Spending my first 11 years living on Chicago’s near north side (1952-1963), I often travelled with my parents and siblings to central and southern Wisconsin, which offered myriad options for a modestly priced family summer vacation. Some of my fondest memories are of trips to the Wisconsin Dells.
In an album holding the first photos I’d even taken, black-and-white square glossies with zigzag white borders, I see our young family riding the famous Ducks, an amphibious boat-car vehicle that started on land, did a stint on still waters, then hourly returned its 18 soaked passengers back to the dock.
I’m also reminded by photos of us kids feeding the deer. These were friendly, tame fawns that would literally eat out of one’s hand food that could be purchased from a nearby gumball-like dispenser for 5 cents a handful. Those were family vacations that stay near and dear to my heart.
At home, I shared a bedroom with my younger sister. In true 1950s style, everything on her side of the room was identical to the décor on my side. Our lightweight tan-colored dressers with six white wide drawers and skinny metallic handles matched. Our pastel-colored chenille bedspreads were the same. Her small vanity mirror was exactly like my mirror.
The only items in our room that didn’t match were the blankets on each of our parallel narrow twin-sized beds. Hers was plain navy blue with a subtle stitched edge. Mine was Army green with “Deb” stitched on it in darker green thread done in perfect cursive in the center of the blanket. I felt a bit sad for my sister for being cheated out of her own personalized blanket; even though I sometimes bullied her; I never taunted her about not having her own special blanket like I had.
On one particular sweltering July night, I had difficulty falling asleep. Likely, it was the stuffy summer air in our not-yet-air-conditioned two-story home that kept my preteen body tossing and turning. My parents always kept a dim light on in the hallway for us, and on that particular night, the reflections from that light were more of a distraction than a soothing facilitator of instant sleep.
I created ways to entertain myself while waiting for sleep to arrive. That night, I made a tent out of my green Deb blanket. When I looked at my blanket, as the hall light shone through, I was in total disbelief at what I discovered. I noticed tiny holes where stitching had once been after the “b” that made the blanket spell “Dells” rather than “Deb.” I finally fell asleep that night.
In the morning, I asked Mom and Dad why my blanket had those little holes after my name. I really don’t remember their response. They never said they bought the blanket.
But I know they never admitted to taking home this “souvenir” blanket from a small motor lodge in the Wisconsin Dells, much the way people sometimes feel entitled to returning home from a vacation with a motel ashtray or towel, complete with insignia and recognizable logo.
When I became a mother, in the mid-1970s, many of the things from my childhood home found their way into the home I shared with my family. The tan-colored dressers with the wide white drawers and matching mirrors become mine, and for a while, I think I kept those ugly chenille bedspreads.
But I so wish I could remember what happened to the Deb blanket. If serendipitously I might come upon it at some yard sale or resale, I know I would not think of it as something that might have been acquired unlawfully, but rather as a sentimental family heirloom that I would pass along to my children and grandchildren.
In 2008, our large extended family spent Mom and Dad’s 60th wedding anniversary at a water park in the Wisconsin Dells, a wonderful fun nostalgic time, and really, the last time that large group was together.
On recent train trips on the Empire Builder Amtrak route, I learned that one of the stops just north of Milwaukee is the Wisconsin Dells. As I look out the window on this train, which stops literally right in the middle of the main drag through the Dells; my brain does a quick flashback of all the heartwarming family times.
And a smile comes to my face when I think about the lullabies and bedtime stories that the Deb blanket was part of.