Chicago weather made the transition from erratic and cool May days to the sultry summer heat of late June. We played joyfully and energetically from early morning until we were called in at dusk, just as fireflies began to signal nightfall.
We were fortunate to live in an area where adjoining properties lacked fences, and empty lots stretched on for two or three periodically mowed greenways. Each year a neighboring contractor emptied a dumptruck of fresh sand into a sixteen foot square, two-by-ten wooden frame next door. He also assembled a large above-ground swimming pool in his own backyard that was generously shared with those of us who had only sprinklers or “slip-‘n-slides” to cool ourselves. His pool was where I learned to swim.
Three lots away, a foundation had been poured for a new house. The large dirt hill that resulted from the excavation created a strategic vantage point from which kids could survey the entire neighborhood, throw clods of dirt or roll them earthward down the gray and dusty sides. It was our neighborhood Chitzen Itza, a temporary monument to our endless summer.
The summer also seemed endless to my mother, I am now certain. She had timed doctor visits around my schedule while I was in kindergarten for half days. But uterine cancer would not wait until Fall. I did not know what cancer was. I did not know what a uterus was, or that I had come from within one. I did not know that a mother could be taken for a morning or for a lifetime. I just played.
It was a weekday morning. Dad was at work. As a parent I can now imagine the anxious request that resulted in our neighbor Mrs. Farley showing up in our kitchen to lead me away to her house for the morning. Mom explained that she had to go out for a while, but that I should go and play until she got home.
Nothing doing. I had a date with my toys, the television and my innate fear of abandonment. Mom leaving me? Me leaving the house? One or the other, but not both. I refused to go.
The mothers conferred in hushed dialogue while I pretended to search for my marbles as far under the living room sofa as I could squeeze.
Eventually I was convinced. It would be fun. It was hot out and all the kids were in the Farley’s new inflatable swimming pool. Mom left and I followed Mrs. Farley.
The scene that followed was beyond my ability to cope. As we rounded the Farley’s garage we emerged from shade and silence into sunshine and a wall of sudden noise. Splashing, shouting and screams of delight that sounded to me very much like screams of agony were harmless in reality, but magnified through an anxiety-ridden filter, horrifying. And there at the center of the whirlwind of activity was freckle-faced Greg Farley, age twelve. To me he was a man. A mean man with a crew cut. It was the perfect workshop for a hyperactive bully seeking victims. He splashed aggressively and held kids under water, threw soggy sponge balls at those who ran away and tackled those who got too close. Greg locked eyes with me. I ran.
I ran past a picture window overlooking the front lawn of our neighbor’s house and took a quick right turn up our driveway. I then realized that our door was locked for the morning and would provide no easy escape. Into the backyard and across the lawn, my little legs leapt over the bush-lined boundary of the vacant lot next door, tearing past the giant sandbox and bounding across another border, over a second stretch of green and onward to the base of the big dirt hill. Mrs. Farley was in slow pursuit in her housedress and heels, calling my name, pleading for me to return.
I instinctively knew that mothers don’t climb dirt hills. Up I went, stopping at the summit and turning to face my pursuer, out of breath and as isolated as if I’d been on the moon.
Mrs. Farley never lost patience or raised her voice, which is probably why Greg turned into such an undisciplined monster. She pleaded and bargained with the child on the hill. She looked so small from where I sat, frightened and alone with my rolled up swim trunks and towel tucked under my arm. Unable to hide earlier under the sofa, this afforded a similar inaccessibility that gave me great comfort. I stayed on the hill. It was a stalemate.
How she talked me down from that hill remains a mystery. Ensuring my safety was her assignment. There were no cell phones for frantic mother-to-mother calls, nor would she have revealed that she had allowed things to spin entirely out of control. I was eventually allowed to stay inside my house, playing by myself until my mother returned. I’m sure I was frequently checked up on, but the pool full of kids at the Farley’s needed serious supervision. It was the last time my mother asked for help of this kind. My grandparents moved in to watch me during her hospitalization.