My uncle Chookie’s son Steven Oster died July 28, age 59; My cousin Mary Pobar Finnigan died September 30, age 74, my age. I never knew Steven, but I adored Chookie (né Charles), my father’s youngest brother, who as a young man looked like the actor John Derek.
This photograph was taken in Kenosha WI on September 2, 1945, V-J Day, the day Japan surrendered to end World War II. Left to right in the rear were my mother, Mildred (Milly) Oster; Jerry Dirks, husband of my Aunt Anna Oster, my father’s second oldest sister; Jerry’s brother, name unknown—by me. In front, left to right, were me, age 3; Chookie; my father’s youngest sister Florence (Flossie). Note that Jerry Dirks arranged his popsicle sticks in a V for Victory.
Flossie told me recently that my father’s mother had warned us not to drive to downtown Kenosha because of the crowds, but that my mother had insisted. (At my father’s memorial service in Kenosha in 2009, Chook recalled a time when Milly took some of the family ice skating and when the ice wasn’t good at one spot drove everyone to another spot—without taking her skates off.) Note my beautiful mother’s hairdo and spiffy suit and shoes. Note that I wasn’t about to stop working on that popsicle, world peace or no world peace.
I was born on January 22, 1943, which means that I was conceived 40 weeks earlier, in May 1942, five months after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. I asked my mother shortly before she died in 2009 whether my conception was born of optimism or neglect. She said, “We thought that we would win the war and that life would go on.” This photograph has always seemed to me the quintesscence of optimism, even without knowing the context.
Mary Pobar and her sister Janice were my school vacation pals for three summers in the 1950s. I lived with my parents in Forest Hills, Queens, New York, and would fly to Milwaukee in June and stay with my mother’s parents in Kenosha. Unescorted kids were rare in those days, and a flight attendant (then known as a stewardess) would buy me a Coke—a particular treat because it meant going to the lounge of the Northwest Orient Airlines Stratocruiser, reached by a spiral staircase.
Mary and I were about 10-13, Janice was a year older. They and their brother Michael, who was several years younger, were children of my mother’s brother Edmund Pobar and his wife Janet.
Here we are in July 1955: Michael and Mary on the backseat, Janice riding shotgun, me at the wheel, which is ironic because I didn’t become a licensed driver until we moved to North Carolina after 1992.
This is us a year earlier, with our grandparents, John and Tillie Pobar, Ed and Milly’s parents. The setting was the MacWhyte’s picnic, an annual event staged by our grandfather’s employer, the MacWhyte Wire Rope Company, which made cables for suspension bridges. (In an email to Janice, I said I thought her collar looked very tight. Her reply: (“I think I looked very fashionable.”)
Earlier in his life, when the Pobars lived in Chicago, our Grandpa John worked for a bootlegger, which meant the family had a car, which is probably how my mother knew how to drive. (Note the missing top knuckle on John’s middle right finger in the picnic photograph, amputated in some accident that was never explained to me. I stared at it constantly.) (Note also Tillie’s hair and and dress and pearls, which was how she faced the world every day.
I was shocked to find these photos among some that Janice gave to me when Trisha and I visited her at her home in San Juan Capistrano CA on a trip we took to southern California in 2013. This is Tillie as a girl, date and place unknown. Also unknown to me is the deadpan expression and the cowgirl outfit. Tillie and John were born in Lithuania and spoke Lithuanian to each other and to some close friends.
The photograph below is of Tillie and my mother, with a note on the back that it dates from “about 1923,” when Milly was 8. I never saw Tillie with her hair down; she was from a generation when women wore their hair down only in front of their husbands.
Here’s a letter I wrote to Mary’s husband, Steve Finnigan, in Rice Lake, WI, with memories of those days:
Mary and Janice and I were great pals for several summers in the 1950s in Kenosha. We were ages 11-14 or so. I lived with my folks in New York City and l’d fly to Milwaukee every late June and spent July and August with my mother’s parents.
Those Kenosha summers were like something out of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, updated, Several days a week, I’d ride a bike over to the Pobars’. Ed and Janet’s I don’t remember ringing a bell, I think l iust walked in. I always felt welcome, though God knows there must have been many days when one or more of the Pobars thought, Him again?
Mary and Janice and i would bike down to Pennoyer Park and swim for hours. There were jetties made of concrete blocks that we swam into and through, holding our breath while we felt our way around a right angle turn and out to the other side You’d think our parents would have objected, but l’m sure they did exactly the same thing when they were kids,
At one end of Pennoyer Park was a stone breakwater we called The Spiles, The trick there was to climb up the rocks and jump off feet first into the lake. There was some wave action on windy days, so we’d have to time our jumps so that we didn’t smash onto rocks.
I don’t remember adults. I don’t remember being picked up or dropped off, We were on our own, free lancers. We figured out how to get places and how to get back, l’m sure we had fights, but we settled them ourselves. On Tuesday nights, l’d meet Mary and Janice at Washington Bowl for the weekly bicycle races, We’d slather on bug spray (at the lake, by the way, we never used sun lotion, let alone sun screen), eat hot dogs and cotton candy, and cheer on our respective favorites. Names I remember are Buzz Misch, Swede Strangberg, and Bob Pfarr, There were several young riders, male and female, that we had our respective crushes on, and we’d goad each other to cheer demonstratively for one favorite or the other.
I have vivid memories of what was probably my last Kenosha summer. Elvis Presley had landed on earth, Buddy Holly, the Dell Vikings, We were their followers, I remember a hot night in an upstairs bedroom at the Pobars’, the lights out, listening to music on the radio or perhaps a phonograph, probably all of us wishing we were with somebody other than our cousins
Anyway, I loved Mary, though I never would have been able to put it that way, and I suddenly miss her terribly, miss that time, those days, those palpable, palpable memories of childhood and adolescence, There was a particular temperature and scent and sensation of summers in Kenosha, and Mary was part of all that. ln her obituary photograph, even in profile, I can see the girl she was. A great, wonderful girl.