What Little I Know About My Father

My grand father's cabinet making shop.

My grandfather’s cabinet making shop.

The photo on the left is of my grandfather’s cabinet shop in New York City.  He is standing on the left. To the right is my father. Further to the right is a hired employee.

Except for a few photos and the stories I remember from the time I was a child, I know very little about my grandparents.  On a visit to Ellis Island a few years ago and my husbands penchant for putting together family trees, we gathered the small amount of information we have about Dzadzia and Babchia. They were very tight-lipped. If they ever spoke about their lives in Poland before they arrived here in America or their journeys across the Atlantic Ocean to a new country where they couldn’t speak the language, I never heard it.  I remember meeting other relatives who came from Poland through them, but the visits were always brief and we never followed up. There was never a sense of having an extended family.

I can say I don’t know a lot about my own parents, who were both born here as first generation Polish-Americans. I do know the day to day Mom and Dad stuff, but their early lives remains a mystery to me in many ways.  For my father all I have are his military records and the medals he was honored with for his heroism during the Second World War.  I have a few photos but that’s it.

I know my dad suffered from shell-shock, known today as PTSD.  He was difficult to live with and my mother, my brothers and I suffered the consequences of his damaged mind. He abused all of us both psychologically and sometimes physically.

My dad as a boy!

My dad as a boy!

He was born and grew up in New York City in what I presume was a Polish neighborhood, surrounded by other ethnic neighborhoods.  He was a bigot, always taking people of other ethnicities down. He was also extremely competitive. I imagine it started in the City where many early immigrants first settled. The competition he most likely experienced in school and on the streets, to be the biggest and the best that he could be, must have been fierce. He experienced the Great Depression, witnessing men jumping out of windows because they’d lost everything. Other than that I know nothing of his day to day family life.

He attended Cooper Union, where he studied engineering and architecture for three years.  I have no idea why he didn’t graduate.  He did however have a chair of his design in exhibition at the World’s Fair in New York in 1939.  He married my mother on Valentines day, 1942. I was born 9 months and 3 days later.

The day after he and Mom were married he went to Montana to begin training for his role in fighting the war with the First Special Service Forces, known by the Germans as the Devil’s Brigade.  The were fierce fighters trained to jump out of planes over Norway, then skiing during the cold winter months to munition factories and labs where the Germans were beginning to experiment with atomic energy and bombs. When their mission was canceled, my father landed by parachute in Italy where he and his men fought their way up the boot, killing and being killed as they went.  He witnessed his best buddies head blown off by a Nazi, as they stood talking and was the lone survivor when he and his men took out a nest of  Nazis hiding in an extensive underground bunker.  When the war was won, Dad was one of the men who liberated a number of the prison camps in Germany and stayed there for several more years doing some kind of secret work. My mother and I joined him there when I was four years old.

After the war he started a home building company on Long Island, where we lived until 1960, when he decided to “retire.”  We moved to Killington, Vermont, where he built and ran three ski lodges.  Despite his early abuse and bigotry, he was a good man in many ways, and became  a loving “Grampy Tom” to my kids.

As Memorial Day approaches at the end of the month I think of him and wish I had known him as a boy, as a student of engineering, and the man who fell in love with my mother.  Before he went away to Europe and came back a different man.

It’s all still happening today as we send our young people across the seas to fight in other lands.

My “Foody” Ancestors

The Zabski Family

The Zabski Family

Going through a box of photos the other day, I found this family portrait. The man in the foreground is  my grandfather. Dziadzi is the Polish word for grandfather which we pronounced “Jahji.”  Standing behind him and next to each other, from left to right, are his wife, their daughter Polly, and my dad, Thomas. How serious they look. Obviously the photographer didn’t ask them to say “cheese.”

Both Babcia (grandmother in Polish) and Dziadzi came to the United States from Poland. My grandfather, Wladislaw Zabski, was born in the city of Trembowla in 1888.  He came to this country, landing at Ellis Island on September 22, 1912. Babcia was born in 1894, only a few miles northwest of Dziadzi’s home. Her name was Michalina Podhajecki.  She arrived on Ellis Island on March 16, 1911.  She was only sixteen. She was released to her sister, a dressmaker in the city.  She and and my grandfather married on October 5, 1913, at the Church of St. Stanislaus in New York City.

According to one set of records my father had been born on September 18, 1913, just a few weeks before his parents married.  Others say he was born  on the same date in 1914. Obviously more research has to be done in order to find out his exact birth year. I find it amusing that there is talk among cousins that Dziadzi was a lady’s man and “adored” young girls. Also, my father was very strict with me. As his only daughter, I was’t allowed to date until I was a senior in high school. I was forever feeling embarrassed because he wouldn’t even allow me to go to the movies with friends on a Saturday afternoon because, “Bad things happen in the dark.”  Was he trying to save me from getting involved with a cute guy and making the same mistake his own parents had? He did send me to a  private girl’s school for my junior year in high school because I was going steady with a boy named Steve.

Eventually both grandparents became United States Citizens. After years living at various addresses in New York City and Queens, they moved out to Port Jefferson, on Long Island where they both resided until they passed away.  Babchi, at five-foot two inches and overweight, spent all of her time in the kitchen cooking up the food they grew on several acres of land.  Before she retired she worked at a local lace factory. Dziadzi, a bit over six feet tall was a cabinet maker.

They raised chickens, had a huge vegetable garden, and a grape arbor under which they ate their meals during the summer. Babchi thought being fat was the healthiest way to be.  She complained to my mother that I was too thin, saying in her broken English, “Skinny no good. Plumpy is helty.” Her daughter’s son, John, on the other hand  was “good and plumpy.”

The first time Babchi met my soon-to-be husband, Bill,  she happily exclaimed, “Oh Joiny, he’s so plumpy.” He wasn’t even terribly overweight at the time, but standing next to me at only one hundred and five pounds he must have looked massive. Finally I had done something that made her happy.

Dziadi was very tall, dark, and mysterious. I was afraid of him.  He was gruff and tough, drinking his coffee every morning with a raw egg cracked into it.  He loved the awful looking blood sausage that was always on the table. He made me try it once.  I screamed and carried on and never had to eat it again. I didn’t like it when my parents left my brothers and me with them. If we didn’t eat every bit of food in front of us, including the brown, mushy, bananas, Babcia always kept in the fruit bowl, we were threatened with the wolf who lived in the pump house across the street. He thought skinny children were delicious and would come and make a meal of us.

Food was a huge part of my grandparent’s lives, and in turn it became a huge part of my own.  Both of my parents were fabulous cooks. We ate dinner with my grandparents most Sundays, rich with all the Polish fixings. Perogis were alway my favorite, especially those filled with sauerkraut. And Babchia’s Bobka, a yeast cake she often stuffed with farmer’s cheese and studded with raisins was to die for.

I learned to cook when I was around ten years old, making the world’s best devil’s food cake. One of my favorite past times was cutting out recipes from magazines and putting them together in my own recipe notebook.  You can still catch me today finding amazing recipes on the internet or in our newspaper’s weekly food section. My collection fills a file box I bought just for them.

When I was small, I didn’t appreciate my grandparents or even like them very much.  As an adult I’m grateful for their obsession with food and the few recipes they have passed down to us. I wish I could sit around the table with them now and share a meal. I’d like to talk with them about their life in Poland, and what it was like to leave family and friends behind and move to a new country.

Getting Back Back To Work

The new sunroom.

The new sunroom.

The distractions of home renovation are beginning to ebb.  Just a few more items to finish up and I’ll be happy to say goodbye to the workmen who have worked to fulfill our wants and needs.  For the most part all has gone well, but I’ll be happy for them to leave me to my privacy and my home, without the sounds of saws, hammers, clouds of dust, muddy footprints, water spouting from the new tub with no way to turn it off, and the continual presence of those who don’t live here.  The original time estimate of four weeks is now becoming six and though I do not like to wish away time, I will be extremely happy when it’s over.

What has probably frustrated me most over the last weeks, has been my inability of keep up a regular writing routine.  There were constant interruptions and an inability to focus on my work.  Over the holidays I celebrated the fact that I’m close to the end of the first draft of my book, with only a few more chapters to write. I knew that keeping up my regular writing schedule of two hours a day would be in peril while the work on the house started, but I was unprepared for the complete shutdown that took place as I waded through the ins and outs of recreating a home that is comfortable and helps to keep me happy and healthy.

The other side of the sunroom still missing the drawers.

The other side of the sunroom still missing the drawers.

This past week I was able to get started on a new chapter of my book and was hit once again by how the tiniest of memories can come to the surface, when I least expect them, giving me answers to questions I’ve contemplated for a long time. One of the things I do that my husband questions me about almost every day, is that I’m always saying, “I’m sorry.”  It doesn’t matter whether it’s something I’ve done or not, my response to whatever the problem is always, “I’m sorry.” I’ve spent hours wondering where in the world those words came from and have continuously tried to stop saying them. But after many years, they still slip out of my mouth in the unconscious way that habits have.

As I started delving into the spiritual journey I’ve been on throughout my life, I came up with the answer I believe I’m been looking for.  As words about my early Catholic experience seemed automatically to appear on my screen, I wrote the following:

“I was extremely disturbed by the idea of having to go to confession every week inside a small, closet-like box, to tell a strange man dressed in black a list of things I had done wrong.  I could not see his face through the screen between us and knew I had never met him before. On the occasions when I was forced through that terrifying process, I often made up sins just to satisfy what I thought the requirements were. It didn’t seem to me that telling a white lie to save myself from embarrassment or punching my brother out for blaming me for something he had done, seemed trivial and not sinful enough.  Afterwards kneeling in a pew and doing penance, I usually spent my time wondering if the prayers I was told to say  but couldn’t remember the words to would really make a difference in whether or not I would be forgiven. So just to be on the safe side, I would repeat, “I’m sorry,” over and over again for all of the horrific things that I had and hadn’t done.”

So there was my answer to the mystery of those two word, “I’m sorry,” that seem to be such a large part of my life.  I still say them, but at least now I know why I say them and can laugh at myself for my folly. I did quit smoking many years ago, so perhaps with time I’ll be able to quit the “I’m sorry” addiction, too.

Do you have any small, crazy habits that drive you nuts? Do you know how they got started?

On Trauma, Triggers, And Thanksgiving

IMG_0934You’d think that by age seventy-one things would be different.  But, no, there are triggers that still get me wound up so tight I could burst.  Take Friday evening for example. I was on the phone talking to my friend, Sharon.  We started having weekly conversations back in 2010. She lives in Florida and I live in Virginia, so we can’t talk over the fence the same way I can chat with my neighbor, Harmon, who is also a dear friend.  Sharon has been traveling of late and we haven’t talked in almost a month.

I was sitting in my new chair (an early Christmas gift), enjoying Sharon’s musings about her travels. Both of us agree that life is tempestuous and both have a growing number of people we know who have been diagnosed with cancer.  It just doesn’t seem fair to either one of us, but then no one ever said that life would be fair, or a bed of roses, or without pain and unhappiness.

I’m at the age where I know better and have decided that I can’t worry about what is going to get me …an asteroid falling out of the sky or being hit by a dump truck full boulders, rendering me paralyzed from the neck down.  Life is what it is.  It has cancer, asteroids, boulders, dump trucks, along with a gazillion other things that could kill us or make life totally miserable.

Mind you, I always have and will probably continue to cry, carry on, and complain with all my might if and when something awful does happens to me.  But I’m working hard at being grateful for everything that I have, including the best family and friends in the universe.

So it took me by surprise that as I sitting in that cozy chair, talking my heart out, that I was being triggered by Bill’s sudden dash through the living room and out to his car. He looked befuddled and mad. He tore out of the driveway as if there were an emergency.  I started feeling my old companion, anxiety, arriving on the scene. My gut started feeling jittery and filled with rocks. Though I was still listening and talking to Sharon, another part of me was trying to figure out what I had done wrong to make Bill so mad.

Then I realized that Bill’s behavior had brought on a reaction in me that became ingrown years ago. My father was a tyrant.  To him, talking on the phone for more than two minutes was wasting time.  Staring into space was a mortal sin and taking naps was not acceptable.  When my dad was around, my brothers and I always had to be doing something “constructive.” If he caught us doing nothing, his face would become hard and frightening.  He would  yell at us and quickly gave us jobs to do. We were never relaxed when he was at home and it got to the point that one of us was always on the look-out, warning, “Here comes Dad.  Look busy.”

Had I been ten or twelve as I chatted with my friend, I would have quickly hung up the phone, charged into my bedroom, and pretended to be doing homework.  We all got pretty good at pretending and I’ve always been amazed that none of us ended up acting on the stage.  But it sure developed into a pattern in our lives. I’m beyond thankful for being able to recognize when I’m being triggered. Most of the time now, I may feel some anxiety or fear at first, but can quickly acknowledge that I’m safe and that no one is going to hurt me or tell me that I’m doing something terribly wrong.

Bill popped back in the house waving a bag of fresh Italian parsley in his hand. He was wearing a wide grin on his face as if he’d been out fishing and caught the biggest fish in the pond. I was still talking to Sharon and by then had calmed down.  I hadn’t hung up and hidden in my room. Bill had been preparing our dinner and when he discovered we had no parsley he went out without interrupting me to get some.  And yes, he had been a bit mad when he realized we didn’t have what he needed. But it wasn’t about me. It was about the inconvenience of having to rush out during traffic hour.

Life is all about things like that. I don’t enjoy being slammed back into my childhood by someone else’s behavior, but I’m accepting and grateful for being able to recognize when my cells and nervous system are simply reacting to something they remember from long ago. If you’d asked me five or six years ago if I thought I’d ever recover from the trauma in my life, I would have bitterly said no. But working with a therapist brought me back to my senses and I’ve learned to be mindful of my own behavior.

So yes, I have changed. Life is all about typhoons, tornados, friends dying, and not getting what I want. But it’s also about red roses that fill the air with their sweet essence, dear friends, and a husband who shares the cooking of meals and holds me tight when I’m scared.

 This Thanksgiving I’m especially thankful for you, dear readers, for the sun that rises daily, and my wonderful family.  May the holiday find you all filled with peace, love, and happiness.

And if you’re driving watch out for the weather along the East Coast.

Book Review: Blush, A Mennonite Girl Meets A Glittering World

IMG_0804While away in London, I read and reviewed Aimee Wise’s, Of Human Clay. Having set the tone with her “spiritual” memoir, I was eager to continue my reading adventure with another: Blush, A Mennonite Girl Meets A Glittering World, by friend, Shirley Hershey Showalter. Having two women I know publish memoirs simultaneously is thrilling. And both authors have helped me to understand my own need for spiritual comfort and have left me wanting to know more about how spirituality and religion becomes part of our lives and how it effects those around us.

Though each of these women has a different story, a different religion, and culture to deal with, the frustrations and tensions apparent in both stories, are similar. Regardless of what church, synagogue, or temple one worships in, our struggle to be faithful to our God, while being human beings with wants and needs that may fall beyond what we are permitted, are universal.

While Aimee’s book brought back twinges of my early anger with the Catholic Church, I was charmed and delighted with Shirley’s memories of growing up in a conservative, Mennonite farm community in Pennsylvania. Her wish “to be big,” not in the sense of being tall, “but big as in important, successful, influential,” went against all that her church and family represented.  To be Mennonite was to be plain and simple: in dress, speech and in all behaviors.  To be female and wear a prayer covering on one’s head was to stick out like a sore thumb … part of a religious subculture that a good part of the rest of the world doesn’t notice or choose to explore. In large societies like our own, we’re all too quick to point fingers at and make sometimes cruel jokes about those who are different from the rest of us. Whether it’s our skin color, religion, political affiliation, or sexual orientation, there is always something to gossip and make nasty judgements about.

Reading through Shirley’s memories of her first eighteen years of life, I was struck by how “BIG” she was even when she was small. She seems to have had an intuitive side that brought her through difficult moments in a family and church that she went along with and believed in, despite having her own dreams and aspirations for something more. And though following most of the rules, she never became the expected Mennonite wife, wearing a prayer covering, raising a handful of kids, and helping her husband by doing whatever is necessary to run a sometimes not so profitable farm.  Shirley seemed to know, if only on an unconscious level, that she would be more, while still respecting and hanging on to the structural ideals of her church and family. She has done more than succeed as a past president of Goshen College and her work with the Fetzer Institute.

From the beginning, Shirley, named by her mother after the famous child star, Shirley Temple, loved to be with her dad, riding along with him on the tractor and helping out in the other innumerable daily farm chores. Later when her brother and sisters came along, she loved being their teacher, showing them the ways of the natural world, the church, their family and even perhaps the glittering world beyond her parent’s farm. She “blushed” her way through awkward moments when she could barely contain her urges to go beyond what was expected of her. Her parents seemed to understand her concerns and differences with the Bishops of the Mennonite community, allowing her to think for herself while guiding her with gentle kindness.

Of the many heart-warming stories in this memoir, one of my my favorites is when her brother, Henry, gets a “new” second-hand bicycle. Envious of her brother’s good fortune and frustrated by her own old and worn out  bike, Shirley, tries to paint hers in an effort to make it look better using odd cans of paint stashed in the barn. She never asked permission to do so and makes a huge mess that most parents would have a huge fit about. When Shirley tells her dad, about her misadventure, adding that “I think you must love Henry more than me,” he  purchases the proper paints, takes her bike apart, and repaints it to make it look almost like new. Though her mother reminds her about “envy,” her father doesn’t lecture her on what she has done wrong. This special love and Mennonite kindness, prevails throughout the book, making me wish at times that I had grown up as a member of her family.

Filled with interesting tidbits about the history of the Mennonite church, family stories, along with recipes, footnotes and a glossary of terms I had little to no clue about, Shirley’s book took me on a journey through her early life and who and what has influenced her to become the woman she is today. She says it all best in the final pages of her book in, “Why I Am (Still!) a Mennonite.”

In the complicated world we live in, reading Blush, was for me a calming and refreshing visit to a simpler, less thorny way of living.