My cousin, Ken, kindly commented on my last post and mentioned that I should write about my mom, Annie. I thought about it, and it sounded like a good idea. This post will also give me the opportunity to write a more balanced remembrance of my dad.
I write these posts for my kids and try to be honest and transparent. When I mention my dad, it is often in a less-than-positive light. However, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t have positive qualities. Additionally, he was a product of his environment. Roles for men and women were rigid for someone born in 1910. This was compounded by his 1st generation status, which dictated its own behavioral compliance. In addition, my dad was raised in a large family that in itself was controlled by rigid rules of conduct.
I can’t say I knew my dad’s dad, although I saw him a hundred times. My grandparents only spoke Slovak, a language that I didn’t speak. Interestingly, I eventually learned that my grandfather was fluent in English. His pride demanded that everyone address him in Slovak; there was no flexibility. I remember my grandpa as a frail old man who spent most of his time in bed. However, when I see photographs of him from his younger days, he appeared very differently. In those images, he is tall, strong, and very good-looking. Apparently, he was also very strong-willed. My father would tell stories where my grandfather would remember some transgression that my father committed weeks earlier. He would then wake up my father and beat him. My dad said he frequently didn’t even know the reason why.
My dad left school after the 8th grade. He was a bright guy, and it was common for students to continue on to high school, but he had to support his brother, who was attending college. His matriculation into the workforce was at his parent’s insistence; my father said he was happy to do it for the family. My uncle was on track to become a priest, and in the Slovak circles of the day, there was no higher honor that a family could obtain. No family sacrifice was too great. Eventually, my uncle decided that religious life was not for him and married my Aunt Rose. I am grateful that union produced some of my wonderful cousins. My grandparent’s disappointment became my blessing.
My dad was also a product of the Great Depression and the deprivation and stress that era created. As an interesting aside, he had a secret weapon; apparently, he was so good-looking in his youth that girls would swoon over him (reported by multiple sources).
Despite his difficulties, he eventually became the Chief Operating Engineer of one of the largest high schools in Chicago. He consistently worked and supported his family. He was a handy guy who could fix many things. He took care of my mother when her health failed. He supported my educational efforts.
I recognize the traumas that he overcame, and I respect his efforts to succeed. As I said in previous posts, he was not an evil person. The two of us didn’t gel. He needed a standard issue, son, and that wasn’t me. Yet, his disappointment paradoxically impacted me and played a key role in my development. I became self-reliant, an excellent problem solver, responsible, and independent. Those qualities have served me well throughout my life. Every coin has two sides.
My dad was just half of my parental equation; the other half was my mom, Annie. Just like my dad, she had her flaws. However, that is not the purpose of today’s writing.
My mom was also raised in a very large Slovak family, where the last three children were girls. She was sandwiched between my Aunt Mary and my Aunt Lill. My mother admitted that her father was an alcoholic, something shocking to say in the day. She noted that he was nicest when he was drunk and meanest when sober. He worked as a maintenance man for a book binding company. My mom’s mom was very gentle and loving. Both were deceased long before I was born.
Despite being an immigrant family, her siblings became very successful. One started profitable savings and loan; another owned a factory, one was a professional baseball player, and several others became engineers. I remember going to the home of one uncle. We lived in a run-down Chicago bungalow. His family lived in an actual mansion in Riverside—a giant house with a book-lined library and an elevator. I recall going to other relatives on my mom’s side; that were also impressive.
Cultural limitations bound her life. Women were regarded as second-class citizens. If her brothers saw her on the street, they would ignore her as she wasn’t worth their time. In those days, there were two types of high school certificates, a 2-year and a 4-year diploma. She graduated from the two-year program, which completed her education. She was then expected to work, which she did in a variety of menial jobs. This was not unusual, except for one thing, my mother was one of the most intelligent people that I ever knew. I know a lot of very smart people, but her intelligence was global.
My sister has a diary that my mom wrote that recalls her graduation. In attendance was her family. The principal stood at the podium and announced that an award was to be given to the most outstanding student. The principal talked about all of the student’s academic talents and amazing creative abilities. That student was a superstar with a bright future. My mother was curious to discover which boy won the award. Then the principal announced the name “Anne Skriba” (my mom). Her brothers were shocked that their stupid sister wasn’t stupid after all.
Edit: My sister has my mom’s diary, which is the primary source for the above paragraph. She has offered the following corrections: My mom received specific awards for her creative activities, which ranged from writing poetry to authoring a play. The school also had an award that was given out to the best academic student in a class. Their name would be engraved on a plaque. My mother was awarded that honor and consistently scored the highest among her peers academically. When the principal gave her the academic award, they referred to all the other awards she received. Last correction, the principal identified her as Anna Skriba, not Anne Skriba.
Did my mother build a space shuttle or write a best-selling novel? No, she married my father and raised a family. I believe that few people who met her knew how intelligent she was; she was hampered by low self-confidence, anxiety, and the locked-in role women of the day were expected to conform to.
I mentioned that my mother also had her flaws, and that was undoubtedly true. However, I felt that she loved me unconditionally. Some may say she was co-dependent. However, she was generous to a fault and constantly worked to keep the family together.
Here are a couple of simple examples from my experiences with her.
When I was in primary school, I had a project to create a castle. This was one of those assignments where the kid was supposed to do it, but the parents completed 90% of the build. My mom gathered junk from around the house with my sister Carol’s assistance. Some empty oatmeal containers, a broken mirror, a bit of old house paint, some cardboard boxes, etc. In one evening, they build me a castle that could have been used as a prop on a TV set. It was fabulous.
My mom did typical mending jobs, but I didn’t realize how talented a seamstress she was until one Halloween. My sister Nancy asked her to make cat costumes for her and her boyfriend for a party that evening. My mom was not a hobbyist sewer; she sewed because she had to repair clothes. She thought about it for a moment and reached into her bag of scrap material and found a beat-up pair of black pants. She disassembled the pants and pulled out her sewing machine, a gadget that never worked well. In short order, she made both of them cat costumes, complete with ears and tails. They looked great, despite the fact that she made their costumes with only scraps and imagination.
My mom was an excellent writer, something my procrastinating brother, Dave, took advantage of. Like most college students, Dave would be given 20-30 page term paper assignments at the beginning of the term. However, he didn’t start the paper until the night before it was due. That evening, he would appear with a stack of books in his hand. Dave didn’t type and asked my mother to do this task for him. Their efforts started after dinner, usually around 6 or 7 PM. Dave would start by describing what he wanted to say and pulled some references from the books he brought. My mom would start typing on our old Royal Upright. This would continue through the night, and I remember waking up at 2 and 3 AM to the sound of her typing. At some point, my mother would take over the composition. By 7 the next morning, the paper would be complete. I’m sure that my mom deserved the first author title on these endeavors.
My friends always wanted to eat at my house, and I couldn’t understand why, as I assumed that all moms were great cooks. However, I learned differently. My mother was an effortless cook who made most foods from memory. She would bake something every single day. She did this in our crappy kitchen with a broken stove and mismatched pots and pans. She had a Sunbeam Mixmaster from the 1950s that was so used that my father would have to change out the motor’s brushes every year or two. Her bakery was fantastic. She didn’t teach me how to cook, but I often observed her cooking. She had such confidence in her cooking that it gave me confidence when I started to cook. One of her favorite TV shows was “The French Chef.” I watched so many episodes with her that I joke that Julia Child taught me how to cook.
My mom had a broad understanding of alternative medicine at a time when such things were uncommon. She had a strong interest in the paranormal. She and my dad had an actual close encounter, but that is a story for another time.
She was very gifted psychologically and had an intuitive understanding of others. Friends and family sought her advice which was both compassionate and logical.
Lastly, she had genuine psychic abilities. I’ll give you two examples.
When I was 5, my aunt and uncle generously took me with their family to Rainbow Beach, which was a large beach/park on Lake Michigan. Those were different times, and kids weren’t tightly managed. My uncle and aunt set up a blanket, and I went off into the waves with my cousin Bob and (I think) my cousin Kris. After splashing about for a bit, I looked up and couldn’t find either of them. I was in a panic. I decided to go back to the family blanket, but it had disappeared. My uncle had moved the blanket to a better site. It seemed like there were a million people, but I recognized none of them. I decided the best way to find my relatives was to break the beach into quadrants and methodically search each one. I did this twice but to no avail. By now, my anxiety and fear were out of control.
At home, my mother sensed something. She told my dad, “We must go to the beach right now; something is wrong with Michael.” My father tried to dismiss her concerns, but she was beyond insistent. In fact, she dragged along my sister, Carol. As they pulled into the parking lot, they heard an announcement on a loudspeaker, “Still missing 5-year-old Michael Kuna.” My mother almost fainted. Of course, my relatives were also looking for me, but we didn’t connect. I knew my strategy wasn’t working, so I devised a plan B. I returned to the parking lot and found my uncle’s old Packard car. There I sat and started to cry. A kind man saw this, asked me what was wrong, and took me to the beach’s office. My mother knew that I needed help from miles away.
I was 7 or 8 at the time and frequently played with Mike Z, a boy 1 year older than me but light years more street-smart. One day my mother said she was going to take me to the local theater. This was extremely unusual; it was the only time she did this. Not only did she take me to the movies, but she also bought me ice cream afterward. I was over the moon. We walked back from 59th and Kedzie to our home at 55th and Francisco. On the way home, I thank her for the wonderful adventure. She looked at me and said, “I had a strong feeling that if you stayed home today, something terrible would happen to you.” We turned the corner to our block and saw an ambulance in front of Mike Z’s house. He had been spraying lighter fluid into an open flame that traveled up the can and exploded. He was street-smart enough to roll himself in a blanket, but despite that, he had significant burns over most of his body and spent weeks in the hospital. He would likely have had me do the “experiment,” and I would have been the burn victim. However, it is less likely that I would have had the common sense to roll myself in a carpet. It is more likely that I would have been disfigured or dead.
We are all products of our genes and our environment. We all have positives and negatives. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Today, I wanted to give you additional insight into my family of origin. There are two sides to every coin.