When I was five years old – five years and one month old – I started the long walk from 11 and Ring Street in Milwaukee to 9 and Ring Street, where I entered kindergarten at LaFollette Grade School. Those two blocks were long walks for a little girl. I expect – although I don’t remember – that my mother must have anxiously walked with me the first day or so, pushing in a stroller my baby sister, Susan, who had been born that March. After that first day or two or three, I walked those blocks with the other children from my neighborhood.
When I return to drive down Ring Street now, I see how short the blocks were, moving west to east, toward “the Lake:” Lake Michigan. I think of myself as growing up on the shores of Lake Michigan; it’s not too much of a stretch to think that way. The shore of Lake Michigan formed my compass-point, my sense of direction, for many, many years. “The Lake is on the east,” I think, “so I must be facing north, and to get there, I have to turn left, to the west…” etc. Years later, when I land in the Bay Area of California, I find that directions are expressed differently. “Turn right at the second gas station, then get in the left lane. You’ll turn left at the next stop light.” When I work at my first job in graduate school, someone hears me giving directions and says: “You must be from the Midwest.” Good guess.
That’s how our lives grow, how the edges of our lives expand, by walking those few blocks to kindergarten, leaving home for the first time. The edges widen by talking to kids whose lives inside their narrow flats are different. I hear about dads who are mean, for example, and I hear about mothers who laugh a lot. Until I leave my house in September of 1954 to walk those few blocks, my imagination does not hold space for those possibilities.
I am nostalgic for those streets, for those city spaces, for the shadows under the big elms that line the sidewalks, for those steep stairs that lead to the second story flat with its small front room, tall and narrow windows, its square bathroom with the clawfoot tub that was used by 5 people without a thought that it could be otherwise. My nostalgia wants to be satisfied, so I ride my laptop via google earth from the front of that flat to La Follette School. I see the beauty that was there, and I see the poverty, the simplicity of those flats, as well.
On the way to school one day, I learn that I am not Catholic. Michelle, my neighbor who lives across the alley which runs next to my house, and who is a year older, asks me one day, as we walk to school: “Are you a Catholic?” I don’t know. That night, I ask my mother if I am Catholic, and she tells me no. I do not know the fraught history that lies behind her answer, and I will not know, for many years, the shadowed history and longing that goes with not being Catholic, in me.
At LaFollette School, I am introduced to a kind of diversity, for the first time. I sit near the front, always, our seats assigned alphabetically by teachers in navy blue polka dotted dresses. In those narrow rows, in those wooden desks with holes for ink pots still marking the right hand side, I sit beside the children of first and second generation immigrants. I do not know that many of my classmates speak a different language at home. In my house, I often hear Ukrainian words, spoken with a kind of mysterious wink; when my grandma visits, she and my mother speak their native tongue.
In the autumn, the elm trees that line Ring Street turn bright colors, and as I walk, I often try to catch a maple seed – a helicopter to enchant children – as it floats to the ground. Over the street, the trees meet to form a ceiling that arches from one block to the next. In later years, Dutch Elm disease would take the elms away, and when I see these streets now they are just beginning to be tree-lined again, after many years.
In winter, snowbanks form a path for children, four foot high, on the strip of land between the road and the sidewalk. After a winter storm, the tops of the snowbanks form a hardened, frozen, flat sidewalk parallel to the cement sidewalk. At the corner, I climb that tall bank of snow and stand taller than an adult, until I take the steps – made by other children – down again, at the place the alley meets the street. After the alley, I climb the snowbank again.
In spring, I walk to school as the glorious, wide, lilac bushes float their purple flowers, their scent into the air from the front lawns of the narrow houses.
The streets are not nearly as pretty now as they are in my memory. Milwaukee can be a bleak place, from December to late May. Grey clouds hang over the streets, over the city, for way too long each year. And the houses that line the streets – 50 or more years old when I lived in upper flats – are 100 years old now.
Those streets formed me. I did not leave a mark. But I left them behind, many years ago. Still, they are my home.