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  • Writer's pictureMichael Lenzi

(Re)Collection: Parents, Pt. 1

Sarah Louise Lenzi, College Yearbook Picture

My mom would have turned 85 yesterday. She was born on February 15, 1934 to Mary Hudak and John G. Blatnica in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Every one in my mom's family worked in the steel mills. As far as I know, they all worked for either U.S. Steel or Jones and Laughlin (J&L) except for in times of strike. Then they would resort to whatever employment they could find like working in other factories, driving buses or sweeping the streets.

My grandparents had a tumultuous marriage and divorced when my mom was 3. My grandmother, Mary, suffered from mental and emotional issues and lived the rest of her life with her mother and her brothers, Uncle Mike and Uncle Johnny (or Dutz, as they called him). They were a close knit family. They often looked after my mom when my grandmother would disappear from time to time. They were two more parents for her.

They all lived in a house on Kennebec Street on one of the many hills overlooking the steel mills, the Calvary Catholic Cemetery and the Monongahela River. The neighborhood is called Greenfield. The streets were very steep, paved in cobblestones and treacherous and slippery in the winter. But at least they had a good view.

Pittsburgh was a tough and gritty immigrant town. The factory, the church, the family and the bar. All my relatives were drinkers. They loved their shot and a beer after work. Or before work. If you work in a mill everyday and put your body through hell in an unhealthy environment, the warm embrace of alcohol at the end of the day makes perfect sense. At least it does to me.

When she wanted to find her father or her uncles, she would walk down the hill towards the Run, the rough and tumble area close to the river where the bars were. Chances are she'd find them on a bar stool.

My grandfather was from a Czech family. He worked for U.S. Steel. I met him only once when he was very sick and close to death. My mom drove us down to his apartment. He lived in the Run above a bar. My sister and I were told to stay in the car. He came to the door, opened it up halfway and had what looked like a tense conversation with my mom. Then she got back in the car and we drove away. There were lots of strained relationships in my family.

I wish I could have known him even a little. All my mom's family members were quick with a smile, a silver dollar and piece of candy. They weren't educated, but they were solid, working class people.

My grandmother was from a Hungarian family. She was a talkative and friendly old lady by the time I met her. She lived with us in DC in her last years and I helped take care of her. But to hear my mom tell it, she was not a kind and caring mother. When she was younger, she had a bad temper and was prone to bouts of depression and mania. She had gone to secretarial school and worked at U.S. Steel as a secretary.

My mom was stubborn even from a young age. My grandmother wanted her to go to church every Sunday even though she herself did not go. She would give my mom bus fare to get there, and my mom would ride the bus around for a few hours, go downtown and walk around and look in store windows. Then she would return and report back what happened at the mass. She was crafty.

My mom was also a swimmer in high school, a very good one. She told me she narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympics. I do not know if this is true, but I do remember that she was a very strong, smooth and confidant in the water. She did well in school and graduated early from Taylor-Allderdice High School in 1951.

First on her list was to get the hell out of Pittsburgh. My grandfather did not believe women should go to college, and he refused to pay her tuition. Her dream was to attend the University of New Mexico-Albuquerque.

She did an end run. To pay for school, she enlisted in the Air Force. This allowed her to use the G.I. Bill education benefits to pay for school when she completed her required service. She served on an air base in Texas during the Korean War, and she made it to the rank of Sargeant.

When she was finished with the Air Force a few years later, she went to the University of New Mexico as planned. She set her mind to it. This is a character strength that my mom had in spades. She was not going to allow her father's chauvinism to hold her back.

She was in a sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, and did quite well in school at New Mexico. She was an honor student. Then my grandfather got cancer, and she was forced to come home and be there for him. My grandad was an alcoholic and he didn't take good care of himself. He was a rugged, tall guy at 6 foot 4. That is where my mom and I got our height. But he wasted away pretty quickly. He had cirrhosis of the liver.

Back in Pittsburgh, she attended Duquense University and worked nights. She graduated in 1958 with a Political Science major. Her next goal was to work for the government, so she moved to Washington, D.C. to be closer to national politics.

D.C. is where my parents met, got married and had my sister and me.

More soon...

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