My Uncle Alan, Alan Fredian, is the last close relative from either side of my parents’ generation. Almost a decade ago, Cousin Jim and I visited him in Hinsdale, a Chicago suburb, with a tape recorder, note pad, and photo scanner. That snowy day we spoke about the fun of visiting the old neighborhoods where he, my mom, and my Uncle Joe (Cousin Jim’s dad) grew up, and that was the plan for Thursday, July 22. At dinner the night before, with his middle son Justin, I learned that the family calls him “Caro,” which is Italian for dear. Henceforth, I will, too.
Aunt Dorothy drove us to the train station in Hinsdale, and Caro and I hopped on the 8:56 into Chicago. It was a nice ride, a commute that he has done for decades. We yakked about jobs, business, family. At Union Station, we ambled on Adams Street, across the Chicago River to the Quincy CTA stop, and onto the Brown Line, one of the elevated lines that loops the center and gives downtown Chicago its nickname. The line remains above ground, and curves north and west, giving a good view of new development north of the center. Uncle Alan had not been in these parts for awhile, and he marveled at the amount of development (I’m always surprised at how much new stuff gets built in inner Chicago).
We got off at Diversey, walked down the stairs, and met Cousin Jim in front of an Einstein Bagels store. I needed a jolt of coffee, so we headed in and immediately got into family history. It was going to be an interesting few hours. My uncle, at 79, has great recall. Caro had never seen Jim’s old house on Altgeld, where he lived for a decade before moving back to the suburb where he grew up, so we detoured past the place we had visited many times. We then headed west to Marshfield Avenue, where Alan lived from 1931 to 1940. We parked in front of my grandfather’s Centrella Grocery, at 2507.The store closed more than 50 years ago, but the building stands. In the early 1920s, my Nonno (Italian for grandfather) bought the store from the previous owner, who financed it. He and my grandmother, Anna, later bought the two buildings immediately to the north. We walked between the buildings, Caro pointing out the door to the cellar, in which he slaughtered and rendered chickens, geese, and pigeons. He helped his dad in a lot of ways. Jim the Grocer served an ethnically diverse group of customers: Italians, of course, as well as Germans, Poles, Czechs, and Serbs, and he needed a few words of many tongues. Memories surfaced in Caro’s mind and he spoke and laughed, about the Italian bookie next door, about Pontinanni, a fellow who appeared homeless, because he sought refuge from his rather intense wife, and who sat on the stoop next door. They yelled at Signor P, “No sputa qui,” an approximation of the Italian for “hey, don’t spit here!”
Next stop was the McWhinney Benevolent Association, a men’s social club that, remarkably, is still in business. Nonno and my great-uncle Frank were both officers at the McWhinney (through a friend of Cousin Mike’s we actually visited the McWhinney on my 40th birthday, in 1991).
More stories from Caro. Continuing north, Alan mentioned Mr. Mariotini, a poor fellow that Jim the Grocer set up in business, a simple newspaper stand around the corner at the busy intersection of Ashland and Diversey. My gramps was a kind and generous man, a righteous man, quick to offer credit for groceries to people who often could never repay. In the late 1940s, he sold the store to his nephew Pietro Federighi (Americanized to Pete Frederick), who owned it until he died in 1959.
The store was at 2507 Marshfield, but the family lived in the lower unit of a duplex at 2662, which my maternal great-grandmother Ottilie Palluck owned (and lived above with my Great-Aunt Bezita).
Oma (German for grandmother) died in about 1949; her husband Johan died much earlier, in the 1920s. The house still looks good.
Walking north, Alan mused about Billy Surmonte, who lived at 2714, and who used to beat the hell out of Uncle Alan for reasons unknown (maybe because he was a smart kid?).
We looked at St. Bonaventure, their church for decades; earlier I told Caro and Cuz that my goal was to get a look inside the sanctuary, which was almost certainly locked. So we crossed Marshfield and pressed the intercom button on the front door of what had been the convent. “Good morning, my name is Robert Britton, and with me today is my Uncle Alan, who was an altar boy at St. Bonaventure in the 1940s . . .” That was as far as I needed to go before a woman buzzed us into what were now the offices of Vicariate II, a sort of regional office of the Catholic Church, run by Bishop Kane (who, in finest small-world fashion, turned out to be best friends with Father Bill, the priest who married Jim and Michaela).
Judy couldn’t have been nicer. She invited us into her office. Being the not-shy one, I mentioned that we’d love to see the sanctuary at St. Bonaventure across the street; she was not sure there was anyone in the building who could do that. We relayed a bit of family history. Jim added, maybe for more cred, that Non had been captain of the ushers and active on other parts of the church. In Catholic tradition, she gave us color postcards of Bishop Kane, Francis George, the Cardinal of Chicago, and the Pope – at the risk of irreverence, they reminded me of the baseball trading cards Cuz and I had as kids.
All the talk and the connection to the bishop softened her a bit. She rang upstairs to ask Father Healy if he’d be willing to open the doors. Yes, he said, and introduced himself a few minutes later. With declining membership, the parish became what’s known as an oratory, not a “full-service” church, but offering a limited Sunday worship schedule.
Father Healy was retired from full-time duties at another parish, and had agreed to serve as head of the oratory, a task known as rector. We ambled into the church, pausing for a photo by the cornerstone, “erected A.D. 1912.” It was only the third time I had been inside. Father Healy was not happy with the “modernizing” that had been done in the 1960s, but it looked at least stable and in repair. We yakked a bit.I asked Father Healy about St. Bonaventure, who turned out to be the number two man in the Franciscan order, the fellow tasked with bringing, as the Father said, “order to the order.” Nice.
The lesson, of course, was of faith and persistence, or as Luke wrote in Chapter 11 of the New Testament, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
We said goodbye to Father Healy, thanked him, and walked south on Marshfield. Caro pointed out the Criere Boiler plant, a small industry that he recalled made a lot of noise, and the surnames of various families, adding “they were so poor,” or “they were good people.” He recognized the Gemignani surname on a plaque identifying them as the managers of a structure at 2711. We got back in the car and drove a block west to Paulina, a former industrial street now fully developed into fancy townhomes and single houses – million-dollar stuff. Caro looking in all directions, marveling at the affluence in what had been in his day a working- and lower-middle class neighborhood.
We drove west to Logan Boulevard, and parked in front of 2548, where the family lived from 1940 to 1958 (when my grandparents joined Jim’s family in suburban Arlington Heights). Caro said the 1940 move was for my mother, then 19, to have the privacy of her own bedroom.
The building was still in good repair. We walked a block west, then back to the car, and down a half-mile to Logan Square and a filling lunch at a gastropub called Longman and Eagle (and my first sloppy joe in at least a decade).
At lunch, we yakked a bit more about the old days, about our grandmother’s worry about all manner of hazards, her fascination with disasters, and more. I asked about cars. Alan’s first recollection was his father driving a Rio from the early 1930s (not the Kia econobox of the same name!). “Then,” my uncle recalled, “he drove a maroon 1936 Pontiac, a blue 1940 Pontiac, and a green 1942 Buick, among the last produced before the GM plan shifted to war production. And he recalled his Dad buying Uncle Joe (Jim’s father) a 1947 Ford convertible when he came out of the service (he was drafted and entered the Army in June 1945, just months before World War II ended).
We looked at our watches and zipped back into the loop. Caro and I jumped out at Union Station, he for the train back to Hinsdale and me to my hotel a few blocks down Adams Street .
As in any trip back in time, the hours built interest. We wanted to know more. We wanted more detail for the question we all need to ask: “Where did we come from?”