Cautionary Tales of Old

3 Oct

Somehow, I think we’ve lost a great art form of the cautionary tale, to the realm of “let’s not upset the children!”

Back in the day, fairy tales were told to warn kids about dangers. Like going into the woods? A wolf might eat you. Strangers with candy houses? Might eat you as well. In the original Cinderella by the Brother’s Grimm, the stepsisters weren’t ugly – they were beautiful – but their vanity and bad attitudes turned them ugly. They may have also got their eyes pecked out during the wedding. Because they were horrible, and the point was that horrible things can happen.

We don’t tell such tales these days.

Which is why, when I start telling people about the cautionary tales my grandfather, a retired police officer, would tell us kids, in the name of safety, people clutch at their pearls and gasp at the horrors he shared with us as kids.

I never thought about it as scarring when I was seven and my grandfather warned us about the dangers of playing on railroad tracks – which is what you did as a kid growing up in the Chicago area because train tracks were everywhere!

“I remember that one boy…it was this crossing right here…” he’d say as we drove in the car with him through an obnoxiously normal Chicago neighborhood full of brick houses and chain link fences. “They were playing chicken with the train and he lost. We were picking up bits of him with a spoon for days.”

With a SPOON!

I was horrified and amazed at the same time. Which is different than traumatized. And his story made its point in my head – I never tried to beat a train. I knew what could happen.

“See this here? That’s where I hit my head when I got sucked under a train.” he’d say, pointing to the “hole” in his head.

He’d been six years old, the youngest of a large family full of daring older brothers who would hop trains for a free ride – the thing to do in 1920’s Chicago. My grandfather was the pesky little brother who wanted to keep up with the teenagers. His brother shooed him off. “Go home Ed! You’re too little!”

But he was hard-headed and tried to jump onto the train as well…and instead, got sucked under it. They all thought he was dead, including the railway guy who put a sheet over his still alive little body. My grandfather was unconscious for three days, and his brother was afraid to go home and incur the anger of their mother after thinking he’d killed his little brother. My grandfather, thanks to his hard head, survived, and his mother was more relieved than mad when his brother came home.

Life lesson there? Don’t be a bad example to siblings, and don’t try to hop onto a moving train or even get too close to one. They’ll suck you under. To this day, I stay behind the yellow line.

My grandmother was his equal in such tales. She was a big fan of the seatbelt before seatbelts were cool. Because – and again, we’d drive through the intersection as she’d tell me – when my mother was six years old or so, my grandmother was driving her, and as the car made the left turn in the very busy, four-laned intersection, the passenger side door popped open and my mother and her “life sized” doll both tumbled out. Well, the doll tumbled first, causing other cars to stop as my mother was tumbling out. My mother was mostly unharmed, thanks to it being winter, and my grandmother having sewn her quilted trousers.

Lesson there? Seat belts and padded clothing can save lives.

We also learned how my mother, as an infant, nearly choked on the seat strap of the high chair when she slid down (causing my grandfather to make a t-bar addition to the chair so she could never slide through again) and how we should chew carefully so we don’t choke on food, like my grandmother once choked on a fishbone (but was saved because her father grabbed her by the ankles and shook her as she hung upside down…a visual that’s stuck in my head forever.)

Okay, so maybe this is where I should also mention our family history of anxiety…but meanwhile, I continue the fine tradition of cautionary tales…

“Kids, wear your seat belts or I’ll tell you once more about my friends who were in a horrific car accident…seat belts save lives!”

My grandmother as a child, circa 1920's

My grandmother as a child, circa 1920’s – survivor of the Great Fishbone Incident


This is part of the 31 Days writing challenge…to find out more about it or read more from this challenge, check out the 31 Days page!

Once upon a time, on the South Side of Chicago…

2 Oct

I don’t quite remember how old I was, maybe seven? But I was given a Barbie doll as a gift. Not just any Barbie doll – Ballerina Barbie.

It should have been a great gift – I loved ballet, I loved dolls, and I was truly excited to get an actual real Barbie doll. Then, the truth came out – Ballerina Barbie’s crown didn’t come off. No matter what I did with her, she’d have to do it with a freaking fake gold crown on her head.

as found on Pinterest

as found on Pinterest

I was not impressed.

I was so not impressed that I didn’t really play with her. I mean, she was always wearing a crown. As much as I loved princesses and crowns and owned my own little tiara, the fact that her crown was not removable made Ballerina Barbie all but dead to me.

Meanwhile, life moved on, and we got a basketball hoop for the back yard. This was back in the day when you got the hoop, backboard, and pole – no nifty base to fill with water or sand. No, a hole needed to be dug, and the pole needed to be set with cement to ensure we wouldn’t knock it over (which, considering we probably spent more time shimmying up the pole instead of playing basketball, this was a smart move.)

We watched as our grandfather mixed a bucket of cement, pour some into the hole, set the pole into it. We also noticed there was leftover cement in the bucket. My grandfather dug a hole in the no man’s land that was the narrow space between the garage and the fence, and then he poured the rest of the cement into the hole, basically to get rid of it.

My brother and I eyed the cement.

“We should bury something in the cement.”

“Yes, but what?”

Then I decided to sacrifice Ballerina Barbie to this cause. I remember how we pushed her into the setting cement, feet first, by her cursed crown, until just the little points of plastic crown stood out. The hole of cement was then covered with dirt, sealing Ballerina Barbie in her cement tomb forever.

No, really. Someone in the backyard of my childhood home, this Barbie could still be there, buried, by two little kids of Italian descent.

Our neighbor’s son bought our house when my mom sold it years ago. So if he ever finds it…actually, I wonder if he has found it, since the garage eventually was replaced.

Well, at least they know us.

Wait…that’s not a comfort either.

I wonder if they found our pet cemetery as well…

I wonder if my mom even knows we buried Barbie in cement like good little mafia kids?

<waves to mom>

31 Days of Family tales


This is part of the 31 Days writing challenge…to find out more about it or read more from this challenge, check out the 31 Days page!

About a picture

1 Oct

31 Days of Family tales


This photo. This photo sort of sums up my childhood.

That’s me, with one of my not so great hairstyles, wearing one of my brothers hand-me-down baseball tees, making a weird face because my oldest brother made it a thing to make weird faces in photos. My grandfather is holding me while wearing the headgear for the Halloween costume I had desperately wanted that year. It was an inflatable pumpkin head that came with a pumpkin themed cape and green face paint. Bumpkin Pumpkin I think was its name.

There was a ghost one as well.

It was the late 70’s…maybe very early 80’s. It made sense at the time.

Behind us, what pops out at me are three things.

Thing #1 – the patio. The limestone patio that we created ourselves. My neighbors were building a new deck with fancy for our blue collar burb landscaping…built from railroad ties. Because it was the South Side of Chicago, you made loads of stuff from railroad ties. But in digging up their front yard, they kept pulling out limestone rocks – because, again, that’s what you find around the South Side of Chicago. Limestone. Everywhere.

My mom got this idea to extend the concrete patio with the limestone, as it was free from the neighbor’s yard. Sure, this only required my brothers and I to make 529 trips with our little red wagon from the neighbor’s front yard to our back yard. But then we got to play in concrete.

That’s a lie. No one would let us play with the concrete that time.

Thing #2 – the garage. The blue garage, painted to match the house. I guess it had been tan, but my mother soon changed that. It was a memorable house, because at the time, no one painted their house an outlandish color like light blue! I used to give directions to my house as “It’s the light blue house on 52nd Avenue.” – which would garner the response of “OMG, that’s you’re house?”


And I loved that big blue house with it’s white trim, boxy shape, and octagon window centered above the front door.

Thing #3 – the big maple tree in the back yard.

Okay, so now looking at it, it doesn’t seem that big. But it was. It grew as tall as the house, and at one point, kept the garage upright as the garage leaned over the years. As kids, my brothers and I tied a rope around the big branch and tried to climb up the tree that way. I made it to the first branch, which was pretty damn high considering how small I was at the time. Eventually, a good rope was secured, a tire tied to it, and we had a tire swing back there over the sandbox my mom built in the not-so-grassy part under the tree. Oh sure, it was really meant for the little kids, but we teenagers may have had too much fun on said tire swing. Which may or may not have resulted in us having to replace the rope.

That backyard was my childhood, where my story started. And my grandfather was the Master Storyteller, from which I learned so much, from how to crack an egg to how to check the oil in the car – and most of all, how to find the humor in anything, and that it was okay to be a little ridiculous.


This is part of the 31 Days writing challenge…to find out more about it or read more from this challenge, mosey on over here




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