To commemorate Grandparents Day (Sunday, September 8, 2019), I share this remembrance of my Grandma:
I was lucky to have an amazing grandmother. I only wish I could have enjoyed her longer. I feel honored to share her blood, and I’m bound to her always. Eleanor Elsie Bolke was the top. It’s because of her that I have an interest in genealogy and family history. Some secrets and mysteries will remain, but the more I uncover, the more I develop a profound appreciation!
Gram was the daughter of a Polish laborer in a steel mill and a beautiful Croatian woman. She and all of her siblings were born and raised in South Chicago. Gram didn’t experience a lot of her mother’s love. She was only two when her beloved mother died. Instead, she had an embittered and hateful stand-in in the form of a stepmother. In her childhood, she was abused and neglected.
Eleanor grew to be an extraordinary woman in spite of the circumstances. She became the mother to seven of her own children and the stepmother of two boys. She had strong instincts to survive when her marriages did not. This strength was in her DNA. Eleanor’s grandmothers lost their husbands while they were young and with children. Both remarried and continued their lives with their families intact.
My mom went to Mexico and lived there for a few years with my father and his family. I was born there. When we returned to the U.S., we went to live with Gram. That felt like the moment when black and white became Technicolor.
Ever-present was a loud television and the scent of her cigarettes, coffee, and perfume. She taught me English. When I would point and say “eso” (“that” in Spanish), she would jokingly ask my mom if I was calling someone an asshole.
Her hair was always some shade of bright red, and so was her lipstick when she stepped out. That was important. She worked in a beauty salon as a young girl. Anything not up to standards of being seen throughout the neighborhood was categorized as “hillbilly.” She was a lady and almost diva-like in some of her mannerisms. She was with her boyfriend, Peter, from before I was born until her last day. He adored her: who could blame him?
When we moved into a new apartment in 1987, there would be a special treat. Gram was going to live with us. I had already had her so close before and now I would again. Now I had to share her with my sister. When my brother was on the way, she thought we would all be too crowded. My mom took it really hard when she moved just a few blocks away. We always went to her place. I ran errands and got most of her groceries as I got older. She would always give me a few bucks. She had a picture of Elvis during his Hawaii phase on the wall and a portrait of her beautiful sister Lucille. She was extremely clean and practically lived at the Laundromat.
I grew up knowing and appreciating that Gram was COOL. She wasn’t like the grandmas on TV or like the ones my friends had. Everyone in the neighborhood knew her. She was hilarious with her off-color and unexpected jokes. She was not content to be an old lady. She made snide remarks about her friends that comfortably adapted to the role. She was a terrible cook. We often went to the neighborhood diners for more suitable food. My mom made beautiful circular pancakes, and Gram unintentionally made them shaped like Illinois. We went thrifting all the time. That meant shopping sprees at the Unique Thrift Store on 35th and Archer. She had little money but gave me anything I asked for.
On my first day of high school, she insisted that I come over to her house. I must have shown up at about 6:30 A.M. She was happy for me. She gave me “carfare” so I could buy myself something. I always thought that was a funny word. She was there again, full circle when I graduated high school.
There was so much love, energy, and life within Gram. I didn’t imagine not having her. In her last years, she was so serene and laidback. Her humor was a little tamer, and she didn’t swear anymore. She really seemed to be in a great place. It always amazes me that someone with such a difficult life could be how she was. She was incredibly kind to me.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I love you forever.
Your grandson who thinks of you always,