Louie

Are you Louie?  That was my Grandfather’s name.”  The old man broke out into a grin.

Are you Greek?” he asked.

Yes, I am.”

            Where you father from?” he asked in his heavy Greek accent.  

He was almost jumping with joy that our ancestral roots followed a similar path.   Tiny and stooped from years of bending over a hot oven, I knew he was Louie, the owner of the bakery.   Several months ago I had a similar conversation with him when I stopped in to buy a pound of his special double chocolate walnut cookies to take to my mother.    Being a Celiac, stopping into a bakery is not something I do, but I needed a bottle of water and his shop seemed to be the only place open as I walked through Greektown. 

Luca” I said, not bothering to correct him.  

My father was Irish, German and French.  My maternal Grandfather was Greek and took a Polish wife, my Grandmother.  They were a most unlikely couple in their day but they made it work.

You go to Luca?”  He asked, his grin broadening by the second.  It made me feel guilty that the only thing I was buying from him was a $1.10 bottle of water. 

I have never been there but someday I will go.”

I promise you this”, he said with his finger in the air.  You go and then, after you see the house of your father and how the people live, you go back every year.”

Someday I will and I will remember you told me so.”

Good day to you.” he said and I smiled back, “the same to you.”

I walked out of the shop and into the rain.   Twisting off the cap from the bottle of water I took a long cold drink.     Louie had not remembered me from our first encounter so many months ago.  That time, when I bought the cookies, we had the same conversation, almost word for word.   He was as excited to find out I was Greek then as he was today and it occurred to me that I might very well have been the highlight of his day.   I imagined him at home, sitting across the table from his wife and telling her about the Greek lady with a relative of the same name.  My Grandfather would have done the same thing.

Grandpa always brought me apples, the golden delicious ones that are sweet and soft to eat, bursting with juice.    When I was young, he owned a tavern and restaurant at the corner of 95th and Western, right across from the A&P food store.   I don’t believe he ever set foot in that food store, preferring to go down to the produce stands at the Old South Water Market to buy produce.   He knew everyone there, after all, and the produce was the best, ten times fresher, bigger and brighter than what the A&P offered.   It didn’t happen often, but every once in a while I would get to go to the market with him.   He would take two brown paper sacks, one large and one small.  Handing me the small sack he would tell me to pick out what I wanted while he busied himself filling the big sack. 

I would run up and down the stands in excitement!  The market smelled of water and greens, the puddles from the hoses used to spray down the fruit would splash around my ankles as I raced around.  The produce sellers all looked the same with long, white bib aprons, skinny strings winding behind and around to tie in front over rounded bellies and Greek fisherman hats to keep the sun out of their eyes. 

Stand after stand, the vendors would call me to pick their wares offering ruby red strawberries, slices of pale green melon and fragrant pears.  There were tangerines, oranges and grapefruit as big as my eight year old head and weighing nearly as much.   Grandpa would fill his sack with dandelion greens, endives, escarole and spinach, carefully shaking them to rid them of sand and grit while he chatted with the vendors.  Green beans, onions and tomatoes, carrots, celery and potatoes, as I saw him put them in his bag I knew Sunday dinner would include those Greek roasted vegetables that I loved.

I loved wandering the market and always ended up by the stand of apples.  Looking over the apples, I was careful not to touch until I was sure of the ones I wanted.  I always picked the Golden Delicious.  The red ones were good but the Goldens were the easiest to eat, the soft flesh easily giving way to my teeth.  My tastes changed over the years and now I prefer the tart Granny Smith apples, but as a little girl I loved the sack of Goldens Grandpa would bring whenever he visited.

Cancer of the throat killed my Grandpa, choking him.   It was hard to see this robust, hard working man weaken and lose his voice.  The doctors cut a slit in his throat and inserted a tube to allow him to breathe.   He couldn’t swallow food and liquid food was pumped through the tube in his abdomen to give him nourishment.   Food is such an important and ritualistic part of Greek family life, I knew it saddened him to be reduced to baby food through a tube.  

My aunt set up a family schedule to care for Grandpa in his final days.  The tube in his throat would get clogged, cutting off his breath.   When he couldn’t breathe he would ring a little bell in a bit of a panic.   The night it was my turn to sit with Grandpa, I had him comfortably settled in his rented hospital bed.   I stretched out in the next room on the couch with a book.  As it grew dark, my eyes grew heavy and I fell asleep.  Somewhere in my dream, from far away, I heard a bell ringing, ringing, frantically ringing.   I jumped up and raced into the room.   Grandpa’s eyes were wild with fright and he was gasping for air.   I grabbed the saline solution and filled the syringe, carefully inserting it into his breathing tube, shooting the saline in only to have it squirt back out at me.   The mucous and saliva had grown so heavy and thick that the saline couldn’t get through.   I tried again only to have the same thing happen.  

I saw the look in Grandpa’s eyes, the tears squeezing out the sides.   My hands started to shake and I felt my face redden with stress.   I grabbed the suction machine and placed it into the tube to try and suction out at least a small bit of the clog.  Suction and saline, suction and saline, I kept doing it over and over, afraid to look at my Grandpa’s face while I worked.  

“Don’t you die on me. “”

I silently prayed over and over, afraid to say it out loud lest Grandpa hear the panic in my voice.   I wiped away my own tears with my sleeve in an effort to stay calm and work.  

Finally, the saline broke through, dislodging the clog and I was able to suction it out.   I repeated the cleaning process two more times to be sure I had removed all of the mucous.  Pink came back to Grandpa’s face and I saw his shoulders slump as the tension released from his body.   I readjusted his pillows and did my best to make him comfortable, washing his face and throat with a warm cloth, placing a fresh clean towel around his shoulders.  I lightly kissed his head, placed the bell back in his hand then turned to set the workstation with fresh supplies.  When I turned back to him, Grandpa was dozing lightly so I turned out the light and went back to the other room. 

I sat on the couch burying my face in a pillow so my tears would not waken my Grandpa.  The thought that he had almost died under my care was unbearable to me.   He had eleven grandchildren but I was his first, the girl who loved apples.  I shuddered at the thought that I almost let him down.   A few days later he was rushed back to the hospital.   He didn’t make it, dying an hour after he got there surrounded by family.

The Old South Water Market buildings are still here.   A historic landmark now they have been converted into condominiums.   After my divorce, as I searched for a place to begin life on my own, I stumbled upon them.   Looking at the gleaming limestone façade, my mind traveled back to the old stands of fresh produce and the memory made me smile.  I knew Grandpa had reached down from heaven, steering me here.   It was home.   It comforts me to live here and when I walk up the street I can still hear and see the loading docks, the trucks and the vendors hawking their wares from so many years ago.  My kitchen is never without apples.   An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but for me it keeps my Grandpa Louie near in my heart.

2 Comments

  1. Comment by Susan Kozem

    Posted on September 16, 2009 at 7:12 am

    Although I know this story, it is even better in writing. Very sweet.

  2. Comment by Susan Kozem

    Posted on September 16, 2009 at 7:12 am

    Although I know this story, it is even better in writing. Very sweet.

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