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Insights on business -- and life.

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The American Dream, Updated

Something achieved, something lost: the end of a hard, but wonderful era.

by Mike Hartnett (June 18, 2012)

Almost nine years ago I wrote a piece about America. There's been such turnover in the industry since then, most subscribers probably have never read it. So here it is again, with an update.

My mother-in-law died last month. She was 92 and suffered from Alzheimer's, so she was gone long before her body stopped breathing. Mary Witczak was one of seven children, the oldest daughter of Michael and Anna Tomaszkiewicz, who emigrated from Poland to Chicago as teenagers in 1905. Michael and Anna had no money and couldn't speak English. Their first child, John, died shortly after he was born, as so many babies did in those days. Michael found work in a steel foundry and one day had three fingers cut off in an accident. By then there were six kids at home in a two-bedroom apartment.

The owner of the foundry gave Michael some money and promised him he'd have a job as long as he wanted. But the owner died soon after and the son fired Michael. The son didn't feel obligated to fulfill his father's promise, and didn't have any use for a seven-fingered foundry worker.
 

Michael took the money and made a down payment on a "two-flat" in a Polish enclave in nearby Cicero, moving the family into the ground floor apartment and using the rent from the second floor to help pay the mortgage. Then came the Depression. Dreams of educating their children were shattered; everyone had to scour the Chicago area to find work to support the family. Mary graduated from high school at 16, but had to decline a scholarship to the University of Chicago to take a job as a secretary.

Eventually Mary and her five brothers and sisters married and settled down within about five miles of their parents. There were 14 grandchildren. About once a week somebody would have an anniversary, birthday, first communion, holiday, confirmation, or graduation, reason enough for the family to get together. (Change the title to My Big Fat Polish Wedding and you'll get the idea.) The food was simple, but plentiful. The laughter was constant and the joy of being together was always evident. It was a remarkable support system for the hard times life brings to everyone.


The dream of education didn't die with Michael and Anna, however. Their grandchildren earned 10 bachelor degrees, 8 masters, 3 law degrees, and 2 doctorates. One grandson, Michael, became head of a company that was the largest owner and renter of warehouse space in the country. He told the Wall Street Journal that he got the idea from his grandfather's two-flat.


Michael and Anna's children and spouses are almost all gone now. The only ones left are Aunt Ceil, who also has Alzheimer's, and Aunt Helen, who's sharp as ever at 85. The grandchildren and their children are spread out across the country, from New York to California, Arizona to Kansas. Everybody is busy pursuing new dreams. Now the family comes together only for weddings ... and funerals.

Since I wrote this, almost nice years ago, Aunt Ceil and Aunt Helen have passed. Recently we were in Phoenix for my brother-in-law's wedding. It was wonderful to see everyone again, after so long. Too bad we had to fly 1,400 miles to do it.

xxx

 

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