Saturday, March 20, 2021

Texas notes: Olive and Carl

     The image of a tiny green olive with a bright red pimento on the inside of my right wrist has been popping into my mind’s eye. I’ve been seeing it there for months, along with a vine of bright purple morning glory flowers on my left shoulder and upper arm. These may be my first tattoos (if I find myself brave enough), and they came to me from who knows where. I don’t believe in god, and I am not even spiritual as many folks think I am. Still, I’ve been imagining— no doubt it’s wishful thinking— that my Grandma Olive and my Grandpa Carl are somehow still with me, even though they are both “resting” at Rosehill Cemetery.
     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 
pi├Ęce de r├ęsistance 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.


  1. I lived near Pine Grove and Diversey for a summer, in the early Seventies. A regular beehive of activity. But I eventually ended up in Roger Spark. Best beaches on the North Side.

    My paternal grandma lived at Pine Grove and Waveland in the Fifties, when that neighborhood was pretty scruffy. Gentrification was still decades away. Her boyfriend taught me how to play poker in that apartment.

    Welcome back to Chicago. This time, I know you will thrive.
    Zei gesunt... (Yidish for "Live and be well.")

    1. Thank you for the laugh, the camaraderie, and encouragement. Roger Spark

  2. Thanks for evoking that beautiful remembrance. I too have the fondest memories of the singular relationship that a loving grandparent provides. My two "bubbies" will always be in my heart. Now that I am experiencing this bond from the other side, I am loving every moment with my new grandson. It is the most unique and precious of connections.

    1. Wonderful. Seeing my nephews with their grandparents is one of the most precious things. Unless I somehow end up adopting, I won't have this chance, but I can soak in the goodness around me nonetheless.

    2. You never know. My daughter kept my wife and me on tenterhooks for many years, but finally got married at 40 and at 47 this year she has 2 rambunctious boys, 6 and 4, who are our joy and delight.


  3. Forget the tats. This piece has paid all the homage needed to honor Olive and Carl. Plus, it's just as permanent.

    1. :) True. Cheaper, and less painful too.

    2. It seemed like every night the Midway was in port, at least one sailor would return from liberty with a new tattoo, none of the sober. I had resolved to eschew this custom and succeeded remaining inkless to this day. I did flirt with a tasteful Blackhawks logo as a followup to a promise made to my niece. I had put off singing for her by vowing to not only sing for her if the Hawks won their third Stanley Cup, but I would also write the song. I was just putting her off but they won and she remembered. In the last line I hinted at the tattoo should they win a fourth time. My father sported a USMC tattoo that didn't age well, devolving into a big dark blotch on his forearm that was not appealing. But a small logo or a dime sized olive seems a better use of the art form. Just don't have it on a toothpick in a martini glass.

  4. That's great John! And thank you.

  5. You're moving back to Chicago??


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