Memories of growing up in a north suburb of Chicago remain vivid with me today. In my memoir, Under the Birch Tree, due out in June, I recall my little-girl self’s life in my small town of Deerfield, growing up in the neighborhood of Colony Point, and on Carlisle Avenue where my home, a “red brick colonial was the unspoiled suburban backdrop in membership with other two-story houses which sat like gems on their velvet green lawns set with oak and maple trees and manicured hedges,” Connections of home are rooted here.
The Deerfield Commons, really an entire block, anchors one corner of the center of town and bumps up against the intersection of Waukegan and Deerfield Roads. The center of town and I belong with one other. We connect with their visitors and the places they enter. My familiar is anchored in belonging.
The town’s people and places go hand-in-hand, supporting one another. On one corner, Deerfield State bank looks nondescript in grey with the opening and closing of its front door breaking the building’s monotony. On the opposite corner, Ford Pharmacy defines its presence with its skinny, short aisles and tight rows of stocked shelves where I pass as a grade-schooler dressed in a plaid uniform and white blouse. Stopping here with Dad on Saturday mornings was customary as we made our way to the shiny white counter to talk to a man who wore a white short-sleeved shirt with buttons down the collar, continuing down his shoulder, resembling a priest’s vestment, like something Father Clark wore when he wasn’t saying Mass at Holy Cross church. In fifth grade, I rent a clarinet at the Music Center, but turn it in in high school for a Spanish guitar. And our way home after school, the Deerfields bakery lures us into their shop with the smell of sugar cookies and sweet frosting billowing from the bakery doors.
Inside the Deerfield Commons, ample parking spaces are configured like a grid, navigating you to two long strips of stores that outline the square. The parcel pickup man at the Jewel grocery store, whose name I can’t remember, greets you with youthful energy. He looks hurried while bagging groceries at the end of the check-out lane, with his black tie a little loose and his white shirt-tail not quite tucked in. His thick chocolate-brown mustache never hides his smile when he talks to you with lively conversation while loading your groceries into your car. He’s polite and always eager to serve his customers, most of whom he calls by name. I remember his name now. His name is Mark.
Kresges or “the dime store” as we call it, is raided for school supplies every September by the local grade-schoolers. I hold my list, ready to check off my requirements as I pluck them from their bins. In the diner section, I could get a milkshake or a Black Cow (root-beer float), and afterward visit the parakeets in the cages aligned along the wall. I just need to follow the bird seed remnants on the scuffed and yellowed linoleum and listen to their tweety calls to find them. The Gift Lantern, with carpeted blue floor and sparkly things encased in glass-topped wood cabinets, catch my mother’s attention. I find pierced earrings there for my newly pierced ears, solid gold balls (really they were more like dots). Mom also shops in Janie’s, where early on she gets my Carter’s underclothes and when I age out of that store, off to Junior Miss where we look for a new outfit to wear for my seventh grade school dance and school picture. “What do you think?” Mom asks as we stand staring at my new and improved image in the three-way mirror of the dressing room. “I think you’re wearing your big sister’s clothes,” the sales lady admits. I didn’t think so. I feel grown up and ready to impress.
The ease of shopping and the simplicity of goods were as ordinary as going to the pharmacy with Dad on Saturdays or biking ride up Deerfield Road. The Commons was the only place to shop, where everyone greeted their neighbors as they got in and out of their Country Squire station wagons. Social interaction within the town granted the support and comraderie inherent within the intersection that bisected small town America.
And in our youth we understood what it meant to be at home when we learned of places that serve milkshakes or of friendly people eager to help. We grew into our surroundings as they became teachers, showing us kindness and strength, support and guidance along our way. We connect to home through the visuals of a gray building, feeling tight store aisles, and birdseed strewn on yellowed linoleum sticking to the bottom of our shoes.
I think now of how my town seemed to remain the same as I grew up. I learned to connect with that which never changed. You can find security and comfort knowing something will always be there for you.
And it isn’t until years later when we draw upon these old memories offering solid footing and established roots to move forward in time because teachers are connections, a compass to finding our place to be.
What are some of your vivid memories growing up in your town?