My grandfather played bass in a band at night for beers and tips. I just found this out about him last night from my cousin Sharon who came over for a visit. She said my grandmom could always tell a good night’s earnings by the barometer of his inebriation, which did not make her happy! Until yesterday I only knew him as my “Grandpop”- a man who worked in a Bayer aspirin factory in Trenton his whole life, toiling to care for his wife and family of eight children. He was someone who walked to work or hitched a ride because they couldn’t afford a car –I don’t believe he ever drove.Sharon brought over an assortment of old pictures she found in the attic and gave them to me. I was immediately transported into the past as I rummaged through these precious vintage photos…into my heritage and my history.
Jan Kramarz sailed from Poland as a boy on a ship he proudly proclaimed by name – “The Victoria!” He was a handsome man with a thick head of hair and a wry smile. He had a funny sense of humor and loved to tease us, which he did with a twinkle in his eye and a wink. He met my grandmother through a friend and joked about marrying her one day. He was only kidding, but she thought he was serious (or so the legend goes). So he found himself in an odd dilemma as he used to describe it, one in which he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. He used to say he felt bad because she thought he seriously wanted to marry her …so he just did…What?!? Were they ever in love? I’ll never know. They were kind of stoic in their behavior towards one another, but everyone was in those days. They did somehow manage to have eight children (in love or not) – four boys and four girls (my mother born fourth in succession) and they all lived in a two bedroom, one bathroom (which only had a toilet and footed tub – no sink) row home in the Polish section of Trenton on Pennsylvania Avenue. The house perpetually exuded warmth in an earthy kind of way with the homey smells of bread baking or kielbasa and ham cooking. Grandpop used to love sneaking into the basement to smoke his beloved cigars – not a pleasant aroma at all I discovered when I snuck up on him one day.
One of Grandpop’s pleasures was tending to his small garden in the tiny 12 x 25 foot backyard. He grew assorted vegetables, but his crowning glory was his giant sunflowers in the corner of the yard near the shed that grew to be six feet tall with heads a foot round. I remember looking up at them as a small child and being in awe. To this day they are my favorite flower.My Grandpop was a hard worker and a good man, but I don’t think he had a lot of fun in his life. I think it was all work and struggle, especially during the Depression. But he was a pleasant man and a talker and was always glad to see his family. He loved it when his kids and their spouses and families, which included 16 grandchildren, jammed into that tiny row home for the holidays, even though at times there were so many of us that we spilled out onto their small front porch and sat on the steps. There was always plenty of Polish food for all of us to savor and Polka music blared in the background from their transistor radio. He and the men in the family used to toast “nostrovya” as they downed glasses of schnapps.
I think Grandpop was lonely in the latter portion of his life since my Grandmom died at 62 yrs. old. He used to sit and gaze out the front window or take walks around the neighborhood. I remember how happy he was when I visited from time to time, sitting and listening to his same old stories over and over again. I now wish I would’ve written them down. He succumbed in his latter years to Alzheimer’s disease, but lived to the ripe old age of 94, passing on a cold winter’s day in January with that same full head of gray hair in tact.
My cousin told me that my Grandpop’s bass playing days came to an end when he broke his instrument trying to get his tip money out of the middle section of the bass, which is where they apparently stored their tips. He just couldn’t fix it, and I imagine that it must have broken his heart not to be able to play anymore. But since he had eight hungry mouths during meager times, buying a new instrument was out of the question. And so life went on…I wish I could’ve heard him play in that band, and I wish I could’ve danced to his music. I can just see him standing on the stage dressed in his best suit playing his heart out with that crazy smile – and I can swear he just gave me a wink!