Trouble woke me up early. Only two years old, my first memory: startled from sleep, I follow my mother to the road where she covers with old burlap a dead dog, just run over. My world was frightening and tough, from the beginning. Polish Catholic, my harsh paternal grandmother ruled our house. The men were there to eat and sleep. Alcohol, incest the norm in our neighborhood. With just the clothes on our back, one night Ma spirited us all away to her mother's small subsistence farm in the country where I woke up to imagine I had died and found myself in the Garden of Eden. Plants, animals, fishing in the old muddy river across the railroad tracks: here I could dream! All short-lived when we moved again into our barn-like house of stark poverty and deprivation. I learned from my mother how to ride the rapids, how to grab onto the sides of life's often flimsy, careening boat. Catastrophe visited us, but you will see how our story, my hope, survived.
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Stella's BARNA Memoir
By Stanley Joseph Bieda
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Stanley Joseph Bieda
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWake up! What's happened? There was only silence in the house, no words, yet even at two years old, I was tuned to my mother's energy. Now I sensed in my sleep some intense vibration coming from her body downstairs. I woke to find her rushing to the back door and felt drawn like a magnet to follow in her footsteps to the yellow brick barn behind our house. She grabbed a couple of moldy gunnysacks and raced to the road in front. "Don't look," she warned, before we got there, but I couldn't help myself. I stared at the twisted, bloody body of a dog lying dead alongside the road, just run over. Before she could hide it with the old burlap, that sudden death seared its way into my memory.
The driver of the car, a big man wearing a shabby coat, a scowl on his face, came walking back to the scene where we stood with our neighbors from across the street. He whined about the accident. "I couldn't stop in time. He just came across in front of me. Whose dog is it? Why isn't he tied up?" No one knew the answers. Though we'd seen the dog around in the neighborhood, he didn't belong to us. We all stood in an awkward, tense silence, shocked by this death. I went back into the house alone and got in bed, shaken, as this first memory slipped into my sleep, into my dreams. A sense of life's sudden dangers had found me at age 2, 1938.
A short time after this dog incident, my dad was pulling me and my older brother Peter up a hill on a sled near our house, a special time since we only saw him on weekends, when he came home from work in Chicago. A heavy wet snow fell on us. At the top my dad gave me a big shove and down the hillside I accelerated, the wind and snow flying into my face. I felt so free, so excited, until half-way down when I realized I was heading for the road before me at the same place the dog had been run over. I managed to roll myself off the sled just before reaching the bottom, not hurt but scared. Very early, I was learning: watch out, be careful, danger may come swiftly.
Chapter TwoNot long after these early childhood memories in Wadsworth, Illinois, Dad had us all move again, this time back to Evanston, Illinois, my birthplace. We lived in back of Grandma's house in a small one bedroom cottage situated on the same city lot at 1206 Florence Ave. This was a quiet residential neighborhood right across the street from Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church and School. Although we were back from where we'd moved a few months ago and closer to his job, we still didn't see much of him. When he did come home he slept at Grandma's probably because there was too little room in the cottage. Our quarters were very cramped. There was a small bathroom off the galley kitchen with a small table, a small dining room with no table or chairs and a bedroom with two twin beds next to each other where we all slept crossways. The girls slept on one side of Ma, the boys on the other side of her.
Ours was what we assumed to be a typical Polish Catholic family. The men fathered many children and the wife was expected to care for them. Mothers didn't leave the house to go to work. They stayed home and looked after the kids, cooked, cleaned up, washed the clothes, shopped for groceries and got us off to school and church. Dads left the house to work, bring home the money that would support everybody. Everyone in the family attended mass and other church functions on a regular and frequent basis as dictated by Grandma Mary, a stout, heavy woman and very pious, religious, church-going lady. She wore her babushka on top of her head like all the other ladies did when in church which was right across the street from the house, convenient for all of us. She insisted that we all attend.
We lived in that little one bedroom house, crammed full with red-headed people, for the next five years. Brother Peter, myself, one twin sister Therese and Ma were conspicuously red-haired. A few years later my youngest brother Ken would arrive red-headed as well. How could so many red heads assemble in one family is such a small space? It sometimes seemed a curse to have gotten the genes for such a rare hair color. As children we were always told not to be seen or heard, but how could you help being seen, especially with so many gathered in one place. I was the only red head ever in my classes throughout my school days. My sister Martha and brother Ed had dark brown hair like my dad. Sisters Mary and Helen were blondes. They had a slight advantage of at least looking like most of the other kids in school.
Somehow we managed to live all cramped up, six kids and a mom who was always under the watchful eye of her mother-in-law. Grandma, with her loud and rasping voice, would scold Ma when she got lazy, like when she sat around reading magazines or not giving us the care Grandma expected.
Grandma lived in the "Big House" as we called it, in front of ours, with our Aunts Steff, Mary and Dorothy, Uncles Stanley, Tony, Teddy and Wally and Grandpa Joe. The oldest brother, Joe, had married and moved out. Not one person occupying the "Big House" had red hair. No one was allowed to miss church services on Sundays. There were various reasons for going, such as holy days, funerals (friends and relatives) and just on general principles, a daily discipline. To Grandma's way of thinking, religion and church were more important then schooling. Countless times we walked across the street with Grandma holding our hand for another service. The huge bells would toll from the belfry by the rectory on the corner of the block, sending strong vibrations off the house walls you could actually feel. Masses were said in Latin and the priest spoke Polish from the pulpit.
Only Aunts Mary and Dorothy finished high school. Steff was relegated to second mother status in the family. She would do the cooking, cleaning, ironing and also take care of the younger brothers and sisters. All my uncles quit school and went off to work at various jobs earning money to support the household needs. Grandpa Joe had a job as a janitor at a downtown Chicago bank. My dad tended bar in Chicago at nights and on week-ends. We kids never saw much of him, but he did keep my mother busy raising kids, a total of six at this time. While Pete and I attended school across the street, my four sisters stayed home with her.
Chapter ThreeThe school playground was surrounded by a ten-foot high chain link fence. We had slides, swings, teeter-totters and monkey bars to climb on. "Let's play on the teeter-totter," Pete said. "Get on, I lift you up." So I did get on but when I got to the top, Pete got off at the bottom, letting me come crashing down with a thud. The handle bar I held had a jagged end that cut my leg. Bleeding, I painfully ran all the way back to the house. Ma washed it off with soap and water. Peter thought it was so funny. I had that scar on my leg for years.
The gates to the playground were not always open to us. At those times we learned to scale the chain link fence. I managed to get to the top on one climb up only to have my feet slip so I impaled my wrist. I had to reach up above with one hand to release myself lest I tear off a huge chunk of skin. I never did scale that fence again. More soap and water and another big scar for my painful experience.
The stockade fence around our small, brick-laid yard in back by our little house was somewhat easier to attempt. I climbed up to see what our neighbors were doing, an act they didn't always appreciate. Sometimes they would yell and make faces or growl at me like a dog. It would scare me and I'd stop for awhile, just peeking at them between the cracks in the fence. I also scaled up to watch the garbage man come by in our back alley. He drove a horse drawn wagon and came by once a week, shouting, "Rags and old iron, rags and old iron." This was an exciting time for me watching that big horse come clippity clopping by, pulling his junk wagon through the alley. The horse's hooves pounded the ground and often the horse would drop his piles of manure. Sometimes he'd whinny and snort from his nose. The city air smelled like farm country for the rest of the day. What a fascinating animal, a big, strong creature with such a unique, special odor about him.
Chapter FourGrandpa Joe liked to fish. Besides work, sleep and play his clarinet, Grandpa Joe was a fisherman. I would watch him leave the house early every Saturday morning with his fishing pole over his shoulder, a very short man dressed in his rumpled pants and coat, carrying a bucket in his hands. He would return with a bunch of fish at the end of the day. I asked him one time if I could go fishing with him next Saturday. He told me "No. Stashu, you're too young to fish at the lake. Besides, you don't have a pole, line or hooks." He explained this to me with a gentle smile on his face, sincerity in his eyes under his familiar furrowed brow.
It took me the greater part of that whole next week to prepare myself for my first fishing trip with my Grandpa Joe. I broke some tree branches off of a tree in our yard, found some string in our basement and a big safety pin from around my grandma's sewing machine. I custom made my own fishing gear, tied the string onto the tree branch which I whittled down to straight, tied the big safety pin on the string and I was ready to go. I waited for him on the front porch steps that next Saturday and when Grandpa came out that door to go fishing, I jumped up all excited, "I'm ready, Grandpa. See, I made my own fishing pole." He looked down at me with an ever so sad smile and told me I couldn't go along because I was too small to go fishing. I don't think he wanted the responsibility of having me fall into the lake off the end of the pier on his watch. I was so heart-broken, tearful and disappointed, watching him walk away down the sidewalk. I never asked him again. Just the same, I always liked Grandpa Joe, such a quiet, kind man. He spoke to me in Polish. Somehow I know I understood him and what he was saying in his own gentle way. I felt he cared about me and had my best interest at heart. When I went down to the basement, I would look at him as he slept. I would look at and touch his clarinet that he played on occasion. Knowing this instrument to be his pride and joy, I was very careful. When I found him to be asleep I would take a cigarette from his pack of Marvels, go out back of the garage, light up and puff on it like I'd see him do, blowing smoke out of my mouth. Ma never watched me that close when I was outside. Sometimes Grandpa would send me to the store on our block to buy his cigarettes for him. I'd give the store clerk a dime and a nickel and take the pack home to Grandpa, feeling like an important courier, walking, half-skipping, happy to be in service to my grandfather.
Chapter FiveThese were the WWII years of the early l940's. My dad and his brothers, except for Joe and Wally, enlisted in the army. Joe carried a lot of excess weight and had heart trouble; Uncle Wally was deaf and dumb but very physically fit. It was the patriotic thing to do back then, for our country was at war: to defend our country from Hitler's army and Japan's attack at our naval base in Pearl Harbor. Most foods and other consumer products in those times were rationed through coupon books. Since our dad was a soldier fighting for his country, we were entitled to ration stamps for most everything we needed to buy at the stores. Ma was getting a steady pay check from the government every month along with those food ration stamps.
For the most part, these were good times for us and for me, especially. We didn't get a lot of meals made for us at home except on Sundays after church when Ma would fry some chicken or make spaghetti for us, but all I needed to do was to walk into Grandma's back door and announce myself. She would ask me, "Are you hungry, Stashu? Do you want something to eat?" My appetite was ample as a growing boy and she would provide. Grandma cooked delicious Polish recipes, stuffed cabbage (gawumpkee), pirogues, baked breads and home-made soups. There was always something left over from her meals for me to eat. Sometimes I watched her preparing dough for certain recipes, spreading it around on top of the table and cutting it up. Sometimes she would cook barley and cabbage as stuffing for the dough, then either fry or bake.
Some nights before bedtime, I would watch her combing her long brown hair that reached down to her knees. In the morning she'd braid it up into a twist behind her head. She was always good to me, her grandson, but brutal with her own children both physically and psychologically, always calling them out, telling them they were never good enough, to be humble and never proud. Aunt Mary would get an unsuspected karate chop up under her nose as she walked in the door coming home late from her job or a date. Grandma would stand beside the doorway entrance out of sight and spring her vicious attack when she came through the door. Usually just one swift blow was delivered. Seeing this made me sick inside, hearing my aunt cry out in pain at the hands of her own mother.
I observed much more pleasant things, such as watching my mother work around the house. When the government check came in the mail, along with the ration stamps, I would go to the store with her, pulling our Red Rider wagon down the sidewalk and into the store aisles where we'd fill it up with food to take home. We'd pile it full with bags of sugar (two per customer), boxes of cereal, loaves of bread, some cold cuts of meat, peanut butter, bananas, some candy bars and all other kinds of good things to eat.
I watched Ma wash our clothes in the old wringer washing machine in our basement. If anything got stuck in the rollers, like her fingers did once in awhile, all she needed to do was to hit the bar on top and the rollers sprung open releasing her fingers. Only a short 5 feet 1 inch tall, she hung the clothes to dry on a low clothesline outside or in the basement during rain. We didn't have a car. The one-car garage, in back of the cottage, stored fire wood and coal for our furnace. My brother, Peter, liked swinging the long handled ax in an effort to cut firewood into smaller pieces. He wasn't up to the task physically, but he tried just the same. The ax was too heavy for him to lift; he told me, while clumsily swinging away, to put my head on the stump and he'd chop my head off. That kind of talk shocked me so I went running into the house for Ma's protection. I never really got along with my older brother after that. I never played much with him and tried to stay as far away from him as I could.
I was a late bloomer when it came to talking and only began to speak before starting kindergarten, at age four. My Aunt Mary announced to the family that Stanley said his first word. "He can talk," she told everybody. Up until this time my brother Pete would talk for me through some invisible communication we had set up between us. My mother would tell my aunts "Don't give him any water unless he says 'water'" not just when I made a sipping sound with my mouth. When Ma wasn't looking, they would sneak some water to me because they knew I was thirsty.
Excerpted from Stella's BARN by Stanley Joseph Bieda Copyright © 2011 by Stanley Joseph Bieda. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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