I blame it on the butcher-block paper. That was probably what threw us off, what enabled my sister and me to distort our childhood memory of the Pope’s visit to our neighborhood. A hand-made, trilingual welcome hung above the windows of my grandparents’ grocery store:
WELCOME POPE JOHN PAUL II!
Over the years, my grandfather posted many similar signs throughout his business; hand-lettered in black and outlined in red for a 3-D effect. Bert’s Groceries sold everything from fresh “sweet rolls,” to use the local vernacular, to fennel-infused Italian sausage. A butcher-block paper sign next to the counter boasted several varieties of Pierogis:
Many customers mistakenly called my grandfather “Bert,” however, the name derived from our family name – Bertucci. Bert’s was only one of four such Mom-and-Pop groceries in our neighborhood: there was Cizek’s on 51st, John’s on Richmond, and Millie’s on Maplewood.
Bert’s, like these and so many other neighborhood stores throughout Chicago at that time, occupied about 600 square feet in the front of the building, and was connected to the house in back by a door hidden behind a partition. My parents would drop my younger sister Anna and me off there every morning before school, and pick us up every evening to take us back home to 62nd and Troy.
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More than three decades before he would be canonized as Saint, and less than two years before his attempted assassination by Mehmet Ali Ağca, Pope John Paul II, traveling in an open motorcade, really did visit Chicago in October of 1979, as is well-documented in newspapers and photographs.
More significantly, for us, the Pope, en route to say Mass at Five Holy Martyrs (known locally as “Fives,”) traversed South California Avenue. California was the main thoroughfare of our quarter of Gage Park, bordered to the West by Central Steel and Wire, and to the East by Nightingale Elementary. Our community had anticipated the event for weeks, and local officials scurried to make last minute beautifications including painting over graffiti. On that chilly October morning, a throng gathered on street corners including 52nd and California, to await the Pope. On the East side, they huddled in front of St. Simon’s, and on our side, friends, family and longtime patrons set up lawn chairs in front of Bert’s Groceries. My uncle Vic referred to Bert’s as a “bar for people who didn’t drink.” This was handily supported by the many customers who would bare their souls to my grandparents. Standing behind us, awaiting the Pope that morning, was Al, a Battle of the Bulge veteran who talked to my grandfather during the slow hours of the workday. I timed these conversations by Al’s appearance when we left for school before 9:00 a.m., and his continued presence when we came back for lunch. Al would draw a stool up to the counter and rest on his elbows between the giant bucket of kosher pickles and the stack of honey wafers. As they talked, my grandfather sliced cheese and chicken loaf for us to take to the back, where my grandmother would make our sandwiches.
Also waiting in that crowd was Arlene, a divorcée who poured her heart out to my grandmother as I, a naive fourth grader, sauntered through the store, pretended not to listen, and grasped only a portion of the context. My grandmother would often interrupt Arlene’s triste soliloquies to remind me that our sweet rolls were in the kitchen. These treats varied from custard-filled paczkis to fruit kolačkys, and our grandmother let us set aside the best ones before she opened the store every morning. Anna and I would wash the sweets down with chocolate milk while watching Gilligan’s Island. Later, after we did our homework we’d roller-skate, ride bikes, or be pulled along by our grandparents’ dog Taffy through alleys and up and down sidewalks. When we weren’t outside, we spent hours behind the counter in the store. Our grandfather had taught us how to operate the cash register, and occasionally asked us to man the store if he had to run to the back. To my grandfather’s chagrin, I once turned away a customer looking for orange juice, not knowing that he kept boxes of the concentrated drink in the basement.
Anna and I truly were kids in a candy store; our grandparents never once tried to rein us in. Sometimes, my grandfather would teach me the Calabrese dialect, or we would spell words backwards. The latter became our secret language and he would utter various words for me to decipher, such as acoC-aloC, or, donutS, an anagram of his dialect spelling for “stupid.”
That morning, when the Pope finally arrived, his car passed the store slowly enough for him to read our sign. Holding his red papal hat in one hand, he raised the other to make the sign of the cross.
Decades later Anna and I reminisced about this with our Auntie Lillie. Anna and I simultaneously recalled (as we often do, speaking in stereo,) how proud our grandfather was that the pope blessed his store and his hand-made sign. There were a few minutes of silence as my aunt stared at the two of us incredulously. She finally spoke and reminded us that the Pope’s visit was in October. My grandfather had passed away the previous summer.
“Then who made the 3-D sign on butcher-block paper?”
I asked, too stunned to alter a memory that was so crystalline not only in my mind, but in Anna’s as well. My aunt told me that she, in fact, had made the sign.
“So Grandpa wasn’t there?”
Anna and I asked. My aunt shrugged, and I thought, but did not express, that if Anna and I had both remembered it that way, it could only mean that in some way, he was indeed with us, and Bert’s Groceries, although closed for business within weeks of his death, had lived on as well.
Writer: Pia L. Bertucci
Photographer: Bruno F. Bertucci