Before I was born, my grandfather — Robert Hayes Burns — lost his wife. As a widower, he bought a large red brick house at 124 N. Madison Ave. in La Grange for himself, his three daughters — Anne, Mary and Jeanne — and their husbands. Then the babies started coming: first my cousin Libby, Rich Port and Mary’s daughter; then my brother Rob; then me; then my little brother Carl.
What a household! It was like “You Can’t Take It With You” with explosions from the basement, pianos playing, constant guests, and ballerinas soaring through the living room. That’s an exaggeration, but oh my, the Christmases we had. I don’t know who was loaded with more personality, my grandpa or my Uncle Rich. The three women were always pseudo-mad at these two troublemakers, but we kids loved every minute.
I remember at one Christmas dinner, my grandpa was faking that he didn’t know how to use the newfangled squirt can of whipped cream, shaking it every which way, then blasting the ceiling with the stuff. There was an instant of awful silence, then gales and gales of laughter.
Uncle Rich was enormously funny too. He told me often that he had scads of nephews but that I was his only niece. This communal living situation lasted until I was 7, but it has shaped my life in so many good ways. I’m sure my cousin and brothers would agree.
Later when he became wealthy, he and my Aunt Mary bought a summer home on Delavan Lake in Wisconsin for a few years, then on Lake Geneva. Neither place was important to him unless it was filled with friends and family.
My own family was more modest financially, but we were at my aunt and uncle’s summer home so often that we kids always felt we were like the Kennedys at Hyannis Port. We water-skied all day, came in when the dinner bell rang (our moms did the cooking!), and just sat — happily mesmerized — as the grown-ups commenced the cocktail hour.
They were partying people, led by Uncle Rich. They did skits and parodies of songs, and they laughed their heads off. So did we. Even my quiet dad and shy Uncle Ed would crack up. Uncle Rich would lead such outrageous shenanigans from his centrally located recliner, just basking in being king of the castle. His generosity never, ever made this basking seem like arrogance. He simply was happiest when we were all there.
He called his wife “my Mary.” I thought that was so lovely. They always acted like the Bickersons, but once, after quite a few cocktails, they were standing in the living room kissing! We kids just giggled, but in the 1950s, to actually see such PDA was shocking.
He had such a great laugh, and he used it all the time. Libby, his daughter, was his delight, and later, when Cathy and Patty came along and made him a grandfather, he was over the moon.
All of us knew how important the La Grange YMCA was to Uncle Rich. We were all present at the banquet at which Rich and Mary presented their financial gift for the construction of the “Y” building that is now being torn down. More than 150 community leaders were present, and many took turns at the podium singing praises. Man, oh man, it was impressive. Even as a family member, I didn’t know half the stuff he founded, led, paid for and belonged to. He was quite a man.
Well, Uncle Rich, my parents and all their friends are gone now. We still talk about their parties and we greatly miss them. So during these weeks when I drive east on Ogden Avenue and come to the site of the demolition, I try not to look. My dad, Harold R. Ekroth, was the architect, and my Uncle Rich lent his dollars and his name to what was once a proud new structure.
Like the men behind it, the building has died, too. I just don’t want to watch.