People Who Never Strayed Far

The cold weather traps old people inside. My elderly aunt, the one who helped raise me, sits at the window for hours, peering out. We talk about the cold. At the age of 80, she can’t brave bad weather. Hooked up to an oxygen tank after many years of smoking, she gets winded navigating stairs. She lives with her sister and brother, all of them my father’s siblings, people who never strayed far. They live on the South Side of Chicago in a neighborhood where my family has been for 100 years.

When I telephone, I can hear that my aunt is growing older. Sometimes it takes her a moment to realize who’s on the line. Then her voice brightens. “I’ve been thinking about you, girl! I’m lonesome for you.” We briefly chat.

And then weeks will go by when I don’t call. She leaves me anxious messages at night. Am I okay? she asks.

How did the years go by and leave us here the same? My aunt says she never imagined getting this far. I feel lucky that she is here with me. There’s little else to do now but trudge to her house on the South Side, to sit in her kitchen and let her toil away for me for hours. The end of our time together is nearing. We heal the old heartbreaks one more time.

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My father’s family is a lot of fun. They have a dry sense of humor. “I only tease people I like, but with you I make an exception,” my uncle will say.

You witness the occasional moment of everyone breaking into song. It’s usually some song from the ’40s or ’50s. One person starts and the others instantly fall in. They sing with a sudden lightheartedness. It could be an Irish thing.

There are moments when the clamor and teasing get edgy. These people live an intimate existence together all day long.

We sit in the living room and have the same conversations: The decline of industry has ruined the country. We live in the era of the fascist regime. People used to care about the unions. We’ll never get anywhere till the unions are restored.

I look over at Aunt Mame and try to shift the conversation, because I sense there are other issues that need to be discussed. I ask her how she’s doing. “Oh, I’m good. At least that’s what everybody tells me!” She laughs with a merry incredulousness. There’s a little note of pain inside. She’s quiet and humble, encouraging, a listener, so I worry that she’s holding things in. What is she thinking? Sitting in her corner, she rephrases everything we say to show she understands. Her other guise is servant and helper. “Dear, would you like a little sandwich? Maybe just a bite of bacon and toast?” She is always trying to make things cozy for her siblings and their children. She insists on doing everything even when she’s worn out.

I ask her if she’s taking it easy enough. “Oh sure, I never do anything at all!” Sometimes she’ll surprise me with a fantasy of all of us driving to Wisconsin. Then just as suddenly she’ll note, “My days of traveling are done.”

When I was a child, we would go to Wisconsin in the summer. It was a brief respite for Aunt Mame. She lived a life of working hard, caring for her siblings, then her siblings’ babies, and trying to keep up us afloat in an ocean of troublemaking. (We’ve all been troublemakers at one time or another.) Aunt Mame liked to look at the water. She would watch my brother and I play for hours. At night, there were steaks and cocktails. My aunts and uncle spoiled us rotten. Five days of vacation with them was always the highlight of our summer.

Everything is changed forever, but one thing remains. There are many babies and barely enough adults. My aunts and uncle help to care for my cousin’s three little ones. I feel very glad they’re getting to know their grandma, great aunt, and uncle.

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My great grandfather was the justice of the peace of Mount Greenwood on Chicago’s far South Side. He was also the owner of a restaurant and tavern adjoining Mount Olivet Cemetery. In the old days, people would ride the trolley down for funerals, and afterward have a luncheon at the restaurant. My great grandfather was a man of means. There were newspaper articles about him. When he died, Charles Comiskey was quoted in the obit. When his eldest daughter joined a convent, the Hearst papers cooked up a fantasy: they said that Justice Cunningham wept as he pleaded with his daughter not to go.

The family lived above the restaurant. They were wealthy enough to possess many musical instruments, including pianos and harps. Great Grandfather died when my grandfather was four years old. The restaurant survived for a few years after that. Then the Depression delivered the final blows to what was left of the fortune.

But many of my grandfather’s sisters did well. One married a doctor. Another married the owner of a successful South Side funeral home. The oldest, Sister Mary Dominick, became the dean of a woman’s college. Aunt Tess, who was a hunchback, became a teacher and a lawyer.

But my grandfather became a rabid alcoholic incapable of holding down a job.

Funny the lives that people lived back then. Because they didn’t have access to birth control, my grandparents had eight children. My grandmother’s parents, who came from Ireland in their late teens, once upon a time made it big American style. They owned a West Side tavern and multiple buildings. When my grandmother’s father died, that fortune also went into decline. Once everything was lost, my grandmother’s mother, sister, and brother came to live with my grandparents and their eight children. They lived in a succession of ramshackle houses, dependent on the mercy of relatives to help them scrape by.

As the eldest, Aunt Mame possesses the most vivid memories of all this.

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We speculate endlessly on the lives of my grandmother’s parents. Why did they never speak of Ireland? How, as immigrants, did they make such a fortune? Who did they leave behind in the old country — if anyone? No one will ever know. My aunt speaks of taking the trolley to the West Side to stay with them. She says that her grandfather was a very sweet man. She remembers the years after his death when the family tried to hang on to the tavern. My grandfather helped run it. My grandmother’s brother, Tom, also helped. Like my grandfather, he drank. (“Of course, he drank,” is a frequent interjection during stories.) The enterprise was doomed, the tavern was lost.

Tom was said to be a kindly man. Brother Dick, who came to live with the family, was “simple.” There was something wrong with him. Though fundamentally harmless, he scared outsiders. The aunt, whose name I can’t remember, was “a darling” who doted on my Aunt Marge. The grandmother, who lived in the attic, was a prim woman, used to being waited on.

For my grandparents, poverty was a big comedown. Aunt Mame often remarks, “When my mother married my father, she never expected it would turn out like it did.” Aunt Mame was my grandmother’s helper from the time she was small. She cared for all the babies in succession, dropped out of high school, worked jobs. She took out loans every December to buy Christmas presents for the little ones. Then she spent the rest of the year working off the loans.

There were joyous times: traveling to dances near 80th and Halsted, or stopping off at Grandma Cunningham’s, where my grandfather and his siblings gathered for midnight dinner on Friday nights. There was the World’s Fair and games at Comiskey Park, where my aunt worked at the concession stand. There are funny stories — like the one about my father eating only cheeseburgers for years on end, or his resentment at being named after Uncle Dick. They talk about my grandmother — how she loved any excuse to get dressed up and go out; how, in later years, when my aunts were working and money for food was coming in, they discovered what a great cook she was. But there are also many stories of grandmother and Aunt Mame having to beg, having to go to other relatives to ask for this or that favor. “Please take Dad in to get him out of the house and dry him up.” Relatives — grandfather’s own relatives — begging grandmother to kick him out. My aunts and grandmother going to the local priest — a man who’s famous in the neighborhood, with parks named after him; a man close to the family, who loaned my grandfather money for an engagement ring — to ask him to help them somehow. The priest told them condescendingly that he would “talk to Jim.” Knowing in their hearts that this would go nowhere, and feeling very abandoned, my aunts and grandmother cried all the way home.

There were milder humiliations: nuns who commented on the family’s inability to pay tuition. Protestants in the neighborhood who would acidly remark, “I remember your grandfather. He used to run the saloon.”

As a child, I was surrounded by dysfunction. The stories of bad old times were easily relatable. But there was also something comforting in being among the relatives, because they managed to impose order and continuity on all the chaos, maintained traditions that mitigated the abuse. My aunt’s house was clean and organized. There were good things to eat and drink. The garden and lawn were always green and beautiful. My Uncle Jim and Aunt Marge’s wisecracking entertained.

And Aunt Mame had a comforting way of touching and speaking, with a persistent innocence that captivated me. Our own home was rather chaotic — although I wouldn’t trade a moment of it for the world — but I was often frightened. My aunt would squeeze my hand. She’d whisper in my ear that I should call her when I got scared. She confided in me about all her own troubles, and I felt admitted to the family secrets. I knew that I wasn’t alone. You can feel a little abandoned when adults are making a hash of things, but if there’s one person out there who’s madly in love with you, then you’re okay. You’re not so easily lost.

But here’s a funny thing. I wonder if my aunt herself had any childhood. I wonder if there’s any way to make right what went wrong. She is a very strong woman. She doesn’t worry about herself, and when praised she is mild and self-deprecating. But there is a pain that burns, that doesn’t ebb. We used to chat about all kinds of things: the jobs and families of my cousins; the Catholic Church and whether it can and should survive. But these days, I find that one topic keeps returning. It fuels endless discussion, foments bewilderment and remorse. In her old age, what Aunt Mame thinks about is her father.

The house with 14 people living in it — how did they survive? — and on top of all that, there was her father. Aunt Mame begins, “I was crazy about my father. Just crazy about him.” My uncle chimes in, saying their father was a strange alcoholic, one who seemed to take no joy in it. He was not living it up on the town with his pals. He was shut up in his bedroom, drinking alone for days on end. The whole household was conscious of it and enveloped in dread. On occasion, he’d be dry for weeks, sometimes for months even. He’d get a job, and everyone would be mildly encouraged. Then one day someone would ask: “Do you think he’s taken a drink?” Aunt Mame laughs ruefully, “And every time you’d think it, it was the case!”

When he got older, my eldest uncle became sterner with his father. He made his father hand over whatever money the man was able to obtain. Rules were made for when and how grandfather could come and go.

And then there were the days when Aunt Mame had to dry him out.

I can’t really imagine what it would be like to have to dole out shots to your own father, first one every half hour, then one every hour. My uncle describes this in detail. My aunt says, “That’s how you keep from going to the hospital. There’d be a point when he knew he had to quit or go.” My uncle is disapproving. “He just could never kick the drink. It was sad. He was likeable, talented, bright.” Aunt Mame chimes in: “Oh, everybody loved him. He was the favorite of all his nieces and nephews.” My uncle describes being at a game at Comiskey with my father when some old-timer from the neighborhood came up to them. “Your father was the greatest guy!” This because he would take crowds of children to football games and get them in for free.

My grandmother was also “crazy” about my grandfather. People asked her to leave him, but she would never hear of it. She waited for his “spells” to pass, happy when he emerged. She would sit with him and tell him all the news. My aunt says, “That was one thing we never had to worry about, the marriage being loveless; there was always a lot of love in our house, wasn’t there, Jim?”

Grandfather could also be quite capable. He was a precinct captain and a man of connections. He could have been a success at any number of jobs.

But he could never kick the drink and as he got older, it got more awful. “Everyone was always mad at him. Sometimes I wonder how that must have felt,” says Aunt Mame. My grandmother died suddenly at the age of 65. My aunt always describes this as a shock for my grandfather. “He probably thought that in her old age, she would be able to go on nice vacations with her daughter the teacher. He never thought that she’d be the first one to go.”

At that point, my uncle and aunts were in the process of buying the house they live in now. Their big question was, what to do with Dad? As they were, things could not go on. I don’t know the details but I think it was conveyed to him that it was either dry up or move out. The question was never decided, as he died a few months after my grandmother.

I am struck by how the pain over such things can linger, even grow. It’s as if in old age my aunt is returning to those years. My mother has a cheerful temperament, but I notice her dwelling more and more on her own mother’s life, which was also one of poverty and struggle. I myself feel supernaturally lucky to have escaped.

When some other person mentions some little kindness of my aunt’s that I’ve never heard of — for instance, the business about the loans at Christmastime — I may say, “How did you get to be so good, Aunt Mame? That’s what I want to know.” Aunt Mame will shake her head. “Oh no, I was not always nice. I was quite capable of being nasty. Believe me.” Or she will blame herself for enabling others’ dysfunction. But I can’t see it. She did what she did out of kindness, not malice. If mistakes were made, didn’t she err on the right side? She took on an enormity and, in her old age, still takes it on.

One time recently when I was over for dinner, I suggested that I spend the night. That weekend was the first in a long while where I felt I got to see my aunt relax and laugh. She has a very surprising way of laughing delightedly. I wonder if I can keep these things in my mind.

Here’s a trait I see in the Irish: a tendency to make everything into a tale of woe. Sometimes as I watch us slide into wailing, I have the urge to laugh. I’m unable to maintain the heaviness. Perhaps I am getting off light.

At Mount Olivet there’s a hill with a big tombstone purchased by my great grandfather Cunningham. He moved relatives from other cemeteries so everyone would be in the same place. People from Ireland are buried there and a miscellany of aunts and uncles. Almost all of my family is there, or will be there some day.

I used to be afraid of the day when I would join them, but now I no longer am. Is this attitude appropriate? Maybe I need to take death a bit more seriously. One shouldn’t undervalue life.

I have a strong compulsion to repeat things. Some day later on, when some of our adult saga’s played itself out, I wouldn’t mind living with one or both of my siblings; they are great people and we have many laughs. Maybe we will all wind up in the same city. Of maybe we will wander to different ends of the earth.

But it would be nice if at the end of the day, I could live near enough to Mount Olivet to go and sit with the old folks.

I don’t want us to be lonesome.

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