Cousin Leo

Cousin Leo

A few days ago(May 21st), my Cousin Leo would have celebrated his 75th Birthday. Like me, he was born in 1940, but I didn’t arrive till mid-December. I’m still a little sketchy about how, and when exactly, I was inserted into the Hart family. But, that is a part of another story altogether.

The above picture, I believe, was taken at Leo’s 3rd Birthday party in front of his house on 32nd Street, which was just one block from where I lived on the same street. Surrounded by cousins and a few neighbors, I recognize in the front row, my cousin Danny and myself with a “tow headed” cousin Leo standing in the middle. In case you are wondering about the term “Tow Head,” it comes from the tow ropes that were used in the 19th century for canal barges. They were the light color of flax which is almost white (I looked it up). Leo’s older brother and sister, Jerry and Rosemary, are standing in the back row on the left. Jerry taught me all about guppies, goldfish and making tin soldiers and later, Rose(as a slightly rebellious teenager) taught me how to smoke a cigarette at age 10. Thankfully, I never took up the habit.

I spent a lot of time with cousins Danny and Leo growing up, it seems like we were always together. Leo always had a story to tell or an experience to share. He wore a string with two cloth patches around his neck which he said was called a scapular. And, it would help him go to heaven in case he died. Well, that got me to wondering… what is going to happen to me if I were to die? I always said my prayers, taught to me by my Dad, but what is this extra insurance that I didn’t have… the scapula thingy?

The prayer of course was scary enough, as I remember it… “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Holy scapula, I vaguely recall worrying (but not using that exact term perhaps)… “If I should die before I wake”, what is that all about? Well, I recall Cousin Leo telling us then, of his twin brother Leonard who died at birth. I’m sure Leo felt a little better back then, with his scapula providing a little extra insurance.

After all of these years and out of my own curiosity, and remembering Leo telling me there were rules about wearing the Scapular, for your edification and mine, I looked them up for a better understanding.

Rules on wearing a Scapular:

scapula“A small scapular must consist of two wool squares of cloth, connected by two strings (of any material), so that one segment rests on your chest and the other on your back.  If you would like, you can wear more than one scapular at a time, so long as each scapular is complete.  Once you have your scapular it is important to have it blessed by a priest and if necessary to become invested with the confraternity associated with it (A further blessing that can be granted by an authorized priest).  Once you have your scapular blessed it must be worn at all times in order to share in the indulgences and privileges of the particular scapular.  Should you remove the scapular for any period of time you are no longer eligible for its associated blessings, however, as soon as you resume wearing the scapular you are reinvested in its indulgences.  Should your scapular wear out, you may replace it with an unblessed scapular, as the indulgences are invested in the devotion of the wearer, not the object.”

I can’t say much about these rules, it is a function of ones faith after all. Leo was always a good catholic, as I knew him growing up, and I was a bit envious I have to admit.

We spent many of our summers in cottages at various lakes, with weeks at a time of family fun. We swam, we fished and then we swam and fished some more. My cousin Leo was always an excellent swimmer and I was fascinated with the nose plug he wore to keep water out of his nose. From his home on Minock and Joy Road, we would often walk to Rouge Park and swim all day long in the many pools there. Then we would walk back to his house, in our wet bathing suits and wrinkled skin, only to do it all over again the next day. It was fun in the extreme.

After we graduated from High School we went our separate ways. I didn’t see Leo often, except for crossing paths at family functions, usually weddings, funerals or birthdays. But he still always had some good stories to tell and we always picked up where we left off. He was a storyteller, like all of the Bronikowski’s were known to be… especially his older brothers.

Sadly, my cousin Leo died a couple of years ago in a drowning accident. It is my guess he has gone to a good place… whether or not he was wearing his scapular.

The Big Sleep… Oops!

The Big Sleep… Oops!

Through the grate in the floor under the head of my bed, I could hear my mother replace the receiver back into the phones cradle, then softly say to my Dad, “she died.” My life was about to change… in a matter of weeks to be exact. The only world I knew, my 32nd Street neighborhood, was to become history. It was late in November of 1950, less than a month before I was to turn ten years old, and just before Christmas.

My Grandma Hart, my Dad’s mother, was until then a mystery to me. To this day, the only physical memory I have of her was attending her funeral. I don’t remember any of the encounters reflected in earlier photographs. She lived with my Uncle Louis at 24354 Stanford Street in Dearborn Township, a suburb of Detroit. My Uncle, who also wasn’t well known by me, was a bachelor then and was to remain so for the rest of his life. He was the youngest male child of the Hart Family. He had served in the Army during the Second World War, having stormed ashore with his unit into Italy in September of 1943. General Mark Clark’s 5th Army had assembled in North Africa, and from there transported northward across the Mediterranean. After the war ended Grandma Hart lived with my Uncle, the dutiful son, until her death in 1950. I didn’t know it then but my uncle and me were to become best friends and roommates.

The house on Stanford Street, where I would soon go to live, was highly unusual. It was small for sure but it was also different than all the other houses in the neighborhood. It was the only house with a coal burning stove. There were two small bedrooms, a living room and a small kitchen. A bathroom was in the hallway between the two bedrooms. The basement was unfinished. The coal bin sat beneath the front porch, a four foot by six foot cement pad about four feet off the ground with a wrought iron railing around it. The bin itself was accessible in the basement for the furnace.

It is important in this story to understand how difficult it was to get into the house from the front porch doorway. The front storm door/screen opened outwardly blocking the small cement stairs (there were three of them). Entering the house from the front door you were faced with a closet with an immediate step up to the left into the living room. This is where I first remember seeing my Grandmother Hart… in her casket.

The decision to have a funeral, visitation, and wake in her house had to have been and economical one. The living room was not designed for such purposes. The casket itself took up at least half of the room and I have no idea how they got it in there. Perhaps it came in pieces and was assembled inside. The extended Hart Family was quite large; Grandma bore thirteen children and most had survived which meant them having to take turns to stop and pay their respects. I remember my cousin Leo, formerly from 32nd Street and now from Minnock and Joy Road, bragging how many Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s he had recited kneeling at the prayer stand next to Grandma’s open casket. I didn’t know the Hail Mary and Our Father prayers, so pretended to do the same, so Leo wouldn’t get too far ahead of me as favorite grandson. I felt sure Grandma Hart knew I wasn’t really praying and would forgive me because I was trying so hard.

Now we get to the most interesting part; the Priest has come, the Rosary has been said, and I thought at the time he was sprinkling the flowers as well (It was explained to me later because I asked). Well, if your imagination has gotten ahead of you, you can well guess the dilemma facing Grandma Hart. This was a time before seat belts. Grandma Hart, now horizontal in her resting place, was about to go for a ride she wouldn’t have expected. She needed to go out the front door in a near vertical position. Remember all of the turns getting up the front steps, around the outward opening door, into the front hallway and up into the living room? Well, it all had to be reverse engineered with Grandma stood on her head. Fortunately, for all of us (and Grandma), the casket had been locked closed.

It was a sight to behold and stirred many an imagination I’m sure. Truly, what a way to go? If in future centuries an anthropologist were to come across Grandma Hart, in her resting place, they might well wonder about this ritual of 20th Century burial practices. I should have thought then to ask, “how she had gotten into the living room in the first place?”

Sliding to Market

Sliding to market

Off to market we go. Danny and I were three or four years old when my Dad began taking us grocery shopping with him. He continued taking me with him each week long after Danny had joined his mother and stepfather a few years later. It became a weekly highlight. We didn’t have a car and really didn’t need one and not many of our neighbors, friends or relatives had them either.

In our neighborhood there were the small Mom and Pop stores on nearly every corner. They were sufficient for our everyday needs and once a week we would go to a much larger store up on Warren Avenue. We especially liked going in the winter because Dad had fastened an orange crate onto a sled and would pull my cousin and me, both snuggled in the orange crate, along the sidewalks and streets to the big supermarket, which wasn’t really super by today’s standards most certainly. What a hoot that was and so early on (and this was hard for us), we learned to behave ourselves at the market. Otherwise, we knew next time, Dad wouldn’t take us with him.

There were other occasions when the sled came in handy; on Christmas Eve for example. At just about the time Santa was supposed to arrive we were fashioned into the sled for a trip or two around the block. At the appointed time it would be announced that Santa was just observed leaving the neighbor’s roof. We didn’t know enough about reindeer and flying sleigh’s to question… like looking, for example, for sleigh tracks in the snow? When it came to Santa, we believed everything… like reindeer not leaving hoof prints, and we certainly didn’t know about the hover. And so sure enough, as always, upon arriving home it seems we had just missed him. It’s funny, without question, how that worked.

Being a product of the depression era my Dad acquired certain habits that he never gave up on. For as long as I can remember, after grocery shopping, he had a ritual of unpacking everything onto the kitchen table. He would then take the cash register receipt and check off each and every item on it with a pencil. I don’t know if he ever found an error and the better question is… what would he have done if he found one? My guess is, he would (or maybe did) take the receipt back for a refund? He used the term “cheapskate” a lot in his day, but he himself was never known to pass on an opportunity to use a coupon when it was made available.

When the Depression hit in 1929 my Dad was nineteen years old. Survival was a tough road then and later, after Franklin Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corp, he joined a CCC camp and sent his pay home to his mother and siblings.

After enduring the hardships of the 1930’s, economic survival was always on his mind. The depression era experience ruled his everyday life, it never went away. My Dad was a survivor until the day he died. He was a factory laborer and appreciated being able to work for a wage. No matter how hard the task… my Dad whistled while he worked. Truly,  he did.