Finding family history on a street sign

September 1, 2011

Catherine Smyka

Download Story
(Flickr/Zol87)
Chicago's mayors aren't the only ones honored with their names on city signs; ordinary citizens are, too.

Chicagoans remember Richard J. Daley each time they visit Daley Plaza. And after nearly a quarter-century in office, a namesake landmark for Richard M., one would imagine, is inevitable. But the gesture's not reserved for politicians--everyday Chicagoans have streets bearing their names. In fact, writer Catherine Smyka is one of them; she shared her story on Eight Forty-Eight.


Only four years ago, I discovered the street named after my family. Catrambone Avenue is blocks from the Taylor Street exit on I-290. It’s surrounded by bricks engraved with the names of every cousin, great uncle, grandparent and blood relation on my Mom’s side of the family. I have a brick; a "Catherine" brick, wedged between my second cousin Giovanni’s and my sister Elizabeth’s. So there’s a personalized stone near the edges of suburban Chicago, on a street named after my great grandparents--why didn’t anyone ever tell me?

At the start of last century, my great grandfather came from Italy to Chicago and moved into a brownstone off of Polk Street, near what we now know as the Illinois Medical District. Years went by and more Catrambones filled the surrounding brownstones, drying clothes on lines that stretched from one cousin’s porch to another’s; some still live here to this day. Around 1997, the city allowed a family plot to be built and a street sign to be placed outside the original apartment building. The plot was paved over with stone and slowly engraved with the names ofof all of us: my mother, my grandfather and me.

When I was 22, I met someone I wanted to bring to that street; t was late summer. As the car doors slammed, we passed underneath the green and white street sign – Catrabome Avenue– which stood proud and tall next to a billowing American flag. No words passed between us but I instinctively reached for her hand--we stood before the sea of stone. Some pieces marked with aunts I saw every other weekend and others marked with great uncles who passed away years before my birth. I knelt next to my stone and traced the outline of my name with my fingertips. In the truest sense of the word, this was my family. And the woman  next to me was about to meet them all.

Later that evening I walked through the front door of my tiny Catholic grandmother’s house, hand-in-hand with the woman--the most beautiful woman I had ever met. And she kept track of everyone’s names: My 23 aunts and uncles, my 30-plus first cousins, my siblings and my parents; all of whom share bricks on a plot of land off the Eisenhower. At the table, we shared a meal and shared our stories.

The drive home that evening was peaceful. NPR played quietly over the hum of the road. When she kissed me goodnight, she said, “Thank you.” The two of us had entered new and terrifying territory – my family.

I went out of my way to pass the street once more on the drive back to my apartment. By the light of the street lamps, the American flag blew gently against the dusty night sky. My older brother’s name gleamed under the orange glow and I stepped over the names of my aunts. Then I saw on the outer edges – stones with no names. Blank slates awaiting my children, my nieces and nephews, my unknown relatives. I stood on the past, present and future of my family. I breathed in the night air and went home.