Last night my memoir class got to talking about the houses they’d grown up in and how you think the house is huge when you’re a child but if you go back as an adult it’s shrunk a great deal. I grew up at 1340 Madison Park in the Kenwood-Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. Madison Park really was a park, three blocks long, with one way streets on each side. On our side, in our east end of the park, were mostly single family homes, though with one huge apartment called the Caverswall. I remember it to this day—very elegant inside. Across the park, the south side was lined with apartment buildings and residential hotels.
Our house was built, so I was always told, in 1893 for the Columbian Exposition. It was a duplex, though nobody knew that term back then. We shared a common wall with the house next door. Ours was red brick, with lovely stone work, a bay window, and a wooden front porch that my dad screened in every summer—it became our summer living/dining room. The house adjoining us was remodeled, totally flat in front, and painted stark white with concrete steps—a stark contrast. The house was narrow—16 feet wide if I remember correctly—with living, dining, and kitchen downstairs, three bedrooms and one bath upstairs, and a half third floor that went from student apartment to junk room to a cozy study for Dad. I guess I always knew it wasn’t big, but I didn’t think about it.
Dad bought the vacant lot next door, and it was a beautiful garden—his avocation. He spent weekends in disreputable clothes, on his knees in the dirt, but the results more than justified his efforts. We used to tell him it was embarrassing when students from the osteopathic college where he was president came by and found him dressed like that, but it didn’t bother my usually proper and quite British father.
In the 1960s, Mom and Dad sold the house and built a lovely home on an acre-and-a-half in Tryon, North Carolina, where they had honeymooned. Probably in 1972, we all went back to Chicago (I was then in Texas and John in Colorado) for a big weekend at the osteopathic college, and we drove to Madison Park and parked across the street. Standing there, I said, “Mom, it looks so tiny.” Her reply? “We didn’t know any better.” By then we had lovely, larger homes.
In the 1990s, a friend and I went back to Chicago for a nostalgic visit, and this time I knocked on the door. The wooden porch was gone, and I looked into the once-beautiful yard at a sea of mud, the garden ruined by dogs. Not one blade of grass.
When we explained who we were, the owner welcomed us and gave us a tour. The lovely marble fireplace had been replaced by a Swedish modern wooden mantel, and the flanking bookcases were gone. Upstairs, the banister had been scratched at by cats so much that it had one long raw dish down the middle. I was amazed at how small the rooms were.
The kitchen was still that kitchen that Mom had remodeled in the 1950s—truly her pride and joy. Now it was shabby. The owner, whose wife was out of town, asked if I wanted to see the basement and some alarm went off. I told him I’d seen enough of the basement when I lived there—it used to flood with stinky sewer water when there were storms and Mom scrubbed it with ammonia. Nancy said she was thinking, “Judy’s not going into the basement with that man, and I’m glad.” They tell us to listen to instinct, and I did.
I wish I hadn’t gone. I would love instead to carry my childhood memories of that house—and pretty much I still do. But Thomas Wolfe had it right. We can’t go home again.