Not long ago, a friend of my dad’s gave him a kitchen table and chairs to dispose of. A nice set – farmhouse-style, relatively newish looking, consisting of a beechwood topped table with three matching chairs. Rather than seeing it tossed into a landfill he asked me if my best friend and her husband, who live in Hamtramck, would like it. Of course they said yes, so one evening last month after dinner I helped my dad load the set into the back of his pickup truck and we set off south towards Hamtown, as it’s affectionately known by the locals.
My father was born in Detroit in 1925 and grew up in Hamtramck, which, at the time and up until the 1980’s, was a haven for Polish immigrants. There are still a lot of Polish people in Hamtramck, but it is definitely more multicultural today. He lived there until he went off to join the Navy during World War II, and it is to Hamtramck he returned when the war was over. Although we live a mere 15 minutes away, he doesn’t get down to the old neighborhood much. There’s no reason to. In fact, I don’t remember the last time he was in Hamtramck. So when he decided to take the “scenic route” to my friend’s house, I didn’t say anything, but just smiled to myself.
Hamtramck is pretty easy to get to from my neighborhood – westbound I-696 to southbound I-75, straight to the Holbrook-Caniff exit. However, rather than take this (read: faster) route, we took Mound Road, which ends at Mt. Elliot and takes you directly into the east end of Hamtramck. Once we passed McNichols my dad stepped into his past. I could see the look in his eyes change, going back in time. His eyes are still blue but they have seen so much since his days as a towheaded boy growing up during the Great Depression. He told me how he and his friends used to play baseball in the cemetery, which had a lot more open space back then, as it wasn’t as occupied with the graves of those who came before. We came to the oddly named Simon K Street, and turned right to drive past Transfiguration Catholic Church, which is now the seat of the newly named Blessed John Paul II Parish. He told me of how he went to Catholic school there for the first eight years of his education and how his family would walk to the church for Mass from their home just a couple blocks away.
Next we turned on to Sparling St., my dad driving slowly to find the house in which he grew up. Came to a dead stop in front of it, as he told me about the tree that his dad planted in front but is now gone. The house, a small brick bungalow, is in amazingly good shape, and looked to be well cared for. There was a grandmother sitting in a chair on the porch, watching her granddaughter play on the small front lawn. Moving on, we turned onto another street, where his aunt used to live, but he couldn’t remember exactly which house was hers. I have heard the story of how he and his mother would go shopping to the farmer’s market not far from their home every Saturday morning, then load some of the food in a wagon and take it to his aunt and her family every week. The exact location of the house may be lost, but the memory is still vivid.
Another turn and we came to an open field, another place where my dad used to play ball with his friends. The high school he went to came next, and from there it was a succession of places that evoked brief, but vivid memories: A gas station that used to be an auto repair shop; a strip mall that was a theatre. “There used to be a bar here.” “I used to bring my car here to get fixed.” “This place has been in business since the 1940’s.” “There was a tool and die shop here.” “That building over there used to be a restaurant. Oh, they had good kielbasa! They made their own, right in the back.” “The guy who owned this place, he was a good friend of my brother Harry.”
His brothers. They’re all gone now, as my dad was the youngest of five. My Uncle Harry died before I was in kindergarten, and my Uncle Jimmy died when I was in elementary school. For nearly three decades it was Uncle John, Uncle Wally and my dad. Then, about 10 years ago, my Uncle Wally died. Ten days later, my Uncle John followed. My dad never said anything about it, but I’m sure that was incredibly difficult for him, to lose two brothers – his last two siblings – in less than two weeks’ time. I knew he was thinking of them and his parents as we slowly made our way to my friend’s house.
We dropped off the table and chairs and talked to my friend for a few minutes, then began our journey home. The trip there had taken twice as long as it should have, and I was certain the trip home would take just as long, as there were more of my dad’s old haunts to be driven past and pointed out. The first we came to after leaving my friend’s house was his brother John’s Charles St. house, on the border of Detroit and Hamtramck. My cousin Josephine lived there after her parents died, but the house has been unoccupied since her death three years ago, and as happens with unoccupied houses in the area, it was broken into, stripped and looted. It was a mess. The front steps were broken, the front door wide open giving passers by a view of the inside. I could see what looked like a green couch in the trash-filled living room. All the windows on the first floor were either broken out or boarded up. My dad said his brother built that house and I know it hurt him to see it in such disrepair. Although my mom says we used to visit Uncle John, Aunt Jean and Cousin Jo frequently when my sister and were really young, I only remember being at his house twice – one time was around Christmas time when my sister and I were very small. We got presents – Dawn dolls (6″ tall Barbie-like dolls) and handmade Dawn doll dresses. The other time I was a teenager, maybe 14 years old. It was summer, in the evening after dinner.
I was right – the trip back home did take a long time, as it was filled with more turns through neighborhoods and reminiscing about the way things used to be. What should have been a quick, 45-minute-tops trip to drop off a table and chairs turned into a more than two hour long odyssey down memory lane. I know he enjoyed it – I could see it in his face as he told my mother of the places we drove past. And despite the fact that I had homework to do, I rather enjoyed it. It was nice to spend some time like that with my dad, as we don’t really get to do that much these days.
My father is 87 years old. He grew up during the Great Depression. He faced kamikazes and survived a hurricane in the Pacific Ocean on the USS Enterprise during World War II. He’s had a stroke and he broke his hip a few years back. He has a bad back, a bad shoulder, arthritis in his hands that swells his knuckles and twists his fingers and makes it difficult to grip things, and his mind is not quite as sharp as it once was. Despite these ailments, he really is in good health for a crotchety old guy his age – heck, he still does some handyman-type work and all the yard work! So if he wants to take a trip down memory lane, I figure he’s earned it. I can set aside my homework for a little while.