On Harrison Avenue, on Rockford’s South Side, between 11th Street and 20th Street, lies an otherwise unassuming horseshoe road. One end is called “Congress” and the other, “Senate”, though where one ends and the other begins is a point of contention from a motorist’s perspective. Lining these streets are inexpensive, conjoined, cookie-cutter homes built near the end of World War II. Welcome, dear readers, to The Victory Homes.
The Victory Homes played a very important role in my early life. In the South-Western most home on Senate drive, lived my Grandma Alberts and my Great-Grandma Webster. They resided in the only home that was, I was told, specially permitted to be modified in any way. As such, their home sported a sizeable addition that no other in the complex could boast.
Abutting the property to the South was a large, undeveloped, hilly meadow with copses of trees throughout for good measure. In the back yard was a natural drainage valley, about six feet deep and fifteen feet across from apex flat to apex flat, as well as ancient trees which gave the place a sort of mystical feel when considered as a collective with the aforementioned.
This home, for as long as I could remember, had been referred to as ‘Two Grandma’s House’. This made explaining to a young child exactly which grandmother you were off to visit more simplistic and, I reckon, that’s how it initially came to be called such.
My Grandma Alberts was an amazing, fun, loving woman. I miss her every day of my life. I remember visiting there with a fondness I seldom hold on to with regard to other destinations. Besides, ‘Two Grandma’s’ always had Brach’s Royals candies which, to this day, still remind me of her.
Her housemate was my Great-Grandma Webster, who also had the distinction of being her mother. She was the more feisty of the pair and, while many recall her as elitist and sometimes abrasive, I can honestly say that I can’t recall a thing about her that I did not love nor revere. Well, okay: she liked to cheat at cards when she played with me. Other than that: nothing. She also had the odd distinction of being the first person who I ever met that had lost a finger. I remember being astounded that someone could lose a finger – endure all of that pain and mess – and still survive to tell the tale. I was fascinated with its absence – an absence she attributed to a machine having sheared it off in her young life as a working woman.
Looking through photos one afternoon with her, I was mesmerized by a particular one. It was composed of a proud, stalwart woman who stood, hair blowing in the wind, in front of a sod house, surrounded by endless flat lands in all directions; to the horizon and, presumably, beyond. In her arms she held a swaddled baby as a second, slightly older, child stood next to her. This photo, I was told, was taken in Mitchell, South Dakota – her one-time home, and also famous for being the home of the “World’s Only Corn Palace” – an absurd sort of monument that I finally made it to see in person a decade ago. When I stood in its shadow, considering it from many angles, I also took in the town in which it resided, surrounding it; wondering what it must have looked like back then – back when she had been here – as I tried to stave off tears borne of fond memories of her before her passing, and communion with roots that I seldom was privy to know.
Great-Grandma Webster had been a descendant of Clan Donegan, before her marriage changed her surname. A portrait of her at sixteen that hung in their mutual abode showed a stunning beauty whose beguiling face was underpinned with a clear note of defiance and self-worth. I don’t know where this portrait ended up, but it’s the single thing that I can honestly admit that I covet, and would desperately love to have in my home as a fond reminder of this amazing woman who made such an impact on me as a child. Even at an early age she treated me not as a child but as an equal. It was oddly liberating. To this day, I still owe my middle name – Donegan – to her proud Irish lineage. My first name, too, is Scottish/Irish in origin. The day she passed on was one of the saddest moments in my entire life. In the here and now, I wish desperately that I had interrogated her for every story she could recollect. I know, with clear certainty that her life’s story was an amazing one. If you have someone like this in your life, that you are fortunate enough to still have among the living, do this. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll learn about who you are, vicariously.
My Grandma Alberts, on the other hand, lived on into my teenage years. Still, while Great-Grandma Webster passed at the age of ninety-two, Grandma Alberts passed far sooner, at the age of seventy-two.
Over my late grade-school summers, I would be taken each morning to stay with my Grandma Alberts as my parents went to work. Often we would sit and talk, as she told stories about her youth, her time as an employee of National Lock, and the youth of her sons and daughter. My father and his sister, Debbie, were her last two children born to she and LeRoy Alberts (who, sadly, committed suicide very early on in my father’s life). Prior to this, she had married a man named Coffey, and fathered two boys, Bill & Bob. These were my father’s older, step-brothers. There was a fifth child, Pam, who died in childbirth. My Aunt Debbie’s second daughter is named in her honor.
The Victory Homes had a cooperative hall and anachronistic park in the center, bridging the two roads. I remember being in that hall for a number of family functions. My fondest memory, however, was the evening my Grandma took me there to play bingo with her. I later learned that she had procured specific prizes just for me, in case I won, and had seriously cheesed-off some of the tenants in the co-op when she mentioned that she was bringing me. I only recently realized what the big deal was: these folks were playing for REAL prizes (including money) and a kid yelling ‘bingo!’ for a Bugs Bunny bicycle license plate, while possibly adorable, also queered their efforts at prize winning. I bingo-ed twice that evening and, now, understand all the dirty looks that we were given. In that moment, however, I was a grand-champion.
Living in some of the homes were other kids of, or around, my age. For a time, in fact, my cousin LaVaughn lived with her mother, my Aunt Debbie, in one on the Northern stretch of Congress. As such, we often rode bicycles and played together. We’re still dear friends, even to this day. And she is a phenomenal touchstone to a youth much forgotten.
The homes themselves were laid out in inverse ‘blocks’. Each ‘block’ encompassed a communal green space where the children could play, mostly because the majority of the back yards were woefully diminutive. Within my Grandmother’s ‘block’ were Hayley, Greg, Tonia, Stacey, Jason, and a cast of other children who I made friends with, and who often sought me out when I was in residence. Stacey always tried to kiss me but, at that age, girls were still icky. Tonia, her older sister, was – and still is – my cousin LaVaughn’s best friend. She is also someone whom I keep in constant contact with today via social media, despite her current Texas residency.
Through the field, and a few blocks over, lived my Grandma’s brother, Joe, and his wife Pat. As I grew older I would, on occasion, make the walk to their home for no other reason than to hope to hear an amusing story about my ancestors. Joe and Pat considered themselves the bearers of the genealogical torch in our family and I’m thankful for their efforts because it was otherwise – often times – confusing, difficult, or esoteric.
The church that my Grandmothers attended was St. Edwards on Eleventh Street, where my father also attended school. St. Edwards served the Irish-Catholic community and was my ‘home’ church, even though it was something of a drive. Father Murphy baptized me there and was much beloved to me as one of the few Priests who made sermons interesting, as well as humorous. It made church more tolerable to a youngster and every Sunday I thanked him in my mind. Both my Great-Grandma Webster, and my Grandma Alberts after her, kept house for Father Murphy, which was part of the reason that my Father was permitted to attend school there, even though they were not technically in the Parish. Father Murphy was a truly amazing man who was loved by all who knew him.
Often, if we had been good during church under our Grandmother’s care, my brother and I were treated to Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch. Often times, my Great-Uncle Don Webster would join us at my Grandmother’s home for said lunch. Other times, he would come over after services for coffee cake and conversation. I learned so much about my family during those few hours of fellowship. Don and his wife, Dolores, were also the proud parents of one Dan Webster, who went on to become a much-sought after Hollywood Art Director. His extended string of hit films include ‘Glory’, ‘Home Alone’, ‘Date Night’ and, most recently, ‘The Life of Pi’ (more on him later.)
I realize, now, how singular and unique these homes were. Their unusual layout spawned a different kind of neighborhood dynamic that I am thankful that I was permitted to be a part of. As per usual, the things I learned, and the friends that I made there still impact my life to this day. And I cannot imagine any greater reward than that.
Below: My Great-Grandma Webster playing pool | LaVaughn & I at Easter in the Victory Homes