There aren’t many old timers left in Forest Park. To some these long time residents might seem affectionate, funny, wise, understanding and compassionate. To others “that old guy next door” feels curious, out of step and conservative at best; reactionary, rigid, complaining, demented and cantankerous at his worst.
Her family and friends said good-bye to Jo Wojtkiewicz at her funeral two weeks ago.
Her story might help the “newcomers” in Forest Park understand the old timers better and appreciate what they contributed to this community.
Johanna Peter was born into a large German farming family and was baptized in a German Lutheran Church in Northern Wisconsin in 1925.
Family and church were safe places to be. There was a common language and culture. Everyone knew their place. Mother ran the house, father took care of the farm and the children were “to be seen and not heard.”
To a little kid, the world felt predictable. When the family went to church, they sang familiar hymns and recited a liturgy that never changed. The 1920s might have been “roaring” for residents of Chicago, but for little Johanna there wasn’t much variety to spice up her life in EauPleine, Wisconsin. But it was a safe place to be a kid.
Or so it seemed. Four years after Jo was born, the Great Depression began with the crash of the stock market, and even farmers in “the sticks” of Northern Wisconsin felt the impact. Hard work and frugality were virtues in that community, but the Depression made those characteristics a necessity.
Jo used to tell how she got in the habit of slathering a thick coating of mustard on her ham. It was because she and her six siblings had to eat the cheap, fatty portions of ham, and the mustard made them palatable.
Along with the Depression, Jo’s exposure to the broader American culture challenged the safety of her little cocoon. She remembered the time one of her brothers came home from school upset because some of his classmates had been teasing him for speaking German.
Her mother’s response was, “that’s it. No more German in this house. From now on we speak only English.”
Jo left school after finishing the eighth grade to find work, and at the age of fifteen, moved to Chicago. Safety was replaced by fear as the girl from a small town “up north” came to the big city to see if she could find a job which would pay enough to allow her to send some money home.
But Jo listened and learned and somehow made a life for herself in this alien land.
Perhaps part of what gave her the emotional and spiritual resources to cope with the challenges she was facing was that she found what amounted to a safe place to live. In the 1940s, Forest Park was still very much a German, family town. During the Christmas holidays the Harlem Manner und Damen Chor would sing songs that she had grown up with, Otto’s Restaurant served schnitzel and sauerkraut and she found a church called St. Paul’s which reminded her of home.
The services by that time were in English but the corner stone read Deutsche Evang. Luth. Kirche and the words Heilige Bibel were part of a big stained glass window which depicted a Bible.
World War II became an opportunity for Jo, because along with the rationing, price controls and anxieties about brothers fighting in Europe, Jo got a full time job. It involved making walkie-talkies for the army, and for the first time she had money. She had listened and she had learned, and it was all starting to pay off.
After the war her best friend introduced Jo to her brother Xavier who had just been discharged from the army. She liked the guy a lot, but there was just one problem”his last name was Wojtkiewicz”and she knew that her family would not approve.
For years, Jo would get up at 5:00 a.m. on Christmas morning to start cooking the meal for the family gathering, because Tanta Berga expected dinner to be served precisely at noon. It was as if she needed to make everything work out well to prove that marrying this Polish Catholic man was a good choice.
Jo, herself, needed no convincing. She and Xavier were best friends. Their four children remember them laughing and telling jokes. They didn’t have a lot of money. They still counted their pennies and didn’t own a car for several years, but Xavier’s job at Proctor and Gamble provided a safe financial anchor for this couple which had grown up feeling the anxieties caused by the Depression and the War.
Jo and Xavier knew how to have a good time with little money. They would take their family on the El to museums and the beach. Wrigley Field used to have Ladies’ Days on which the women would get in free, so Jo would pack a lunch which she and the children would eat in the grandstand as they watched Ernie Banks hit home runs into Waveland Avenue.
Jo had listened and learned. She had a safe place in her church, her community and her family, and that safety freed her to explore areas outside her safety zone. But then came the changes of the 1960s and Jo realized that her safety zone itself was changing.
The Baby Boomer generation left Forest Park to go to college and, by and large, never came back. High rise apartment buildings were constructed and were no longer occupied by Germans.
Not only was her community changing but so was her church. The good old red hymnal was replaced by a green one, and suddenly worship felt strange.
A new pastor came and started what he called a Contemporary Service.
Black folk started joining and a Thai congregation began worshiping in the building.
And finally her children made choices that didn’t always sit just right with their mother. Her oldest son, Steve, remembers the day he called home to tell his mother that he was marrying a Catholic girl and that they were going to raise the children Catholic.
Now, in one sense, the apple was not falling very far from the tree. But in another way, this was different, because Xavier had had no problem with his wife raising the children Lutheran.
Gradually her places of safety were changing and Jo wondered out loud if they would still be able to provide the emotional and spiritual stability she needed to deal with the diversity and change all around her.
The final challenge to Jo’s sense of safety, however, was yet to come.
Her best friend, her husband Xavier, became ill and finally died in 1990. The girl from a small town in Wisconsin, who had survived the Great Depression and WWII, who had raised four children and sent them to college, who had grown to love and respect her Catholic daughter-in-law, now faced the greatest challenge to her equilibrium.
But Jo listened to herself, her family, her friends and her God, and one more time she learned. Out of necessity this woman, who had defined herself in large part by the roles she played in life, ventured out of her safety zone and became more independent. Her car became her most prized possession”it became the vehicle for getting to not just physical destinations but also to people and places which made her life richer.
Her children insist that Jo’s faith became deeper after Xavier’s death. What happened was that slowly and through a lot of work, Jo was discovering that the most secure place of safety was inside herself. In fact, it wasn’t a place at all, but a relationship with God and herself.
Jo emerged from her time of mourning ready to embrace the world which previously had seemed so threatening. She made strong friendships with several African-American women in her congregation. One of her black friends invited her to a formal tea at an African-American church on the South Side of Chicago, and Jo had a great time.
On hearing of Jo’s death another black woman in the congregation who was thirty years younger than Jo exclaimed, “I’ll miss her so much. She was my buddy.”
Regarding the Thais who worshiped in her church building, Jo never became a fan of Thai cuisine, but when they had a special Christmas service last year, she was there, sitting in her regular pew, giving them support.
The final challenge to Jo’s feeling of being safe was the prospect of her own death. And it was if she had listened to death very much like it was a person who had moved into the townhouse next to hers. She learned from it and found a way to deal with this last and greatest threat to everyone’s emotional and spiritual equilibrium.
At the funeral home, the day after Jo’s death, her children produced a paper on which she had written out detailed instructions including hymns to be sung, Bible passages to be read and how much to pay the pastor conducting the funeral.
Neither her family nor her friends nor her fellow church members would ever describe Johanna Peter Wojtkiewicz as a saint. She had her rough edges, but she was always real and honest. And when she disagreed with someone”as she frequently did”she would never undermine the discussion by leaving the relationship.
She would wrestle with you but not abandon you. She would always state her position firmly and clearly, but she would always listen and learn and be open to synergies which no one could anticipate. Jo seemed to always land on her feet no matter how much she would be temporarily knocked off balance.
The girl from a small town in Wisconsin, you see, had found a place of safety that no one could take away.