Interview Transcript of Mary LaDrigue (“ML”)
Conducted on Behalf of the West Side Detroit Polish American Historical Society
INTERVIEWER 2: And she (your grandmother) came to this country?
ML: Nineteen seven, when she was seven.
INTERVIEWER 2: See, that’s the same as my grandmother.
ML: And her father came here first, and of course, got a job and saved money, sent for his wife and his two children. My grandmother’s brother was four.
INTERVIEWER 1: Now, this is your father’s mother?
ML: No, this is my mother’s mother.
INTERVIEWER 1: Your mother’s mother. Okay.
ML: Same as that picture you saw upstairs of the six generations. My grandmother.
INTERVIEWER 1: Okay. Her father came, so she came with – her father came first and then brought over the mother and the two children.
ML: Yes, that was very common.
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes. And her first name was Ewa?
INTERVIEWER 1: E-W-A?
INTERVIEWER 1: E-V-A. And is it two daughters, or just the daughter and a son?
ML: Daughter and a son, Stanley.
INTERVIEWER 1: Do you know what part of Poland?
ML: We don’t know about that family, where they came. I think it was the north, near Pozna?.
INTERVIEWER 1: Okay. I always like to start out by saying on tape that we are here on Thursday, January 8, 2009, with Mary LaDrigue, and we are with the West Side Detroit Polish American Historical Society. We are here for the purpose of recording the oral history of Mary LaDrigue. Her husband is John LaDrigue, and they are members of the society. So that’s the background.
ML: My great-grandmother’s name?
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes, your great-grandmother’s name.
ML: My great-grandmother’s name is Tecla Zelinski.
INTERVIEWER 1: T-E-C-L-A Zelinski, Z-E-L-I-N-S-K-I. And this would be your great-grandmother on your –
ML: Mother’s side.
INTERVIEWER 1: Mother’s side. Okay. So Eva –
ML: My grandmother.
INTERVIEWER 1: Is your grandmother, so she was one of Tecla’s children. And Stanley was her brother.
ML: Her son.
INTERVIEWER 1: Her son. Okay. Stanley was Tecla’s son.
ML: I think her husband’s name was Stanley, also.
INTERVIEWER 1: Okay.
ML: He died during the influenza epidemic in, I think it was 1917, before my mother was born.
INTERVIEWER 1: You have a lot of background on your family history. You’ve done a lot of genealogy.
ML: Well, I tried, but you know, everything stops when they come from Poland, you know, it only goes back so far, and then they’re in Poland, and church records are lost.
INTERVIEWER 1: Right. Are you a member of the genealogical society?
INTERVIEWER 1: You’ve done all this on your own? That’s amazing.
ML: So my great-grandparents are at Holy Cross and my grandparents are all buried at Holy Cross.
INTERVIEWER 1: Your great-grandparents and your grandparents are at Holy Cross?
INTERVIEWER 1: Okay.
ML: So the earliest memory I have of my grandparents, I guess my great-grandmother wrote her husband – you know, they would write back and forth, and my grandmother wanted to know how they would know when it was time to get off the ship. And my great-grandfather says, “Oh, there’s this beautiful lady standing in the water, and when you see her, you’ll know it’s time to get off the ship.”
INTERVIEWER 2: Oh, my.
ML: She didn’t tell me how it was on the ship. I know they were in steerage, but there were no horrific stories that she told me about that. I know my grandmother did have a picture of this girl who did die on a ship coming to the United States and she had ropes around her ankles and she was sitting on her father’s lap, I would guess maybe 13 or 14. They tied her hands and her feet so they would go down, so they would sink better. And that was common. And then they would take a picture with their father because that’s their last picture, and they never made it to the United States. They died on the ship.
INTERVIEWER 1: Oh, my goodness.
ML: And they couldn’t bring them. They were on the ship for weeks. I mean, you couldn’t bring them to this country to bury them. So that’s just what they did.
INTERVIEWER 1: Oh, my. That’s tragic. Things we don’t even think about.
ML: My grandfather died during the epidemic, and then my grandparents got married in 1916 when my grandmother was 16, on May 16. And then my grandfather was 22, I think, and then my great-grandmother and probably my grandmother’s brother came to live with my grandparents and my grandfather had to take care of everybody.
INTERVIEWER 1: Now, where did they settle? What street did they –
ML: Oh, in Detroit. Possibly on Greusel.
INTERVIEWER 1: Okay.
ML: And my grandmother was married in St. Hedwig.
INTERVIEWER 1: Now, what about Stanley?
ML: Oh, my grandmother’s brother?
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes.
ML: Real unusual story I know about him, that his first wife died, I think of T.B., and kind of a cute story, he was without her for a while. His second wife had had not married up to this time and they were saying, “Oh, this good looking man is going to this wedding, you’ll have to come to this wedding.” And she said, “Well, if you want to meet him, you go after him.” And she ended up coming and she said, “Oh, my goodness, he looks like a Greek god.” [Laughter] And they ended up getting married, and the day of his first wife’s funeral – he had a daughter and she was 13 and, of course, her mother died and she did not want to go to the funeral, and she was crying and crying, “I can’t go to the funeral,” and her father said, “You have to go,” and she ran across the street and was hit by a car. And she had a broken leg, ended up in the hospital and didn’t have to go to the funeral.
INTERVIEWER 1: Oh, my gosh.
ML: Then when Stanley was married to his second wife they also had a daughter.
INTERVIEWER 1: And he was obviously still in that neighborhood, too.
ML: They lived around, a little ways, still on the west side, though.
INTERVIEWER 1: So where did they – so they went to school and church at St. Hedwig?
ML: Stanley and my grandmother?
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes.
ML: Yes, my grandmother always went to St. Hedwig Church because she was always in that neighborhood.
INTERVIEWER 1: Do you know if they belonged to any societies?
ML: They belonged to the – what is that insurance company – Polish – it’s still around today. National Alliance?
INTERVIEWER 1: The Polish National Alliance? Is that it?
ML: My grandfather worked I think at Dodge, and my grandparents went into business. My mother, she was probably around three or four when they bought that store. My mother was the oldest.
INTERVIEWER 1: Okay, so tell me about this store because we get into your mother. The store was located where?
ML: Right there, where the plate is. [Pointing to wall.] On Otis.
INTERVIEWER 1: On Otis. Do you know the address?
ML: 5610. And I think she had two children then. And ended up having eight children. My great-grandmother ended up living with them until she died around Halloween 1946. What I remember about the store is my grandmother would make dinner and they could never eat together because there was always someone coming into the store and so they’d have to take turns. And when they heard the bell – they had a bell, and then they lived in the back of the store – they would just run out and take care of the customer. Even like on Christmas, if one of her customers needed celery or carrots or something, they’d come to the back door and they’d come down and my grandmother would sell it, but on Christmas day, sometimes they’d just come down and meet the whole family. [Laughter] Because those were her customers.
INTERVIEWER 1: They took care of the customer no matter what.
ML: Yes. And she’d sell them, like if they wanted one carrot or just one piece of celery, they didn’t have to buy the whole bunch. [Laughter] And she kept books on them. So if one of the children would run over and say, “Oh, my mother needs eggs,” or this or that, my grandmother would just write it down, and then they would pay for it. So she did that, I think until they closed the store in the ’60s, maybe 1970 they closed the store. She always kept books on her customers.
INTERVIEWER 1: Now, did the store – what was the name of the store?
ML: Otis Market.
INTERVIEWER 1: And your grandmother ran it?
INTERVIEWER 1: Oh, both did.
INTERVIEWER 1: So your grandfather –
ML: Leon or Leo.
INTERVIEWER 1: Was he also working at Dodge while he was running the store?
ML: No, no. They did that full time. He would – they would make their own kielbasa and smoke it. There was a smoke house in the back.
INTERVIEWER 1: So he left Dodge?
ML: Yes, when they bought the store.
INTERVIEWER 1: Okay.
ML: My grandmother had eight children.
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes.
ML: Yes. My grandmother – I think she went to church every Friday morning. And she was, I think she thought of herself as like a counselor for the neighborhood. And the people would come in, the ladies, and tell her about their problems, and she would advise them and she felt like she was so important to the neighborhood.
INTERVIEWER 1: Like today’s hairdresser. Or bartender.
ML: Yes. [Laughter] Right.
INTERVIEWER 1: The psychiatrist or psychologist of the neighborhood. And she probably was. She was probably one of the most important people in the neighborhood.
ML: Yes. And like she would say to my uncle, “I’m not telling you what to do, I’m just advising.” So she would advise everyone. [Laughter] So she was a true matriarch of the family.
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes, she was really a matriarch of the family of the neighborhood, I’m sure. And to be that strong to have that many children and to have that business, too. I just marvel at what they did. I really marvel because you really had to have a shrewd mind to start up a business and to run a household.
ML: And then of course that was through the Depression.
INTERVIEWER 1: Exactly.
ML: And my mother, when she got married, there were 800 at her wedding because my grandparents had to invite anyone they had dealings with, you know, the baker and delivery people and what have you, and that was 1945. So it was during the War and everyone was so excited to come because it was the butcher’s daughter getting married and there was going to be meat. So that was a big wedding. But she always said her oldest and her youngest were going to have the biggest weddings. But they were all big.
INTERVIEWER 1: What do you mean it was the butcher’s daughter getting married?
ML: Well, you know, they had – that’s what they called my grandfather, the butcher because, of course, you would get your meat there. And, of course, he would cut the meat.
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes. Now I want to get into a little bit about your mother and her siblings, the names and the dates of birth, or approximate dates of birth, if you remember. Who came first?
ML: My mother was the oldest, she was born in 1917, October 27, and her name was Helen.
INTERVIEWER 1: October 27, 1917.
ML: Adela. Oh, I think they were 18 months apart, I can’t remember. I don’t know the dates, of course, but they were about 18 months apart.
INTERVIEWER 1: Okay, about 18 months apart.
ML: Eugene. Carrie.
INTERVIEWER 1: C-A-R-R-I-E?
ML: Yes. Florence. Ray. Esther.
INTERVIEWER 1: E-S-T-H-E-R?
ML: Yes. Mary Ann.
INTERVIEWER 1: Is that two words?
INTERVIEWER 1: M-A-R-Y A-N-N. And now did they all go to St. Hedwig?
INTERVIEWER 1: All through school and everything?
ML: I think Carrie and Florence graduated from high school. I think the rest went through eighth grade. The three youngest graduated from Cass Tech. I can imagine paying for Catholic school for all of those during the Depression.
INTERVIEWER 1: That’s what I mean. And you know if they were going to St. Hedwig they were putting a lot of money into the church.
INTERVIEWER 1: They gave a lot to the church. And they were smart if they went to Cass Tech. Only the smartest went to Cass Tech. And, now, so were you – you obviously were very close to your aunts and uncles when you were growing up?
ML: Now, my youngest aunt is only six years older than me. So when the youngest was born my mother was 21. So, of course, that, I thought, was really neat, especially when I was in the fourth grade. They were teenagers, and I thought, oh, my goodness, being a teenager, that was the greatest thing. And they were going on dates and all this exciting stuff. [Laughter]
INTERVIEWER 1: That was really cool for you. Yes.
INTERVIEWER 1: I remember having that with some of my cousins, too, and being able to go riding in the car with my cousin and listening to the music. You know, that was cool. That had to be so neat for you. Oh, so growing up did you then speak Polish?
ML: My father then lived at 28th and Buchanan.
INTERVIEWER 1: Okay. Tell me first of all his background and then I’m going to get into how they met.
ML: Well, my father’s parents came from Bia?obrzegi, Poland (near ?ancuta). It’s in southeastern Poland. And my father’s mother, her brother, came to this country and, of course, would write her letters about America wanting her to come. And so then he must have sent her the money because there’s no way a girl could have saved that much money in Poland. And then she came and lived with him and his wife because they had a big house, and they took in borders. And one of those borders was my grandfather. So that’s how they met and got married.
INTERVIEWER 1: Okay, so then they met and then they were married.
ML: They had a son John.
INTERVIEWER 1: Do you know when they were married?
ML: I’m thinking they were married around 1912. And they had a son John who I think lived 10 days and he died. My father (Stanley Uchman) was born February 10, 1918. And my grandfather worked for Henry Ford, THE Henry Ford. And, of course, that was the big draw about coming to Detroit, you could get a job working for Henry Ford, making all this money.
INTERVIEWER 1: Okay, now, who was born February 10?
ML: My father, Stanley Uchman, U-C-H-M-A-N.
INTERVIEWER 1: Okay, he worked for Henry Ford, Mr. Henry Ford.
ML: I remember my father saying nothing could be said against the priest or against Henry Ford because Henry Ford gave his father a job, so you didn’t come home and complain. And they lived down 30th or 31st, I think it was 30th, and lost the house during the Depression because my grandfather lost his job – I remember my father saying my grandmother was crying, and my grandfather said, “I’ll buy you another house.” And, of course, he didn’t even have a job. But, of course, he did buy her another house on 28th Street. My father would say every week, my grandfather would come home and say, “They’re going to give me this less money. We’re going to lower your pay to this amount. Do you want to work?” And it kept on being less and less and less until they let him go. But you would do the same amount of work for less money. So the house on 28th, they had – my father said they heard that that house was for sale but it wasn’t safe. It wasn’t a safe house, and that my grandfather and my father crawled through the basement window and they checked the whole house and they said, “Well, yeah, it’s a good house.” And so they bought that house. You know, it was a deal that they got on it. And it’s still standing, although now it is for sale. I just saw it for sale, and the front door was open, so I think it’s going to go. So many of the houses on 28th Street have been burned down and they’re building new ones now.
INTERVIEWER 1: That’s a good sign that they’re building new ones I suppose.
ML: My father went to Assumption. Well, he was baptized at St. Francis. I think that’s where my grandparents were married. And then they lived at 28th Street and they went to Assumption parish and my father went to Assumption until the Depression started and then went to public school. The first crime I remember, I was probably eight years old. My grandparents would go, I think it was Thursday night to church, to novena, I think. And one of my grandmother’s friends was knocked down and her purse was stolen. And that’s the first crime I ever heard of, and my father told them, “Don’t you go to church at night anymore, don’t you go out,” because everybody walked.
INTERVIEWER 1: That was your grandmother?
ML: Her friend who had her purse stolen.
INTERVIEWER 1: Your grandmother’s friend?
ML: So everyone had beautiful yards. They had flowers and beautiful lawns, and people sitting on the porch at night, and the neighbors coming by and talking to them. So it was really – you don’t believe all that in the suburbs, you don’t hear that. And it seems to me from what I hear, people from certain towns in Poland, they would kind of move to that same area in the United States. I suppose probably through letter writing they maybe kind of –
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes, they had that, they had connections, they write. And that’s what I found so fascinating. I realized it’s no coincidence. You have connections, people come before.
ML: My father’s parents, I think they were about 21 when they came to this country.
INTERVIEWER 1: Did I get their names?
ML: Clara and Jacob Uchman.
INTERVIEWER 1: And they settled where? Oh, that was on 30th or 31st. And then they had how many children? Oh, yes, that was the one son that lived for two days. And then your dad. And any more children after that?
ML: No, my grandmother had heart trouble at an early age and she was sick with other ailments and diverticulitis. There wasn’t medicine for these things, and surgery they didn’t have. So all you did was just go to the doctor and come home and take pills. Let’s see, my grandmother died in 1956 from her heart, and then my grandfather moved in with us in Dearborn Heights. And my father had said there were plans, my grandfather had always wanted to go back to Poland. His idea was to come here and make money and go back, just go back to Poland. My grandmother never wanted to go back. So I don’t know what happened. She never wanted to go back to Poland. And my father said there were plans, they were ready, I think they got their passports, they were already planning on going I think on a vacation to Poland. And then the Depression hit and all that entailed, so they never saw their families again. My grandfather was the only one from his family that came. My grandmother had one brother that came. And so when they left at 21, they never saw their parents.
INTERVIEWER 1: That was another thing. They knew once they came they might not ever see their families over there again. That was another thing. Think about that.
ML: The songs, the big thing at Polish weddings, “Oh, mother, I’m leaving you, I’m leaving you, I’m leaving you today,” and they really did leave their mother.
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes. And so many of them, they said they were coming just to make money and go back, but a lot of times they never went back.
ML: Didn’t go back.
INTERVIEWER 1: So many times they didn’t.
ML: A lot of people, you know, you think when people come, they just love America. Oh, everyone just loves America. Well, they don’t, today. Immigrants that are coming today, if you talk to any of them. A lot of them say, “I don’t like America at all.”
INTERVIEWER 1: I know.
ML: My cousin in Poland that I write to has a good friend Stasia. She was not married, and she didn’t get married until probably in her early forties, and we were invited to her wedding. And Joe worked at Kowalski Meat Company, and I said, “Oh, my goodness, we’ll get to go to a Polish wedding, it will be so much fun. I haven’t been to a Polish wedding in such a long time.” And we get there and she has little flower girls instead of bridesmaids like we would have, the little girls, maybe six little girls. And they all have long, white dresses. And when they came up to the hall after the wedding, the wedding was very long, unlike – at Our Lady of Cz?stochowa Church, very different than we would be used to. And they played this music, all ballroom dancing, and the little girls would circle the hall, make a circle, and each one by herself very elegantly with their heads held high, and the bride. And the men would come and I said where are the polka players? [Laughter] You know, what we consider a Polish wedding.
INTERVIEWER 1: [Laughter] You have to ask for a polka.
ML: Because they, of course, have all gone to college. It’s a whole different culture in Poland now. My grandparents, who were peasants, they were all peasants. Why would you leave Poland if it was wonderful? They were poor, starving, you know, it was bad. That’s why they came to this country. Now almost everyone has a college education.
INTERVIEWER 1: That’s why so many people who aren’t Polish and assume that the polka is Polish –
ML: It’s not.
INTERVIEWER 1: [Laughter] Right. So, let’s see. We’ve covered your family. So you growing up. Let’s talk about you. When you were growing up, were you –
ML: We lived with my grandparents on 28th Street until I was four, and my parents saved their money and my father paid cash for his house in Romulus. He was buying five acres and he was going to farm it. And my grandfather thought, oh, this is so funny because he knows nothing about farming. Of course, my grandparents had farms in Poland, you know. And I remember my grandfather walking out in the fields and picking the pieces of soil up, and my father saying, “Do you think this is good?” and my grandfather, between his fingers, and he says, “Oh, yes, this is good soil.” So my father farmed the five acres. And so we moved from Detroit to Romulus. And I thought, I mean, to a way of life where people can walk everywhere to out in the middle of the country, and I had to go to school seven miles from home on a bus. And that was a whole different life, and St. Stephen Parish, and that had a Polish priest, Fr. Czapski.
INTERVIEWER 1: Okay.
ML: And that’s where I went to school.
INTERVIEWER 1: How many siblings do you have?
ML: I’m an only child.
INTERVIEWER 1: So you moved from the city to the country?
INTERVIEWER 1: You went the opposite direction?
ML: Oh, yes.
INTERVIEWER 1: And how was that, living on a farm?
ML: I loved the farm and the woods and the house and everyone was so friendly. All the farmers were always so friendly. It was much friendlier than people were in the city.
INTERVIEWER 1: So did you get up every morning and like gather the eggs?
ML: Oh, yes. [Laughter]
INTERVIEWER 1: And milk the cows and do chores?
ML: I was, you know, I got up when my mother’s alarm went off. I used to get up at 5:30 because we were seven miles from school, so they stopped at all the farms and it would take us a long time to get to school. We were probably on that bus an hour and a half by the time we got to school. So I would stick out one foot and my mother would put on that shoe and sock, and I’d stick out the other foot. [Laughter] I just went to school. I got out to the road and they picked me up.
INTERVIEWER 1: So farming was in your dad’s blood, it sounds like.
ML: Yes. He bought a goat because he thought he would milk the goat and then it was really funny because that kind of goat didn’t give milk. And all the farmers were laughing. And we were always the city slickers. [Laughter]
INTERVIEWER 1: Oh, that is so funny. They probably were amused by you.
ML: But they did – oh, yeah. But my parents did sell – at that time, in the early 1950s, farmers on weekends would have little stands in front of their house and people from the city would come out to Romulus by the airport, out in the country, and buy vegetables for canning. A lot of women in the city canned. I think most women canned at that time. And so they would sell corn and tomatoes and green peppers and string beans. And then my father got calcium deposits in his elbow and he wore a cast for 18 months, and they didn’t know too much about it. Although the doctor said that he should move back to the city, the moisture in the soil wasn’t good. And so he did move back in 1954 to Dearborn Heights.
INTERVIEWER 1: So how many years were you out there?
ML: From 1949 to 1954.
INTERVIEWER 1: And while you were there did you still carry on Polish traditions? Did you have –
ML: Oh, yes, my mother would have – well, my grandmother would have Wigilia. And, of course, there was a Polish priest, and you would have your baskets of food blessed at Easter. Because he was a Polish priest, he would do all that.
INTERVIEWER 1: Did you speak Polish in the home?
ML: Well, because we lived with my grandparents until I was four, I spoke Polish before I did English, and then it was kind of a combination Polish-English that I spoke. [Laughter] But I understood. And I still understand everything.
INTERVIEWER 1: It’s an interesting life you’ve had. You’ve had a little bit of everything.
ML: And then when we moved to Dearborn Heights, we were at Our Lady of Grace parish, and it was over-crowded. If you can remember that, the schools used to be over-crowded and there were waiting lists, and so for the fourth grade I lived with my grandmother until the next year. When the priest found out what was going on, they helped me get into Our Lady of Grace.
INTERVIEWER 1: That would have been what year?
ML: That I went to Our Lady of Grace? 1955 – 56. So that was my first time away from the Polish culture because there was no Polish priest. Even though I’m back to the city, and that was a big adjustment because I was used to playing in the woods.
INTERVIEWER 1: Sure.
ML: And it was a whole different – I mean, I had no trouble getting used to the country, but coming to the city, that was a real –
INTERVIEWER 1: How was it for your mom? Did she have a hard time adjusting?
ML: I don’t think she did because, you know, then she had neighbors close to her.
INTERVIEWER 1: And she had already had the city experience.
INTERVIEWER 1: Your dad? How did he readjust? What did they do after they came back?
ML: Oh, my father always worked at Ford’s. That farm was five acres, you know, it was a hobby. He always worked at Ford’s.
INTERVIEWER 1: Even when he had the farm?
ML: Yes. What I didn’t tell you, my father – it’s kind of interesting, but he started in professional wrestling.
INTERVIEWER 1: Oh, he did?
ML: He was a weight lifter. Gorgeous George was one of his friends. And they started at the Boys Club. I think it was called the Boys Club.
INTERVIEWER 1: The Boys Club of Detroit.
ML: I think it was Livernois and Michigan Avenue, and that’s where they met, and he went to that Kronk gym and he would watch people box, you know, famous people, famous boxers. And he boxed a little bit but he said he wasn’t a dancer. He could never do that. And so when he went into World War II he was a wrestler. And he was on the wrestling team and ate steak a couple of times a day and drove the general around in his Jeep.
INTERVIEWER 1: That’s interesting. I never knew they had wrestlers in the Army.
INTERVIEWER 1: Did he serve overseas?
ML: No. He was in California mainly, Santa Ana Race Track. They had a barracks at the Santa Ana Race Track. They didn’t race the horses during that time, the Army barracks there, but it was originally a race track. I remember him telling of this one guy who wouldn’t get his hair cut. Every day they’d put the pack on him and give him his rifle. He had to go running around the track. “Go around again, around again.” [Laughter] He wouldn’t get his hair cut.
INTERVIEWER 1: [Laughter] Did your parents teach you a lot about the Polish culture or did you just naturally –
ML: I kind of just knew it. When you’re just born in it you just know it. And I kind of see through friends who are Polish how wedding customs get started and how all our customs because different villages in Poland would have different traditions. Like I went to the wedding of one of my friends, which was in Hamtramck, and that song Seven Angels, they did it in English, you know, so I finally knew what all of the words meant, and we did it at my wedding in English. And that’s kind of how it started, I think. You go to a wedding and you think, “I like that. I’m going to do that in my wedding.” And that’s kind of how all this came about, the Polish-American wedding because it wouldn’t have been all from villages in Poland.
INTERVIEWER 1: Now did you go all through Our Lady of Grace?
ML: It was just through eighth grade.
INTERVIEWER 1: And then where did you go?
ML: Lowrey, it’s in Dearborn. They didn’t have high school in north Dearborn Heights. Crestwood High school wasn’t built at that time, so then through our taxes they paid for us to go to school in Dearborn. And then I was the last class to graduate from Lowrey and the next year they sent students to Fordson. Then they ended up building Crestwood, which was the high school.
INTERVIEWER 1: And when did you meet John?
ML: I met him on a blind date in high school. I just turned 17. He went to Edsel Ford High School.
INTERVIEWER 1: Was it love at first sight? [Laughter]
ML: No, I don’t think so. You know, both of us used to – I mean, we never compromised, and sometimes he’d get his way and sometimes I’d get mine. But there was no compromising ever.
INTERVIEWER 1: Did you date a lot after that first date?
ML: Yes, yes. We were young. And we’ve been married 43 years. So we got married – we were both 19, and he turned 20 two weeks after. And had a Polish wedding.
INTERVIEWER 1: What’s the date of your marriage?
ML: August 21, 1965.
INTERVIEWER 1: And what’s the date of his birth?
ML: September 1, 1945.
INTERVIEWER 1: You did have a Polish wedding?
ML: Yes, we had a shower in Dom Polski and my grandmother paid for the hall.
INTERVIEWER 1: How many people?
ML: A hundred and fifty.
INTERVIEWER 1: That was your shower?
INTERVIEWER 1: That was one of those all-day bridal showers? With the band and everything?
ML: No, we didn’t have a band. There was a lot of drinking. Nothing like an American shower hall. You know, a big meal and all that, all the meats.
INTERVIEWER 1: Was it one of those –
ML: You had so many people, my aunt said, “Let those bridesmaids open up the gifts, come on, we’ve got to get out of here!” because I had all of these gifts. I mean, well, you can imagine.
INTERVIEWER 1: With 150.
ML: And I wanted to open them all myself. It was like a production line, and hurrying and opening gifts. [Laughter] And then we got married at Our Lady of Grace, and the hall was – John’s father was in the union. He was a union representative in the steelworkers’ union in Lincoln Park, which is where the hall was. We had 400 people. We had three or four seatings for dinner and my mother didn’t care if you sat four times and ate. That was fine with her. Of course, we had a band. John’s friend had a band.
INTERVIEWER 1: How many people at your wedding?
ML: Four hundred.
INTERVIEWER 1: And it was the steelworkers’ union hall?
INTERVIEWER 1: Where was that at?
ML: On Dix in Lincoln Park.
INTERVIEWER 1: That was some party.
ML: That was the last Latin Mass I went to.
INTERVIEWER 1: What was your gown like?
ML: It was silk organza. It was plain, I mean, considering. Of course, my first communion dress was all lacy, and I was dreading because I think when you’re blond and blue eyes you have very delicate skin and I dreaded that itchy nylon lace dress. And I thought, I’m not going to dread putting my wedding dress on. So it was silk organza and it had lace appliqués all over it. And a bouffant veil.
INTERVIEWER 1: Did it have a long train?
ML: Yes. Lace with a point.
INTERVIEWER 1: Oh, how gorgeous. How many bridesmaids did you have?
ML: Four bridesmaids. And they wore blue dresses.
INTERVIEWER 1: Did you have a flower girl?
INTERVIEWER 1: Did you have any of the Polish traditions at your reception?
ML: Yes, the cook met us at the door with bread and salt. And the father-daughter dance. “Little Curly Head.” That was from the ’40s.
INTERVIEWER 1: And did you have the Oczepiny, the unveiling?
ML: Where I took my veil and passed it around. And we had that dance where everyone held hands and did a polka together, and we went through the whole hall into the kitchen and around and back.
INTERVIEWER 1: Oh, yes.
ML: March, I guess. Wedding march.
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes, the wedding march.
ML: Then you take off your veil and each bridesmaid has a turn with the veil.
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes.
ML: And that’s at 12:00.
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes, you’re now man and wife. That’s beautiful. Do you remember the name of the band, or was it just one of John’s friends?
ML: Yes, yes.
INTERVIEWER 1: Did you take a honeymoon?
ML: We went to Mackinac Island. That’s romantic.
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes, very. And then – oh, what about John’s parents? Where were they – were they from the same neighborhood?
ML: No, John’s father’s mother was Polish. His father’s father was French. Also Chopin’s parents were French and Polish. So, you know.
INTERVIEWER 1: So, his father’s father was French and Polish. I wondered with his French name why he had such an interest in Polish culture.
ML: And his mother was English and German. And the violin was her father’s. He did make violins for people. He was from Hancock, Michigan.
INTERVIEWER 1: Say that again. The violin was from –
ML: John’s mother’s father. And he played the violin in silent movies and taught lessons. There were a lot of kids in John’s father’s family. There were 13. There was an abusive father. And his father left home at 16 and ended up in the Upper Peninsula in Hancock and met John’s uncle. He didn’t have a place to live, and came to his house and there was John’s mother, and that’s how they met.
INTERVIEWER 1: So what did John’s father do for a living?
ML: He worked at McClouth Steel. He was a union rep. And also he was a type of counselor. His people in the union would call him up if they were having problems with their marriage or that, and he would counsel them. Or their wife would call up and say, “Oh, my husband’s not bringing the check home,” and he’d call the husband. And he did this around the neighborhood, similar to my grandmother’s style. He would go around the neighbors, if they had problems, they’d come and talk to him and he’d try and solve everybody’s problems.
INTERVIEWER 1: And John, when you met him, of course, he was young, but then what did he do for a living?
ML: He worked at Ford in tool and die.
INTERVIEWER 1: Now your children. How many children?
ML: Three girls. Renee, Jeanette, and Aimee.
INTERVIEWER 1: All grown?
INTERVIEWER 1: All living in the area?
INTERVIEWER 1: Married?
ML: Just the middle one, she’s married with four children.
INTERVIEWER 1: Are they interested in the Polish culture?
ML: The middle one is not. My oldest is somewhat, and Aimee is. Aimee went to Poland when she graduated from high school and she loved it. And she’s very good in fitting into cultures other than our own. She went to Indonesia in college for a semester and lived there. She likes different kinds of cultures. The oldest and youngest are social workers.
INTERVIEWER 1: Oldest and youngest are social workers?
INTERVIEWER 1: Have you ever practiced Polish traditions in your home, Wigilia, or any of the Polish traditions?
ML: Always on Easter, of course, I don’t have my food blessed, but we eat the Polish Easter food. And, of course, the lambs.
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes. Are your girls interested in carrying on the tradition of the butter lambs?
ML: They have not. We tried to make one, but I never made one until my parents went to Florida, and then I said to my mother, “Who’s going to make the lamb?” She goes, “Well?” [Laughter] And then I made my first lamb. But I had watched her, you know, I would sit and watch her. It was interesting, when we went to Poland the last time I was trying to teach them a little bit, you know, what do we do, you know, we carved a pumpkin for them and told them about Halloween because they didn’t have Halloween like we have Halloween. It’s All Souls Day. And they got a big kick out of that, carving that out. And my aunt said, you know, we put it on the porch with a candle and they said, “Oh, my goodness, we never thought it would look like that.” And they said, “Gee, isn’t it heavy for these children to be carrying these pumpkins around?” because they thought they would go house to house. And I told them how they would get candy and she says, “Money, too?” And I says, “American children do not want money.” And she thought, well, they have to carry all these pumpkins with the candles. [Laughter]
INTERVIEWER 1: Just so we have it on tape, tell me a little bit of the background on how your mother got started making the butter lambs.
ML: I think someone she worked with, she worked at Wagner Pie Company. She worked there and she worked in the factory, at some factory, might have been Dodge Main. And in one of those places someone had taught her to make the lambs. And then my mother made them for the store and, of course, they were much fancier than most stores sold.
INTERVIEWER 1: And we’re referring to the butter lamb that Mary made for us at our first annual west side historic Polish church pilgrimage and Święconka in April of 2007, which was featured in the story in the Michigan Catholic. And we have photos of it in our archives. It is such a beautiful lamb. I do have to say I’ve never seen one like it. We’ll put a picture of it in with your interview transcript as well. So the lamb was a big hit in your grandmother’s grocery store.
INTERVIEWER 1: I can see why. We got so many calls about that after that article.
ML: You know, if people are interested this year, and if you want to set up a class or something, like no more than 10 if people want to learn how to do it.
INTERVIEWER 1: Yes, and I do have to say that when we set up the pilgrimage we expected 20 to 30 people, and we had no idea it was going to explode into what it was so we weren’t prepared for that number of people, but yes, we would like to do that and I’ll talk with you after the interview about it. So I can just imagine how many of those lambs your mother sold at the store, and your grandmother. And your mother made them for the store?
INTERVIEWER 1: And she had to be young when she was making them.
ML: She was 27 or 28 when she married my father. Oh, my father’s father, at that time you would buy your chickens. I guess my grandmother had chicken on Sunday, and he would go on Saturdays up to Michigan Avenue and buy the chicken and he would always buy the chickens walking around and blow on their feathers to know if this was a good chicken or not, and bring it home.
INTERVIEWER 1: He blew on the feathers?
ML: Yes, to see the skin because they were live chickens. And he would pluck them and my grandmother would singe the feathers over a stove in the basement. It would take a long time. So that was his job. And we got our wedding cake from Old Warsaw Bakery, and that was on Michigan Avenue, too. And that’s gone.
INTERVIEWER 1: Oh, yeah, and where did you get your dress?
ML: I got that at Ray’s Bridal on Woodward Avenue in downtown.
INTERVIEWER 1: And your bridesmaids, they came from there, too?
ML: Their dresses, my Aunt Esther, she’s a seamstress and she made the bridesmaids’ dresses.
INTERVIEWER 1: And who cooked for your wedding? Did you have neighborhood cooks? Do you remember? Or did the hall –
ML: No, my mother got the cook. I don’t know her name.
INTERVIEWER 1: It was a traditional Polish wedding.
INTERVIEWER 1: Just called around and got everybody. The old fashioned way.
ML: Yes. The hall didn’t have air conditioning. August 21st, it was hot, and I had long sleeves, but nothing was air conditioned. I remember downtown Hudson’s was the first building that had air conditioning and they advertised it in the window: air conditioning. That could have been 1949 – 50. That was exciting because you could go in there and spend the whole day. You never had to leave. You had a fan in the church but you had to turn that off during the sermon because you couldn’t hear. [Laughter] Well, we were used to that. [Showing photo] This is my cousin who lives in Poland.
INTERVIEWER 1: How gorgeous. You know, the flowers, that’s what I remember about – I was only in Europe once, but that’s what I remember. Look at that beautiful flower garden.
ML: So that’s the kind of house they would have had. That was probably built around the end of World War II. The officers used it as the headquarters. And this is the first communion. The boys and the girls wear robes like this for their first communion. They don’t wear veils. The little girls wear flowers in their hair. So now their married son, this is his house now in Poland that he just built. Looks like a nice American house.
INTERVIEWER 1: What didn’t we cover? Anything about your grandmother’s store? Anything your mother told you that you remember?
ML: Well, you know, during Prohibition time, I guess when it was, you pretty much had to sell numbers. My grandmother had to sell numbers and then I guess the Mafia would come in and pick up the money from my grandmother, and my mother said that was always scary. She hated to be in the store when he came in. She didn’t want to deal with him. But my grandmother had no choice, you know. They had to. That’s the way it was.
INTERVIEWER 1: We interviewed another lady who had a grocery store and she said there was a sales rep for every particular type of food, like she had a pastry man, and –
ML: Oh, yes. They got their bakery things from Polanski, and there was a candy counter near the door, and that would like open up from the back, and when the kids would come home from St. Hedwig’s at lunch time, they would all stop into my grandmother’s store and buy their candy. They’re going back to school one way or another, I mean, if it was too crowded you just had to wait there. And it was always a busy time. My grandmother had her customers and all the kids needed their candy because they had to get back to school, and on top of that candy case, which was all glass, on top she had a large tray. I mean, I remember it being really big, and it had a cover, see-through cover, and she would have different types of pastries in that. And my favorite was that Seven Sisters torte. It was seven layers, like pistachio, strawberry, chocolate, white, yellow, and maybe a raspberry in there, and cream in between them, and then it was drowned in like a candy bar, just chocolate. It was very pretty, Seven Sisters.
INTERVIEWER 1: And somebody came and sold that to you?
ML: Yes. Polanski.
INTERVIEWER 1: Now, did she have ice, like was there an ice box or refrigerated storage?
ML: As storage? There was a cooler.
INTERVIEWER 1: There was a cooler.
ML: A walk-in cooler where she kept everything. And, of course, there was a meat counter that the meat was kept in. And there were no lead aprons in those days, and when the butchers would cut the meat there was no protection for him. And sometimes there were accidents.
INTERVIEWER 1: And everybody in the neighborhood knew everybody. Do you remember the names of the people? Any family names?
ML: Nocsaks [phonetic] lived next door.
INTERVIEWER 1: How do you spell that?
ML: I don’t – N-O-W –
INTERVIEWER 1: I’ll just put it phonetic.
ML: I think it was a three-family home. Cousins were in one house and Kathleen Nowsak, I used to play with. And her cousin living in that house had polio in his arm, I remember, and that was the year I went back to Dearborn Heights, and he had polio in his arm. Right next door. And a little girl that I played with, three doors down, she got polio in her neck, and her uncle was a chiropractor and that was the only thing that saved her life. So that was right after I went home, and two children just a few doors apart got polio. That was that big polio epidemic and they just came out with a vaccine, and I remember her mother – I was saying, “Oh, are you going to get your polio shot?” and her mother said, “No one’s going to give my child polio.” And her daughter ended up with polio. She didn’t get her shots. But it was shots that came out, and there was a series of three, I think, if I can remember.
INTERVIEWER 1: You got them?
ML: Yes. So now, this is the first generation that has survived polio and people I knew in their sixties now. They are finding out that it never left their body. It’s dormant. So they’re having problems in those areas that they had polio in now. The Szlagas [phonetic], I don’t know how to spell that, lived across the street. Connie Szlaga. And I just ran – since I work at Greenfield Village, I ran into the people who operated the bar across the street from my grandmother’s store on the corner. Kind of funny, you know, we were just talking about, gee, her grandparents lived across from my grandmother, and she used to stop at my grandmother’s store, but I don’t know her name. That was kind of funny.
INTERVIEWER 1: And where did you shop in the neighborhood? Where did your mother shop?
ML: She would have just gone on Michigan Avenue. There were clothing stores on Michigan Avenue. Everything was, in a way, kind of European. You would go to the fruit and vegetable store and that’s all they would have. You would go to meat market, you’d go get your chickens at a separate place. And there were bridal salons. What’s the name of that religious bookstore on Michigan Avenue?
INTERVIEWER 1: Mateja?
ML: Yes, Mateja. That’s where I got my first communion dress, I remember going behind the curtain. They had two curtained rooms. You could try the dress on and walking down the hallway, they’d give you their opinion on how you looked in that dress. It was all private little shops on Michigan Avenue. That’s how people shopped, rather than at department stores.
INTERVIEWER 1: You just walked?
ML: Yes. And your banks. So people didn’t have a – like my grandparents, my father’s parents never had a car. My mother’s parents did, but they had to go to the market and buy fruit and everything for the store. But it’s possible to go through life, there were streetcars and buses, to go downtown, 10 minutes, you know, from downtown. It was common, you know, my mother said on Sunday they would get in the car and go for a ride to Belle Isle. The customers had to wait until she got home to ring the bell. [Laughter]
INTERVIEWER 1: She had to get back to take care of the customers. That was the thing, when you owned a business back then, there was no down time, never. You were like on a tether, really.
ML: Almost like a doctor or a funeral director.
INTERVIEWER 1: Right. But in a way, you know, it’s what people are looking for today, when they’re looking to get back into these little businesses like coffee shops. It’s almost like the ideal life, you know, having a little loft upstairs where you live. We’re kind of like trying to get back into that.
ML: We want to remember the good things.
INTERVIEWER 1: Right. Now do you think growing up Polish and having the Polish culture as part of your life, how do you think it’s affected you? Has it made you a better person?
ML: Some people who are not, I have a friend who thinks Polish people are very clannish, but we’re kind of drawn to each other. I think that’s the same of anyone who has any ethnic roots to any country. You pull to your own kind. Yes, I think it’s a closed, a kind of a warm, fuzzy feeling being Polish.
INTERVIEWER 1: It certainly never leaves you, does it?
INTERVIEWER 1: If you could say anything to your children about the culture and the heritage, what would you leave with them about the Polish culture?
ML: Well, have you read that book Jadwiga’s Crossing?
INTERVIEWER 1: No.
ML: It’s advertised in the Polish American Journal, and it talks about this family that comes to the United States in, I think, 1860, their experience on the ship and it shows you what kind of people you came from. And I gave it to each of my girls.
INTERVIEWER 1: Oh, very nice. Anything else you can think of?
ML: I think Polish people are very hard working and they couldn’t be swayed when they were made fun of and they got the worst jobs in the country and they persevered. And every generation does better than the generation before them. I don’t know if we’re going to continue that custom.