Back when I went to St. Isaac's, we had a small "Thanksgiving Vacation" -- that is, we got a week off for Thanksgiving. So I happened to be home on December 1, 1958. I was 8 and a half. I remember my mom coming down to the basement where I was playing and giving me my coat. "We have to go to Aunt Elaine's," she said. I knew something was wrong. We walked together to Dempster Street and rode the bus to the city (my mom did not know how to drive until I was much older.} I remember we made a transfer, then rode the second bus.... my mom was crying. I rode in a daze.
We got off and walked a few long blocks to a scene of INCREDIBLE horror -- smoke, noise, fire engines, crowds -- and firemen coming down the ladders with CHILDREN in their arms -- I saw at least two dozen. They looked like they were sleeping. I remember thinking their clothes were dirty and wondering how they let them go to school with dirty clothes and faces. I clung to my mom. She was wearing a babushka (I remember her face SO clearly -- she was crying, worried, distraught and very beautiful. My mom was gorgeous in those days -- a beautiful brunette.) It was winter but I remember it was dark and dreary but not snowing... a terrible day.
We had moved to Morton Grove over two years before, but previous to that had lived in the city where we spent a lot of time with my cousins with whom we remained very close after the move. We lived at their house for the last few months that our house in Morton Grove was being built. During that time, my cousin Linda Ruzek and her neighbor, Jimmy Ragona, were my best friends -- and had been basically since BIRTH. Jimmy was a year older than me, and I adored him. We liked to pretend he was my "big brother." His mom, "Auntie Alice," was someone I adored -- she gave me my first lasagna and cannolis, and always had wonderful little Italian almond candies when I visited. Her husband was "Uncle Angelo" but we all called him Boppa. They lived on Trumbull Avenue, a few houses away from my aunt and uncle, Elaine and Clare Ruzek.
To this day I swear what I tell you now was TRUE and not a figment of my imagination. My mom was talking with a group of ladies when I saw Jimmy. He was dressed in a white shirt and tie. He was standing with a blonde girl, a little older than us, and she had long ringlets in her hair. He looked "very clean and bright" (I remember describing him later to mom and dad exactly that way.) Jimmy turned and waved at me, smiling. I remember asking my mom if I could go play with him and she bent down and hugged me for a long time and said "Maybe later." She was crying.
Well, long story short, I remember Auntie Alice crying, "That's ROOM 210... They're all from Room 210!!!" and my mom and Aunt Elaine hugging her and trying to hold her back. I had never before seen an hysterical adult.
It was later that I realized Jimmy was one of the children pulled from Room 210. I couldn't figure it out when they told me. "Why did he go back in?" I kept asking and they were all at a loss -- I think they thought I was so upset that I was confused.
I still and always will miss him. We used to pretend we were brother and sister and I clearly remember (about age 7 -- at my First Communion party) one time when another adult questioned whether we were really related (I guess we didn't realize we looked different) and Auntie Alice laughing and replying, "Why? You don't think she speaks Italian?" and then all of them laughing. For months after that, I went around speaking in weird syllables (Coachie otta tooie?" and stuff like that) so that people would think I spoke Italian.