"I can't understand it. Why would people who aren't Nusinows keep this junk safe for nearly a hundred years?" asks Bernard Nusinow. He shakily pulls another milk bottle down from an antique Dutch cabinet in the Nusinows' living room and adds it to the fragile pile balanced in his arms.
His wife, Betty Fae, watches with wide-eyed alarm from her tiny armchair in the middle of the room, fluttering between a stand and a sit. Bernard and Betty Fae are both in their 80s. They've lived in this plush Gold Coast apartment for more than half of their 61-year marriage, and over the years they've amassed collections of all sorts. But the dairy bottles hold a special significance.
Betty Fae surprised Bernard with them about eight years ago. "If I'd given him a million dollars, he would not have been so happy," she says. She whisks a pair of crystal candlesticks out of the way as Bernard sets the clinking bottles on a coffee table between their armchairs.
The bottles look like a timid huddle of poor relations. There are seven of them: a quart and a pint for milk, a wide-lipped cottage cheese or sour cream jar, and four cream bottles. Each is embossed with the name of one of the string of west-side dairies Bernard's family owned up through the mid-1950s: Humboldt Dairy, Palmer Square Dairy, Nathan Nusinow, and Nusinow & Sons.
Bernard picks up the largest cream jug and twists it in the late afternoon sun reflecting off the lake—you can see Oak Street Beach out the living room windows. The room, dark and narrow, is anchored on one side by a giant antique French monkey cage almost the size of Betty Fae and the big Dutch cabinet on the other. "It's a little funny that we keep the bottles in there, with all the expensive china," says Bernard.
"That's because it's of the family," says Betty Fae. "We were the last generation that had some regard for family." Her musical rasp lends a hint of theater to everything she says.
Bernard rubs the pitted glass of the smallest bottle with a fingernail. "I think someone stored nails in here," he says sadly.
"If you were that old, you'd be scratched too!" Betty Fae hoots and throws up her arms like a marionette.
Bernard, who grew up in Chicago, and Betty Fae, who's from Hammond, Indiana, met in college in Champaign in 1943. Betty Fae was dating Bernard's roommate at the time. When the roommate was drafted, he asked Bernard to look after Betty Fae while he was away. "And so I did," Bernard says. They got engaged senior year when Bernard led his fraternity brothers in a serenade under Betty Fae's dorm room window. "It was a frightfully cold night, but Bernard was down there really whipping the boys into song," says Betty Fae. Instead of presenting Betty Fae with a ring Bernard gave her his pledge pin.
After graduation they married and moved to South Shore and had two daughters. Bernard started working for Betty Fae's father, who owned a jewelry store in Hammond. After nine years of that Betty Fae insisted he take classes in interior design at the Art Institute. "It's important that a man do work that he loves," she says. "He'd always had an eye for art and design, and somehow I got the feeling working at a jewelry store wasn't his life's work." He opened Bernard Nusinow Interiors in 1958, and the Nusinows moved to this Gold Coast apartment in the 70s. "I was a small-town girl dying to live in the big city," Betty Fae says.
A little room at the back of the apartment houses their sizable collection of American folk art, or "all of our garbage," says Betty Fae, accenting the second syllable. An explosion of 100-year-old cigar boxes, doilies, rocking chairs, whirligigs, yo-yos, wooden fishing rods, and other gewgaws and whimsies covers every surface of the room. The artists include migrant workers, boxcar hobos, and kids at summer camp. "We never set out to build a collection," Betty Fae says. "It just kept growing until it needed a room of its own."
One whirligig, a wooden policeman with twirling arms, came from the roof of a tavern in Keokuk, Iowa. Bernard bought it for $105 and displayed it in his office window. Before long a dealer offered him $1,500 for it. The Nusinows have never sold any of their finds, but they have opened the room for a couple of curious curators from the Art Institute, and a few years ago they hosted a tour organized by the American Museum of Folk Art in New York.
So what determines what makes the collection? "We've got one major criteria," says Betty Fae.
"Yes, it's very simple," says Bernard. "Does it make us smile?"
Ten years ago Betty Fae met a vendor at the Kane County Flea Market who dealt in milk bottles. Without letting Bernard know, she asked the dealer if he'd ever seen a bottle from any of the old Nusinow dairies. "He said no, he hadn't, but he'd write the names down in his little notebook and he'd call when something turned up. Well, I forgot all about it. Six years later I get a call saying, 'I've got your bottles, do you still want them?'
"Bernard was in bed with the flu when the package came," she says. "I brought them into the bedroom: 'Here, maybe these will lift your spirits a little!'"
As a child Bernard visited his father's dairy on Leavitt Street in Logan Square. Later he constructed paper models of it from memory as a memento. "All day bottles would be marching, marching, marching, on the belts down in the factory. There were about eight men working for my father, and they picked up the glass bottles and put them in a crate and pushed it into an icebox for delivery the next day. The bottles were loaded into a truck—"
"A truck! We had a horse-drawn carriage back in Hammond!" says Betty Fae.
"—and they'd be left at someone's door the next morning. The housewife would leave a paper note in one of the empty bottles the night before, saying what the order was, and the milkman would fill it, whether sour cream or milk or cream."
"Real cream, can you imagine?" Betty Fae says, almost purring.
"The dairy was in the basement of my grandfather and grandmother's house. There were steps leading down to it from the front door, but I was never allowed down to see it—"
"Good thing too, you being just three years old!" clucks Betty Fae.
"—but it must have been my Uncle Nathan Nusinow who opened the first dairy. He was a soldier, and when he came back in 1917, he was shell-shocked—"
Betty Fae: "But I get the feeling he was pretty bright."
"—so he must have started the dairy before he left, because when he came back he couldn't work at all. Then my grandfather must have had a hand in it, though when he was in the Ukraine he had never worked a single day. He just prayed and learned the Torah—"
"A scholar!" Betty Fae says the word like she's pointing out a comet.
"But when he came here he gave all that up. He never went to temple again and took up work."
"Very strange, very strange," Betty Fae murmurs. "In many ways, we came from identical families, the two of us," she says to her husband.
Bernard nods. "Our fathers, even down to the way they tipped a cabdriver, the same."
"They were both very generous in their tipping of tradespeople," explains Betty Fae. "It's important that your attitude to money is the same in a marriage. I don't think we've ever had a fight about money, not even when you worked for my father's jewelry shop and we lived on $35 a week. Do you?"
Silence fills the living room as a wall calendar in Bernard's mind flips backward, scanning 61 years. Betty Fae shifts elegantly onto one hip and folds the knuckles of one hand under her sharp chin, watching Bernard smooth down his fine silk tie as he thinks. She fingers a bracelet with a gold medallion to which both their college pins have been affixed. Bernard had it inscribed for their seventh wedding anniversary: light? bright! seven—heaven!
Finally Bernard returns his focus to the living room and beams. "No, I can't say we ever have!" Betty Fae punches the air. "Well there you have it!" she says. Their eyes lock for a long moment. Everything that's not Betty Fae and Bernard seems to be released from gravity and tumbles away to the far corners of the room. v