This past month, Mike and I took a stroll down memory lane. We had flown back to Chicago, where our grassroots began, to visit family and celebrate Mom Mester’s birthday. On the drive out to Beecher, we paid a visit to the old homestead where my Mom, my siblings, and I had lived during most of my teen years. Our home was a former chicken coop that my Aunt Jean and Uncle Bob had so generously converted into a dwelling place for us. Seeing the chicken coop again after many years, invoked a flood of memories for me. It looked smaller than I remembered it. But the times we had there were precious. The chicken coop can be seen in the photos above. It is the tiny yellow building with the slanted roof to the right of Mike & I.
Below is an essay that my brother Bobby had submitted during his college days. It is an endearing and fitting rendition of our days in the chicken coop.
by Bob Contino
When I was a kid, not yet old enough to be enrolled in any science classes, I used to conduct experiments of my own. One of my favorites was the Bug Jar Experiment. It consisted of three states: In Stage One, I would obtain an empty mayonnaise jar and collect as many different kinds of bugs I could find-spiders, worms, ladybugs, tiny red and giant black ants, bees, a centipede (if I was lucky), an occasional wasp, those roly-poly bugs that no one knew the real name for, crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, anything that creeped, crawled or disgusted my sisters was fair game. In Stage Two, I would shake the jar vigorously. In Stage Three, my favorite, I would watch delightedly as the imprisoned insets bit, stung and generally destroyed each other. Ironically (and justly, I suppose), when I got to be a bit older, the tables turned, and I experienced the bug jar for myself.
In the fall of 1974, my family had to give up a spacious, three-bedroom home with a big backyard to move into a chicken coop turned recreation room, but to us Home. The edifice boasted a 15 x 30 foot span; no bigger than our former living room; a mere bug jar, if you will. We went into the venture expecting the worst. Rather than tearing the family apart, however, being thrown into very close quarters under less than ideal conditions actually strengthened our relationships.
We called our new abode “the closet”, because to us, it seemed just about the size of a rich person’s wardrobe. There was no room for complaining though (literally!). After all, it was far from the gang-ridden neighborhood we had left behind; it was close to good schools; it was clean, it was much easier on my Mom’s filing clerk salary, and it came furnished with the best hand-me-down furniture that pity could buy. So Mom told the six of us kids to make the best of it. We were a Brady Bunch of sorts, with three girls and three boys ranging in age from five to fifteen, but no Alice to do the housework. Also, we came in two generations: The “big kids” were each born a year apart, and after a gap of five years came us “babies”, also born one year apart.
Peeking through the battered screen door after we had settled in, our curious neighbors beheld a new concept in interior design: An afghan-covered couch next to the stove, an army cot bordered by our giant, prehistoric, dust-laden television set, a dining table surrounded by bunk beds. You see, “the closet”had no rooms. A tiny bathroom in the northwest corner, with a carpeted sliding door, provided the only privacy in the place.
This was new to us, and at first, we absorbed our living arrangements haltingly and delicately, like couples in a pre-arranged marriage. Inevitably though, the fighting began. Some of the most heated battles were waged over bathroom privileges. Finally, we came up with a “calling” system to schedule bath times. Cries of “First bath!” “Second bath!” “Third bath!” and so on were commonly shouted out in the waking hours, but only led to more arguments as calls were contested and challenged later.
Once while Mom was “using the facilities”, Johnny and I broke into a wrestling match right outside the bathroom door. One thing led to another, and at the height of our struggle, we lost our balance, slammed into the bathroom door, knocked it off its hinges, and fell clinging to each other and the door onto the bathroom floor. Mom screamed, powerless to chase us from her seated position, while we scrambled to fix the door and scurry away.
More often though, we were forced to depend on each other, to work together to overcome obstacles imposed upon us by our lack. Laundry and kitchen duties had to be split and shared by all. Providing enough food for six hungry, growing children was a constant struggle for my mom. I remember times when ketchup packets and a hunk of government-issued cheese were the only things left in the fridge. Whether we liked it or not, we had to share. Though it was a small area, our home was heated by an aging, rusted space heater, located near the door. On cold wintry mornings before school, while waiting for the bathroom to free up, the rest of us huddled together in front of the heater, wrapped in blankets, shivering in anticipation of the metallic clicking sound that signaled the release of a fresh blast of hot air. That nondescript old heater became a great equalizer, bringing us together, if momentarily, to share warmth and exchange conversation at the start of the day.
Because we had no rooms of our own, we had no secrets; what one went through, we all experienced. One dark night, returning home from work, Tom unknowingly rolled over a skunk with his bike. When he got home, we immediately smelled the stench, except Tom, of course. Strangely enough, the skunk encounter provided a bonding experience as we each offered creative, often ridiculous solutions for getting rid of the smell.
Then there was Mike Mester, a gangling youth from a neighboring community, who spotted my oldest sister Karen at a roller rink and immediately fell for her. Not knowing her name or anything about her, he somehow tracked her down to our humble dwelling place. He knocked on the front door; my mom answered. He inquired after this mystery girl he had met at the roller rink. Immediately, five more heads appeared at the door, checking out the tall stranger, while one head disappeared quickly into the bathroom hiding. Mike instantly formed the impression that this was going to be a package deal, and he was right. We couldn’t help but cheer and jeer from the sidelines as Mike and Karen embarked upon each new phase of their sometimes stormy but long-lasting relationship.
A flood of memories stirs in me when I think back to those bug jar days. I remember us “babies” clinging to each other in the bottom bunk in fear and joy, begging Tom in the top bunk to be the “werewolf” again. I remember Carol sharing with us her dark and searching poetry and inspiring me to try some of my own. I remember the generational gap closing as Tom treated his kid brothers to pizza and bowling or Karen and Carol fixed Annie’s hair. And why is it I recall the neighbor kids, with their nice houses and families of their own, always wanting to spend the night at our place?
We lived there for almost 12-1/2 years. And a strange thing began to happen as we made the best of it in the “closet”. We went from being siblings and a single parent, thrown and shaken together, to being friends; lifelong friends that time, distance and circumstances have not separated.