The Gentle Madness
Updated: Mar 27, 2021
I have the so-called “gentle madness” of collecting books. It began with my mother reading stories to my sister Chrystyna and me as we were fleeing for our lives from the Nazis and the Communists during WWII. But that is another story for another time.
I still have the book that she read to us about a Hindu boy and his birds. Other stories that resonated with me were The Glass Mountain and Ivasyk Telesyk and the Dragon.
Towards the end of the war, we finally found some relative safety in the American zone in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a medieval town in Germany completely surrounded by stone walls. Really it was a fairytale place. First I was in my mother’s kindergarten class which was led in the Ukrainian language. Then I was sent to first grade, not knowing a word of German and was given my sister’s reader Mein Erstes Buch which was beautifully illustrated in color. It was a magical book for me and I actually felt as if I were transported inside that book, becoming one with the pictures. To this day I truly love this book. Within it I was introduced to the fairy tales of Mother Hulla and Hansel and Gretel.
My mother’s cousin Maria sponsored us to come to the United States. After an 11-day journey crossing the Atlantic Ocean in an army ship we disembarked in New York City on St. Patrick’s Day. Maria met us at the pier. I remember she had on a very fashionable A-line full length coat. An unknown photographer took a group photo of us which I have been searching for all these years.
On the way to the Greenwich Village apartment that was rented for us, Maria had the taxi cab stop in order to take us to an amazing candy store filled with boxes of chocolates tied with big bows behind glassed display cases. One of those boxes was purchased for us. I do not remember eating the chocolates but I do remember entering the store and being in absolute awe at the beauty of the store, the smell of the chocolates and the lovely bows.
On another day she bought me a Little Lulu comic book from a newsstand. I have loved Little Lulu since. I wish Maria was still with us so that I could thank her for her kindness to a child that just came out of a war- torn Europe.
My mother, an educator now widowed, found work in the New York dress industry sewing clothes. She would bring scraps of material for me to play with. I especially remember a white swatch of eyelet which began my life-long love of eyelet.
Mother went to work, we staying in our apartment sitting on the fire escape or playing in the street, not the best situation for children. Once the laundry business in the basement level of our building caught fire. My sister and I sat on the fire escape and watched as the fire trucks drove up and the firemen rushed in with hoses. No one came to tell us to evacuate. New York’s Greenwich Village was a bustling busy place. It was decided that we would move to Detroit for better work opportunities for my mother. In between that time there was a stint at an orphanage in Philadelphia, a story to be expanded on in the near future.
Once in Michigan we were taken in by a kind family of Ukrainian descent. We lived in their attic on Buffalo Street until a relative of theirs offered his home to rent in Detroit’s Poletown, a neighborhood now demolished to make way for a GM plant.
After that, a move to Hamtramck, a small city right in the heart of Detroit, proved to be a wonderful place to grow up in. It was filled with churches (Ukrainian churches included), schools (Ukrainian school included), parks, family owned shops of every sort, grocery stores, delis, bars with dancing, meat markets, farmers markets, movie theaters, 5 dime stores, fashionable dress shops, shoe stores, linen stores, music stores, ice cream parlors, banquet halls galore, Tau Beta Center (gifted by Grosse Pointe benefactors) for activities and classes, beauty shops, fabulous bakeries, candy stores, corner stores to where children were sent to buy milk or a loaf of bread and with a few cents extra for penny candy, doctors and dentists, clean alleys with fruit hanging over fences for children to pick, ice skating in the winter, tennis lesson in the summer, and friends on just about on every street. All within two square miles. Some call it a hamlet. It was mostly a Polish community. It was the cleanest of cities. The ladies in their aprons took care of their homes, families, gardens and streets which they would sweep and hose down in front of their houses. Grandmothers lived with their families, not in old age homes. They would sit on the front porches keeping an eye on the children as they played. One would never dare to step on their grass. When the nights were very hot, people slept on their porches. Cars were big and beautiful works of art.
Politicians visited Hamtramck. I got to see President Truman when he visited Hamtramck and spoke at Memorial Park. People climbed onto trees to get a better look at him. Before my time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited in 1936. Later Senator Kennedy visited in 1960 as well as Pope John Paul II in 1987, as did President George H. Bush in 1989. He ate at the Polish restaurant “Under the Eagle.”
I was enrolled in the Ukrainian Catholic School. In school we had the Dick and Jane readers. I now fell in love with these happy children and their pets. My favorite was when the family would drive to their grandparents’ farm. I was quite taken by the illustrations. In the later grades the readers always included fairy tales. I waited for us to get to that section with great expectations. Maybe once a month there were special Catholic magazines that parents would order for their children. They were filled with colorful images of angels and the Holy Family. How I envied my classmates who received them. It never even occurred to me to ask my mother for a subscription.
I, being a curious child, quickly found a library. I spent many fascinating hours in libraries. The first one was just one block away from where we lived. It was in an old school building that was converted for multi-purpose usage which included the Hamtramck City Hall, offices and the library. It faced Keyworth Stadium and sadly it has since been demolished. The library moved to a second floor location on the corner on Caniff and Jos. Campau over Cunningham Drug Store. There I discovered and was enchanted by the Andrew Lang’s fairy tales. I also found Nobody’s Girl by Hector Molat and then on to his Nobody’s Boy, stories that have been reread by me numerous times. I would also eagerly read the fairy tales in the Jack and Jill magazines. Funds were raised and a new library was built on Caniff just west of Jos. Campau. It was much larger, with big windows, sofa chairs and a full children’s section. Always present were librarians eager to help. As new as it was, that building for me just did not have the inviting ambiance with nooks and crannies that the other locations had so I graduated to the Main Detroit Public Library on Woodward. I would wander through that magnificent building and spend hours investigating the different departments it had to offer. The children’s room was a delightful place with a fireplace surrounded with Pewabic tiles depicting fairy tales as well as benches to curl up on and read. On and forward to the Downtown Library just behind the J.L. Hudson building now named the Rose and Robert Skillman Branch Library. This building was also a place of architectural beauty. Many an hour was spent browsing through whatever I fell into. I will have to revisit this library in the near future.
If one took the Chene bus, it would go directly downtown. At the foot of Jefferson and the river there were some fabulous used book stores filled with history books and novels galore. It had a mezzanine and I would sit on the floor and read for hours. No one ever bothered me. I would return to continue a book I started, if no one had purchased it. The book was usually still there. All this was demolished to make way for the Detroit City Hall and the gas building with the female statue in front of it. I am not sure who occupies that building now. When I entered the work force, I was offered a bookkeeping job in payroll by the gas company but I declined, my reason being that I did not want to drive 5 miles to work. When we are young we make silly decisions. There was one more treasure trove of used books on that same Chene bus route. I would get off at Ferry and there on the east side of the street was a two-storied resale shop. I never knew the name of it. Was Salvation Army already operating as a resale shop then? Anyway, upstairs is where the shelves were filled with books. There I discovered the writings of Agatha Christie and Earl Derr Biggers’ Inspector Charlie Chan, among other mystery stories. I think I paid about 10 to 25 cents per book. I bought historical novels as well which I would read by the light of the street lamp after bedtime and lights out were declared.
Another very fine place to read was downtown at the J. L. Hudson’s mezzanine. That is where all the Nancy Drew books were. It was a tight fit to sit on the floor and rest on the railing for a long time. But to see those Nancy Drew books all lined up with the consecutive numbers on them was an exciting rush. I would get lost in Nancy’s adventures until it was time to take the bus and go home. I do not know how it was that I wandered the city alone, but I did. I took buses to take ballet lessons in a beautiful old mansion that was right next to the main library. It was demolished for the south wing of the main library. I took buses to take dancing lessons from the Tsoukalos, fascinating Greek dance teachers, on Woodward just north of the Cathedral. They also gave lessons in the basement of their home on one of the streets in the Boston Edison area. I took buses to take ballet lesson from Herr Schmidt at Livernois and Davison. I am talking about being 12, 13, 14, 15. No one ever, ever bothered me. It was another time, maybe another time zone.
So as my reading expanded, I became very interested in history. I would read history books as well as historical novels. This is how I would pass my history classes in high school with flying colors. Then I became interested in the classics after which I became interested in philosophical books trying to understand the ins and outs of “what’s it all about.” This transposed into becoming interested in the authors’ lives. Where did they live, what influenced them to write what they did, what were their lives like? I became determined to visit some of their homesteads one day. It took many many years before I finally fulfilled this dream. And that is a story to follow.