Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Book of Me, Part 7: Grandparents

This is my entry prompted by The Book of Me, Written By You project created by Julie Goucher of the Anglers Rest blog. The concept: a series of blogging and writing prompts that help family historians capture their own memories and write about themselvesGo to for more information.

This week's assignment:

The continuation of the 15 month, weekly writing project about my life and memories, created by Julie Goucher.
The prompt for week 7 is Grandparents

What were their names?
Where were they from?
Were they related? – Cousins perhaps
Where were they born, another Country or state/area
What did they do?
Did you know them?
What was your relationship with them?
If you didn't know them have you researched about them?

Eva and Thomas Barski, cir. 1948
Copyright © 2013 Linda O'Donnell All Rights Reserved
I have always felt like I was cheated when it came to grandparents.  Many of my friends had grandparents with whom they had active, loving relationships.  Me, not so much.  But what I've learned about them (and from the one good grandparent I had in my life) has influenced me more than I originally realized.

Let's start with my father's side.  My father, Thomas, was the second of two children born to Thomas and Eva Barski, and the only son.  Eva was born in Austria (also called Galicia at the time), and came to the United States as a very young child with her mother after her father died, around 1910.  My grandfather, also named Thomas, was the youngest of three boys born in the United States to Polish immigrants.

I do not know how they met.  Eva died, tragically, of colon cancer (the same disease which claimed my father's life) in her early 50's.  Thomas Sr. took her death so hard that he decided to move away from the Chicago area and took up residence in southern California.  My father, who had to be called home from serving in the Korean Conflict, made it home to say goodbye to his mother and then promptly got shipped back to Korea after her funeral.  I cannot imagine how this must have impacted him.

Thomas Sr. was known to be somewhat less than dedicated to his jobs (apparently he had quite a few), and when times got tough, Eva somehow scraped enough money together to open a neighborhood grocery store, where she sold homemade sandwiches, cakes and salads.  She was known as the sensible one, the one who handled the finances, served as the emotional backbone of the family.  My father told me that his mother was always home when he arrived at the end of his school day, and I also remember him attempting to recreate many of her homemade recipes for Austrian concoctions that were met with varying levels of enthusiasm from us kids.  I wish I had met her.  From all accounts, Eva was kind, hard-working, and sensible, all traits I admire very much.

I only met my grandfather Thomas Sr. twice; once when I was 7 and once when I was 14.  During both visits, he was short-tempered, abrupt and rude.  Knowing that he ceased to be a part of my father's life when Eva died has given me insight into my father's own emotional shortcomings. Thomas Sr. died in 1980 in California, and apparently my father's reaction was one of disinterest.

My mother was an only child, the product of a marriage that probably should never have taken place.  My grandfather, Carl, was the only child of Swedish immigrants in Chicago, and my grandmother, Esther, was the oldest of three, born in Denmark and immigrated as a toddler.

Me & "Esther" on my wedding day, 1980
Copyright © 2013 Linda O'Donnell All Rights Reserved
I am also unsure how they met.  I know that Esther was a nurse and Carl was an accountant.  He was a sweet, gentle soul who wouldn't hurt a fly.  Esther threw dishes and vases at him when they argued.   They divorced when my mother was young, and Esther moved to Shreveport, Louisiana when my mother was in her early teens, to marry her second husband, Larry, leaving Carl to raise their daughter on his own.  This impacted my mother dramatically, and I don't believe she has ever coped with the sense of abandonment.  Carl never remarried...I think he loved Esther until the day he died.  God only knows why.

Esther would visit us once in a while, and her perfume would permeate the house for weeks after she left.  I have no doubt that she loved us, but she wasn't very demonstrative of it.  She was self-centered, judgmental and not very patient.  She would send my mother a check for our birthdays and Christmas, never taking the time to personally choose a gift.  My father detested Esther, and she hated him right back.  I heard stories of how my father threw her out of our house when I was a baby, because she was already trying to tell my parents how to raise me and was always critical of my dad.  When I relocated to Texas in the 1980's, Esther moved to Texas, and I would visit her occasionally, but I never developed the warm relationship with her that I craved.  We never baked cookies together, went shopping, or shared secrets.  She was Esther, not "Grandma," and as I got older, I found that I resented her for divorcing my beloved Grandpa.  When she suffered a stroke in 1998, I visited her in the hospital as much as I could, but we had very little to talk about.  I hate to admit that when she died, I didn't feel a huge sense of loss.

Me and my Grandpa, Cir. 1960
Copyright © 2013 Linda O'Donnell All Rights Reserved
As I mentioned in an earlier post, my grandfather Carl played a huge role in my life, for the short time I had him.  He adored me and my siblings.  He was very interactive with us, taught me to love Chicago sports, and always demonstrated his love, sense of humor and patience with us.  My father loved Carl more than his own father, and was devastated, like the rest of us, when Grandpa died suddenly at the age of 66.  I was 12.  My parents were never the same after Carl's death, and his loss caused whatever emotional stability we might have hoped for in my family to evaporate.

I had the opportunity to visit Grandpa's gravesite this past July.  He is buried in a huge cemetery...more than 40,000 souls are interred there.  My friend Carol and I went to the office, got ourselves armed with a map and set out to find him.  Even with the map, however, it was difficult to navigate the site, and the row markers were buried beneath overgrown grass.  So we decided to divide and conquer.  Carol went off in one direction and I in the other.  I encountered a young man, quietly sitting under a tree, who asked me who I was looking for.  I told him Grandpa's name, and as soon as the words left my lips, a huge, sustained gust of wind nearly knocked me over, creating a vortex of leaves and flowers, though there was not a cloud in the sky.  The young man joked that Grandpa must have known I was there.  We determined that his marker was on the other side of the section, so I walked back over to Carol and we drove around to access the proper spot.  When I mentioned the huge gust of wind, Carol had no idea what I was talking about.  Although she had only been about 25 feet away, she never felt the wind, saw the mini-tornado or heard a thing.  I began to cry...and once we found Grandpa's marker, I found myself talking to him, sobbing, telling him how much I loved him and missed him...43 years after he died.  That big wind was likely a coincidence, but I really felt connected to Grandpa that day.  Of all the adult figures in my childhood, he was the one who showed me unconditional and unwavering love and encouragement.  I think about him every day, and will miss him always.
Grandpa's marker
Copyright © 2013 Linda O'Donnell All Rights Reserved

Learning what I have about my grandparents and their lives, however, has given me a sense of the struggles my parents endured in their childhoods.  Perhaps it is why they were not the ideal parents to grow up with...although I am a firm believer that we all have the ability to choose how to treat others, especially our loved ones.  My dad's sister (my aunt), and her six children, are all warm, funny and intelligent people, so why did their family thrive while ours was always in turmoil?  There is no sense to make of it, no Monday morning quarterbacking, etc., that can give me concrete answers.  I've come to believe that they all did the best they could with the resources they had.  Some of us have more strength than others, and cope with the challenges of life in more positive ways.  I am thankful for the life lessons I innate sense of knowing right from wrong, a strong work ethic, passion, even humor.  I also learned that I wanted to be different in many ways-- a hands-on parent, an encourager, someone with patience and empathy, and I think, while I have my flaws, I have succeeded in achieving those things, for the most part.  I like to think I have most emulated my beloved Grandpa...showing love...not only to my family, but to friends and strangers alike.  What better tribute could I pay to him?

Blessings to you,

1 comment:

  1. Oh Linda. A powerful post indeed. Well done you! I like the story about you hunting for your grandfather in the cemetery and the wind. Amazing stuff.