You Were All Average
by Eileen Toomey
“Mom, what were we like as babies?” I asked, pulling out of the Middletown Diner’s parking lot, my two girls buckled in car seats behind us. “I mean, did anyone walk early, or talk, or get a ton of teeth?”
“Oh no,” she answered, waving me away. “You were all average.”
“You all did what you were supposed to do when you were supposed to do it.”
“Nobody was below average.”
“Wow, Mom, that's it?”
“Well, I said nobody was below average. That’s good.”
We both laughed.
She was visiting from Chicago. We were, as they say in the Midwest, “pottsing around,” driving up and down Highway 35 in New Jersey with Colleen and Claire in the Corolla station wagon. We took a trip to Target and had lunch at her favorite diner because we always did. We both liked to get out of the house, even if it was just for errands. I looked in the rearview mirror at my girls, glimpsing blue eyes so like my own, so like my mother’s.
While I doted on every milestone my children reached, thinking they were so special, my mom had five kids, an alcoholic husband, and a full-time job. Of course she wouldn’t remember what we did. Her happiest day was when she found out none of us had to go to summer school.
When I was eight or nine, in the car with my mom, we pulled up in front of Carnie's to pick up a six-pack of Budweiser for my father. I think she felt it better to feed him with beer rather than have him reach under the bathroom cabinet or behind the kitchen radiator for one of his hidden pints of Seagram's. We were on 43rd Street, two blocks west of the viaduct. It was around 1973, so I sat in the car alone while she ran into the bar. When she came out carrying a brown paper bag, she suddenly stopped, hand on the door, and stared into the distance behind us. I followed her gaze and saw an old black woman in a wheelchair slowly pushing herself down the middle of 43rd Street. She was moving towards the viaduct to the black neighborhood on the other side.
We lived on the south side of Chicago in a neighborhood called Canaryville. A white, working-class, Irish enclave, it was the land of alcoholic fathers wearing work boots instead of suits, moms who had jobs, and Mass every Sunday. It was the land of grandmas and cousins living around the block, neighbors on front porches, and drinking in Kelly’s on Saturday nights at the age of sixteen.
Every four years, we all voted for Mayor Daley. We were part of the mighty 11th Ward, the proud Irish American gas fueling the Democratic Machine. We said A-rab with a long A, and youse guys when there was a group, but we all had nice penmanship—at least those of us who went to St Gabe’s.
It was also a place of bigotry and fear, but not upper-class suburban fear. It wasn’t abstract; it was a real fear of everything changing. It was a fear of crime, of shootings, of having to move away from our family and friends for a safer neighborhood, a decent school. Sure, we had some people on welfare living around us, but we didn’t have shootings like they did in the projects. We didn’t have gangs or street crimes. Everyone knew each other and looked out for each other. No one in their right mind went under the viaducts on the east side of the neighborhood. You’d get jumped. No black people came here. They'd get jumped. It was segregated; that’s just how it was.
“Oh no,” my mom said. “That poor thing.” She set the beer on the front seat behind the steering wheel.
Every year, as sure as inflation, the city became more dangerous. In 1965, the year I was born, there were 395 people killed on the streets of Chicago. By 1973, that amount increased to 864, in 1974 it would be 970. In less than ten years, the homicide rate almost doubled. At the beginning of the decade, the mafia moved to Cicero and Vegas, abandoning the black belt of Chicago, and leased out the drug trade to the street gangs who actually lived in the neighborhoods. Now these low-level punks, kids barely older than me, had money and guns. There were the Black Disciples, the P-stone Rangers, the Latin Kings, and they combined to make something called Folk Nation. They all lived, as far as I knew, on the other side of the viaduct.
Lawlessness was in the air. There were plenty of freaks, and longhairs, and the smell of weed coming from doorways. My father, every father, hated them all. It was after Vietnam, the Democratic Convention, the Black Power Movement, and it was just the beginning of the school bussing wars. While there was plenty of underage drinking and vandalism, there weren’t any real gangs in Canaryville. A group of guys hung around Tilden High School calling themselves the “Outlaws,” but they just rode motorcycles, wearing leather vests with guns embroiled on the lapels. My family stayed away from the bad kids and we were happy in our house on 44th and Lowe. We weren't white trash and we weren’t like those black people stacked up in public housing, living off of welfare checks, getting raped in broken down elevators and mugged in stairways as they reported every night on the 10 o’clock news.
The old lady struggled up the street as if it were paved with mud. Even at eight years old, I knew she was in danger. She was defenseless and crippled and if the wrong neighborhood boys (especially if they were drinking) found her I didn’t know what they would do. Maybe they would leave her alone, maybe not.
My mom told me to stay put in the car.
“Roll up all the windows and lock the doors. I have to help this old soul, Eileen.”
Then she walked away, deliberately, taking big steps. I watched her in the rearview mirror marching down the street and then leaning forward, talking to the breakable old lady. She had frizzy white hair, skinny yellow arms and floppy legs. My mom started pushing her wheelchair down the street towards the viaduct. She was looking straight ahead, a weird smile on her face, as she passed me in our parked station wagon. I tapped on the window and we waved to each other; she still gripping the handles of the chair, wiggling her fingers. I hardly looked at the old lady, who had her feet up on the footrests and her hands folded across her shopping bag, because I was looking at my mom. She had bright blue eyes. They were slightly hooded, gazing down at the fuzzy white head. I knew my mom looked happy because she was helping. Giant, terrible facts of life swirled around us, around the whole city, and she was doing something.
She was heading under the viaduct. I knew there was a black old folk’s home right at the corner on the other side. Nothing seemed scarier than walking under the viaducts. The lights were busted and there were rats. It was dark and strewn with garbage: quart-sized beer cans still nestled in paper bags, dirty needles, and sometimes a hissing alley cat. Spray painted Latin King crowns covered the cracked cement walls. There were plenty of tags, but I couldn’t read them. We drove under that viaduct all the time; it was the only way to get to the Dan Ryan expressway. Whoever was driving would say “lock the doors and close your eyes!” as we passed beneath its shadow. I always did.
Here was my mom in her cuffed jeans and white Keds, a glow in her eyes as she pushed the woman past me in our car. I watched the bounce of her permed hair, and the line of her shoulders in her pink sleeveless blouse. She looked so small. Nervously, I rifled around in the glove compartment until I found a pen—it was red but it didn’t matter—buried underneath the matches, napkins and ketchup packets. Then I watched her disappear under the dark, steel structure.
I drew on the paper bag wrapped around the beer. I held my breath and tried to concentrate on getting Snoopy just right but I messed up the eyes. Then I tried Woodstock. I kept glancing up. My heart wasn’t in it, but I didn’t know what else to do.
Ten minutes later, after finally getting a good Snoopy on his dog house, my mother emerged just like she promised. Now she was walking back towards me and she had a smile like holiness that I could feel; I didn’t even need to see it from two blocks away.
I patted the six-pack and it was still cold. My dad wouldn't be mad.
When my mom got back to the car, she smiled and picked up the beer.
“Oh goodness,” she said, pausing. “Look at that Snoopy, Eileen, that looks terrific.” She slid into the driver’s seat. “You are just so clever.” She opened her cherry red cigarette case and pulled out an L&M.
I smiled, happy because I knew I would go home and sit with my mother around our imperfect kitchen table with my brothers and my sister and with my probably-drunk father. Maybe he’d be mean, but there would be no gunshots in the distance and only a very few sirens.
We were free to be average. My mom didn't read Dr. Spock. She didn’t care about motor skills, verbal skills or cognitive development. She didn’t care about how much money we would grow up to make. There were other things that were far more important.
She did care if we were kind. She was proud when we noticed, when we peered into old faces and saw the light instead of looking the other way.
Now my babies are young women entering college and the workforce.
I say, “Be average. Don’t worry about internships or being perfect.”
But times are different, and we live in the suburbs.
“Be kind,” I add. “All the little things do count.”
I hope we have inherited just a fraction of my mother’s goodness.
She died six years ago at the youngish age of seventy-two. She had “good” death.
“What else would you choose?” she asked while she still looked like herself in the hospital bed surrounded by her children and grandchildren. At her wake and funeral I was amazed by the amount of people who came with stories:
“Eileen, she knitted me so many beautiful scarves when I had breast cancer and needed chemotherapy…”
“She brought my mother dinner every Sunday after she fell…”
“She taught me how to drive…”
Or simply, “She made me laugh!”
There were over three hundred signatures in the condolence book and lines of old friends and relatives leading out the funeral parlor’s front doors. I was humbled.
In high school for a creative writing class, I wrote about growing up in Canaryville. In a world before computers, my mother brought my handwritten pages to type at work. She loved to “proofread” them. She said the best way to honor your history was to tell it. Growing up, we spent many hours “pottsing around”—cleaning, shopping, running errands. During those times, she told me about her childhood; about my grandmother and grandfather, my aunts, my cousins, the neighborhood… I knew that the priest’s back was turned during Latin Mass. I knew my mom and my Aunt Ruth jitterbugged in their tiny bedroom, and I knew my dad hit my mom with his bike the first time they met as teenagers.
“Are you still writing?” she asked me about ten years ago. “You need to join another one of those groups! Remember the little kindnesses Eileen; write about Canaryville.”
“I can't write about anything else.” I laughed, but I was too distracted by life and kids.
“I hope you do.”
She hung up the phone. The next morning, I started writing.
I am startled every time I catch those blue eyes, my eyes, Colleen’s and Claire’s, looking at me in the rearview mirror. When I back out of the driveway or stop at a red light, she is always there reminding me of what I must do.