In 1952 we moved from the little house by the glass factory in Streator, Illinois, to a two-story house at 303 West Stanton Street. Mom explained the number 303 meant we were three blocks west of Bloomington Street, the second house on the south side of Stanton Street. I could see how that pattern made sense. It was a kind of code.
The house on Stanton was a nice one, with three bedrooms and a bath off a large landing on the second floor. The picket-fenced back yard contained a brick barbecue pit. Across the alley stood Grant School, a red-brick cube where I would attend second grade.
A garage stood at the back of the lot. When Dad came home from work, driving our black 1939 Chevrolet, he could drive up the alley, stop the car, get out, pull the swinging garage door open, get back in the car, drive the car in, get out, and push the garage door closed. Then he could open the back gate in the white picket fence and walk through the yard to our back door. It was simple and convenient.
Mom and Dad paid sixty dollars a month to rent this palace. Hollyhocks grew by the barbecue. Cynda and I learned to pluck off the blooms and make “hollyhock ladies” of them, the ruffled edges of the red, pink, or purple petals forming the ladies’ billowing skirts.
The house had a full basement, where stood an asbestos-padded furnace, thick round ducts sprouting from its top into the murky realm of floor joists overhead. My cold-weather chore was to shovel coal into the furnace twice a day—once right after school and again before bed. Dad handled the job in the mornings, and I suppose Mom did it in mid-day. On Saturdays Dad and I scooped out the spent coal—a mixture of white, powdery fly ash and hard, iridescent cinders or “clinkers”—and carried it in a five-gallon bucket to the alley, where the garbage men would collect it on Monday morning.
Life settled into a routine. I kept busy working out answers to life’s big questions.
But our family life was not all centered in Streator. Knoxville, a hundred miles away, was still our real hometown. That’s where the relatives lived. There was a real difference between these two places that I had yet to grasp.
Knoxville was a town of about two thousand souls, ten miles west of the Spoon River and five miles southeast of Galesburg, the city where Dad had gone to college while I sucked ice chips and envied my playmate’s adventure at the hospital.
Parts of Mom’s family had lived in or near Knoxville since before the Civil War. Dad’s family had relocated there from tiny Dahinda when he was about ten.
Grandma and Grandpa Sommers lived alone in their house at the east end of Knoxville. Grandma, a Gold Star Mother twice over, was a large-framed woman with big white buttons in both ears, wired to a microphone-and-battery pack that hung on the front of her baggy, flower- print dress. She was a warm, comforting presence—unpretentious and accommodating.
Grandpa, William P. Sommers, was a bantam rooster—small and fiery, given to profane outbursts, sharply critical of children.
I was terrified of him and comforted by her.
We were their closest kin, geographically. Dad’s older brother, Edward, was a pilot for Pan American World Airways and lived far off in Germany or England or someplace like that. Dad’s older sister, Mabel, had married an aircraft mechanic and lived in Southern California. Their other two children, Stanley and Franklin, had been killed flying bombers—one in the Solomon Islands, the other over France.
Grandma and Grandpa, different as they were from each other, formed a unit, an odd-yoked pair going through life with a strange mix of anger and acceptance.
On Mom’s side of the family, we swarmed with present kin. Mom was first of seven living brothers and sisters—some married, with children, and others not yet full-grown. Mom’s mother, Grandma LaFollette, had a brother and sister in Galesburg and many aunts and uncles living nearby.
Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette lived in a slouching house on the west end of Knoxville, facing the Old Courthouse across the town square. Neither of them was as critical as Grandpa Sommers or as comforting as Grandma Sommers. They were warm, friendly, and commonplace. Aunts, uncles, and cousins moved through the house. You never knew who might turn up.
I preferred life at the west end of Main Street to the stifling ennui at the other end of town. This was especially so at Christmas time, when all the LaFollette aunts and uncles and cousins sloshed together in a burst of amiable chaos that included turkey, gravy, and wishbone-pulling. Even then, we usually slept at Grandma and Grandpa Sommers’s sedate place. They had bed space for us, whereas the LaFollettes often didn’t.
Knoxville, where our roots were planted, was home. There, we were good enough.
Our usual dwelling place, Streator—a perfectly fine town—seemed like a place where we had something to prove. Mom and Dad lived in a web of grown-up associations, some quite relaxed and friendly but others apparently fraught with unfamiliar expectations—an element of tension that did not exist in little Knoxville, among the relatives.
I could not have identified it then and do not fully understand it yet. But it came out, over and over in the following years, as a gnawing sense of insufficiency which pervaded our household. Mom and Dad both experienced it, in their separate ways, and by the time we grew to be adults ourselves, my sister and I had both caught serious cases of it.
It was a code that would take many years, and much heartache, to decipher.
Larry F. Sommers
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