Sooner or later, I was going to have to broach the issue of where I am from, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio by the name of Parma. When I was seven, my father died and my mother, doing her absolute best to take care of me and my sister, moved us from the city of Cleveland (which was experiencing white flight) to the suburbs. My mother and father were not people of means and luckily they made sure that there was enough insurance on my dad to pay for the house if something were to happen, and it did.
Cleveland, to me, represents all sorts of things. First of all, I am ethnically Hungarian, by heritage (on both sides), and we lived very close to the Hungarian section of Cleveland. I am mentioning this because my heritage and my inability to get schooling in its language caused me to set the career path I did, pursuing French (another language and culture that was very appealing to me). I was baptized in a Hungarian church, grew up listening to Hungarian music from the local radio station, heard Hungarian from my grandparents, saw the Hungarian newspaper, etc. I was the only grandchild who was interested in going to Hungarian school and being the youngest and moving to the suburbs, the only one who didn’t get a chance at it!
Cleveland had two descriptions of it that I heard when growing up: “the mistake on the Lake” or “the best location in the nation.” I have to say that both manage to fit. It has the possibility of being an amazing place, something more on the level of a Toronto, a Milwaukee, or a small Chicago. The cultural assets that Cleveland has are amazing: museums, the symphony, ethnic restaurants, and the like. It suffers from poor guidance on the part of its leaders who don’t manage to agree on anything, so nothing gets accomplished. One of my biggest embarrassments was when I spent the year in Tours, France on my junior year abroad. A Frenchman I met asked me where I was from and I told him that I was from Cleveland. I figured there wasn’t a prayer that a European would know anything of my hometown. His next question was, “Have you heard the Cleveland Orchestra play?” I hadn’t! I also must say that the minute I returned home to Cleveland, I made sure to make up for that. It was well worth it!
So, my father died and we moved. My mom had good intentions, but frankly the town she chose was a suburb of about 100,000 people at the time, Parma. Parma was unbelievably ethnic, which can be a good thing, but in its case, it became a negative. It had a nice middle class appearance for the most part, but I found it to be one of the most stifling places one could ever imagine. She purchased a home outright, which was a good thing because her bookkeeper’s salary would hardly managed to maintain a mortgage and took the social security money that she received for my sister and me and banked it. Her frugality was what sent me to college as it afforded me a fine education in a good state school in southeastern Ohio.
Explaining Parma to people is tough. In my teen years, a Cleveland TV personality, by the name of Ernie Anderson, started hosting awful horror movies on local television. He actually became quite popular and spawned, I believe, other personalities like him. He called himself “Ghoulardi” and would appear during breaks of the movies. He became a very cult-like figure. The time period was that of the appearance of Peyton Place on TV. Ghoulardi decided to take Parma and skewer it on his show. It was absolutely hysterical; he called it “Parma Place.” In it, he portrayed Parma’s inhabitants as generally Polish, as total hicks with strange habits and attitudes. The problem is, Parma deserved to be skewered. Men in Parma, according to Ghoulardi, sported pants that were a bit too short and showed white socks, even when they were wearing dress shoes. It got to the point that if someone asked where you were from and you responded, “Parma,” they would check your socks. I was well into my thirties before I could even wear white socks again! We Parmesans were also kielbasa and pierogi lovers and we had pink flamingos on our lawns along with chrome balls (those strange ornamental metallic mirror like balls sitting on pedestals). I hate to admit it, but Ghoulardi was right, my home didn’t have these things, but others did!
All of the previous information isn’t enough to make one detest a location but there were other things. The people were, in general, very paranoid about dealing with each other. When I went to visit my mom with my wife and kids (after moving away), we would walk down the street. People who knew me would start watching us until we approached and then slam doors and windows. Ladies were always seen with babushkas and paper bags, paper bags sometimes even being considered as luggage! I never ever fit in. Parma made me want to get away!
It is funny that before moving to Parma, I had always felt relatively comfortable. Upon my arrival there, however, all of a sudden I had to get used to new people and situations. I also found that the level of, what I would call, personal, hidden, mini violence was an issue. At the Catholic school I attended, playground at lunch was always a major disaster, especially during the winter. The amount of times I had to pick myself up off the ground from having been knocked down by bratty kids was unreal. My big gripe is that the adults in the situations were always mysteriously unaware of the goings on. This pretty much continued into my one year foray into the junior high (9th grade in Parma) and then in high school, but in a different way. The abuses mainly happened in the hallway and/or in PE class. I am thinking that much of this cemented my desire to be a teacher and seek to avenge the children who were victims of this. My having been slow at developing, uncoordinated, and having skipped a year of school were not exactly helping the matter. This did, however, firm up in my mind that especially if I had boys (and my wife and I had three) that they would be held off of school as long as possible.
The redeeming feature of Parma was the fact that even though people were seemingly across the board uncivil, the schools did provide a good education and for that I am thankful. I had no idea how good it was until I got to college. In retrospect, the guidance program where the counselor had, I believe, more than 1000 students to deal with, was less than great. I am sure now that I could have set my sights higher in terms of my university career, had I known.
My biggest surprise upon my move to the northern suburbs of Chicago was that people actually said hello to each other on the street. I have since found that people do that in Cleveland as well. Parma was the exception. Moving away totally changed my view on people and how they act.
In 2003, I had many dealings with Parmesans as I brought my mother to live (she was 82 at the time) in the Chicago area. I found that those situations were less painful than all of my previous experiences. I also found that the provinciality and naïveté of the people were quite interesting.
I am well aware that some of my views of the town are certainly colored by the experiences I had and that not everyone goes through life in Parma the same way. For that, I am thankful, no one deserves that, and I mean no one. I still haven’t changed one thought though, in my fantasy world, Parma would be removed from the map!