“Czarnas!” my Grandma Krakowski would say, under her breath every time. The Polish word for “blacks”. My mom would pick up Grandma from Hosmer Road in Slavic Village to take her grocery shopping at the old Pick n’ Pay on Broadway, us kids would tag along because McDonald’s was promised afterward, and we were too young to be left at home. I wasn’t more than 8 or 9 years old, holding Grandma’s arm to help her across the parking lot, and she’d whisper “czarnas” whenever an African American would happen into her view, squeezing my arm a little tighter.
That was it. The only indication my Polish grandmother might be, just a tad, racist. If she existed in today’s environment, a business model designed to squeeze every possible nickel out of her weakest instincts would lather her up 24/7 – against the blacks moving into Slavic Village, against the gays or bi’s (who her favorite grandson would grow up to be), against the Mexicans, the Muslims, whatever reached that soft spot of fear in an aging ethnic Catholic white woman watching her world drastically change.
I wouldn’t have known the same Grandma. She was an angel to me; I was her favorite, largely because, as she would say, I was such a “sickly” child. Always fighting an allergy, or an asthma attack, or multiple bouts with pneumonia, or surgery on a childhood hernia in second grade. She spoiled me rotten. I’d run to her side when my brothers or cousins would pick on me, and she would hug me until the tears were gone and I fell asleep in her lap. Then she’d give me a Pop Tart. Blueberry. My favorite.
Grandma Krakowski never left Slavic Village voluntarily; she died in a nursing home in 1993. Her old house is still there, a front and back where I grew up in the back house until I was 4. I drive by every once in a while, wishing the house was still in the family. She had to be forced to leave Slavic Village, the cliche of “white flight” put onto her. I can’t imagine what today’s media houling would have similarly put onto her.
Then again I can.
Grandma’s whisper is today a full throated roar of ugliness, because there is profit in it. Donald Trump has blown the lid off it. People I love have no problem loudly making complete asses of themselves online, displaying to their friends, family, the entire world, their most repulsive instincts. The internet reaches down into the darkest weakness of our souls, like a fickle temptress giving external validation to what was once just a whispered glimpse into our faults, and monetizes it.
In the mid 1970’s, it wasn’t o.k. to let the 8 year old hear any of this crap. It had to be whispered. Our elders knew that cancer had to be kept from the kids. Like anything kept from the kids for their own good, it used to make me laugh, those whispers about “czarnas”. It was funny, because as a kid, I knew that was exactly how far Grandma would go. When Grandma whispered, it was always funny, like in church, when she asked for a kleenex, or noticed the priest nodding to sleep. We’d get in trouble for laughing that hard in the front pew.
Every ethnic Clevelander (and American) has relatives like my Grandma on the Polish side, or many on my Italian side, who are not remembered for their ugliest fears. We also have friends and family who will indeed be thus remembered, thanks to the 21st century business model of hate. So many people are today giving their grandkids, nieces, nephews, parents, their own kids, a display so foul, so constant, how will they not remember it? Is this how you want to be remembered? I know it wasn’t how my Grandma would want to be remembered. And it’s not.
Maybe someday the rage I feel at this business model, for stealing so many loved ones, will sink in to its targets, and they will understand just how they became so ugly, so proudly hateful. We shouldn’t be proud of our weaknesses. My Grandma wasn’t proud of her weakness. She whispered it. Thank God there was no Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Fox News, InfoWars, Trump, you name it, stoking up my Grandma Krakowski all day every day. Thank. God.
Christmas was Grandma’s favorite holiday, as it is now my mom’s. We will prepare all the old dishes, which taste the same as they did when Grandma made them. There is no bitterness in those recipes, or those memories. Only sweetness and love. Like Grandma was. Always, and forever.