Stone Names

Written by Catherine R. Smyka

Only four years ago, I discovered the street named after my family. Catrambone Avenue, a family park, is blocks from the Taylor street exit on 290, 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. There is a Catherine brick, wedged between my second cousin Giovanni’s brick and my sister Elizabeth’s brick. I have a personal 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 is now the Illinois Medical District. As they procreated, the offspring of the Catrambones filled the surrounding brownstones, drying clothes on lines that stretched from one cousin’s porch to another’s, and have remained ever since in one way or another. 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 of us all. My mother. My grandfather. Me.

It wasn’t until I was 22 that I met someone I wanted to bring to that street. It was late summer. As the car doors slammed, we passed underneath the green and white street sign – CATRAMBONE AVENUE – which was standing proud and tall next to a billowing American flag. No words passed between us but I instinctively reached for her hand. We circled around the pole and stood before the sea of stone. Some pieces were marked with aunts I saw every other weekend and others were 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 she, the woman standing next to me, was meeting them all.

Later that evening, I walked through the front door of my tiny Catholic grandmother’s house hand-in-hand with the most beautiful woman I had ever met. And she kept track of everyone’s names. My twenty-three aunts and uncles, my thirty 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. 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 mother’s sisters. 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.