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Some Work, Others Merely Daydream

August 8, 2010

Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water. ~W.C. Fields

Prohibition finally ends in 1933, ending years of increased violence and curbing the wealth of the mob.

Michael was a tall, stern, physically strong and imposing man.  He was 40 in 1929, his blond hair faded to silver-white, and he wore a cap with a wide brim permanently on his head.  He wasn’t much of a conversationalist, rarely talked about his past life in Soljani, and was hard to get to know.

During a trip to Ohio, he met Katherine, 29.  She was visiting from Peoria, IL, vacationing after her parents had refused to let her marry her true love, a tavern owner.  Two weeks after meeting, Katherine married Michael, I suspect out of spite. Michael told Katherine he owned a house on the water in Michigan, and in great anticipation, she headed back there with him, only to discover a dinky little house at the bottom of a hill in the poor section of town.  She was sorely disappointed and never quite got over it.

Michael was a Godfather of sorts in the ethnic neighborhood of Slovaks and Poles, and people were afraid of him.  But during the Great Depression Michael had money, and they didn’t, and so they would often come to borrow from him.

Michael holding baby Lily with Pauline and family on Port Huron dock. Blue Water Bridge being built in 1938 - right near their house. chickens on the Shuster farm

Michael’s daughter Anne married after completing teacher’s college and became a special ed teacher.  Michael and Katherine soon had three more kids together in the early 1930’s – Marilyn, Lillian and Edward.

Michael began renting boats to fisherman off his dock, and turned the still in the basement into a storage tank for minnows.  He scooped them up from the river, stored them in the still, and would sell them for a profit.

Over the next 30 years, Michael worked a variety of hard labor jobs, one in a brass foundry, another in a cement plant; he would come home white from head to toe, covered in cement dust. When the kids came home from school for lunch, one of them would run the hot lunch Katherine made over to him.

Pauline and her kids with Lillian and her husband Stephen, Katherine and Edward, on Queen St, 1950's

Katherine’s family had immigrated from a small Slovak village around 1917; during the physical exam at Ellis Island, Katherine was found to have strabismus (lazy eye), and was sent home alone.  She lived with a banker and his family and learned to cook from the banker’s wife, had corrective surgery on her eye and came back to the US in 1918.

Katherine was a wonderful cook, and one of her specialties was making thin, translucent phyllo dough from scratch.  It was stretched and pulled across the length of the dining room table until it was so thin you could read a newspaper through it.  She filled the pastry with apple, cabbage or cottage cheese.

Mihalic/Michaels family visiting Pauline and family for dinner on the farm. Lillian Michael's wedding (Michael Michael is the older man at the back) - Pauline's family in the photo too. The Shuster kids and the car on the farm in Leamington, same era.

The Michaels family visited Pauline and her family on the farm in Leamington in 1949.  Pauline’s son, Jerry, chased his little sister Lily and Marilyn around the yard with a chicken, terrifying them. They ate dinner at the large dining room table, and Marilyn remembers Pauline made a delicious walnut cake using breadcrumbs.

Katherine and Michael raised their children to be successful adults.  Marilyn was widowed at the age of 30 with 3 kids, put herself through school and became a nurse. Edward got his PhD in linguistics at the age of 23 at the University of Michigan, spoke over 7 languages and became a professor.  Later, he became the CEO of a large publishing company in New York, taught himself Russian, and translated scientific journals into English.

Michaels family members at the family reunion, August 2008

Michael died in the 1960’s, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.  I wonder if he imagined a life like this as he lay under that tree in Soljani daydreaming, the day the gypsies stole his horses.

Some work, others merely daydream. Old Corsican saying.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jacqueline E Corkran permalink
    April 24, 2013 12:30 pm

    Wonderful stories! Thanks for sharing with us. I am a third generation Slovak living in new Jersey. My grandmother always made me a walnut cake for my birthday made with ground walnuts and breadcrumbs. I sadly never got this recipe from her before she had a stroke. This is one recipe that sadly I am missing. I have handed down her recipes to my four children and its one recipe I wish I had to pass on. I see you mentioned the cake here. Its a shot in the dark but by any chance do you have the recipe? I would be forever grateful. Thanks so much, Jackie

    • April 24, 2013 12:34 pm

      Thank you, Jackie! I do have a fantastic walnut cake recipe that I will send you. Someone made it for me last fall for Thanksgiving, and her grand parents were friends with mine. Both Slovak. I will dig up the recipe she sent me, as hers was even better than the one I tried to make based on the sketchy notes from my grandmother’s recipe. Tonya

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