When I first started chatting with Chicago’s Steve and Sonya, it seemed like we had a couple of things in common.
They were at the Pfister with their adorable and articulate 8-year-old daughter, Lauren. I, too, have a child this age, who likes many of the same things as Lauren: swimming, dancing and Minecraft.
We talked about the similarities and differences between Milwaukee and Chicago as well as the competitiveness of our sports teams. It was a pleasant enough conversation. Your average chit chat between strangers in a lounge.
And then I asked Scott if he was a Bears fan and things got interesting. Really interesting.
“I’m a season ticket holder,” he said, smiling. “I own a bar called the Bear’s Den, it’s about 70 miles outside of Chicago.”
This perked up my ears. “Where exactly?” I asked.
“Ottawa,” he said.
My mouth dropped. My grandparents lived in Ottawa most of their lives and my mother was born and raised there. I spent every school vacation in Ottawa with my grandparents, watching game shows, counting my grandma’s pinochle change, scratching off lottery cards in the liquor store parking lot with my grandpa and singing into the fan in my mom’s old bedroom with my sister.
For a decade or more of my childhood this small working class town was my Disney World.
I tell Scott and Sonya this and at first, they are surprised – even a bit skeptical.
“I don’t believe you,” Sonya said, playfully.
I start rattling off Ottawa references. The miniature golf course, the Dairy Queen, Pinko’s supper club. My grandfather, I tell them, worked at Libby-Owens-Ford Company, a manufacturer of flat glass for the automotive industry. Sonya’s grandfather worked there, too.
Scott told me his bar, formerly named Pete’s and Curly’s, was built to accommodate LOF workers, like my grandpa, and it’s one of the few bars from that era that remains standing.
My grandfather’s favorite bar in town was the Lazy L. I can still see the sign with the intentionally backwards Ls. Scott told me the Lazy L had been torn down and the owner’s son now lives in Milwaukee.
For a second we’re silent. We’re in awe. I can’t believe I’m suddenly having such a detailed conversation about this town so near and dear to my heart. Even though it’s less than three hours away from Milwaukee, when I bring up Ottawa, people usually think I’m talking about Canada.
I then ask him about other LaSalle County towns that are close to Ottawa.
I tell them I have family in Marseilles; turns out Scott lived there until he was six.
I tell them I have family in Utica. Not surprisingly at this point, Sonya goes every autumn to the town for a fall festival called Burgoo, which I attended every year of my childhood and revolves around massive vats of stew – also called “Burgoo” – made from meat donated by hunters and vegetables donated by farmers.
The stew simmers for a day and a night prior to being sold to festival goers, and only the burgoomeister – who stays up all night stirring – knows the secret ingredient. My uncle used to tell me the town drunk fell in it one year and nobody noticed.
“Everybody has a story like that,” said Scott. “I always heard someone threw a shoe in there.”
It’s been eight years since I’ve been to anywhere in LaSalle County, including Ottawa. The last time I was there was for my grandfather’s funeral held at St. Francis Church, the same church I attended mass with my grandparents a hundred times or more.
“Lauren just had her First Communion at St. Francis,” Scott said.
Of course she did.