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Archive for January, 2011

Ann Dahlstrom was sixty-five years old when we moved into the house next door to her.  I had not yet reached my first birthday.  Like ours, Ann’s house was built in 1923.  She was the original owner and thus had purchased her house at age 23.

My earliest memory of Ann was of her in her back garden adjacent to her empty garage.     Every now and then, perhaps every couple of weeks,  Ann would empty a small coffee can of waste which typically consisted of coffee grounds, orange peels and potato skins into a small pile in the center of her garden.

There she had a large spread of rhubarb and she would allow me to pick a stem or two, on which I’d sprinkle sugar.  Mostly I savored the combination of sugar and rhubarb juice as I never much cared to eat it raw.

In the summer months Ann would cut her lawn with a push mower – the kind with a cylinder of spiral blades and wooden handles attached to a wooden pole.  She would limp along, pushing the mostly rusted mower a few feet at a time, such that her lawn was always in the state of being mowed. If she got around to raking she would pull the clippings onto the compost pile.

Sometimes I’d talk with her when she uncoiled the garden house and allowed the thin trickle of water to pour onto the garden.  She would hold the old rubber hose at the neck, waist high and move the nozzle back and forth.  The thin trickle due to old plumbing.  Ann’s back yard was the only one on the block that didn’t have a tree in it.  She would tell me that she grew up with so many trees around her that she didn’t want one of her own.

Because of the way our houses were set, side by side, I could occasionally see Ann in her dining room, but only when she had the light on.  In the winter months I could see Ann inside her craftsman bungalow wearing a wool jacket – the one she always wore during the winter, along with a scarf over her head.  We’d heard that her furnace didn’t work very well.  Also during the winter months and because her refrigerator was in an unheated back porch she would unplug it to save electricity.

When I became old enough to take on outdoor chores I would shovel Ann’s sidewalks during the winter.  She never asked.  It was my parents who suggested that I do it.  Each time, when I’d be nearly finished, Ann would open the front door, thank me and pay me with a single apple or orange.

The inside of Ann’s house remained a mystery to me – and everyone for that matter except for her nephew Mark who would come and stay for a week each summer.  He was a couple years older than I.  Even though Mark and I would occasionally play together, I was never taken inside Ann’s house.  The layout was exactly like ours of course, as they were tract houses of a 1920’s streetcar suburb, but still the content of Ann’s house was never seen.

Ann was a retired school teacher and had taught at the elementary school that I eventually attended.  She never married.  She didn’t have any visitors save for her nephew Mark.   For groceries Ann would walk two and a half blocks to the small Red Owl grocery store on Lake Street pulling, never pushing, her wire basket that rolled on two small wheels.  It probably took her close to an hour to make that walk.

She died in 1986.  At that time I was able to go inside the house, which after eighty-six years of occupancy, was nearly the same as the day she moved in.  It was discovered that, in fact, her furnace didn’t work well because the duct work had never been cleaned.  It was originally a coal-burning furnace.

The only thing that I chose to buy from the estate sale following her death were three postcards that I discovered in the house.  In these three picture postcards from about 1920 I see Ann as a young woman. The resemblance remained, as had her smile.   The picture postcards were of her and a young man named William Poole.  His name was handwritten on the back.

For twenty-four years I have gazed into these photos and wondered about what had become of her relationship with Mr. Poole.  Surely she had had memories surrounding these photos as she’d kept them over sixty years.  What had she expected might come of her time spent with Mr. Poole?  I would never know the answer.

These days when I hear of tax increases and cuts in public services I always think of Ann Dahlstrom.  While Ann never had an active role in my youth she most certainly played a passive role in my upbringing.  She had been a teacher who lived in the neighborhood in which she taught.  She lived very modestly.  Grew some of her own food.  She maintained her home and yard as best she could and taught me that payment for work didn’t have to come in the form of monetary reimbursement.  Despite her thread-bare wool jacket, snagged black hosiery, old plumbing and nearly defunct furnace Ann always wore a smile.

When I think that my property tax or income tax might rise a bit from time to time, I think of how these small amounts of funds from me would aid in supporting someone like Ann.  Someone who had lived a fulfilling life with dreams and aspirations – of which I never knew nor never would.  I think about how having a neighbor such as Ann Dahlstrom in my life may have helped make me who I am today.  I think about the price tag for having such an influence in my life and I think that it is priceless.

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It just so happened that the furniture that I found most appealing and within my price range is made in the United States. I didn’t necessarily plan it that way, but when a family member suggested I shop at Ikea instead, I reminded them that spending a few extra dollars for an American made product is probably a better thing to do these days.

These days – that even sounded a bit odd to me when I said it because I’ve never really bothered to look to see which workers my money was supporting. Sure, I purchased a pair of New Balance shoes a couple summers ago when I heard that they had moved some their manufacturing to Maine. Generally speaking, however, I’d throw into the shopping cart whatever it was that caught my eye and/or had the best price.

Considering that my relocation to Chicago has come about after a series of very fortunate events and years of hard work and conservation, I thought it might be a wise idea to make sure that I keep the good karma moving forward. I’ve made the decision to outfit the place with American made products whenever possible.

My first challenge was to find new dishes. While the style that would have looked best with a modern interior was made in Japan, it didn’t seem right to send my money there when I had American made options. Instead I chose Fiesta dinnerware made in West Virginia by Homer Laughlin. The same classic design for decades but in nifty new colors. I’ll admit that knowing that Fiesta Ware is keeping families in their homes in West Virginia makes the style a perfect fit in my new kitchen.

Speaking of kitchens, I was delighted to discover that Libman brooms are still made in Arcola, Illinois so I chose a Precision Angle broom made from 80% recycled plastic. It was the same price as the “designer” broom that was made in China. I’m still looking for a scrub brush that’s not made in China.

With the toaster and coffee maker I was not so fortunate. Would it really be that difficult to make a toaster in the US? It’s a fairly simple process of stringing heating cables inside of a non-combustable housing. Add a lever, a timer, a couple springs and that’s that. Certainly someone in the US could pull that one off.

Although Brahms Mount in Maine produces linen towels from American raised Alpacas, the $130 price tag for a bath towel is a bit steep. I went with a Macy’s sale item instead that was produced in India.

For cookware I discovered Calphalon from Toledo, Ohio. It appears as if their hard-anodized cookware is still made in the States. It’s certainly not the least expensive, so I’ll buy a piece at a time and I only need a few pieces. I seldom cook vast arrays of food so a entire kitchen ensemble isn’t necessary.

In preparation for hosting a few friends for New Year’s Eve, my search for martini glasses led me to Crate and Barrel. For only $1.95 per unit, their Dizzy line is both unique and American made.

The new coffee table was made in Minnesota and the bed frame and media console were both made in North Dakota. The sofa comes from North Carolina, as one might expect. All these pieces come from Room & Board which tries to source from US companies whenever possible. And with a personal shopping assistant from Minnesota named Sandy Northberg I was made to feel right at home, don’tcha know. She e-mailed me today to see how I liked the new pieces.

My mattress, the first good mattress in which I’ve invested was manufactured in the US under the direction of Value City, formerly a Schottenstein company out of Columbus, Ohio. Selected and paid for while in Columbus and delivered to my flat in Chicago – that’s convenient.

With all thats happening with the American unemployment levels it just makes sense to look for American brands first. In some cases the cost might be slightly higher but for the most part I find prices fairly competitive. When given the choice it’s a much better option to give my money to my “neighbors” because keeping their income in tact keeps our neighborhoods intact which in turn keeps our cities and towns intact and viable.

I’ll continue to look for examples of American made options as 2011 continues and post what I find here. In the mean time, consider your shopping habits and determine if you can contribute to the stabilization of your neighbor’s future.

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