I was raised in Granite City, Illinois, a steel town across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. When I was a kid my folks decided to build a two-room addition on the back of our house for our growing family. One of those rooms was a dining room, and the other was a bedroom for my brother Dan and me. Our bedroom had a gray tile floor and gray walls. I don’t remember one single picture on any of those gray walls. We may have had some, but I don’t remember them. And if there were any pictures … I’m sure they were black and white.
What I do remember is the heat. When summer comes to the Midwest—and in Granite City it seemed to me like it was almost always summer—hot, humid air hangs over the town like wet wallpaper. You can smell the humidity; the air positively drips with it.
We didn’t have air conditioning in our bedroom. My brother and I suffered in our gray bedroom that had no pictures on the walls. I remember lying awake at night, my head craned toward the window, desperately trying to feel a breeze that was almost never there. I remember waking in the morning, wet from my own sweat, a hot and fitful night behind me, and a day filled with more stifling heat and sweat ahead of me.
Sometimes, Richard Justice would knock on my back window very early in the morning. He lived across the street, and he didn’t have any air conditioning either. When he couldn’t sleep because of the heat, sometimes he’d come over and peck on my window. We’d go out in the backyard to shoot marbles at six-thirty in the morning, before it got too hot.
If my mom wasn’t lookin’, (and she was almost always lookin’) after Rich and I finished our game of marbles, I’d sneak across the street and eat breakfast with the Justice gang. (I say ‘gang’ because Mr. and Mrs. Justice had a slug of kids.) Mrs. Justice was a very kind lady and obviously a very good mother. On those hot summer mornings, she would often stand at their kitchen stove, preparing a specific menu for breakfast. She didn’t seem to notice how many kids were lined up each morning, anxious to receive what seemed to me to be her specialty: a fried egg sandwich with mustard on it, and one cup of hot cocoa. As I went up the back steps of their house, I could smell those sandwiches cooking. I could see Mrs. Justice standing at the stove handing out those sandwiches. I couldn’t resist. When she asked me if I wanted some breakfast, I always said yes. She never told me to go home and eat—not once in all the years I was growing up. Mrs. Justice was a great mom. She had lots of kids. And she had a lot of courage and character . . . and love.
In the middle of long summer afternoons, my brother and I would often go next door to the Marlers. They were our best friends. I’d like to think our fondness for the Marler brothers wasn’t influenced by the fact that their house had air conditioning. But it’s amazing how relationally nurturing air conditioning could be on hot, muggy afternoons in Granite City, where I grew up.
The air inside the Marler’s house smelled different from our air. Our air wasn’t conditioned; it was raw, wet, and miserable air. Their air was cool, comfortable air. Once I got my toe inside, I didn’t want to leave. But in the late afternoon, when it was time for supper, my mom would send my little sister after Dan and me, to tell us the pork chops were almost done, and it was time for us to come home and set the table. As I left the Marlers to go back home, and the heat and humidity smacked me in the face, I remember saying to myself on more than one occasion, One of these days I’m gonna get a house . . . and it’s gonna be air conditioned.
That’s what I said to myself, when I was growing up.
When I was a kid, my address was 3019 Myrtle Avenue. The next street over from mine was Buxton, which didn’t sound much better to me than Myrtle. But it was somewhat better. I was embarrassed about the name of my street. Myrtle sounded like the name of a klutzy television character to me, and when I started school and kids asked me where I lived, some of them laughed when I told them.
“Myrtle?” some of them would say. “You live on Myrtle?” And I would flinch inside. I didn’t let them see it, of course, but that hurt. Nobody wants to live on a klutzy street. You know what I mean? Some of my friends had such great sounding streets, names like Cheshire and Carlton and Ridgecrest Court and such. I’d have given anything to live on a street like Sleepy Hollow Way or Clayborn Ridge Road. But Myrtle—3019 Myrtle Avenue—that was as good as it got. And I remember thinking to myself, One of these days I’m gonna move away from Myrtle Avenue and get me a better sounding street to live on.
When I was growing up, the summer rain would sometimes flood our street. We didn’t have curbs or gutters on Myrtle Avenue, so the water ran to the end of the street and flowed into the storm drain, unless … unless the grate covering the drain got clogged with leaves. If that happened, the water would create a small lake on our street for a few hours.
Richard Justice got to wade in the water when it backed up that way. In fact, Mrs. Justice let Richard put on shorts and just sit out in the rain. My mom never let me do that. She was afraid of polio I think. She’d try to scare my brother Dan and me with talk about the danger of polio and how we’d have to sleep in an iron lung if we got polio. No sir. We never got to sit out in the rain, and play in the rain water. We had to sit on our front porch, watching all the Justice kids every time it rained. They’d be laughing, and splashing. None of them had to sleep in an iron lung. Lucky dogs. They got an egg sandwich with mustard on it for breakfast every morning. And if it rained that afternoon, they could splash around to their heart’s content. Not me, though. All I could do was watch all the fun.
But I would say to myself, If I ever have kids, and it rains and the streets are flooded, I’m gonna let them put on their old shorts, take off their shoes, go outside, and sit in muddy rainwater all they want.
When I was growing up, I never got a pair of cool, black boots like all the other guys wore, either. We called them “engineer boots.” I’m not sure why, but that’s what we called them. And I wanted a pair. What I got — and what I had to wear to school every day — was a pair of brown, two-buckles-at-the-top, ugly, absolutely nerdy combat boots.
My buddy, Ron, had engineer boots. He was the most popular kid in our class. He was also the best athlete in the class, the quarterback during recess, and my best friend.
We always picked football teams at recess. And as we bent over in the huddle, Ron would tell me to go down on the right and then cut across the middle for a pass. And the whole time he was talkin’ in that huddle, I’d be looking down at my brown, two-buckles-at-the-top, ugly, absolutely nerdy combat boots and I knew . . . I knew I was going to miss that pass. (Jerry Rice couldn’t catch a pass in those ugly, brown combat boots.) And I remember saying to myself, One of these days, I’m gonna get me some of those cool, black engineer boots.
When I was growing up, doing the dishes was the blight of my life. My mom wasn’t careful at all. She thought nothing of dirtying two or three pans every time we had dinner. When she fried pork chops, that crusty brown stuff on the bottom of the skillet was almost impossible to get off. I guess my mom never heard of ‘de-glazing’ a pan, because after we ate supper, she’d walk by me working on a frying pan and say, “Keep scrubbin’. It’ll come clean with some work.” The tips of my fingers — all ten of ‘em — got wrinkled from having to do the dishes so much, when I was growing up. I don’t suppose it was child abuse for my momma to make me work like that, but at the time it seemed pretty abusive. She could have been more careful and considerate, I thought. When we had vegetables for supper, I just couldn’t understand why she’d cook the corn in one pot and the green beans in a different one. They were both vegetables. Why couldn’t she cook ‘em together, and save the labor of washing one pot? It didn’t make sense to me.
When I was a kid growing up, and we had spaghetti—and we had spaghetti a lot— and I had to wash the dishes by hand after supper, I hated the way the sauce turned the soapsuds orange in the sink. I hated the way the water ran out of bubbles before I ran out of dishes, too. And I didn’t like the way the dishwater got cold before I was finished with all the washing, either. I didn’t like the way my brother Dan dried the dishes. It seemed to me that he always left them a little wet. And I hated the way my sister—the littlest—never seemed to have to do the dishes as much as Dan and me. I wondered why couldn’t we eat off of paper plates, anyway? Why couldn’t we be richer and have an automatic dishwasher? Or at least, why couldn’t we have air conditioning so that if I had to do the dishes—the yuckiest, nastiest thing I could ever have to do—at least I could be cool while I was doing them? I still remember standing at the kitchen sink at 3019 Myrtle Avenue saying to myself, If I ever have any kids I’m never gonna make them do the dishes, as long as they live.
When I was a kid growing up, one of the things I wished for most … was to not be a kid, not be “growing up.” It seemed to me that it took way too long to grow up. I was sure God meant life to be more than humidity and dishes and orange suds in the kitchen sink. I didn’t get to have any fun. I never got to sit in the rain, like Richard Justice. I had to live on a street called Myrtle Avenue, of all places, and I had to wear combat boots.
I noticed that grown-ups like my grandpa never had to do the dishes. And adults didn’t have to eat their vegetables if they didn’t like them, either. And they could stay up as long as they wanted to and even go buy a house with air conditioning if that’s what they wanted. They were adults. They could do whatever they wanted.
Well, I’m a grown man now, with three grown-up sons and six grandchildren. The other night my wife made some wonderful spaghetti, with homemade sauce. After dinner, I said, “I’ll take care of the dishes.” I actually volunteered to do the dishes. I was proud of myself.
But then, as my wife was helping me clear the table, I heard myself grumbling about life and the particularly frustrating, difficult, challenging day I had experienced. I caught myself griping and whining like some child who’s tired and needs to go to bed. I loaded the dishwasher. Yup. We actually have a dishwasher. I put in the soap and turned it on.
But I still had a few pans to wash, so I filled the sink with water and added the dishwashing liquid. I had almost forgotten what it was like to do the dishes after you had spaghetti for dinner, and a really lousy day:
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; But when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Cor. 13:11)