Playing in the courtyard with neighborhood friends. I was the youngest, about age 7. A friend was tossing a tin can against the brick walls and it richocheted and hit me in the forehead causing a bleed. The kids crowded around me and someone got a bandaid (invented in 1920), and my sister gave me a pad of paper (highly prized because my sis and I were conmpulsive drawers), and Lella lent me her tricycle and we all went downstairs and I drove the tricycle around the block (this was Chicago, it was a BIG block) with all the kids walking alongside. It was an Our Gang moment. I was overwhelmed with the attention. The scar has finally faded to a half inch that you can’t see unless you really look for it.
My sister was Tula, and I called her Toops. She called me Kika, a garbled version of my Greek name that she couldn’t pronounce. And everyone in the family followed her lead and called me Kika for years after. But when I started school, I was enrolled with an Americanized version of Harikleia.
My sis and I often hung out with kids whose parents owned a used furniture store on our block. They were from the deep south and were living in the store. It was overcrowded with furniture. We loved it. How exotic. The father looked like Buddy Ebsen and was rather dour and remote.
There was a Greek restaurant at the East end of the block. The owners were our next door neighbors. I was then around 12, and used to play piggy move up (a baseball game where there were only 3 players, so you had a pitcher, a batter, and a fielder and you “moved up” when you struck out or hit a long ball.) My playmates were boys. We got along. We played cops and robbers too, and my sis would sometimes join in, although she was happier inside listening to the radio. We would mimic the sound of a machine gun. I was excellent. Toops had a kind of inadequate rat-a-tat, hopeless really.
So our Greek neighbor decided to one-up my mother by whispering that maybe there was something sexually inappropriate going on since I was always playing with boys. My mother then forbid me to play with them so I lied about where I was going and what I was doing and continued to play with them. Really, it was the only way to have a life. One of the boys was the son of our dentist, whose office was in the adjacent apartment building and whom I had met when we were tots and I was taken in for dental work. The waiting room had lots of toys and we would play there. What could be more innocent than graduating to baseball with no spurious demons lurking. He was such a decent kid and he grew up and married a Chinese girl and died young. My sis wrote me about it after I had left Chicago to live in New York.
There was also an ugly sexual encounter with a Greek family acquaintance nicknamed , “Brown”, who was a cook for that Greek restaurant. I had a girlfriend, Wilda, who lived above the restaurant and went to see her going in through her porch entrance above the yard that was shared with the restaurant. Brown would sit in the yard on his break. I thought nothing of, at 8, sitting on his lap until one day, he unzipped, and I ran away. I didn’t tell my dad, and Brown owes me his life because I kept silent. My dad and his brothers would have murdered him.
Wilda and I were close until our teens. We were in the same year in school. I played baseball in the alley with her and her brothers. Her older brother kept pigeons. Occasionally, he'd have one for lunch. I wonder if he married.
Wilda and I roamed Chicago on foot, walking for miles. We flew kites together. We collected caterpillars, putting them into glass bottles where eventually they would turn into butterflies. We got chastised by the local drunks for staring at the nude girls in the photos of the strip clubs. We grew apart when I got a permit to attend a high school out of district. My official reason was to study Greek, and it was the only school that offered it. But the real reason was that my black classmates resented me because I was a bright kid and it showed. They would chase me home from school every afternoon. Survival didn't qualify for a transfer. I'd reach the Presbyterian church where I had attended Girl Guide meetings. There was a rear door and I tried it, unlocked, saved. So I relied on this escape route from then on. I’d enter the church, wait a few minutes and leave out the front when the coast was clear. If I had tried to get all the way home, they would have caught up with me.I reasoned that if I attended the high school connected to the grammar school, with the same classmates now entering puberty and getting perhaps meaner, I wouldn’t survive. For some reason I empathized with their circumstances because I did not become a racist. I only protected myself when I had to.
In winter Toops and I would go ice-skating on an iced over pond at nearby Jefferson Park. Towards dusk one day, I skated over a thin spot and broke through it. It wasn't a big deal because it was a shallow pond. I climbed out, soaking wet, and Toops and I started home. On the way, through city streets, each time we passed anyone, Toops would point to me and say, “fell in”. Her annoying little maneuver only charms me when I think of it now.
Just before Christmas, our dutch uncle Andrew, would bring over a Christmas tree and Toops and I would decorate it using tinsel, and traditional ornaments saved from year to year, and, of course, lights. When it was done, we’d turn off the overheads, stand in front of it, arms around each other’s waist, and sing “Silent Night”. These are my memories of my sis, not the later days when she was somehow not there. If you live long enough, sorrow becomes the obbligato in your life.