Small-town values can still be valuable in the big city.

Jane, Marge and Zita...The Morris Girls. (photo credit Elize Kopczick).
Jane, Marge and Zita…The Morris Girls. (photo credit Elize Kopczick).

My oldest daughter and son-in-law will be with us this weekend, traveling from Houston to Dallas to catch the Stones.  Despite the fact that I once succumbed to her entreaties to attend a Spice Girls’ concert, Kelsey eventually developed a musical vocabulary of which an Empty Nester dad can be proud. And I am.

But not the point. If time allows on Friday night or Sunday afternoon, the whole family (Warren now makes us five) will go out to eat.  Given that the rain in Dallas has mercifully eased, we might ask for outside seating.  One of life’s great, simple pleasures is the outside meal.  You take your time and scenery completes the experience.  Add a margarita and the ambiance dial twists to 11.  So I greatly look forward to our outing.

My grandmother used to say food tastes better outside.  As a teenage smart ass with just enough sense to have good manners around my grandparents, I kept to myself an immense knowledge of how unlikely it was that slightly variable ambient temperatures would alter the chemical properties of food.  Or the fact that a big city dweller like me (suburban Washington D.C.) likely knew quite a bit more on the fine dining score than the residents of Morris, Illinois. But I am pretty sure I might have whispered to myself that Kentucky Fried Chicken tastes the same wherever you are.

And I was wrong.  The outside Grandma referred to was a magical patio that she and Grandpa shared with their neighbors. When I say “shared,” I do not mean that they often invited the neighbors over. Instead, the patio was built across the property lines for the two houses on either side of the intersection. More than the “indivisible interests” each family had (law school was good for something), a lack of fencing kept the patio accessible to a decent swath of the neighborhood.  As much as I loved  and valued that space, I have never been able to recreate it.  That failure has  to do with the  people rather than the real estate, but more than anything else that patio represented an openness to community that is all but lost in America.

My grandparents lived on the corner of Liberty and High Streets in Morris; the county seat of Grundy County and just about as quaint as one can imagine.  In the 1940’s Morris, which is about 60 miles southwest of Chicago,  served as an open research laboratory for sociologists studying the “impact of social classes on America’s adolescence”; the results of which were widely published under the bucolic title Elmtown’s Youth.  By the time I became a regular summer visitor in the 1970’s, not much had changed with Morris’ solidly middle class status.  Originally a mill town and farming community, the installation of a nuclear reactor had helped stave off the challenges to the economic stability felt in the broader rust belt.

My grandfather was a cement mason; my grandmother worked at a variety of jobs, most notably at Sklut’s Menswear “downtown.”  Downtown meaning the two blocks on the other side of the train tracks.  Jane and John Olson led a simple life but they were far from simple people.  Economics had forced John into the labor force after eighth grade but he was a voracious reader, quick with numbers and wise beyond any rational expectation. Jane was a woman of fierce loyalty, indomitable will and generous spirit.  Jane is best explained by the fact that well into her late 80’s she was on the contact list for elderly who might need help-as the person the “old people” called when in need.

Jane and John were interwoven into the fabric of the community. There was not much about the politics, the business or the religion of the town that they did not know.  As destiny would have it, they drew close to other couples with similar irrepressible personalities.  While my mother was growing up, the family lived at the other end of the block between Augie and Gussie Hansen, successful  owners of an automobile body shop, and Marge and “Kup” Kopczick, owners of a small grocery market.  Today the idea of a two-person grocery store might sound strange but Kup made it work somehow and with time to pay attention to the horses, too,

Augie was by far the sharpest businessman of the bunch and he developed the other end of the block, building the largest house for him and smaller houses that he sold and self-financed for his friends.  Augie was mayor for a while so there was an air of celebrity about him. Eventually Kup’s children took over the Hansen house.  The patio was maybe 500 square feet running between the Hansen-Kopczick estate and the Olson manse.  Added to the patio mix were Zita and John Halloran and anyone else who might drop in.

People began to gather around 5:30 p.m.  Jane liked to start with a “highball” but John was always happy with an Old Milwaukee Light.  I guess if you lived through the depression you never wanted to pay the extra money for beer that actually had a taste to it. Dinner was pot luck; extremely variable but plentiful.  Around 6:30 the stories would start. I am partial to my grandfather’s abilities, but truth be told Garrison Keillor has nothing on any of the adults who sat on that patio.  They all could paint pictures with words, an art lost when the TV and the 140-character message reign supreme. They made fun of others and themselves.  The laughter carried for blocks.

If you got a word in edgewise it was an accomplishment but no matter, I was more than happy to listen. This world seemed so real to me, a child of the suburb. Morris was a town, not a subdivision. What these normal people did mattered in that town. They were able to embrace that life and make it their own.  That was enough for them. When the hour got late, longer silences would set in and I would watch lightening bugs dance in the yard.  The sound of a train leaving the silo with all that Grundy County corn told you the town meant something in the world, too.

My parents were the first of the Morris diaspora, Dad’s military service leading him to the bigger world.  Sadly it is almost complete now, although the Kopczick’s still own most of the property.  About the time I started to embrace my  trips to Morris, the Air Force transferred Dad to San Antonio.  Don and Karen Tedder and their three kids lived next store. Being South Texas,  each family built a pool in their back yard. And in a feature unique to anything I have seen, the families built their decks to the same height and embedded a sliding fence so that they could open the gate and share warm summer nights.

All I can offer the kids this weekend is a night out. But maybe we will ask the people sitting next to us to pull up a chair.

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