I’m making my way through an advance reading copy of Philip Smith’s Walking Through Walls, a memoir about growing up in the 1960’s with a famous interior decorator father who discovers that he has psychic powers. I haven’t gotten very far into it, but what I’ve read is interesting. In the beginning of the book, Smith details his life in Miami in the 50’s , when his father was an interior designer for the rich and famous around the world. He mentions several of the more unusual aspects of his childhood, and how he often wished he could be part of a “normal” family.
This book got me thinking a little about my own childhood, which certainly had its share of unusual moments (although not nearly as exotic as some that Smith describes).
For me, growing up Ukrainian American was probably the one thing that set me apart when I was really young. I was the daughter of a Chicago cop, but so were many of the kids in the neighborhood. I grew up in a tight-knit neighborhood on the Northwest side of Chicago, and many of the parents were firemen or policemen, city workers who had to live in the city.
We were the only ones in our neighborhood that I knew who spoke a second language at home. A few kids had Polish grandparents who tried to teach them phrases here and there, but that was about it. I was also the only kid in my grammar school class who went to Saturday school (Ukrainian school), Ukrainian folk dancing, and because our church followed the “Old Calendar,” we had different holidays for Christmas and Easter (as well as wildly different ways of celebrating both).
When I was 10, my father was elected into the Illinois Senate, and so began a new chapter of unusual childhood experiences. My mother, sister and I would accompany our father to fundraisers where we met local and state politicians and their families. We spent afternoons during election time canvasing neighborhoods, where my sister and I would run from door to door dropping newsletters or fliers into mailboxes, or sometimes slipping them into screen doors. We learned that we were not allowed to leave fliers in exterior mailboxes, only inside those that went directly into the house.
I enjoyed the chance to see other neighborhoods, other houses and backyards. I remember wondering what was going on inside those houses as we walked by, peeking into the large front windows characteristic of Chicago bungalows. I was already a bookworm and a daydreamer, so it was all fuel for my imagination.
When my father was first elected, several buses filled with family, friends, and supporters made the trek down to Springfield for the inauguration. Our campaign had been truly grassroots, and almost all of our friends and family helped out, volunteering to stuff envelopes, make calls, go door-to-door, help at fundraisers, march in parades, etc. Over the years, the campaigns continued to be family-affairs. My Uncle Bob was my father’s campaign manager, my cousins nearly spent as much time in the campaign offices as we did. We often saw my aunts or uncles around the office.
My father decided to hold a sock-hop every Halloween for the first decade he was in office. The first few had a 50’s theme, and then they evolved into true Halloween parties with costume contests and parades. Again, hordes of family and friends filled our different venues to parade their inner monster and dance to Oldies. By the time I was in high school, all of my friends had been to at least one Sock Hop, and many had gone to several.
For a few years, our annual family roadtrip was determined by where the conference for state legislators was being held (which is how I was able to visit Baltimore, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Nashville, and other places). They often had events set up for the families while the politicians were in meetings. I remember being so excited to meet these kids from other states and then being disappointed when so many of them turned out to be snobby and pretentious.
Unlike my sister and I, a lot of the kids grew up in wealthy households of political dynasty families, where government “ran in their veins.” We found them exotic, like rare birds with their designer labels. My father (and mother’s) parents came over from Ukraine after WWII and worked in factories. My Baba Dudycz was so proud of “her Son the Senator.” When I think about their road to America, everything it took to get to Chicago, how hard they worked once they got here to support their six children, I can imagine her marvel–that a child of hers would help to make the laws in her state, meet Presidents of this and other countries, travel around the world on diplomatic missions. It’s no wonder we grew up believing that almost anything was possible.