My maternal grandparents

My grandparents were less than perfect individuals but had a tremendous influence on me nonetheless. Both of them were very important, especially when my father passed away.  It turns out that just before he died, my father asked them both to make sure that my sister, mother, and I were taken care of.  Considering they had never been easy with my father for some reason, I think for no other reason than their inability to mind their own business, they took this request quite seriously.

My grandmother, Barbara Szucs Bori,  was born in Nyirtass in eastern Hungary near the border with the Ukraine.  The year was 1894.  To my knowledge, my Grandmother was not a lover of men, in general.  She married my grandfather in the U.S. with the thought that he would take her back to Europe.  WWI broke out and that never happened.  She came to the United States at the age of nineteen on the Carpathia (which later saved Titanic survivors), having set sail from Italy, if my memory serves me well.  She was out for some adventure and to connect with her sister.

She apparently was a devil of a kid when at home in Hungary.  She told me stories of having mistreated her sister’s boyfriends, spitting on them, hitting them with brooms, and the like.  She told me that she used to get after the milkman when he would go drinking, releasing his horses from the carriage.  She apparently lived a very nice bourgeois life in Hungary, the daughter of a landowner and his wife (who was apparently adopted).  In any case, she went all alone to visit her sister and ended up settling down in Cleveland, Ohio.  She was quite the talented lady with crocheting and I believe worked in some sort of knitting mill at one time for the grand total of $.09 per hour wages.

She and my grandfather, Joseph Bori never ever got along well.  They fought all the time, making the air blue with Hungarian cursing.  My grandfather was from Csongrad near Szeged, Hungary, born there in 1888.  He was a tradesman, a shoemaker in Hungary, I believe.  I am not sure how old he was when he came to the United States.  He was a character, to say the least.  I know he had spent a good amount of time in South Bend, Indiana.  He worked as a bartender.  I know that he was a lady’s man.  That got him into some trouble as apparently he got a girl pregnant and her brothers came after him.  He fended off their attack quite well, to the point of one of them being in the hospital and my grandfather had to fly the coop, never to return to Indiana.  He never gave many details but finally divulged a bit to my wife when he was in his nineties, saying he was going to go visit his son in South Bend.  We shall never know!  While in South Bend, my grandfather procured a beautiful gold Elgin pocket watch which he had on a beautiful gold fob from Europe which I coveted.  Mysteriously, although it should have gone to his son, I was the recipient as Uncle Joe was not the least bit interested in it.  My grandfather had a customer in the bar who was in need of money, he paid him $5 for the watch, bought him dinner and all the drinks he wanted.

They were not a happy couple.  They had four children, three girls, one boy:  Aunt Helen, the eldest, Uncle Joe, my mom, Elizabeth, and my Aunt Fran.  We do think that there is a distinct possibility that my Aunt Helen might not have been my grandfather’s child, there were always rumors to that effect and apparently, through the years, there were lots of fights, in Hungarian, between the two in which this subject was broached. My grandparents refused to celebrate their wedding anniversaries, to the point of not even divulging the date.  I have since found out that they married on October 22, 1916 in St. Joh’s Greek Catholic Church.

Both of my maternal grandparents were not the best English speakers.  My grandmother, despite her thick accent, was the better speaker of the two.  My grandmother would lord this over him every chance she could.  I remember so clearly one day when he mentioned a chair, calling it a “chur.”  She made brutal fun of him for this.

Religion was an issue between the two.  My grandfather was a non-practicing Roman Catholic who claimed to not believe in God.  My grandmother was a Greek Catholic who wanted to practice but didn’t because of the ire it created in my grandfather. My grandmother was more than pleased when we, the grandchildren, were around as she could take us to Church.

When my dad died and we moved away, to the suburbs, my grandparents remained in town.  I remember the times they would show up unexpectedly to our home, my grandmother would have taken several different buses to do so (they had no car) and she would arrive with cakes, breads, etc. to make our day brighter.  She would spend time weeding the garden, cleaning in the house, cooking, and such, things that working mom just didn’t have time to attend to.  My grandfather would do his annual tarring of the cracks in the driveway, the tarring of the roof of the garage, and any other thing he could find that needed attention.  The amusing thing is that he had no taste when it came to fixing things up and one time he mixed about four different cans of latex paint of varying colors and then proceeded to paint the back of the garage.

My grandmother would cook all of the things I liked, making sure to attend to my picky tastes and modify things where needed.  She knew I didn’t like sour cream (was I crazy?) so she pulled the chicken and some sauce out before finishing the Chicken Paprikash just for me.  She always used to get annoyed with Uncle Herman at Sunday family dinners because since I liked white chicken meat, he decided he did as well.  My grandmother would hide some for me, not allowing him to have it from then on.

One funny situation with my grandmother was when we had a once a year family gathering at my Uncle’s place out in the country outside Cleveland.  My grandmother had never really liked my Aunt so this was always an interesting visit.  We were served rhubarb pie, as I recall, and my grandmother (and everyone else) flipped out over the lack of sugar, the pie was almost impossible to eat.  When no one was looking, my grandmother slipped her pie into a bag under the table.  We laughed about this for years.

I was Grandma’s favorite.  We all loved her, but in retrospect, I see what a difficult person she was at times.  I am sure it is because of her sadness of having left her family, planning on returning, and not being able to.  She was somewhat good at fomenting trouble, pitting one person against the next.  The grandchildren were always special though. My sister and I were even more special since we had lost our dad.

Grandma’s breakfasts were special.  She had this way of making peanut butter toast that I still do every once in a while and used to do for my own children.  She would butter the toast on both sides, and then put peanut butter on both sides as well. She would then cut it into four pieces.  It tasted disgustingly good.  She introduced me to coffee, offering me some with lots of hot milk and sugar.  She made her special iced tea (with lemonade, beating Starbucks to the punch), and her stuffing for chicken and the Thanksgiving turkey were unique.  To this day, I make her special stuffing, which we call stuffing Szucs (her maiden name).  I have made it on an annual basis since Mary Kay was pregnant with our third son, Michael.  My sister-in-law had suggested cold cuts, not wanting to cook, my mother-in-law was not feeling well, Mary Kay was soon to give birth, so Grandma’s stuffing came forth.  The crazy thing about her stuffing is that it is a labor intensive situation, requiring surgical moves on the turkey, otherwise the stuffing oozes out before cooking!  Despite the fact that my brother-in-law said that if I was cooking, he wouldn’t eat, he did.  I have been making it each Thanksgiving since, Grandma Bori lives on!

Making noodles with Grandma was always a treat as well, she would pull out the huge special sheet and make them.  Her soup noodles were the thinnest that I have ever tasted, she used to cut them super thin.  She even managed to do this after cataract surgery.  She also used to make noodles with her friends at the local Church.

Grandma was a most wonderful friend to me and always thinking about me.  I shall never forget when I was four hours away at school in Athens, Ohio, receiving a box of Hungarian breaded chicken in the mail!  I have to admit, fearing that it might not have survived the trip, I threw it out, but it was such a sweet gesture.  I am not sure what she was thinking when she sent it, but I know that sometimes all of her reasoning skills were not there at this time in her life.  With her cooking, as she aged, we noticed that she was mixing things up a bit differently at times, her pies were somewhat strange, mixtures of this berry and that berry, but still good.

Before I left for my academic year in France, she and I got in the car one day and drove down to visit my old roommate.  It was a four hour drive each way, we had an absolute ball as we enjoyed being with each other, talking, eating, visiting.  She was a great sport!

I was with my grandmother when she died at the age of 81,  just a week short of my wedding in Chicago in June of 1975.  I was quite attentive to both of my grandparents.  I called them all the time, went over to help them when needed.  For some reason, I went over to see them; no one knew she was ill; it seemed to come on very suddenly after I arrived.  In any case, within a short period of time, she was gone.  It happened so fast that by the time we called the ambulance, it was too late.  She had been under a doctor’s care for issues of acid reflux, I am certain that it must have been some sort of internal hemorrhage or something.  It was quite a hard thing to take before my wedding and it was a major loss, especially for me.  This was my first major loss of a loved one since my dad and it hit me particularly hard.

Grandpa didn’t take it very well, as could be expected.  Despite their less than amicable relationship, they were truly joined at the hip in their own special way.  Grandpa demanded that Grandma’s funeral be done by a hell, fire, and brimstone minister that freaked out the entire family.  I am sure that Grandma was tossing and turning in the coffin at the time.

My grandfather lived for quite a few more years, reaching the ripe old age of 99.  He drove my mom absolutely crazy.  He must have suffered from some sort of dementia, and that, combined with his English, and his less than perfect hearing, sometimes made communication difficult.  He would get angry at my mom over this or that and say he was moving out.  He in fact did move to be with my aunt in California, which was a major fiasco.

My funniest stories of him are when he flew on an airplane the first time to visit me in Chicago.  I was worried sick since I was unable to go to the gate at Midway Airport.  At this time, it was still possible to do so but I believe there was some sort of remodeling going on.  I begged them to allow me, explaining his limited English, his advanced age, and his never having flown.  They told me they would take care of him.  Lo and behold, I see him being escorted by two tall, attractive flight attendants, talking up a storm.  As it turns out, they knew my life story by the time he reached me!

He stayed with us in our little two bedroom ranch and was with Mary Kay when I was at work, some thirty miles away.  I do remember taking phone calls regarding his behavior while I was gone.  He, Mary Kay, and Christian, our first son were home alone.  He was notorious about getting into mischief.  He wanted to take Christian for a walk, Mary Kay just wasn’t totally sure it was a good idea (and she was right), she finally ended up paying the neighbor girl to follow him to make sure all was well. 

Another time, Grandpa decided to do some yard clean up.  The problem was that he did it in the neighbor’s yard, cutting down a small dead tree that had been there for some time.  Luckily, when apologizing to my neighbor, he explained to me that my grandfather had actually done him a favor.

One day, he walked up to my neighbor, Jim, who was in his fifties at the time.  He said to him, “Jesus Christ, how old are you?”  Jim told him.  My grandfather retorted (in his very Hungarian sounding English), “You look much older, you are too damn fat!  Lose some weight.”  In my embarrassment, I apologized to Jim.  He said, “Don’t, your grandfather is right.”

Grandpa also decided, one day, that he was going to move in with us.  I explained to him that we only had two bedrooms.  He said, “No problem, I will take your bedroom and you and Mary Kay can sleep on the couch.”

Grandpa finally confided to Mary Kay one day that he was going to stay with his son in South Bend, Indiana.  This is where the line between reality and dementia becomes fuzzy.  All these years we had wondered about what had gone on in South Bend and Mary Kay was finally the recipient of the information.

When visiting us one time, the feather fell out of Grandpa’s hat.  He was convinced, for the longest time, that Christian, our oldest son, had pilfered it.  Years later we found it somewhere in the house where it had fallen. 

He spent his last days in a Hungarian retirement home near Akron, Ohio and died at 99.  Both he and my grandmother had provided our family with all sorts of funny stories and had enriched our lives.  At his funeral, I remember all of the funny stories that we told as we regaled his long life.   It is just so sad that he and my grandmother had been so unhappy with each other for all those years.


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