“It was a time of sharing, a time of giving”
A Visit with Elinor Sluzas
I interviewed Elinor Sluzas at the Amber Rose restaurant, which she opened in a restored multi-story frame building on Valley Street in 1990. Formerly known as “Sig’s General Store,” it was built by Sigmund Ksiezopolski in 1912 and was for many years a social center for the Polish community. The Amber Rose is a destination restaurant. As Elinor said, “It’s not likely you’re going to be driving down Valley Street and say, “Oh, let’s go to the Amber Rose!” Its warm ambience reflected the personality of its owner. As we talked, music played softly in the background, diners communed contentedly over carefully prepared ethnic cuisine, and, occasionally, customers dropped by our table to say “hello” or to compliment Elinor on their special dining experience.
Elinor Dorothy Sluzas was born in 1928 to Anna Rapa and Frank Ambrose (or “Ambrosaitis” as it is in Lithuanian). Her mother wasborn in Kaunas, Lithuania. Her father was born in Old North Dayton. His father – Vincent Ambrosaitis – was one of a small group of Lithuanians who arrived in Dayton in 1887. Her parents married in 1924. Times were hard, particularly during the Depression years of the 1930s. Anna and Frank Ambrose were accustomed to hard times, however, and successfully combined intelligence with a solid work ethic and strong Catholic faith to build a life and raise children who knew how to meet life’s challenges head-on and have led successful adult lives.
For most of her growing up years, Elinor said, Old North Dayton was Dayton. She knew nothing of the bustling, noisy city that lay on the other side of the river. Her Dayton was small, self-contained, filled with family, friends and familiar places – and it was home.
Many of Elinor’s childhood memories center around Holy Cross Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church, one of four Catholic parishes clustered within a few blocks of each other in Old North Dayton. The growth of the “national” or “ethnic” parish was not viewed favorably by the Church for it put too many churches in proximity to each other. Church leaders finally bowed to the inevitable, realizing that if they were to keep parishioners within the Catholic fold the Church would have to accept the existence of these parishes. The first Roman Catholic Church in Old North Dayton was Our Lady of the Rosary, established in 1888 by the Germans who first settled in the area. This was the territorial parish and was the church which faced the enormous difficulties of meeting the needs of the Eastern Europeans immigrants when they arrived in Old North Dayton at the turn of the twentieth century. The oldest Eastern European ethnic parish is St. Adalbert’s Polish Catholic Church, established in 1903. St. Stephen’s Hungarian Catholic Church was established as a mission in 1912. Holy Cross Lithuanian Catholic Church, the primary cultural center of the Lithuanian community, was completed in 1915 and is located on Leo Street. For the immigrants these ethnic parishes became the strongest institutions for the preservation of cultural values, traditions, and language. They were comfort zones, places that helped bridge the old world with the new.
Although Elinor acknowledges some of the harsh realities of life in Old North Dayton, it is sharing and giving and the close ties of friends and neighbors that most colorsand defines her memories. She laughs as she remembers thebootlegging adventures that came out of the years of Prohibition, and smiles fondly as she recalls the Christmas traditions that her family continue to this very day. She is sharply aware that traditions draw us together and define our place in a world that – despite the internet and mass communication - has in many ways become more and more socially fragmented. Traditions allow us to reach back and reconnect to homelands and family left behind or long departed. They provide reference points for who we are and how we fit into the world. For Elinor,the Lithuanian language and culture, her Catholic faith,her shared history with family and old friends, and the making of new friends have made for a live well-lived and a level of contentment few people ever attain.
Elinor’s interview was animated, suffused with warm memories, and punctuated with frequent laughter. I could not capture that in the following text, but hope you will enjoy her story of life in the city’s largest ethnic community, Old North Dayton.
Ms. Sluzas: My name is Elinor Sluzas and I live in Old North Dayton.
CW: And when were you born?
Ms. Sluzas: I was born in 1928.
CW: And what was your mother’s name?
Ms. Sluzas: My mother’s name was Anna Rapa Ambrose. Or Ambrosaitis in Lithuanian.
CW: And your father?
Ms.Sluzas: My father’s name is Frank Ambrose. Ambrosaitis.
CW: Is there a difference between a married and an unmarried name in Lithuanian?
Ms. Sluzas: Yes. That’s why it’s often difficult to do a genealogy on [Lithuanian families] – I don’t know about other ethnic groups – but I know Lithuanian. [Family member last names had different endings making genealogy challenging]. Lithuanians would know that, but further down the line – my children, my grandchildren would not know that. I take that back. My children would but maybe not my grandchildren.
CW: And where was your mother born?
Ms. Sluzas: My mother was born in Kaunas, Lithuania.
CW: And your father?
Ms. Sluzas: My father was born here. However, his father – Vincent Ambrosaitis – came to Dayton, Ohio, with four other young men in 1887. They were the first five Lithuanians to come to Dayton, Ohio. And they settled here. They came to work at the Barney and Smith Car Works.
CW: And why did they leave Lithuania?
Ms. Sluzas:They left Lithuania because at that time the Czar, of course, you know, had control over Lithuania and Lithuania had been under the Russian rule for 200 years. And they were at the age where they would have to go into the Czar’s army, and they didn’t want that. And also they were young enough to be adventuresome enough. And at that time in Lithuania there was still a caste system. My mother would talk about [this period when] Lithuanians [were] enslaving their own people and so times were very hard and the gold of America was beckoning to these young men and so they left.
Interviewer: Did he ever intend to go back or did he intend to make a totally new life here?
Ms. Sluzas: No, they weren’t going back. They were not going back. This was what they were looking forward to and they intended to make [a life here]. He had a girlfriend in Lithuania whom he left behind. But then several years later he brought her over and they married here in Dayton, Ohio. [That was] my grandmother, my paternal grandmother. But my mother came here in 1914 and she was thirteen years old. It was the year after the flood. And she came with her mother because my maternal grandfather had come to the United States two years earlier in 1911 to work. And see from 1887 when my paternal grandfather came here with these four other young men, by the time my grandfather came here there were probably a hundred people already from Lithuania here. It’s funny how news travels across – even when there was no mass media for fast communication. You know, letters went back and forth and they found their way to Dayton, Ohio, through the roots that these young men put down.
CW: Were they relatives of your father?
Ms. Sluzas:Some were. Some were. And also of these other young men. And my father was born here. I don’t want to confuse the whole story, but my paternal grandfather came as a single man, brought over his fiancée several years later. She went to work at the Beckel Hotel [in downtown Dayton] in the laundry. And when she and he earned enough money they married and then they saved their money and she brought her two brothers over who they in turn brought their…you know, I mean this just boomed. And in all of this time when my father’s family was growing here, then my mother came over as a young girl. She was thirteen. Her father came two years earlier, worked at the Barney & Smith Car Works, earned money, brought his wife and daughter over. He settled on Deeds Avenue. And see, my whole life has been here in Dayton, Ohio, and I’ve always lived in Old North Dayton. I also lived on Deeds Avenue for a little while. Then we moved up to Grant Street and that’s where I still live.
CW: Did your mother ever talk about the trip over?
Ms. Sluzas: Yes, she did. Yes, she did. In fact, she said that they left from Bremen on a German ship and I have a fork from that ship that she stole and put it in her little knapsack. And to me that’s the most treasured piece that I have. And my mother passed away just two years ago. And this is what – 1998 – and my mother was 93 when she died. And she often talked about when she and her mother came over by ship, of course, and their departure was delayed because they discovered that my mother had what she called “trachoma” which was an eye disease. And I think the name for trachoma in English is what – something similar to that. “Trachoma” was what she called it, and she said they actually cauterized the inside of each one of her eyes to get rid [of it] – so she said they wanted to leave her behind and my grandmother said, “No, I’ll stay with her until that condition is cleared up.” And then they would leave by ship and come over. So after about six weeks then she was able to leave and that’s when they came over to the United States. However, they came in through Philadelphia. They did not come in through New York. And my mother talked about when they arrived in Philadelphia it took them quite a few hours to be filtered through all of immigration and all of the testing and everything. And she said when they finally put them on a train bound for the wild west of Dayton, Ohio, she said it was nighttime and she looked out of the window and she saw all the smoke and fire belching from the chimney stack and she said it just scared her to death and she looked up and here was a black porter and she had never seen a black person in her entire life. And she thought, “We’re headed straight to hell!” And that’s how she felt because in Lithuania they have a museum of devils – a devil museum – it’s still there – a very, very prominent museum – all kinds of wood carvings. And she said most times it’s depicted in black. My mother never was prejudiced when she understood that there were other kinds of people in this world. You know, there was no television. They never got a newspaper because they were very poor. They lived on a farm. I mean, they didn’t even own the farm. It was like a collective farm at that time. So her worldliness was nothing. So when she saw the black man she associated that with what she had been taught as a little girl. So she was scared to death. She said she buried her face in her mother’s lap and just cried until she fell asleep.
And then when she came to Dayton, Ohio, her father met them at the train station. In fact, I even wrote a story about my mother’s life when she first came here and until she died and it was [published] in a Lithuanian magazine. And in that [story] she talked about when she saw her daddy in his baggy suit, she ran to meet him and he opened up his little old gnarled hand and he handed her a little brown wrapped package and she opened it up and it was chocolate and she’d never seen it or eaten chocolate. And she said, “I tasted that chocolate and it was my first taste of America and it was very sweet!” And then my grandfather had a room for them on Deeds Avenue and that’s where they lived.
And then, as a child she belonged to Holy Cross Church. And in the meantime, my father was born here, you know, because his parents were the ones that were in 1887. So my father was born here and oddlyenough by the time he and my mother started going together – I mean they saw each other at church because everything happened at church – their center, their life, their focus was at Holy Cross Church because that was Lithuanian. And the neighborhood was Lithuanian. That’s what they knew. But my father, as I started to say, oddly enough spoke very little Lithuanian until my mother and he started [going to the Lithuanian church]. It wasn’t fashionable to speak Lithuanian so they always tried to speak English. And so then when he started going with my mother then the Lithuanian sort of came back and then he was back into his Lithuanian mode and learned the language.
CW: When she came here did she go to work or to school?
Ms. Sluzas: She went to school for probably a week. See, neither of her parents spoke English and she said it was very difficult and at that time people weren’t as tolerant of immigrants. I mean, there was no job waiting for her father when he came here. He had to find a job. He had a friend here who took him in, but then he had to go find a job. [He] couldn’t speak the language. And so in school she couldn’t speak the language. So she said she finally just quit going to school and she would go and sit by the river and when the sun was starting to go into the west she figured, “Well, I guess it’s time to go home,” and so she’d meander home.
CW: How long did she do this?
Ms. Sluzas: I guess for a couple of weeks. And then she finally told her mother that she would work, she would do anything but she couldn’t [go to school.] So then she worked on a farm until she was old enough to get a job in a cigar factory. And that was when she was about thirteen – fourteen – fifteen. She came here when she was thirteen. So she piddled around on the farm, maybe for a year, and then after that she got a job in a cigar factory. She worked at Mazer’s primarily. As my mother described it, the cigar making companies were located on East Third Street, pretty much where Lott’s Paper is, that was one of them and several others were in that area. And she said that they would go from one cigar company to another where they could get more money and that’s how they worked. They just kept going around and around and until she married that’s where she worked – at a cigar factory.
CW: Did she stop working after she married?
Ms. Sluzas: She worked for a while. She worked for a while. But then my father bought a grocery store on Maryland Avenue and they lost it after about two years because then the Depression hit, see. And we moved out into the country, and at that time my father was working at – can’t think of the name of the tool company – the building is still there on First Street – it’s vacant – International Tool. International Tool – that’s where he worked. And then they lost their house on Old Troy Pike. And then we moved in with my grandparents – my maternal grandparents on Deeds Avenue and we lived there for a couple of years until we moved up on Grant Street.
CW: When did your parents marry?
Ms. Sluzas: 1924. And my older sister was born in 1926 and I was born April 17, 1928. And I tell you, until I was twelve years old I didn’t know that there was a downtown. The bridge was my limitation and this was Dayton, Ohio. Old North Dayton was Dayton, Ohio. I mean, we had everything we needed. We had grocery stores galor. We had a dime store. We had dry goods stores. We had a three-floor department store. Had a theater. We had ice cream shops, beauty shops, undertaker, doctors, dentists. There was probably a brothel or two somewhere. But I didn’t know of those things – I didn’t know there was such a thing. It was wonderful to grow up here. I used to love to go up and down Troy Street and Valley Street with my grandmother early Saturday morning. And she never had a shopping bag; she always had a grocery basket and she’d put her eggs in there and she’d get this and she’d get that. And it was great fun! It really was a time of innocence.
By that time, you know, Barney & Smith Car Works was done – so my grandfather and a lot of these early immigrants who had worked at the Barney & Smith Car Works were now working in the foundries here in Old North Dayton. And they worked so hard, and my grandfather – I’ll never forget the one day he came home from work and he had a rag wrapped around his hand and he came in and he said to my father, “Frank, you have to take me to the doctor’s.” Of course, he said it in Lithuanian. “You have to take me to the doctor’s. I hurt my hand.” And so my mother said, “Well, let’s look at it.” So she unwrapped it and his middle finger, he had cut it off to the first knuckle. And he had that part of his finger in his pocket. He worked all day. He worked all day, and when he came home he told my dad to take him to the doctor. Well, of course, they couldn’t reattach it. And in those days I don’t know if they had taken him right away [if] they could have done anything because they didn’t know. Modern medicine is just a miracle now. And so until the day he died he was missing [that part of his finger] from the first knuckle up. But the work ethics were absolutely astounding. They drank hard, they played hard, and they worked hard.
I knew an awful lot of people who had stills who made their own booze. My grandfather did. My grandmother did on both sides – paternal and maternal. They had great times! Very few people had automobiles and those who did were very generous – like Sunday after church everybody’d pile in the cars and we’d drive out to Miller’s Grove for a picnic or over by the river and they’d make a couple trips and bring everybody. Everybody’d share their food. Everybody’d share their home brew. It really was, as I said, a time of innocence and a wonderful time of friendship and trust and sharing that we’ll never see ever again. And it’s sad that my children have not been exposed to that.
CW: Where was Miller’s Grove?
Ms. Sluzas: I’ll tell you the truth – I don’t know. But everybody went to Miller’s Grove.
CW: So where did you go to school?
Ms. Sluzas: I went to Our Lady of the Rosary. And that was another thing, too. My sister, Mary Ann, who was two years older than me was already at Our Lady of the Rosary and it came time to sign up for children to go to school and we went to Our Lady of the Rosary. And we were very poor and Father Taske - Henry Taske was his name – he was cigar-smoking – my idea of a real priest because money didn’t enter into the picture. I mean that was no excuse for you not sending your children to a Catholic school. Even if you couldn’t afford it he made room. And when we got there to sign up for first day of school the nun said, “Well, I’m sorry, but the class is filled and we can’t take you.” So my father thought, well, you know, that he’d have to sign me up in a neighborhood school. And Father Taske saw my father as we were leaving and he said, “Well, I’m glad to see you’ve got another one here.” And my dad told him the story and he said, “Oh, no, we’ll make room.” So they opened another half a classroom for the children who would not have been able to come. So I spent my first and second grade in the same classroom. There was one full first grade, and then a second grade that had half a class of first and half a class of second.
And then they say when Father Taske died that in books and things that he used to read or in the Bible they’d find a little bit of money tucked away here, tucked away there that he would help people with – I mean, poor families, he was always, always there to give a helping hand. And so many of the kids who went to school at Our Lady of the Rosary called him “Papa Taske”. He was a tough taskmaster as far as discipline and that sort of thing, but he ruled with a velvet glove. He was very father-like, PopTaske-like. And yet my family belonged to two parishes. We belonged to Holy Cross because Holy Cross was a Lithuanian church. And up until – from the first grade to the eighth grade – I’ll bet I was not at the service at Holy Cross Church more than a dozen times because we had to go every Sunday and drop in our little envelope at Our Lady of the Rosary even if it was a nickel or a dime. We had to be there to show our respect and our allegiance to Our Lady of the Rosary. But now I belong to Holy Cross.
CW: So where did you go to school after eighth grade?
Ms. Sluzas: I went to Kiser High School. Because at that time my parents were still in very bad financial straits [and] could not afford to send us and pay ninety dollars a year to go to Julienne. [This was the girls’ Catholic high school]. That was a lot of money at that time. So my sister, Mary Ann, and I and Rose Ann, the third sister in our family, we all went to Kiser. And then my sister, Rita, and my brother – between the oldest and the youngest there are twelve years difference so by the time my sister, Rita, and my brother, Frank, went to school my father was able to pay tuition for them to go to Julienne and later St. Joseph’s for Rita because that was the commercial school. And my brother went to Chaminade [Dayton’s Catholic high school for boys].
CW: What were summers like?
Ms. Sluzas: What were summers like? Summers were wonderful! We used to play outdoors and, of course, there was no air conditioning. All the windows were open, screens on the windows. We used to play hide-and-seek. We used to play kick-the-can. We’d go play through alleys. You have to understand my mother on Saturday mornings, when daddy and mom would go to the market house downtown and then they would go out on the West Side to the street market and then they would go over by the library where there was a street market. In the morning while they were gone doing that sort of thing,we had to clean the house, we had to sweep the alley. I mean, those alleys were clean alleys! So when we played at night, there wasn’t trash and everything all over the alleys. We played in the alleys, we played in the yards, and then sometimes my girlfriends and I would just lay in the grass – sounds corny – but we’d lay in the grass and look up at the sky and make figures out of the clouds and talk about what we were going to do when we grew up, how we were going to buy a car, and we were going to travel all over the world. I mean these were just pipe dreams, but they were wonderful childish, innocent dreams. And it was just very exciting.
And then in the summer, of course, everybody had a garden. Here in Old North Dayton, everyone had a garden. The front yards were just beautiful flowers and shrubs and well-kept, but the back yards – and I can speak from experience on Deeds Avenue, my grandmother – we lived at 318 Deeds Avenue – and my grandmother’s back yard was from fence-to-fence garden. And it was interesting how they made their beds. They actually mounded up the dirt and then made pathways between these long mounds of dirt and there were straight rows of radishes and lettuce and green onions and cabbage and kohlrabi and potatoes and tomatoes and cucumbers – it was beautiful. Of course, we had to go out and we had to weed – that’s why everything looked so perfect.
And then there was a cement slab that today we would call a patio, but there was a cement slab that was poured in the back yard right next to a well and then there was a grape arbor over that cement slab. And of course, we had the grapes so that we could make the wine and the jellies. So much of that went for jellies, so much of that went for the wine. And then in the summertime – I guess really in the spring when the dandelions first came up, before they came to flower, we had to go out and dig dandelions for salad. That’s before the garden really – it was just starting to come up – we had to dig dandelions for the salad. Then later in the summer before they went to fur balls (for want of a better word), the dandelion blossoms were plucked off to make dandelion wine. And you don’t use the whole blossom. All you had to do was – we’d have to strip the yellow from the green and only the yellow went into the pot with the oranges and the lemons and the cinnamon and the cardamom and so my father made dandelion wine.
You know nothing was wasted. My mother used to make lettuce soup and wonderful soups. And she made cherry soup. Now if you get a French cookbook you’ll find that there are those kinds of soups. And at that time that was peasant food. Then you had chickens and you had ducks. And August, I always say, was my favorite month because you could walk down the street, and you could smell pungent smells of ketchup or peaches being canned. And then in the fall toward the end of summer, early fall,my mother would can pears and my father would make wine from pears. And then of course the ice man came around.
See, I tell everyone I think I was raised in the most exciting time in the twentieth century. I remember horse and buggies yet I saw a man walk on the moon. And in between that time was all the wonderful things – the forties music and, of course, World War II. I was in the eighth grade when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and I’ll never forget that Sunday. We went to benediction at Our Lady of the Rosary because I was in the eighth grade then and toward the end of the service someone walked out from the sacristy of the church and whispered something to Father Taske. He turned around and he announced to all of us who were in church that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. And I’m thinking, “Pearl Harbor – is that in northern Michigan? Or is it part of California?” But what did we know? I never knew anything about Pearl Harbor. You know Hawaii wasn’t even the fiftieth state yet. From then on our lives took on a different feel. I mean patriotism had never been as strong as from that time on. And even to this day I’m a great flag-waving patriot because in 1945right before the end of the Japanese part of the war was when Tony Stein was killed on Hiroshima and he’s Dayton’s only Congressional Medal of Honor winner. And he lived at 424 Alaska Street in my neighborhood. There was a boy who gave his life for this country, for his fellow man, and he was my neighbor. So a lot of these things have colored my life, have colored my feeling for this neighborhood, and also for this country. I’m a terrible flag-waver, flag-waving patriot, and yet I’m very proud of my ethnic background because I think the ethnic backgrounds of all of us is what made this country great.
CW: Can you tell me about Holy Cross and what it was like going there growing up?
Ms. Sluzas: I can go back when my mother and father were growing up there. Holy Cross Church at its peak had about 300 families, 300 Lithuanian families, a lot of children, everybody had a lot of kids. And when my mother and father were still young, every evening there was some social activity going on at Holy Cross Church. They had a girls’ sewing club, and the woman who came and taught them to sew and to crochet was not a Lithuanian – her last name was Foche [sp] -I think her name was Irene Foche. And she was part of the Foche family – that was a Foche packing house here in Dayton I think on Springfield Street. I believe it was on Springfield Street. But anyway, Irene Foche came and taught the young girls the fine art of crocheting, of seamstressing, of knitting, and she was very instrumental in teaching a lot of our young girls to become very good seamstresses. And one of the girls that she taught was Ann Servaitis and Anne Servaitis married Michael Hauer, and Anne Servaitis made some of our young girls’ wedding gowns.
CW: How do you spell her last name?
Ms. Sluzas: S-E-R-V-A-I-T-I-S. And then they also had a group called “Ratonas” [sp] which means “the wheel.” And it was a theatrical group and they put on all kinds of plays and they made their own costumes and in the basement of Holy Cross Church was a stage with a roll-down curtain like you see on some of the old Western movies in the saloons, you know – the theaters in the saloons with the roll-up curtain that had all kinds of advertising on it and I remember that. I remember all this advertising printed on this roll-down curtain. And then, of course, they had a choir and they had a dance group. And they made their own costumes. And my mother was a member of that dance group. And there was also a group that took charge of raising money to help Lithuania because in 1918 Lithuania regained her freedom from the Czarist regime. And after 200 years of occupation and they kept their freedom until the Nazis overran Eastern Europe in 1939. So their freedom was short-lived. But the Lithuanians here in Dayton in 1918 were sending a lot of money and help over to them. They weren’t going back. Some went back to visit but they did not stay. They came back to the United States because they had already found a good life even though according to our standards today, they were still very poor, but when you’re free I think that sort of overrides the poorness of it. And I’m not implying that they were poverty-stricken but they learned how to live on meager wages. However, the one thing that was uppermost in the lives and the minds of these immigrants was education for their children. And that was paramount. And most of them lived to see their children get good educations, get good jobs and continue their dream.
CW: Where do you think they came up with the concept of education as they came off of farms in rural Lithuania?
Ms. Sluzas: Because they were deprived of that right themselves. They did not have the opportunity to go to school. Yet they could see what education did for others and what the lack of education cost them. See, they were not educated in – my mother talked about the – I don’t want to use the word “abuse” but the discrimination over in Lithuania when she was a little girl – she came from a poor farm family and didn’t have the background to become a super citizen. I mean, that was her place and that was her place. Where here, that may have been her place at one time, but she was free to become better if she had the education - if she had the opportunity for higher education. And that’s what they saw for their children.
My father died when he was only fifty-three years old and my mother lived to be ninety-three. And I always say that my mother was the smartest woman I ever met with only four years of formal education. She was an avid reader. She read everything she could get her hands on. She read and read and read. And she always told us that nothing is impossible. If you look at each person as a world to themself, you cannot penetrate their mind. You cannot penetrate their thoughts on anything, and as long as your body is healthy and your mind is healthy your little world can become whatever you want it to be. And that’s true. Each one of us is a world within ourselves. I don’t know you and you don’t know me. We’re friends, but what is in here, what is in your world is something totally different – even your own husband cannot [know]. And my mother used to instill so many wonderful ideas in our minds that have stayed with me all these years and I’m going to be seventy years old in April.
Another thing that was uppermost in my mother’s mind, and I think it’s because when they came here, other people shared with them. It was a time of sharing, a time of giving. She said sure there were several people who were miserly but they died that way. They died very, very unhappy and alone. But I have to share one thing my mother used to say:
Go break with others sweet charity’s bread
for giving is living the angel said,
But must I give again and again without ever stopping?
Oh, no, said the angel, with yourself be true,
Just give ‘til the Lord stops giving to you.”
And that’s how my mother lived. So I say I come from really humble beginnings, but a very rich legacy, a very rich legacy. My mom was just special. And I think a lot of people say that about their mothers.
CW: What was a Christmas celebration like?
Ms. Sluzas: Well, Christmas was Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve was our Christmas. I’ll tell you some of my childhood memories and then I’ll tell you today’s Christmas Eve. And we still celebrate it that way. Christmas Eve is Christmas for all of us, even my children and my grandchildren. None of our children or grandchildren have missed Christmas Eve at my mother’s house ever. Ever! Ever! My son came from California when he had to come by bus, and my nephews and their wives always come over to Gram’s. Even though my mother’s dead not two years we still do that. But anyway, I digress. My earliest remembrances of Christmas Eve when I was a little girl – that’s when we were living on Old Troy Pike before we lost that house and moved into Deeds Avenue. We were in the living room, we had a little Christmas tree, there was no rug on the floor, and there came a knock on the door and my father opened the door and here was Santa Claus! Now, picture this, Santa stood about five feet tall, spoke Lithuanian, loaded to the gills, came staggering into the house, plopped down a pillowcase that had something in it, but this was Santa Claus. You know, in a child’s eyes. And I’d never seen Santa Claus. We didn’t go down to Rike’s [department store]; I didn’t know there was a Rike’s. Here I’m – what – four years old, five years old at the most, but this is a memorable Christmas because Santa opened this pillowcase – it was the Depression – we were on welfare – not welfare – relief. We were on relief. Santa opened his bag and brought out a pair of roller skates, gave one skate to my sister and one skate to me. And then a little metal cannon that shot little rubber balls and that’s my most memorable…no, that’s not my most memorable Christmas. That’s one of my most memorable Christmases. The following year, in the meantime, we’d lost this house out in the country, moved in with my grandparents. This is my most memorable Christmas.
In that house at 318 Deeds Avenue was a living room, a dining room, one bedroom, a large kitchen, and a toilet room – it didn’t have a sink in it – it had a toilet. That was it. We took a bath in the galvanized tub in the kitchen. We had to put hot water in and the last one to take a bath got the murky water. We kept adding water to it, but the last one who took the bath got the murky water. But anyway, this is Christmas Eve day and Mother said, “Well, we all have to go to confession.” We went in and I had just received my first communion that Mother’s Day – no it wasn’t Mother’s Day, it was April the 19th when I received my first Holy Communion. But anyway, this was the first Christmas. So we had to go to confession and coming home Mother said, “Oh, we’d better hurry and start getting the food ready for “kucios” which is the food that you prepare for Christmas Eve.
So we go home to the house on Deeds Avenue and my sister and I decided we would wash our purses so they would be clean to take to church at Midnight Mass because we never missed Midnight Mass. And we had string purses. They were like crocheted string purses with the little metal across the top – a little snap. So we washed our purses and we hung them over the register on a broomstick between two chairs and as time went on we were helping mom get the food ready for the dinner. We had our kucios mealwhich is traditionally for the entire family. And then you set a place for those who are not able to be with us; either they’re dead or they live somewhere else – but that’s for the missing person in the family. And on the table were some apples and some nuts and we had herring and we had fish and we had peas so that you won’t shed too many tears the next year. Apples were for good health and also was a reminder of the first Eve, of Adam and Eve and that Mary was the new Eve who was bringing redemption through bringing Christ into the world. And bread and raisin bread. There had to be twelve dishes on the table in memory of the twelve apostles. And in the center of the table was a crucifix, not a nativity scene, but had there not been a Crucifixion there never would have been a redemption.
So we did all of this and then getting ready to go to Midnight Mass, we went to get our purses and Mary Ann started to cry. I said, “What’s the matter?” And I went over and rust had run down on our purses. They were all rusty and we cried because our purses were ruined. And Mother said, “Well, that will be alright. The good Lord understands you did your best. We’re all cleaned up, we’re going to go to church. So we all walked up to Holy Cross Church ‘cause we went there on Christmas and to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass and always Resurrection Mass on Easter morning.
So after that we came home and hung up our lyle stockings. You know what lyle stockings are, they’re heavy, like rayon, stockings. We hung those up on the drawers of the sewing machine ‘cause standing on the sewing machine was a little Christmas tree that we had decorated – a live little Christmas tree. So on the drawers of the sewing machine my sister and I each hung a stocking. So then the next morning we woke up and we went out to see what Santa brought us, ‘cause the year before, you know, we’d each gotten a skate and a cannon, and this year were two packages, one for Mary Ann and one for me and our stockings had stuff in them. And we opened our packages and in my package was a black patent leather purse with the initials “E.D.A” for Elinor Dorothy Ambrose and my sister’s big silver initials – not silver of course – “M.A.A.” Mary Ann Ambrose. And we each got a brand new purse for Christmas. And to me that is the best Christmas I ever had!
And then, of course, we dumped out our stockings, and in the stockings was our traditional Christmas orange and tangerine. That was the only time of year except in the summer – in the winter you never got oranges, ever, ever. We never did. And the tangerine and some hard tack candy and some filberts because filberts are the Lithuanian nut. So that was that Christmas.
Now, presents have changed, the Christmas trees are larger, the table that is set is much more elaborate, the foods that we eat are much more elaborate, but still we do not eat meat on Christmas Eve. We do not eat meat on Christmas Eve. A lot of people do, I mean we’re allowed to, you know it used to be that Catholics fasted Christmas Eve, but they don’t do that anymore. But my family we still do all the seafoods, only now we have shrimp where we didn’t before, and we have several kinds of fish, and a fruit compote – although my grandmother used to make the dried fruit compote, too – with orange juice now we put in it where my grandmother just put the dried fruit and some water and cooked it. But we do a little more elaborately and we, of course, have champagne. But the one thing that I neglected to mention, the most important part of the kucios – the Christmas Eve dinner – was the wafer that was about 3” x 6”, and it’s the communion wafer, only in a sheet form and embossed on that is a scene from the Christmas story. And before the meal starts, the father reads the Christmas gospel and then we say a prayer for everyone there and then for those who are no longer with us. Then we break this bread with one another - we walk around sharing it with one another and tell each other we love you and if I hurt your feelings this year I’m sorry and hope we have a better year. And then we start our meal. That is really the most important part of our kucios.
SIDE 2– The tape begins in the middle of a discussion about making home brew in Old North Dayton during the days of Prohibition.
Ms. Sluzas: …making up all of this homemade liquor, some make beer, a lot of them made the beer, but the actual liquor, a lot of them still made that. They had their stills buried in the backyard and one time one of them – they were cooking in the kitchen and it all blew up and the [hot] mash landed on the bald heads of the men and they had third degree burns but were afraid to go to the doctor ‘cause they’d be reported ‘cause they were bootlegging.
Some of them were very creative. (I could mention names but I don’t think I should ‘cause now some of the family’s still living). But they had a store and they had a stove in the kitchen with the spigots to turn on the gas [but it was actually] an inoperable stove because it had been rigged so when you turned on the spigots the gas didn’t turn on, [instead] the liquor came flowing through the [spigots], you know, underneath the nozzles for their booze. And everybody would come and have a good time.
Then I remember the time that my father used to frequent a bootlegger on Notre Dame Avenue just a few doors down from the rectory and the school. I know his name, too, but I don’t think I should give his name, although I think he and all of his family areprobably gone. But anyway, my father got into his Willys Knight car – that’s when we still lived out on Old Troy Pike – and my mom said, “Take Elinor and Mary Ann with you.” So we went along and stayed in the car and it was colder than the bejeebers and someone had given us some used shoes and I had a pair of tap shoes on. They were in this bag of shoes; they were too tight on my feet and here we’re in the car waiting for my father. And my feet were so cold and we had tight shoes on. And see, I remember that so vividly ‘cause I thought my feet were going to fall off. And my father didn’t come out and didn’t come out and the keys were in the ignition, or the starter, I guess, and so I took those out and I’m playing with them and I dropped them between the floorboards; they fell down under the car. Pretty soon here came my father reeling out of the house, drunk as a skunk, had to crank the car, couldn’t find the keys, and I finally ‘fessed up that I had dropped them through these floorboards, and meantime my sister, Mary Ann’s crying in the back seat, my feet are frozen, and we go home and my father said, “Don’t tell, don’t tell mommy I’ve got something here,” ‘cause he came out with a sack and he put it in his pocket. Anyway, my mother used to have us go through the barn out on Old Troy Pike and root around in the chicken coop to find where my dad had stashed his booze ‘cause he had a very serious drinking problem at that time. And she would dump most of it out and fill the rest up with tea and we’d have to put it back where we found it. And my father used to get in more fights with – Bennie Bedrosky [sp] was his name – because his booze was no good! And he lived on Notre Dame Avenue.
Isn’t that funny how I remember certain things that don’t amount to anything, but they did to me. And I remember sitting on the porch – now, since we lost this house on Old Troy Pike and moved in on Deeds Avenue – my mother every once in a while would give Mary Ann and I each a penny and we would walk down to Schautz’s [sp] dry goods store on Troy Street and get a little sampler to embroider. For a penny! And I remember sitting on the porch – they had a swing on chains – and we used to swing when it was raining on the porch and embroider our little penny samplers. I never was an embroiderer but I remember those because they were warm fuzzy rainy days, sitting on the porch doing that.
And then across the street from us on Deeds Avenue lived Rose Bovaand her father and mother and sister, Anna, and Rose married an Annarino later in life. But we went to grade school and high school together and her father was a fruit peddler. Mr. Bova used to drive his truck around selling fruit. I used to love to go over there on Friday evenings ‘cause he would get all of his fresh fruits in and he would be throwing away the fruit that was left over from before and they would give me stuff to take home. So I made it a practice to go over there. See, I was a busybody even then! So I would go over there and they would give us fruit and I’d take it home and my mother would trim off all of the rotten stuff and we’d have fruit that we normally could not buy.
And another thing, two doors from us lived the Koniski family or “Konicki” as it’s known. [Spelling uncertain]. And Josephine and Irene were good friends of ours except when we got in fights. And Josephine married Gene Jablinski who is now a prominent attorney here in Dayton. And he lived here in Old North Dayton, too. But I used to love to go over to the Konicki’s house on Monday or Tuesdays because Mrs. Konicki always used to make thick hamburgers and my mother never made hamburger. I think the reason my mother never did [was] because we lived with my grandparents and my grandmother was the house mother and I tell everybody that my mother was a wonderful cook, but I don’t remember her cooking in those young years ‘cause my grandmother did [all the cooking]. But my grandmother was a lousy cook – that’s when I was thin. If it wasn’t boiled it wasn’t cooked. So anything that she cooked was boiled. So I used to love to go over to the Konicki’s because Mrs. Konicki would give me a hamburger. And one day when I came home my mother said, “Where have you been?” “Oh, I don’t know. I was out playing.” She says, “You were over at Konicki’s again, weren’t you?” And I said, “No.” “Yes, you were. Yes, you were.” So then I got a whippin’ and I had to kneel and pray. To me the whipping was nothing, but when we had to pray we always had to pray ‘cause we hurt God’s feelings and that really bothered me. But then my mother told me she could always tell that I was at the Konicki’s house because on my nose were little black grid marks from the screen door. I’d stand with my nose up against the screen and tell Mrs. Konicki, “Oh, my mommy can’t cook. You’re such a good cook!” And she used to always feed me. And one day my mother was talking to Mrs. Konicki as neighbors do and my mother found out and my mother was furious so that time is when she really nailed me. I don’t think I went back for hamburger after that. But she did make wonderful hamburgers.
CW: After high school, Elinor, what did you do?
Ms. Sluzas: After high school? Well, wait a while. During World War II, well, I lied about my age. My girlfriend, Kitty, and I went downtown and looked for a job. And it was easier to find work because all the men were in the service, you know, and they needed help. So we applied for a job at Adler and Child’s [Department Store]. And we worked in the cashier’s office, upstairs on the sixth floor at Adler & Child’s. And it’s funny that I remember at that time all cash transactions were handled through pneumatic tubes. Everything went up the floors up to that line of cashiers. You opened up the little metal [tube] like you find in banks – only they have big ones now that you send your money through, you know, when you go through a drive-through, but these were little ones and you opened them up and here was the sales slip with a twenty dollar bill or whatever was needed to cover that. You made the change, took off the bottom slip, put that in there and put the change in and sent it back down through these pneumatic tubes. So Kitty and I worked there all during the war, and we were downtown during V-E Day and V-J Day, kissed everybody under the sun, had a great time. And that’s why I tell everybody I love to reminisce because those were such exciting times. Wonderful times!
I never thought – I’ll tell you the honest to God’s truth, either I was stupid, I was green as grass and twice as stupid. I had never heard of homosexuality. I had never heard of rape. Now imagine that! And this was 1946. Because I didn’t realize, I honestly did not know that I should be afraid of a lot of these things. Maybe because there still was not that much mass communication because we had a radio, we didn’t have a television yet. My father used to take us to the Lithuanian Club because they had a TV and we used to go and watch Milton Berle on Monday nights, I think, or Tuesday nights. [And we saw Sid Caesar]. And those were the only two things we saw on TV until we gota television years later. I think modern technology and all this mass communication is wonderful stuff, but I’d rather not have it. I think the amplification of violence is very destructive. We had a saloon on every other corner and there were fights, but never a knife, never a gun. It was fist fighting. So how did all of this come about? What brought all of this violence out? You know, now a lot of it they say comes from abused children, and it’s just a continuation of that violence, and maybe it’s when – maybe I’m not going to be very popular when I say this – but when women all went back to work. I think that changed American life. ‘Cause my mama never did. Only a couple years that she had to at the very beginning but as long as I can remember she never worked away from home. She never worked away from home. Mama was always there. And we always had family dinner. No excuse, absolutely no excuse – five o’clock we had to eat dinner. And everybody’d better be there. Sat down to eat dinner, said grace, ate dinner, sat there ‘til everyone was finished. And then we said a grace after meal, then you could [go]. But I don’t know, I guess modern technology is wonderful – the year 2000 what’s going to happen when all the computers go on the fritz? Maybe we’ll go back to the good old days. I’m being silly now but they were good old days for me. A lot of the friends I made when I was young at Our Lady of the Rosary are still my very best friends and we were all so poor.
CW: Did you go on to school after you graduated?
Ms. Sluzas: I did not. I was going to go. In fact I was accepted at Ohio Wesleyan [College – now a university], and I was going to go and I was going to take home economics. My father had a fit, he says, “Stay home and learn to cook by your mother.” And he absolutely would not let me. So I didn’t. And see, another thing too, higher education was fine. They believed in twelve years of school, and then they believed [in] higher [education] for the men. “You stay home, you’re going to get married. It’s going to be wasted money. You’re going to get married. You’re going to raise a family and you don’t need to go to college. You’ve got a nice education, you’re smart, and you learn things about keeping a home and being a good wife and being a good Christian, you don’t need anymore.”
CW: Now, you worked in advertising.
Ms. Sluzas: Yes, I did. For thirty-seven years. And I’ll tell you, I don’t know if opportunities are there today the way they were years ago. You know, the idea of a good employee is someone who stays for a long time. That’s what it used to be. But now when opportunities arise at other places, you know, they say “Well, that person is very aggressive because they’re moving from job to job.” Well, before if you moved from job to job you were not dependable. But I’ll say one thing, at the time that I worked for Yeck Brothers, and that was for thirty-seven years, they were wonderful to me. They were of the old school, the two brothers, John and Bill Yeck, and they still have the company and they’re in their mid to late eighties, God bless ‘em, but they I had, I feel, a paternal attitude toward their employees which I don’t think in today’s society a lot of people would say is good. But it was good for me. They understood I raised my children myself. My daughter was only nine months old, my son was seven. They were very good to me. They paid me what they felt I needed. However, they also let me come in late when my father was very ill ‘cause they knew I had to help my mother so I could come in at ten or eleven o’clock and I had to take two buses to get to work. Other than that I was never late. I mean work ethics then were different. And whenever I had to go to school for anything or volunteer for school activities or be involved with my children, they were very, very receptive to that. So I have nothing but good to say about those two men. They’re very Christian, very, very moral, no hanky-panky, anything with any employees, and they will not put up with it. So they’re just two super nice guys. And by the time I left there I was making good money. But they sort of made sure that they paid you what you needed and maybe no more. But as I say by the time there I left I was making very good money and they were very good to me and I dearly love those men and I wish there were a lot more people like them around.
CW: How did you go to work for them?
Ms. Sluzas: This was in 1952. In 1952 you could still work your way up through the ranks. Rarely did anyone know if you had a degree or not. Who cared? They saw good people, they saw potential in people and they started you down here and you worked your way up. I mean I started out as a receptionist and I worked my way into an account executive. But that’s what I think is missing today. It isn’t necessarily the person who has potential that is recognized for that potential. It’s the person with the degree who can’t spell their middle name oftentimes who will move into positions that could very easily be filled by someone who’s given a chance. And that’s what they did for me. They were very, very good that way.
CW: Tell me a little bit about starting this restaurant. What gave you the idea?
Ms. Sluzas: My mother. She used to say, “You know, Elinor, you’re such a good cook and we’ve got such good recipes someday you’re gonna just have to have a restaurant.” And I’d say, “Yeah, I guess I will one day. One of these days maybe I’ll do a restaurant. Someday.Someday.” Well, you know my mother had no money. She died leaving nothing and she lived her life, gave everything away. She left the way she came, only with more. That’s another thing my mother used to say, “The only thing you take with you when you die is what you have given away.” The good Lord’s not going to ask you to show him your bank book at the gates. He’s already going to know what you have in your bank. So anyway she used to say, “Well, some day” and then that’s what I picked up on, someday, if the good Lord willing, if the opportunity arises, I don’t know, it’d take a miracle, but I’ll do it. And that’s what it was. It was a miracle that I was put into this position. And I’m forever grateful and I like to be able to say that I can help people a little bit, too. [Thatwas in] 1989 actually, and then we had the fire. We actually opened in 1990. It’s been a lot of hard work. A lot of wonderful people. And see, that’s another thing, too. I always thought that I would want it to be in Old North Dayton ‘cause this is where my roots are and the people are good here. And I thought, if I have an opportunity this is what I want to do.
CW: You’ve also done a great marketing job with it. Because where you are, this is not the easiest place to get to.
Ms. Sluzas: No, it isn’t. No, it isn’t. It absolutely is a destination restaurant. You have to know you’re coming here. It’s not likely you’re going to be driving down Valley Street and say, “Oh, let’s go to the Amber Rose.” I think you have to know that’s where you want to go. And see one thing that we have emphasized is that nothing here is fast food. They’re a lot of restaurants who have moved into the city who are parts of chains, and I basically consider them fast food because a lot of their food no matter how upscale you might think it is does come from a commissary. And I’ll tell you a very good friend of mine is Jay Haverstick. He comes in here for lunch a lot and his is another destination restaurant. However, he’s been around for forty years and he has a wonderful reputation, has great food, and his also is a destination restaurant and since he’s not open at lunch, he comes in here quite frequently for lunch and we sit and talk and he says, “You know, Elinor,” he says, “I’ll tell you [that] you have filled an important niche here because,” he said, “ I can walk into any restaurant in the city of Dayton and before I go in there I can tell you ninety percent of the things they have on their menu. But,” he said, “here I never know.” So he’s just been very good for me and in encouraging me and giving me support and I appreciate that. He’s very good. And another one is Gloria Anticoli. She’s on Salem Avenue but she has worked so hard, she and her family, in keeping a family restaurant open and keeping good home-cooked food. They’ve been around a long time. Her father came from Sicily and opened the business and she’s been a part of that business ever since. And she can really tell you some stories. Her father and mother [opened the restaurant] and she was involved all the time, and her brother [was involved]. It’s wonderful. It’s great Italian food. See, and they’ve never tried to be a chain or anything like that. Just making good food!
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