This Was During The Depression

DSCN6945

DSCN6948Eleanore ate salad at the Mason Street Grill last Friday,

in honor of her mother,

a woman named Blanche,

“she was a honey”

born around 1892.

When honey Blanche grew up

she worked for a time making

the most popular salads at the Pfister

so great were her salads

that President Teddy Roosevelt

asked to meet his salad maker

so he could kiss her hand

and from that

Blanche learned how approachable lawmakers are.

Eleanore has frequently called them up too

to advocate on behalf of the poor.

Somewhere in the attic

Eleanore has the phone number

of former Senator Kohl

who by the way, I saw again

just the other day

in the lounge

so the next time I see him

I’m to tell him

Eleanore says “Hello,”

another word her father had to learn

after arriving from Poland.

“My mother was born on the boat,”

says Eleanore but soon changes her mind,

“No! She was born and then rode the boat.

She was sick all the way,

vomiting over the side,

I certainly give these immigrants a lot of credit

they were all getting sick not just her.”

Blanche’s first job was caring for a doctor’s child

she took the streetcar to work.

There were three children:

Eleanore’s older sister, herself and then Florence.

There was also her brother, Norman

who died at age three from infantile paralysis.

Eleanore was in kindergarten at the time

but had to drop out.

Even Buster could tell Norman was sick,

that dog would pick Eleanore up from school

and they would run down the alleys together

until they arrived at her house on Archer Avenue.

Across the street

was the butcher shop

the boy whose family owned the shop

was Eleanore’s playmate and eventual husband.

On the corner of Archer and Kinnickinnic was a big lot

owned by the plumbing store guy

who told the kids that they could play football

or baseball there

any time they wanted

and so they did.

Eleanore wore jeans,

played sports with boys,

a tomboy

unlike her sister, Florence

who would stand in front of the mirror,

primp her red-brown hair and announce,

“I am going to Hollywood.”

Anytime Eleanore had a date

she’d introduce the fellow to her family.

So many boyfriends dumped Eleanore!

Once they saw Florence

they started dating her instead.

“She was strictly a Hollywood type of person.”

This was during the depression

people ate horse meat,

everyone knew when Al Capone was coming to town,

they went to the streets to watch.

In 1931 there was an older lady with a hat

who owned “a big hunk of luxury,”

an electric car!

The kids used to line up and watch with mouths wide open

as she clambered the high step to get in.

Eleanore’s father planted a Victory garden for his family

where Cudahy High now sits

it was like a cemetery with different plots

for families growing tomatoes.

To this day Eleanore still gardens

at her nursing home in Oak Creek.

“I’ve had a beautiful life,

and these are all of my friends,”

Eleanore gestures at all five of her friends

also gardeners

who joined her to celebrate her life.

It’s not her birthday

she turned 96 last January

but on this August day she’s presented a birthday cake.

Someone pulls away her salad,

Eleanore protests, “I’m not done with that!”

but covers her mouth in shock and delight

when she sees a cake and one burning candle set before her

instead of singing we watch Eleanor eat her dessert

with the fire still going till the last bite.

History in the Air (Pt. 2)

<continued from Part 1>

“Every Sunday – it was a must – they’d take walks together, down to the lake.  There wasn’t a house or building there, it was all grass.  Just imagine how beautiful that was.  One time they were walking through an alley together, as a group, joking and having fun – and my mother said, ‘Oh, look at the red light there, isn’t that pretty?’  It was kind of high up on the building and one of the guys laughed and laughed and said, ‘Don’t you know what’s that for?’ and my mother said ‘No, no, it’s so pretty up there.’ Of course, they were talking about the red light district.  I’ve often gone down there, walking around, looking at the buildings and wondering which one it was.

“One day Teddy Roosevelt was in town, having lunch there, and he asked the waitress, ‘who made this beautiful, this wonderful salad?’  He said ‘I’m a salad person and this is the best salad I ever had, I have to meet whoever made it.’  So my mom came out of the kitchen to meet him.  They shook hands; he gave her a kiss and congratulated her on her salad.”

The photo, with Blanche's handkerchief and gold bracelet stamped with her initials

“She went on to be a nanny for a Doctor’s family before getting married and starting her family.  She was always a good cook – her food was delicious, very delicate – she would bake cookies for us to take to school.  Then people in the neighborhood started getting laid off – during the Depression.  I remember so many sad people. My folks’ nature was: ‘We have to feed these people.’ And so my mother was cooking day and night, making meals for so and so and so and so, and my sister and I would deliver on the coaster just like the snowstorms. But, that’s how we were brought up and it’s still that way in the family. You got to take care of people.”

I stayed for two more hours while El told me more stories about her life in Bay View – working for Bucyrus during WWII and waiting for the bus in the snow when her shift ended after Midnight; about marrying her childhood sweetheart (Dan, the butcher’s son with whom she attended elementary school and “did everything together – played together, fought together); all the garden clubs she worked with; going on a fishing trip to Canada for her 25th wedding anniversary; her kids and grand-kids and five great grand-kids (“One is going to be a writer!”).

We wandered around her yard, as she gathered dirt and a spare pot to send me home with wild onion bulbs to grow in my apartment.  She showed me the banners hanging in her yard, which lie in the flight path of the airport, honoring the 128th Air Refueling Wing and the 440th Airlift Wing – her husband, Dan, served in the war with the signal corps – and every time the signature sound of those military planes is heard, El rushes out to her backyard to salute them.

So this weekend, as jets and bombers buzz the shores of Lake Michigan for the Milwaukee Air Show, I’ll be thinking about Eleanore Hinich and her husband Dan’s service during WWII, as well as her mother’s kindness and generosity and how El so warmly embodies that nature and spirit.

I’m certain Teddy Roosevelt would have been pleased to find out that years later, Blanche was still making delicious food, only this time to feed the hungry mouths of families in Bay View who were forging through the Great Depression.

As for that onion bulb in the little ceramic pot?  It’s already sprouted up, getting ready to be chopped up and added to a delicious meal which I’ll be sure to make for a friend.

“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

 

History in the Air (Pt. 1)

“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.

Blanche

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…