Peggy Standish (almost...12 years old)
I’ve heard people say that you pick up the traits of your godparents. There are ways I wouldn’t mind being like my godmother, Aunt Cynthia, but there are other parts of her personality that I’d rather not inherit.
Though she was sophisticated and smart there are other behaviors of hers that leave something to be desired. Mom said her sister could be a tad bit eccentric at times, Dad said that she was a kook, which is simply a kinder way of saying someone was just plain crazy.
Despite this, there is one thing I had to admire about my godmother. She was brave enough and bold enough to be herself. Something I was having quite a lot of trouble doing lately.
It was Friday night when a startling ring from the telephone sent all of us kids stampeding into the kitchen. Rarely did we receive calls after ten o'clock in the evening.
I was the first to reach it and grab the receiver off the wall. The voice on the other end didn’t wait for the standard introduction, “Hello, Standish residence, this is Peggy.”
“Lionel will be by with the limousine on Saturday, nine AM sharp. We’ll get a nice early start for our special time together,” My godmother said, reminding me of our weekend plans. “And don’t forget to wear your sneakers!”
Somehow the words, limousine, and sneakers didn’t sound like they belonged in the same sentence together. But coming from Aunt Cynthia, I mean Auntie C, as she likes us to call her, this is perfectly normal. She was a character of contradictions.
I was about to hang up the phone when she added, “Oh, and bring that sketchbook of yours. They’ll be lots of things downtown to inspire your drawings.”
Outside of my family, Auntie C was the only person in the world who knew of my hobby. Mom and Dad thought I was pretty good at drawing, even my older sister, Babs. They all told me that I was like an artist. But when family members tell you that you’re great at something, you don’t know if it’s really true or if they’re just being nice.
Except for the family car, bikes and buses were the modes of transportation for the people on my block. Even Taxis were an expensive uncommon occurrence in our neighborhood. So, when Lionel, Auntie C’s chauffeur, drove up to the curb in a limo, it stirred up enough excitement to bring people out of their houses.
“Your visit will do your Aunt a world of good,” Mom said, handing me her overnight bag the next morning. “Be nice, and on your best behavior this weekend.”
I sighed, rolling my eyes at her. “Mom, I’m not a little kid.”
I said good-bye to my parents, waved to my friends who stood on their front porches gawking at the long black automobile, and nodded to a pair of binoculars that were poking between the living room curtains of Mrs. Pearson’s home.
My little sister rushed out of the house with one of her own drawings. “Here you go. I did this for you in my happy color,” she said, giving me her latest masterpiece. “Take this to remind you of me, in case you get lonely.”
Lionel hopped out of the car and opened the door, tipping his cap as I slid inside. You might think that sitting in a fancy limo with your own radio and a cabinet filled with cold pop and chocolate is an extravagance, and I suppose it was. But honestly, the real luxury was the fact that I got to ride in the back seat of a car all by myself, without being crammed between my brothers and sisters.
I looked at Katie’s picture and smiled. The colors weren’t what they were supposed to be. Everything was red, the grass, the trees, the stick figures. It was my little sister’s special color of the week.
As we rode on the highway through the city, the streets zoomed by. I knew we were finally close to Auntie’s C’s apartment when we hugged the tight curve of Lakeshore Drive. A canyon of tall buildings was to my left and the endless Lake Michigan to my right.
“It’s OK, Lionel,” I said, as the car slowed to a stop in front of Auntie C’s high-rise. “I know the way up.”
“Just as you like, Miss Peggy.” He looked at my reflection in his rearview mirror, tipping his cap once again.
Being called “miss” made me uncomfortable; I wasn’t used to all of this attention. Dad says that you belong to either one of two worlds, the world of “haves” or the one of “have-nots”. My family wasn’t poor, but we were far from rich. I like to think that we were from the world of “have-what-we-need–but-not-always-what-we-want”.
As I stepped into Auntie C’s penthouse apartment, it made me acutely aware that she was from the realm of haves. All of the furniture was sleek, modern, curved and quirky, much like Auntie C herself. Mavis, Auntie C’s maid, kept the place like a showroom, which couldn’t be easy. It could take you from now until Tuesday to walk through this place. On one side of her apartment, you’d look and see nothing but the blue of the sky and the blue of the lake melting into each other. But, if you walked across to the other side, you saw a panoramic scene of the Chicago Loop.
Until Uncle Gabe died in a plane crash last year, the two of them traveled the world filling their penthouse with treasures. Sculptures, antiques, and paintings of every kind and every art movement clung to the walls. It was a cornucopia of culture. The closest I had to a collection of art was a scrapbook in which I’d pasted covers of the Saturday Evening Post and magazine photos of my favorite artists’ work.
Mavis greeted me at the door and took my suitcase. It wasn’t more than a minute or two later when Auntie C swooped around the corner and into the foyer dressed in a black turtleneck and skinny pencil leg slacks.
"Peggy!” She flung her arms around me, and pulled me in close for a big bear hug, one of her large hoop earrings brushing against my cheek. “How is it possible that you’ve grown so much in just a few months?” My godmother smiled. “Mavis, can you please take Peggy’s luggage to the...” then she turned to me. “Well, where will it be?” she asked smoothing back an unruly strand of hair from her pixie haircut.
“The Impressionist bedroom,” I said trying to impress her with my artistic acumen, all the while knowing what my real reason was. I’d be looking down on the better view of city streets.
"A great choice, don’t you think Mavis?”
“Yes, Mrs. Bolderman,” Mavis answered and then made the comment, “Miss Peggy has excellent taste in art, just like her Aunt.”
I started to unbutton my fuzzy pink Robert Hall spring jacket when Auntie C stopped me.
“Don’t bother to take it off dear, I want to get started immediately, we’ve no time to waste.” She grabbed her black duster coat, swung it around her shoulders, and I was out of the door as fast as I came in.
Lionel was still parked out in front with Auntie C’s limo waiting for us.
“What’s the rush?” I asked as the car took off.
"We’ve much to do.” Auntie C reached down and pulled out a little black bag from a compartment at the bottom of the back seat. “This evening,” she said, kicking off her high heel pumps, “I’m having a soirée.” She opened the pouch and dumped out a pair of sneakers.
I never heard this word and had to ask. “What’s a Swar-A?”
She slid her feet into the canvas shoes and explained. “Soiree is the French word for a party.” Bending over, she tied her shoelaces and continued, “It’s an elegant event that usually takes place in the evening. I’ve invited my renaissance friends – writers, artists, poets, performers, thespians, and so on.”
I didn't plan on this. Though I brought some nice clothing with me (you didn’t go downtown without getting dressed up) I hadn't packed anything like a party dress.
Auntie C was uncannily good at reading people’s feelings, and it wasn't long before she told me, “Don’t worry. I’m taking you shopping right after we go to the exhibit.”
The limo came to a stop in front of a large white building. I looked up to see the words, Art Institute of Chicago carved into the stone facade of a structure that looked like a Roman temple from the movie Ben-Hur.
“There’s a display of works by Paul Gauguin, I want to see. He worked with another artist for a while, Vincent van Gogh. Although from what I’ve read, they had a rather stormy relationship.”
Though I knew little of these artists, I had seen a print of van Gogh’s Sunflowers in the impressionist bedroom at Auntie C’s apartment. “Isn’t he the painter that cut off his ear?”
“Yes,” Auntie C said. “There is a thin line between genius and madness.”
I’d guessed she meant that he was a great artist who was kind of crazy. I thought of what Dad had said earlier about Auntie C. It was reassuring to know that she had both of her ears.
Following my Aunt up the stairs, we stepped between two huge larger-than-life sized statues. Lions guarded the entrance, one lion looking as though he was watching something in the distance, and the other ready to roar and pounce.
As we walked the palatial halls of this art museum, I felt like we were strolling through a time machine. The artists’ styles, the costumes of the people they painted, the places they chose to put on their canvases changed from one century to the next. We had flown out of Auntie C’s apartment so fast, that I hadn’t had time to unpack my sketchbook, and in a way, I was relieved. I wouldn’t have been able to decide what to copy. There was so much I wanted to see.
Threading our way through long corridors, we finally came to the Gauguin exhibition. It only consisted of two paintings and one drawing, but Auntie C took plenty of time to look at it. Not too far from this was another self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh. I leaned in close. It looked like dots of color raining across the canvas, but as I stepped back, I could see the picture of Mr. van Gogh fall into place. There were over seventy years between us, yet the red-bearded artist seemed to look back at me as if he was right there. It was fascinating.
We returned to my Aunt’s penthouse laden down with packages from our shopping spree. I headed straight for my weekend quarters, flung the garment bag across my bed, and removed a Rappi taffeta designer dress. Layers of raspberry-pink nylon floated on its skirt as I placed it on the hanger. Then I grabbed the shoebox, tearing at the tissue paper that revealed a new pair of white shoes. I looked at their squash heels shaking my head. Finally, carefully, I pulled a small red velvet box from the Marshall Field’s bag and removed a delicate strand of seed pearls, sighing at their beauty. Guess I could get used to being spoiled by my Godmother's attention after all.
The very next thing I did was to take my sketchbook out of my suitcase. My head was spinning like a whirligig filled with visual information. I had to draw as much as possible while the images from the museum were still fresh in my mind. It’s difficult to sketch from memory. Would I render things the way they were? Or would I draw them the way I remembered? Too much thinking! I decided to plunge ahead and hope for the best.
The afternoon flew by. Auntie C and Mavis had been busy for hours getting ready for her party. Furniture was being rearranged and caterers gathered in the kitchen while a jazz quartet set up their music stands near the grand piano. I’d been so absorbed in my artistic pursuits that I hadn’t left my room.
“Peggy, it’s time to start getting dressed for the soirée,” Auntie C called out from the hallway, breaking the spell I’d been under from the flow of my pencil.
The finery that my Aunt bought me was about as comfortable to crawl into as a deep sea diving suit. Only when my ensemble was completed from head to toe, did I dare take a look in the mirror. Is that me? I had to ask myself.
Not only did I look different, I felt different. I was a skinny armed, lanky legged individual, struggling to grow into something that had quite a way to go. Stuck between being a girl and becoming a woman is an awkward place to be. Still, because the beautiful dress made me at least feel pretty, I thought there was hope.
Walking into the dining room that evening was like walking into a different world. I felt like I’d just stepped into a surreal dreamlike painting by Salvador Dali. As I stared out the west window that made up an entire wall, I could see the moon high in the sky. Headlights glared, traffic signals flashed, neon colors lit up signs down below, and lights from surrounding skyscrapers set the city blazing. Downtown Chicago was a whole different world at night.
The table chairs had been dressed up in light blue seat covers tied with giant satin bows. A white lace cloth was spread on the long table with an elaborate centerpiece of periwinkle blue and white mophead flowers in the middle. China plates trimmed in gold, crystal goblets that looked like sculptures, and sparkling silverware were set from one end to the other. At each place setting, atop the dinner platters was a card with a picture of an old man, painted blue, sitting cross-legged while playing a guitar. I opened the card and read the inside.
“Why was Picasso so Blue?”
I placed it back on the plate and decided not to ask. Sooner or later, I was sure to find out what it meant.
Auntie C waltzed into the room dressed in a black beaded evening gown. She had smoothed the curls of her pixie-do from her face and darkened her eyebrows and lashes. Her berry red lipstick made her teeth look extra white, and she had traded her gold hoop earrings for dangling diamonds. She glided around the room as if she was on roller-skates, I clunked in heels that I wasn’t used to, and we met in the middle.
“You look lovely Peggy. Quite grown up!” She hugged me, patting my back.
"Thanks.” Though the compliment was nice enough, I hoped for something more than “quite” grown up.
Not long after that, the doorbell chimed and the first guest arrived. Music soon filled the penthouse while waiters weaved between the guests carrying drinks I couldn’t have, and French finger food I couldn’t pronounce. When we sat down to start our dinner, I found myself sitting with a tall, thin man at my right, and a short, round man to my left.
“Picasso, he vas always trying somezing new, experimenting vas in his nature,” said Mr. Short-Round with a heavy foreign accent as he fingered the blue man picture.
“Are you sure about that Rudolf?” asked Auntie C.
So there you have it. The little card was something to get the conversation moving. And move it did!
“Frankly,” spoke Mr. Tall-Thin, “I’ve always found blue a rather depressing color.”
After that, talk flowed around the table freely, right along with the food and drink. Taking up a spoon, I dipped it into a bowl of tomato consommé, which is (would you believe?) cold soup, when Auntie C asked me, “And what do you feel about it Peggy?”
Though I realized I was about to learn more from their discussion, what I knew now about Picasso could have fit into one of the thimbles in my Grandmother’s sewing basket. The fact that my Aunt called on me, like an adult, to give my opinion, made this a definitive moment. Could I possibly come up with an intelligent sounding answer, and still tell them the way I really felt? Or was I going to take the safe route, go along with one of them, and agree with what I’d just heard?
Glancing at the picture on the card, suddenly jogged my memory back to this morning.
“Welllllllll,” I said stretching out my answer. I was hoping that what was inside my head would form into words, words that wouldn’t make me sound too ignorant. “I suppose it depends on who’s doing the looking.”
“How zo?” asked Mr. Short-Round, which I believe meant, “How so?” In other words, “What do you mean?”
I scooped up my soup, remembering to mind my manners and not slurp it down, and answered, “Maybe if you knew Mr. Picasso, and you knew something bad happened to him to make him sad, it could influence the way you see the painting. But it could be that it just makes you feel sad when you look at it.”
“Ov course it vould, blue is often expressed as a color of sorrow.”
“But, what if you didn’t know Picasso? And what if you didn't know that the color blue is supposed to make you feel sad? You might think he saw an old man playing a guitar, and just decided to paint him in beautiful shades of blue – like the sky and the ocean.”
By George!” said a lady, sitting next to Auntie C, “it’s the old subjective versus objective debate about art once again!”
“Why so it is!” Auntie C exclaimed. “A very astute observation on your part, Peggy.”
From then on the conversation took on a life of its own. I tried hard to keep up with everyone’s opinion, but it was difficult. All this subjective/objective talk was new to me. I think objective means the way a piece of art actually looks, and subjective means how it makes you feel. At least that’s the closest I could come to figuring out what they were talking about. All I knew for certain, was that I wasn’t about to ruin the impression I’d made on Auntie C and her soirée society guests by letting them know where I got the inspiration for my “astute” answer.
Some people could look at my little sister, Katie’s, picture and say that she just wanted to use the color red, but I knew that there was more to it than that. Red was Katie’s color of the week, ’cause that’s what made her feel happy.
About the Photos ……………
Art Institute of Chicago: This beautiful building has been in existence on Michigan and Adams Streets in Chicago since 1893 and houses thousands of works of art. There actually was a Paul Gauguin exhibit that took place in the spring of 1959. The photo is one of my own.
Rappi Designer Dress: This is the dress that inspired the description in the story. Rappi was a dress designer of glamorous formal wear for debutantes, etc., of the 1950s. A special “thank you” to Couture Allure Vintage Fashion for permission to use this photo.
© COPYRIGHT , Joyce Pyka on written material and (my own) photographs.
At the beginning of every school year, the nuns gave us the same assignment, a composition to be titled, “What I Did Over My Summer Vacation”. This year, I was determined to have something exciting to write about, though I’d yet to discover what that was. So far, the most interesting thing that happened was the Fourth of July, and that was only because of my Uncles, Frank and Ernest. They always managed to surprise us with their competitive pyrotechnics and were the envy of the neighborhood fireworks fanatics. But, that was about it. September would be here before I knew it. I was on high alert for anything that wouldn’t make me appear like the dullest student of St. Sebastian’s sixth-grade class.
It was on the morning after the Fourth that I found what I’d been looking for. Instead of staring out the window at the breakfast table, or reading the back of the Rice Krispies cereal box for the umpteenth time, I gazed over the top and at the front page headlines of the newspaper Dad was reading.
BEVY AND BALLYHOO Expected AT BUCKINGHAM!!!
Chicago rolls out the RED Carpet
for the Queen and her Prince
This Monday, July 6, 1959, Chicago is to have a royal day indeed. Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Phillip, will arrive on their yacht, the Britannia, on their first visit to our city. There will be much fanfare and celebration as she steps onto a specially built “Queen’s Landing” to view Buckingham fountain where she will be greeted by the Mayor’s wife. The festivities will continue…
It was only a glimmer, but by the time I got to the bottom of my cereal bowl, a bright idea lit up my mind. I knew just what I was going to do. The only trouble was, I had to convince my parents, then beg my best friend, Kenna, to come with me. And, I had only one day in which to do it!
“Even if you can manage to convince Kenna’s parents, I’m still not quite sure about this. You’ve never gone downtown without an adult. And to such an ostentatious event? They’ll be thousands of people there. I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Mom.
Here’s the thing about it; I half agreed with her. It would be my first time venturing into the Loop on my own, if you don’t count Kenna. But, I didn’t dare show a single shred of uncertainty. That would have killed Mom’s confidence in me, and my plan would be no more.
“Babs, was my age when she went with her friends downtown on the bus, I deserve the same chance,” I said, holding that fact over my mother’s head.
She didn’t deny it. “Yes, that’s true your sister did,” she said, and then added, “but there wasn’t such a large crowd expected in the heart of the city that day.”
“A lot of those people will be there just to gawk at the Queen, there’ll be police all over the place,” I told her. “I couldn’t be safer.”
And so, like all parents, who really want to say “no”, but don’t want to be the ones to actually come out and say it, she gave that job to Kenna’s parents. Without much conviction in her voice, she told me, “If Kenna’s folks say it’s OK with them then I guess it’ll be OK with me.”
Surprised at my luck, I mumbled under my breath, “That was a breeze.” And headed out the back door towards my best friend’s house.
Kenna, however, wasn’t as easy to persuade. She was a homebody and not prone to exploration the way I was. The idea of going downtown amongst a large crowd was bad enough. Doing it on our own (not to mention for the first time) well, let’s just say I got the feeling that she would have rather kissed the class nerd, Covington Fletcher, flat out on the mouth!(well, maybe)
“Sooner or later, you’re going to have to do it.” I kept after her.
“I’d rather it be later,” she quipped.
I didn’t ask her where her spirit of adventure was. I knew she had little of it.
Trying a different method, I went from begging to whining, and finally resorted to guilt-goading. “Awwwwwwww comeon’ Kenna, you owe me.”
She pursed her lips and folded her arms across her chest.
“I went for a whole week with you to your Grandparents dairy farm in Wisconsin. Remember?” I asked, and continued, “You said you’d be bored to the brink all by yourself. Remember? I got butted by a goat. But did I complain? When I was chased down by angry wasps after I bumped into their hornet’s nest, did I hold it against you? And what about letting me think we were going out to their barn to have dessert after dinner. Cowpies? Really? Even after being the brunt of that joke, I helped you shovel out their stalls. Didn’t I?”
“I knew you’d bring that up one day.” She scowled at me.
Though I never consciously stored those things in the back of my mind, I supposed she was right. Whatever the case, she agreed to go with me.
We had no trouble convincing her parents who said that, "if it was OK with my mom, it was OK with them”. Of course, I never divulged that they were just repeating Mom’s strategy. There are some things better left unsaid.
Everyone knows when you go downtown you have to wear your Sunday best, so it goes without saying we were prepared and would be more than ready. There was always a (slim) chance that we might get to shake hands with the Queen. If we did get that lucky, would we have to curtsy too? I put that horrifying thought out of my mind as quickly as it came in.
The pair of us rose early in the morning. We’d been to other parades and knew from experience they could draw huge crowds. The evening news said that as many as 50,000 spectators were expected. It was important to get a head start.
Kenna clung to my side, and for her sake, I put on a totally brave front (even though I was shaking in my summer-white patent leather shoes). I’d written down directions, the buses we were supposed to catch, kept extra change in my purse for the fare and a dollar in my sock (mom’s solution to making her feel better in case we lost our purses).
A special landing spot was built next to Lake Michigan, as well as a special crossing. Lake Shore Drive always hummed with traffic. And if the Queen was going to tackle that busy road to get to Buckingham fountain, she’d have to have a more elegant way to maneuver it. I couldn’t imagine her running across holding on to the hand of her husband, Prince Phillip, dodging cars like commoners.
By the time we arrived and found our way to Congress Street, people had already staked out and claimed their spots. It was a sea of humanity, one that Kenna and I slowly waded through. We managed to get relatively close, but were heads and shoulders beneath the crowd.
Blocked from seeing most of the Queen’s Landing, we barely got a glance at the barge that carried the royal couple from ship to shore. At least I got a glimpse of the Queen’s yacht, Britannia. Its flag flying high above the deck; the big cross flapped in the wind, and the colors were the same as ours, red, white and blue. I guess that was pretty understandable since Americans were practically related to the English. After all, we spoke the same language (sort of), didn’t we? Suddenly, military planes zoomed overhead and the fire boats sprayed geysers almost as high as the aerial display.
“Here, take my hand Kenna,” I commanded her. This was no time to be polite and ask, please. “Let me hold on to it for balance.”
She stretched out her arm and asked, “What for?”
I didn’t answer. Instead, I stepped on top of the fireplug next to me, raised my hand that held my Kodak Brownie camera above my head, and blindly snapped pictures in the general direction of the landing.
“You’ll waste all that film,” Kenna said. “You can’t even see what you're shooting at from there.”
“Maybe I’ll get lucky and get a good shot,” I told her, my hand still high above my head, hoping for the best.
Then, it happened.
“It’s the Queen’s hat!” a voice hollered.
A blustery breeze blew across the choppy waves and snagged the Queen’s white lace brimmed hat. It lifted from her chestnut brown hair, swirled around above the crowd, and floated on the wind. In the wise words of my cousin, Wendell, “just leavin’ the house, can sometimes bring you an adventure”. Being here with my hand in the right place and at the right time, was about to bring me one. The Queen’s hat hooked on to the edge of my camera.
“She’s caught it!” called out the lady standing next to me.
“Caught what?” asked Kenna, tugging on the hem of my dress.
I held on to it and hopped off the red step stool.
How? I asked myself in shock. How could something like this have happened to me? Me, ordinary Peggy Standish, amongst thousands upon thousands of people. Why me? But other than that small amount of contemplation over the miracle of it all, there was little time to think about it.
A tall policeman had pushed his way through the tight mob and loomed over me. I looked up at him, the sun reflecting off his gold badge, the visor from his cap shading his eyes.
“Young lady,” he spoke in a deep voice. “Please come with me.”
Though I’d done nothing wrong, I felt as if I was going to be arrested. Fearful of losing my friend in this crowd, I grabbed Kenna’s wrist and followed closely behind him. The people parted for us like the Red Sea, and we tread our way to the front. Not more than a hundred feet away from me, and in full view, sat her royal majesty, Queen of England. I had read her full title in the newspaper before we left the house this morning, ‘Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith’, but was sure I’d never be able to get it out in one breath correctly. It was a perplexing feeling; I was both terrified, yet hopeful that I’d be introduced to her.
“Wait here,” were the next words to fall from the officer’s lips.
Kenna and I stood as if someone had put glue on the soles of our shoes.
“What are they going to do to us?” she asked, her eyes wide. “Maybe, you weren’t supposed to touch her hat. Maybe, it’s like some kind of holy relic or something like that. Maybe it’s forbidden, maybe…”
Personally, I looked at that hat differently. To me, it was like a trophy, like a ball that I might catch right after Ernie Banks slammed a homer across Wrigley Field. I could just about hear the audience cheering and Jack Brickhouse shouting, like he always did on the best plays, “Hey! Hey!”
So, I felt pretty safe in telling Kenna, “Look, I caught that hat totally by accident. Actually, I did the Queen a favor…”
The policeman interrupted by tapping me on the shoulder and held out his hand. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. Disappointed, I placed her royal highnesses’ hat on his palm. There would be no introduction, no formal thank you, no shaking of the Queen’s white-gloved hand.
Kenna saw the expression on my face. “Well, at least we have a great view of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip,” she said, trying to cheer me up.
And that we did. The weather was “fit for a Queen”. She sat in a convertible limousine with Mayor Daily right next to them. One of the military aircraft buzzed above us, looking like it might knock off the antenna of the largest skyscraper downtown, the Prudential building.
My disappointment soon faded when I realized Kenna and I were given a place of honor at the curb of the crossing. At least we got to see everything front and center. As the Queen drove off, she waved and nodded in my direction – I swear it was meant just for me!
“Anyway,” I muttered to myself waving back, “That’s just how I'm going to write about it in my composition.”
Queen Elizabeth actually did visit Chicago the summer of 1959. Here’s a link to the video regarding the actual event.
"PLEASE, please do NOT call on me.” I pressed my back against the chair and slid down to the edge of my seat until my chin nearly sat on top of my desk, certain that I’d become invisible behind Dottie Dombrowski.
“Peggy, can you tell me what the word, “misapprehension” means?”
Rats! My strategy failed. It was no use hiding, Sister Mary Therese had eyes in the back of her habit.
I hadn’t done anything other than glance at last night’s homework. I grabbed the sides of my seat, and pushing myself upright, made a stab at the answer.
Let’s see now, I thought to myself, misapprehension is like two words put together, mis and apprehension. “Mis”, well the meaning for that is obvious enough, and “apprehension” sounds a lot like apprehended, which could mean being arrested. I heard Sergeant Joe Friday use that word on one of Dad’s favorite police TV shows, Dragnet.
“Misapprehension,” I repeated. “Means you just missed getting arrested.”
Then I heard it, a familiar sarcastic snicker at the front of the room. Only one human being could make that sound. Becky Know-It-All Newton’s arm snapped up like an arrow shot from a bow. Nobody else in the classroom had a chance.
“I know what the right answer is, Sister.” She looked over her shoulder at me, smirking with satisfaction. “Misapprehension: is a false impression or incorrect understanding, especially of somebody's intentions. As in this sentence, “Peggy is giving her teacher the misapprehension of doing her vocabulary homework last night.”
It goes without saying that I could not stand Rebecca Newton. There was no reason for her to add that example sentence, but she never could resist the opportunity to show someone up by putting them down. I should have expected it.
“Thank you, Rebecca,” Sister Mary Therese said and then added. “However, next time please wait until I acknowledge you before giving me your answer.”
Sometimes, there is justice in the world.
The two hands of the classroom clock met and pointed straight up to the sky, setting off the noon bell. We lined up, half of the students heading for the lunchroom, the other half for home.
I sat at the cafeteria table with my buddies and reached into my brown bag. What did Mom pack today? Of course, there was the usual healthy piece of fruit, but what about the sandwich? Turkey, salami, ham on rye? My stomach had been rumbling the last hour, and I was more than ready to pull apart the aluminum foil wrapper to reveal its contents. Liverwurst. Unappetizing, brown as the bag I brought it in, liverwurst. I pushed it aside. I’d have to be content with the apple that I usually traded for a Twinkie or tossed in the trash.
Wormeater (you don’t want to know how he got his nickname) lunged for my leavings. Liverwurst was just fine with him. “Well,” he said to Jeff and the rest of our lunch crew, “it looks like I’ll be busy for the next couple of weeks practicing.”
“Practicing what?” Jeff asked.
“Dancing. You do know the Christmas Snow Ball is just two weeks away.”
The Snow Ball is a party that was reserved for sixth, seventh and eighth graders. It’s supposed to be a fun way for the upper-grade kids to kick off the two weeks of Christmas vacation while teaching students proper etiquette at a formal dance.
“Of course, I remember,” chimed in my best friend, Kenna, “though no one’s asked me to go with them…yet.” She glanced moon-eyed at Jeff across the table.
“I’d ask my brother to help me,” Wormeater continued, “but I don’t think he knows any more about the Hand Jive or the Stroll than I do.” Then, he turned to me and said, “Hey, Peggy, your sister Babs is pretty cool. Do you think if I came over she could teach me some of the new dances?”
I suddenly stopped chewing my mealy apple. Wormeater liked me, but the feeling was one sided - his. Anyway, that wasn’t saying much, he liked a lot of girls.
"I’ll see,” I said, though I had no intention of asking my sister any such thing. I wasn’t about to encourage him.
I looked at Jeff who was sitting next to me. He had an expression on his face somewhere between acceptance and anxiety. And I knew why too, it could be summed up in one word, Emaline.
Emaline Bogs was a big girl - bigger than most of my classmates (boys included) and fully developed (if you know what I mean). Heck! She should be, this is her third time around in the sixth grade and now her younger brother, Luther, who’s caught right up to her, is in our classroom also. Having two members of the Bogs' family in the same space with the rest of us is trouble waiting to happen.
The season of comfort and joy struck fear in the heart of every male in our classroom. It was Emaline’s tradition to take the cutest boy in her class to the Snow Ball. Like I said, it was her tradition; the boy she chose didn’t have a choice. Worst of all, her brothers were the school bullies of St. Sebastian. There were enough of them to go around for each grade, so whatever Emaline wanted, she got.
This year Emaline targeted Jeffrey Drumbott or Jeff “Dreamboat” as Kenna called him. He had been an ordinary looking kid like the rest of us, but over the summer, he stretched three inches, his voice deepened and his features changed from round and rosy-cheeked to chiseled and rugged. Though I wasn’t into boys (at least not that I cared to admit to anyone) even I had to own up that he was good looking.
Emaline sniffed out Jeffrey and strolled over to our table. She slammed her tray down, tomato soup splashing on to her grilled cheese sandwich and sat across from him. “See you before the dance at 7:00 sharp,” she barked and then added, “Oh yeah, my dress is pink, don’t ferget to bring a corsage.” Then she slurped up the soup, shoved down the sandwich and went off to join her brothers. Things must have been done differently in the Appalachians where the Bogs’ family used to live. Around here, boys usually do the asking when it came to dates and dancing. It was clear that Emaline wasn’t bothered by propriety of any sort, she didn’t even ask Jeff if he would like to take her, but then again, she didn’t have to.
You would think that since he’d grown some and was now only a couple inches shorter than Emaline, he wouldn’t be afraid to tell her to get lost. But you’d be wrong. Crossing Emaline meant that you’d cross her brothers at the same time. The Bogs’ family was stickier than Elmer’s rubber cement glue. If you messed with one member, you messed with all of them. Jeff was a goner, and he knew it.
“What’ll I do?” he asked when Emaline was out of earshot.
“Nothing,” Wormeater told him through his beaver teeth. Pushing his thick glasses up his nose, he said, “If you don’t go to the dance with her, she and her brothers will clobber you.” He wiped the liverwurst from the corners of his mouth.
“Well, I need to do something to get out of this situation,” Jeff said.
Wormeater’s bushy eyebrows flattened into a single line across his forehead. “You need something alright. You need a miracle.”
That evening, as my family sat around the dinner table exchanging happenings of the day, I told them about the Snow Ball and Jeffrey’s problem.
I don’t see a way out for him, he’s doomed,” said Babs. She was as familiar with the Bogs’ bullying as I was. “I sure would like to be at the dance to see the expression on everyone's face as Emaline waltzes in with Jeff.”
“Aren’t you going?” I asked my older sister.
“No, and neither are you.”
“We’re going downtown that day for our Christmas outing. It’s all been arranged. Dad is going to take a half day off of work to meet us there,” she told me.
You would think that my older sister and I would squawk about not being able to attend the school dance, but you’d be wrong. Babs had her reasons, and I had mine.
I’m sure that my older sister would have liked to go, but there was a rule in our house (actually it was Dad’s rule) of no dating boys until you were sixteen. So I understood where Babs was coming from. In Dad’s strict eyes, going to a school dance with a boy constituted an official date, it didn’t matter if the Sisters of St. Sebastian sanctioned it or not. Babs was taking no chances, she was popular and knew she’d be asked. This was as good as a way as any to avoid the embarrassment of going alone.
I, on the other hand, had my own concerns. Being on the shy side, dancing with boys in order to learn the social graces of life was something that I wouldn’t mind delaying for a while.
“We are going to see Uncle Mistletoe in Marshall Field’s department store window,” said Katie changing the subject.
“Me too,” echoed Jimmy, her twin. “We’re going to visit Santa, and eat lunch under the big Christmas tree in the Peanut Room.”
“It’s called the Walnut Room,” Mom corrected Jimmy.
“How much does a corsage cost?” Jeff asked me the next day at school.
“I see you haven’t found a way to wriggle out of it,” I said, ignoring his question for which I had no answer.
“Nope.” He hung his head in resignation. “Not only do I have to take her, I have to spend my money on her too.”
“Maybe you could find a way to cut out of the dance early?”
“What?” Wormeater jumped in. “Are you a ditz? Did you forget that some of Emaline’s brothers will be there too?”
“Emaline won’t let you out of her sight, she’ll make you dance every dance with her,” said Kenna and then added with a sigh, “She’s not the sharing kind.”
Wormeater doused Jeff with more cold reality. “You’ve only got two weeks to come up with a plan to get out of it. And it has to be a good one. One that will make Emaline back off without her brothers going ape.”
“I’m doomed,” Jeff echoed my sister’s words.
I’m sure that for Jeff those two weeks moved faster than the speed of sound. It was just a few days before the dreaded dance when the first school bell of the morning rang. Students lined up according to grade. The eighth grade first, followed by the seventh grade, and so on. Suddenly, twitters of laughter and muted whispers flew amongst the eighth graders at the front. None of us knew what was up until the pipeline of murmurs made it all the way down to the sixth grade.
Amanda Prittle, who stood in front of me, received the hushed news from Kenna, who received it from Wormeater. “It’s something about St. Sebastian,” she leaned into my ear and said in a quiet voice. “Something about the statue. Pass it on.”
And so I did. By the time the second bell rang, the word made it all the way to the first grade. And if you hadn’t heard about it by then, you were sure to see it for yourself as the procession of pupils passed by the statue of St. Sebastian. The entire student body knew what had happened to St. Sebastian, except for the nuns.
As we walked in the classroom Sister Mary Therese immediately sensed something. She wouldn’t have to wait long to find out exactly what the source of our unusual behavior was.
“Sister, have you seen what someone’s done to poor St. Sebastian?” asked Becky.
“What do you mean Rebecca?” Sister Mary T asked.
“Why, just look, out the window. I think what’s been done to him is a crime," she said, adding, “whoever did such a thing should be arrested for vandalism or something like that.”
Sister Mary T walked over to the window and gazed down at the front of the church. The reverent statue of St. Sebastian looked anything but saintly. Sprouting from the top of his haloed head was a pair of moose antlers. A bright red ball was plopped squarely in the middle of his pious face over his nose, and a long green and white striped scarf straddled his neck. The branches of the sculptured tree that the marble martyr was tied to, glimmered with silver tinsel icicles dangling in the winter wind.
Though I couldn’t swear by it, I thought I heard her start to laugh. She quickly covered her mouth with her hand and changed her tone. “Who on earth would do such a disrespectful thing?” Sister Mary T asked, clearing her throat.
Of course, she didn’t directly ask Know-It-All Newton, but she just might as well have.
Becky folded her arms across her chest with enough attitude and arrogance that would have given President Eisenhower an inferiority complex. “That’s not hard to figure out,” she said. “Who do you think would have enough nerve to commit what is practically a sacrilege?”
With that, the entire class turned around and looked at Luther and Emaline Bogs.
“What?” Luther stared at us like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. “It wasn’t me. I didn’t have nothin’ to do with it.” Though he tried to fight against it, he couldn’t help but cast an eye in his sister’s direction.
“Hey! It wasn’t me neither!” she said.
While the two of them were busy trying to defend themselves from the suspicions of Sister Mary T and the students, I pulled on the sleeve of Jeff’s sweater and whispered to him. “You’d do just about anything to get out of taking Emaline to that dance wouldn’t you?”
“Sure I would,” he answered and looked at me like I was crazy for even asking.
“Well, here’s your chance.”
There was a puzzled expression on Jeff’s face. I could see I would have to do some explaining. “Listen,” I said, “if Luther Bogs goes down for this, he’s sure to get expelled. He’s already been suspended twice this year. You get expelled on your third offense.”
I could see that the power of understanding was penetrating Jeff’s brain. A look of realization crept across his face as he hung on to my every word.
“If you said you were the one who dressed up St. Sebastian like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and take the fall for Luther and Emaline, you’ll be the one who gets suspended and…” I dragged out the word so Jeff could fill in the rest of the sentence.
“... I won’t be able to go to the dance!” he said.
“What’s more,” I added, “the Bogs will respect you for it, and Emaline will never be able to bother you again.”
Sentenced to a suspension of two weeks, Jeff had more than enough time to miss the dance and then some. I told Mom and Dad the whole story (well, actually not the whole story) of how Jeff took the fall for Luther and Emaline. I just left out the reason why he did it.
“That was quite noble of him,” Mom said. It was the way she used the word noble that made me uncertain of how much of the story she believed. “I have an idea. Since you’re not going to the dance and neither is he, why not invite him to come along with us on our holiday outing?”
As if my raised eyebrows formed question marks on my forehead, Mom answered, “Don’t worry; your father won’t think it’s a date.”
The ride on the El train was not my favorite thing in the world. But, it was a convenient couple of blocks from our house, and a quick means to an end. In less than a half an hour, we would arrive in the heart of downtown Chicago.
It was like looking death in the face when I stood on the skinny platform of the station. Every so often, I would read about people that were electrocuted on those tracks in the newspaper, fried like eggs on a Sunday breakfast. And if that wasn’t enough to make you back away from the edge, there was always the wind that the El train created when it roared in, ready to suck you under its wheels. I didn’t feel safe until I was on board.
The train threaded through the city at roof top level, flashing unfamiliar neighborhood scenes from its windows. It was a slide show of seedy side streets, back porch life, and a peek into enticing ethnic areas that were as foreign to me as a different country. Just as I got used to my bird’s eye view, the train dove into the darkness of the subway. A continuous howl echoed from the El against the walls of the underground tunnel and made it nearly impossible to carry on a conversation. Getting off of that train was the best part of the ride.
From this cold, dark, dingy and graffitied cavern, we floated up on the escalator and out into the bright blue of the sky. Tall elegant buildings that seemed to touch the clouds formed a concrete canyon filled with bustling people, dazzling lights, and traffic. Babs held on to Katie while Jeff and I held on to Jimmy keeping them safe from being mowed over by fast moving shoppers on crowded crosswalks, or being blown away by the east breeze whipping off the icy waves of Lake Michigan. Mom held Danny close, shielding him from the cold. I didn’t think she had to worry, though; Danny was bundled in a snowsuit so thick he looked like the Michelin Man.
Jimmy started to talk but neither Jeff nor I could understand him. He pulled the scarf from his mouth that muffled his words. “Dad! There’s Dad!”
I had to squint to see the man that Jimmy’s red-mittened hand was pointing to. But yes, it was Dad alright, standing beneath the Great Clock of Marshall Field’s Department store.
When we met up with my father beneath the hovering timepiece on State Street, we said our hellos and immediately started the beginning of our Christmas tradition with the tour of Marshall Field’s windows. They were brimming with the red and green of Christmas, holiday fantasies, and whimsical characters. The twins, Jimmy, and Katie, pressed their noses against the panes, they couldn’t get close enough to the festive magic. It was one eye-candy object right after the other. Uncle Mistletoe, a little elf with wings, flew around a miniature replica of the giant Christmas tree that was inside the store while animated characters hammered and sawed, making new trains, beautiful dolls, and other toys. Christmas mice danced in the kitchen and made scrumptious looking pastries and sweet treats. Finally, when we finished, our red noses chilled, our eyes watering from the biting cold, we stepped inside.
The store smelled of high priced perfume, Frango mints, and expensive chocolate. Everywhere I looked from floor to ceiling was embellished with a lavish garland of gold and silver or some other kind of holiday paraphernalia. The entire place glittered, shimmered, and shined.
“Are you going to ask Santa for something too?” Katie asked Jeff.
Jeff looked at me with a half grin on his face. “I think I’m a little too big to sit on his lap,” he said to my sister.
“Then, how can you tell Santa what you want from him? How will he know what to bring you?”
“Don’t you know anything?” Jimmy said to his twin. “He’ll do what Babs and Peggy are going to do.”
“What’s that?” I asked Jimmy.
“Write him a letter of course,” he answered.
“Oh.” Katie sniffed. “Well, I’m glad I get to sit on Santa’s lap, cause all I can write is my name.”
After the little ones' visit to Santa, came my favorite part of the Standish Christmas tradition, hot chocolate heaped with a mound of whipped cream and a slice of Yule log cake beneath the giant fir tree.
As we walked into the elegant Walnut Room restaurant with the magnificent Great Tree towering above us, Jeff looked up, his eyes sparkling with the reflection of the lights on the tree. “Wow!” was all he could say.
The waiter seated us at a table close enough to see our faces in the giant ornaments.
“I’ve never been here before,” said Jeff, as he sat between Dad and me. “It was really nice of your family to let me join in.”
“Well, my Mom thinks you deserved a reward, for helping out with the less fortunate,” I told him.
“The less fortunate?”
“That’s what she calls the Bogs kids. She says that she thinks they don’t have the same advantages as most children. But then, she doesn’t know them like we do,” I added. “Anyway, Mom thought that by taking the blame for Luther and saving him from getting expelled, you were being “noble” and should be rewarded.”
“But, I…” Jeff was about to blurt out the whole premise behind his act of supposed nobility when I hushed him up.
I removed my hat and scarf and started to work on unbuttoning my wool coat. One of them was hard to undo, so I pulled off my glove to make it easier. A single strand of silver tinsel fell out from the glove and floated down. I was able to scoop it up in midair before it landed on the floor, but not before Jeff caught sight of it.
I quickly shoved it into my pocket and didn’t say a word, but then, I didn’t have to. Jeff’s eyes twinkled, and it wasn’t because of the Christmas lights.
Follow this link to Tour Chicago Christmas of the past at
About the photos
Marshall Field's Department store created the Uncle Mistletoe character to compete with Montgomery Ward's, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Uncle Mistletoe often appeared in their fantasy windows and was usually placed on top of the fully decorated, 45 foot Great Tree in the center of the Walnut Room restaurant.
The Great Clock where Peggy’s family met up with her father to mark the start of their Christmas tradition still hangs on the Marshall Field’s building (now Macy’s).
Follow this link to see the Great Tree at Macy’s (formerly Marshall Field’s)