Growing Up

Suzanne Olszewski Chisum Autobiography

Start date July 27, 2020

Enjoy reading and looking through a photo album about my life.

On the day of my baptism.
Mom Meets Dad
Mom and Dad Wed

Here I am world!

Born to Louise C. Rieber Olszewski and Leon M Olszewski on October 13, 1964, I had my first major medical crisis. At that time, because of my parent’s blood types, I was born an Rh negative baby. The obstetrician told my mom that another C-section would be needed (she already had a few). When I got here, I immediately got a blood transfusion. (Glad I don’t have any recollection at all of those events.)

At that time, husbands could not be with their wives during the birthing process. Mom reported being in a twilight type of drug induced state when in labor and would try to crawl off the bed in the ward she shared with other women. My mom was in the hospital for around a week. My dad’s real first memory of me was of the dirty diapers. Trying to wash the dirty diapers outside in our washing machine in the middle of winter or driving to Valmeyer to get them washed.

The outside bathroom facility at The Farm before I was born!

My parents

had just moved to an 80 acre farm just outside of Maeystown, Illinois earlier that year. Sixty of the acres were covered in woods. That remained 20 acres for farming and home steading. The log cabin did not have central heating or an inside bathroom. My Uncle Jesse encouraged my father that there should be central heat and a working bathroom when mom returned home with me. I understand that Dad with Uncle Jessie went to work during this time putting both into place.

Monica (holding me), Leon, Julia and Tony.

I came home to a full house.

I already had 4 older siblings. Monica, age 8, Leon, age 7, Julia age 4, and Tony age 2. These would be my role models and best friends until I was 14 when they all left home.

The Farm, as I call it was settled by a man, Cooney Honiffer, in the early 1900’s. He worked tirelessly to build a log cabin, a smoke house, a barn, 2 chicken houses not to mention dig 3 cisterns by hand. In between he farmed and hunted as well as raised a few children. My parents bought the farm from a Viney Kilbreath (who wore very fancy underwear that she used to hand on the line in Maeystown, where she moved, Cooney’s widowed daughter in 1964. He ended up in the Monroe County Nursing Home in Waterloo to spend his last days.

Cooney would often go to Maey’s station and catch a dinky (street car like thing) and go to Prairie du Rocher. He would then walk back checking his track line, carrying his bounty of raccoons, muskrats, skunks, and beavers. He used these things for skins. He would sell or barter the skins for money.

A picture of a dink like Cooney might have rode.

As beautiful as it was

The Farm was isolated. The Road to the farm which was a mile long, crossed a creek with no bridge at that time and a few streams, was isolating. A mile does not seem too long when you are driving at 60 miles per hour down the highway. But a mile, walking, holding books and sometimes musical instruments or science projects, when the first half is pretty flat, and the second up hill into the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River Bottom, becomes a VERY daunting and exhausting task.

Pine Forest Camp

My sophomore year at U of I, I attended a “meeting” where camps were hiring summer counselors for youth. Since the previous two summers I had worked at the Illinois State Fair in the office as an administrative assistant and had been a camper at 4-H camp, 4-H conservation camp, and then counselors at both, I felt qualified for the task. I applied and they accepted me and wanted me to teach cooking. The camp was located in the Pocono Mountains of N.E. Pennsylvania. I was given the name of another young woman who would commute with me (as well as her friend) to camp.

The camp seemed to pride itself in diversity. Caucasian diversity, but diversity. There were a few counselors from Europe, a couple from Australia, and then there were the few of us there were scattered all across the United States. I came to realize I was the token farm girl from the Midwest.
I really wanted to see NYC. When talking with another token Midwestern counselor, Doug Larsen, from Kansas City, whose biggest wish was to see a KC vs. Yankee’s game in NYC, we agreed to go on our next two days off. Off we drove. Down from the mountains, across New York state, and finally crossed into New York City, the Big Apple. He parked the car somewhere, we took subway and bus for everything. I am so thankful he could figure out how the subways worked (like having to cross the street sometimes to go in the opposite direction). We ended up taking a line to where it ended on Coney Island, and sat at the beach. We did not partake in the water festivities as many did as the two injectable needles made us wary. NYC in 1984 was dirty. Poverty was everywhere. Some people would spread blankets on the sidewalks and sell, well things found in the trash. The subways were filthy. There was graffiti on the subways. The next day on our way to Yankee Stadium we got lost in Spanish Harlem. We ate at a Hispanic McDonald’s, where the food on the menu was written in Spanish first, just across from Yankee Stadium. My biggest memory of the game was not of who won or who played but rather they had knishes and pierogis on the food offerings inside the stadium! Not something I ever saw at a St. Louis Cardinal’s game.

Upon arrival, I learned so much. The camp was for children from upper financial class Jewish families. Surprise! I really had no experience at all with the Jewish culture and really I don’t think I even knew anyone Jewish. But I was there. I was ready to teach. I was then told there was a “mix-up” and that a woman from Ohio was to teach cooking, and I was asked if I could type? I said yes. I was moved into the office to work the entire summer.

At times, he camp would offer the counselors little treats, like a movie, after the campers went to bed, or one time a trip to a roller skating rink. Well, I did not know how to roller skate, but ANYTHING away from the camp at night was good for me. So I went. My balance was very challenged then, so roller skating, well, let me just say I ended up on my bottom more than on my wheels in the rink. A nice guy came over, sensing I was having a rough go of it after one of my wipe-outs and offered his arm. His name is Larry. He taught me what I needed to do to stay upright on the skates and even made a round or two on his arm. We started talking.

And talk we did, all the way back to camp on the bus. At camp until curfew that night. I liked Larry a lot. He is Jewish and from Philadelphia and was not afraid or hesitant to answer any of my questions about Judaism. He shared with me his fascinating life story. I told him mine. We spent many evenings after the campers went to bed, talking.

One evening in August of 1984, we went to have pizza at a nearby town, around 40 miles away, Lake Ponchetrain. On returning back to camp we saw police officer’s directing traffic into the upper field for us to park our car. The air was thick with smoke. When we asked what was going on, all we learned was there was a fire. Larry hoped out of the car as soon as we parked and found out “his” group of male campers from his cabin were down at the lake. So he flew to be with them. I was uncertain where I should go. (I did not yet know where or what was on fire.) So I headed towards the main complex where the office was where I worked.

I didn’t get too close. The office and attached buildings were on fire. The dining hall was on fire. It was a sight to behold. I was instructed to return to my cabin (that I shared with campers and three counselors), so I did. It was empty, so I waited for my group to return.

The next morning, a Sunday, when I tried to report to work, I saw a smoldering pile of wood where my office used to be. The dining hall was gone as well. A couple of the vans, used to transport campers to water skiing and horseback riding were burned out next to the rubble. It was a very troubling sight. The three meals that we usually took in the dining hall were moved. For breakfast, we were bused to a sister camp to have our usual bagels, smoked salmon, and smoked whitefish cream cheese. It was quiet. The campers subdued for once.

I discovered that I was to work in one of the owner’s homes where a temporary office was set up. The space was tiny. I was asked go to a different area where the computers were and do data entry that I had been working on. I worked on that all that day. The next morning when I went to work on the computers, the hard drive did not “come alive.” I wondered if I had “broke” it. They took all the computer towers to a place in New York City to see if they could get the drives to function properly once again. I don’t think those drives ever made it back before I left camp.

Our three communal meals were then moved into very large tents. The cooking happened in a tent next to this one. The food was still good. Still with an eye to being kosher (no milk with meat, no shell fish or pork). But the camp had changed. It was a sadder place to be. Not a happy place where kids were having fun being kids.

A few weeks later, I got in my car (leaving camp early as Midwestern universities start earlier than the ones on the East Coast and drove. And I drove and I drove. I spent the night at a friend of the arts and crafts director, Libby Steve, near Pittsburgh. (Libby and I found each other as we both were Catholic.) I got in late to Libby’s friends, got twisted around in the mountains (as when you turn north on a road thinking it will go north, it starts switch backing up into the mountains). A couple was waiting for me with food and a bed. I was grateful. The next morning, I started the trip to get to Carbondale, where I was starting a new college, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
A new school, new challenges, new friends.

In 2020, I went online to visit Pine Forest Camp again. Now they bring in chefs from big name east coast restaurants to teach cooking. There is a new dining hall and office. Because of Coronavirus, this is the first summer in the camp’s long history that they have closed their doors. This summer, the camp only charges $15,000 per camper to attend for the whole eight weeks. I am not surprised. The price tag was high in 1984 for the families to get their kid into the best camp. Honestly, I had much more fun being a camper at my 4-H camp than I ever had at this high priced camp in the Pocono’s.

Lessons Learned: Learned what it felt like to be in a minority group and be discriminated against because of religion. Learned about the children and parents of high socioeconomic groups from Long Island, Philadelphia and Cherry Hill. Learned to be stronger. To stand alone. Learned I could love another of another faith, even if called names. Learned it was ok to be different. Learned that the Jewish faith did considered Jesus a profit. Gained two wonderful life-long friends in Larry and Libby.

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