Chat Taught Me A Lot About My Parents


Greg, my son-in-law, had an idea — let’s interview and record the great-grandparents for posterity.

This was a good idea.

In the first place, my parents kind of live “in the moment” without dwelling too much on the past. In the second place, when they do dwell, nobody really listens to them. So, between Greg and I, we came up with some really good questions. And this time I listened.

Here’s what I learned about my mother:

• She grew up as the seventh of nine (surviving) children on some northern Michigan acreage that had nothing but a shack on it when her father (Lawrence) arrived from Poland.

• Tata met her mother (Anna) when Anna left Poland alone (at age 16) because she had heard the streets of America were paved with gold.

• Lawrence built a small wood frame house, but it didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing for years.

• Lawrence and Anna were madly in love and the children grew up in a happy environment because of it.

• Mom moved to Milwaukee because a girlfriend was going. It was there that she met my father.

Here’s what I learned about my father:

• He grew up as the third of four (surviving) children in a tiny house with a dirt floor in Milwaukee.

• His father (Edwin) worked for the railroad and was physically and mentally abusive to my grandmother (Elsie) but, fortunately, Edwin was 23 years Elsie’s senior and died relatively young.

• To help out their mother, the three older boys joined the U.S. Marine Corps and started sending money home.

• My father chose my mother as the prettiest girl at the VFW hall during fish fry night, they danced and she told him her phone number, sure that he’d never remember it.

• The next week, he tried five times to call her, but it was a shared phone at a girls’ rooming house, and he was not able to get through. He told his buddy he’d give it one more shot, but if this girl was so popular, she wouldn’t have time in her schedule for him anyway. The next call went through.

They went on a little bit about the joys of having me (oh, all right, and my siblings) but, when Greg asked them to relate an especially happy moment, they both said it was watching his son (their great-grandson) toddle around the living room.

I have to think that this is part of what makes my parents so happy in general. They came from hardscrabble beginnings but, like their parents before them, they look forward, not back. They worked like maniacs to have a house in the suburbs for their children to grow up in, and they still work like maniacs to make sure we’re all happy and healthy.

Now they’re working — alongside their children — to make sure their grandchildren and great-grandchildren get off on the right foot.

“The breakdown of the family?”

Not here. Not us.

All it takes is work — generations of it.