The photographs of my grandfather are particularly special to me, because I see in them so many of my father's physical characteristics--the same soft brown eyes, the same lips, the same thick, dark hair. Because of this strong resemblance, my grandfather's image seems as comfortable and familiar to me as my own father's. In addition to displaying these physical similarities between father and son, my grandfather's photographs also give me a vivid mental picture of his own unique character and personality. In his eyes I see the gentle, kind nature that was always generous, self-sacrificing, and eager to help others. His warm but somewhat mischievous smile gives me a clue to his sense of humor and ability to enjoy a good joke. One of my favorite images of my grandfather seems to combine these endearing qualities with his manliness and strength. This picture of him dressed in his army uniform hangs in the hall of our house, surrounded by the Bronze Star and other medals that he received during his service in World War II. Even though his gentle timidity made him an unlikely candidate for active duty, he had the bravery and strength to serve his country well in time of war.
Since photos by themselves cannot fully reveal a person's true character, my grandfather's "presence" in my life would have been much less tangible if the photographs had not been accompanied by the heartwarming stories that my father has told about him. For example, Dad has told me how his father, who did not own a car, used to carry him on his shoulders as they walked to the grocery store in downtown Waukegan every Friday evening. Even when it was cold, Dad looked forward to the little excursion and would keep himself warm in the strong, comforting grasp of his father's hand.
Then there are the many stories of my grandfather's love of music, particularly country and western and folk songs. He had a huge record collection of over two thousand 78's, but he enjoyed playing the songs on his guitar as much as he enjoyed listening to them on the old phonograph. One of his favorite pastimes was sitting in the living room, strumming his guitar and singing one of the "railroad songs" he loved. His passion for music came through in his playing, which won him first prize in an amateur music contest right after the war. Music was also an important part of the family's set of traditions; every Christmas, Dad would ask his father when they could bring the Gene Autry Christmas records down from the attic. Only when that well-known voice filled the house with the cheery refrain of "Here Comes Santa Claus" was it "officially" Christmas.
My dad loved to hear his father sing and play and was always pestering my grandfather to play something on the guitar for him. Dad inherited his father's love of the instrument, and I am not surprised to hear him strumming away in his room at 11:00 in the evening, often playing one of his father's favorite tunes. I, too, have had an abiding love affair with music ever since I started playing the violin when I was three; here is yet another link between my grandfather and me.
As much as my grandfather enjoyed playing, however, the grueling work he put in at the Manville factory in Waukegan often left him little energy for strumming the strings in the evenings. At Manville (a factory that produced building materials such as shingles and asbestos pipe), my grandfather often worked six days a week, twelve hours a day. My dad remembers him coming home on summer evenings smelling of sweat and asphalt. After the hard days of physical work, he frequently wound down by smoking a pipe, and the other smell that my dad associates with his father is the fragrant scent of tobacco.
Besides music, my grandfather also passed on to my dad his love of baseball--the only sport that ever held any interest for him. He told my dad so much of the Chicago Cubs' history that, even though Dad is now a Detroit Tigers fan, he still knows more Cubs trivia than that team's most devoted aficionados! Although my grandfather didn't have much money, he always took my dad to one ballgame at Wrigley Field each year, and the annual outing was a much-anticipated experience for both father and son.
My grandfather's strong loyalty to Chicago's baseball team was much like his bond to the city itself. Having been born in North Chicago, he lived in Waukegan for most of his life and never strayed far from his "hometown." Here, again, is a sentiment that I share with him. Like the song lyrics, I refer to Chicago as "my sweet home" and would never dream of moving anywhere else.
The last "memory" of my grandfather's personality is an anecdote illustrating his joking sense of humor. During one of the family's rare vacations, they were walking through the hills of Montana and passed over a stream named Crazy Lady Creek. My grandfather shouted out to my grandmother, "Look, Ma, they named a creek after you!"
I will always regret the fact that I never experienced the joy of spending time with my grandfather--playing music with him, laughing at his jokes, or just listening to him reminisce about old times. But throughout my life, I will be grateful that I am able to look at his photographs and see familiar traces of my father, and I will always treasure the stories that have made his presence in my life seem so very real. I will forever be proud to say that Emil Walter Banick was my grandfather.