“Mrs. Yanstrom”


It was bitter cold and the thermometer read 3 degrees. Lincolnwood, Ilinois stood under the freezing hell of a Northern Illinois winter. In the Harkness home, frozen icicles formed on the six pane windows. Fog obscured the view outside. The upright, red brick house was a fortress heated by an ancient gas furnace that pumped dusty hot air into rooms with leaky doors and creaky oak floors.

Just east of McCormick Blvd, the square and rigid village of Lincolnwood (established 1940) billed itself as “10 minutes north of downtown Chicago” with “the lowest taxes on the north shore”. Smug, snobbish, insular, uptight, unfriendly—it shared none of the aesthetic loveliness that graced such lakeside arbor towns like Winnetka or Glencoe. Instead, it featured yellow brick ranches on square lots with crew cut shrubs. An ugly, concrete entombed artery , Lincoln Avenue, cut a diagonal scar across a land of rectangles and closed mindedness.

Hal and Marsha Harkness and their two young boys had moved to Kilpatrick Street in July 1965. They liked the clean streets, the fine schools, and the safety of Lincolnwood. Hal, an account executive at Doyle Dane Bernbach, worked downtown and figured he could get on the Edens and exit Ohio Avenue in perhaps 15 to 20 minutes.

On the first day of July, the day the family moved into their two-story Georgian, a stern middle aged red haired woman with piercing blue eyes, and glass clippers knocked on the front door. Mrs. Harkness, her young son Adam in tow, opened the door.
“Mrs. Harkness?”
“Yes?”
“I’m Mary Ann Yanstrom, your neighbor. How do you do?”
“Oh, just fine. A little frantic. Would you like to come in?”
“No. Thank you. I just came to let you know that that I have just planted some orange marigolds on the side of the house.”
“Oh. That’s nice.”
“….and boys love to trample flowers. It’s happened before and I don’t like it.”
“Thank you. Well, nice meeting you Mrs. Yanstrom.”
The door closed.
* * * * *

Lincolnwood had once been farmland. During the depression, the mayor got a grant from the WPA and planted thousands of elm trees throughout the village. Well to do Chicagoans, mostly Irish Catholics and Germans, moved into Lincolnwood. They built imitation English cottages and colonial, boxy, all brick houses. Restrictive housing kept the undesirables out. After World War Two, the Jews moved in and shook up the architectural landscape. They constructed ranch houses with diamond ornamented garage doors, bi-levels with hygienically clean front lawns. Weeds, trees, dandelions were extinguished.
In the winter, the snow fell on Lincolnwood. Within hours, driveways were shoveled, walkways cleared, salt was poured. By Lincolnwood law, no household could leave its sidewalk un-shoveled.

In the spring of 1967, the rains and the violent thunderstorms pushed their way across the upper Midwest. Tornadoes tore out Chicago’s negro south side, ripped down houses, businesses and trailer parks in other areas of Chicagoland. But solid, stone- faced Lincolnwood survived every storm in stolid gracefulness. The power stayed on. The windows never cracked. The composure of the population remained composed.

In the summer, the humidity and the heat made the outdoors a jungle. Inside almost every home in Lincolnwood, the windows were pulled shut, the shades and drapes were drawn closed. The awnings unfurled. The air conditioning went on, and the entire village hummed a song of somnambulant coolness.

The fall came and the leaves fell. Vast armies of Mexican gardeners and village elders brought out rakes and crammed the debris into steel drummed waste-cans. Red, gold and yellow leaves stayed on the branches for just a week or so. Later, they fell down on the sidewalks and lawns and were buried for eternity in bonfires.
# # # #

Mrs. Yanstrom lived behind the closed shutters of her yellow brick Georgian house. She had two sons: grim faced, buzz cut fascists who wore short sleeved button down shirts with the tails sticking out. They had blonde hair and green eyes and walked from car to front door, front door to car, never uttering a hello or good-bye to the Harknesses.

For five years after the Harknesses moved to Kilpatrick, Mrs. Yanstrom never once opened the white shutters that covered her living room windows. The Harkness boys, Adam and Gary, grew up and turned 10 and 8 respectively. One day, Gary, got on his bike and rode across Mrs. Yanstrom’s marigolds. It was an accident. Gary was retarded and didn’t know any better.
Like the sudden invasion of the German army into Poland which instigated World War Two, Mrs. Yanstrom and her two boys poured out of the house and chased Gary off of the flowers. Gary, frightened and confused, pedaled his bike away, hit a bump on the sidewalk ,flew off and bumped his head on the sidewalk. He was bleeding and crying.

Twenty feet away, Mrs. Yanstrom and the boys picked up the injured marigolds and poured water on the bruised leaves and flower petals. Mrs. Yanstrom angrily eyed her flowers and shook her head in disbelief. Her black Rotweiller, Heinrich, crouched mournfully over the ruined flowers.

Meanwhile, Gary ran into the house, holding his shirt- sleeve against his bleeding eyebrow and crying.
“Mommy, mommy, mommy!”

# # # # #

At the May 1971 Lincolnwood Town Hall meeting, Hal Harkness got up to speak in front of the Board of Supervisors.
“My name is Hal Harkness and I want to say I don’t think they should be allowed to build a bridge over the sewage canal where Pratt Avenue meets McCormick. “

“Why? Are you against the bridge, Mr. Harkness?”
“It would bring too much traffic into the town. I have two children and I’m afraid for their safety.”
“Me too!” other voices piped up with objections to the new bridge.
“But wouldn’t it free up traffic on Devon and Touhy Avenues?” asked Mrs. Cohen.
“Sit down you idiot!” yelled Fred Hayman.
“You don’t have any children!” shouted Selma Frank
“You want coloreds in Lincolnwood? Just build more bridges, and they’ll come in and rob you Mrs. Cohen!” cautioned Phil Azzuto.
The Board voted against building a bridge. Lincolnwood still had half of a moat protecting it against the city of Chicago.
# # # #

In the winter of 1975, Hal lost his job. At the same time, young Gary was entering adolescence and becoming increasingly unhinged. Retarded, but seized with the onslaught of hormonal messengers attacking his every nerve ending, Gary went on violent rampages and broke glass, dishes, railing banisters. He pulled the toilet out of the floor. He overturned a fish tank and laughed as the glass and guppies died on the green shag carpet in the den. He lit a fire in the kitchen trash. He pulled the telephone out of the wall. He dragged burning logs out of the fireplace. He urinated in his bed. He urinated on the living room sofa.

Hal and Marsha knew that they could not live with this child. They took him to doctors, specialists, surgeons, experts. Nobody knew what they could give this retarded lunatic to calm him down. The poor boy, so beautiful in his infancy, became a passage out of a Jack London story: “”His eyes turned bloodshot, and he was metamorphosed into a raging fiend”.
Gary broke a window. Through the crack, weakly covered by Saran Wrap, poured a torrent of freezing northern air. The whole family shivered as the winter grip intensified. Spring may have been weeks away, yet the imprisonment of the Harknesses continued. Mental and meteorological torture sealed the family in a jar of sadness.
# # # #

Mrs. Yanstrom and her family prayed at St. John’s Lutheran Church up the street. As Easter arrived, the crocuses, daffodils and tulips came up in neat rows alongside the Yanstrom residence, and the blue shirted and neatly showered family emerged from their long winter hibernation to celebrate the resurrection of Lord Jesus.

“In Christ all things are possible” the apostle Paul once said. In hymns and prayers the songs of joy rang out, spilling out of the windows and onto the street below. Retarded Gary pedaled his bike past the church, unaware that a benevolent Lord was looking down on his creation as the celebrants sang of eternal life and blessings for believers.

The doors of the church swung open and the crowd of worshippers stepped out onto lightly traveled Pratt Avenue. Kisses and hugs, handshakes and “peace be with you.” filled the air on this joyous morning.

The three Yanstroms, Mrs. and her boys, walked a block south, past the green lawns, back to their home on Kilpatrick. They passed retarded Gary as he sat on the curb watching the water from a sprinkler drain into the sewer. Mrs. Yanstrom looked at Gary and then smiled at her sons, shaking her head in disbelief.

“They let him play down there, isn’t that a shame?”
“Horrible. Why can’t they find a place for that boy?”

”An institution. He belongs in an institution.”
“Yes. He certainly doesn’t belong in Lincolnwood. That’s for sure.”
They continued walking, these three, in their Easter best. A light breeze from the southwest ruffled the pink and turquoise hem of Mrs. Yanstrom’s new Sears dress.
# # #

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