Olive and I used to wedge plump salty black olives firmly onto each of our ten fingers at the Thanksgiving table, and waggle them around at everyone. After the show that was brilliantly entertaining in our minds only, we’d suck the fleshy fruits into our mouths, one by one. I thought she was the absolute coolest.
She had a permanent smile on her face. Revlon Orange Flip lipstick was the choix du jour, each day, for Olive. She wore the most colorful dresses imaginable and proudly adorned them with giant battery operated, blinking Cubs buttons, or the similarly gigantic Kiss Me I’m Irish one. She laughed as much as she smiled. Her ample chest would bounce up and down with each hearty guffaw. It’s as though she hadn’t a care in the world.
She was addicted to the Cubs, or perhaps it was Harry Caray. She didn’t miss one single game the whole time I knew her, as a kid until I was in my 20s. I’m not sure how many games she actually got to see, but her trusty little black transistor radio with the long antenna was always on the ready. She’d pull it out of her big black purse and plunk in the middle of the table, wherever she was, when it was game time.
She lived on Pine Grove and Diversey above Granny’s Waffle and Pancake House. One summer I was the cashier at Granny’s. For a while I lived with Olive and she’d wake me up before 6 a.m. to let me know it was time to get to work. She’d come down with me, sit at a big round table near the window (she was a fixture there), eat breakfast, drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. I think they were Virginia Slims.
At noon or so I’d kiss her on the cheek and head off to my second job at Marshall Field’s in Water Tower Place. I’d walk all the way there, along the lakefront. Life was perfect back then. At least it felt like it sometimes.
I’d walk past Oak Street Beach where Olive had met the man who’d become her husband, Carl, many moons before. Someone in my family has a photo of her as a teenager in an old-time bathing costume standing on a post at that very beach. What a cutie she was.
Olive was born in Wilmington, Delaware—wink, nod, hello Joe!—where her parents owned a butcher shop. Tragically she lost them both when she was a baby, and was brought up by an aunt. Eventually, as many Irish girls did at that time, she got on a bus and moved to Chicago as a teen, on her own. She lived with other Irish girls and embarked on a career in the restaurant business.
Carl died when I was in pre-school, but I remember him clearly. The snappiest dresser you could find, replete with fedoras and wool felted hats topping his head each day, as much a pièce de résistance as Olive’s Orange Flip. He was an avid gardener and grew much of his own food over the years. His living room looked like a botanic garden. My favorite thing was a birdcage full of vines. He lived near Senn High School (by then Olive and Carl had split) where the huge fence along Ridge always bursted with morning glories. As a child, when we were lucky enough to pass them opening up to the sun, my mother would remind us that those were Carl’s favorite flowers.
As I prepare to place my feet back onto Chicago soil and sidewalks, it seems Olive and Carl are alive in me more than ever. I am deeply grateful to have inherited their joie de vivre, green thumb, high intelligence, cleverness, classiness, and the fact that I knew Harry Caray style glasses were in fashion long before hipsters arrived on the scene.
Can’t wait to visit you, Grandma and Grandpa. Thank you for loving me unconditionally.