Sanja Petrovic


My parents didn’t have an easy childhood. Neither of them came from rich or privileged families. Life was hard. They married more for necessity than for love. Though, when I knew them they seemed in love. At least they seemed comfortable with each other. Like best friends who would do anything for the other. That’s probably as good as love.

In 1925, about a year after they married, they made the decision to move to America. As with most people who immigrate they wanted a better life for their children. And my father had heard of all these wonderful stories of the big cities of the Unites States. So they made the long journey to Ellis Island and spent a couple of months in New York before moving to Chicago. My father worked as a carpenter while my mother did laundry for the neighbourhood. They worked for everything they had and eventually moved out of the run down little shack into a slightly less run down, bigger shack.

I was born on February 4, 1927. We still lived in the run down, little shack. It wasn’t until I was about two and the first of my siblings was born that we moved into the bigger place. While we didn’t live in a palace or anything, we also weren’t unhappy. In fact, my growing family was pretty happy in our lower class living. Before my parents finally decided to stop having children there were five of us. And I, as the eldest, had charge of the younger siblings when my parents were busy. It made me grow up if nothing else. I suppose I resented it at the time.

You know that saying that the first born of the family is the practice child? With the first born the parents are very careful and as the children go by they get less and less restrictive. It might be why so many eldest children do at least one rebellious thing in their lifetime. I was no exception.

I snuck out at night to go over to boys’ houses. I had my hair cut short. I wore my skirt a little higher than any ‘proper,’ young lady might. I even rode a motorcycle or two in my day. But most importantly, I sang in the choir. Now, singing in the choir may not have started off as a rebellion. In fact, it was originally my parents’ idea. They thought it would keep me from being promiscuous if I didn’t have as much spare time. Joke was on them really. During my entire time in the choir I still snuck out to boys’ houses.

I went grudgingly for the first few months and then I discovered something. I was good. Really good. I felt good. It felt like everything that was going on in my life would take a break when I sang. It was freeing. About the time that I began singing jazz and blues outside of the choir my parents actually started not liking the idea of their daughter singing. And it was about the time that I said I wanted to pursue a career in singing that they both had panic attacks. It was like a win/win situation for me. I got to do something I loved and it annoyed the hell out of my parents.

When I was 18 my parents wanted me to continue my education. Maybe become a nurse in the war, though it was looking like it would end. Get some education under my belt, get a good job, meet a nice man, have some babies, leave that nice job to raise those babies. That’s what my parents wanted. Unfortunately for them I was still in love with the stage and music. So, right after I graduated from high school I moved into my own run down, tiny shack and started singing at the local bar.

At the time it was a little place with low lights and a few local drunks. It also had an unusual smell, but after a while you stopped noticing it. The tips weren’t all that good…neither was the pay when I really think about it. And I did occasionally get a slap on the ass. But it wasn’t all bad. I learned a lot about mixing drinks and running a bar from my boss. And I got to sing and that’s all I really cared about.

When I was twenty-one I moved to New York to try and break into Broadway or maybe get into some real music instead of just singing at the local bar. It didn’t go so well. Apparently I had a lovely voice but I wasn’t Broadway material…whatever that means. So, within a year I was back in Chicago. I got my old job back and just went about my business. My parents were still harping on me to get married and have kids, but I wasn’t ready so I let them harp when they saw me. I wouldn’t say that I avoided them, but I didn’t go out of my way to visit either. I suppose that’s what made it so much worse for me.

It was April 10, 1952 when I got the call. I was working that night. At that point I was singer and part time bar tender. It was a busy night so I almost didn’t take the call when the phone behind the bar started ringing. But then again, it could be old Mrs. McPherson calling for Mr. McPherson to “get his sorry, drunk ass home.” I liked Mrs. McPherson, even if she did have her own opinion about a young girl like me working in a bar. So, I picked up. I still haven’t decided if I’m glad about that or not.

Even though my parents were doing quite well for themselves they still lived in an area of town that was mostly populated by immigrants. They said that they liked the neighbourhood and how it felt like a family. At the end of the war the area had seen a large increase of Jewish immigrants. The war might have been over, but there was still prejudice in the world.

Three blocks of apartments were completely burned down and my family’s building was ablaze. I ran about the crowd shouting for my parents, my siblings, our neighbours, anyone who could tell me where they were. I saw the building collapse and I ran, but someone must have held me back. I still don’t know who it was. They found my parents and my two youngest siblings under the rubble of the building. Firefighters said that stairs on each floor had been blocked the most of the people in that forth building didn’t make it out. Twelve and Sixteen. Peter was going to be a doctor.

The investigation to find who burned down the buildings went on for about six months before it was declared cold. The next year involved a lot of drinking. Over time it just became a part of me. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped hurting, but I don’t notice it anymore. What I still notice is the anger. The anger at the cops who never found my family’s killer. The anger at myself for not being able to do anything. And the anger at whoever did this. I would never forget.

Sanja Petrovic

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