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Family legacies, found on a dark Arizona highway - Suzanne Johnson

I could list all the problems that made my most recent flight home difficult, but that list would be long, not very interesting, and would probably irritate you as much as it did me. Suffice to say I was tired and cranky when I climbed into the Uber that would take me to the hotel, where I’d be spending an unexpected night in Phoenix instead of my own bed at home in Oregon.


My driver was a grizzled, thick-necked man who could be cast as a dive-bar bouncer in any movie. After a few minutes of logistics and small talk about why I had no luggage, I asked about his day. I wasn’t expecting the gentle, genuine reply.


“My day had a lot of family drama. We’re working through it. I’m just trying to keep an open heart and listen.”


Like a telephoto lens that zooms from a macro view of my small problems to a birds eye view of life, his words snapped me out of my grumpy, self-absorbed mindset. I didn’t want to pry, but he’d opened the door to an unexpected conversation. My travel mishaps fell by the wayside as we cruised down that dark, empty highway, diving deep into trust, addiction, generational trauma, how to be there for family, when to keep yourself apart — mostly me asking questions and him sharing wisdom. I asked him how he became the person that he is—able to recognize and put words to family patterns with such obvious love. He talked about his mom and how she lived her life. But it wasn’t until he mentioned his hometown that the back of my neck began to prickle.


Me: You’re originally from Cleveland? Me too! My mom’s family lived there. Did you ever go to the West Side Market? My grandfather made Hungarian sausages, and he had a meat market that is still there. Lovasy Sausages.


Driver: …long pause…I knew your grandpa.


Me: Huh?


My grandpa immigrated from Hungary in his teens, found his way to Cleveland. He started out working at the West Side Market — now a national landmark. Within a decade he had his own stand, selling signature sausage recipes, head cheese, and smoked meats that we’d now label as artisanal charcuterie.


As a kid, when we visited the market I’d be mesmerized by the neighboring stands: the pile of yellow chicken feet at the Korean stand, the Greek stand with the skinned goat on ice, testicles proudly displayed. Fruit and vegetables were outside, under a canopy, wheels of cheese and loaves of bread opposite the meats. A veritable stew pot of flavors and languages and smells.


Me: You knew my grandpa? You went to his sausage stand?


Driver: Yeah…I’d go with my mom to carry the packages. You know she worked all the time but we never had enough money. Your grandpa always put something extra in the bag for us. Sometimes he’d see us coming and have a package ready, and just say “Your order is all set, thanks so much.” The dignity that gave my mom, to not have to ask for help. Yep, I remember him.


Every family has stories, and one of the legends in my family was about my grandpa’s generosity. Ask him for a dollar and he’ll give you five, my mom would say. My grandmother used to joke (I think it was joking?) that he gave away more than he sold and how could anyone run a business like that? Yet decades after my grandpa died, the lights are still on at his sausage booth and customers still stand in line for his special recipes.


My grandpa would smile at this story, but I bet it wouldn’t surprise him. His legacy had a tangible surface — glass countertops, bins of smokey meats, air thick with garlic and paprika. But the real gifts he left behind were kindness, dignity, and full bellies during hard times. That is no small thing, even thirty years later, when it forged a connection between two strangers in a sedan on an Arizona highway.



The West Side Market sausage stand. My grandpa is in the center. Photo credit Suzanne Johnson

 

Suzanne Johnson is a midwestern transplant who found home in the Cascade mountains of Oregon. She has been a science teacher, a soapmonger, and a beekeeper. As a writer, she loves to profile interesting people and dive into nature-related travel stories. Suzanne is currently working on a project related to turn-of-the-century women adventurers.

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