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.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Epiphany



Friendly warning. Today's blog contains a word I generally shy away from, namely, the ever-popular "F" word. I'll be using it in a non-sexual sense, as an admittedly-harsh -- but heartfelt! -- adjective. I really doubt this "warning" is necessary, since we're all adults here... but, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, "so it goes." Such is the way of the Silver Fox.



This is one of those days where I'm 1) in a rare good mood, and 2) my being in said mood is for no apparent reason.

I've been figuratively busting my butt lately trying to juggle various real-life activities while keeping up with the writing of this blog, my share of the writing and plotting on the Simpson/Lynch Studios: Pleasantview blog, my occasional forays into Sepia Saturday and Theme Thursday posts, etc.

Add to all of the above my attempts to keep up with other people's blogs (and comment on same, so they'll know I read and appreciate 'em), and my forays into the sometimes-daunting world of Facebook.

I myself am a self-confessed "comment whore" here on Blogger. In a perfect world -- which I usually define as one in which Yours Truly would make the rules -- everyone who reads every post I put up would not only leave a comment, but would leave a lengthy comment (more like a full-fledged review) in which the commenter not only says that he or she liked or disliked a story or a post, or one of my "rantz"... but why. With details. What touched you, what angered you, what made you laugh, what little pop-culture or literary references you "got," etc.

But that ain't gonna happen, and I grudgingly realize that. Nevertheless, it makes me feel almost guilty when I read someone else's blog and don't leave a comment. Which, unfortunately, doesn't mean I don't read 'em and leave like a (silent) thief in the night anyway, more times than not lately...

But I digress. Of course.

Shortly over twenty-four hours ago -- and I won't bother you with all the dirty details -- I spent several frustrating, maddening hours trying to scan, save, edit, and download some photos of my grandmother onto a draft I was doing for what would have been today's Sepia Saturday post... the one I ended up putting off until (hopefully) next Saturday. It almost derailed my personal plans for the night.

Well, screw that!

I left a place -- a place where I wound up late to begin with -- where I was having a nice, relaxing time, hoping I could get enough sleep to awaken, at least partially refreshed, early enough to piece everything together before I had to get ready to go to my part-time job... and suddenly, I got a mild epiphany, which is why I used that word for the title of today's post:

It's only a fucking blog.

No, really. It's only a fucking blog.

And by "it," I mean all of my blogs, past and present, taken individually. And the blog I share with my writing partner, Skip Simpson. And -- no offense meant, fellow babies -- your blog, too. And the always-well-written blog authored by that guy over there? His blog, too. And that excellent blog written by any of the female bloggers whom I attempt to follow? Yup, that too!

All of the above-mentioned blogs -- mine, yours, and "theirs" -- are honestly what I would term "important" to me, and many of those written by others are occasionally capable of kicking me in the stomach, or touching my heart or mind in a meaningful way... which is why I created my "THRUST HOME" award in the first place.

But, having said all of that... It's only a fucking blog.

During the past week, on this blog alone, I planned to write not one, but two brief tributes to a couple of celebrities whose deaths I learned about, and my Sepia Saturday post about my grandmother, and a shout-out to a new blog I'm following, and I also wanted to give out the THRUST HOME award to two different blog posts...



And I really will do all of the above. Soon. But at my convenience. There's no reason those posts had to have been done the very instant I thought of them.

Why?

Because, fellow babies, this isn't the nightly news. It's only a fucking blog.

And frankly, having come to that realization, one which should have been apparent to me long before today for the sake of my already stress-filled life... I'm feeling much better now.

So, in the immortal words of the legendary Shaun Cassidy -- and yeah, there's more than a touch of sarcasm there -- "Well, come on everybody, get down and get with it."

I've made some great friends on Blogger, and I don't use the term "friends" lightly. And I think you friends all know "where I'm coming from," as we used to say in the 1960s and early 1970s. And I'm pretty sure that's the reason why I never get "nagging" comments like, "Hey, Silver! When are you gonna stop 'foxing' around and finish that multi-part "magnum opus" you did three measly chapters of all the way back in freaking October?" So, thanks for that.

And thanks for your time. See you when I see you!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Peter Graves, 1926-2010, R.I.P.

 


As you may have heard, Peter Graves, best known for the role of Jim Phelps on TV's Mission: Impossible, has passed away at the age of 83, just a few days short of his 84th birthday. He was also known as the host of A&E's Biography, the role of Captain Clarence Oveur in Airplane! and its sequel, and several other projects...

But I first saw him as "Jim Newton" in TV's Fury, a show I watched with my sister in the late fifties, when I was just a teeny-tiny spud.


Peter Graves was born Peter Aurness, and was the younger brother of actor James Arness of Gunsmoke fame. (Brother James dropped the "u" -- professionally, anyway, as his two children were named Aurness -- soon after beginning his show biz career, at the behest of RKO Studios.) The family name had originally been Aursnes, but was changed by the brothers' grandfather, Peter Aursnes, when he immigrated from Norway in 1887. "Graves" was a surname from their mother's side of the family.

On his own website, James Arness has left a brief message about his brother's passing. Arness is quoted as saying "It was Pete that early in our lives suggested that I train to become a radio announcer which was the first step in our long careers in show business."

I don't have much to say about Mr. Graves other than he was a "class act," like many others whom I've eulogized here, briefly or otherwise.

And by the way... Mr. Graves wasn't at all pleased that they turned Jim Phelps into a traitor in the Mission: Impossible movie. And neither was I.

Thanks for your time.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sepia Saturday -- "Pigeon-Toed"


This is my fourth Sepia Saturday post. Click on the link to see who else is "playing" this week!

* * * * *

I'm posting this Sepia Saturday entry even earlier than last week's -- in terms of it not yet being Saturday, I mean -- because this weekend is already shaping up to be hectic. Anyway, here goes...

A close-up of the oldest existing
photo of my mother , which I used
in last week's Sepia Saturday post,
cropped and re-printed here because...
well... because I like it. Sue me.

I've purposely done no computer "touch-up" work on any of the photos I've presented during these Sepia Saturday posts of mine. I've done nothing to smooth out creases, "fix" chipped-off corners, etc. Even if I were to do so, however, the following shot is one I couldn't even begin to restore. Surprisingly enough, the first time I ever saw it was at my mother's apartment, less than two years ago. Quite frankly, it's trashed... yet it's obvious why my mother saved it, preserved from further damage in a little Ziploc bag along with a piece of carboard to keep it from bending.


It's a picture of my mom's sister Josie, lovingly holding her fifteen-years-younger sibling, my mother Anita. (It's also one of the few early shots of my mom actually smiling, rather than grimacing due to -- I assume -- the era's annoying necessity of the photo's subject(s) having to stare into the blinding sun whenever photographs were taken!) What's left of the caption hand-written in ink on the lower border reads "Sisters" and "April." (Although a lot of these little notations have faded into illegibility over the years, I remain grateful to my mother and whoever else supplied these bits of written information on the various early family photos. It's helped me a lot in terms of names and dates, obviously.)

Going through literally hundreds of photos as I began this task of posting my family's history, I was frustrated at the missing lower right-hand corner of this photo, however. "April of what year?" I wondered. I estimated it as being between 1921 and 1923. But luck was with me. In with a separate group of photos, I found one of Aunt Josie, standing alone on the very same steps, in the very same outfit, plainly labeled "April, 1922." So my mom was four-and-a-half years old, making this the second-oldest photo of her that I have!

Another couple of early shots of my mom follow. I estimate her age in these two as being between ages five and seven. A picture of " 'Nita" with a younger child named Alvina -- a cousin, I believe(?) -- is first, and a playfully-posed shot with my mother's brother Eddie is second.


And last, but definitely not least, is the photo which inspired the title of today's post. My mom labelled it "Pigeon-Toed," due to her slightly unusual stance, and in it, she was about six years old.


More than once, when I was a child, my mother would tell me the two-part story this picture called to her mind.

Note the hairstyle, such as it was. That was the result of the day my mom mischievously ran amok with a pair of scissors. She cut her own hair (hence the uneven bangs in the snapshot). It was warm weather, so she "shortened" the sleeves of a winter coat. She also decided that the drapes in her home were too long, so... Well, you can guess the rest.

I really doubt she was able to sit at the end of that particular day...

Mom's "Pigeon-Toed" story didn't end there. On (presumably) another day, she was in Elm Park in Worcester, Massachusetts, feeling envious of the many other children who had toy boats to sail on the surface of the park's pond. Mom's family couldn't afford such minor luxuries, so she used one (or both) of her shoes, and her hat. (I have no way of confirming it at this late date, but I like to think it was the very hat she held in this photo, a photo taken with that body of water in the background... a "body of water" made ominous-looking in the context of this tale.)

The makeshift "boats" sank. And so did little Anita's hopes for a trouble-free day once she returned home, I suspect.

My mom was certainly never much of a trouble-maker at any time in her life. (She often told me that by the time she married my father shortly before she hit 23, the worst word she'd ever used in her life was "darn.") Nevertheless, kids will be kids, and she was no exception. Not to mention, it was always nice for me to hear the so-called "dirt" about my elders, as harmless as it may have been.

So, who'da thunk it? Even my mom wasn't perfect, not that I ever thought -- or wanted -- to believe otherwise. But she was still a doll.

Thanks for your time.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Sepia Saturday -- Heroes and Villains?


Yeah, I'm posting a day early, but here goes...



The above two shots are variations of the only photo I have of my grandfather, Peter Stremekes. (I've previously mentioned the multiple spellings I've encountered of their family name, but for right now, I'm sticking with the "Stremekes" spelling listed on my grandparents' 1923 divorce decree.) It's also the only photo I have of my grandmother Josephine until 1927.

There were others that I saw of Peter -- it's hard for me to think of him as anything as personal as "Grampy" because he died so long before I was even born -- while I was growing up. One was a nifty shot on thick card stock which I have yet to find, although I know for certain my mother would never have purposely disposed of it. The others were two or three 8" x 10" shots of him in his coffin, right after he died! In my younger years, even as obsessed as I was with old horror films and the Dark Shadows supernatural soap opera, I thought they were kind of morbid. Perhaps my mom agreed over time, and that's probably why they were eventually discarded.

In the second, cropped version of the photo, my grandfather stands behind his seated wife, my Grammy Josephine. On his immediate right (our left) is my Aunt Josie, an amazing woman whom I regrettably never knew. Josie looks to be anywhere between fifteen and seventeen, which would place the date of this picture somewhere around the time my mother was born in 1917. That would have placed Peter Stremekes in his mid-40s.

(I have no idea who the woman in the lower left of the cropped photo is. For that matter, I don't know any of the others in this group of mostly Lithuanian immigrants and their American-born offspring in this shot for certain, although I think I was once told that the woman sitting on my grandmother's left is her sister Julia, a colorful, charismatic character who'll get one or chapters all her own at a much later date.)

In the interest of my haphazard attempts at displaying these photos somewhat chronologically, I'm going to insert a shot of my Aunt Josie and her younger brother Albert. My Uncle Al was born in 1908, and in this shot, he looks to be between 5-7, which would make Josie a very young teen. It's one of the few childhood photos I have of any of my aunts or uncles -- on my mother's and father's side of the family -- and the only shot I have of my Uncle Al before the mid-1940s!

And I'll follow that one with a lovely shot of Josie, taken in (I believe) 1919, when she was an older teen.


That photo of Josie was probably taken around the time that, for whatever reasons, my grandmother left her husband and seven children when my mom was only two years old. At the moment, I'm not sure if that was before or after her namesake daughter, Josie, got married... although I've been cheerfully nagging my cousin Joe (Josie's son) to find out the date his mom married his dad. I have my own, half-assed theories as to why Grammy might have done her little walk-out, but they'll have to wait until my next Sepia Saturday entry... or perhaps the one after it.

Somewhere around the time of Josie's marriage, the following photo was taken on Newbury Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, in (I think) 1920. These kids look like extras in a Charlie Chaplin flick!


It's labelled "Helen, Anita, & Eddie." I don't know who Helen is or was. Eddie is my much-beloved uncle, about five at the time. By the way, I am firmly convinced that much of my strange sense of humor came from the same gene that inspired Eddie's own... although I'm pretty sure his style of humor was missing my own occasional sick little twists!

And Anita? Anita's my recently-deceased mom, in what seems to be the earliest picture existent of her! It seems to have been taken during the earlier part of the year, which means she had not yet reached her third birthday.

Here's a pensive-looking Aunt Josie relaxing "at home," as the fading, hand-written caption says below her.

And I thought it only appropriate to insert the next picture of a dapper-looking dude named Joseph Korsak, who married my Aunt Josie somewhere around the time my grandmother fled husband and kids for her new life in Rhode Island. The following photo itself was probably a few years before Josie's and Joe's marriage. My Uncle Joe was yet another of the Lithuanian immigrants in my family, one whose ancestors probably hailed from Russia, originally.

Joe Korsak, Sr., was born in 1895, and according to my cousin Joe, his son and (obviously) namesake, Uncle Joe came to the USA in or about 1914, when he was nineteen. Eventually, as it turned out, he didn't just marry my Aunt Josie...

He married her entire family!

My grandfather, Peter Stremekes -- and I still don't know (yet) exactly when the family began using the name "Hartman" instead, although a piece in the puzzle has recently been supplied by (again) my cousin Joe -- was deserted by his wife, and left to raise most of his children alone. One assumes this was a monumental task, and it very well may have contributed to his death in 1927 at the age of 56 or 57.

At that point, some of my uncles were young adults, and the rest were teens or young adolescents, but the idea of having all of them and my nine-year-old mom fend for themselves was still a few years from being feasible.

Uncle Joe and Aunt Josie took them all into their home. Even with the elder Hartman/Stremekes brothers being old enough for the so-called "work force," that had to have been an incredible burden for Joe Korsak and his wife. No one's alive to say whether the conversation amounted to "Hey, Joe, let's raise my whole family, what do you say?" followed by "Sure, honey, why not?" or if there were countless, sleepless nights of arguments... but the fact remains that they did it.

I'm damned glad that I've never been faced with anything remotely resembling that sort of responsibility! I can just hear myself now: "But, sweetie, I love you, and I married you... not your whole family!"

But... that's just me. I suppose I would have eventually made the "right" decision if confronted with such a choice, but... it'd be easier to say than do.

Joe Korsak did it, and if I give him even the slightest "edge" over Aunt Josie in terms of credit, it's only because these kids were her blood relatives. To Joe, they were "just" in-laws.

I'm incredibly sorry I never met either of them, as they both passed away in 1954, a couple of years before I first saw the light of day. And to me, Joe Korsak will always be a hero -- and I mean that term in its most literal sense -- whose hand I wish I could shake.

Next time, fellow babies, I'll either pompously hypothesize about my Grammy Josephine at length, or share some more shots from my mom's early years.

Thanks for your time.

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