Tag Archives: growing up in Chicago

The Pink Lady

When I was growing up, my mother’s cocktail of choice was a “pink lady.” Whenever our family went out for dinner (and those dinners-out didn’t happen often), she’d order a frothy and very rosy-hued “pink lady” while Daddy chose an “old-fashioned.”

My parents weren’t everyday drinkers. Au contraire. My mother would sometimes speak disparagingly of those who indulged overmuch in alcoholic beverages, referring to them as “shikkers.” Although Daddy may have had an occasional drink at home after a difficult day at work (probably bourbon or another kind of whiskey), Mom never did. She reserved her pursuit of alcohol for our occasional dinners-out.

One dinner spot we favored was the Fireside Restaurant in Lincolnwood, Illinois, not far from our apartment on the Far North Side of Chicago. (Ironically, the restaurant was itself destroyed by fire–reputedly by mob-related arson–a few years later.) Another place we patronized was Phil Smidt’s (which everyone pronounced like “Schmidt’s”), located just over the Indiana border.

Why did we travel to Indiana for dinner when good food was undoubtedly available to us much closer to home? And long before an interstate highway connected Chicago to Northern Indiana? I remember a prolonged and very slow trip on surface streets and maybe a small highway or two whenever we headed to Phil Smidt’s.

Perhaps we wound up there because the restaurant was a perennial favorite among the people my parents knew. Or perhaps because my father actually enjoyed driving. Yes, Daddy liked getting behind the wheel in those long-ago days before everyone had a car and the roads weren’t jam-packed with other drivers. Daddy got a kick out of driving us in every direction from our home on Sunday afternoons, when traffic was especially light. But I also remember his frustration with drivers who didn’t seem to know where they were going. He referred to them as “farmers,” implying that they were wide-eyed rural types unaccustomed to city driving.

Perhaps we headed to Indiana because my parents were overly enthusiastic about the fare offered at Phil Smidt’s. As I recall, the place was famous for fried perch and fried chicken. I usually opted for the fried chicken. (At the Fireside Restaurant, my first choice was French-fried shrimp. Dinners-out seemed to involve a lot of fried food back then, and oh, my poor arteries.)

If we were celebrating a special event, like my mother’s birthday or Mother’s Day, Mom would wear a corsage. I’ve never been especially fond of corsages, which were de rigueur during my high school prom-going days. Boys would bring their dates a corsage, and girls were expected to ooh and aah over them. But I always thought corsages were a highly artificial way to display fresh flowers, and I rejected them whenever I had a choice. I’m glad social norms have evolved to diminish the wearing of corsages like those women and girls formerly felt compelled to wear.

Mom, however, always seemed pleased to wear the corsage Daddy gave her. Her favorite flower was the gardenia, and its strong scent undoubtedly wafted its way toward her elegantly shaped nose whenever he pinned one on her dress.

The “pink lady” cocktail, which incorporates gin as its basic ingredient, first appeared early in the 20th century. Some speculate that its name was inspired by a 1911 Broadway musical whose name and whose star were both called “The Pink Lady.”   It may have become popular during Prohibition, when the gin available was so dreadful that people added flavors like grenadine to obscure its bad taste.

The cocktail evolved into a number of different varieties over the years. Mom’s frothy version, around since the 1920s, adds sweet cream to the usual recipe of gin, grenadine (which provides flavoring and the pink color), and egg white.

Apparently (and not surprisingly), the drink eventually acquired a “feminine” image, both because of its name and because its sweet and creamy content wasn’t viewed as “masculine” enough in the eyes of male critics. One bartender also speculated that the non-threatening appearance of the “pink lady” probably was a major reason why it appealed to women who had limited experience with alcohol.

No doubt Mom was one of those women.

The very name of the cocktail, the “pink lady,” fit Mom to a T. She was absolutely determined to be a “lady” in every way and to instill “lady-like” behavior in her two daughters. I was frequently admonished to repress my most rambunctious ways by being told I wasn’t being lady-like. And when I had two daughters of my own, decades later, despite my strong opposition she still repeated the same admonition. She found it hard to shift gears and approve of her granddaughters’ behaving in what she viewed as a non-lady-like way. Although her basic sweetness, like that of her favorite drink, predominated in our relationship, we did differ on issues like that one.

The appellation of “pink lady” fit Mom in another way as well. She was a redhead whose fair skin would easily flush, lending a pink hue to her appearance. Whenever she was agitated (sometimes because my sister or I provoked her)…or whenever she excitedly took pride in one of our accomplishments…and assuredly whenever she was out in the sun too long, she literally turned pink.

So here’s to you, Pink Lady. In my memory, you’ll always resemble the very pink and very sweet cocktail you preferred.

Our Trip West: A Memoir

One summer during the 1950s, the thing I cared about most was our family’s long-anticipated “Trip West,” the road trip we’d mapped out for the last two weeks of summer.

Departing from our apartment in Chicago one hot August morning, we crossed the Mississippi River and entered Iowa, the first state west of Illinois. As our eyes drank in the not-yet-boring sameness of the Iowa cornfields, my mother suddenly had an urgent question. Where was the garment bag, filled with four brand-new outfits, that she’d left hanging on the bedroom door? She didn’t remember putting it in the car.

Sure enough, when we stopped for the night, the garment bag was nowhere to be found. My parents, in their haste to leave, had forgotten to take Mom’s bag. The result? Mom had one dress to wear for the entire two-week trip.

Imagine. Two weeks in August in one brown-and-white hound’s-tooth-checked rayon dress. We scoured store racks from Sioux City to Sioux Falls searching for another summer dress for Mom. But by the last two weeks of August, even the least trendy stores in the least trendy parts of America had NO SUMMER DRESSES left.

By Salt Lake City, Mom was resigned to one more week of the hound’s-tooth-checked number and finally stopped looking. We were all happy to end the search, enthusiastically thanking Providence for Mom’s underactive sweat glands.

Our trip included adventures in the Badlands, the Black Hills, and Yellowstone National Park. But the highlight for me happened when we arrived at the town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The town was not yet the “in” resort it has since become, but its mountains were already attracting skiers. And that summer I rode the Snow King Mountain chair-lift 4,000 feet to the top. By myself.

Driving through Jackson Hole, we’d noticed a sign promoting the chair-lift ride to the top of Snow King Mountain. Daddy stopped the car and got out to take a look. The rest of us followed, watching chairs whizzing up the mountain from where we stood at the bottom.

Somehow our signals got crossed because I hopped on one of the chairs thinking that Daddy was going to hop on the very next one. As I blithely began to go up the mountain, I suddenly heard loud voices. I turned around to see my parents, still at the bottom of the mountain, waving their arms and shouting. I couldn’t make out what they were shouting, but I got the idea: Daddy had decided not to ride the chair lift after all, and I’d made a big mistake to hop on when I did.

I faced forward again, realizing that it was too late to get off. The chair was moving fast, and if I tried to dismount, disaster might ensue. So I sat back and feasted my eyes on the spectacular scenery. Chicago never looked like this.

When I reached the top of the mountain, I was startled by a man who emerged from a small structure, took my photo, then pulled me off the still-moving chair. Shouting “YOUR MOTHER WANTS TO TALK TO YOU,” he thrust a telephone receiver into my hand. Calling from the bottom of the mountain, my mother frantically demanded to know if I was all right. After assuring her that I was fine, I hung up, and the top-of-the-mountain man helped me mount a chair going downhill.

As I descended, I realized how very high I’d climbed. I could see all the way down the mountain to the tiny town below, and it finally sunk in just how far I could fall if I slipped out of the chair. Luckily, the rest of the ride went smoothly.

When I landed safely at the bottom of the mountain, my parents rushed to greet me, my mother smothering me with kisses. I wondered why they’d been so worried. Now, a mother (and grandmother) myself, I no longer wonder. Seeing one of my young children whisked up a 7,808-foot mountain, all alone, I would have panicked too.

With the Jackson Hole episode behind us, our family explored Colorado and Utah before heading home. By the time we got to North Platte, Nebraska, we were sure our Western adventures were over. But we were wrong.

We dined at a local steakhouse, figuring on an uneventful walk back to our motel. But when we left the steakhouse, the air was swarming with hundreds of enormous locusts. Unaccustomed to seeing any insect larger than a horsefly, we were shocked to see hordes of gigantic bugs zooming through the air.

We ducked and began running, collapsing in the bug-free atmosphere of our motel room. But it was too early to proclaim victory over the insect world. As Mom began to undress (yes, the brown-and-white hound’s-tooth-checked number), a locust emerged from the vicinity of her bra and began to fly around the room. We all screamed till Daddy did what was expected of 1950s-era Daddies and got rid of the thing. It took us a while to settle down to sleep that night.

We returned to Chicago and our routine existence. But the memories of our Trip West never faded. A reminder arrived in our mailbox a few weeks later: the photo of me, in the chair-lift, at the top of Snow King Mountain.

Among my favorite memories are those of my travels, starting with those I took with my parents so long ago. I’ve gone on to travel to many parts of the world, and I plan to keep on going. Inside me is a little girl on a chair-lift, eager to be transported up the mountain one more time.

High Heels Are Killers

by Susan Alexander

I’ve long maintained that high heels are killers.  I never used that term literally, of course.  I merely viewed high-heeled shoes as distinctly uncomfortable and an outrageous concession to the dictates of fashion that can lead to both pain and permanent damage to a woman’s body.

Now, however, high heels have proved to be actual killers.  The Associated Press recently reported that two women were killed in Riverside, California, when a train shoved their car into them as they struggled in high heels to get away.  The car got stuck on the train tracks when the driver tried to make a U-turn.  The women emerged from the Honda and attempted to flee as a train approached.  A police spokesman later said, “It appears they were in high heels and [had] a hard time getting away quickly” as they tried to run on the gravel surrounding the train tracks.  The women were 18 and 23 years old.

Like those two women, I was sucked into wearing high heels when I was a teenager.  It was de rigueur for girls at my high school to seek out the trendy shoe stores on State Street in downtown Chicago and purchase whatever high-heeled offerings our wallets could afford.  On my first visit to such a store, I was entranced by the three-inch-heeled numbers that pushed my toes into a too-narrow space and revealed them in what I thought was a highly provocative position.  If feet can have cleavage, those shoes gave mine cleavage.

Never mind that my feet were incased in a vise-like grip.  Never mind that I walked unsteadily on the stilts beneath my soles.  And never mind that my whole body was pitched forward in an ungainly manner as I propelled myself down the store’s aisle toward the mirror on the wall.  I liked the way my legs looked in those shoes, and I had just enough baby-sitting money to pay for them.  Now I could stride pridefully to the next Sweet Sixteen luncheon on my calendar, wearing footwear just like all the other girls’.

That luncheon revealed what an unwise purchase I had made.  I was stranded in a distant location with no ride home in the offing, and I began walking to the nearest bus stop.  After a few steps, it was clear that my shoes were killers.  I could barely put one foot in front of the other, and the pain became so great that I ultimately removed my shoes and walked in stocking feet the rest of the way.

After that painful lesson, I abandoned my high-heeled shoes and resorted to wearing more “sensible” lower heels.   Sure, I couldn’t flaunt my shapely legs quite as effectively in lower heels, but I managed to secure male attention nevertheless.  Instead of conforming to the modern-day equivalent of Chinese foot-binding, I successfully fended off the back pain, bunions, and corns that my fashion-victim sisters have suffered in spades.

In recent years, I’ve noticed the trend toward even higher heels, and I grieve for the young women who buy into the mindset that they must follow the dictates of fashion and the need to look “sexy.”  All around me, I see women wearing  stilettos that force them into the ungainly walk I briefly sported so long ago.  TV and movies have surely fostered this trend (witness “Sex and the City”).

When I recently sat on the stage of Zellerbach Hall at the Berkeley commencement for mathematics students, I was astonished that most of the women hobbled across the stage to receive their diplomas in three- and four-inch-high sandals.  I was terrified that these super-smart math students would trip and fall before they could grasp the document their mighty brain-power had achieved.  (Fortunately, none of them did, but I could imagine the pain that accompanied the joy of receiving their degrees.)

The deaths in Riverside demonstrate an even more dramatic problem.  When women need to flee a dangerous situation, high heels surely handicap their ability to escape.  How many other needless deaths have resulted from hobbled feet?

When we celebrate the Fourth of July, I urge the women of America to proclaim their independence from high-heeled shoes.  If you’re currently wearing painful footwear, bravely toss those shoes and shod yourself in comfy ones.  Your wretched appendages, yearning to be free, will be forever grateful.

[A version of this commentary previously appeared as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.]