Sunday, January 17, 2016

David Bowie, Alan Hickman, and My Grandmother

This week we learned of the deaths of the superfamous--musician David Bowie and actor Alan Hickman. As I listened to some of Bowie’s tunes, I thought it was a shame that those closest to us pass away without so much as a trace.

Like my grandmother, who was taken away 20 years ago on Feb. 8. She was a mother of four … and pianist.

Born Marie Pack on Nov. 17, 1908, she was the epitome of Pittsburgh: she worked hard, and partied hard. One of 10 children growing up in a working-class family in Mt. Oliver on Anthony Street, she and her sisters sold apples on the streets to help the family makes ends meet. Her mother, who had been an indentured farm hand, raised fruits and vegetables in a backyard garden to feed the family.
My grandmother (top right) with her five of her sisters and mother (center). 
My grandmother quit school at 6th grade, which wasn’t unusual at the time, and went to work in various jobs like laundress and chocolate dipper (Pittsburgh was well-known at the time for its many chocolate shops, and a few remain today).

At that time, a pianist was the life of a party, and she loved a party! Marie saved her pennies for lessons, aiming to become a piano teacher, and obtained her certification—a story my mother told me only last year.

“Her certificate in hand,” my mother said, “she was walking across a bridge when the wind swept away the piece of paper.” And with it my grandmother’s dream. She didn’t think to turn back and obtain another copy.

She married steelworker Anthony Kunz at 20, and moved in with her Polish mother-in-law on the South Side Slopes. “My mother gave me $10, and said go out and buy a dress,” my grandmother told me. She learned how to cook stuffed cabbage, dumplings, and sauerkraut, like many a Pittsburgh housewife.

After having four children, the family moved down to the South Side, near 27th street, close to Jones & Laughlin Steel Mill and its many bars. It was all too easy for a steelworker to take his paycheck to one of the saloons and come home empty-handed, which my grandfather often did.

So my grandmother went to work on the Pennsylvania Railroad, cleaning cars, a dirty but good-paying job in those days. (During World War II, she said, cars full of German POWs would ride by, she said, to camps out West.) Now my grandmother was no saint. She liked to go out on the town as well and have a good time.

When my grandmother came to live with us in the 1970s, she often sat down to play our upright piano. With no sheet music at all, she played song after song—the pop music of her day. Not the classical music that I was struggling to sight read. She played by ear, and by heart.

My grandmother often reminded me of the time I came to her apartment on Brownsville Road to ask her about her life’s story--a homework assignment in elementary school. Now, finally, I am playing by ear and pouring out her story, from the bottom of my heart.

Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes a blog about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home."