Off Limits

Harry Drabik

Some things don’t need explanation. Persons looking for a great partying place or love-life entertainers won’t likely look to the North Shore or Sawbill Trail unless they supply their own party and entertainers. This part of the world carries less celebration atmosphere than does the usual getaway destination. A cruise is not called a carnival because of its close resemblance to a reading room. On the other hand, living off the beaten track can allow reflective time otherwise spent recovering from the twice daily stresses of freeway experiences with maddened drivers.

Spared some benefits of progress I had time recently to think about race, a topic as locally challenging as a choice between regular white and cardamom white bread. Unpleasant or challenging topics are understandably avoided; more so in a tourist area supposed to provide relief. For a long time our racial awareness clumped around the decade’s long service of a black sheriff on the north shore. That was it and as such a long-long way in time place from the issues of race my family left behind in Chicago.

My early awareness of the basic issue was dad telling about the daily fights he and his brothers faced as the only Polacks in an Irish neighborhood. Being different or an outsider in a situation draws unwanted attention. In later years I’d gain a bit of understanding by seeing the influx of Poles from Central Europe and Blacks from Southern States as job and housing competition. The apple carts of established city dweller groups were upset by these large numbers of newcomers. I could draw a comparison between Poles escaping peasant status where they were virtually slaves of land owners to Blacks fleeing the consequences of enslavement, but why? Any similarity did and does not matter in the circumstances faced by groups or the individuals in them. Putting people put under pressure in conditions of accelerating change is not a formula for increasing empathy. I’m of a mind to think that no amount of attempting to understand causes of racial, ethnic, of other social tensions makes much actual difference. Who cares if I jargon on about social forces if doing so is of no matter? What is it that needs to be done? Is the question one of social policy or of individual determination?

I grew up at a time where bias was often abundantly apparent. I had several uncles of mean and nasty disposition. Why didn’t I side with them? I suggest that is because I was shown a different model. For that I have to tell a story.

Well before I was in the picture my recently engaged mother took a second job to help build a nest egg to share in marriage with dad who proposed after getting a nickel raise. (What a time when an added forty cents per day meant you could marry.) Mom took work at a book bindery in the days when book pages were literally sewn, called book binding. She liked the work, was good at it, and got moved up to binding better quality books which meant slightly better pay. So, mom had a day job and night time at the bindery while dad did his day job and worked nights with his father in a small shop where they made specialty dental tools. Mom and dad were trying to get ahead in order to afford their own place to live and furnish it. If I have my information correct the saving up period stretched over several years during which time (in the 30’s) dad got a beat up Ford to rebuild so they could take their honeymoon (a year delayed for reasons you’ll learn) in far off Minnesota because they’d heard about the natural beauty of places like Lake Superior and Gooseberry.

After one of her late night shifts at the bindery mom was on her way home waiting for a streetcar when a man approached waving a knife and demanding her money. She handed over her purse and watch, but when the robber wanted her engagement ring she flat refused. That ring was too important. She was not going to give it up. The thief stabbed her. She let out such a howl that he ran allowing her to rush to a corner bar where they called for help.

Her injury was, especially for the time, a serious one potentially life taking. The blade went in between heart and lung. Recovery was not swift but did not delay the marriage plan. Mom was going to get married as planned. Hospital bills and loss of work income meant putting off the honeymoon that eventually took my parents to Hovland where half a century later they’d die.

As in all life stories this one has mixed elements. Trying to get ahead mom took the risk taking a late night second job. Had the knife done greater damage she’d likely not have survived, dad would have no bride, there’d be no marriage, and where does that leave me? The repercussions of the stabbing hit more than one person. But here’s what I find most interesting. Mother rarely talked about the event and when she did failed to put emphasis on her attacker being black. For sure she always experienced some degree of nervous response to black males, but did not blame “them” for what happened.

I can attest that my mother was not a paragon. She had flaws and devils; God help the boy who did not mind his manners. But when faced with more than ample cause to blame and hold a grudge she turned that down with the same determination she’d held onto her engagement ring. Something was more important to her than blame, resentment, fear, and prejudice. Maybe it was simply a matter of not wanting to invest too much of herself in a past incident instead of making and keeping the choice to go forward. For her it came down to simple thankfulness. She was thankful to survive, thankful to be alive, thankful to be a good cook, thankful for the spouse she fought with. She was even thankful for the ungrateful kid who can’t match her ability to embrace life without remorse.