Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider,” a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside.”
Family gatherings create my strongest memories. Among the earliest of my recollections were the backyard cookouts. Grandpa Emmi’s house on Grumbach Ave was adjacent to Schiller Park. It was a large back yard by city standards. Every trip to Grandpa’s house was an adventure. The garden was cultivated to grow not only tomatoes but also a diverse variety of vegetables. Fruit trees and a grape arbor complimented garden. It seemed like every plant in Grandpa’s backyard produced something to eat.
Cousins, laughter and adventure attracted me to the backyard on Grumbach Ave. I remember that whenever we walked into the garden to marvel at the vegetables we could hear Grandpa raising his voice, warning us about the perils of stepping on one of his hand nurtured plants. He would distract us with something that smelled and tasted delightful, finocchio(fennel). The “finnocch” grew like a weed at the edge of the garden. It was irresistibly attractive. It smelled and tasted like licorice. The herb seemed to have a calming effect on the cousins and myself. The large man with the booming voice became the grandfather with the big smile and the nurturing laugh.
The family is not as tightly knit as it once was. Cousins have moved to California, Connecticut, Colorado, the Netherlands and Virginia. Regular and frequent gatherings just have not been possible. Over the years a cousin or an aunt will organize a get together and we all come with a smile and a plate of food. We all say this happens too infrequently and we should do it more often. But busy lives and growing children often take us in a different direction.
Just a “couple two tree”(a northside expression) weeks ago my brother came home from California for a visit. It has been a while and I felt something special was necessary to welcome Armand home. I decided to host a backyard barbeque just as my cousin Theresa did last year. I received a Bocce ball set for Christmas and this would be the perfect time to try it out. We never did play Bocce. Conversation and laughter seemed more important. My backyard doesn’t stand up to Grandpa’s. I have too many trees and lots of shade, not ideal for growing tomatoes. I tried to grow finocchio but the neighborhood deer got to it first. I wonder if it had the same calming effect.
Almost everyone showed up to celebrate. My brother enjoyed being the guest of honor. My cousins and aunts brought laughter and food. Somehow I forgot to take even one picture. But I wondered to myself, had we managed to create that same old fashioned feeling of family that I remembered from Grumbach Ave. The family has changed significantly over the years. Marriage has brought in new members. Not only are most of my family members not Italian but most have not grown up on the northside. As I stood in the kitchen between platters of barbecued chicken and pans of eggplant parmigiana my Aunt Jenny shouted out over the merriment, “Joey, where do you keep the muppeens?” “Over here by the refrigerator”, I replied. At this moment I knew the family still had a connection to the old northside. Without even thinking about it Aunt Jen brought the spirit of the old northside to our gathering. Everyone was pitching in to make this memory a lasting one.