Memories of a first job, a senior prom and a big, yellow convertible collide in this simple story that both touches the heart and tickles the funny bone. A look back to her earliest encounter with golf, the good life and a summer when everything changed. This summer coming of age story might trigger some memories of your own.
Return with Mary to 1971 — a time of tentative beginnings and equally uncertain endings.
By Mary Duggan
I grew up in a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago called Beverly Hills. Everyone calls it Beverly, to not confuse it with the sunshine, movie stars, and glamour of Beverly Hills, California. There are two country clubs in Beverly. One built for Protestants called Beverly Country Club. And one built for Catholics called Ridge Country Club. I have ten siblings and lots of us worked at the Club. I’m sure you can imagine which one. I joined the team at Ridge as a waitress. I started the day after my senior prom in June of 1971.
My mother had been pretty resistant to me waiting tables at Ridge and not because she thought it was beneath me. I pleaded with her each and every time one of my friends had gotten a job during our high school years. When my best friend became a candy striper at the local hospital, I just knew she’d end up married to Dr. Joe Gannon or some other Chad Everett look-alike and I’d end up with a life more like Hazel. I was inconsolable but my Mom was firm. She simply couldn’t do without me on the home front, as I was her most competent daughter when it came to the domestic arts of dinner on the table, laundry, ironing, sewing, housecleaning and the endless demands of taking care of “the little kids.” Please note that I don’t call it babysitting. Babysitting is what you got paid to do; granted, only 75 cents an hour, but you got paid.
With five siblings older than me and five below, I had missed out on any of the “chosen” status positions like eldest daughter or baby of the family that might have gotten me out of some of the work. I was such a happy kid, for the most part, that it took a number of therapists “helping me” before I came to think of my childhood as primarily indentured servitude, with a lot of Catholic schooling thrown in. In a lot of ways I enjoyed being my mother’s right arm – that’s how the neighbor ladies referred to me, in my presence – until I got severed at 18 and thrown to the wolves at Ridge Country Club to master the art of waiting tables. For all the skills I’d honed at my mother’s side, nothing had prepared me for waitressing.
I Had Connections and Used ‘Em
My mother finally cut the apron strings (and I was the one wearing the apron!) for the plain and simple reason that I had to make some money for college in the fall. I don’t remember going for anything like a job interview. So many of my six brothers were washing dishes and parking cars at Ridge that my memory goes something like this. My brother, Bill, walks into the manager’s office and says I have a sister who needs a job. Her name is Mary and she can start this weekend. Does that sound sort of Mob? The manager’s name was something like DeBenedetto, but the simplicity of the transaction relates more to the “Duggan Kids” having a pretty good reputation for being hard workers and a posting that the club was looking for summer waitresses. I “got” the job. I couldn’t believe my brother promised I could start the day after my prom.
Powder Blue Is Not Just For Funerals
Bill made up for that really bad timing by arranging for my two best friends and our dates to be picked up in a limousine and chauffeured throughout the city until the wee hours. This was not so much the norm in those days and it absolutely made the night. Bill had parked the car of Andy McGann of McGann Funeral Homes plenty by then and had the moxy to ask him if there was a limo not in use on Friday night. He made the case for his sister’s prom and Mr. McGann had a heart as big as Bill’s moxy. Bill was home within the hour grinning with the big news. Call your friends. You are all going to prom in a limousine, thanks to Mr. McGann. I was thrilled and a little bit freaked about the funeral parlor connection until it pulled up in front of the house and was powder blue: the same color as my friend’s tuxedo and not funereal at all. I have to wonder though if being so tired for the first day of my first real job didn’t set me up for the next eight years of being the worst waitress ever!
Double Shifts And Rainy Mondays
The best place to be a really bad waitress is a country club. It’s not anything like working in a real restaurant. Thank God for that or I would never have been able to afford college. I was scared and really shy at my new job. Being my mother’s right arm had kept me in super close proximity to my mom and she went mostly to church and the grocery store. I was a strangely sheltered kid, so this new job at the “Club” was a pretty big deal in my 18-year-old world. The kindness and protectiveness of the full time experienced waitresses and the fact that I was already a pretty well known commodity being just another Duggan really smoothed my way and set me up for a largely happy experience. I was used to working my tail off and that helped to. I worked so hard in fact all summer that there wasn’t time for anyone, myself included, to realize what a lousy waitress I actually was. Until they did, of course, but that is a story all its own.
Waitresses measure their worth, if you will, by how they do in tips. At country clubs you are not tipped. The cost of the servers is built into the overall expenses of eating for the members. Waitresses at Ridge worked two shifts a day, wearing white during the day and black in the evening, and they punched a time clock. My paychecks reflected how many shifts I’d worked, and I worked plenty of shifts, taking a short break in the late afternoon to go home and rest for awhile, shower, change to a black uniform and return to the club. On Mondays the Club is closed to members and open to the employees for swimming and golf. I was so sick of the Club by Mondays that I couldn’t imagine going there for my perk of being able to hang out there on my day off. Besides, about two days into my first summer at the Club, Judy in snack shop said to me, “I hate this piss hole. And don’t forget kid, it always rains on Mondays.” And she was right, about the rainy Mondays.
Shoe Polish, Paychecks And Mexicans
I learned lots about work from my time at the Club. From the older waitresses, I learned to make sure I never went on the floor without polishing my white oxfords. A room at the back of the Club, just beyond the kitchen had the time clock and big tables where we took our breaks, ate our shared dinner, got to know one another and polished our shoes. I remember the smell of the signature Country Club dinner rolls and shoe polish merging together like butter on bread to this day. Many of the waitresses were Irish immigrants with such heavy brogues that I had absolutely no idea what they were saying to me. Connected to the break room were the sleeping rooms for the Mexicans who washed dishes and maintained the grounds. Despite four years of high school Spanish, I didn’t have a clue what most of the Mexicans were saying to me either. I was too shy to ask either group to repeat themselves. I just kept showing up and working my double shifts and sleeping my Mondays away, dreading the arrival of fall and the departure of my entire gang of friends. At night I got home late and tired and joined my Dad in the living room, too tired to go out with my friends, even though it was, for all we knew, our last summer together. I was more concerned that it might be my last summer with my Dad and it was and so I am glad I hung with him instead.
I had never made any real money before and the pay at the Club was good; but, I had no real time to myself, so I put my paychecks in a drawer in my bedroom and never thought about them again. That is until I got word that the manager wanted to see me in his office. I was terrified. Maybe they had realized after all what a lousy waitress I was. Maybe the gravy train had pulled into the station. All he said when I entered his office was “talk to the accountant.” And so I stepped into an adjoining room, where she said, “Kid, what in the world are you doing with your paychecks? None of them have cleared the bank and it’s screwing up my books.” It had never occurred to me that they needed to be cashed until I would need them in the fall for school. I assured her I would take them out of my sock drawer and straight to Beverly Bank. I left the manager’s office relieved that my performance was not in question, only my money.
Good Byes, Good Grief, Convertibles And Sunsets
By the end of summer I was numb from too many shifts and the staid controlled sameness of the Club. It was always the same people, sitting and laughing with the same people, ordering the same food off the same unchanging menu. If I hadn’t felt sad, I wouldn’t have felt anything at all. The few times I hung out with my friends it was to watch them pack for their new lives in college dorms while I was staying home and going to the local branch of the University of Illinois. Even that was a concession on my part, me reaching past depression, making the effort to go anywhere at all. I had dreamed of going to Northwestern; but my folks had put the kibosh on that, saying there would not be enough money. I had great grades, and great test scores and had fulfilled enough leadership roles to impress any admissions board. But nobody had the will or the foresight to encourage me to reach for a scholarship or grants that were readily available. Everybody in my family was just too damn sad to care. More specifically, my parents were too damned sad to care and what with being the right arm and all, I had absorbed all that and given up as well. It’s funny how marriages that are ending dampen the spirits of kids who haven’t even started out in life. At least that’s what happened to me.
And so I worked myself ragged to pay for a college I did not want to go to at all, and hung out with my Dad for whatever time was left for us. My younger sister, Joanie, had joined the team at Ridge, as she was not the domestic goddess I was and my Mom was willing to let her get a job. Joanie made things much wilder at the Club, with her impeccable Spanish, her wildly flirtatious personality, and her absolute lack of fear. I remember the day she pulled the fire extinguisher off the wall in the kitchen and sprayed one of the busboys. It had always been that way between us, with her having all the guts and the adventurous spirit and me having the super not sexy Hazel the maid skill set.
That’s how I remember the summer passing. Even knowing what was coming I was not prepared for the grief I felt when I had to say good-bye to my friends. Luckily, the girl who worked the snack shop on the 9th hole of the golf course was heading back to her senior year of high school. So the manager moved me from the dining room with its steady run of luncheons and bridal showers and dinner dances and weddings and put me out on the golf course flipping burgers and steaming Slotkowski hot dogs for guys in outrageous outfits and shoes with cleats and pleats. I wanted to weep.
Actually, I did weep. There was a really sweet high school kid who had been assigned to do all of my busing for me; a big tall kid with a great heart and bad posture, he probably grew up to be a successful lawyer. He found me prepping the milk shake machine and I was balling. Between sobs I told him that my two best friends had left for college and how I couldn’t believe I had been such an idiot and not made a plan to go away to college and how I hated the country club and now I was working the snack shop in the middle of the golf course when all my friends were … You get the picture and so did he. That really blows, was all he said. But, he had my back that whole horrible day and he would run into the snack shop with dry eye warnings. McCarthy and three a-holes are on the 8th, you’ve got five minutes, that sort of thing and it got me through that first really bad day. And then I got to actually like the snack shop because I was cooking and running a kitchen and doing what I was actually great at, instead of waiting on tables, at which I stunk, on account of being a little bit deaf which no one figured out for years. And then I started college and worked the Club a whole lot less. But not before I totaled my brother’s car.
September 11th: Before It Got Ruined
It was IRISH DAY at the Club and they had a bagpipe band on hand. While he was in the snack shop taking a break, one of the musicians caught my eye, and I caught his and by the end of the day I was thinking this staying home for college thing might not be such a bad idea after all. The piper and I got to talking and figured out we would both be there again the next day so finally I had something to look forward to. The thing about the country club and the golf course was that it was really beautiful. Sometimes when the sun was setting on the course at the end of a picture perfect summer day it would take my breath away. Of course, the members ruined everything, but sometimes for just a minute, it was deeply romantic and almost too beautiful to take in. And the great thing about working the snack shop was that it was only one shift; a long shift, but only one with no requisite switch to black uniforms and shoe shining. At the end of that particular day, I was heading home with my sister, Joanie.
A number of my brothers were parking cars that day, because of the special golf event with the handsome bagpiper. My brother, Paul, was a great sport and handed us the keys to his pride and joy – an enormous yellow Chrysler convertible saying, ”Here, take it home. I’ll pick it up later at home.” He had a friend’s wedding to attend that evening and would look wonderful no doubt in his great big shiny yellow convertible; at 6’5” his enormous tall frame would fill it beautifully. I’d always been so proud of my brothers, about how Kennedy brothers handsome they were, and how smart and hard working. They’d always been kind to me and brotherly, I guess, is the only way to say it. I knew they were all destined for greatness.
The sun was beginning to set as we pulled out of the lot at Ridge. We were pooped and not having to take the bus sounded wonderful. It was a short drive from the Club to home – not more than a ten minute drive. We were anxious to get home, because there was a block party on our street. We’d grown up on the kind of block where neighbors were a lot like family and you felt really loved so it would feel a bit like a big family party; plus we didn’t want to miss out on the great food spread. But, we ended up not going to the block party that year.
Two blocks from home, a kid returning home exhausted from his own long summer hours of work did not see our sunshine yellow convertible in the bright rays of sun setting at our back. He plowed into Paul’s car, running us through the intersection, across oncoming traffic, over a mailbox and half way up a light pole. My head split open on the steering wheel, just above my left eye while Joanie went head first through the windshield, collapsing back onto the seat with a face and scalp full of tempered glass. Luckily all the blood covering my face made it impossible to see how messed up she was. We reached for each other, grabbed hands and assured each other that we were still alive. The next thing I heard was the familiar accent of Charlie, the Arab owner of the local donut shop. He had coming running from his store with a roll of paper towels in his hands and seeing us through the bloody mess said, “Oh my God, it’s the Duggan girls.”
That’s how small and special our neighborhood was. I could hear sirens and before they arrived a man’s voice saying, “I’m going to help you. I’m a firefighter. And stop crying, you’re lucky to be alive!” Of course, only I was crying. Joanie’s adventurous spirit was fully intact, bloodied or not. Within minutes I was being loaded into one ambulance, and Joanie into another. As they were closing the door, a neighborhood girl from 2 blocks away poked her head in and said something like, “Holy crap your brother’s car is so totaled. Don’t worry, I’ll go find your parents and tell ‘em what happened.” And she did, because again that’s what it was like back then. She found them at the block party and told them what happened and warned them. When you go by the car, she said, don’t freak. It’s totaled, but they’re not. And we weren’t. My Mom told us later they were glad for the warning. If they’d driven by the bloodied and mangled mess of that twisted yellow convertible and not been told in advance that we were okay they would have imagined the absolute worst.
The Longer and Harder Good-bye
That evening in the hospital is pretty much my last happy memory of my Dad being my Dad. He was being really insistent that the resident on duty would not be doing the necessary plastic surgery to reinstate my eyebrow. Despite the young physician’s protests that he was qualified to do the job, my Dad was firm that we would wait for Doctor “So and So” to arrive, who was a plastic surgeon and highly recommended. I wanted to die from embarrassment. You would think I was Christie Brinkley from the fuss my Dad was making about my face and how carefully he was protecting it. But mostly I remember my Dad defending the kid who drove us up that lamppost.
When the kid’s father arrived in the Emergency Room he began to rail. You idiot. I can’t believe you let this happen. You better not have said a word. Do you hear me? Not a word. I’ve got a lawyer coming. The kid looked completely freaked out and must have felt damn near as banged up as we were. He had run to our car at the scene of the accident and kept saying over and over. I’m sorry, I’m really sorry. His father walked in on him explaining to my Dad that he was just so tired and had been up for so many hours that he didn’t even see our car. The shut up idiot talk started immediately and my Dad could take it for just so long before he turned to the kid’s father and said, hey, take it easy on him. He’s been through a lot or something to that effect. I remember being proud of my Dad and his sticking up for the kid like that. The thing about having a Dad who’d been beaten up pretty badly by life, the way my Dad had been as a kid, is they carry a type of kindness towards kids and the whole being a kid experience with them for the rest of their life. Unfortunately, they also carry other demons – the kind that ruin marriages and cause otherwise good men to walk out on their kids and basically never look back. That’s what my Dad did a few short months later.
Forgiveness and Long Term Damages
I felt just awful about what had happened to my brother’s car. When you grow up in a family without much money you remain keenly aware of each other’s financial struggles for years to come. My brother went on to become a financial wizard, and a really wealthy guy who was able to buy lots of beautiful and expensive cars. He even became the President of the Country Club. But, losing that car at that time in life must have really stung; though he never said a word. Actually he said all the right words and assured me that all that mattered was that we were both okay. He was glad that the sheer size of the car had clearly protected us from even worse damage. Of course, the lawyers did get involved and whatever cash was paid out went to Paul for car replacement. I have no memory of what the new car was; but I will never forget that enormous yellow convertible and how it faded into the setting sun behind us.
Joanie and I spent a few days resting while our stitches healed, and then I started college. It was the beginning of years of headaches and stomach pain; but no one made the whiplash connection. Five years of chronic pain passed before my brother Tom took me for my first chiropractic adjustment. I left the appointment and went home for a 14-hour nap, waking up pain free for the first time in five years. Finally someone had returned my spine to its pre-car-accident state. And my lifelong dependence on chiropractic had begun.
My Dad left on a Sunday afternoon and the memory is so painful that I don’t even remember what season of the year it was. What I do remember is that I sat on his bed and watched him pack. He was crying and asking me to pray. Pray that I am doing the right thing, he said. I just don’t know if I am doing the right thing. But things had pretty much deteriorated so badly at home by then that some counselor or another had suggested that it might be better if my Dad just left. And so he did. My Mom gathered the few of us that were still around (most of the older kids had gotten as far from the home mess as they could) into the station wagon and drove us to our Aunt Betty’s house. Betty wasn’t actually our aunt; but she was my Mom’s oldest and dearest friend, and Aunt Betty to us. Patrick and Annie and Jimbo all piled on top of me in an enormous chair in Betty’s living room and watched a John Wayne war movie, too numb and exhausted to change the channel. No decent self-respecting child of the 60s would have watched that reactionary crap under any other circumstances; but I was too sad to care. I remember gazing at my Mom and Betty talking in the kitchen and wondered what could possibly be said about this not quite a death, but close, mess, while Clare, the youngest, wandered around oblivious to being a kid who was going to grow up without a father.
Any Port in a Storm, I Think
For the next eight years I tumbled in and out of the Club, whenever my cash ran low and no other jobs were around. Sometimes I would get really discouraged that college was taking so long – earn a quarter, study a quarter became my pattern of many years. One time I was feeling really sorry for myself and pretty much embarrassed about being back at the Club again, when Jane Tunney, the head waitress much-loved by staff and members alike, looked me in the eye and said ‘Any port in a storm, Mary. Any port in a storm.’ Or at least I think that’s what she said, because really I never got a handle on the Irish accent.
When I would get discouraged about life I would think about that bagpiper. Had anyone told him why I wasn’t at work the next day? Did he care? I knew word had raced through the Club the day I totaled Paul’s car. I am astounded remembering that I asked people at the scene to call Ridge Country Club and tell my brothers what had happened. Isn’t it strange that I asked for a call to my brothers at work instead of my parents at home? One by one my brothers came to the hospital, each one relieving the next so there would be full coverage in the parking lot for an event that night at the Club.
What would have become of me, I wonder, if I hadn’t crashed that beautiful day in early September? What twist or turn of fate? It’s become popular of late to consider from the vantage point of maturity what advice you would give to your 18-year-old self. I think back to 18, remembering how Jimmy the chef would sneak steaks and pork chops and chicken breasts into brown bags for us to take home to our Mom, saying these will not be missed here. We were strictly forbidden to tell anyone that our father had left; but I have to wonder if they knew at the Club.
In my minds’ eye I see that pair of swinging doors to the Club’s kitchen clearly marked: Caution IN and Caution OUT. I lived for and worried incessantly about my future then. I simply had to become a writer, and establish a brilliant career. I had to see Paris and Rome, the Eiffel tower and Arabian deserts, or what would I have to write about. I intended to fall dangerously in love, escape my parents’ doomed fate and live happily ever after. Much of that would come to be, the travel and careers and oh the falling.
But when I look back I don’t remember the Roman Forum or Amsterdam or croissants in a Parisian café. I remember the Club and all of us working there together. All of us striving for our future, never imagining how rough and tumble the journey would be; taking for granted the terrible beauty of then, and those heavy doors slapping us in and slapping us out again. I guess I would tell me at 18, surrender control and all those terrible worries. Rough patches lie ahead and amazing times, as well. Release your future to the Benevolent Force that flows beneath the grassy fairways of the Club, the boulevards of Europe and everywhere your life will take you. The stories you will write are out there carried along on that sacred flow. The same door that opens onto your future will welcome you home again. And your best and truest stories will be waiting for you there.
About the author:
Mary Duggan is Co-Founder and President of the Duggan Sisters.
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