Category Archives: Born in Chicago

The Stocking: That’s Christmas Cheap and Cheerful

Opening the stocking in front of the fireplace on Christmas morning is the platonic ideal of Cheap and Cheerful. The fireplace is optional, of course, and my mother never made a Martha-ish ideal of hanging stockings as decorations – in fact they were actual socks, wool – one sized for my father and recycled into his wardrobe after the holidays. As we got older, my booty was stuffed into a pair of black tights and my brother’s into a pair of his own wool socks: two stockings, why not?

I can remember the invariables of every stocking of my childhood. The wide top bit might hold a copy of “Seventeen” and Yardley Glimmrick eyeliner – they were the variables, changing with every year and every interest. For Ian, it might have been hockey cards and licorice, for my little sisters, skipping ropes and headbands. That was the changeable top layer.

Here’s the never-changing bottom layer, from the toe up: a quarter, wrapped in tissue paper. (A quarter was serious currency for a kid in the early sixties. ) A mandarin orange, which was a piece of Christmas exotica back in the day in Quebec. Then there was the awesome orange: the foil-wrapped Droste chocolate orange that fell into segments when you tapped it on a tabletop. As an enormous fan of “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates” that Dutch chocolate orange put a silver stroke into my skating when we tried out our Christmas skates in subzero weather on Boxing Day.

Of course there was a big, I mean a foot-long, candy cane hanging over the lip of the Xmas Sox.

When my daughter was a girl the top-of-the-stocking might have included the new Beverley Cleary, a pair of earrings, or a Burt’s Bees lip gloss. The toe of the stocking was frozen in time: a quarter wrapped in tissue paper, a mandarin orange, a Droste orange, available from Walgreens or TJMaxx — the big old candy cane came from Fanny May.

A stocking may not be quite as cheap as it was when Honor was a nymph, let alone when I was a bookworm, but, adjusted for inflation it can be kept Cheap and Cheerful. Resist the sweet impulse to slip a blue Tiffany box under the copy of “Vanity Fair.”  The Christmas stocking top layer should be personal and, well, cheap.

If I still hung up a stocking, here’s what I wish Santa would grok. A cheap fun pencil sharpener. Two soft pencils. The ab fab Burt’s Bees Facial Cleansing Towelettes, worthy of its own blog post. Some fruit jellies in a tiny box.

But never forget the toe: don’t wrap up a dollar coin – a quarter is fine. Many firms make better chocolate than Droste, and you can send me a box for my birthday, but not on Christmas Day. And the fragrance, pressed against the Christmas morning nose, of the mandarin orange and the candy cane, is fifty cents worth of cheerful.


Filed under Born in Chicago, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, History, Holidays

All I Want for Christmas is my Left Bicuspid and Other Stuff

Actually, I’m not totally kidding here. My mouth is a dental nightmare and I lost my upper left bicuspid a year or so ago. I could get by in public with a “flipper,” a tooth on a wire and plastic armature, but somehow someone stepped on it and broke it in half (probably me) during the Thanksgiving festivities. It can still fill in the gap when I don’t want to appear in public as a Dust Bowl matron, but the rough edge hurts. All of you with good teeth: know how lucky you are.

But that’s selfish stuff. What I really want for Christmas is my Daddy at home after his therapy for his hip replacement, as vital and optimistic as he was before the Fall. I believe he will be.

It’s funny, the Christmas List devolving. Even ten years ago I could write: “Silver bracelet from Tiffany’s, Vol de Nuit, ____________ novel, silk jammies, new Cuiz. Although I’d still love any of those items, the sheer desire isn’t there. I own the jammies, the bracelets and still have a few spritzes of Vol de Nuit.

What I’d love is miles. Because we don’t own any credit cards we don’t have any miles, but oh! to revisit Paris and Rome. To discover for the first time Athens and Istanbul, to sunbathe in Antibes or Antigua.

When we were newlyweds and broke, we had season tickets to the Lyric Opera. Monserrat Caballe, Jon Vickers, Joan Sutherland, Placido Domingo — but we were a cheap el ride from the Opera House. In my wildest dreams of avarice I’d take a season subscription and the moolah to spend a night in a boutique hotel, dining with my Chicago buddies and drinking lots of Henriot champagne.

I want to spend most of February in LA with my daughter and son-in-law. I might just swing half of that, unless my neighbors get annoyed at the cat-sitting calendar. (And I wouldn’t blame them.)

You might have noticed that World Peace isn’t on my Christmas list. Well, pierced ears were on my list for ten years and Santa never took my mother’s hand and led her to the Piecing Parlor. It wasn’t gonna happen with earrings and it’s never gonna happen with World Peace, because the world has never been at peace.

My list is shorter every year. But y’know, it’s cheaper and cheerier.


Filed under Born in Chicago, Collections, History, Holidays, Home, Into the Mystic, Music, Worth it anyway

Pyrex: Pretty in Pink

Cleaning out my father-in-law’s pantry while we were in the Upper Peninsula this spring was moldy, musty, melancholy work. I can’t remember the oldest expiration date on the cans, though 1987 rings a bell. We drove home with some newish pasta and tinned tomatoes, but mostly it was toss toss toss. In retrospect, I applaud the integrity of the house’s construction: even after a long cold snowy winter we didn’t find any mouse raisins in the corners.

When we opened the pantry door my eyes went to these sweet lovelies as the eyes of a fifteen year old boy’s to the cover of Maxim. In that crowded, gloomy pantry they shone with cheerfulness.

Pink Pyrex!

Of course I own plain ole Pyrex: the pie plates, the loaf pan and a couple of “vintage” casseroles I inherited from my mother-in-law. These two bowls were hers, of course — thanks, dear Pat. I’m guessing they’re 50s vintage, but they’ve hung on to their good looks and good health. The smaller one is quart sized, the other twice as big. I’m sure there was another one, probably smaller. What was its fate, I wonder? Pyrex is hard to break. Did it go home with a long gone family member, filled with Thanksgiving leftovers?

Since I brought them home I’ve used no other other bowl to whip eggs in. I’ve moved the coeur a la creme mold to the back of the open shelf, the better to show off their wholesome rosy prettiness. The larger bowl is the size of the clear Pyrex bowl my mother used when she made Scotch Omelet of Aileen’s Pudding, a cakey pudding bathed in Lyle’s Syrup — hey I have that recipe somewhere! That pud was a dessert highlight of my youth, sweet syrupy and spongy . Talk about cheap and cheerful.

Pat’s pretty pink Pyrex bowl, my mother’s pudding  recipe. I like that. I can unite around the kitchen counter with two magnificent women, and eat dessert too.




Filed under A Couple of Bucks, Born in Chicago, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, Food, History, Home, Into the Mystic

When I Hear That Whistle Blowing

Unlike the Man in Black, when I hear that whistle blowing I don’t hang my head and cry. I snuggle deeper into my pillows and give thanks. It means I’m going to sleep.

Nothing, nothing works like the hoot of a train as a soporific. Not a hot bath, not chamomile tea, not warm milk (yuck) not a belt of bourbon. I’ve never been a great sleeper, and the older I get I suspect that’s because of my frantic dream life, which wakes me up exhausted and appalled. (Dr. Freud on 1.)

That whistle, that chugging  — my college friend Llyn said her father called it” TO Chicago FOR  tobacco”  is like intravenous Ambien. The long rumbling roll of the freight cars, that rhythm, the knowledge that life is going on and  and goods are being delivered to somewhere… I listen to it, under my Ikea duvet, and I sleep.

The EJ&E  tracks are about five blocks away, and mark the boundaries between the ‘Ville and Fermilab. The mighty CNR (Canadian National Railroad) bought the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern this year and the flap about it is wild. Because the CNR is running more trains through the EJ&E tracks, the city fathers are making them put up a sound-suppressing wall. The CNR is doing it, but my question to my ‘Villian neighbors is “For God’s sake, why?”

You nitwits, you’ll receive more train poetry and music. ” TO Chicago FOR tobacco. TO Chicago For tobacco. TO Chicago FOR tobacco.”  I want the chuggachugga as my last slip into the dreamland Great Beyond.


Filed under Born in Chicago, Free, Into the Mystic, On the Street Where I Live

Election Night Nosh

The night that Pierre Trudeau became Prime Minister of Canada is the first election night I remember. I’d spotted him early, because of an article in McLeans, and as a young teen I thought he was the coolest guy on earth — cooler than Stevie Winwood, cooler than Glenn Gould, cooler than Jerry Lee Lewis. He wore sandals into the House of Commons, sported a red rose in his buttonhole every day, and met up with John and Yoko when they did the Bed-In in Montreal.

It must be noted that Pierre Trudeau got Canada a constitution.

I can’t remember what we ate that election night, but I’m sure my mother served up a memorable meal — except that I can’t remember it . My parents were excited as I was, watching the CBC returns on the old  b&w.

I’ve never missed an election night since. I sat in the Student Union at McGill, eating soggy fries and seeing Hubert Humphrey go down. Carter, Reagan, Clinton, two Bushes, Obama. I realize that Election Night, while we’re watching the returns, joyful or disgusted, we’ve drifted into Election Night Nosh tradition.

It’s snackie night, clean out the freezer night, cheap cheerful food night. Because the coverage goes on and on, there’s a leisurely feel: it the news is bad, why not be in the kitchen frying up that half package of pot stickers from Trader Joe’s? If the news is good, you can run from the kitchen where you were making guacamole from a couple of elderly avocados. When things get grim, it’s just as well to be deaf over the stove, cooking up the end of a bag of frozen shrimp in a spicy sauce to throw over a bed of rice.

It’s like a low rent Oscar Night party. Thankfully there are no musical acts, no evening gowns, no comedians. But trust me, I care about a swing district in North Dakota more than I care about Best Director. Excuse me while I bite my nails and stir up a wok of fried rice.


Filed under A Couple of Bucks, Born in Chicago, Food, History, Politics

Bringing Out the Vote

(I swiped this image from my buddies at www. Thanks, guys.)

For reasons to long and twisted to enumerate here, after almost forty years in the USA I’m not an American citizen. It’s tough living in a country you love, being a political junkie, and not being able to vote. On Saturday a spritely voice on the telephone asked me to be a  part of a Bring out the Vote drive for our local Congressman. He’s a Fermilab scientist, a small businessman, and has been endorsed by every newspaper in Illinois, both liberal and conservative. His opponent is against a woman’s right to choose, whether it be rape, incest or losing her life. He has one high-profile endorsement: Sarah Palin. You wouldn’t think our guy’s seat would be in danger, but this year, it is.

I told the sprite, “Sure. Sign me up.” And so it was today that I was handed a map, and a list of voters registered to the party but hadn’t voted recently. That’s the Bring Out the Vote thing.

We met at a sympathizer’s house, who’d donated her garage to the Get Out the Vote people. We got a spirited role play from the dude in charge, instruction on the best way to roll and insert a flyer into a front door so it doesn’t fly away, and were handed a map, some literature , and a list of registered voters who haven’t dropped into a polling station for a couple of election cycles

Our largest paper demographic lived in the Woods of Wayne. The WoW is a square mile of the most outta control upscale new housing development I’ve ever seen. Now, it avoids the McMansion slur — the mansions are set on large, gorgeously landscaped lots, every house is different, and I can’t believe that there are still enough people in this economy with the moolah to set up Hallowe’en trees, to sport lions on their brick gateposts, and to avoid the vulgarity of streetlights. (Wayne is horsey, by the way. A horse trailer snuggles up to the Porsche in the circular driveways.)

Then we crossed Smith Road, and not two hundred yards away were sixties split levels, rusty pickup trucks and guys in Goth teeshirts opening the doors — I think they borrowed them from their grandsons.

Here are a few observations:

1) Tha larger the house, the smaller the dog.

2)The pricier the neighborhood, the less likely the existence of streetlights.

3)Even the wrong side of Smith Street was poorly lit.

4) If a voter’s age is listed as fewer than twenty-five years, they’ve moved out of the house.

5)You can understand, talking to the parents, why their kid’s decision might have been a protest vote. Trust me.

6) It gets dark early in Illinois in November. What with the zero streetlights,half of your shift consists of backing up and trying to make out an address on a mailbox with your brights on.

7) New evidence to reinforce a cliche: Midwesterners, if you can find their houses, are polite.

The details were annoying. (“Is this 336 or 384? Where are the damn streetlights?) I’m shameless in asking strangers to do something that’s important to me — I’m never shy about this. I loved seeing a part of my county, close up, that I never knew existed. But you know, here’s the thing: even though I can’t vote, I could be part of the process. It makes me cheerful.


Filed under Born in Chicago, Free, History, How Cool is That?, Worth it anyway

Aprons: The Keith Richards and the Missy Monster of the Midway

Did I tell you that my sister-in-law Patty sent me a sampling of her artisinal tags to attach to my aprons? She and my friend Kim both pointed out that when they buy an apron to give as a gift, it would be a bright business idea to include a card that announces my business name — Magz Rags — and, say, an email address should the recipient want to give me  an order. I packed up two aprons today and admired the cards, attached with black ribbon. Then a strange irresistible urge came over me : I picked  up a pencil and wrote the model name on the tags. They were “Lady in Blue” and “Sweeties and Sage.” I’ll be posting pictures after Patty receives them. (Hope you like them, Babe!)

I’ve never made the same apron twice, because it keeps the design process fresh and allows me to indulge my appetite for new cotton prints. (Of course it also allows me to personalize an apron for my Apron Patrons — thank you Patrons!)  Their individuality has always made me nickname them in my head “Birdies and Budweiser, ” say, simply to remind me of my inventory. Henceforth, I’m naming each apron as if it were an expensive handbag, like a Kelly or a Birkin.

These two aprons are made on spec, just for fun and with hopes that the prints would resonate with potential Patrons. I listened to Terri Gross interview Keith Richards yesterday and the fun of that interview reminded me that I had a few yards of rocker cotton. Here’s the Keith Richards apron:

Lou Zoolander doesn’t know who Keith Richards is. Sigh.

Here’s the reverse. I love skulls and roses and I added some rock star glam with my beloved gold rickrack,


The Missy Monster of the Midway needs no explanation from any Chicago Bears Fan. Here’s the Monsters side:

The Bears’ navy and orange color scheme appalls me, but it goes well with the cover of the Scriabin Etudes sitting on the music rack. Here’s the closeup:

The pink calico eyelet Missy side is self explanatory:

(A Bears fan can get a discount on Missy Monsters of the Midway because the pink side  isn’t dark enough to completely block out the Bears aggressive color scheme. But it’s pretty. Let me know.)

My husband just asked “How the hell can you write so much about aprons?” Easy, really. I don’t like cooking without an apron. I like to sew. I love that I’m never, ever making the same apron twice. And sometimes, Dear Husband, someone send me a check.

And now I have the writerly, frivolous fun of naming each of my “batter-proof, butter-proof” babies.



Filed under A yard of fabric, Apron of the Day, Born in Chicago, Needlework

Lunch With Friends

It was sure cheerful — we embraced in the parking lot. It was free, for Jayne and me, because Gretchen picked up the tab. We ate ate at newish Italian joint in Winfield where the food was good, the service terrific, and no one seemed impatient to dislodge us from our seats. I think that’s because they were eavesdropping.

A Girlfriends Lunch, with real true friends, is something I don’t know that men experience. Guys, even with their oldest buddies, I imagine aren’t as ready to share as much personal stuff on the micro level as women are — there’s always some alpha dog theme happening. (Gentlemen: Please correct me if i’m wrong.) I meet my friend Kat Butler at least once a year for lunch — her daughter Mary Claire and my Honor went to preschool together. Holy shit, we’ve known each other and loved each other for thirty years. We don’t paddle around in the kiddie pool  of our lives when we get together, we dive into the deep end .

And so was it today. Let me introduce you to two women you would love to lunch with. I met them when I was working at the giant payroll company Paychex. (PAYX) It was the job for me that was FAIL: not because many of my clients didn’t love me (including WBEZ, the awesome Chicago Public Radio station) but because I don’t have the kind of brain that can care about the SUI laws for fifty states. Gretchen sensed this, but she was a great, great boss. She found a couple of things I was good at,like writing and training, and made sure I had a chance to prove myself. A terrific mentor, a woman with a mind like a steel trap, and an incredibly generous friend. She also has a complexion that I can reliably compare to a ripe peach.

And then there’s the divine Jayne Waite. She was a model in her youth, and is still one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met.

She was once married to an actor and raised her two daughters in LA — and she can dish about Sharon Stone. But she doesn’t. She’s returned to her Naperville roots, remarried a Midwestern guy, raised two cool daughters and — if I may pull out a tired cliche — is even more beautiful on the inside than she is on the outside. And yes, she loves to fish.

I’m so honored to have lunch with these three women. And Gretchen, Jayne and I have set up a First Thursday lunch date. I’m gonna nag and make it happen.


Filed under Born in Chicago, Food, Free, History, The 'Ville

Family History: One Degree From Al Capone

I love the six degrees of separation thing, because I believe it. On the McArthur side of our family I’m one degree from O. Henry, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman — my great-grandmother went to her grave deploring Whitman’s personal hygiene. And that’s just one degree of separation!

On the Rovai side, I’m one degree from Al Capone, and he might have eaten from the old set of Limoges Troy pattern I set out on the table for holiday dinners. We inherited it from Lou’s great-aunt Lucy Ronga.

Lucy was married to the dapper and debonair Dr. Ronga, whose office at 1208 W. Lexington in Chicago was two floors down from the flat we lived in when Honor was born. My late father-in-law Joe Rovai was a staunch member of the American Italian Anti-Defamation League, and one of the most honest, clean-living men I’ve ever known. He spoke of his dapper uncle with emormous pride, and acted as his chauffeur, when he was eighteen, in that gorgeous Packard convertible to Ravinia and the Lyric Opera  to treat the thoats of Caruso and Galli-Curci. Joe adored his impeccably tailored and generous uncle, and it’s taken his children awhile to get the real deal on his dude.

He was the doc to the Chicago mob. His daughter Anna married Frank Nitti, Capone’s capo.

And Joe never, ever mentioned the mob connection. Surely he knew about it? Was he just fed up with the idea that if you were Italian-American in the twenties and thirties and hailed from Chicago, you had to be mobbed up? The haughty Tuscan Rovais deplored this stuff, but Nonna’s Neapolitan relatives were pragmatic.

Joe spoke fondly and often of his across-the-alley dear friend Johnny D’Arco. They’d go to Sox games together, swim at the 12th Street Beach, and Johnny drove my mother-in-law to the hospital an hour before my husband was born. Could Joe really have been so loyal, so upright, so blind to not have known that his best boyhood buddy went to jail on crime charges? John D’Arco Sr., the immensely powerful First Ward Alderman. And Joe never, ever mentioned the mob connection. Surely he knew about it? Was he just fed up with the idea that if you were Italian-American in the twenties and thirties and hailed from Chicago, you had to be mobbed up? I found this tonight.,cst-nws-mob23.article

I think Johnny D’Arco was one of Joe’s groomsmen, as well as the reason my husband wasn’t born at 1208 W. Lexington, but at Presbyterian-St. Lukes. It haunts me: Joe must have known, but from pride, loyalty and his own honesty he never let on.

I’ll air the McArthur/Moss laundry sometime soon.


Filed under Born in Chicago, History

Meet the Neighbors: Today’s Photo Shoot

Our next door neighbors, the Simpsons, have been our friends since the day they moved into their brand new house twenty eight years ago. A  Higher Power has blessed us: they’re still here! We’ve raised our kids together, landscaped several times,attended what seems likes a century of Parent’s Nights, prayed our children into the driveway after they got their licences, and have performed more than a quarter century of mutual cat-sitting. The Simpsons  know more about us than anyone but our parents and children.

If you’ve seen my apron photos of Lou looking handsome, but bored and glowering, you’ll understand why I thought I’d spare him the necessity of modelling my backlist — all those aprons lurking in the linen closet in the times before Facebook. Because, if I ever get an apron business plan together, I vow to use only fabulous “real” people as models I set up a session for today at noon with the Sensational Simpsons. I tell you, I’m a genius! Not only is their house two gallons of Windex cleaner than mine, but they actually got into the process! With Lou it’s stand-and-shoot. The Simpsons discussed shots, props, and they actually smiled.

This is a small sample of the pictures I took today — I want this to be about them, not my aprons. I’d love a modelling agency to spot this and sign them all up. Let’s start with Charlene.

She’s an inspired decorator, still the Kool Aid Mom, and she’s holding prop tomatoes from her garden. The UPS truck seems to stop every other day to deliver a piece of genealogical evidence, she’s such a great housekeeper that I swear she could make soup in her toilet, and so help me, her garden has rooms. Here’s a charming little sliver along the side of her house, all marigolds and those tomatoes.

A couple of you have asked what a Ball Apron  looks like. This is close, but not frivolous or lacy enough.

Char always gets it, always understands. I’m not half the woman she is.

Shake hands with Big Dale, and that is one firm handshake. He’s a Vietnam era Marine, a retired cop with twenty years in, a teacher and a role model to his kids’ male friends. His day job is making sure that the atoms at Fermilab don’t overheat. He’s the straight- up skilled, endlessly kind neighbor of your dreams. He’s been taking classes with his daughter at Sur la Table, and I know his knife skills must be fearsome.

I love this menu Charlene prepared for their last family dinner party:

This is a man whose masculinity is so secure that he didn’t mind posing in this:

He might have preferred the cowboy verso:

(Great gams, Big D!)

I could write a book about Little Dale, and someday I may. I’ve known him since he was four, and he was my daughter’s partner in crime and friendship until the politics of third grade boy/girl stuff separated them for awhile. Honor totaled one car when she was in High School. Little Dale pushed his parents’s auto premiums as high as cornfields in August.  What Little D always possessed, and still does, is a ton of charm. He teaches college level Anthro and Archaeology now. Charlene and I have a collection of first day of school pix of Honor and Dale heading for yellow  bus. Here’s the 1990 edition:

Little Dale (as tall as his father now,) had, um a late night. Here’s his big boy self, refreshed with a samurai attitude and a breakfast beer. God, I love this kid.

The reverse:

Obligatory kitty photo:

I was one lucky photog today. Christina swung by! She’s the daughter of the house, a florist, a gardener, a mother and so gorgeous that restraining orders were taken out on some of her high school boyfriends. Like her brother, she possesses ridiculous amounts of charm and smarts. Here’s the verso of the “Ball Apron.” Another member of the Simpson tribe is due next week.

If I were religious I’d use the” Blessed” word for whatever prompted two young couples to buy adjacent lots in the ‘Ville, and hang in here. And Lou has some serious competition in the high fashion  world of  apron modelling.


Filed under Apron of the Day, Born in Chicago, Collections, Free, Home, Into the Mystic, On the Street Where I Live, The 'Ville