Memories of a Chicago Winter

From my damp, but otherwise cozy roost in the Northwest, I listen to the weather report from Chicago, look at the pictures of the icicle-laden remains of a burned-out buildings and remember.  This memory is for you.

A New Year’s Message, Chicago Style

New Years’ Eve, 1945, and I was invited to spend the night with a school friend I didn’t really know. But then I didn’t really know anyone at the private school I’d been sent to a few months earlier. I was twelve and not exactly a social butterfly. Neither was Ellen, which is probably why she picked me for that night no one can spend alone. I was excited all the same, and even more excited because she lived near the top of one of the fancy high-rise apartment buildings on the lake—buildings whose windows glistened in the morning sun. I’d never been inside such a building, though I was born and raised in the neighborhood behind them.

New Year’s Eve dawned bitter, raw, with a sky that barely cleared the towers. The gold handles of the crystal doors were cold and slippery. The gilt and mirrored elevator rose and rose, depositing me at a door carved in oak and cosseted in pillars. Ellen answered the bell, eying me uneasily, as though wondering why I was there. She led me, with only a glimpse of plastic-covered damask loveseats and brocade draperies, down a hall, away from the lake-facing windows, to her room.

There was no one else home. Ellen was an only child. Her parents were out, and the maid had left to spend New Year’s at some lower elevation. We got cokes from the empty white kitchen. There was no food—no popcorn, cake or other New Year’s goodies. She wasn’t allowed food in her room.

When we were back there, Ellen shut the door on the rest of the apartment. We turned on the radio and listened to the local storm warning before turning to the New York station to wait for the dropping of the crystal ball. Guy Lombardo filled the long arc of time, Guy Lombardo and the rising wind. Rain started. It didn’t strike the leeward windows of Ellen’s room, but the howl of wind between the towers drowned Lombardo’s happy chords.

Only when we opened the bedroom door to get more cokes did we hear the hammering of ice against the lakeside windows. Only then did we cross the white carpets, pass the plastic-covered couches to look out across the raging waters of Lake Michigan, blurred already by the coating of ice on the panes. The room was cold, as though the heat from the basement furnaces couldn’t rise so high. A blast of ice struck the panes, driving us back. We retreated to the bedroom.

Finally, the ball fell, and we could go to bed, each in a satin-coated twin on either side of a flounced dressing table with a crystal lamp. I lay sleepless, wondering what had landed me here, alone among absent strangers with a girl lonelier than I had ever been. I listened to the moan of the wind between the towers and the machine-gun static of the ice against the windows beyond the bedroom door.

We woke to the wind and the rattle of ice-crusted branches far below. We were still alone. Ellen’s parents were stuck somewhere by the storm, as was half the population of Chicago. We looked out the ice-glazed windows at the gray expanse of water and then down at the spray of crashing waves forming ever-growing towers of ice on the rocks. Sun flashed on crystal-coated trees that bent in the wind, sending showers of diamonds into the air.

I wanted to go home. I wouldn’t wait for her parents; I would walk home. It was only a couple of miles, and I always walked. My family had no car; few did in those war years. I was going to go, wind or no wind.

The elevator dropped me to the lobby, but the gilt and crystal doors would not open. The wind held them fast. The doorman pushed. I pushed. The icy wind struck back like the voice of God. But saying what?


We are with you, all of us who have shared Chicago winters. Those are memories that last a lifetime.


One Response to Memories of a Chicago Winter

  1. Deb Borys January 29, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

    Thanks for sharing, Judith. In today’s world, the parents would have been in trouble for leaving a 12-year-old home alone, don’t you think. So interesting to think how things have changed.

    I want to hear more, though. Did you end up having to go back upstairs because the doors were frozen? Did you and Ellen end up being friends or fade into infamy? At the very least, you should expand this into a great short story by making up answers to the many questions this piece stirs up.

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