My grandmother, Marie Primosch, lived on East 45"' Street between Payne Avenue and Superior Avenue, less than two miles from Cleveland's Public Square, for 75 years.
She came to the United States at age 12 from Austria, married at St. Peter's Church in 1895, and raised a large family. Her husband John, also native of Austria, died in 1938. Marie survived her husband by 31 years, not succumbing until 1969 at the age of 91.
Although barely over five feet tall, Marie Primosch was the quintessential matriarch. She ruled a brood of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren with a combination of love, kindness, toughness and moral authority.
Every Christmas Eve, all of the living children of John and Marie and their spouses and children would gather at the family home on East 45th Street. All would kneel around the dining room table and recite the rosary. Attendance was mandatory. An extra decade of the rosary was said for the repose of the souls of deceased family members.
The dining room overflowed with supplicants and this allowed certain mischievous sons-in-law to sneak a cigarette in the backyard or a Schnapps in the kitchen.
After the rosary was completed, we all went into the parlor to see for the first time the large, decorated Christmas tree. The tree was always purchased, erected and decorated by son Carl, a Cleveland policeman. Until this time, the parlor was off limits, thus adding to the suspense and excitement. Only the most daring of the grandchildren would peek into the parlor for a glimpse of the tree prior to the completion of the rosary.
Gifts were exchanged and Christmas goodies consumed. The families would then depart sufficiently early so that each family could celebrate Christmas Eve in its own home, attend Midnight Mass, or "be home before Santa comes."
And so it was that on Christmas Eve, 1944, we started out in my father's 1936 Ford to attend the annual ritual. We lived on East 32nd Street between Payne Avenue and Perkins Avenue. I was then age 12, my sister Patricia was age 13, and my brother Terry was age 6. We children were huddled together in the backseat of the car. It was only an short drive and the heater was of no use to us. It was dark and cold with only remnants of snow on the ground.
My father always grumbled about this Christmas Eve custom, but my mother insisted and we never failed to participate. We kids loved meeting our cousins and aunts and uncles. It was a highlight of the year for us.
Invariably, my father would be "running late" which would cause an argument and add tension to the trip. Shortly before departure, my father would debate whether he needed to shave. I can no longer remember whether this was a legitimate concern or a delaying tactic.
Thomas and Bridgett O'Brien and their sons, Danny and Patrick, and an infant daughter, lived on East 32nd Street, about seven houses from our home. They moved onto the street quietly and left in less than a year. They did not seem to be related to any of the neighbors. Some of the families had been there for generations and everyone seemed to know everyone else.
Thomas and Bridgett were probably in their late twenties. Danny was about eight and Patrick about six. Bridgett was thin, pretty, shy and frail in appearance. Thomas was handsome, cheerful and friendly. Danny was quiet and sensitive. My sister and I sometimes walked with Danny and Patrick to St. Columbkille School on East 26th and Superior, which was later torn down to accommodate the inner belt freeway.
I was a quiet and attentive child. My knowledge of Thomas and Bridgett came from my observations and from bits of overheard adult conversation. I learned that Thomas "drank" and that this caused him to have difficulty keeping steady employment. Bridgett was long-suffering. Danny and Patrick were bright but insecure. I never learned what Thomas did for a living, but in 1944 war industry jobs were plentiful.
To say that Thomas "drank" was a euphemism which I easily understood. All adults drank. Apparently, Thomas drank too much or too often, or both.
As we drove past the O'Brien's small rented house on Christmas Eve, we saw that there was an undecorated Christmas tree on the small front porch. It leaned against the house as if it were a tipsy reveler.
Our Christmas tree had been up and decorated for two weeks. Why was the O'Brien tree still on the porch? When would they bring it in and decorate it? When did they open their presents?
Putting up our tree was stressful due to burned out lights, missing tree stands and crooked trunks. It took at least two days for the tension to dissipate and the joy to begin. How could this be accomplished on Christmas morning?
I concluded that for some reason the O'Brien's tree would remain on the porch, undecorated until it would be placed on the tree lawn to be picked up by the City. Danny and Patrick would have no Christmas tree. They would probably have no gifts. Thomas would be sick. Bridgett would cry.
As we recited the rosary in my grandmother's house, I prayed for a miracle on East 32"d Street. When we returned home, I wanted the O'Brien's tree to be inside the house and decorated. I wanted the family to be on the porch happily waiving to us. As we drove past on our return home, I saw that nothing had changed. On Christmas Day, I walked up the street. The undecorated tree was untouched.
My recollection is that when we returned to school after the Christmas recess, Danny and Patrick were not there. They had apparently moved away.
When I was in high school, I read Betty Smith's wonderful story A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. It is the story of a poor family made poorer by a charming father who "drank", and the heroic efforts of 14 year old Francie to elevate her spirits. Certainly the father, a singing waiter, was based on Thomas O'Brien. Danny could be the Francie of the family.
I know nothing of what happened to any of the O'Brien's. Thomas and Bridgett are probably dead. Perhaps my prayer on Christmas Eve, 1944, was answered in ways beyond my knowledge or understanding. I hope so.
James F. Sweeney
(Note - the O'Brien family's names have been changed for the purpose of this essay)