The July 4th Birthdays of Grandpa Coyle and Grandma Cichon

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Grandpa Coyle was born 90 years ago today. This is him on the diving board on his 57th or so birthday.

He was born on the 4th of July and created for himself the American dream: He was raised in utter poverty in a broken alcoholic home, but persevered to learn a trade, become a professional, and along with my grandmother, create a beautiful family that honors his story by our very existence.

Of course, if he was here with us, I’d have to sum that all up with, “Happy Birthday, Gramps… can I get you a beer?”

Can’t say for sure this is her birthday, but we spent quite a few of Grandma Cichon’s birthdays at the cottage she’d rent every year at Sunset Bay.
(L to R that’s me, my ol’man, cousin Tracy, Aunt Sue, and Grandma.)

Grandma Cichon was born on July 4, 1928– which was a shock to my dad to hear after she died… he always thought she was born in 1926.

She was only 16 when my uncle Mike was born, and apparently what you did then was make yourself older to make it less scandalous (or to get a better job to help feed your kids).

I think a lot about what had to have been a beaten up heart behind a tough as nails exterior. I think about the personal sacrifices she swallowed for her 11 children, including putting the second of those kids up for adoption and keeping that pain and sacrifice alone inside her heart.

I used to think it was funny or weird that she would refuse to say goodbye– it was always happy, and it was always , “Toodleoo!” and, of course, she was right. She knew the people you loved never leave you, so there’s no reason to ever say goodbye.

Lessons from Grandma Cichon in life and in death

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Grandma Cichon died 23 years ago today.

Cancer had been cruel in the horrifically painful way the vitality and dignity of this strong, larger-than-life woman was slowly drained from her… as if it melted drip by drip undetected into the couch she’d spent her last few months barley living on.

I can feel every tear and recite each prayer I offered the last time I visited with her. It ruined my guts, but I prayed for God to end her suffering.

I was blinded by tears and a twist in my stomach as I went over the bridge next to the old Seneca Mall, driving back home.

She died a couple of days later, and the pain was even worse that my prayers had come to pass. I was 18. I didn’t know what to do with myself, especially with everyone else despondent… with Grandpa refusing to let go of her hand.

The only thing that made sense to me in the moment was leaving to go to work. It didn’t necessarily feel right, but nothing really did. So in I went.

There aren’t many things I’d do differently in life, but that’s one. In that moment, I don’t think I knew that I family that I could lean on.

In that moment, I don’t think I knew I had family that leaned on me.

I felt unimportant and isolated and left to figure it all out of myself, which I did– for a very long time– by just ignoring whatever it was, and soldiering on.

It was a great life lesson, one of many grandma taught me. I can hear her laugh and her telling us, “tootle-oo,” but never goodbye… it can’t have been that long.

More and more, I hear her laugh in mine, and feel the same unbridled joy she did when expressing it.

And this just writing this proves that I’ve caught on to what Grandma knew with her salutations- there are no goodbyes when you live in someone’s heart.

Like each of my grandparents, she’s so much of who I am. It isn’t possible to be any more grateful. Each of them so full of love, and each so different and different in the way their love was shown.

The only right thing to do is to continue to turn out and offer up that same love to the world in their honor… especially today, for this beautiful, tough, artsy, survivor mother of 11.

Dad made candy taste better with “And don’t tell your mother.”

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

My ol’man loved giving a kid a candy bar or a buck or an ice cream. Sure, us kids, but really any kid– especially if they weren’t expecting it.

“Don’t tell your mother,” he’d say, sneaking it to you on the backhand no matter who your mother was, and even if there was no need to sneak it– just because it seemed to be more fun that way.

The exuberant joys of his own childhood are what carried him through a more cloudy adulthood. The memories would come alive in those wide-eyed gaping smiles that were smeared with drippy vanilla or glossy with dreams of what “a green dollar!” could bring on the next visit to B-kwik or Wilson Farms.

Some of the same clouds that hung over my ol’man’s days now hang over mine, too… but in two different ways I’m double blessed for his example.

I have those chest swelling memories of my own rogue ice creams, packs of Luden’s Cherry cough drops, cans of diet Squirt, packs of M&Ms from the tiny stands inside big downtown buildings, and Birch Beers sitting at anyone of a dozen different bars.

All those memories are great, but even better, dad showed me the best way to recapture that joy is to light it in another life, and that might be the best gift of all.

So com’ere buddy… take this 20 and don’t tell your mom. Just use it for something good.


My ol’man drank whiskey & Ginger Ale from peanut butter jars and ate cereal in old margarine tubs. Remembering him this Father’s Day with a to-go coffee in an old strawberry jam jar from JAM Parkside.

By the way, my dad referred to himself as “your ol’man” to us kids. If I called him “Father,”  as one reader intimated I should, he probably would have slugged me.

 

Uncle Phil: RIP Earl Rothfus

He was always “Uncle Phil” to us growing up, and of my 30 or so uncles and great-uncles, he always stood out. There was no one else like him in my huge family.
Uncle Phil and Aunt Elaine
A large strong man, he was imposing physically– but carried himself in such a way that whether or not you were intimidated was pretty much up to you.
As a master in the art of conversation, he was brilliant but humble, and listened as well as he opined.
He knew hard work– as a young man, he’d spent time working in grain elevators and he brought that work ethic and appreciation of physical labor to his white collar job at IBM.
Going to visit Aunt Elaine and Uncle Phil was something special. It seemed like it was the only time we’d leave South Buffalo. We drove past car dealers with shiny fringy streamers all over the lot, and past the drive-in, too, on the long ride out to the country which was really only to Union & Michael Rd at the West Seneca/Orchard Park border.
Those 20 minute rides, face excitedly planted against the window, were the only time as a kid I got to see big mailboxes on posts at the ends of driveways, usually with either a green Courier-Express or blue Evening News box attached to the poll. The only mailboxes I was used to were attached to the house and newspapers were thrown in the screen door.
In the same way I marveled at the slight differences in mailboxes and big lawns and ranch-style houses, I appreciated the difference in Uncle Phil.
He seemed like a movie star or a college professor or something apart, but also very much one of us at the same time. He was fully all of that. I’ll miss his smile and big handshake that was always a firm indication that things were well with the world.

More than coffee, done right it’s a cup of togetherness

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

I’ve been thinking a lot about coffee lately, and the sum of coffee is more than the beans.
Someone was dissing good ol’powdered coffee creamer the other day. Not me. I started working in radio at 15 years old, and through high school and college put in a lot of 16 hour days.

In those days, the only coffee at WBEN was from a vending machine in the basement. 

Those 25¢ 5oz cups of instant coffee with powdered creamer kept me alive.

My wife and I are part owners of a coffee shop now— with some of the most delicious, finest roasted coffee in Western New York… but I still keep a jar of instant coffee and powdered creamer on hand because every once in a while, I get nostalgic about that terrible brackish fluid which kept my motor running so many years ago.

I saved one of those cups with the intention, I think, of getting Ed Little’s autograph on the cup. The coffee really was bad, but it was the best coffee I ever had when Ed would grab two shiny new quarters and ask if I had time to head down to the basement.

In his mid-70s, Ed was far and away the oldest guy working at the station and gave weekend news the bigger-than-life sound of a much earlier era with bold writing and bombastic announcing. I was the youngest by a big margin, a wide-eyed 15 year-old twerp with boundless enthusiasm for all things radio and for old guys who liked to tell stories.

“You can buy when we have steak,” Ed would say, never allowing me to pay for our coffee ritual, even when he bought me lousy coffee at one of a dozen or so different little lunch counters with booth service, all the kind of place that served meatloaf and gravy. But no matter what the special was, the coffee was always there to wash it down.

Toward the end of Ed’s life, I called him up for a coffee but he was too sick to go out. His voice sparkled when I offered to bring over a couple of cups of Tim Horton’s. He was visibly sick, but pulled on a turtleneck and a pair of perfectly pressed slacks for my visit to his kitchen table and the coffee I was finally able to buy.

My earliest memories of drinking coffee come from the necessity of warmth. I was about 7 when my parents would load us kids into the backseat of our chocolate brown AMC to drive my ol’man to work early in the morning before we went to school. It was the only way that mom would have the car to go to work herself after we’d get home and get on the bus.

The heat didn’t work in the car, but holding and sipping plastic tumblers of coffee kept us warm. The coffee was always on at our house growing up. I always enjoyed bringing Mom a cup just the way she liked it. Dad never seemingly finished a cup and was constantly walking over to the microwave—later wheeling over to the microwave—to blast that cold cup for 45 seconds or so.

“A minute’s way too long, Steveo,” dad would say yanking the mug out of the microwave, taking a long sip with quick a self-satisfied mmm.

When you walked into Grandma Coyle’s kitchen, right there in the middle of the table, almost like a centerpiece, was the Mr. Coffee– right next to the black rotary dial wall phone and a pack of Parliament 100s.

Grandma Cichon had been a waitress at Colonial Kitchen, which ingrained the sanctity of coffee when hosting people at her giant white Formica kitchen table. The kettle on the stove was always lukewarm and ready to make a Taster’s Choice instant coffee in a Corelle Gold Butterfly mug. You got milk and sugar without asking. If she was out of milk, Grandma would put a buck in my hand and send me to Fay’s, because that was Seneca Street’s cheapest half-gallon of milk.

After Grandma Cichon died, I’d walk in the front door and say hi to Gramps, as I walked into the kitchen to put on the kettle for us both.

Any cup of coffee I made for Gramps was judged “perfect, son” with the first sip, and he meant it from the bottom of his heart every time—not just because the coffee was good, but because we were drinking it together.

I personally pour all of this into each cup of coffee I make at JAM. Our rich blend is delicious, and I know you will love it—but that’s fleeting. What lasts forever is our coffee story, and JAM was built with that in mind.

This is what we mean when we say Coffee and Community. You’ve become a part of my coffee story. I hope you’ll make JAM part of your coffee story, too.

Working at Timon Feels Like Home: Part 764

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

One of the really cool things about my job at Timon is how family things get tied up unexpectedly.

Met a guy who is roughly the same age my dad would be… from roughly the same neighborhood.

Just chatting with him, he added a letter to two different words the same way my ol’man used to.

Cousint and concreak.

Musta been the way they said in the Valley.

I have to figure out a way to talk to this guy some more to see if I can pull out any other speech oddities he has in common with the ol’man. (like without being a creeper about it. hahaha)

Presidents Day reflection: The Ol’Man & LBJ

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

My ol’man used to (somewhat proudly) tell the story about how he got suspended from South Park High School for ditching class to go see Lyndon Johnson speak in Niagara Square.

LBJ and Lady Bird with Buffalo Mayor Frank Sedita and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in Buffalo in 1966.In the 40 years or so I’ve had to let that story sink in, I think I have two takeaways.

The first is… When common sense dictates breaking a rule, do it. (There was nothing being taught at SPHS that day that could compete with seeing a President.)

The second is… common sense also dictates that you do your best to find an amiable solution to the breaking the rule. I’ve done plenty of things like skipping class to go see the President… but not while giving the finger to the guy who will paddle my ass and suspend me for doing it.

So thanks Dad and LBJ for the life lessons on this President’s Day.

Great-Great Grandpa Slattery: “A jovial man and a good mixer”

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Found a couple of new articles about my great-great-grandfather, Grandpa Coyle’s grandpa, Captain Thomas Slattery.

He was a Great Lakes ship captain. After many years commanding package freighters, he was given the helm of the SS Juniata, one of the great passenger ships of the Great Lakes.

Thomas J. Slattery was born to recent Irish immigrants in Prescott, Ontario. He moved to Buffalo as a young sailor in his 20s, living first on Orlando Street and then on Indian Church Rd.

I’ve never seen the photo of him as a young man in the one article. The only photos I’ve ever seen of of him as a much older man.

Comfort in the kettle’s whistle

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

There’s a full kitchen a few doors down from my office, and someone left the tea kettle to boil and walked away.

It was going for two or three minutes before I got up to shut it off… I felt like I was back at Grandma Cichon’s house, where a lot of times it felt like I was the only one who heard the kettle going.

By the time I made it down to the kitchen just now, I was thinking back to taking similar steps towards a whistling kettle to make a couple of cups of awful instant coffee for Gramps and me… so we could sit and talk with Lawrence Welk or Stan Jasinski playing in the background.

“Perfect. Thanks son,” Gramps would say to any cup of coffee, knowing that it was made with love.

Perfect. Thanks Gramps.

The every day is filled with memories of those who make us who we are

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This Hertel Avenue litter triggered an instant memory flashback:

Hey Steve-o, here’s a couple bucks. Go to the store and get your ol’man a pack of smokes. Your grandmother, too. And get yourself a candy bar, ok?

Even at 6 years old, Dad didn’t have to tell me to get him Parliament 100s or Grandma Kools.

There was never a note that I remember… and never a problem so long as I went to the corner deli and got the right brand of smokes. ( I tried to buy Marlboro for an uncle once and they literally chased me out of the store. Hahahaha.)

That was Grandma Cichon with the Kools.

Grandma Coyle, like my dad, smoked Parliaments. But the only thing she’d send us to B-Kwik for regularly was rolls for dinner.

Sometimes we’d stay late at Grandma Coyle’s house, and we’d take our baths there.

Sometimes, Grandma Coyle would have a beer– in an old school pint glass just like this one– while reclining on the couch watching TV.

It fills my heart even now to think about walking into the living room on Hayden Street in our pajamas, and seeing Grandma smiling as we walked in, all freshly scrubbed.

She smiled every time we walked into a room… and if that isn’t the greatest thing ever.

I’m so glad I decided to have a beer tonight– and that it took me to this story.