Born into a West Park neighborhood in the mid-sixties, not far from where my parents grew up,
I’ve always felt a strong connection to my community. There’s something about your hometown that never leaves you—it’s in your blood. Even when court-ordered busing prompted my family to relocate a few blocks away, crossing over the border into Lakewood to avoid sending me to school clear across town, the feel of our new neighborhood remained the same as the old one. Same kind of people. Same close-knit community.
With age, my memory has become a bit murky, but flashes of my childhood still cross my mind intermittently—like fireflies against a pitch-black sky. It’s mostly the faces I see. Of the people who helped shape me into who I am today. Before I was old enough to be influenced by teachers, coaches and scout leaders, our neighbors are the ones who had the most impact on me. The grownups who looked out for me and the other neighborhood kids, to make sure we were safe, well-fed and learning the right lessons from a young age—often times unintentionally.
But let’s start with my parents. Thanks to them, growing up in Cleveland was about as perfect as it could be. They worked hard at providing for us, instilled a strong work ethic in all their children, and gave us enough freedom to embrace the joys of being a kid. They didn’t burden us with their adult struggles (even though we were at least partially aware of what they were), and they kept a close eye on us while still encouraging and respecting our independence. As a parent myself now, I know how difficult it can be to strike that balance. In the current culture of helicopter moms and “everyone deserves a medal,” it’s not easy knowing how and when to draw boundaries. My parents never had that trouble.
Looking back, I marvel at how easily and how often my parents simply refused us. Can I stay out past dark? No. Can I sleep over a friend’s house? No. Can I ride my bike to Impett Park? No. Long explanations were rarely given, and challenging the answer was a moot point.
There were times when we’d get a glimpse into the rationale behind their decisions. Every time we drove by Halloran Park—and I do mean EACH AND EVERY TIME—we’d hear the story of Beverly Potts, a young girl who went missing from the park and was never found. My mom would launch into a long lecture about stranger danger and gave us the impression that Beverly had just disappeared the day before (when in fact, her disappearance occurred in 1951, when my mom and dad were ten years old). I wonder how many times their parents had recited that same story to them.
One of the benefits of living where we did is that my parents didn’t have to watch out for us by themselves. It really does take a village, and our village was ready, willing, and able to step up to the challenge. For starters, there were plenty of city workers living in the area, especially police officers and firemen. If there was ever an emergency, everyone knew who to call.
The landscape of the neighborhood also lent itself to a cohesive environment. Our houses and yards were small, nearly on top of each other. That made it easy to hear your mom calling you for dinner . . . or to overhear one of the seven (yes, seven) kids next door getting grounded for flunking an Algebra test . . . or to spy the lady across the street who used to strip naked while she cleaned her hardwood floors. I guess you take the bad with the good in a tight neighborhood.
Many of our neighbors were like extended family, and we learned a lot from each other. My family is of German descent, so my mom loved to share her sauerkraut balls at Christmas time. The Italian family two doors down always had an extra spot at their dinner table, open to just about anyone, and the Greek family across the street introduced us to things like baklava and vasilopita (a traditional New Year’s bread that they’d hide coins inside for good luck).
I spent a lot of time with the Greek family. They had a daughter my age, her mom made the best fried bologna sandwiches, and her dad would take us to the West Side Market on Saturday mornings. That was a real treat for me, as my family only had one car, so we didn’t venture out much. While my friend’s dad shopped, he’d leave us at one of the stands where a woman named Marge would braid our hair and let us pick from a jar full of brightly colored plastic barrettes (something I’m sure the health department would have frowned upon, and which undoubtedly doesn’t happen today).
Beyond the neighbors that we knew by name, there were countless people that simply crossed our paths—random strangers that made an impression on me. There was the clerk at Oriole’s, a corner store on Fischer Road where we liked to buy candy, who couldn’t have been more forgiving when my mom made my brother and I return the gum that we’d stolen from his shelves. The woman who once rescued me after I fell off my bike—a turquoise Huffy with a white banana seat. I’d been riding alone along the future site of the extended Interstate 90 while they were constructing the McKinley Road exit when I wiped out and skinned my knee. A mom who had been riding with her own kids saw me crying and insisted on walking me home. Guess I’d forgotten about Beverly Potts that afternoon.
One of my most vivid childhood memories taught me an early lesson about the kindness of strangers. My mom was at the wheel of our brown Dodge Dart as we were driving along West 140th Street, going who-knows-where, when it started to pour. Frightened by the thunder and lightning that followed, my brother and I huddled together in the backseat with our eyes wide—no seatbelts of course. If Mom’s knuckles had been white, she never let on, choosing to distract us by playing a game of “motorboat.” She drove the car close to the curb, speeding through the puddles and splashing water against the windows. We squealed in delight and forgot about our fears—until the car stopped, died on the side of the road thanks to the influx of water flooding the engine.
A cell phone would have come in handy that night, but this was sometime in the late seventies. We were forced to knock on the door of a stranger, on a street that was dark and unfamiliar. I remember thinking how brave our mom was, especially as we were invited inside the home to use the phone and wait until our dad figured out a way to pick us up (remember, one car). The family who lived in the home had been eating dinner, two teenagers sitting on a sofa in front of a console television in the living room, eating chicken and coleslaw from Kentucky Fried Chicken from a pair of wooden TV trays. Their mom offered us drumsticks from the bucket, but we declined; too scared. But by the time we left, it was as if we’d made lifelong friends. The hospitality they’d extended us was exactly the same as any one of our own friends or neighbors would have shown under similar circumstances. That’s what you found in and around the Cleveland neighborhoods I frequented as a kid. Good, kind, community-minded people. Always willing to lend a hand.
I don’t live close by those neighborhoods anymore, and not all of my recollections are as detailed as some. They don’t need to be. They’re in my blood. And there are enough remaining landmarks to help jog my memory when I am in the area.
Gene’s Place where our high school senior breakfast was held before graduation.
The church at Kamm’s Corners where my mom owned a preschool, and the Center for Families and Children right next door where she went to work when we got a little older.
The Public House where I used my fake ID for the first time.
The Poor Clares Monastery—I’ve always been curious about what life is like inside.
St. Joseph’s Academy where my husband and I had planned to have our wedding photos taken until a torrential downpour forced us to cancel the outdoor pictures that day.
And most importantly, Fairview General Hospital, where both myself and my youngest child were born thirty-five years apart. That’s especially meaningful, as after I got married, I lived out of state for more than a decade. When given the opportunity to move back to the Greater Cleveland area in the year 2000, we jumped at the chance. The pull of HOME was too strong to resist. But even if the people and places I’ve named were all gone, they’ll always remain in my heart. My husband tells me that I light up any time I run into someone from the “old neighborhood.” He’s right. There’s a connection so strong, but it’s hard to describe. Our shared history binds us together forever, reminds me of a simpler time. Perhaps all generations feel that way—that their childhoods were less complicated than the times they grew into. Or maybe that’s just what happens when you become an adult. You see the world through a different lens, moving from a sense of freedom to obligation; from feeling safe to providing protection. And perhaps this generation will reflect back on cell phones, video games, and weekends packed with structured activities where everyone gets a medal the same way I fondly reminisce about neighborhood block parties, freeze tag and kick-the-can, staying out until the streetlights came on, and riding my Huffy through the streets of West Park.
Susan Poole is a mother, lawyer, nonprofit executive, breast cancer survivor, and aspiring author. She is a graduate of Lakewood High School, Baldwin-Wallace College and the University of Buffalo School of Law. She left the practice of law to raise her three children, all of whom are now young adults, and several of Susan’s essays about parenting have been featured on the popular website Grown and Flown. Susan is finally at a point in her life where she can also follow her passion for writing fiction—romantic suspense to be exact—and she has recently completed her debut novel, for which she currently is seeking representation. She and her husband currently live in Avon Lake.
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