“A few figs from thistles…”
Howard A Tabor
I know. It’s the Fourth of July.
It’s sultry and the air reeks of gunpowder. But that didn’t stop one of the Ghosts of Christmas Past from visiting me last night.
Chicago’s near north side was a neighborhood in transition during the 1960s. Urban renewal in full bloom, Carl Sandberg Village was under construction and the used bookstore where I worked part time was about to be bulldozed into oblivion.
I had lived in the neighborhood for only three months and was looking forward to the train ride home for Christmas. My sister Catherine was bringing her fiance Jim LaFarge for family introductions and a gaggle of cousins were coordinating a mass migration. It was a great disappointment, then, when a crisis at the newspaper (my day job) forced me to cancel. I’d made a few friends, but most of them seemed on their way somewhere else. So I celebrated with a last-minute rush ticket to “Messiah,” Handel’s oratorio performed annually by the Apollo Musical Club.
That winter was particularly cold and wet; the rhythms of spring and new life couldn’t come soon enough. Work at the paper and my part-time bookstore position filled the days, but evenings and weekends were an invitation to explore a city of ethnic neighborhoods, especially for someone who’d grown up in the relative homogeneity of small-town Iowa.
One late Saturday afternoon found me in “Little Italy,” an enclave holding out against the new University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. There, amid battling pasta sauces, colorful costume—more enthusiastic than authentic—and a degree of Catholicity I hardly imagined, I admired a display of wood carving and fell into conversation of heated agreement with a woman probably in her early 40s. She was Marilla Thurston Missbach, there with her daughter Leah. We shared a gelato, exchanged numbers and parted in opposite directions.
Some weeks later Marilla phoned to say that there was a Ukrainian festival next weekend. Would I like to join her? Absolutely! And we became friends until her death in 1996.
Marilla lived in a suburb west of Midway Airport, a short walk from her secretarial position at the Corn Products Co., the folks who bring us Mazola. Soon my preferred route for getting to her home—sans car—was CTA #22 downtown and #67 (the Archer Express, apropos of someone from Agincourt!) to the end of the line, followed by a mile-and-a-half walk through modest working-class neighborhoods. I picked a different path each time and came to know the Village of Summit very well.
Her home was just that: a home. The house itself had been her mother’s but Marilla “camped” there, her base of far-flung engagement with the World. From her I had already learned that Chicago could be enjoyed on a budget—a secretary’s modest salary—if one focused on the freebies: ethnic and folk festivals, discount and standby tickets; connections. It was an education to ride on her petticoat tails.
We held many things in common: food, art, an appreciation of architecture. In fact she was a member of Unity Temple, the congregation in Oak Park burdened with an early Frank Lloyd Wright building. We laughed when I discovered she was a contralto in the Apollo Musical Club: I had been less than a hundred feet from her at that “Messiah” concert in December, my substitute for the holiday with home and family.
The Fourth of July in 1969 was more than I could have imagined. We met—Marilla, me and a few other friends—at Grant Park for the free music, food vendors, etc. that led up to a massive fireworks display over Lake Michigan. I had expected to go home but Marilla asked us out to her place for an extended celebration. When we arrived, I found the house fully decked out for Christmas: lights, wreaths, a tree (living and later transplanted into her survival-of-the-fittest garden), and a buffet of eggnog and other very out-of-season treats. There was only one gift—for me: a bus stop sign for the CTA #67 Archer Express, the bus that I took home later that night or early Saturday morning.
Marilla’s gifts were modest but always heartfelt and carefully considered. Yet the greatest thing she gave me was her time, a commodity we have in limited supply and diminishing with every moment.
Happy Fourth of July. Oh, and Merry Christmas, too.