That’s what we called my grandfather. He didn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak a word of Polish, other than Dziadzia (“ja-ja”) which means “grandfather.” He died when I was seven and he was 85. A frail man who loved to drink his coffee with his toast, I only recall him coming over maybe once a month from the “old folks home” in which he was put. We lived in a small house squeezing five children and two parents into three bedrooms, so there was no room for him. His wife had died when I was six months old, so I don’t remember my grandmother at all other than one faded black and white cherished photo, edges worn away, of her holding me shortly before her death. I was told she was a living saint, living through World War I, emigrating to America, helping those around her in the Depression when she barely had anything herself. She prided her herself on baking everything from scratch and then sharing it with those who had nothing.
She died a horrible death. She had terrible asthma and medication in the twentieth century isn’t what it is today. She would heave terribly, gasping for breath, particularly when it was hot or her allergies were intolerable warmer weather. Then came the summer of 1954 – it was August and it was in the 90’s for days. My mother decided to take her three young children for a Sunday ride and her last memory is waving to her as she stood at the window of their modest apartment in Chicago’s Polish neighborhood. The white lace curtains she sewed were parted as her sad eyes seemed to know that it may be the last night she saw her newly married daughter who already had three young children instead of the famed opera career she had dreamed of and worked for her whole life. She was literally waving goodbye forever. When my mother returned, her mother was at the kitchen table, her head resting on the formica. She was dead. She simply couldn’t catch her breath and her heart gave out trying to help her for the last time.
Where was Dsiadzia? In the next room, oblivious to her life-and-death trauma. He was a simple tailor in Poland and when he brought those skills to America, he found a terrific job with Hart Schaffner & Marx. When his wife came ten years later, they had two children, my mom and my Uncle Ted. Life was good until my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother, a monsignor in the Catholic Church died. His other brother kicked them out of the apartment building he owned. My grandfather lost his job. He lost his sanity. He was never the same. My grandmother took care of him for decades, divorce not being a reality in this new country of hers.
I never really knew Dziadzia but the only significant event that happened was when he died. My mother never seemed close to him, but after we went to his funeral mass and then to the cemetery, we walked back to the car and it was the first time I saw my mom cry. My mom never cries. She taught me to be strong. I wondered why that time was so emotional for her since she didn’t seem very close to him. She could have had him at our house more often, but no one ever seemed to want to pick him up and bring him to sit in a house that was quite raucous, certainly compared to an old folks’ home. No one wanted to bother with a man who couldn’t speak English and seemed like a burden. But at that moment, she just broke down and cried at the car, probably realizing that now she no longer had any parents. Maybe that’s a scary thing in life. But when you grow up as independent as I did, I don’t see things that way. To me, it’s all about the relationship you have with that person when they are alive. If it is distant and meaningless, a person’s death doesn’t really matter. It mattered how you treated them during life, then there is no guilt. Few tears. You did all that you could. If you don’t speak to that person on a regular basis or have any dependency on them for your existence, I’m sure they think the same about you. Living, dying. Isn’t it all the same if you didn’t talk to them or build a meaningful relationship with the person, even if it’s your immediate relative? When my dad’s wife died, my brothers and sister decided to go to her funeral. My dad threw us out. He asked us to leave. He did not want us there. We quitely left. Forget that she was the one who wrote us the nasty notes. Forget that she would never put our calls through to him, saying he was too busy to speak to his children. Now suddenly we were the bad guys for trying to pay our last respects to a woman who meant nothing to us. We did it out of respect for our dad, and it meant nothing. Even in death, some people cannot forgive and it is a lesson that is passed on to your children as they learn to be as hardhearted as you.
I always thought I would grow up one day to be a U.S. Senator. I thought I would have an impact on thousands of lives. I thought I would use my intelligence, my strength, my vibrance for life to help as many people as I could while I would make a mark in my life. When I saw that was never going to happen, you realize all you can do is have an impact on the few people around you and as you get older, instead of that circle becoming larger because you know more people, that circle becomes smaller. Your family members dwindle and do you really have friends? Or do they quickly learn to live without you? It’s all part of the heart of darkness.
Dziadzia wasn’t the one.