Homage to Grandma
Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of my grandmother's passing, my dad's mom. I had forgotten all about it, even after posting to another person's blog about her own grandma. Here is her story:
My grandmother was brought to this country when she was very young, maybe only 1-year old, by my great-grandmother. They lived in a Northside Chicago Polish neighborhood, until a cousin ventured to the Southside near Indiana, where a new Polish neighborhood was forming, amongst all the factories. My grandmother's family soon followed.
My grandmother dropped out of the 6th grade to work at an Hungarian merchandise store. There she learned all about business. She continued to work to support the family, until she met my grandfather & married. The two families offered the couple enough money to buy a tavern in the neighborhood, which they ran for almost 50 years.
My grandmother & grandfather met at a dance hall in the 1930's. She always told me, "He was such a catch." Indeed he was, for my grandmother was no angel. She was a fierce businesswoman at a time when women in business were looked down upon. After all, she had to deal with a lot of drunks at the bar...
The tavern building was also a type of boarding house/hotel place. She did laundry and bedding for an additional charge to the residents. She even held the pay of some of the factory workers, and allotted it out to them as needed for things. Often, they spent most of it at the tavern, and would ring up debt to my grandparents every week...
During Prohibition, family legend has it that my grandparents were running moonshine for Al Capone's gang. Before my grandparents met, my grandfather was the hooch driver into the neighboring states, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, for his family's operation. Grandma often told me about the time when the war ended, and they were the only tavern for many miles that had bootlegged whisky. She would sell it out the backdoor of the tavern, and stuff the money into the pockets of her housecoat. By the end of the first day, her pockets were overflowing with cash. "Out to here", she would make a big circle with her arms around her belly.
My grandmother was a b*&^% on wheels until around 90 years old. She herself was an alcoholic, and really only stopped drinking a few years before my grandfather passed away in 1996. A master of manipulation, she was as charming and sweet as a snake-oil salesmen when she wanted something from you, but mean as a viper when you crossed her. One of my earliest memories of her was when she swiped my bottom and threw me on the small couch in the corner nook of the tavern backroom. It was a time out I never forgot. By that time, she had raised her own three children, as well as tended to many nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and children of friends in the neighborhood. She was pretty much over it. I remember her always complaining to my dad about me whenever we came over for Sunday supper!
However, she was the best cook! Everything had full-on fat and lots of butter, how we should all be eating anyway. We're all gonna die eventually, why prolong it? If eating more butter means taking 10 years off my life, I'll take the butter.
But I digress.
Grandma was the best fry-cook this side of the Atlantic. She put Southern fryers to shame. We had fried chicken, fried shrimp, fried perogis, fried pork chops. You name it, she fried it. It's not a wonder my poor grandfather suffered 4 heart attacks & a stroke before he finally kicked it. And all the breadings were done by hand. She used a special kind of bread made locally in Chicago, Gonella bread, and dried it just so for the breadcrumbs. And she only used the crust. This fried feast was on top of all the Polish cooking, like sausage borscht (our family's recipe), perogis, chicken & dumpling soup, fried cabbage, sausage & sauerkraut, etc. that she made. And then, she concocted her own versions of American classics like cole slaw and potato salad.
According to another family legend, (I use "legend" because there is only circumstantial claims that back these stories up) one of Al Capone's henchmen that rose fairly high in the South Side ranks really liked Grandma's fried fish. The tavern always hosted a large fish fry on Lenten Fridays. Partly, or possibly mainly, how they got the bootleg whisky, and survived during Prohibition, was due to this Heavy's penchant for breaded & fried fish. A way to a man's heart...
Grandma's favorite game was pinochle. It was the card game most Poles played in the neighborhood. There were always two decks lying around on the bar.
Back in the day, taverns were family places, and it was common to have kids around. My dad & aunts all grew up in the bar, and helped out at young ages. When we'd come to visit, my brothers and I would run around, play at the pool table, and the mechanical bowling machine. There was a park across the street, and my Grandpa often took us there. It was a relief to him to have some fresh air & fun with us kids. It also got us out of Grandma's hair.
Even after Grandpa died, Grandma was a feisty old bird. She always wanted things her way. My angel of an aunt was her caretaker for almost 10 years after Grandpa's passing. It wasn't until her health took a turn for the worse, and we were forced to put her in assisted living, did my grandmother's attitude finally cow. Being forced to give up her freedom was the thing that finally humbled her.
When she first got to the home, I was living in the Bay Area by then, so I called her every weekend to check up on her. She complained that she missed walking down to the beauty parlor to get her hair done, and chat with the neighborhood ladies. She also missed walking to church. She would walk the 3-4 blocks to mass every Sunday, and then also attend all the other prayer services during the week. Bless her heart, even at 89 years old, she would only accept using a cane to walk, and would amble down the street in the dead of Chicago Winter on the icy sidewalks to visit her friends, or see the priest. Like I said, she was a feisty old bird.
A year or so after moving into assisted living, she needed the official nursing home care. Her legs had gotten bad enough that she needed a walker (which she always called the "buggy"), and she needed oxygen more & more each day from her emphysema. Although not a smoker, she contracted it from the second-hand smoke in the bar all those years.
In the last four years of her life, my grandmother and I became very close. I asked her alot about business, and about how to make it in a "man's world". She told me alot of the story I wrote for you today. She offered me unconditional love, and prayed the rosary for me several times a day. I could tell her about family matters, and get wisdom & faith at a truly godly scale. She had more faith in God than Pope John Paul II. We all joked at the funeral that we should use the last of her money to apply for sainthood.
One of the things I miss most about her, was her standard greeting on the phone, "It's so good to hear your voice!". I often say that now to friends and loved ones, and sometimes it stops people in their tracks. They probably never heard someone say such a welcoming & sweet thing before. We need to welcome & be sweet with one another more than ever in today's day...
My grandmother always wanted a better life for me than what she had. Both grandparents worked night & day in the tavern, socking money away as fast as they could get their hands on it. Not only did their three children get college educations, their grandkids did too. In earlier years, she would always give us grandkids the "secret handshake" with a 10 or a 20 in her palm. At the end, she would "sweet-talk" (as she put it) the nurses into giving her extra fruit. She would then press it upon us before we left from a visit. She had nothing to give, but she always wanted to give us something, even if it was an apple.
I'll never forget that generosity, and the sweetness of her voice. The last Christmas before she passed, my dad and I were driving Grandma to my aunt's house for supper. Dad put on a polka CD sung in Polish in the car stereo. Grandma started singing along and bopping her head back & forth like she was a little girl. She was so carefree, even at 94.
Grandma knew she was failing. She held on for all of us to enjoy one more holiday season with her, one more round of my dad's goofy photos, one more round of my aunt's fabulous sausage borscht. She made a point of making sure all the out-of-town visitors were back home, and the grandkids were back at school when she finally let go. My aunt who was the caretaker was incensed that she couldn't be there for the final days. But we all knew that none of us would have let our family's prayer-warrior go without a fight. For she taught all us women in the family how to be fighters, and how to get what we wanted. She taught us how to think of others before ourselves, give with no strings attached, and keep giving to the ones you love no matter what. She taught us that prayer can truly solve all your problems, and create miracles. And, she taught us that you can even re-invent yourself at 90.
Grandma and I still talk often. There have been many occasions where I'm in a sticky situation at work, and ask her for help. Since she was so good at picking the "catch" of my grandpa, I often ask her to pick one for me too. In the most trying times of caretaking for my mother last year, she was by my side whispering the rosary in Polish, praying for me.
As the frenzy of youth continues to fade (thankfully), and more light-hearted wisdom float in, I use her favorite phrase often, "Isn't that somethin'?"
I love you, Grandma.
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