Last weekend, Laura and I joined many members of my family at a surprise retirement party given for one of my aunts. Herding family and friends was quite a feat, given that the guest of honor lives in Kentucky, the party organizer lives near Boston, and the party itself happened at a restaurant in Oak Brook, IL. My cousin is to be commended for pulling off this task, as it was no mean one.
My aunt, whom I’ll refer to as KT, is the second-oldest of eight daughters born into a Polish Catholic family residing in Summit, IL. Somehow, this family managed to cram themselves into a two-story brick bungalow that was, for a few years in the late 1970s, a block away from where I lived with my parents. The youngest of the eight daughters, “Lisa,” was my classmate at Walsh Elementary for kindergarten through 2nd grade. All of the attendees at this party had, at one time or another, lived in the Summit/Bedford Park/Argo area of the southwest Chicago suburbs. If you are from Chicago, you may not be that familiar with this area by name, but you may recognize it by its smell due to the massive Corn Products (sorry, Ingredion) plant at the corner of 65th Street and Archer Road. On a hot summer day, the delectable aromas from this plant can make their way over to Midway Airport or I-55 near its junction with the Tri-State Tollway. To this day, the smell of Corn Products makes me hungry–specifically for fried chicken, even though corn starch and fried chicken have nothing to do with one another.
Among the crowd gathered in Oak Brook was KT’s older sister, “Norma Jean,” who was accompanied by her mother-in-law, Angela. I was surprised to see Angela, as she will be 91 very soon, but she was in great spirits. Angela was familiar enough with spirits, as her family used to run Durka Liquors at the corner of 61st and Archer. Given that the Argo Summit area at that time was heavily Slavic, Angela’s family did well for themselves–some stereotypes about Polacks, Ukies, and Russians are true, after all. Angela’s story is rather lengthy, which befits someone of her years, so I’ll pass on some of the better details to talk instead about her son, and my namesake, Donald Switalski.
If you look at a map that focuses on the corner of 63rd and Archer Road–no, go ahead, look–you’ll see a trapezoidal street grid a couple blocks southward. This small grid, which comprises all of the residential section of Bedford Park, is separated from Summit by a curving railroad track that goes from lower right to upper left. Cutting diagonally in the opposite direction is Archer Road, and on its left (west) side is the Corn Products plant. Often, Argo or Argo Summit is said to describe the two towns and its respective township, though as any resident will tell you, Bedford Park and Summit are quite different from one another. The two towns are inextricably linked by history and resources–Bedford Park was a factory town for Corn Products employees to live in; Summit was where these employees shopped, worshiped drank, and so on. Young kids living in Bedford Park ended up attending school in Summit from junior high onward, or if they went to one of the two Catholic schools in Summit, from 1st grade onward. In short, there was no way one could live in Bedford Park without knowing people in Summit and vice versa. This, then, was the setup for how my father met and befriended Donald Switalski.
Throughout junior high and high school, Donald and my father were inseparable friends. My mother, who also grew up like my father in Bedford Park, was also friends with Donald before she started dating my father. When graduation came for the Argo HS Class of 1967, it was time for this group of three to go their separate ways in college: my mother first went to Illinois State; my father went to Western Illinois (where my mother transferred after a year at ISU); and Donald made his way out to Dakota Wesleyan. From what I’ve been told, all three kept in close contact while discovering what their respective colleges had to offer during their freshman year.
May 4, 1968 was my father’s 19th birthday. This was also the day he received a phone call, telling him that his best friend had drowned in a completely avoidable accident. Of all the stories I had heard my parents and others tell about Donald, almost all focused upon his intelligence. “Donald was a smart kid,” they’d say. “He only did one dumb thing in his life, and that one thing killed him.” Drinking, eating, and immediately swimming afterward would be that thing in question. Nobody was sure what prompted Donald to do this, but such speculation was really immaterial. My father ended up as one of his pall bearers at his funeral, and to this day, nearly 45 years after the accident, a few drinks and memories of Donald will generate far-away stares and glassy eyes for both him and my mother. When it came time for me to enter the world, there was no other option for my name other than his.
The story of my namesake, as it turns out, has plenty to do with my aunt’s retirement party. It is possible that I may have been told this fact in the past, but my memory tends to be more selective than I care to admit. At the time of his death, Donald was dating KT. Suddenly, the party takes on a different light for me, because I’m pretty sure that given all those who were in attendance, many of them saw or thought of my namesake when they were talking or looking at me. Sometimes I would be me. Other times, someone else would be there instead of me. How much power is inherent in a name? Would my name, combined with the memories of Donald, keep him alive in some way? Or would it only serve as a reminder of what was lost and what could have been? Angela definitely is reminded of her own son and sees him through me, particularly since we now live far enough apart that we don’t see each other very often. My own parents, and KT, know me well enough, but I’m pretty sure that there will be triggers I’ll never recognize that bring the memories of Donald back again.
I’ve lived long enough to create my own memories and my own identity. Every so often, I am reminded that I’m not just me, I’m someone else as well: son of a mother, son of a father, and so on. It’s easy enough to make an identity for yourself depending on circumstance, as the work version of me is much different than the home version of me, and the Don I am at 41 is different than the Don at 31 or 21. I feel that I have some sort of control over these facets of my identity. However, what do I do with the identities others have of me that may not be in my control? There’s no desire to attempt any sort of control over these identities others have of me. A younger Don would have had a different answer, but the current me realizes that trying to control those other identities is akin to yelling at clouds for blocking the sun. Instead, I’m learning to step aside. In the times when Donald takes over from Don, when memories of someone I’ve never met takes over my living memories, I will let it be. Donald still lives on in the memories of those who knew him, and he lives on in my name. I should take some comfort in that, as those who knew Donald take comfort in reflecting upon his life.
Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever visited Donald’s grave site My guess is that if it ever happened, it was when I was very young. I should fix this during another visit to Chicago–I think we’ve got a lot to talk about.