Mind & Spirit

Janine’s Journal: Deep Roots, Strong Wings, & Laughter in the Walls

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I find great memories of my family in this old house, and I wonder if someone else will share that laughter when my family has moved.

Roots, Photographed by David C. Olson at Seward Bluff Forest Preserve. (c)

It was an act of faith when, in 1940, my young newlywed parents bought four lots “way out in a cornfield near the Rock River,” in what’s now the heart of Loves Park, Ill. Their families had been battered by the Great Depression; college wasn’t an option. Still, Hal & Naomi Huffman were full of American optimism. They saved up meager salaries, paid cash for the lots and built a modest home.

Their first child was 4 months old when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Disqualified from the military due to asthma, Dad went to work at an ordnance plant in Rockford. The fledgling community that would later incorporate as Loves Park rallied around the home front war effort.

Over time, the little house grew to accommodate four more children and a grandma. I was the last to arrive, in 1961. By then, the house was a hub of activity, not only for family and friends, but also for Rockford Newspapers, since Dad operated his own circulation business out of our basement. He coordinated zillions of paperboys, who delivered the Rockford Morning Star and the Register Republic. He nurtured many a young person’s first taste of American entrepreneurship, teaching each how to sell subscription “starts,” excel at customer service, collect and manage money — in short, how to become the kind of responsible and self-reliant person that he was.

I sometimes made trips to the Newstower with him, watching the great machinery print and bundle the papers. The pressmen fed me candy bars while Dad easily swung the heavy bundles into his truck. Then we were off to deliver. He had friends at every stop – the grocery stores, paperboys’ homes, factories, retail stores and, best of all, Lenz Pharmacy in North Park, where we’d enjoy pineapple malteds at the soda fountain.

At his funeral in 1995, our family was moved by the number of former paperboys who told us how Dad had helped them to become successful businesspeople. On his tombstone, we simply wrote: “He was a good man.” He wouldn’t have liked anything fussier.

This summer, I’ve overseen the dismantling of our family home of 70 years. Mom and her new husband are resettled into a lovely and age-appropriate new home. It’s not been easy for Mom, but she’s part of that Greatest Generation, known for its courage and good sense.

One of her Class of 1937 Harlem High buddies was known for good sense, too. We lost former Loves Park Mayor Joe Sinkiawic this summer. The son of first-generation Americans, Joe was determined, early on, to do something good with his life, my mom recalls. Indeed, he did just that, as the five-term mayor who accomplished what so few others have for their cities, even managing to abolish a city property tax.

Joe never forgot that he worked for the ordinary citizen. He work tirelessly and loved the fact that he left his city, upon retirement, better than he had found it. A book should be written about his skill as a public servant; much could be learned.

Like my folks, and so many others in Loves Park, the Sinkiawics could have moved to fancier neighborhoods long ago. But to people like them, the “best” neighborhood was the place where your friends lived. Together, they were Lions and Kiwanis, AMVETS, Harlem Band Boosters, softball coaches, Sunday School teachers and local merchants who served one another. No one had to remind them to “buy local;” it’s just what they did.

I write this the day after a big garage sale at the family homestead, where I found a silver-haired man picking up an old steel cash box. “That’s not for sale,” I said, snatching it from his hands. “I’m sorry, but it’s something that belonged to my dad.”

“I know,” he replied. “That’s why I wanted it. I was one of his paperboys – in the 1950s.”

In this way, my dad was rich.

Financially, my folks were not rich, but they were self-disciplined and knew how to save for what was important. They paid off their mortgage before I was born and put all five of us (and my mom) through college, without loans. They traveled all 50 states, much of it by modest travel trailer, in the early years. Dad didn’t own a credit card until old age, when he learned (to his GREAT disgust) that he couldn’t rent a car without one.

We kids grew up to lead happy lives as minister, teacher, police detective, airline pilot and journalist. All of Mom’s kids and grandkids, and one great-grandkid, showed up to help with the move and garage sale. More than a few tears fell.

Afterward, we threw a party and played games at my brother’s house. Being together always makes things better.
Mom says that her house of 70 years has “laughter in the walls.” I tell her that, because of the kind of home and community she gave to us, there’s laughter in our souls that no walls or roof can contain.

“This generation was united not only by a common purpose, but also by common values – duty, honor, economy, courage, service, love of family and country, and, above all, responsibility for oneself,” writes Tom Brokaw, in his 1998 book, The Greatest Generation.

Brokaw is so right-on.

There’s talk of a “next greatest generation” rising. If only we could face our new world with the same courage shown by the Greatest Generation – and without a world war to unite us. Wouldn’t that be something? ❚

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