Sunday, March 29, 2009

CFK, Sr., 1925-2009

Here’s what I know about my grandpa.

He was a twin. His twin sister, Mary, died before I ever knew her.

He grew up in South St. Louis, Resurrection of Our Lord Parish. It seemed to me that whenever he had to drive downtown, to a ballgame, for instance, that he would always take Gravois, perhaps as a way of seeing the old neighborhood.

He served in World War II, in Okinawa, but he never talked about it much.

He and Grandma were married at St. Pius V, on South Grand, nearly sixty years ago.

Grandpa ran a grocery store on Marmaduke Avenue, near the Clifton Heights area of the city. He lived above the store with Grandma and my dad, when my dad was a baby. One night somebody broke into the store and Grandpa came down with his shotgun and warned the burglar off with a blast that shot out the transom window above the door.

When the store and part of the neighborhood it was in were demolished to make way for Interstate 44, Grandpa moved his family to Affton and learned the meatcutter’s trade. He bought a set of knives and a chain mail apron and cut meat for the rest of his working life. In his later years, he worked at Straub’s markets around the area, and he could talk about the different cuts of meat that were popular at each location.

He raised seven children with Grandma. For years, in the corner of their front room, hung seven First Communion photos, and above the TV hung seven pictures of adults. They were a fixed lineup in my head as a kid, like the seven days of the week.

Grandpa and Grandma endured the deaths of two of these children. I remember Grandpa standing before Uncle Chris’s casket, saying to somebody, “I just wish I could see him one more time.”

Grandpa and Grandma had 20 grandchildren, thirteen girls and seven boys, and three great-granddaughters. As far as I know, they never missed a baptism, birthday party, grandparents’ day, First Communion, or graduation.

Grandpa liked to watch things being built—the Arch, Busch Stadium, and then Busch Stadium again. He used to drive downtown to watch them go up.

Grandpa liked to buy scratch-off lottery tickets, and one time he won a huge big-screen TV from a scratch-off. He put the TV in the living room of his modest Affton home. He moved his recliner, where he sat every day, to the other side of the room so he could watch it. He didn’t need or want cable, so this huge TV had a little antenna on top of it. If the Cardinals were on when you were over there, Grandpa would have the TV on, and he’d get up to fix the reception.

Grandpa would drink a beer if he came over to your house, but mainly he liked to drink soda. He pronounced it “sodie.” In my earliest memories, he drank Pepsi out of glass bottles that he saved for the deposit. He taught me how to drink out of a bottle—how you put your upper lip inside the bottle, not around the outside. In his later years, I guess because of his diabetes, he switched to Diet Pepsi, in cans.

Grandpa loved to shoot squirrels. He loved to tell stories about shooting squirrels. One season he shot over 100 squirrels. One late night Grandma was doing dishes in the kitchen, and she saw two red eyes watching her from the back fence. Grandpa went out with a baseball bat and took a swing at whatever it was. The next morning he found a possum lying next to the fence, still stunned from the blow. Grandpa went in and got his BB gun and finished the job.

I like to think that, when Grandpa died, squirrels all over St. Louis paused for a moment of silence, a moment of respect for a formidable enemy, and then had a party like you’ve never seen.

Grandpa planted trees in his backyard—fruit trees in the years before I was around, pecan trees later. He would harvest brown paper grocery bags full of them. He pronounced it “ba-cawns.” It was these pecans that attracted the squirrels, and these pecans that Grandpa patrolled his backyard to protect.

Grandpa not only cut meat, but he loved to eat it, too. You’d come in to their house on a Sunday and smell the delicious bacon he and Grandma had eaten for breakfast. Grandpa made the best ham I’ve ever eaten, and if you hung around long enough on Easter or Christmas, he’d wrap some up for you when you left. He’d wrap in first in wax paper, then in foil. Grandpa and my dad used to make pork sausage from a family recipe, feeding cuts of meat through a grinder and mixing in the spices—nutmeg, allspice, cloves. They’d weigh handfuls of meat on a little scale then press them into patties and wrap them up in white butcher paper.

On holidays, when we’d all be sitting around the table at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, Grandpa would pray, “Bless us O Lord and these thy gifts,” in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

One time I went on an overnight float trip with my dad, my Uncle Dan, and Grandpa. Sleeping next to Grandpa, half-conscious, I felt something spiderwebby with my fingers and pulled at it. I couldn’t figure out what it was. Later, in the morning, I realized it was Grandpa’s head I was feeling. He wondered why I had been pulling his hair in the middle of the night.

Floating that day, my dad and I came to a concrete drop-off in the river, two or three feet. We got out and walked the canoe over it, but when Uncle Dan and Grandpa came to it they just kept going. We couldn’t believe it. The front of their canoe dipped into the water and it seemed like they might get swamped, but they didn’t. Later, explaining why they hadn’t slowed down or gotten out, they laughed and said, “We were committed.”

Looking back at what I know about my grandpa, I think that that about sums it up. He was committed. He was committed to his wife. To his children. To his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. To his work. To his faith and his church. To his pecans and his tomatoes and the food he and Grandma prepared for all the holidays when his family came to his modest house in Affton to be with him and Grandma and eat together and exchange gifts and tell stories and laugh.

He was committed.

Here’s what I know about my grandpa: I’ll miss him.


meyermeyer said...

Another good one gone.

I'm going to make sure Stace sees this post, as her grandfather mirrors yours in myriad ways, and evokes much of the same respect and honor, dignified humor and curious awe.

"Sorry" never expresses anything but the trite inadequacy of language at times like this, especially given the heartfelt and wry tribute you've presented here. So here's to grandpa Kovarik, may his great granddaughters live as well as he did, even if they're in his shadow.

lara3314 said...

Beautiful piece, Frank. Thank you so much for writing it. I'm glad I had the chance to meet him at the girls' baptisms and other celebrations. This piece helps me see him even better.

Jane said...

Frank, I came across your blog by accident. I am your Dad's cousin Jane and your Grandpa was my uncle. I worked with him when I was young and have affectionate memories of him. My mom was his twin sister Mary who you referred to in the first line. I greatly enjoyed reading this tribute to your Grandfather and will always remember him with fondness! I also really enjoy your other blog postings and have linked to your site. I wish I had the chance to meet you but I live in Seattle, WA and don't get to St. Louis much. You have a gift with words!

framiko said...

Jane, thank you very much. I'm glad you got a chance to read this post, which is very dear to my heart. It was good to hear from you. All best, Frank.