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A Visit to Sayre School with Kate

It was the last week of summer vacation before our granddaughter Kate started third grade and I asked her to go with me to Life Story Writing in Ela Township. You can write a story if you want to, I told her, when I issued the invitation. We're writing about "Third Grade." She said she would, but every time I asked how the writing was coming, she admitted that she hadn’t started it yet.

It was like watching myself in a miniature mirror as she furiously worked on her story in the car on the way to Lake Zurich. It also brought back memories of her father in whom the “just in time” gene has also made its way down the family tree.

When we got to class, she was almost finished and only had to recite the last few lines that she couldn’t quite get done on the ride out here. She wrote about learning to write in cursive and I will treasure forever the look of amazement on her face when we talked about the penmanship posters that I remembered from third grade illustrating the Palmer Method and Kate exclaimed, “We have the same thing!” It’s nice to know that with all the things that have changed over the last 54 years, some things did stay the same.

But after class and lunch was over, the real gift of the day was the impromptu trip to the neighborhood where I grew up to see my grammar school. Not exactly knowing what she was agreeing to, when she said she'd like to go, Kate asked about half way there "Did you have to take the highway to get to school, Guam?" (Guam is her special name for me that’s also been adopted by our grandsons, Wolf, Ben, and Heath) "No," I assured her, "We just need to take the highway to get to my neighborhood and then we’ll walk from my school to the house where I grew up."

The trip was long—it took about an hour—but even in these days of sky high gas prices, worth every cent. When we came upon Harriet B. Sayre School, there sat the yellow brick building occupying a substantial part of a full city block with the playgrounds spread around three sides flanking the lawn which still sits like a green apron between the south tower and the north tower. "That’s the biggest school I’ve ever seen," Kate said, adding that it looked more like a museum. For someone who’s used to one story air conditioned suburban schools, I imagine it did feel something like a visit to the British Museum. 

We couldn’t get close because a padlocked iron fence kept us on the sidewalk. It made me think of the White House that’s guarded like a fortress since 9/11, but the fence couldn’t keep us from walking the two blocks to my house.

Again, I was surprised because in a world where so much has changed, the neighborhood where I grew up looks essentially the same. There have been no tear downs here and despite the 50 years that have passed since I walked this sidewalk back and forth to Sayre, the same houses I remember are well cared for, the lawns neatly trimmed.

The real change has been in the size of the trees. Trees that I recall as spindly saplings in the parkway now span the street creating a canopy of green as they reach for the heavens. And speaking of trees as we approached the house at 2026 N. Newland, I could see the pine tree that I carefully removed all the pine cones from one spring day 55 years ago, maintaining its 15 degree tilt from that botanical insult. Still at the angle bequeathed by that childish peccadillo, the tree now soars high above the peak of the house. The yard seems smaller to me, but Kate is impressed. "What a big house," she says.

On the way back I tell her about Pete’s, the grocery store around the corner on Armitage (now refitted as a residence), where my mother would send me to buy baking potatoes and a Three Musketeers (the payment for my efforts) when Uncle Ed was coming for dinner. Meatloaf, his favorite and one of Mom's specialties, always meant baked potatoes and he'd bring plum cake for dessert from Heinemann’s bakery walking the four blocks to our house from the Grand Avenue bus terminal.

And speaking of Musketeers, all the way to my house the odor of something that smelled like brownies warm from the oven wafted through the air and then I remembered: The candy company, where my Aunt Bee got her first job after high school during the Great Depression wrapping candy bars, still operates one of its many world wide locations just a few blocks from the house where I grew up on a stretch of Oak Park Avenue now renamed Milky Way. We tried to see if there were tours, but no luck so we stopped on the way home and shared a bag of M&Ms that we bought at Walgreen’s.

On the way back to Sayre after ringing the bell at my old house to see if we might get a tour there (again no luck), I showed Kate the patch of sidewalk where I’d slipped on the ice on the way back to school after lunch one winter day and then showed her the scar that I still carried on my knee from the mishap.

Back at Sayre, we see that a gate to a rear entrance of the school is unlocked and we go up and try the door and then the bell, but to no avail. Before we head home though, we drive down the alley behind my house—there’s something we don’t have in the suburbs—and see the house from the backyard where Duffy and Farley, the Scotties we had when I was growing up, patrolled the property. The old garage—with the same door I think—where I smashed my finger—on the day of our bridal shower still stands. And the old maple tree—under which Chipper, my parakeet, has gone to dust—is now so tall, the homeowner in me tells me it presents a storm hazard. All the other trees are gone, the ash, the elm, and the Norway maple near where the garden grew tomatoes and green peppers, but something remains. The spirit of what once was.

I’m left with a feeling of connectedness to eternity. I’m glad Kate went with me to see where I grew up.


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