Some folks
moved as if they were on octane with a mission. The scariest sight was a man without a shirt wearing tattered dark pants draped in chains dragging a flatbed of wood on his tobacco brown back. Some colored men had processed hair and others had Afros. It was a blend of the wildly exotic and the ordinary, a real shock to me.
L-Trains screeching and chugging on tracks vibrated with annoyance. It was an alarming welcome to the city. I silently longed for the simple life, the peace and quiet of my laid-back neighborhood: the smell of sweet magnolias, the comfort of my mother’s kitchen, the scent of fresh cut grass, clean air, and open spaces. I missed sprawling shade trees and warm southern greetings,
Things got better as we approached the apartment on West Adams where my sister lived. I greeted it with a sigh of relief. The building had several entrances and many levels. It was an upgrade from home with a red brick exterior, neatly attired with modern furniture, walls with fresh coats of paint, floors blanketed with carpet, a doubled sink in the kitchen, a sparkling stove and snow white refrigerator. It was a quiet habitat.
I met Rose, my sister’s friend. She was round, plump, and friendly, had no children and adored my nephew and me. I had no one my age to communicate or play with. I grew homesick quickly, but never asked to go home.
My sister worked days and her husband worked nights. He slept must of the day. We played card games, monopoly, dominoes, and checkers for entertainment, when my sister and her husband were not working.
My freedom was restricted. Caution a must. Doors always locked. My brother-in-law was not to be disturbed. Plenty of food and a neatly kept apartment maintained by my sister were reassuring. The noise level I monitored. I was quiet as a whisper.
My nephew was a joy to care for. I would put him in his stroller and with my sister’s permission we would go for short walks. I read him stories, bathed, and fed him. The conservatory was nearby and we would frequent there regularly.
On his parents off-days, we would go sightseeing. We visited Lake Michigan, and nearby were White Sox’s Park, Soldier Field where Gale Sayers, the Chicago Bears running back, broke ankles and made tacklers miss.
We went to the Loop downtown, and my favorite place of all was the Regal Theater. I saw a “dream girl” like performance there. It was a gift from my brother-in-law for being a good babysitter. The line up included the Spinners, Four Tops, Impressions, the Miracles, Martha and the Vandelas.
The glitz and glamour caused my eyes to glow like the moon. I struck gold and was in a Motown groove. The songs and choreography received long applauses. Those days the music was the star.
I never thought I would miss home so much. I longed for my mother’s loud voice and soulful cooking, the rivalry playing sports with friends, and the freedom to roam free. I missed the simple things, picking plums and blackberries, buying penny cookies and dill pickles at the neighborhood store, hanging out at the softball park, shooting hoops at the recreational center, saying hello and chatting with elders that admired my spunk.
I missed spending summer nights at Uncle Eddie’s around the corner, keeping my cousins awake telling jokes and giggling. “Go to sleep gal. Y’all stop that giggling.” My Uncle’s command made my rebellion that much sweeter. We would pull the covers over our heads, place our hands over our mouths, and silently giggle.
My anticipation to return home was like a drought thirsting for rain. Leaving my nephew behind brought tears to my eyes. A lump swelled in my throat. “Thank you so much, Vic, for being a great babysitter,” my sister with a forlorn look said to me. “I’m going to miss you so much.”
We hugged tightly saying our goodbyes. I picked up my nephew and held him closely not wanting to leave him behind. I wanted to safeguard him from harm, hurt, and danger. A rivulet of soft tears fell from his eyes when I told him I was going bye-bye. My brother-in law and I locked eyes with a smile and I grabbed him around his waste ever so grateful for spending a sometimes lonesome, but eye-opening vacation with them. “You be good and hit the books. Thanks a million,” he said to me.
I took my first airplane ride out of Midway Airport in Chicago. I was thrilled. The plane was a commuter with a single engine. The seats were snuggly, rubber-band tight. It only seated about twenty passengers or less.
I had to change planes in St. Louis. The plane there was much larger and the skies were surreal for travel. It had a black cover on its nose as if it had been in battle. My stomach was queasy on take off, but with little turbulence, my ride home was a success. The ease in which we sailed the heavenly blue skies was seductive.
Leaving Chicago I had earned my wings. I was ecstatic to see my parents’ faces. My residence at 814 Camp Street never looked more inviting to me. I had so much to share. There was no sweeter landing than home sweet home.