For the first 4 plus years of my life our family of 5 (me the youngest) lived in a small house on the west edge of town. Surrounded by mostly empty lots and fields, a couple blocks north of Highway 18, this was the section of town that would get an enormous building boost in the years ahead. We didn’t have a lot of neighbors or kids my age but I was little and stayed close to home anyway. That would change when we moved a few blocks north and east, into the heart of Rock Valley. Houses in back of our alley facing 16th Street, more houses across 15th street. Not long city blocks, small town sized blocks. On the northeast lot of our block was the Methodist Church. As far as I can remember we had 5 houses and one church in my little corner of the world.
The neighborhood was a mixture of young growing families with a few older couples nearing retirement or already ensconced in their slower lifestyle. Seems odd that a young girl could spend as much time with the older folks on the block as I did with kids my age. A morning spent sitting in the enclosed front porch of Bessie Jacobs, listening to her stories or watching as she hand stitched a doll quilt for my doll that I still have. Her husband worked for the railroad and was gone a lot. She didn’t seem to mind the interruption when I knocked on her door. Sometimes she made me a 7-Up float (sure doesn’t sound very appealing now). Bessie lived just west of the church.
In between her house and ours but after the older couple moved out (related to the Ribbons’ family maybe) was a young couple, fairly new to marriage, their name escapes me, Ver Steeg perhaps)? They had a baby boy named Miles. (I had never heard of that name before). I must have been around 9. I went over as often as she’d let me in to play and ogle Miles. This wasn’t my first baby crush. That ‘bug’ had hit me hard soon after we moved to 15th street.
Her name was Cindy. She was the baby sister of my first bestie, Lori who lived in the corner house of my block. (In between us was another older lady but my ‘senior citizen empathy app’ didn’t shine as brightly for her). She crossed the wrong side of Neese. Although it wasn’t really her fault, she was blamed nonetheless. My parents decided to take a ‘real’ vacation in 1960 and visit some of their sibs on both sides in California. This was in our pink (Canyon Coral) 2-door 1958 Chevy Biscayne, with no air. During late June. I would have the whole backseat to myself-or so I thought. This older neighbor lady offered to pay mom and dad to ride along in our stifling hot 2-door car all the way to the west coast. Sigh. Then she asked if her granddaughter could tag along? I was allotted about a foot of space in the backseat. Miserable trip until we dropped them off. But I digress.
So between old people, a strange family that was a little scary but truly fascinating, babies, my playhouse, homemade swing set, eating rhubarb with gobs of salt as we played drive-inn (something radically new in our small town) and kids ranging from younger than me (finally) to some high school boys across the street, my little corner of the world was sweet indeed. Plus there were new worlds just a couple blocks away-in both directions. The school was another block east and had an awesome playground, a slide that reached the stratosphere (honestly 2 stories tall) and burned the backs of your legs from May until September. So hot but so cool!
To the west another block was our budding metropolis-downtown Rock Valley. Restaurants, hardware stores, dime store, grocery store, bakery, post office, couple of lawyer’s offices, bowling alley, car dealerships, gas station, utilities office, my doctor’s and dentist’s offices, even a clothing store. A true shopping Mecca. It looked a mile long to this young girl but actually was a few blocks long and just as wide.
From the time I was old enough to cross the street by myself (after my big brother Larry was hit and killed by a car while riding his bike), these precautions were repeated daily. For the first couple years I was not allowed to cross Main Street if mom wasn’t with me. It was very wide and quite busy. Our infamous “One Stoplight” was one block south from where I walked, but the 3 (if you count the grocery store) which captured my attention and money were all on ‘my’ side of the street so I wasn’t tempted to disobey my parents. (I was young, there was plenty time for me to get in trouble in a few years when I became a rousing success at it).
The store closest to our house that got the juices flowing was our bakery. Van Olst’s Bakery. When I was a teen it was a frequent stop on Friday nights after football or basketball games because they baked drool worthy confections all night long. The whole town smelled like donuts after 10. Heaven. Pure heaven. Bismarks, glazed, frosted, long johns, date filled bars, cookies, cones with that sickeningly sweet white creamy filling, almond patties, unsliced bread. Just thinking about that smell wafting through town makes my mouth water. And the Van Olst’s liked to talk after we snuck in the back door while they worked through the night. A mom and pop operation who worked very hard, as did their kids to make their business thrive. But my nighttime teen visits weren’t for a few years yet, so I brought my nickel or dime to spend during regular business hours, usually after school.
Life was all about hard choices back then. If I stopped with my nickel or dime at the bakery then I would have no money to spend at Ben Franklin, and that store was the bomb. Near the store’s entrance, a couple doors south of Van Olst’s stood an epic candy counter. Almost a square, missing a couple feet on one side so a clerk could sashay in and out while you were making your selection. Consisting of glass on 2 sides and dark wood, the different candies were divided into large compartments. This necessitated a couple of trips around the loop. Tough decisions in the life of an under 10 year old. A nickel bought a sizable paper bag of chocolate stars, chocolate covered peanuts or malt balls (my favorite). Mom left loose change (nickels and dimes) in a yellow candy dish with a glass lid that eluded dings and chips through my chubby finger days, a miracle in itself. The candy dish was one of mom’s parent’s wedding presents and sat daintily in the middle of our dining room table. If she was at work I was allowed to walk to town and use this money as I saw fit (a nickel at a time).
While I was enamored with the 2 live babies on the block, my dolls at home were just as important. Oh I had a fancy lady doll who had seams in the back of her nylons, and a walking doll (named Cindy, after the real baby on the block) that was nearly my size. But they both paled in comparison to my favorite, a baby doll named Lori Jean (yup after my best friend). I played with that baby doll for at least 5 years. Mom even had a seamstress make some clothes for Lori so I could change her outfits.
One day I asked mom for some money and not just for my nickels worth of candy. I had been visiting Miles while his mom gave him a bath. After she hoisted him out of the baby tub and dried him off, she took baby lotion and rubbed some on his arms and legs. Johnson’s baby lotion in a pink plastic bottle. He smelled so good while she got him dressed. Right then I decided I needed lotion to make Lori Jean softer and smell gooder.
Far away from the candy counter in the dime store was a section for babies. Goodness, I could spend some serious money here. Rubber pants, baby oil, lotion, booties, special soap, nighties, I wanted it all for my baby-doll. But with a limited budget my money would only go so far. I bought a white bonnet and the smallest bottle of baby lotion. Do you know how long it takes to rub a glop of lotion on a hard plastic doll? The friction alone nearly heated that doll to the melting point. These are some of my best childhood memories. Picking out and paying for after school treats by all by myself. Visiting my elderly neighbors, playing with new babies and friends on the block and my favorite standby, babydoll Lori Jean…