My father grew up in a family of five: three brothers and two sisters, one of whom as a young married woman died on my father’s birthday. In their early days, all five children slept in the same bed, crosswise. There was Ben the oldest, then Esther, Leonard, my father Louis, and Frieda the youngest (the one who died young.)
Their mother Sarah and their father Max, my grandparents, came to America from Russia in the early 1900’s to escape the Russian Revolution. One was from Minsk and the other from Pinsk, I do not remember in which order. They always prided themselves on being “White Russians” who generally believed in a united Russia after the fall of the Tsarist Empire vs the communist “Red Russians.”
Max was a cobbler, Sarah the matriarch housewife. They made their way to America in steerage on a freighter, Sarah pregnant with Ben. The other four were born in Chicago. In their later years, my grandparents lived behind the basement Shoe Repair Shop on California near Peterson Avenues.
My grandparents mainly spoke Yiddish and when necessary used a little of what we called “broken English.” My parents understood enough of the language, which is a bastardized version of German, to converse with them.
We children understood enough of the language to know what our grandparents wanted from us and to understand what our parents were discussing when they would begin the conversation with “the kinder,” to signify that they did not want the children to hear.
The children worked very hard at not giggling so the adults would not realize that we did understand.
She called him Mister and he called her Misses. My early grandparent memories include Max taking naps in the window blind slatted shadows as seen through the partially closed bedroom door, Sarah always smelled of the canned salmon and raw onion she loved for lunch.
They both enjoyed scraping bone marrow out of the soup bones and onto the rendered chicken fat smeared rye bread. They had a “victory garden” in the vacant lot next to their building where they grew mostly vegetables and some flowers.
Unexpectedly they would show up on the back porch of our apartment after having walked the three miles from their home. They always talked about how wonderful their son Leonard and his wife Lil were when my parents did more than anyone to support and care for them, my parents rarely getting a thank you.
The shoe repair shop had a small, unpainted counter at the front for customer transactions with a well worn but very clean plank floor. There was a bank of green made of iron machines against the wall for repairing shoes.
In front of the machines, there was a workbench which held many kinds of smooth wood handled tools including various sorts of hammers, screwdrivers, scrapers, punchers, scissors, cutters and more. Next to the full sheets of leather and rubber lie cut scraps to be used for smaller jobs. Some of these tools are now part of "Michael’s Museum: A Curious Collection of Tiny Treasures" a permanent exhibit at Chicago Children's Museum on Navy Pier on Chicago's lakefront.
I do not remember ever getting something my Grandfather made for me out of the scraps of leather leftover from his shoe repair. I think that in those days everyone was so poor that every piece counted and could not be spared as toys. I do not remember ever being allowed to “play” with any of the materials or equipment. Maybe the machines were so dangerous that they felt a child would only get hurt if he got too near.
I do not remember my Grandmother and Grandfather as friendly, loving people. I do not remember much of my relationship with my grandparents Max and Sarah. I do remember that they were fairly strict with their own children so I can only imagine how they felt towards my sister and me. I have no recollections of sitting on my grandmother’s lap or having my grandfather teach me how to heel a shoe.
My fondest memories of them include two: their mantel clock and the Passover Seders.
The electric mantel clock sat on small table just inside the curtained door that separated the shop from their small living area behind the shop. The clock was approximately 18 inches long, eight inches high, four inches deep and was made of mahogany colored wood, humped in shape with a largish glass dome front secured in place by a gilded metal colored collar. The big hand and the small hand were made of ornate, curlicued, long, thin black metal.
At the bottom middle of the glass front was a little opening in the gold colored clock face that was a quarter of an inch in diameter. Behind the opening revolved a ying/yang painted red and black disk showing the movement of the seconds. The back of the clock had the usual handle to change the time but also another one that you “spun” to get the clock going. The clock still exists and is also part of “Michael’s Museum.”
The Passover Seder was always my favorite holiday event. Upwards of 20 people would attend including all the aunts, uncles, and cousins. In the small, cramped living area, Grandpa would set up a long table using saw horses and planks of wood. There would be some chairs and some benches. Grandma would prepare most of the food with the other women bringing the “sides.” The children would cover the table with its cloth then set the dishes, wine glasses, napkins, and silverware.
The service would take up to two hours as Grandpa would insist on covering every ceremony, blessing, and prayer in the book. People would take turns reading aloud and we would all join in for the unison readings. One was not supposed to eat, with the exception of the special tastes that were part of the Seder, until every last prayer was given. But Grandma always slipped the children, without Grandpa’s knowing (or did he?) ... a hard boiled egg before the service began.
Part of the tradition of the Seder included the children getting giggly at the funny sound of the Hebrew prayers, being yelled at, giggling all the harder, the adults finally joining in the giggling, grandpa getting angrier, Grandma bawling us all out and telling her “Mister” to ignore us and continue, and our finally settling down. The Seder always finished on a happy note as Grandpa Max ended with, “As my Father always said, and his Father before him, and his Father before him, ‘Eat, Drink, and Be Blessed.’ ”
While it feels good to record these memories, it makes me feel sad that there are not more of them. It makes me sad that I did not take advantage of the time while my parents were still alive to find out more. So most of that history is lost but at least a few memories are now forever as written here.
Written in honor of the anniversary of my father’s passing on March 7.