Monday, January 11, 2010

Crazy Clairton Cousins

Memories are made of this

Clairton Cousins: So many of us grew up in the halcyon days of Clairton. For the most part we were poor; many were children and grandchildren of immigrants, and most of us had parents or relatives who worked in the local steel mills. In our particular family there happened to be six male cousins within five years of age of one another. We met regularly at my grandparent’s house to celebrate holidays and generally for weekly family gatherings. My maternal grandparents were both Slavic immigrants with Diedo (grandfather) a Bosnian Serb, and Baba (grandmother) from Croatia. They lived in a duplex that they had build with their own hands and many hands from friends and relatives. The house was on Arch Street, one block off State Street and between St. Clair and Park Avenues. It was a five-minute walk from the mill gate so the second part of the duplex was usually rented out to a mill worker. Family lore has it that in the early days of their marriage – they were married in 1915 – the second house doubled as a place for many Slavic steelworkers on paydays to drink and gamble but I was never able to verify the veracity of that lore.

Evenings around the pot-bellied stove: During the get togethers at our grandparent’s house the girl cousins would wander off in one direction, the adults in another, and the six male cousins would head up into the cellar. Since the house was built into a hillside, the cellar was reached by going UP a few stairs instead of down, as a typical cellar. We would sit around the pot bellied stove and the older cousins would fill the younger cousins with stories of their imaginary feats of virtue and conquests of a lesser virtue. The younger cousins would listen in awe until Diedo would come in and admonish us not to go into the wine cellar where his homemade wines were brewing. He would explain in his broken English that the wines were not yet ready to drink and if we sneaked some we would first get sick then our hide would be tanned for not listening. He always concluded with a wink and, “But if you take, take from number three barrel. She’s a best.”

More than fifty years have passed since the six cousins sat around that pot-bellied stove and discussed life. The eldest cousin, yours truly, went off to college and settled in Las Vegas. The second, John, went to college and the Army, then settled in California and worked in the computer field. Cousin Tony moved to Florida and became a professional entertainer, singing in lounges and on cruise ships. Cousin Milan’s family moved to the Philadelphia area when the mills had a downturn and his father was transferred. Milan was an outstanding athlete and attended University of Maryland on a football scholarship. After graduation he settled near his parents and became a plant manager. Frank went into the auto repair business and stayed near his parents. Steve also went to college on an athletic scholarship and settled in Nevada and became a school principal.

Tragedy strikes: If the cousins were nothing else, they were all healthy – until a debilitating disease struck Frank. After several years of fighting he lost the battle. It was a realization that we were all getting to the age where we were no longer invulnerable. We lived thousands of miles away from one another but all kept in touch – sadly our meetings were most often to attend the funerals of our parents.

Tony was the first to get the inspiration for a Cousins reunion. For several years we were just not able to make time for a reunion but last year Tony flew to Vegas where he, Steve, and yours truly shared an evening of good food, good wine, and great memories. We phoned John and Milan from the restaurant and let them know what they were missing. This year the three of us again met in Las Vegas and drove to California to meet with John and had another great day of reminiscing, and another great dinner. We phoned Milan and let him know that next year we were going to invade his territory so all the remaining cousins could celebrate our lives and the roads we traveled.

We hit the lottery: During part of our reminiscing we always reflect on the state of the country. Yes, the country is in the midst of economic woes. Yes, we have troops overseas who are in harm’s way. Yes, the politics have become bitter and the country seems to be divided against itself, but we all hit the lottery. When our grandparents decided to leave their countries and come to America they guaranteed their offspring the opportunity to be anything we wanted and were capable of doing. They guaranteed that we and our families would be safe from wars on our soil, and that we would be more prosperous than any prior generation. Our children would be guaranteed an education, our world class universities would be available to anybody who wanted to take advantage of them regardless of family background. As a country we would give over $ 300 billion annually to those less fortunate. Despite needed changes in the health care system we have health care available to virtually everybody. A recent survey showed that nearly 80% of Americans are proud to be Americans. That puts in a tie with Ireland and ahead of Australia. No other country even comes close. So each year as we meet for our reunion, we will not only reflect on our times growing up, we also will take time to thank our grandparents for making the decision to come to America. Just being born here hit the lottery.

A little blogging music Maestro… “Those Were the Days,” by Mary Hopkin.

Dr. Forgot

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