Sunday, November 1, 1998
Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:
All families have their special traditions. Mine is no different. Every year my mother comes up from Florida for the High Holidays. Sometime between Rosh Ha Shannah and Yom Kippur, we usually make a pilgrimage back to the old neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. Ours was a very ethnic family, three of my grandparents from Czechoslovakia, one from Poland. My mom and dad, all of my aunts, and of course all of my grandparents spoke fluent Czech. We called it Bohemian. At our holiday dinner table, there was a much Bohemian flying as there was English. So Mom and I (the remnants of the family, except for a cousin in California) pack up the car each year at this time and head back to Cicero and Berwyn with three goals in mind. 1. To visit the relatives in the Free Sons Cemetery (and they are all there). 2. To buy several dozen kolatchki (fruit filled Czech pastries), and a few containers of frozen durshkovah (tripe soup). And 3. Have the heaviest Czechoslovakian dinner possible at the Plaza Bohemian restaurant in Berwyn.
But this time around, we decided to add a ride past our old home in Cicero, just to take a look. The neighborhood had changed ethnic groups, but looked almost the same. Yes, the Czechs had been replaced by Hispanics, most of the restaurants and bakeries replaced their Bohemian signs with ones in Spanish. When we rode by our old place, we saw an old lady outside cleaning. My mom wanted to tell her that she had grown up in that house, so we stopped the car and she got out. She tried to explain that my grandfather had bought the house in 1921 and it had been the family meeting place until well into the 60’s, over 40 years. My mom and both of her sisters, my cousins, my father, grandparents, and even yours truly had lived in that house. As my mom left the car, I said that I hoped the lady spoke English.
While they spoke, pictures of my childhood in that house crept into me. There was my cousin Ralph and me wrestling on the couch in the front room (the room that looked out on the street, we’d probably call it a living room today). There was my cousin Judy getting ready to go to a dance. I remembered vividly the many nights I slept in the front bedroom and watched the lights of the cars going down 60th Court as they reflected off of the ceiling and moved across the walls. And there was my grandfather, sitting on the front porch on a warm summer evening. Pictures came of family dinners (Thanksgivings always offered a turkey for the family and a goose for my father and me), and sleepovers on winter Saturday nights, and everyone trying to get into the bathroom on Sunday morning so we wouldn’t be late for Sunday school. I saw the bathtub, a big iron job on four clawed feet, and the mantel in the front room with the pictures of my grandparents on it. In my mind’s eye I remembered those pictures, oval, old-fashioned looking, black and white with some kind of sepia painted backgrounds. I was flooded with a herky-jerky, 8mm-like, remembrance of times long gone.
I looked over and saw that my mom wasn’t getting too far with the lady on the sidewalk in front of our old place, so I decided to give it a shot and went to talk to her too. She didn’t speak any English, but I was able to communicate to her that my mother had been a little girl in the house that was now hers. When she understood, she became very excited and to our surprise invited us in. We hadn’t been through that front door since 1963 or so. What a trip to do so now. The last time I stood in that kitchen and looked out into the alley in back, I was 17 years old, my Mom 50. Now we were there again, and little had changed. The old bathtub was gone, replaced with a modern one, but the rooms were very much as I remembered them, down to the dark wood trim that ran along the walls and ceiling in the dining room and in the front. The wood cabinet where my Aunt Lil kept all of her good dishes remained in place, now holding their good dishes. Not a whole lot different than it was 35 or even 50 years ago.
The old lady called her daughter from the back. It turned out the house belonged to her. She spoke to us in English and was happy to hear a few funny family stories about the house. We met her two children who attend Burnham elementary school, the same school my mother, aunts, and cousins attended. Her older son had graduated from Morton High School, like my parents, my aunts, my cousins, and I had. It was quite the same, only the tune had a Latin beat to it.
I felt that we had completed our family remembering day in a wonderful way. We started where they (my family) had all ended, and ended where we had all lived. What a great way to remember.
When it was time for us to leave our old house, the old lady, the grandmother hugged and kissed my mother. Neither could speak to one another, yet there was some bond there. We walked out to the front door and I turned for one last look at the front room and the mantel with the gas fireplace and the dark wood trim. There on the mantel were pictures of grandparents from the old country, Mexico. They stood in the same spot my grandparents’ pictures had stood. I told the daughter of the old lady, “Take the sombreros off of the people in those pictures, and they could easily be my grandparents.” She smiled. We smiled.
What a way to start the New Year, eh?