Back before World War II, during and even before the Great Depression, most of my extended family lived in the old Jewish west side of Chicago, around what is now Roosevelt Road and Pulaski but was then 12th Street and Crawford. Many of those buildings are still there – the great Balaban and Katz movie theater chain got its start with the air-conditioned Central Park Theater, which is now a church. Near the theater was a deli run by the Berman family; their kid, Shelly, was a counterman there before he became a comedian and actor. These places and many others were the teen-age hangouts for my father, Seymour, and my aunts Ida and Rose.
An old man… well, at least he seemed young to the youthful Rose… had set up shop on a street corner, moving from corner to corner at the suggestion of the friendly beat cop. He had with him a couple of wooden crates. He sat on one and put his vegetable grinding tools on the other. All day, this man would grind up produce for his neighborhood customers. Garlic, onions, carrots, turnips… all fresh, all to be used by local housewives in their preparation for that day’s evening meal.
His face was very deeply weathered and lined. Certainly, this was not an easy job and the fragrances promoted tearing and outright crying. His hands were equally weathered, his knuckles scarred and torn. This is how the man earned his living.
And this is how I learned of my family’s American roots. My Aunt Rose told me this story and many others. She expressed them in such detail that I could see the lines in that man’s face. I can smell the onions and garlic. I can almost feel what it was like to earn one’s living grinding vegetables in the cold Chicago winters and the hot Chicago summers, in rain and snow, in the wind and in the sun.
Aunt Rose was my conduit to our family’s history. Her manner, the way she handled herself with pride and straight-forwardness had an overwhelming impact upon me, but it is the tales of our family’s American heritage that impacted me the most. To quote Damon Runyon, the bard of Manhattan Kansas: “for this, I am forever grateful.”
Aunt Rose was the last member of what Tom Brokaw refers to as “The Greatest Generation,” as far as my family is concerned. She died last week, about five months short of her 100th birthday. Being the last, she’s now passed the torch to the next generation.
I know I’m not prepared for it. I’m almost the youngest member of this generation of my family, so outside of parenting (which I love more than anything in the world), my responsibilities are few. Mike Nesmith said we are totally unprepared for it; he said this 32 years ago and, damn, he’s still on the money. Just ask any Millennial. But when pressed, we do okay.
That’s because we had us some great role models.
Mike Gold performs the weekly two-hour Weird Sounds Inside The Gold Mind ass-kicking rock, blues and blather radio show on The Point, www.getthepointradio.com, every Sunday at 7:00 PM Eastern, rebroadcast three times during the week – check the website above for times and on-demand streaming information. Gold also joins MDW’s Marc Alan Fishman, Martha Thomases and Michael Davis as a weekly columnist at www.comicmix.com where he pontificates on matters of four-color.