Harry Mark Petrakis
Updated: August 28, 2013 6:09AM
If there were to be an eleventh commandment, I would suggest the following, “Thou shalt be kind to others.”
The longer I live, the more I have come to appreciate the importance of kindness. Even small gestures can soften pain and ease wounds. I have witnessed and on occasion been the beneficiary of such bounties.
From my childhood I remember old Mr. Bilder who owned a narrow, cramped candy store with a solitary display counter. His shop adjoined the AMO, our neighborhood movie theater on South 61st Street in the Washington Park neighborhood. Before the callous theater owners set up their own candy counter, Mr. Bilder’s store was the Holy Grail of our neighborhood.
In an aged display counter with blemished glass and small cracks in the molding, three shelves held an assortment of chocolates, mints and creams.
A penny would allow us to purchase one of these tantalizing candies. Those children who did not have a penny hung back, staring like ghosts at a feast, at those children who had the money to buy.
Mr. Bilder did not forget them. After his paying customers had completed their purchases, he’d motion those penniless children forward.
“I have a special sale today,” he’d say. “With every penny candy sold, there is one penny candy free. I have just sold four candies, so now there are four that can be chosen without cost.”
As the delighted children made their selections, I understood even then that whatever profit Mr. Bilder had made on the original purchase had been banished by his gesture. But I remember the gentle old man’s generosity as a model to this day.
When I was 11, I was confined to bed for two years with lesions on my lungs. I emerged from my sickness at 13 to return to school. But my illness had put me two years behind my peers.
While in bed, my extensive reading aided my vocabulary and my grasp of literature, but in mathematics and science I was hopelessly behind.
Returning to the same grade I had been in when I was first confined to bed, I now towered over my classmates and heard their mocking giggles.
Not only had I missed those two years of schooling, but I had also lost the discipline of homework. I was despondent and feared I would never catch up. Each day at school for me was an ordeal.
One of our English teachers was Mrs. Henrietta Weil. She was a slender, tart-tongued lady who wore metal-rimmed glasses that left a red mark on her nose when she took them off. She was a stern teacher, but a good one who sensed my despair.
One afternoon she asked me to remain after class. When my classmates had departed, she took a seat at the desk beside me and began what grew to become several months of tutoring.
For two or three days a week, I’d remain after school while Mrs. Weil sought to instill in me the knowledge and skills I had missed. She never asked for any payment, which my family would not have been able to afford anyway. Although I didn’t suddenly become an honor student, thanks to her efforts, I was able to catch up and graduate from our parochial school.
A more recent act of kindness took place several years ago when I incurred a three-day stay in our local hospital. Medical tests I had taken had revealed some abnormal results. My doctors were consulting, and I was imagining all manner of dire scenarios.
One afternoon during that stay, seeing me walking the hospital corridor in my robe and slippers, a small, gray-haired cleaning lady pushing a cart of supplies spoke to me.
“You look so sad, sir,” she said quietly. “Now you sit down right there and I’ll bring you a treat.”
She returned a few moments later with a small glass of cranberry juice adorned with a small, partially wilted tulip she had salvaged from some discarded plant.
“Here you are,” she smiled. “A cranberry cocktail and a blossom to lift your spirits”
Perhaps the most benevolent act of kindness I have ever witnessed involved my mother’s final days in the nursing home in Evergreen Park, where she spent the last four years of her life.
My wife and I would drive in from our home in Indiana to see her, but these visits became less frequent in the ice and cold of winter. To make sure she would be cared for, I hired several aides who tended her at dinner to make sure she ate, and again at bedtime, to make sure that she was secured for sleep.
One of these aides was a small-statured, gray-haired lady named Gertrude Zatko. She was the principal aide looking after my mother, and after my mother had eaten and had been helped into bed for the night, Gertrude would phone me.
“Mother’s fine,” she’d say. “All tucked in and her railings up.”
My mother was sometimes restless and fought sleep, so it was always reassuring to have those words from Gertrude.
There was a night one winter when I had attended an event in downtown Chicago and was on my way driving back home to Indiana. I hadn’t seen my mother in a couple of weeks and, on an impulse, I turned off the Dan Ryan at 95th Street and drove west to Kedzie. While it was near my mother’s bedtime, I thought I might still catch her awake.
The front door of the nursing home was locked, and I had to ring for the caretaker. He had seen me before and allowed me in. I had never been in the nursing facility that late. As I walked the darkened corridor, most of the rooms I passed were dark or lit only by dim night lights. Some of the patients were asleep, but from a few of the rooms I heard the sounds of crying, a mumble of incoherent voices, a man praying aloud. One room I passed had a woman who kept repeating a man’s name in a soft, plaintive voice.
My mother’s room had three beds and she occupied the bed closest to the door. While I was still out in the corridor, I heard my mother’s shrill and fretful voice raised in some complaint.
When I reached her door, I saw Gertrude Zatko with her back to me, kneeling beside my mother’s bed. I could not understand the words she was speaking, but I heard the soft solicitous tone of her voice, soothing and reassuring. Each time my mother cried some grief, Gertrude continued softly to reassure her in a manner a mother might use to calm a child.
I don’t know how long I stood there, but my mother’s agitation slowly calmed under Gertrude’s soothing words.
A different aide might have secured my mother in her bed and left her.
Another aide might have given up any effort to quiet her after a moment or two. But gentle Gertrude Zatko remained beside my mother’s bed, whispering reassurances to her until she had been consoled.
Such kindness lends grace to the human condition.
This is the latest in an occasional series of Chicago-based memoirs by the novelist and short-story writer Harry Mark Petrakis. More on his work can be found at harrymarkpetrakis.com.