Spain and Illinois: Home and back again

 

Jefferson_Street_Bridge_in_Joliet,_Illinois,_in_2008Some people would say that I live in vacationland. Sunny Spain…where the climate rarely disappoints you with a rainy day. History and culture, sun and sand or wine and tapas are your short list of free-time activities. Europe awaits out the back door. If I had unlimited “me” time and equally endless funds, I’d be touring my way across the continent, checking off one more country after each trip. And I would own a little place back home where I grew up.

Home. Sometimes a difficult concept to explain. I do feel comfortable calling Madrid my home. Last summer before departing on our separate vacations, a friend and I joined the terrace crowds downing cold beers and nibbling on delicacies like jamón Ibérico and Manchego cheese. A little kiss of Spanish flavors to linger with us as we traveled to parts of the world filled with a different set of customs and pleasures.

I was making a quick trip to the US to visit my cousin who was recovering from hip replacement surgery. My vacation wouldn’t be an exploration of new countries; it was an opportunity to revisit the core of who I am — my family and my hometown.

The rush of nostalgia I get seeing certain landmarks is as satisfying as the wonder I experience when sightseeing in a foreign land. Joliet, Illinois might not mean much to the world at large, but I walk into Dan’s Homemade Candies and I smell the autumns of my childhood celebrated with caramel apples or the arrival of spring marked by cream-filled, chocolate-covered Easter eggs. A dinner at Syl’s, just down the road in Rockdale, lets me wallow in local foodie delights. Their classic menu offers a variety of steaks, Ditka-style pork chops, poorboy sandwiches, frog legs, fried chicken livers and a plate of Adam & Eve (ribs and chicken) for the indecisive. Chicago’s famous stockyards may be long gone, but some Midwestern customs are not so easily abandoned.

Infamous Chicago legend Al Capone often took a break from the windy city to enjoy a show at Joliet’s Rialto Square Theater, a beautiful building of Greek, Roman and Byzantine architecture that opened in 1926. On the national register of historic places, the Rialto was saved from demolition when it underwent a six-million-dollar restoration back in the early 80s. And I am grateful. The jewel of Joliet continues to occupy its place in history.

Timeless, imposing structures built from Joliet limestone are scattered across the city. Joliet Township High School, nicknamed “The Castle,” is a favorite, and one of my dearest keepsakes is my mother’s senior yearbook from 1946. If I were to play armchair psychologist, I’d conclude that the strength and permanence represented by this early 20th century architecture give me hope that I will always have a hometown to come back to.

The city has changed over the years, and now casinos and raceways bring in the revenue once generated by limestone and steel. My eyes register the differences, but my heart allows me to conjure up the past that lingers. My father’s workplace disappeared when the stadium was built in 2002; however, the cheers of baseball fans don’t reach my ears. I still hear the rapid click of a little girl’s shoes on a cement floor as she runs helter skelter out of the sunlight into the noisy, dim interior of an auto repair shop to surprise her Dad.

Although my parents have passed on, many relatives and friends live nearby. Each face represents a page in my life. Every relationship helped form a part of me that has kept me grounded or pushed me towards adventure. I am running errands for my cousin and the familiar hum of the car’s tires as I cross a drawbridge over the Des Plaines river welcomes me. Memories rise up like mist off the water, and I think I hear my mother’s voice telling me stories of her youth while we are stuck waiting for barges to pass and the bridge to come down. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the shadow of a daring would-be suitor who used to dive off the bridge to attract my Mom’s attention. Her past. My present. The spire of the church where I was baptized comes into view. My mind clicks like a Nikon, storing each vignette to take back home again.

About the Author: Born and raised in Joliet, Andrea Isiminger inherited a love of travel from her father who took the family on two trips behind the Iron Curtain in the 70s to seek out relatives. She has lived in Argentina and currently resides in Spain.

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