Dorothy Engstrom is white and was born in Lemont. Mattie Lindsay is black and is from Chatham, Miss., a small, rural town close to the southeastern border of Arkansas. Aside from those differences, they have a lot in common.
Both live at Berkshire Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, an assisted living home for senior citizens, at 8200 Roosevelt Rd. They also grew up in what many today would consider “hard times.”
Engstrom was born in 1925 and grew up near the intersection of Archer and Harlem avenues, in Chicago. The streets were still paved with cinders then, and an outhouse stood in the backyard, she recalled. Her father died when she was nine, in the midst of the Great Depression, leaving her mother to care for three children on $45 a month. Engstrom dropped out of high school after her junior year and went to work so she could help her mother pay the bills.
Lindsay was reared in rural Mississippi at a time when Jim Crow laws were still pervasive in the South.
She remembers seeing white children riding a bus to school while she and her black classmates had to walk on dusty, country roads. Her father was a sharecropper, and her mother worked in town as a maid. After graduating from high school, she wanted to go to college and become a teacher, but her family couldn’t afford the tuition.
Both women remember being thankful even though their families weren’t well off, financially.
When asked if her family was poor, Engstrom replied, “No, we weren’t poor.” She paused for a moment and added, “Maybe we were poor in terms of money, but we always had plenty to live on.”
She clarified her statement by telling a story: “We were eating dinner one evening when a stranger knocked on the door and asked if my mother could spare some money so he could buy a sandwich. My mother replied that she had no money to spare, but that she could share the meal she had prepared … She fixed him a plate, and he ate it on the back porch. I’ll never forget it.”
For Thanksgiving, when she was a child, Engstrom said her family had traditional fare: turkey, dressing and mashed potatoes. “The works,” she said.
“The food my mother made,” Engstrom recalled, “was down to earth but very satisfying.”
Lindsay had similar memories about celebrating Thanksgiving. “My mother would make a good homemade dinner including turkey,” she said, “and then we’d go to church and give thanks to the Lord.”
Both women married and benefited from the boom times that followed World War II. Lindsay came to Chicago, fell in love with the man to whom she was married for 37 years, and raised seven children.
Engstrom was married for “63 short years” and raised four girls. “Oh, we had our differences,” she said, of her husband, “but we never went to bed angry.”
When asked how they celebrated Thanksgiving when raising their children, both women said they followed the tradition they learned as children. “It was the same as when I was young,” said Engstrom. “How could it be anything else?”
Both residents acknowledged that Thanksgiving won’t in fact “be the same” this year. Engstrom will spend the day at Berkshire, while Lindsay will eat dinner with one of her sons in a restaurant.
Still, they both insist that they are thankful. “I’d rather not be here,” said Engstrom, in reference to Berkshire. “I’d rather be back in my own home.” She then added, “I’m just thankful to be alive. You’re blessed one way or another. You can’t have everything, can you?”