Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My grandmother - a family history



We lost Dano's mom this year and in May we lost my father's mom, my Nanny, the matriarch of the huge Wolff clan. This past week, my family celebrated her life in the U.S.. It was very hard for me to not be there in, but I also know I had wonderful closure with her. My uncle, the historian of the family, wrote this beautiful eulogy and family history that I wanted to share. Nanny will be missed.

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A Eulogy for a Great Lady


We are here today to celebrate the life of Florence Mary Renk Wolff--she who has touched and shaped the lives of all here in this room and oh so many more during her long and productive life.

One feature of her life that always fascinated me was the long string of names by which she has been called over the years—Florence, Florie, Flo, Miss Renk, Mrs. Wolff, Toots, Hans, Nicole, Mom, Nicki, Mum, and Nanny. She started out being christened Florence Mary Renk when she was born in Chicago on February 17, 1915. There was war in Europe and the days of the horse and buggy were coming to an end. The new technology that helped to change us from an agricultural nation into an industrial one benefitted her as well because her father took up the new trade of automechanic. Her mother was born in this country too when her father came here to work in the great anthracite coal beds of northeastern Pennsylvania. His name was Clement Platek, and he died there in 1897, gunned down in a confrontation of miners and the strike breakers. As a result of his death, her mother Magdalena nee Czaja remarried a man named Topolski, and settled in Blue Island, Illinois. It was there Marie Platek met young John Renk, a Chicago native.

To her mom and dad, Florence became Florie and Flo, the former was her mother’s diminutive, and the latter her father’s. Early in life she suffered a crushing blow when her two younger brothers, Bobby and Arthur, both perished from the rampant respiratory diseases that plagued the US at the end of the war. This double tragedy had a profound effect upon the lives of John and Marie Renk. They not only doted on their remaining child but they also lost themselves in their own interests, Marie in cooking and John in mechanics. They sent Florence off to St. Gall’s Catholic school at 55th and Kedzie. There she became the darling of the good nuns, many of whom remained lifelong friends like Sr. Monica. She went off to Providence High School and there also was a top student and favorite of the faculty. To them she was forever Florence and Miss Renk.


Florie also had numerous cousins, many of whom looked up to her as a big sister. Margie Esser was the daughter of Mom’s Aunt Marie, an older sister of her dad, and Catherine Mackin, the daughter of Ottilia nee Renk and Harold Mackin. She was also close to her cousins Henrietta and Gertrude, daughters of Aunt Marie from a different marriage and on her mother’s side cousin Irene, the daughter of Aunt Stella. In recent conversations with Marge and Catherine, both remembered many happy hours with Florie playing paper dolls.


Music certainly ran on the Renk side of the family, and so it was not too surprising that young Florence took an interest in piano and singing. Her beautiful mezzo-soprano voice joined the Sunday chorus of Catholics at St. Gall’s church. The members of the choir became fast friends over the years. One of the baritones was a young man who lived on Albany Street. His origins were German, he having been born in Germany on April 18, 1909. He arrived here with his parents in 1910 as an uncle brought his dad here to be carpenter in his house-building company. This chorister was of course one Bruno B. Wolff, a 24 year old draftsman working for Bethlehem Steel. Their courtship was short and fruitful as they were married on August 19, 1933, at St. Gall’s, shortly after her graduation from Providence. She now had a new name Mrs. Wolff. The newlyweds went on their honeymoon in of all places, Chicago. Yes these were the dark days of the Great Depression. Bruno was lucky to have a job when so many stood in bread lines.

But they scrimped and saved first by living with Marie and John. Then all of a sudden not a year later on June 15, 1934, she got another new name, Mom. For unto her a child was born and they named him Bruno. Soon after followed Philip on August 29, 1935 and James on January 14, 1937. This was a lot of folks to cram into the Renk three-bedroom bungalow on Christiana Ave. With the help of a relative’s loan, Mom and Dad built a brand new house on the south side, which was then on the boundary of Chicago civilization, in Little Flower parish. We occupied it in December 1941 just after Pearl Harbor. I still remember our first meal there, baked beans with pork. These came not from a can but were home baked and wonderful to the extent I can still taste them in the hollows of my mind. The relationship between Florence and Bruno was highlighted by his calling her “Toots” and “Hans.”


Mom, as I still am wont to call her, while raising three young rapscallions, took up her singing career and pursued it in earnest with Madame and Maestro Bigali. But she still made sure that she had time for her kids. When we came home from Little Flower School for lunch, not only were we served a great meal, but like the lector in a monastery refectory, she would read to us some of the classics. Music was also a great part of our training as each Saturday morning we listened as Milton Cross introduced the Metropolitan Opera of the week.


On August 25, 1947, Mark Wolff was born in the midst of a thunder storm, and Maris came in 1950 on May 20 in milder weather. Mom realized at one point that raising all these kids, and spending time with her lessons and singing, she needed some help around the house. Thus, she came to hire a young lady in her teens, one Mary Anne Kane, who lived only two blocks away. She did a very nice job but wanted to move on to other things so she handed the baton to her younger sister Christine. Chris became like a sister to us boys and a daughter to Mom. She had the good sense at the end of high school to marry another neighborhood man, a naval reservist and budding scholar, Don Costello. After he got his PhD in English from the University of Chicago, he took a job at the University of our Lady of the Lake, otherwise called Notre Dame, where he stayed his entire career. They kept in touch with Mom and Dad even to hosting them in Europe where Don did some work as a visiting scholar in the 70’s.

Mom not only took voice but she taught voice as well and as was her personality she became fast friends with clients, especially Bernadette Ryan and Helen Lindenberg. Bernadette died an untimely death but Helen came out to New Jersey. Her husband, Bill, was part of Dad’s Jersey Crane Company before the Lindenbergs moved to Canada.

In 1952 Mom and Dad moved to NY, the hub for those who worked in classical music. Mom adopted another name at that time and made an appearance at Carnegie Hall under the name of Nicole Scott. Now in those days Nicole was not a common name for young ladies, but after she adopted it, we all know that in the ensuing years it became widely bestowed on infant girls around the country. Its diminutive, Nicki, became the cognomen of those involved in her professional life or those who first met her later in life.


On October 5, 1956, she got another name, “Nanny,” when Sandra Walters Wolff, wife of Philip, gave birth to Philip John the second. It was PJ, as he came to be called, that dubbed his paternal grandmother with the name Nanny. In my humble opinion, this was her favorite name as she soon became the grandmother of a large brood of 18 grandchildren. Three of those were Maureen’s kids prior to our marriage, but they were treated as graciously and lovingly as were her blood descendents. They remarked so to me in response to the sad news of May 19.

When Marc moved to Great Britain in the early 70’s, he became after a few years, quite British in his accent and so to Lin and their kids Mom became Mum.As she finished the days of her life she came to Vermont and under the loving watch of Philip, Ellen, Maris, and the caregivers of Copley Manor, she was able to enter her 96th year.


Now perhaps as she mingles in Eternity, she has gained her greatest name as one of the Saints above. If you need anything, she would be the one to ask; for she will prevail on our behalf with the Lord above as she did for all of us when she supported us here on earth. Thanks, Mom, for everything. And if I didn’t do the pictures right, please don’t yell at me.

3 comments:

lynn a jaskowiak said...

My grand mother was Katherina Elizbeta Platek Sutherland.Daughter of Klemenz Platek and Magdalena Elizbeta Czaja Platek Topolski. Sister of Florence.
My grand mother was born in lillytown Pa.
Looking forward to hearing from you. Florence was a beauty.
Lynn A Sutherland Jaskowiak
715-834-1312 or 715-497-6224

2549 Diane Ln Eau Claire WI 54703-1254

karen hulll said...

I to am a Grand daughter of Katherina Platek Sutherland and am proud to be blood to this inspirational strong woman. Because of this amazing eulogy I now know so much more then I did before about my family.
Karen Sutherland Hull
hull.m@sbcglobal.net

Larry Wydock said...

I am originally from Hazleton, Pa. near Lattimer where Clement Platek was murdered with 18 other miners in 1897. What is "Aunt Stella"'s married name and did she remain in the chicago area? What happen to Walter Platek who was born in 1890 in Poland, the son of Clement Platek and Magdalena Czaja Platek-Topolski? What cemetery is Magdalena Topolski buried?

lwydock@aol.com