It was the Saturday morning after my first week of third grade in Des Plaines, Ill., about 20 miles west of Chicago, when I woke up to the sound of the vacuum cleaner. Mom was busy vacuuming, dusting and arranging extra chairs around the dining room table. I got up to see what was going on. She was getting out the highball glasses and fancy bowl from the china cabinet.
Instead of breakfast she made cream cheese and green olive sandwich loaf, but it was not for us. It was for the “company.”
Dad was busy washing the front door window and then sweeping the front walk. I was recruited to polish silverware and then wash the china bowls.
By evening, our house was spotless and imbued with a feeling of electric anticipation. The china bowls were filled with assorted candies and mixed nuts, then strategically placed around cut glass ashtrays on the table.
Ten minutes after 8 o’clock, the doorbell rang. A fashion show of aging Italian ladies began their procession: red lipstick, black nylons, gauzy dresses of black crepe and fancy red-lace ruffled blouses. The Chicago ladies — Mom’s sister, aunts and great aunts, her relatives from the South Side — had come into the suburbs. They brought their loud voices, red-painted fingernails and the scent of Chanel No. 5. Mom took their mink stoles and wool wraps. The gin and tonics were poured and the chattering ladies took their places around the table.
My older brother Bob and I perched at the top of the stairs to watch the proceedings. Soon smoke from their Marlboros and Chesterfields wafted up the stairs as we looked down through the banister to see Mom in the uncharacteristic role of dealing cards for poker. The betting began. Green dollar bills and silver quarters piled up in the middle of the table, but by 9 o’clock the excitement settled down into some serious card playing, and the rhythm of shuffling and stacking cards was the only sound we heard. Then, quiet “ooos” and “aahs” during the play, broken by abrupt laughter and feigned distress as the winner scooped up the pot.
The women drank their sloe gin fizzes and whiskey sours and their talk got louder, punctuated with swear words. We loved it. We tried hard not to giggle and give ourselves away. Bob and I went to sleep by midnight, but the card party merriment continued and we were intermittently awakened by abrupt, uproarious laughter.
The next morning our house was imbued with remnants of cigarette smoke and perfume. It was quiet and felt surprisingly tranquil. I woke up Bob and we tiptoed downstairs to see what goodies might remain from the great party. Wow! There was a feast: potato chips and dip still on the table, a heaping bowl of bridge mix, half a bowl of butter mints and a fancy bakery box half full of little Italian cookies. We helped ourselves to a breakfast of booty. Mom would never suspect as long as we didn’t eat it all.
What a thrill it was to spy on the great card party and witness the Chicago ladies having such an uproariously good time. Then the delight of waking up in the morning, feeling the residue of excitement and enjoying the delectable confections left over from Mom’s magnificent card party.
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