Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, July 21

Gapers Block

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When I was a kid, I didn't have much use for textbook history, and I figured out pretty quickly that all anyone had to do was read the summary at the end of the chapter in order to pass the test. That way I could spend less time reading some boring old garbage about Manifest Destiny and melting pots and more time reading what I wanted to read: fiction. Then I grew up a little and found out the truth, that history is really just one big long story, and best of all, it is a story starring the infinitely interesting human race. The difference was all in the telling. A fascinating tale of mystery, intrigue, bravery and skill? Or a bone dry recitation of some moldy old facts. It can go either way.

Telling someone the history of your life is not the same as a tale starring the brave patriots of yore, though it can be equally interesting. It all depends on your audience. You can be well into the tale of how you were stung by a bee because one flew into your can of Dr. Pepper while you were bouncing on the trampolines in Beach Haven, New Jersey, and suddenly notice that your audience is inching away from you in an attempt to escape. It's a lot like hearing someone else's dream. You had to be there, and fortunately for you, you were.

Tales of the amazing and adorable things your children have said and done are of a similar vein: infinitely interesting to you, unbelievably tedious to others. However, there is one audience that is always eager for more stories, more details, more information — the children themselves. The greatest story ever told, one which most everyone knows a different but similar version of is "The Day You Were Born." Birthdays are an ideal time for trotting out the hilarious tales of Mom lumbering about, the long (or short) labor, the amazing delivery and the miraculous first days at home with a new person.

We travel about town a lot, like most busy folks with busy kids. One of our favorite pastimes is Historical Tour. It's never planned, but there we will be driving down Grand Avenue and all of a sudden we are driving by the park my daughter first played at. There's the DulceLandia on Fullerton where she and I went every Monday on our way to the bus after our babysitting job to buy a dollar's worth of bizarre candy and marvel at the piñatas of all shapes and sizes. A drive on Ashland brings up the stories of the apartment on Wellington that I lived in with my girlfriends back in the day: no heat, no money and lots of live music. Hilarity ensued. There were trombones at 3am, and a Fourth of July party that went down in infamy.

We wonder, while driving down Western, about a long ago neighbor, Wanda, and her magnificent lawn, and whether she is still alive. She told stories about Riverside Park, and taking the streetcar with her girlfriends, spending all of their money on bumper cars and lemonade and not having car fare home. Wanda's upstairs neighbor, Mr. Christopher, was one of the more than 700 elderly citizens to die in the heat wave of 1995. I walked down the street in my nightgown that summer, pregnant and seeking air conditioning at my friends tiny apartment a few blocks away, an image that mystifies and delights my children.

We drive past the building where my daughter was born in Humboldt Park with the carneceria on the corner, run by Junior, a former postman turned neighborhood mayor. The boys weren't born there, but they have a connection to the building, too, because it's where their Dad buried his beloved cat in the side yard. Smoot's grave is now the home of a giant condo, surely haunted by the ghost of a very unusual white cat with orange spots. We bet no one ever gets a good night's sleep in that building.

The middle boy has the great honor of owning the tale about the now extinct Brickyard Mall, where I, 8 months pregnant with him, was mugged in the parking lot. That hole was torn down a few years ago, and a brand new palace of commerce was built, but for our family the ghost of that mugging is still there, complete with the dramatic end: Daddy and Daughter running all the way from home to save Mom.

We drive by the sight of the fabled perfect construction zone, where we once watched a giant excavator lower a bobcat on a cable into a gaping hole in the street. It's only a few blocks away and was a daily afternoon diversion for a few weeks. The only evidence of the event is a slight discoloration in the surface of the street, but it's all still in our minds: that heavy machine dangling by one slim cable, men at work, paying not the slightest bit of attention to a small boy pedaling up on his tricycle, being held aloft by his mother so he could see better.

The youngest doesn't have much history yet, though he's already able to determine where we are in relation to our home by seeing the golden dome of the Greek Orthodox church, the fabulous Jiffy Lube where we take our van, the giant Radio Flyer parked outside the company's warehouse on Grand Avenue. I am amazed at how much he can remember from his almost four years on the planet, things my pea brain has jettisoned long ago to make room for important factoids like children's shoe sizes and the location of the bike lock key. He remembers very clearly the mid-summer hail storm of 2006, an event so important in his life that any mention of the words storm or thunder bring on an immediate recollection of that ferocious storm. He remembers how scared he was, the piles of ice on the deck and in the yard, and the green leaves and branches everywhere, in the middle of a summer day.

Obviously I could go on (and on), but everyone has their own Chicago history tour to make up and take, personalized for you and your family, with places and stories that have importance to no one but yourselves. Maybe it includes the place where your son fell off of his scooter and chipped a tooth; a favorite apartment, where you saw your daughter take her first steps, perhaps no longer there; the park where you first kissed your husband-to-be, when you were 24 and life seemed so complicated, but it really wasn't yet; or an old friend and her beautiful garden, now faded into memory, part of your history.

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About the Author(s)

Lori Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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