I was born and raised in Bridgeport: a dirty, industrial, polluted mess of a neighborhood. Located on the near-South Side of Chicago, under a scrambled mess of highway infrastructure, one will find ailing nineteenth century housing stock, a ravaged, beat-up business strip that’s still home to immigrants arriving from wherever, ready to stake their claim in this American life. These hardscrabble streets are not charmed, but are filled with hope. My mom lived and died there, and still I walk these streets.
My mom, Irene, grew up on the corner of 33rd and Racine on the South Side of Chicago. She lived and died on that same block. Her dad had a family grocery store on that corner. Mom and her sisters would help Grandpa maintain the store. The family just got by. Pops, my grandfather, having a “soft” heart, he gave away groceries on credit. The cash register was stuffed with more IOUs than green. The Gensiorski family barely got by themselves. As a mere baby (three years old), I recall the potbelly stove burning bright with coal and wood on a wintery afternoon and the smell of wet sawdust on the floor, with Grandpa chasing me about the store.
My Mom was certainly no wilting lily growing up in the city, and told me herself she picked up a smoking habit at fourteen. This was a rough and tough hardscrabble working class neighborhood, with saloons on every corner, the fragrant whiff of the union stockyards, and billowing factory smoke. When money was tight, with bill collectors at the front door, Grandma was selling homemade wine out the back door!
Mom was never afraid of hard work. In the 1940s she helped in the War effort; became a Rosie the Riveter working on B-29 bombers.
After the War romance blossomed for Mom. She met this wild guy Joe, a handyman electrician and car enthusiast–one of my aunts recalled, “Sparks started flying!” A famous family story about their courtship always raises eyebrows and laughs at family gatherings.
One night Irene and Joe went out on a date. Mom stayed out all night. Upon returning home in the dawning light, her enraged father was there to greet her and in his anger broke various windows and doors. Mom’s father kicked her out of the house for a week. Little did Mom’s dad know, but she spent the week with her girlfriend who lived right next door! Mom’s sisters would throw her fresh clothes across the gangway so she could be dressed for work.
Soon thereafter, Joe and Irene got married. Their deep love resulted in me being born. Twins Joe and Jan followed. Five years later, brother Allan made his appearance. Dad had a steady job as an electrical engineer in a stockyard warehouse. Money was good, so as the late fifties became the early sixties, our family was able to enjoy some spoils of the American dream; family trips out West, new, shiny, river barge-sized cars for Dad, new outfits for Easter Mass. Our home life was happy and loving, in a modest and comfortable sort of way, but not perfect. Dad had a drinking problem that would sometimes disrupt our stable family life. Sometimes money would be tight, out would come Hamburger Helper and mac and cheese, and life would go on.
Then, in 1963, disaster struck. The stockyards were shutting down, and suddenly Dad was without a job. Shortly thereafter our father had a massive heart attack. He left us and we were swallowed in a cloud of darkness. We were now a family in peril; our driving engine was gone. Our Dad meant everything to us and now we had nothing. Well, Mom didn’t wait around–she quickly got a factory job to support her young family, and being young rebellious teens, we worked hard to dismantle her efforts. We went the usual troubled youth route, running around all hours of the night, experimenting with drinking and drugs, questionable acquaintances, skirmishes with authorities, etc.–nothing really serious though.
Soon after becoming a single parent, Mom’s biggest challenge arose. Our father’s death sent brother Joe spiraling out into mental illness. My brother’s condition was so severe it literally sent him running out in the streets, ranting, talking to himself and hallucinating. Joe had no control over his behavior. He would keep Mom up all night and then harass her at work begging for cigs and drink. Many, many trips were spent taking Joe for stays at mental health hospitals. My Mom, even at death’s door, was more concerned about Joe’s wellbeing than her own.
Our house on Racine in Bridgeport was nicknamed “The Pit” for obvious reasons. Our mother allowed it to be the meeting place for all the kids in the neighborhood. She also nurtured these street urchins with Banquet TV dinners and burnt frozen pizza. Over time our home developed a well-worn look with its broken furniture and leaky pipes. After wrecking the house, our motley bunch headed to “our” playground–of course, not a conventional one.
We had the luxury of a natural prairie running along the Bubbly Creek (Chicago River) and amid the industrial ruins. So literally one block away from our home lay fun, adventure, and danger. We not only played along the river’s edge, building dugout forts, catching bees and fireflies, staging mock wars; we even built a raft and paddled amid the turds and whitefish (condoms). We discovered wildlife in our prairie, strictly urban species; many rats the size of cats or small dogs and my favorite bird, the pigeon. The prairie was always full of wonder. It was not unusual to spy hastily built shacks sheltering the homeless and I remember hoboes fresh off the nearby railway cars, huddled around campfires heating their potluck stew. We copped the vagrants’ style and for fun hopped moving boxcars and got chased by train dicks. The fun ended when I got caught, brought home and double ass-whipped.
After Mom retired in her sixties, she ran a hotdog cart, again on 32nd and Racine. With working class moms and latchkey kids, Mom provided a quick meal, provided a necessary service to these hungry kids. In the cabinet she stashed pop for the kids and cold beer for herself. When Mom was busy or distracted some enterprising kids would go for the beers. She would catch them, and reply, “Put them back, boys. The beers are for Grandma!”
About three years ago Mom broke her hip and her health began to decline. In spite of her ill health there was no question who ruled the roost–she was still able to boss us around, tell us how to run our lives, and yes, provide for sick brother Joe. Mom had severe heart and lung issues and in spite of her medical hardships never ever complained. It was amazing, unspoken, how we all came up to bat caring for Mom. I could not believe how difficult caregiving could be until I became a caregiver. All of us family members cared and nurtured her sometimes just with our presence to combat loneliness. With all my efforts caring for Mom I still felt I couldn’t do enough; because she so completely cared, loved, and provided for us our entire lives. Motherhood.
A week before Mom left us we had an impromptu living wake. Magically friends and family filled the house to pay their respects. Mom, fading in and out, took in the loving group. Here in her honor, all took turns holding her hand, and spoke to her though she could no longer speak.
Tuesday, January 29, 2014, 10pm
Nephew Ivan, Sister Jan and I held vigil over Mom in the TV’s glow. Ivan tucked in Mom tight on her cozy recliner and we all took turns holding her hand and reassuring her with our love and devotion. Near midnight her breathing slowed. On this cold winter night we took in these last precious moments of her presence. In this darkest hour Mom left us.
Her hand still warm, Sister Jan kissed her forehead, and bid her goodbye. At 3am the dark-cloaked messengers from the funeral parlor stole Mom away, but they could not take her undying love.