A Rose is a Rose Gladys

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Well, well, well…

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The subject of “names” is a rather touchy one in some factions of the family…around here anyway.  I was named “Kathryn” as a political move.  I had enough Grandmothers on all sides with that name, in various spellings, and at various positions (first, middle, patron saint, baptismal) to make most of them happy.  I was not the first grandchild on either side of my family, but I was the first granddaughter on both sides!  Another of my illustrious firsts.

When I went to school, there were 7 little girls in 1st grade at Perry Elementary named Kathryn in some form or another.  So, probably, their families had the same sort of “thing” going on.  If this had been a big school, then Cathy, Kathy, Kathryn, Cathleen, Katherine, Katy, and other Kathryn would have been insignificant.  However, this was a farming community.  The schools were small.  The 4 feeder grade schools that lead to my high school produced a grand total of 265 in my senior class.  By the time we all converged in the spiffy new Middle School, I had lost count (and interest) in how many other girls had “my” name.

My brother though, had it a bit rougher with family names.  Ours is a long line of “traditional” men’s names.  The first born pretty much was going to be a Junior, and if not a Junior (or 3rd, or 4th) then perhaps would be named after the other Grandpa, or a middle name.  My brother didn’t get a chance at something modernish…like Scott or Brian… point of his birth, the options available were Frank, George, Earl, Henry/Harry or the scandal of picking a meaningless name out of the air…like Bobby.  They did not choose Bobby.

Darling Gramcracker, ever sensitive to my needs as an individual in this sea of Kathryns, gave me a unique and extended name to claim as my own.  Or, possibly, she told me this was my full name because she also had a wicked sense of humor and loved having me say it and seeing the reaction of strangers.

She crowned me:  Kathryn Elaine Martha Elizabeth Gladiolus Rose Mousy Get-Along Johnson.  Gramcracker always called me Goldie for short.

Until I got in trouble for “fibbing” in Kindergarten  I was convinced and unquestioning of my full name.  As a matter of fact, I wondered why the other kids had such common and plain middle names. Being “cut down” to the reality of Kathryn Elaine was a real bummer.

Surnames though, can be a whole different matter.  My Balkan grandparents brought their old country name along when they crossed the pond.  Those who I refer to as the Urbanski clan, are actually owners of an unspeakable (literally, no one can pronounce it) name which when translated from Slovene to English means “putrid smell.” With hopes that this was just another example of the family sense of humor, I quietly wondered if this wasn’t a joke.  I had visions of my “huddled masses” Granddad standing before the man at Ellis Island and when asked for his name…making a smart- assed remark back at him in Slovene~ only to be countered in hilarity by the immigrations agent who made it official.  No such luck.  The international white pages online lists a handful of families both here in the US and back in the Balkans living with the exact same surname…spelling and all.  No denying it.  Sigh (or would a “sniff” be a more accurate expression here?).

Sadly, they buckled to the mounting pressures of anti-German and anti-immigrant sentiments that swept our area around WWI and “Americanized” their name ~ neutralized it actually.  I see myself writing “sadly” but under my breath I am saying “thank God they changed it!” I can’t imagine writing that 5th grade report for school about my heraldry, and revealing to my prepubescent peer group that I was not the glamorous K.E.M.E.G.R.M.G. Johnson, but in fact Miss Kathryn Elaine Pukesmell.

Ask around your family, are there any naming patterns, revisions, or scandalous translations out there?  Maybe take a few minutes and run down one or two nicknames of relatives.  These can be as commonly used as Kassie for Kathryn, or as ornery as a brother who called a sister “Twin Piggies” for an entire lifetime…that’s another story :)

Uncle Joe

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   untitled-holytrinity According to Parish records from Holy Trinity Church, John and Mary Urbanski had 10 children.  Of  10, only 2 girls and 2 boys survived to adulthood. Francis, Joe, Annie and Mitz were born , christened,communed, confessed and confirmed as Urbanskis.  Suddenly, around 1915, they all became “Casters” an Americanized name, and a generic term describing John’s occupation at the time.    The ugliness of anti-German sentiment had overtaken people’s everyday lives and had crept  along the National Road  and deep into Indianapolis.  Suddenly, old street names like Germania were changed from German words and towns-names to  more “appropriately” American ones like Belmont Avenue.   Coinciding with the German hysteria, the KKK was recording its biggest membership surge since the days of the old South.  Thus being Catholic, being immigrants, sounding German (colloquially called Hunkies ) while speaking their Slovene native tongue all became rather lowly and dangerous.   Our  family was among many who changed their surname to blend in.  In those early years of the 20th century, being different or being “less” was both a social hindrance and potentially treacherous.

Mom note: somethings just never change…

Neighborhood assimilation centers were set up to help all children and adults learn to be more American and to turn their backs on the lives they had left behind in “the Old Country”. The Ku Klux Klan was deeply entrenched in the small counties ringing the big city of Indianapolis, and there was a simmering contempt for anyone or anything that may have been in allegiance with the Kaiser.

John and Mary were raising their children in between the country folk to the west, and the eastward cultured city dwellers just across the White River bridge. Considered West Indianapolis at one time, their small neighborhood was now called Haughville named after the metals manufacturers plant located there by Haugh Brothers in the 1880’s.    Soon Haugh’s foundry was joined by the modern refrigerated packing business Kingans and the immigrant workers flooded in to take the jobs and simple frame housing.  They had been recruited and imported from their bergs and villages in places like Slovenia, Serbia, and Croatia. That’s how the Urbanskis had come to Indianapolis and that’s how they earned their daily wage too.

 Grandmother Mary saved every penny she could spare to buy up boarding houses.  For years  the parlor floor in the family’s own house was  “bedded up” for newly arrived workers who needed temporary lodging.  They had taken the long transatlantic ocean liner trip, paid in full by “the Company”,  made a connection by train and found themselves in Haughville on John and Mary’s floor…working in the mill, or the packing house, renting a space on the floor to sleep on, and in turn,  saving every penny they didn’t drink to bring their families over too.

Joe wasn’t the oldest of the children, but he was probably the tallest at about 6′. He was athletic and tough,a simple and hard-working man who chain smoked and stirred cream and sugar into his coffee in ritualistic trance-like manner. He played bush league baseball and was the big hitter on Holy Trinity’s men’s team. When he was 18, Joe was drafted into the army. When his hitch was up he joined again to serve in the place of his brother who was about be wed. I often wonder if he didn’t rejoin just for something bigger to do than spend his life running gutted pig carcasses from the slaughter hooks into the cold lockers at Kingans. After all, being big and strong, that’s likely where he would be headed for life.

Note: he is the tallest in the center of the back row in the photo. 

I’ve heard a tale or two of Joe in his younger rougher days.  Especially one about him and some buddies getting into a fist fight with some men from “somewhere else” passing by the corner tavern. All was regular Saturday night fun, when one of the outsiders added a 2×4 into the fray and started swinging. In Haughville it was considered “off-limits” to use weapons in a fist fight…a real sign of ungentlemanly behavior.   By the time the cops arrived, the crowd had disbursed and a half-dozen guys were laid out neatly along the gutter.  Bloody and semi-conscience the “strangers” were helped to their feet and sent on their way back toward the bridge.  To the frustration of the officers,  the tavern was filled with only law-abiding citizens enjoying an evening out. As a matter of fact, they were all having such a lovely time singing and carrying on, none had even noticed a ruckus outside on the steps.  The interlopers never bothered to visit Haughville again… with or without their 2x4s .

 Joe discharged from the army after a couple of tours.  He had spent most of his time driving big supply trucks across the swampy roads of the Philippine islands.  Sometimes, at Grandpa’s he would start stirring his coffee and speaking about the giant black snakes… hundreds of them that would be all over the lonely roads at night when he was driving convoy.  He talked of how they must have needed the heat left in the road to warm their cold blood at night. Sometimes he described the thumping sounds of them hitting the bottom of the big trucks.  ” The sound never let up some nights, like all the snakes in the world were there in the Philippines.” I hung on every one of Joe’s words, and had the nightmares to prove it!

Headed home, Joe had saved up some money and following the wisdom of his  mother began buying rental properties.  He had small homes and duplexes and eventually bought a couple of small neighborhood apartment houses built-in the old style of shops below and rooms above.  One of the buildings was home to the laundry and dry cleaning store his sister Mitz ran.  Being in a good location (between the businessman’s downtown and the upscale homes of the Indianapolis old North Side) Mitz’s shop cleaned and starched clothing for local celebs and politicians.  After actress Frances Farmer was “treated” for her nervous breakdown (famously via a frontal lobotomy) she came to Indianapolis and hosted a television program on one of the local stations.  Aunt Mitz did the movie star’s alterations and cleaned her delicates for years from her shop in Uncle Joe’s building.  I’ve never been clear on whether it was Mitz or Joe who owned the business.  I would speculate that it was there when he bought the building and he let Mitz run it as a way to support herself.  I couldn’t even say whether or not she paid a dime in rent.  Uncle Joe rarely talked about such things

Joe kept all the rentals as his investments.  All of John and Mary’s kids were desperately frightened of being poor.  Saving money and saving stuff (anything that could some day be useful to someone in the family) was always top priority for them. But he also worked for the Indiana University Medical School as a night watchman until he retired.  A family joke (or maybe it was truer than others wanted to admit) went that Joe guarded the cadaver room for 30 years and didn’t have a clue what was in there.

I mostly remember him as generally very quiet and reclusive.  We saw him at Grandpa’s occasionally on weekends before he went in for a night shift.  He would pull into the drive in his massive dirty ivory Plymouth Fury. His car windows were legendarily coated in an amberish vaseline-thick goo from years of collected cigarette smoke.   If I saw him coming, I would run to the kitchen drawer where Grandpa kept Joe’s ashtray (it was like a beanbag on the bottom) and scurry to get a spoon out for his stirring.  I delighted in watching him swirl the pale sugary coffee and cream soup he made in his cup.  I listened to the funny old world way that he spoke (he held the accent and manner of speech of the old country that my Grandpa had worked so hard to erase from his own speech) and watched him punctuate sentences with his hands.  Uncle Joe also had the largest nose I had ever seen on a person.  It was just like Jimmy Durante…but since Jimmy was on tv and in movies he really didn’t count as a real person.  Uncle Joe had a real-live Schnazola that was mercifully never passed on to the next generation.

When he died years ago, it was as a “confirmed” bachelor.  He is buried at the Catholic Cemetery,but I do  not recall a mass for his funeral. After his retirement from the night watchman’s job, he really had little to do and fell into the staid habits of a reclusive old man.  He must have had a heart attack and died without much suffering.  He was found after lying dead alone in his home days later. Only his German Shepard dog was with him.

I think of him whenever I stir my coffee :)

Photo at top of page from the Holy Trinity Parish Diamond Jubilee celebration book:

Slaves To No One, written by James J. Divita

In Other Words…When Writer’s Block Comes Knockin’

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Where do these whispers come from?  You know, the ones that scamper and gnaw around in our heads.  Something someone said, or implied, or an unsettled way they made us feel. That’s what I call the ‘other words’ of a life.  The stuff that we haven’t thought up ourselves, but somehow  we’re pretty sure that others around us have thought about us.

………..Clear as mud?

Think about this one…I recently interviewed author Dan Conway about his interesting book written as an anecdotal/ semi-memoir / love letter to his departed family members. How’s that for genre bending?  The premise of the book was fictional~ he awakes in a hospital bed unable to move or speak after hitting a deer on the highway.  What happens from there is a series of out of body semi-lucid “visitations” from deceased loved ones as he lies helplessly drifting. These visitors are real people from the author’s life who have passed away. Each encounter has its own filmy purpose as readers experience the message along with Dan, the poor guy in the hospital bed.  And each time we all think that maybe we “get it” the apparition fades and we are left to work the rest out on our own.  Just like life.  Annoying, and yet we can never quite get enough.

I am myself a skilled car buying negotiator.  My husband stands back and turns me loose on the unfortunate targeted salesmen.  I get this “gift” I am told from my Grandpa George Farmer.  One of his many nick names was Wheeler Dealer.  So then, the whisper that dusts through my head is this…I’m just like George.  Does that mean then, that I am also brash, loud, bossy and generally insufferable and overbearing? Will I live well into my 90’s too? I catch myself wondering those things when I’m around certain cousins and old neighbors.  Am I laughing too loud, monopolizing the conversation, appearing restless when others speak?  Are they whispering about me and my George-ness?

Another quality of mine that has been attributed to the family gene-pool is my overall coloring.  I describe it as a stick of Doublemint chewing gum.  My eyes are the mixed shades of green like the wrapper, and my hair color basically matches the gumstick itself.  Being a uniquely indescribable non-color,it tends to be much darker when wet than when it’s dry.  I get this unusual coloring (and the freckles that come with it) from Kate the Wildcat Whipper’s mom Maggie.  Everyone says so.  Since Maggie died about 55 years before I came along, I have to assume that I am being told the truth.  Apparently I also have her hands and toes.  Unfortunately I know very little about her manner and disposition so I am left to assume that if Maggie were living today we would probably be pretty chummy like twins. But since Maggie went to her reward at the age of 37, at least I know that we are differently engineered in at least the longevity way.   Who knows?  By now, all of the “everyones” who said we were so alike, have all passed on too.  Only the whispers remain to speak about my minty fresh eyes.

I enjoyed the perspective of Dan’s book because it is written from just an unusual and different view-point.  He is describing himself and his life as if he weren’t exactly on the pages or in the room.  He speaks to and about himself as if his whispers we all have romping and knocking around too were suddenly let out to play one day.  It’s a fascinating spin and well worth considering especially if you find yourself at an impasse.

Impasse, that dirty, nasty word writers use when they don’t want to admit they’ve hit a wall and are in the early stages of “Writer’s Block”–every author’s most base and crippling  fear

We have all had a moment where what we felt about an ancestor stood in the way of what story needed to be conveyed.  I wondered if using the “Dan method” would help to free up some of those deadlocked situations? I tried this “what they say when they think I can’t hear them” premise recently and it worked really well.  I had tried to write about a certain cousin many times, but just couldn’t find the right words to tell her story.  Her mother and my Great Uncle Ed were “involved.”  It was one of those scandals that sticks to a few generations.

People and families can be really complicated.  We can feel so many different ways about the same person depending on the context.  There is the opinion / gut reaction to memories of Uncle Ed when the picture in my head is from my childhood. Then there is the startled surprise of emotion when I found the letter to his mother and learned what the “family secret” was all about.  Same man, two very different characters in my head and in my life.

 There is the “part of the family” Ed who always ate all of the potato salad.  Then there is the “guy who did that Ed” who made a lot of jaws hit the floor in disbelief. I would guess also with near certainty there are probably another couple of “Eds” somewhere in between or off to the side of both those possibilities.  They are all arguably the “real” Ed.  They are all undeniably my Uncle Ed, who had a fling with his brother’s wife…but still came to Sunday dinners to eat all the potato salad for years afterward.

No one is ever living in only one dimension; having no other “side.” That’s probably my biggest fascination with all this family history stuff.  I have always known that I am a different person when I am among my family than I am “in public.” But I think most of us don’t readily accept that others also have this sort of dual set of behavioral standards.

So Uncle Ed’s story makes writing about Nellie a bit tough.  She always had a great and generalized dislike of Uncle Ed.  I always thought he was hilarious.  I liked that he would sit with us at the Children’s table with his long neck beer and his table-side antics.  He would mix all of the food on his plate together until we had all sufficiently “ewed” in disgust.  Then he would spoon it into his mouth with a great show of disdain for manners. We’d laugh and slap the table with delight, challenging him to “have some more!”  Everybody except for Nellie.  She would roll her eyes and finish her plate quickly.

 Her mother, she once confided to me, said Ed ate like a pig because he was one!

We kids all thought that Nellie and her parents were just a bit more uppity than the rest of us.  And so, for years I only knew of the the uppity Nellie who didn’t know a good table show when she saw one.  To this day, I don’t believe she ever knew why her mom gave her a dislike of old Ed.  I often wonder if she ever knew that I knew…or whether she ever in fact “knew” at all?

 Tricky stuff…

… Family stuff…

… People stuff.

I would recommend reading Dan’s book if you are facing a similar conundrum in your story telling.  Could the folks involved tell the stories themselves and let you off of the hook?  It may be worth a try!

For me, I started with the letter I had found which detailed the transgressions of the affair and near divorce.  I also added in that I wondered if that had been the cause of the iced curtain that fell between certain factions of the family at Sunday Dinner.  Until my adulthood, I never really noticed that Ed was never in the same end of the house or same general conversation as either Aunt Rita or his brother Uncle James. Finding that letter made it reasonably clear why Uncle Ed sat with the kids and avoided the big people table.  He probably wasn’t exactly welcomed.  He even, as I recall, always made sure his back was to the adults seated at the big table.  We kids assumed that he sat that way to block the view to his plate and the messy but laugh-out-loud funny eating show he put on for us.

I’ll be letting Nellie’s story keep whispering until her parentage will no longer cause pain.

 

Dan Conway’s book A Communion of Saints is available through Amazon

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