Saturday, December 1, 2018

Six decades after deaths, my “aunt’s” lesson on life lingers in my memory

Thoughts of my “Aunt” Connie (actually, my mother’s aunt, if you want to be overly technical about it) are popping into my mind Saturday – what with all the mentions in the news of how it has been 60 years to the day that a fire killed 95 people at the Our Lady of Angels parish school in the Humboldt Park neighborhood.

Monument paying tribute to this day
I know just about every Chicagoan of that generation has some sort of personal story of what they did that day in 1958. My mother (who was 14 at the time) recalled being a Catholic school girl who joined other students in prayer for the souls of those – 92 of whom were students – who perished.

BUT MY OWN personal moment (since I didn’t exist until seven years later) came one summer in 1978. And it was due to my Aunt Connie, who managed to put a lesson about the fragility of life into the brains of my brother, Christopher, and myself.

That summer was the one in which my mother sent my brother and I for a week to stay with our uncle Spinx and aunt Connie at their home in suburban Lombard.

I actually recall that experience as relaxing, largely because my uncle and aunt had a swimming pool in the backyard, and most of the week was spent lounging around the pool at our convenience.
Youthful lives remembered this day

Of course, my aunt Connie was the type who believed that children should be put to work, and I recall spending some time in the hair salon she operated out of her basement – sweeping the floors of stray hair and sorting out various types of hair clips.

BUT THERE ALSO was the moment that week when our aunt Connie decided we should go out away from the house and experience something of life. The outing she came up with is one that my brother never forgot so long as he lived.

And it is one that I’m particularly recalling that day.

For our journey that summer was a trip to the Queen of Heaven Cemetery in suburban Hillside, which is where a monument to the children killed in the fire ultimately was erected – and where several of them wound up being buried.
Story of fatalities went national

It wasn’t so much that we were lectured. But the sight of so many young people who, it turns out, had a lifespan that wasn’t even as long as mine was that day (I was just shy of my 13th birthday that summer), was a memory that still sticks in my mind.

I KNOW MY brother, who was only 8 at the time, was a bit creeped out by the experience. Although I recall him later remembering the experience as a lesson that took a few years to fully sink into his brain.

And it became one of the stories we could tell of our “quirky” aunt Connie. Although to be honest, that day was far from the most off-beat thing she ever did in her life.

The fragility of life is a lesson we all have to learn, and it is what makes us feel fortunate that we continue to live on – while trying to remember to enjoy every moment of life we have, because it’s not going to last forever.

That is a lesson I have had reinforced on occasions in life, particularly during my work as a reporter-type person throughout the years.

I’M NOW 53, and I know if I were to drop dead now, there would be some people who would take one look at that age and think I was somehow cheated of a proper life’s end. Although I have to confess to having known people in my life who aren’t with us any longer – and who didn’t even come close to getting as long a life-span as I’ve enjoyed.
My brother and I (in middle) with other relatives surrounding our Aunt Connie
Just as my brother and I got to see the memory of all those young people who perished 60 years ago who never even made it as far as their teenage years (they were all students between 5th and 8th grades at the times of their deaths).

So we’re getting the reports in recent days reminding us of the tragedy of Our Lady of the Angels and how the aging school building was not in compliance with the fire codes of that era (as an older structure, it was “grandfathered” in with lesser standards). We may even be reminded of the speculation that the fire was caused by a 10-year-old’s idea of a prank.

But for me, I’m going to be recalling my aunt, who has long been resting in peace along with those whose deaths of six decades ago are being publicly remembered this day.


No comments: