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On The Trail of Black Sheep

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On The Trail of Black Sheep
On a damp day in late September, I headed up Highway 141 from Milwaukee. I was on my way to do some genealogical research up north. I had my hand on the skeleton key to the family closet, desirous to unlock family secrets, intentional mysteries, things that had been deliberately left unsaid in my family.

On the three-hour drive through wet farm land and pine forests, I thought about the reason for this research—to find out more about my dad’s mother. My grandmother Mae had died at age fifty-six in 1948, three years before I was born. Now in 2003, I was on my way to find out the truth about her life in northern Wisconsin. My dad, who passed away about fifteen years ago, had never talked too much about his mother, but he did leave me with a few facts. I knew she had owned a business, called the Hollywood Hotel Bar, with her husband, a Greek immigrant. It was in a little town in Wisconsin, where I was headed, a few miles across the border from Iron Mountain, Michigan.

And I knew she had landed there after a roller-coaster life in the late teens and 1920s in Chicago, described to me by my dad as “a boom-and-bust” existence. He told me that sometimes they lived “high off the hog,” and sometimes they were “scraping the bottom of the barrel.” He also told me he was often left alone all night as a child in Chicago.

The man of the house was an Italian immigrant, whom he once described him to me as a “minor mafioso.” Dad thought of this man as his father until years later he discovered he was the illegitimate son of someone his mother had known back in Philadelphia. This Italian had once advised him, after Dad had been hit on the nose with a brick by another kid, “Get the other kid back good.” Armed with this advice and a hammer he picked up on the way out of the house, Dad broke the other kid’s nose.

Dad often related how, when he was six years old, his mother took him to the Chicago funeral of “Big Jim” Colosimo, who was thought by some to have been murdered in 1920 by his infamous successor, Al Capone.

When Dad was seven, the Italian he thought was his dad left for good without even saying goodbye. When Dad was eleven, his mother sent him to Philadelphia to live with her parents. He was not to see her again until he was an adult.

Well, none of what I knew about my grandmother added up to a picture that made much sense to me. Why would someone leave their kid alone and go out all night? Why would someone send their own child away? And what were the two of them doing at a gangster funeral?
My mom did not like her mother-in-law Mae. She characterized her as a “drunk” with a “cold personality.” One more thing I knew about Mae: she hennaed her hair a brilliant red, a fact my mother would impart with great revulsion. When I had my own fling with red hair, it really unnerved her.

Mom had been to the Hollywood Hotel Bar several times as a young woman in the 1940s after World War II. She described my grandmother’s bar to me:
She ran a kind of trysting place up north, where pretty girls, nicely dressed in colorful clothes, would spend the weekend with older men—judges, lawyers, and other officials of the town. There were sounds of moaning and toilets flushing in the night. There was a bidet in every room. I had to ask your father what that was for.
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