Her signature dishes when I was a kid included not only baked chicken, but chipped beef on toast, liver and onions, smoked butt, and a lot of Hamburger Helper
I remember being among the first in our south suburban neighborhood to try the new Arby’s – for the potato cakes and Jamocha shakes – and the new McDonald’s, which was one of the first with a drive-through window and Quarter Pounders with cheese.
When we moved to the northwest suburbs, she got experimental and tried to make crepes like the ones we had at the Magic Pan in Woodfield. That’s not to mention the Old El Paso taco kits – or the food processor which did yield a pretty darn good cole slaw.
Of course, when I was barely out of diapers, her father got me hooked on pickled pigs feet and smoked fished served with sour cream and rolls. I’d chow down with him behind the deli counter at the Tumsis family grocery story in the Roseland neighborhood.
Okay. I wrote this while hungry. My friends say I’m pretty much always hungry. And, that since I don’t really cook much, I’ve become America’s guest.
So this is my belly’s way of eulogizing my Mother.
It’ also a gastronomical attempt to recall lessons I’ve learned from her life, as any look back should be.
From the above – and what you can probably tell from looking at me – is that I love to eat and drink and will try just about any dish.
Still, I have learned to discern. Liver and onions and Fuzzy Navels will do that to you. And buckets of smelt.
But I digest. I mean digress.
What else did I learn from the life of Louise Annette Danahey?
I learned to be careful with my money.
My Mom loved to shop and the invention of the credit card during her lifetime emboldened what sometimes was a bad habit.
Though I don’t recall us living a posh lifestyle, we never went without. Christmas became a sporting event for her, a challenge to buy all the right gifts for all the cousins – and for us to put under the aluminum tree.
My guess is my Mom may have been on a first-name basis with clerks in the women’s department at Carson’s and Fields. At several malls.
This led to bashes, big ones, with my dad. While the bouts never were the eloquent equal of the family feuds in Death of a Salesman or the Irish drama in Long Day’s Journey into Night, my mother was very operatic. That means she could yell, really, really, loud.
And the obvious lesson learned here is that quarreling solves nothing. Yet, such behavior can get you a high paying job on cable TV. And it is cathartic to yell at your computer when you work at home. Alone.
Okay. I haven’t mastered that lesson.
Anyway, shopping – and getting her hair done in all sorts of styles and colors – made my Mom happy. This was because she liked to shop for other people, too, and to talk.
Which brings me to the next things I learned from my Mom: It really can be fun to give, and not only gifts.
If someone asks you for help, be flattered that they thought enough of you to ask, then by all means lend a hand. If you can play the organ for your church at Saturday Mass, so be it.
After my folks retired to Monee, my Mom loved babysitting for my cousins. She even delivered food for a time for Meals on Wheels.
My favorite embarrassing story to that point involving me: One summer break from college, I tried to deliver newspapers. I lasted less than a week. The last straw was getting the family Dodge Dart – overloaded with Sunday supplements – stuck in a gulley off a driveway.
My Mom was along for the ride, helping deliver the papers and providing the credit card to cover the towing bill.
That’s my next lesson from my Mom’s life. We aren’t all going to be leaders. It’s perfectly fine to be in the passenger’s seat for the adventure.
When the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey came out, my Mom took me to see it. I was 8 and had asked to go after reading about it in the newspaper. I was that kind of kid – and those primates at the beginning of that movie still haunt me.
When I was just out of college, my Mom would go with me to where I used to binge shop: Rolling Stones Records in Norridge. I recall her buying a Harry Belafonte album. He was her favorite
Bored one Sunday night back in those days, I asked my Mom if she would go with me to see Paul Simon at Poplar Creek, the outdoor concert shed that was 10 minutes from where we lived. We wound up sitting behind Senator Paul Simon – dressed in his requisite bowtie, of course, even for a folk rock show.
Once my Mom learned how to drive – when I was in high school – she’d hit the road by herself, too, maybe shopping, maybe to Dairy Queen, maybe spy stuff. Who knows?
Driving liberated her. So much so that she wound up driving a school bus for a time. She also worked the early morning shift at McDonald’s in Monee.
Speaking of Monee, I think my Mom and Dad were happiest once they settled in down in their place off the 9-hole golf course in the seniors only community. There were new friends to be made and things to do, from the aforementioned babysitting and food runs to rocking out at a Neil Diamond concert.
I’m still having a hard time picturing my mom in a sports stadium singing along to Sweet Caroline. I just hope she said no to drugs.
In the Monee years, my folks frequently drove to meet me, their suburban, middle-aged Jimmy Olsen, up in Elgin for lunch. On weekends, we’d meet halfway at Oak Brook Mall for a meal, then hit the bookstore, where Mom would get a handful of word search puzzle books to do.
These are some of my favorite memories of my parents. The lessons learned here were to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, to keep making friends, and to keep active with whatever it is you like to do.
If nothing else, this gives you something to talk about. And Lord knows, all her life, my mother loved to talk.
Oddly, I don’t remember much of what she had to say. But my brother and sister can attest to the play-by-play she could give you about what happened at work on any given day or on a particular visit with Aunt Irene or with any number of cousins.
From this I learned that mundane details need context and an editor to become stories. Sadly, I know but scant detail of a good many of my Mother’s most intriguing tales.
Louise grew up as an only child, living above a grocery store in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood.
We’ve been told her father fled to Chicago from Lithuania to escape the Bolsheviks. His parents paid to smuggled him and his brother out of danger. He never heard from his brother, who wound up somewhere in South America.
My mother’s mother was Lithuanian, too, by way of Danville, where her family farmed. One of her uncle’s was killed by angry pigs.
My mother played the piano, and when she lost interest, her father promptly chopped up the instrument.
My mother married outside her ethnicity, which, I’ve been told was almost scandalous back in the 1950s in tribal Chicago. She didn’t name me after the archangel, but after the Loop attorney she worked for as a secretary.
Such stories behind seemingly otherwise ordinary lives give glimpse to our humanity, its flaws our pulling ourselves out of the muddy middle where life is led.
It is our duty to pass along these tales with care, like precious family heirlooms – and to make stories of our own: the comedy, the drama, the flights of grace and our failings, flailing, and falling from it.
Stories are how we keep the departed among us – and to end Irish – with the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.