History in the Air (Pt. 1)
05 Aug, 2011
“Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds.” -Theodore Roosevelt
I park in front of the Bay View home of Eleanore Hinich, admiring her vast garden of butterfly plants and wildflowers as I approach to ring the doorbell. She’s expecting me, because she has a story to tell me. I’m meeting her at her home because, at 93-years-old, she doesn’t drive anymore. The door opens and a very slight woman greets me in khaki shorts, tennies and a Bucyrus Museum shirt with “Eleanor” stitched on it. Her shirt is tucked into her shorts, and a brown leather belt is cinched tight to the last possible hole. She blinks at me through her dainty metal-rimmed glasses, runs a hand through her cropped hair and, upon my introducing myself, flings wide her door, “Come in! Come in!”
She apologizes for her attire, as she’s been working on her garden. We talk briefly about how hot it’s been, and then she says, “So, you’re here to ask me about my mother?” as she escorts me into the kitchen, offering me a seat at her table where a milk jar holds an array of wildflowers from her yard. The walls are painted a sunny yellow, and the window is framed by white eyelet lace curtains, overlooking the backyard where there’s a pool and some banners hung on the fence. I nod, explaining that one of the security managers at the Pfister had told me about meeting Eleanore (‘El’) some time ago when she came in with some family members and an old photograph.
El jumps up. “I’ll get the photo.” She zips out of the room, reappears within moments, a folder in her hand. She places a photograph on the table. It’s 8.5 x 11, glossy, and black & white capturing three lines of people in kitchen whites and serving aprons. Printed at the bottom are the words “Pfister Hotel” and the year – 1914. Seated in the front row is a woman whose face is circled. Her ankles are crossed, her hands clasped in her lap.
“She’s so beautiful,” I say.
El nods, “she was a beauty – auburn hair, more chestnut than auburn. She was very fussy about everything.” She pauses. “So, what do you want to know?”
I pull out my notebook and pen, ask, “What was her name?” And so we begin.
Blanche Mrowinski (nee Rykowski) was born around 1892. For a brief time she worked as a salad girl for the Pfister Hotel. As El told me stories, she rarely sat still, getting up to make coffee, set out chocolate chip cookies, and work at getting the ground out from under her fingernails (“not coffee grounds, real earth, from outside!”).
“I think she stayed at the Pfister when she first started – they had rooms – instead of walking or taking the streetcar, because she lived on the South Side. One of those ladies [in the photo] was her best friend. She talked about this friend of hers a lot. They were very close. They were all like sisters and brothers –a big family, there. They were kind of nice to each other, setting each other up on dates. She had boyfriends from there – she’d tell us about the dates, and where he lived – this one and that one… They had so much fun together.
“Some of the girls who worked in the dining room would come home with blue ribbons, from the beers, and one girl would collect the blue ribbons and make pretty little things out of them.”
(Me:”Actual blue ribbons came with the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer?” El: “Yes! Do we still have a Pabst Blue Ribbon?” Me: “Yes, they still make it, but I don’t think they’ve actually won a blue ribbon in a long time. I think the first one was the only one.” We both burst out in laughter over this bit.)
<to be continued…>
Tune in tomorrow for Part Two…