There was a street light at the corner of Simpson Street and Forestview Road, just across from the house where I grew up in the 1960s. I spent a lot of time standing on my bed peering out at that street light when I was little.
I knew how it looked at dawn and dusk. In a mist of light rain and the fat drops of a downpour. In fog and snow. Nothing was more beautiful than feathery flakes drifting down in the halo of that stately old Tallmadge light on a cold night as I watched from the comfy bedroom I shared with my sister.
Under its steadfast gaze, I walked four doors down nearly every day of my childhood to see if Judy could play.
My bike and I flew past it all through my beloved childhood summers. I rode to the library, where I checked out every horse book ever written. To Lighthouse Beach, where it never occurred to us to wonder why none of the Black kids went there too. To Dwight Perkins Woods, where we’d picnic and scratch a million mosquito bites.
We passed every morning on our way to Lincolnwood School, when we came home for lunch, when we went back in the afternoon and when we got home at the end of the day. A day I had most likely spent looking out of the classroom windows and imagining horses in the park – apropos of nothing, and certainly not arithmetic. Teacher comments: “Not living up to her potential.”
Our street light sentinel watched as we tried to teach the girl from two doors down how to ride that bike. After she panicked, let go of the handlebars, and crashed into the curb, barely missing an oncoming car, it bore witness to my ill-tempered response – even now a matter of some shame. It watched as we played hopscotch, jump-rope, hide and seek. As we scampered safely home in the warm dusk.
My grandmother stayed with us once when my parents were on vacation. To her, Evanston was The Wilderness. When I took the dog out at night, she stood in the doorway and ordered me to stay right under the streetlight. Her worry amused me. I played right there every day. What could possibly happen?
Realtors generally tried to steer their Jewish clients to Skokie in those years. My parents weren’t having it. My mother wanted Evanston, with its beautiful homes, graceful trees, iconic streetlights and lovely beaches, far from her childhood among the poorer Jews on Chicago’s west side.
So I was one of only two Jewish kids in my grade at Lincolnwood. The other kids were curious but not cruel. My mother gave a presentation about Hannukah. I thought being Jewish was special. We learned Christmas carols from the music teacher. I thought they were the best songs I had ever heard.
Just as I thought street lights everywhere were stately and solid, like the one on my corner. Or all grown-ups listened to classical music, like my parents. Or every child felt as safe as I did.
When I got old enough to read Anne Frank, I said to my mother, “That could never happen now,” as if it hadn’t happened less than 30 years before. She gave me a look. “You think not?”
And that was the end of my childhood. I remember like it was yesterday. We were standing in our kitchen, across the road from our beautiful old sentinel, everything familiar, nothing the same, ever again.