The Year My Grandma Sent Me A Shrunken Head For Christmas

Grandma O’Hara, my last living grandparent, passed away over the weekend. She was 85 years old.

I could tell you a million different things and facts and stories about my grandma and will probably share a few of them with you this week, but for some reason the only one that comes to mind right now is the time my grandma sent me a shrunken head for Christmas.

I suppose a lot of older people take part time jobs after they retire and my grandma was no exception. Some grandmas work at food banks and retirement homes and hospitals. Grandma O’Hara got a job at Chuck’s House of Magic, on the corner of 183rd and Dixie Highway in Homewood, IL. My grandma also lived on the corner of 183rd and Dixie Highway, literally across the street from Chuck’s. She simply walked across the street to work every day.

This picture was taken from my grandma’s front yard. You can see Chuck’s House of Magic in the background, directly behind her.

Chuck’s House of Magic was owned by Chuck and Joyce Gruberman. They did a lot of balloon and flower deliveries, but my favorite two things about the place were the Halloween props and costumes and of course, the magic.

The Halloween props, costumes and masks were second to none. I took the following picture in 2004 the weekend before Easter.

Yes. That’s how Chuck’s House of Magic decorated the store for Easter.

Along the back wall behind all the Halloween stuff was the magic stuff. There were tricks, big and small. On most days you could catch Chuck back behind the counter, performing tricks for anyone walking by. It’s one thing to be impressed by a magic trick; it’s another to know how a trick is done and be impressed by the skill of the magician. I’ve seen the cups and balls trick performed a thousand times, but I’ll always remember the time I saw it performed at Chuck’s.

A few times while we were up visiting we would walk over and visit my grandma at Chuck’s. Grandma would always introduce us to everyone and remind us of her discount, should we want to buy any fake doggie doo or bloody hockey masks. (I did actually take her up on that offer once. Chuck had a stack of Star Wars helmets one time, four or five of which made the trip back home to Oklahoma with me.)

I don’t remember asking for it, but one year for Christmas I got a package from my grandma in the mail. Inside there were gifts for everybody and, for me, a plastic shrunken head. I think dad had one too and perhaps I had let my admiration for his be known. Mine came with a small string affixed to the top which made it perfect for hanging from one’s rear view mirror, where it hung for a while.

Of course I still have it. It sits on my shelves of knick-knacks and random odds and ends. People seldom believe me that behind everything on those shelves there’s a story. Should anyone walk past those shelves, point to that shrunken head and ask “what’s the story behind that thing,” this is the story they would get.

On Halloween night, 2004, a small electrical spark ignited Chuck’s House of Magic. The small fire quickly turned into a five-alarm blaze according to the Chicago Tribune. Everything inside the store melted, and between the flames and the weight of the water, the roof collapsed. This is what remained of Chuck’s House of Magic:

I’ve owned that stupid shrunken head for a long time now. In one way it seems a bit ridiculous to be reminded of one’s grandma by looking at a plastic shrunken head. Then again, the fact that she mailed it to me tells me that she understood who I was… which actually kind of makes it the perfect thing to remember her by.

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