Small-Town Girl from Chicago
As a little girl, on our family trips to Michigan, I'd tell everyone I was from Chicago. But the truth is, I grew up in Oak Lawn, Illinois, twelve miles southwest of the Loop. We were definitely not big-city folk. Oak Lawn was a small, rural community, away from the hustle and bustle of life in the metropolis.
Growing up in the 1950s and '60s, my two older sisters and I were raised with old-fashioned, small-town values. Our family knew our neighbors on both sides of the street. Few families bothered to lock their doors. We didn't watch much television and there weren't any VCRs, CDs, or video games. Instead, my friends and I cut out paper dolls and played hide-and-seek in the backyard. On Saturday night I'd sometimes gather around the dining room table with my family or friends to play tripoly.
Oak Lawn was an unincorporated rural area, so there wasn't a lot there. The subdivision where we lived was a lower-middle-class neighborhood with no sidewalks. Our small Cape Cod house, 8605 South Seventy-eighth Court, was a mile or so from Harlem Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Chicago that runs north and south for some fifty miles. While houses on our street were inexpensive, they were well maintained. The residents took pride in their front lawns: grass was regularly mowed, hedges were tidily trimmed, and flowerbeds were neatly manicured into decorative rows.
Some families spent a lot of time on their small front porches on hot evenings. Although we didn't use our porch as a gathering place, it had an awning and a couple of chairs. As a small child, I played games on that porch, but it saw its best use as a site for picture-taking sessions on important occasions. Our family albums are filled with photographs of my two sisters and me on the porch, starting with our baby pictures. Later we appear there dressed in our Easter outfits, confirmation dresses, prom dresses, and of course our graduation robes.
Back then, there were no nearby supermarkets. My folks did their grocery shopping several miles away at the Jewel Tea store. When I was in high school, a Pic & Save Super Market was built on what had been an empty lot. Its grand opening was a major event in our community. We had finally arrived! "It's one of those Pic & Saves just like they have in Chicago," my mother said, her voice ringing with pride.
There weren't any self-service gasoline stations, either. Ted Kelley, my father, owned and operated a one-man service station, a relic of the past. Cities Service Station, located in Logan Square, a community on the North Side of Chicago, was open from seven to seven, six days a week. Dad left home around six in the morning and returned around eight at night, so during the week we didn't get to spend a lot of time with him. A hardworking man, he pumped gas and checked everything under the hood--the oil, the water, the batteries. He always cleaned the windshield, even when it wasn't dirty. A top-rate mechanic, my father also repaired cars.
Dad was bushed when he walked in the door each night. His hands were so filthy from oil and grease, he'd scrub his fingernails for ten minutes before sitting down at the dinner table. My sisters and I were too hungry to wait for Dad's arrival, so my mother prepared an early dinner for the four of us and a later meal for my father. An extremely organized woman, Mom devised a unique dinner system. One night she cooked for us and reheated leftovers for Dad. The next night she served us leftovers and prepared a fresh dinner for Dad. Mom rotated who got the fresh dinner: Dad, then us, his turn, our turn. And oh yes, Dad's older brother, Bernard--Uncle Bun to us--was a regular guest for a good home-cooked meal, at least three times during the week and most Sundays.
Once I was out of kindergarten, my mother went back to her old job as a typist in the claims department of an insurance company. Prior to that, she worked part time, around my schedule. A hard worker like my father, my mother worked full time during her career for several insurance companies, all located in downtown Chicago. Jane Kelley was ahead of her time. In those days, most households had only one wage earner. Women customarily stopped working outside the home once they had children. My mom, however, was an excellent typist, and seeing how hard my father worked, she wanted to bring in some supplemental income so he'd someday be able to slow down. Although I never felt the slightest bit in need, looking back today I know that my parents had to struggle to make ends meet. Just the same, I was always proud of the fact that my father was a self-employed businessman.
Being his own boss was important to my father. It meant nobody could give him orders and no one could ever fire him. In truth, the big oil companies drew up one-sided contracts with their independent operators that actually took away their independence. But my sisters and I didn't know that. In our eyes, Ted Kelley stood tall. He was his own man. And most importantly, he was a good man. In my eyes, he was the best.
SUNDAY--MY FAVORITE DAY OF THE WEEK
In the Kelley house, the highlight of the week was our family Sunday dinner after the church service. This made Sunday my favorite day of the week. We were together as a family. Dad took on an entirely different appearance on Sunday. He enjoyed dressing up for church: he'd put on a freshly pressed suit, always with a starched white shirt and a stylish tie. He seemed to feel so much better about himself than when he wore his gas station uniform. I loved seeing him in his Sunday clothes. He looked so handsome I thought he could have passed for a bank president. St. Paul's Lutheran Church was at the end of the block on Seventy-eighth Court, and I'd be all smiles as I walked there with my dad. The one-room wood-frame church had a capacity of fifty, too small for a full-time pastor, so a visiting pastor conducted the service. The building was so tiny that when Sunday school classes were conducted prior to the service, volunteer teachers assembled the children into small classes, each grade occupying a separate pew.
Sunday was my mom's favorite day, too. A superb cook, Mama stayed behind in her favorite place, the kitchen. After spending a good portion of the morning making our Sunday supper, she always arrived just in time for the service. Everyone in the tiny church knew when Mom walked in because she often smelled of fried chicken.
We'd be sitting in our pew, and without turning, my oldest sister Barbara would nudge my sister Donna and whisper, "Take a whiff. Mom's here."
"Why does she always have to make fried chicken?" Donna lamented. "Why can't she cook something nobody could smell?"
I thought she smelled delicious, but my sisters were old enough to be embarrassed by it. In my mind, Mom was the best cook in our neighborhood, and that was something to be proud of, certainly not an embarrassment.
On school nights my sisters and I would rush through dinner, help clean up, then hit the books. My mother would then reset the table for my father. On Sundays, however, we ate leisurely. We generally wore our church clothes at the table, the one meal of the week where we'd be together as a family unit. Dinner conversations ran the gamut from church activities to current events. My father's divorced older brother, Bernard, was a regular Sunday guest. Uncle Bun and Dad were sports enthusiasts, and after dinner they'd talk baseball, football, hockey--whatever was in season. With four females in the house, when Uncle Bun wasn't there, dinner conversations were more girl talk. My dad, a very quiet, soft-spoken man, could hardly get a word in edgewise.
When I think back to my youth, some of my most pleasant memories are those dinners on Sunday and holidays when the whole family gathered around the table. At Thanksgiving, one of my mother's brothers and his family came to stay with us. One of Mom's sisters and her family visited during Christmas holidays. These enjoyable family times around the dinner table were an inspiration to my career, because the coming together at the dinner table became the central theme of The Pampered Chef.
BACK AND FORTH TO SCHOOL
Wanting me to have a good Christian education, my parents enrolled me in Zion Lutheran Grade School. They felt that I would get more individual attention at a school with small classes. My two older sisters went to the local public grade school. They couldn't have gone to Zion Lutheran because we had limited transportation at our house. My mother didn't drive, so she had to leave the house with my father at six every morning and he'd drop her off at the train station on his way to work. Zion Lutheran was in Summit, a town ten miles away, and in the same direction as my sister Donna's high school. Early each morning, Donna and I walked to the bus stop. We rode the bus together until Donna got off at the Argo High School stop, seven blocks from Zion, where I got off. Had it not been for my sister, I would have attended the local public grade school because I was too young to take the bus alone.
Coming home from school was another story. Uncle Bun worked in a factory in the area, and my mother would take a bus from downtown Chicago to Argo, where Uncle Bun picked up the two of us at 5:00 p.m. This meant I had more than an hour to kill after school. It was only a ten-minute walk from school to Argo, so I had to dilly-dally around until my rendezvous with Mom and Uncle Bun.
Sometimes I'd go to a girlfriend's house, Gail's or Sheryl's, but mostly I'd hang out with one or both of them at the drugstore or candy shop. With all the time I had to kill, their parents probably thought I was a bad influence on their daughters. Remember, back then, it was unusual for a mother to work full time like mine, although Gail's and Sheryl's mothers did have part-time jobs. No matter how much free time I had after school, I always had to meet my mother and Uncle Bun at the bus stop at 5:00. It seemed that my entire day revolved around my transportation to and from school.
When I finished eighth grade, it was decided that I should continue my education at Walther Lutheran High School, a private school in Melrose Park. My mother placed a high value on education, as did her mother.
More often than not, the school bus arrived at Walther late, after the first-period bell. I was embarrassed whenever I had to walk into the middle of a class in session. But one time it worked to my advantage in a big way. During my freshman year, my locker was across the hall from Jay Christopher's first-period class. The classroom had a door with a glass window and Jay could see me at my locker from his desk, hurriedly throwing my coat and books into the locker, gathering up whatever I needed.
Jay used to watch me come and go, and because the lockers were assigned alphabetically to students, mine was right next to his basketball teammate Tom Klammer's. "Who's the cute girl with her locker next to yours?" Jay asked Tom one day. "You know, the one who's always late getting to school."
Shortly after I started my sophomore year, Jay surprised me by asking me to be his date for the school's homecoming dance. Poor Jay didn't know it, but nobody at Walther lived farther away than I did. So that Saturday morning, he drove all the way out to my house to pick me up for a parade and a football game. As we continued to date, I'm sure his parents wondered why Jay couldn't have found a girl who lived closer.
TYPING CLASS--MY WATERLOO
An honor student, I wasn't worried when I began typing class in my junior year at Walther. My mother typed for a living, so I figured I had the genes for it. It would be a breeze. One of the easier courses, it would be useful in college for typing essays and reports. Jay had taken typing the previous year, and he was already using his skills to fill out college applications.
Mrs. Stryker, an elderly woman whom I'd had for World History, taught typing. She was a gruff lady with a no-nonsense attitude. The first day in typing class, she said, "I am going to assign a character to each of you. One of you will be a snail, another a rabbit, a dolphin, a breed of dog, a cat, and so on. Every day, your designated character will appear on the bulletin board. As you progress from one typing lesson to the next, your animal will move forward. Your advancement will be tracked. Naturally, some of you will advance at a faster rate than others, but at the end of the semester, hopefully everyone's character will end up at the finish line. And when this happens, you will be an able typist."
Characters were handed out, and mine was a turtle. Better a turtle than a snail, I thought to myself.
"Now remember, class," Mrs. Stryker said, "although your progress will be tracked, you're not competing against each other. This is just a way to make the class a little more interesting."
Right from the beginning, everyone else in the class appeared to catch on, but I couldn't make heads or tails out of Mrs. Stryker's instructions. As each day passed I became more confused. Maybe my hand-eye coordination was not particularly good. Whatever it was, I was totally lost.
Mrs. Stryker played music so that we could type to it, to give us a rhythm. Everyone caught on quickly except me. I found the music distracting. It only added to my frustration and confusion.
My turtle was in last place. At first it was only slightly behind the other characters, then it fell more behind the pack. Soon the gap between the rest of the animals and my turtle seemed vast.
I had always been successful in school. But now I was far and away the worst student in typing class. Not only was I slow, I made so many errors that even when my turtle advanced past the starting line, my errors would move it back again. I languished at zero. With my typing errors, I was actually less than zero, but Mrs. Stryker kindly never moved my turtle behind the starting line.
This went on for several weeks. When I walked into typing class, I was tense and nervous, and the feeling of humiliation lasted all day long. One day Mrs. Stryker took me aside. "Doris, you did so well in my American history class. I expect much more from you in this class."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Pampered Chef by Doris Christopher Founder of The Pampered Chef. Copyright © 2005 by Doris Christopher. Excerpted by permission of Crown Business, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.