If you’re like me, your winter memories are connected to what happened during that year’s “big snow.”
Last week’s nearly double-digit-inch snowfall might not measure up to the epic blizzards blamed for a Chicago mayor’s ouster or 2011's “Snowmageddon” that shut down Lake Shore Drive.
But for me it will always be the most unforgettable storm.
Last Tuesday, big, heavy snowflakes — heart attack snow they call it — blanketed everything except for the tire tracks on the road in front of me on my way through Grandma Konkol’s old neighborhood in Chicago Heights. I was heading to St. James’ Hospital to see her.
When I made it to her room, Grandma Konkol appeared to be looking out the window into the blurry haze of blowing snow. At 86, she’d lived through most of the worst snowstorms on record — nine of the historic Chicago snows on the National Weather Service’s top 10 list.
I sat beside her and showed her pictures from her great grandson’s 2nd birthday party that she missed.
She squeezed my hand hard and shook it — a gesture I took as an inaudible giggle — when she spotted the funny photo of my finger knuckle-deep in my sister’s nose. I always could make Grandma Konkol laugh.
Over the last few years, though, Grandma Konkol didn’t laugh as much. She was struggling against Alzheimer’s, which stole her memory and ability to walk.
A month ago, she stopped talking.
Eating, even drinking through a straw, had become a chore.
And now, her heart and kidneys had started to fail. She looked tired and struggled to sip water.
It was hard to watch, because Grandma Konkol — Severine Vesci Konkol, that is — had always been a hard worker who didn’t need anyone’s help.
She regularly got up before dawn and tuned to WGN radio while she did chores or cooked up red sauce made from neck bones, and tasty Pizzelle cookies — my favorites.
She liked keeping things in order and making us grandkids happy. She hated it when we made a mess — and let us know about it.
She was tough and loving, probably in that order. I figure that’s because she’s an Italian girl from Chicago Heights, second youngest of 12 kids.
Her father, well, let's just say that he was a tough guy who had business partners during Prohibition — and leave it at that.
Grandma Konkol sure did.
She was never one for long talks and rarely shared stories about her childhood. She didn’t talk much about her parents. She didn’t keep in close touch with her most of her brothers and sisters. My Dad didn’t find out one of his pals was his first cousin until high school.
And when I got nosy about her family history, Grandma Konkol was quick with the brush off.
“Eh, who cares about all that,” she’d say when I asked about growing up Vesci. “That was a long time ago.”
I guess she was right. Past is past.
Grandma Konkol would much rather talk about the stories I was writing or the places I had been or the why the girls that she liked always seemed to slip away.
Those talks were always short, too.
The best part of Grandma Konkol was just having her with us. She never turned down an invitation. Almost never made a fuss.
Just being there was the most important thing to her, too.
She went on our big family road trips to the Badlands and Washington, D.C. — and more shopping trips to Carson’s and Marshall Field's than my Mom can count.
She came over for every holiday and birthday dinner.
For the last few years, she lived at my parents' house, where she became best friends with her great-grandsons, Lex and Logan Liguras.
Every time they’d visit, the boys would find her, grab her by the finger and lead her to the television to watch the same Thomas the Train videos over and over and over.
They loved her. And she loved them, more than anything.
Now, she was too weak for trips, parties and even Thomas the Train marathons with the boys, but it was good just to have her around.
I sat next to the bed and held her hand.
When my aunt showed up we fed her peaches and wiped her chin. Mom, Dad and my sister, Michelle, showed up later to visit.
After a while, I kissed her forehead, told her I loved her and headed back home — my heart filled with all good things I remembered while sitting with Grandma Konkol during our last “big snow” together.
She died on Friday evening as a cold rain slowly melted away the heavy snow until all that was left was a memory.