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September 07, 2009

Those Dear Hearts and Gentle People

 

 

Angie, beautiful and vibrant and enough younger than I that she could be my daughter, recently moved next door, with her husband and baby girl, into a house I have loved all of my life.  I like her very much. 

Ralph Kramden depended upon Ed Norton.  Dennis the Menace tormented Mr. Wilson.  The Ricardos and the Mertzes seemed inseparable.  Robert Frost wrote of good fences...making good neighbors.  Uncle Jim, my very first neighbor, remains in my heart after 63 years.  No one has ever topped J. G. Elliott, retired Chicago accountant with the C. & E.I. Railroad Company, who greeted me when I was about one week old.  Angie now lives in HIS house--so have many other very nice folks since 1965.

Certainly, neighborhood children, numbering over 40,  graced my growing-up years:  Johnny Lillich, my first serious crush; the Whiteleather kids who visited their grandma and aunt straight across the street; sisters Jean and Jane Sievers; Bobby Hurd and Jack Blank and John Ellis who played "cowboys and Indians" with my sister and me; the Walters girls; the Wunderlich boys; the McLean children fresh from Laud; Denny and Debbie Juilleratt; Susie Erne and Lucy and Judy Langohr from waaaaaaay over Main Street way; the Robertses; the Stumps; the Gaffs; the Blumenthal sister and brother whose dog "playfully" bit me once, and wonderful Peggy Gaylord who broke my heart when she moved with her parents, Irma and George, to Ft. Wayne--when we were both but 5 years old.  Hit of the neighborhood (in addition to the Duncan playhouse equipped with a phone which was hooked up to Mother's kitchen yet mysteriously its direct line TO the house became deactivated due to an arbitrary thunderstorm?), the "movie star" in-ground Chauncey Street pool of chiropractor Dr. Michels, nearly became the site of high drama one sultry afternoon when expert swimmer Sister Sarah saved me from imminent drowning; floundering "in over my head", she preserved one of my nine lives so as not to risk my parents' ire had she gleefully "whistled a happy tune" and looked the other way.  Myra Lorber witnessed and can attest to her I. U. classmate Sarah's hedging valor!

Jim Elliott became my "Uncle" because he was very near-by while both sets of my grandparents lived hundreds of miles from Indiana, south of the Mason-Dixon line in the Carolinas.  My mother and father dubbed him "Uncle" so as not to offend him, thus the "gentleman's agreement" evolved that he would forevermore serve as a surrogate grandfather-type-person not only to the new baby but also to seven-year-old Sarah and 14 year-old-Shirley.  We all three worshipped him and his wife Ora, whom we called "Lellie".  Proud to say that my baby-talk botching of the couple's surname stuck to Mrs. Elliott who--though prim, proper, elderly and child-less-- actually "dug" that nick-name.  However, she often hinted that "Auntie Ora" seemed more appropriate.  In hindsight, it's no wonder we avoided that Dickensian term of endearment.

The Elliotts, devoted Presbyterians, bought their home, north of our family's, immediately prior to my "blessed arrival" at Lutheran Hospital.  Mrs. Sarah E. Baker and Mrs. Jennie E. Hammer, the previous owners, adored my handsome young father and leaned over the edge of their porch to welcome him home from his work, at the Blue Bell Company, each noon and at suppertime.  A West Point cadet named Douglas MacArthur may once have spent Christmas vacation in Mrs.Baker's home, right next door, as a guest of her son Scott, the future World War II General's classmate.  But all of that activity had been long ago and far away--before the Duncan family moved from a rented apartment on North Street to North Line Street with the help of Robert Estlick.  Clark Waterfall's carpenter father built our home in 1935; the Duncans moved into a nine year old house.  (Teacher Gretchen Jones, with her husband and son, occupied our happy dwelling place immediately before we did.)  As we three sisters grew, Don and Marjorie Souder's Mom & Pop grocery store, within shouting distance along the alley behind the Elliott and Duncan houses, seemed like heaven on earth.

Such love we felt throughout those years for Uncle Jim and Lellie.  Shirley, a novice teen-aged golfer, practicing her swing in our backyard, once chipped a terribly errant golf ball which crashed through one of Uncle Jim's leaded glass windows;  Sarah probably only ever pleased them as she was quiet and reserved; I visited the couple several times per day everyday and simply could not resist touching and closely examining every precious, over-protected object in their pristine home.  They liked me in spite of myself!  My very favorite pastime at the Elliotts (spelled "with two Ls and two Ts") consisted of sitting on Lellie's front porch alongside Uncle Jim in one of their three grape-vine rockers ...AND SMOKING A PIPE JUST LIKE HE DID!  We'd rock slowly back and forth and puff away and watch the cars, bikes, scooters, tri-cycles, little red wagons, roller-skaters, and farm trucks whiz by punctuated by our study of all the housewives bustling about their yards while simultaneously scolding clumps of children.  We didn't say much...pipe-smokers don't.  I was in heaven--absolutely!  Uncle Jim and Lellie tolerated me but they truly respected our cat, Thomas Jerome, who spent many sunny afternoons lolling around on a brass-head-boarded, fancy day-bed in an upstairs bedroom, basking in the sunshine pouring through their second-story rear window.  Tom frequently awoke to a plate of fresh liver and a bowl of milk.  Either the Elliotts adopted us...or our entire tribe adopted them.

Lellie died when I was an eighth grader at Marshall Memorial, and I got excused from school all morning long to attend her funeral service. I wore my first wool suit, purchased from Allen and Sadie Rush's Style Shop...I had never worn nylon stockings before that day.  Widower Uncle Jim then spent the following five years alone...except he had us, the Duncans, right next door.  This special couple had spent 14 Christmas eves with us at our house, bringing candied orange rinds and tiny surprises each time--five more Christmases remained for enjoying our Uncle Jim.

Mother drew up a contract with this beloved man stipulating that he would dine with us every Monday evening for the rest of his life and watch THE PRICE IS RIGHT ("No wonder our taxes are so high," he would mutter.) and finish with THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, Don Knotts as Barney Fife his favorite character.  After Sheriff Andy Taylor seemed to voice,  "Ah 'preciate it, and good night", Uncle Jim would pull out his pocket watch, check the time, wait for our Toy Manchester, Timmy, to jump off his lap as well as to stretch and yawn a doggy yawn. Then, Daddy and Timmy would walk my pretend Ike-Eisenhower-look-alike grandfather across our driveway to his own front door.  The Elliotts never owned a car--or a television--and always caught the greyhound down at the Main Street bus-stop whenever they needed to "doctor"--or get fitted for a corset--or whatever--in Ft. Wayne.  Uncle Jim shoveled his walks and ours in all kinds of winter weather and also strolled downtown to buy THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE at Mary Hallowell's Garden Gift Shop every week, rain or shine, sharing the Sunday comic pages with me on Monday evening.  I devoured Brenda Starr--Girl Reporter, Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie as well as Hoosier illustrator John T. McCutcheon's annual cartoon, INJUN SUMMER.  Uncle Jim could mend anything , which we kids broke, with his mysterious infallible glue concoction.  He rescued Mother, Sarah, and me from a frenetic, flipping attack-bat during  ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS one spooky night when Daddy was somewhere...maybe at Rotary. Our fictitious Uncle/Grandpa graciously reminisced about the Chicago Mafia and Al Capone and Frank Nitti with me, the quintessential UNTOUCHABLES Desilu television series fanatic, and he saved up his NEWSWEEK magazines for us monthly. He built our playhouse while my dad handed him the tools and paint brushes and held the ladder steady. Uncle Jim was a master gardener with a grape arbor, gorgeous ferns, peonies, and the most spectacularly gnarled apple tree ever viewed upon this earth.  Shortly before he died, during my freshman year of college, he expressed his gratitude to my parents for their attentiveness.  "In 1960, the Cubs had a losing season, my apple tree blew over, I lost Ora...and this family came to my rescue." 

My mother always, always wondered about the order in which Uncle Jim listed his three disappointments.

Susie Sexton is a lifetime Columbia City resident. She and her husband, city councilman Don Sexton, have one son, Roy, of Detroit.


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