Ida Spiroff gave and gave and never took. She never wanted anything in return. She dedicated her whole life to serving others and was a class act the whole way. She made Kenosha, Wisconsin a better place to live for her entire community, and here’s her story.
Ida’s parents, Sante and Matilda Paelli, came to America from Italy not knowing any English. They were excited to be here and couldn’t wait to assimilate into American culture. The family came to Kenosha because Sante’s cousin lived there. When figuring out how the family was going to make a living in America, they thought about what they knew how to do. Sante knew how to make bread – and he knew how to make bread well.
It was settled. The family opened Paelli Bakery, right nearby to where they lived off 52nd Street. Kenosha is an Italian community, so fellow Italian immigrant companies surrounded their business. Alteri’s Meat Market, which isn’t in business anymore, was situated right behind the bakery.
Matilda worked at the bakery. She worked in the back with the employees, chatting in Italian, as all of the employees were also Italian immigrants. Matilda was a kind overseer and the social butterfly of the bakery. Sante was more serious. He was the businessman, but he was also the baker. He made the freshest bread in Kenosha.
Ida wasn’t in the limelight at the bakery. When she got older, she did the bookkeeping. A very organized woman, she used to press numbers on the adding machine and keep track of them on large white pieces of papers.
Ida had two younger brothers, Dom and Dino. When Sante died, the primarily male-dominated bakery went to the two men of the family.
“I don’t know if even really bothered her, or if she was just good at hiding it,” my aunt Julie told me. “She ended up getting her parents house, and she seemed satisfied.”
Although Ida didn’t own or run Paelli Bakery, her brothers relied on her more than any other person there. They’d ask her to critique the bakery goods because she’d tell them like it is. She wasn’t mean about it, just very straightforward. If the crust on the pie was too dry, they’d hear about it from Ida.
Even though she was primarily the go-to quality control person at the bakery, she was one of the most talented if not the most talented baker I’ll ever know. At Christmas, she’d make a variety of impeccable little Italian Christmas cookies, all different shapes and colors. She had a second kitchen in her basement with a large wooden table in the center where she rolled out dough. As a little girl, it was so much fun for me to go down to her basement and watch her work her magic. She was so meticulous, and every ingredient she measured was exact down to the grain of flour. Even when my family thought that the cookies were the best we had ever had, she always had a critique of her own work. She was quite the perfectionist.
Ida met her husband, my grandfather Alexander Spiroff, at the Eagles Club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Eagles Club, now called the Rave, used to be a big band and dance venue. A train called the North Shore Train would run from Kenosha to Milwaukee, and young men and women from Kenosha would take the train up on the weekends when they wanted a night out on the town in the big city. It was love at first sight. Given Ida’s glowing personality and her beauty, it was easy to be crazy about her, but Alex was certainly crazy about her.
Alex was also one for grand gestures. He played the accordion in a local Kenosha band, John and His Old Time-Aires, and he worked at the local radio station. When Ida and Alex were newly weds, he recorded and wrote a song called “I Met Her at a Dance,” which was all about meeting Ida at the Eagles Club. He didn’t tell her he wrote the song right away. One day, there was a bakery picnic for all of the employees, and he knew they’d have the radio on so at work he played it for the first time on the air. Ida couldn’t help but smile because she knew that Alex had written the song and it was all about her. She was just as crazy about him as he was about her.
Times weren’t always this blissful for Ida, though. Matilda died of colon cancer at 50 years old, and it affected Ida a lot, even though she didn’t show it. Sante died later in life, so Ida took extra care of her father after her mother died. She always looked after him and bought his groceries. She tried to be strong for her father and her brothers, but the death of her mother affected her for the rest of her life.
“I remember she’d be cooking in the kitchen, and you couldn’t tell from far away but little tears would be running down her cheeks,” my aunt said. “Those tears were for her mother.”
When my aunt and my father were younger, Ida was a homemaker while Alex went to work. In the 1960’s, families primarily operated in a one-income household. Virtually all the mothers stayed home and took care of the children: prepared meals, did laundry and packed lunches.
“I think we really benefitted from having our mother home all of the time when we were little,” my aunt said.
Ida wanted to be with her children when they were younger, to be on the front lines and bring them up as outstanding young citizens with a solid head on their shoulders. She emphasized strong Christian values and how important it was to go school, especially because she was a first generation immigrant and felt the knowledge gap between what Americans knew and what her parents knew. She even taught her children how to stand up for themselves.
“When I was younger, I was bullied at school,” my father told me. “She told me not to acquiesce to bullies. She told me I couldn’t let anyone else push me around. Instead of just standing there, if they throw a punch, you need to throw a punch back.”
She didn’t promote violence in general, though. She only encouraged her children to stand up for themselves and not get walked on. She emphasized the importance of community and playing with other neighborhood children.
“I think we were lucky how we grew up,” my aunt said. “I’m still friends with my neighborhood gang after all of these years.”
Even though she was a stay-at-home mother first, Ida wasn’t your typical 1960’s woman. As soon my aunt and father got older, she started going to the local technical college, Gateway Technology, to work towards her Library Science degree. She’d always been very organized, and I’ll always remember this quality of hers because I remember all of her recipe cards organized alphabetically and the clean house she kept. She wanted to put this organizational skill to use, and she took going back to school very seriously.
“My mom was the best student in the family,” my father said. “She’d come home from school, make dinner for us and then book it from 6 p.m. to midnight. She was Miss Academic and had a 4.0.”
Ida worked hard and not just to get a degree. She actually loved school.
“She’d come home and talk about her poetry class at the dinner table,” my aunt said.
After graduating with her Library Science degree, she became a receptionist at Modine Manufacturing Company. She was a very personable woman, especially after her years of bakery experience, and all of the salesmen who walked in the doors of Modine loved her. She was the first person anyone saw when they came to Modine, and she knew how to smile, be welcoming and go the extra mile to help each person with whatever they needed. In her baker’s nature, she always brought backed goods. She always looked professional and took great pride in her job. She worked there for a very long time.
“There was a massive retirement party for her when she left Modine,” my aunt said. “It was a testament to her great work at Modine, and everyone respected her.” She was smart, sweet, kind, had great penmanship and had a way with people.
“She passed on that treating people who you work with well is important when having a business,” my aunt said. Even at the bakery picnics I talked about earlier, she’d make rosemary chicken and Italian sausages to feed all of the employees.
Ida was also a beautician. She went to beauty school before her children were born, and she used to work in a salon. In addition to working at the salon and in her incredible giving nature, every Sunday she’d wash and put pin curls in my great-grandmother’s hair.
“She’d never emphasize the beautician part of her career, though,” my aunt said. “She wanted people to know she worked at Modine.”
Ida always wanted to do her personal best, with no shortcuts and no cheating, and she wanted to set the tone for all of the women to come in her family, especially as a first generation U.S. citizen. She wanted more for her children, and she instilled the importance of education on them when she became the first one in her family to finish college. Not a lot of women in her time, whether they were immigrants or their families had been in the U.S. for generations, were going to school and getting employed after having children.
“Her emphasis on the importance of education and doing well in school rubbed off on me,” my aunt said. “I’m a teacher now.”
She emphasized honesty, integrity and hard work. She led by example, extending kindness to any person she encountered.
She loved her grandchildren more than anything in the world, and I was so fortunate to be able to experience that love for seventeen years. I remember driving from Milwaukee to Kenosha for all of the major holidays, and she’d just shower my brother and I with kisses as soon as we walked in the door, the Italian way and the Ida Spiroff way. From the moment we got there to the moment we left at night, she’d constantly be worried about giving us everything we needed.
Food equated to love for her, so let’s just say that we were always well fed. Even if you didn’t ask for seconds at Thanksgiving dinner because the amount of firsts you got was almost overwhelming, you were getting still getting seconds. A few hours after dinner, she’d order pizza from the local Italian pizza joint in Kenosha, Villa D’Carlo, in case there was any sort of chance that someone in the family still might be even just a little bit hungry. You’d never leave her house without a brown paper lunch bag filled with chocolate and other treats, as well as a full week’s worth of leftovers from a big holiday meal. If you were lucky, maybe there would also be an extra Villa D’Carlo pizza too.
She had all of the entertainment her grandchildren could ever want. There were watercolors, gel pens, crayons, colored pencils and giant sketchpads for art projects. Then, she’d hang all of our artwork on the walls so that people who came over could admire it. She bought a soccer ball and sidewalk chalk just for us. She’d make her signature punch drink when we were done playing outside because she knew we’d be thirsty.
Although much of Ida’s time spent while we were over was in the kitchen, either preparing food or cleaning up, my absolute favorite memories of her were the rare moments you’d see her kick back and relax. She loved football, and when there were holiday games on I fondly remember how excited she’d get if the Packers scored a touchdown. I also remember finding it extremely odd that she was a Packer fan AND a Bear fan, probably the only person living in Wisconsin with an allegiance to both teams. The best explanation I could come up with is that since Kenosha is on the border between Wisconsin and Illinois, she felt a pull towards both teams. When the Packers were playing the Bears, she always cheered for the Packers though (thank goodness).
She liked a good game, too. I’ll never forget when my cousins and I taught her how to play the card game Spoons. She got so into the game that she grabbed a spoon and didn’t even have four of a kind. Following suit, everyone grabbed a spoon, except for the one person who had the slowest reaction time that round and didn’t get a spoon. When we asked who had four of a kind and no one did, we realized that Ida was the one who took the first spoon.
“I thought I won!” she shouted. We all had a long laugh, Ida included. She was so much fun.
She loved to sit back and listen to piano. Stemming from my grandfather’s love of music and musical talent, my aunt and father played the piano. She made sure when my aunt and father were young children all the way through high school that they went to piano lessons. She used to love listening to them play, even though she never played herself. They’d still play when they came over, even in their adult years. As a very religious woman, she especially loved when they’d play hymns.
Piano was passed down to the grandchildren, too. My cousins, brother and I all took piano lessons, and she’d be absolutely overjoyed when we were over at her house playing the piano. I’ll never forget when I stopped taking piano lessons in eighth grade because my after-school schedule got too crazy, and Ida found out about it. I remember the look on her face wasn’t happy, and then she went on to praise my brother for his piano playing and still taking lessons. She forgave me, though, and was incredibly proud of my success in sports. It just shows you how much value and importance she placed on music.
As I talked about earlier, Ida wasn’t afraid to speak her mind either. If she felt a certain way, she’d tell you, or her face would say it all. Mostly, though, she’d tell you.
When my mother and father had just gotten engaged, my mother told me that Ida said to her about my father, “Are you sure you want to marry him? He can be a little difficult sometimes.” They all laugh about it now. She was half joking and half serious, as my father can sometimes be a little difficult. Another tale of Ida telling you like it is.
She was direct, but with that straightforwardness came great wisdom.
“The best advice my mother ever gave me was actually when I was thinking about asking your mother to marry me,” my dad told me. “She told me that of course I’d love the woman I was marrying, but in order to be sure I wanted to marry her I should look past the woman and at her family. If I like the family and they’re good people, then she’s the one I should marry. She couldn’t have been more right.”
Ida was a great encourager until the very end of her life. As a child and a teenager, although I’m a confident person in general, I’d still doubt myself sometimes. I felt like there was a constant pressure on me at school and in my neighborhood to act and dress a certain way. I also felt pressure that I placed on myself to be the best in all of the sports I played and in school. Never would I ever feel better about myself than when I left my grandmother’s house. She thought the world of my cousins, brother and I and she wouldn’t be shy in telling us.
She never wanted anything in return for her support and encouragement. She never asked my aunt and father for much help as my grandfather and she got older, even as their health started failing. They handled their own affairs, not wanting any burden to be on their children.
I’ll never forget the day that Ida told us she had cancer. I was a senior in high school, and the whole family was sitting around the table eating Christmas dinner. She’d been asking about what was going on at school with my brother and I, wanting to hear every detail. We loved telling her stories and she’d smile and tell us how great we were doing the whole time. She’d been asking about how work was going for both of my parents, too. Towards the end of the dinner, she told us about her cancer. She barely brought it up, like it was no big deal at all and very treatable. We were shocked, and we began asking lots of questions, especially my father. She responded minimally, still not wanting to burden us with her health.
It took a lot to ask my aunt to help her and my grandfather over that next summer. My aunt is a teacher in Michigan, so she has the summers off and was able to come and live with my grandparents. My grandmother took care of my grandfather, who had various health problems and couldn’t walk much anymore. When she got sick, someone had to be there to take care of both of them, especially while she was receiving chemotherapy.
We didn’t know just how sick she really was. The cancer had spread everywhere, and she wasn’t a young woman anymore. She couldn’t fight with the same strength as she could’ve ten or twenty years ago. Later that summer, she died in the hospital.
A few days later, as my grandfather was planning his wife’s funeral, he passed away too. Although he had a lot of health problems, I think that he died of a broken heart. I don’t think that he wanted to live without Ida.
We ended up having a joint funeral, which was terribly hard on our family, coping with two huge losses at once. At the same time, though, it was a testimony to how beautiful the love story of Ida and Alex Spiroff really was. Anybody who was there or who knew them felt it. Ida leaves a legacy of love behind and what a lifelong marriage should look like.
I’ll also never forget the last time I saw my grandmother before she died. I was lucky I got to see her when I did because she was still as spunky as ever at the time. My parents and I were on the way back from my college orientation at Loyola, the summer before I went off to school. I also had a chance at orientation to meet with the Loyola athletic administration for the first time, as I was receiving a scholarship to run Division I cross country and track there too. Although I came back from the orientation excited, I was also nervous to move away from home to a new state and start a new chapter of my life. She was recovering from a cancer treatment in a hospital just outside of Kenosha, so we stopped to see her. When I walked in her room, she had a gigantic smile on her face and cracked a joke that made all of us laugh. She told me how proud she was of me.
“Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything, because you can do anything you put your mind to,” Ida told me. “You’re doing great, and you’ll continue to do great things, kid.” As always, she was reassuring me every step of the way, never letting on that she was suffering. She never failed to make me feel loved, even from a hospital bed.
Ida’s love was a special kind of love that you just don’t find anywhere. It was an unconditional, open-heart and open-mind kind of love. She led through her words and her actions, she defied expectations for women in her time and as a first generation American citizen she paved the way for her children and grandchildren to have a better life. You never left seeing Ida empty-handed, and your stomach was always full. She could always make you smile, and she could always make you feel better about yourself, no matter what. She made the world a better place for anyone that was lucky enough to be around her. That love is a love that gives and never takes. A selfless love.