McGrath: A New Year’s tribute that’s long overdue
By David McGrath January 4, 2013 8:38PM
Don Cichowski sits with his children (from left), Paul, Joe, Roseann and Marykay, in 1972. | Supplied photo
Updated: February 7, 2013 6:41AM
Another new year springs upon us, and I’m thinking how life is a meteor, fast and never again. A generation has blasted by before I’m getting around to finally do what I should have done before.
My cousins lost their father, my Uncle Don, when they were young children in Oak Lawn. Lost is a euphemism because he was ripped from their lives and from Mary Ann, their mother and the wife he revered, when he was only 40.
Fate is cruel and tragic and all that, but what’s also unforgivable is that there are people like myself who know things that their childhood memories are still owed. The Cichowski siblings surely have Super 8 movie film of their father and cassette tapes playing his voice and infectious laugh.
But I can only imagine how many mornings each of the four of them, now grown, wake before light, aching from a dream. Wondering how it might be to sit across a table from him in a warm kitchen — coffee steaming, a conversation, his presence, that power in their lives.
No one can give them that. And the limit of my presumption is to recall a story as well as I can remember and then trust to his love and their longing for its truth.
It is of a chill Monday afternoon long ago, the week after Christmas, my brothers and friends playing touch football on the narrow asphalt gridiron between parked cars where we lived in Evergreen Park.
Uncle Don was visiting my mother (Aunt Gert to my cousins) having a sandwich of cold turkey and hot gravy and a Pepsi — slouching way back the way he did, legs crossed in a tangent to the kitchen table. He had been at the county courthouse in Bridgeview, representing juveniles in an assault case. He stopped by his big sister’s often.
He was wearing a suit, but they never fit. He was like a 6 1/2-foot dolphin — permanently arced, with a broad trunk, narrow hips — who never stops treading water. It was only a question of when he’d come out that door and down the stairs, raising his hand for the ball. We kept looking up at the house.
I was 18, wearing a sleeveless ski jacket, shoes with leather heels, an unlit Marlboro protruding from the corner of my mouth. We were fooling around. Punting the ball. It would only mean something when he came out, when he would tell us the teams, where to run, where he would pass the football.
Uncle Don was a pure athlete, unlike any of the rest of us. I’d gone through the archives of the papers where both he and I went to school, with stories about “Chico” hitting a ball over the roof of the powerhouse, a feat never replicated, and scoring a hat trick, though St. Joe’s had lost the game.
But it was more than hockey or sports, really. He had a tall man’s way of standing, head slightly bowed, eyes level, arms hanging loose. But it was his gaze, a perception like no other man I have since known. Everybody on our street — my brother Pat, our neighbor Bob — he appraised with a kind of manic joy.
His passion for testing limits, his ceaseless vigilance for adventure, you wanted to be there. His look was challenging, demanding. His smile saying “I bet you cannot do this,” his eyes on fire with, “I hope to God you can.”
His magic was harnessing his brains and energy and will and then inverting them into you. It’s why every courtroom, banquet hall, softball field, church and park I was ever in with Uncle Don had an oxygen level higher, the electricity charging, the expectations ascending.
On that day I recall, it was delicious for me watching the others — Rob from the neighborhood, Vince from next door — have their first encounter with him, like receiving a blessing, and their instant commitment, not to a mere football game but to him.
I sat back at free safety, as Uncle Don singled out Bob Remiasz, whose need and will and heart he saw plainly, the way a hypnotist knows. He sent him long, straight at me, turning abruptly in a banana curve, snatching the cold hard ball out of the sky, crashing heavy into Jerry Jesenius’ new car, plowing a hip-sized dimple in the driver’s door.
Uncle Don let out a whoop for the touchdown or maybe the throw or more likely the exhilaration of unlimited possibility. And then we all ran for it, he at the head of the pack, laughing like hyenas, scuttling from the scene of the crime. The dent was made right later, the adult thing to do.
This started out as a remembrance for my cousins as a new year begins — a recollection of pure joy, of Uncle Don’s immortal, fleeting spirit that for me is a memory and for his children inherited. The holidays are for celebrating the stories, spiritual and traditional, that connect us all. This season is the last of too many to pass without me sharing my Uncle Don with you.
Don Cichowski died instantly from a heart attack in 1977, leaving a wife and four children.
David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage. He can be reached at email@example.com.