Lillian Winsberg was Chicago born, the youngest of six children. She arrived on 11 December 1891 and must have liked a lot of what she saw because she stuck around for 96 years. Her father “was a peddler until I was about 12 to 15 years old, traveling up into Wisconsin and Michigan,” Lil wrote her son — my dad — in a 1975 letter. “When he discontinued that, my older sisters and brothers supported the family. They all went to work after graduating grammar school. I alone graduated from high school, then contributed to the family support.” We have a portrait of my grandmother Lil as a toddler, and a photo of her some years later, looking sweetly schoolgirl-ish on a sidewalk on Chicago’s South Side. Sometime between those two photos occurred a moment that never left her: she asked a child’s heartfelt question and received a father’s off-hand answer, two words he could never have imagined would cut so deeply that his daughter would repeat them to her granddaughter 75 years later. And 35 years after that, I am repeating them again.
She was 7 years old. She saw a tricycle in the window of a store. She trembled with yearning. She returned to the window many times. She worked up the nerve to ask her father if she could have it for her next birthday. He said:
She heard the words, not the inflection. Didn’t hear the sarcasm, the exhaustion, the utter impossibility of her request. Didn’t think of the eight mouths her father had to feed during a decade of depression that had encompassed her whole life, a decade fraught with unemployment, farm foreclosures, and labor strikes put down by federal troops.Didn’t consider that two of her sisters also had birthdays, one day before and one day after hers. When the tricycle disappeared from the store window, what would a hopeful child assume but that her father had granted her wish, that she would throw open the door on 11 December, and there on the sidewalk it would be?
The piercing disappointment of that morning lives on after more than a century.
Like many teenagers, I never thought beyond my grandparents being anything but old; that’s the way they had always been to me. I knew better, of course, but it took a story about a tricycle to force me to walk beside my grandmother as she was denied her child-heart’s desire.
“Grandma,” I blurted when she told me the story, “I will buy you the best tricycle there is — today.”
“You’re sweet,” she said, smiling at my preposterous offer. The tricycle, she mused, was her first lesson in how we sometimes must accept things we don’t understand.
Lil died in 1988, several years before my preschool-aged son became enchanted with a book called The Remarkable Riderless Runaway Tricycle, the story of a boy’s beloved tricycle that is mistakenly picked up as trash and taken to the dump. Magically, it comes to life and pedals its way across town, through danger and mayhem, making its way back to the boy.
At the time, my son was just like his great-grandmother, tone-deaf to sarcasm and improbability. He was also the devoted owner of a shiny red trike. For all he didn’t understand, he most certainly would have understood a girl who longed for the adventure of owning a three-wheeler and the thrill of seeing where it would take her.
If she had asked him for a turn on his marvelous tricycle, he would have said, “Oh, sure!” and waited with uncharacteristic patience while she, a different kind of “pedaler” than her father, pedaled and dreamed.
Published in Ancestry magazine, March-April 2010. Read the story in its original form.
© Ellen Notbohm 2009. Contact the author to reproduce in any way.