Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Elusive Grammy Josephine, Part One -- A "Sepia Saturday" Post

The above photo, taken sometime in the 1920s, is of my mother's mother, born Josephine Matukaitis. Sometime around the beginning of the 20th century, she married my mom's father, Peter Stremekes, and after having had seven children -- perhaps more, as it's rumored that one or even more died in early infancy -- in the space of fifteen years, she abandoned her husband and children when my mother, her youngest, was only two years old. This would have been the ending of a marriage that had lasted roughly twenty years.

As I've told in previous Sepia Saturday posts, my grandfather only lived for another eight years or so before his death in 1927, when my mother was nine years old. My mom's sister Josie -- named after her mother, obviously -- and her husband, Joe Korsak, took in the other six children... and I use the term "children" loosely, as some were already adults.

Today's post, and its follow-up, too, will differ from my others in two respects. For one thing, instead of dealing with a specific and limited period in the family history, I'll be doing a brief overview of my grandmother's life. Secondly, because no one is still alive who was around when all the crap hit the fan, as it were, I'm going to include a bit more conjecture than usual in this first installment.

The biggest question in my mind -- and one that was never directly addressed when my mother, grandmother, and various uncles were alive to discuss events with the not-yet-Silver Fox -- is why my grandmother left her husband and children.

Oh, sure, we know she ran off with a guy named Dominic Darasz (shortened from a name I can't even make an attempt at trying to spell), and that it took about four years before the official divorce decree was issued on the grounds of "desertion and adultery."

We also know that sometime during prohibition, she was a "bootlegger" of sorts. And before you picture my Grammy Josephine as a stereotypical Capone-style "gun moll," let me mention that, according to my mom, this so-called bootlegging amounted to little more than my grammy selling a bottle or two of homemade hooch at roughly two dollars a pop to customers who appeared at her home.

But as for why she left her family when, and how, she did... I can only guess.

Times were harsher then in a lot of ways. It was the era in which women in the USA were either about to, or had just, been granted the right to vote (depending on exactly when grammy ran off). Maybe she was ahead of her time, and after twenty years of familial servitude, decided there was more to life than being a baby-making machine married to a man roughly ten years older than she was. Maybe the thrill of whatever Dominic had to offer was something she'd yearned for for who knows how long. (Ew. This is my grandmother I'm writing about, here!)

I'm not going to dream up stories of my grandfather's possible failings as a husband, for none of those stories would be supported by anything I've ever heard, certainly.

I don't know if she simply vanished one night, or if there was one huge argument which some or all of the older children witnessed, or perhaps a series of verbal skirmishes which culminated in her disappearance. By the time I was born, my Aunt Josie and Uncle Joe were both two years gone, and my uncles never talked about those days except to say that she'd left. Period. Nobody provided any details, ever.

Other than the one photo of my grandmother that I showed in my "Heroes and Villains" post, the earliest photos of her which I have are from 1927, so I can only surmise that it wasn't until after the death of her husband that she had the nerve to return to the family. Over the years, acceptance of her return was achieved slowly, and not so surely, as far as what I've been told.

The following picture, taken that year, shows my Grammy Josephine, Dominic (who may or may not yet have been her legal husband), my twelve-year-old Uncle Eddie, and my ten-year-old mom, Anita.

My mom doesn't look too pleased to be in the shot. I've mentioned before that most early photos of my mom show her with some sort of grimace, most likely caused by facing the sunlight when a photo was taken, but my sardonic sense of humor suggests that Dominic's hands are not on my mom's shoulders in a display of affection, but are there instead to keep little Anita from running away from the man who "stole" her mom from her!

The next picture is a group photo of most of the Hartmans (the Stremekes name having been "replaced" years earlier) and Korsaks, as of 1947.

From left to right, starting with the top row: My Aunt Esther, wife of my mom's brother Billy; Josie Korsak; Josie's husband, Joe Korsak, standing almost like the family patriarch, which in a lot of ways, he was; my grandmother's husband, Dominic Darasz. On the far left in the middle row is my grandmother, Josephine Darasz; I believe that the next woman is my Uncle Eddie's wife, Olga, obviously before their divorce; my Uncle Johnny; my Uncle Eddie; my Uncle Billy. In the front row, such as it can be called a "row," is my cousin Janice, daughter of Aunt Josie and Uncle Joe. (Yep, even after having "put up" with my mom and her brothers, they finally had two kids of their own, brave souls! That's just a joke.)

Noticeably absent from the picture are: My cousin Joe, Janice's younger brother, who would have been about nine years old; my Uncle Al (whom I'm guessing held the camera, as he was the family shutterbug); my own mom and dad; my Uncle Peter and his wife Anna. Presumably, those last four were nowhere around on the day of this family portrait.

My grandmother lived for another twenty-two years after the above photo, but I'm going to stop this part of her story here. This post is becoming as long as one of my regular Silver Fox entries, and I know that many of you have other Sepia Saturday-related blogs to visit. Hope you join me in two weeks for Part Two, where I tell how, while she may have had her drawbacks as a mother, my Grammy Josephine was a really sweet grandmother!

Thanks for your time.


  1. There's a strong resemblance between you and Uncle Billy.

  2. I usually get compared to my dad. Kinda wish I had my Uncle Eddie's 1940s-era "Errol Flynn" looks...

  3. cool pics SF, and interesting story...bootlegger, eh?

  4. Another very interesting chapter!

  5. There's always several sides to a story and this one is open to all sorts of speculation! Fascinating!

  6. Hmmm... Yup, families can be pretty complicated. My Dad's family were all fairly straight-laced Germans, but my Mom's family were swamp rats from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, descended from a Cockney alley-rat who was an indentured servant in the Jamestown colony and who coshed his master one night and escaped over the Chesapeake Bay into the swamps where nobody would ever find him. With a paterfamilias like that, you can imagine where things went from there. In fact, you can even read about it - the Turlocks in James Michener's Chesapeake are based in part on my Mom's family; Michener spent a lot of time talking to my Aunt Clara and other family connections when he was writing the book.

    I'm looking forward to part 2 of Grammy Josephine's adventures!

  7. A great story, well told. Very much looking forward to part two.

  8. Hm. I hope Part Two isn't a let-down. In it, my grandmother will have become a dignified "old lady," as whatever hell-raising days she may have had are behind her.

  9. I've delved quite deeply into the life of one of my grandfathers who was universely disliked by family members. I eventually learned much about his earliest years and the life of his father (my great-grandfather) which gave me a lot more insight into why he was, as he was.
    So, I do identify with your quest to understand the past.
    Evelyn in Montreal

  10. Gosh, David, this is WONderful fodder for a book! Have you ever thought of writing it?

  11. The stories and the gaps are always such great places to begin, even if we have to speculate.

  12. Now why would you want to look like Errol Flynn when you look just exactly like Cary Grant? LOL. I loved your story and it is true no one wanted to talk about a 'stray' lamb back then. My uncles hated my dad because he hurt my mom and I was so confused since I loved him. This SS has been a great project. I will be waiting for Granny's Story.

  13. It is all a very interesting read. I know what you are feeling when you get started sharing the family, it can just keep going on and on. You just have to say stop. And start on with another blog.

  14. Wonderful story - intriguing. Great photos.

  15. Very nice post for Sepia Saturday, as usual, David. Love the selection of pictures!

    I do agree that it is most curious that your grandmother left her family. It would be fascinating to know the story behind that! One can imagine leaving a spouse if they are really, really crummy...but mother's don't normally take off and leave the kids!

    Looking forward to the next on in this series of yours!

    btw, I hear you're working on a cloning machine? haha ;)

  16. To All: I have to get up in four hours, so my catch-up on SS posts -- I've only read about two dozen after a busy day -- and my detailed comments on your comments here will have to wait until Sunday, Monday, or even Tuesday! Stay tuned, sports fans!

  17. hi mr fox,
    when i hear stories like this i always think of the enormous courage it takes to make a break like that and that there would have to be some strong motivating factor.....
    josephine sounds like a spirited kind of lady, i suspect she was a fun grandma :)


  18. Wow, what a story. I'll be tuned in next week.

  19. I'll be tuned in week next, as well. Cheers!

    And you're re-linked ;)

  20. I'll be back. It's a fascinating story, with lots of room for conjecture.

  21. Why is it that we wait until it's too late to ask to wonder about all to the mysteries in our families? I'm coming back to read part 2. You've got me wanting more of the story.

  22. I always think it takes a lot for a mother to walk away from her children. It's not something I could contemplate doing.

  23. This story is quite riveting - better than most things on television at the moment. I love the way you construct fascinating edifices on a scaffolding of fact. I'm hooked and waiting for the next episode.

  24. Funny, geneaology can teach you many things but there are so many things about each of us that people will never know and once we are gone...there's no opportunity to know. Everybody needs to do a mini autobiography of their thoughts and experiences...

  25. Its Great How The Most Interesting Lives Are Those With Such Gap&Spaces& unanswered Questions.......Looking Forward to Part 2 Sir.


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