A Chick Evens Story

As I look back now, I suppose I could say, my grandpa was never cut out to look young, one of those guys that looked to me, all my life-in all the twenty-seven years of knowing him-he never got older, he just stayed old from day one, always looking the same; except a little towards the last months of his life, and then it wasn’t his fault, he was tiring over those long 83-years of life and work, he worked up to about three months prior to his death. I called him the Old Russian Bear; he came from Russia, in 1916 (born in 1891) and fought in WWI, in 1918, as an American Soldier.

I remember the way he’d pull on my ears as we walked down the dark gloomy streets at night to get a haircut, for seventy-five cents, at a friend’s house that was a dollar cheaper than the barbershop, back in 1955.

Early on Saturday mornings, we’d rush out of the house to go downtown to the marketplace (in St. Paul, Minnesota), it was a two mile walk, and by the time we got to the market, I’d just be waking up, with the dew from the nearby Mississippi River rising and fading, and shifting north of the city, past the market place, up Jackson Street, the street we had walked down. I’d help him carry his groceries as he went from one street trader to the next, he’d buy fresh chickens usually at the open market, but only the ones he saw himself that the butcher had cut their heads off.

“Come on, kid,” he’d say to me, moving from one spot at the marketplace to another, “let’s get going, we don’t have all day” he’d sternly grunt with his hoarse voice, “keep up, don’t fool around, we got work to do…” he’d tell me looking back from the corner of his eye to see what I was doing, while checking out the cauliflower, or asparagus, for his Russian stew.

Then we’d head on over to Wabasha Street, about four blocks from the Market, to a butcher shop he usually patronized this certain one, he’d be ahead of me, I’d almost have to run to keep pace with him. If he stopped for any reason, I’d walk ahead of him, and he’d catch up to me in a moment’s time. After a little while he’d look in back of him to see where I was, and he’d see I was sweating heavy, and slowing up some, he’d think I was dogging it, purposely, and then he’d squint his eyes, “You kids can’t do nothing nowadays,” he’d say, adding to that, “lazy as a dead mule!-keep up now!”

We’d keep right on walking toward the butcher shop, and old grandpa never once built up a sweat, only a grin, that is how I learned how to grin I do believe, and to every sentence, he’d swear once or twice, and repeat a half dozen times, “Hey, you keep up!” and then we were there. I’d look back towards the market, over towards Jackson Street, say to myself ‘It’s going to be a long haul, walking back.’

He’d now grab my nine-year old wrist, wrapping his fingers tightly around it, squeezing my wrist, then say, “Now you better stay right here, you hear me, or I’ll twist that ear of yours off your head!”

And I’d nod my head up and down, as a gesture of obedience.

Sometimes I’d find an empty chair to sit down on it, and watch my grandpa order his meat-pointing to this and that through a glass window behind a counter, it was usually sausage and beef or large portions of pork, for the Sunday get-togethers. He’d have the butcher cut special sections out of the ham or loin, or a piece of a large section of beef, cut some fat off, and trim around the bones, if they were ribs, he’d hand pick the best part out, perhaps having the butcher cut the ends off, leaving the rest for someone else, but at the end of it all, he’d have to pay double the price.

I’d have sweat pouring off my face in the morning summer heat, especially if it got past 11:00 a.m., before we headed back.

In a way it was a treat to be with my old Grandpa, skip along in back of him, and if he looked, I’d smile and walk normal. Hauling all that meat back in our arms, and by the time we got back home, my arms were hurting as if they were tied up like steers and then untied and I needed to stretch them out. I never thought of it as a burden, or even a task, perhaps more on the line of a morning mission, an adventurous undertaking; I liked meeting the people, and being introduced as his grandson.

He’d start the stew that Saturday evening, and in the dead of night, he’d get up and cook it some more, stirring it for an hour or so; if I was awake, I’d watch him for a while, go back and forth from the kitchen into the living room, and back to the kitchen again, until I fell back to sleep. I did this from the edge of my bed, kept the door open a crack, I’d watch him smoking his cigar or pipe also, as he paced the floor waiting for the stew to get the right thickness (so he could go back to bed, wake up early and put the potatoes and tomatoes, in the stew-and noodles in the chicken soup, and put the sausage around the stew), and I always knew when he was smoking, it left a tail it seemed, that seep into the side bedroom, and more often than not it would wake me up, and I’d love to smell the aroma of the stew, and if he had a good cigar, or tobacco, I’d live the scent of that likewise. My brother and mother and I lived with him in those far-off days, kind of an extended family situation.

He sure seemed to be having fun-I’d tell myself on the edge of our bed (my brother and I both slept in the same big bed for a few years, during those days), and he done his work, and so did I that day, hard work for me with sweat, and all that leg work, and by 11:00 a.m., the next day, he’d finish, chicken and noodles, with Russian stew, and some long links of sausage. Hard burnt bread and all the family members came over to his house, perhaps fifteen or twenty, every Sunday of every week of every year that was a lot of kilos of food.

And then one day, I was then twenty-seven years old, in 1974, I stopped by to see my mother and grandpa, and he was dead my mother told me, he had died that afternoon. I sat in his sofa chair, gathering my thoughts, I was stunned, “He had a stroke, they were going to take him to the hospital, but he was dead already when the ambulance came. He was lying on the floor when I got home from work.” My mother explained to me.

I went outside in the backyard, tried to hold back some tears, I was angry, and he was awfully dead, and I couldn’t help feeling angry.

And then a couple of family members came over, patted me on the shoulder, my aunts and uncles, and wanted to look around to see what they might find (explore), see what they wanted to take of his, personal things, items, everything. And I couldn’t stop being angry, angry and more angry, sort of mad because everyone was around the house trying to get what they could get before the other person got it. And then some arguments started over how much money he had hidden in the house, and how much money one of the aunts (or sisters) was holding for him before he died. And almost everyone called everyone else a liar, and a feud started between a few of the sisters and brothers-and there were six or seven of them, and it would last for twenty-years, or more.

My brother and I went to the funeral, we parked the car outside the cemetery gates, across the street, and sat in the car, didn’t join the others, as the cars seemed to chugalug in like a wagon train. I wiped my eyes, my face with a handkerchief, waiting for the last car to go through the gates.