A FEARLESS PARADE

Note: “Dziadzia” is a diminutive term that our family used for the Polish dziadek (grandfather). As children, we pronounced it “ja-ja.”

My grandfather could not fly, or leap over tall buildings with a single bound, but I would not be surprised if one day I heard a story told that he accomplished those feats and more. Watson Burdalski was a legend in the Polish Whitman Park section of Camden, New Jersey, in the 1950’s. I heard that Dziadzia once swam across the treacherous Delaware River to Philadelphia. He was an acrobat who could pop his joints in and out at will. He was an enforcer not only for the mob, but also for a small Polish National Church congregation that was being bullied by loan sharks. Dziadzia did not belong to the church, but, like Superman, he came to the aid of anyone in the neighborhood that had need of his tough guy exterior and strong arm. The priest who told me the story assured me that there were many more stories like his. 

            “Your Dziadzia was a legend in Camden,” he said. “He was a great man.”

            Some of the legends have a sour note. Watsie, as he was known in the Polish section of Camden, spoke his mind, freely and loudly. He berated customers who came to his grocery shop with a competitor’s bag in hand. He yelled at people–or so I have heard. I don’t remember any yelling. In my mind, any loud or harsh words I may have heard him utter were well-deserved by the recipient. I idolized him and felt protected by him, as though I had someone on my side who was afraid of nothing. 

            One warm October evening in 1960, I presented him with my first report card.  After closing his produce store, Dziadzia took me on a celebratory tour of the other shops along Mt. Ephraim Avenue, introducing his genius–his first grandchild, of course she is a genius! — granddaughter to his fellow merchants. The first stop was Rossner’s Shoe Store next door. Heads nodding solemnly, Mr. and Mrs. Rossner approved of my grades. Next, we walked across the street to the dress shop. As I tried on a frilly red dress in the makeshift dressing room in the storage area, I heard Dziadzia bragging about my straight “A’s.” I poked my head out of the curtain and called to him. 

            “I didn’t get straight A’s,” I said. “I got…” 

            He cut me off with a wave of his hand and turned back to speculating with his fellow merchant about my future as a doctor or president. I emerged in a fluff of crinkly red tiers and was ordered to parade up and down the narrow store aisle. After the dress was modeled and packaged, Dziadzia and I capped off the celebration with a chocolate ice cream soda at Chris’s Sweet Shop.

            We formed a mini-parade that evening–Dziadzia strutting along Mt. Ephraim Avenue, his chest puffed out like a proud peacock, cigar clenched in his teeth, Stetson hat on his head, and little Debbie hopping alongside, solemnly attempting to match his stride. 

            Perhaps, I should stop here and mention that Watson Burdalski had lost a leg to diabetes. He took those strides wearing a heavy, wooden, artificial leg. The prothesis was anchored with bulky leather straps. 

            Having no right leg did not stop Dziadzia from driving, even though handicapped-equipped cars were yet to be invented.  He rigged his standard shift ’50’s Chevy with a broomstick and wooden block and somehow worked all three pedals with that contraption and his left leg. One August day, he arrived to pick me up for an outing, and my mother told me to get in the back seat. She was nervous for my safety in the front seat. But Dziadzia waved a hand at her worries.

            “Get in the front,” he ordered me.

            I looked at him, then at my mother, who shook her head no and mouthed the words “back seat,” then back at him.

             I got in the front. After we turned the corner and escaped my mother’s eyes, he handed me the broomstick and taught me how to push the gas pedal while he worked the shift and brake pedals. 

            From Dziadzia I learned never to be frightened of scars or loss. He taught me to keep moving, no matter what life tries to take away. From him, I learned to treasure the “A’s” of life and celebrate them, even if life’s report card contains lower grades. Sometimes I catch a whiff of a cigar, and I laugh at the memory of our fearless parade. 

First School Dance: Crossing the Generational Divide

Collingswood Junior High School

NOTE: “Linda” is a composite of my friends. In 1954, the most common names for baby girls were Mary, Linda, and Deborah.

As my father pulled the car, full of giggling seventh-grade girls, alongside the Collingswood Junior High School gym on that cool September evening in 1966, I could hear the Supremes’ new hit, “You Can’t Hurry Love” ringing out of the old, red brick building. I could feel the bass notes thumping through the car. As the students opened the doors to enter, the music became loud, then muffled again, as if I put my hands on and off over my ears. In my mind’s eye, the bricks themselves vibrated with the beat. 

            My parents had debated about allowing me to attend the dance. I was now in the seventh grade, and my mother had ideas about my growing up too fast. I already knew the ground rules of my teenage years: no dating until I was sixteen, no drive-in movie theaters with boys, no hanging out in front of Mom’s Pizza Shop on Haddon Avenue. I could attend school dances, but only once a month. The other Saturday nights, I had to visit my Babcia in Camden. Babcia loved to watch The Lawrence Welk Show with me. So, three Saturdays a month, I listened to big band music; the fourth, Motown. 

            The pulsating gymnasium both beckoned and frightened me. What could it contain, I thought, that made my mother fearful? How would dancing transform me into one of those teens my mother was always talking about–the ones she called “fast” or “hard?” Boys were involved, I knew, and there were boys at the dance. There were chaperones at the dance too, parents and teachers, but it was a public school, who knows what they overlooked that the priests and nuns would not have tolerated at my former parochial school, Saint John’s.

            As I crossed the threshold of the gym with my girlfriends, I was petrified. What would I do if a boy asked me to dance? Would my mother find out? I was still young enough to suspect that she had mind-reading powers.

            Linda had already jumped out of the car and was talking to a boy on the gym steps. My mother frowned. I hopped out of the car and slammed the door before she could decide to take me back home.

            The door to the gym opened. My coming-of-age ceremony had begun. My first step inside would cross the dividing line between my new teenaged world and that of my parents. The music hit my ears. I could feel the beat in my bones. The gym was so dark I could hardly make out the faces. In the middle, classmates, mostly girls, bounced and gyrated. Other shapes, mostly boys holding bottles of Coke, lined the walls. To get to the locker room (where we combed our hair and applied way more makeup than was allowed at home), my friends and I had to walk the gauntlet of eighth and ninth graders. Faces peered out at us in the dark.  I felt claustrophobic and free at the same time. I tried to focus on following Linda, who sashayed confidently through the dancers, causing a ripple of heads along the wall to turn as we passed. More than anything, I wanted to be Linda at that moment, but following in the wake of that reflected attention was sweet enough for that night.

            As the night went on, the claustrophobia was replaced with exhilaration. In the darkness, drenched with the music of my generation, I danced with my peers, my tribe, away from my living room, away from my mother’s approbation. I danced over the generational divide and finally understood why my mother feared this rite of passage.

The Book and Other Gifts

The Grill
6th and Penn Streets, Camden NJ
owned by Dorothy and Richard Large

The Book and Other Gifts

     The small rectangular gift sat on the top of a pyramid of Christmas gifts on the top of the pool table in Aunt Helen’s basement. The table held about fifteen piles of gifts, all of the mounds higher than my six-year-old head. The extended Large family was a large family, and each of the cousins received gifts from each aunt and uncle. Stores such as John’s Bargain and Harry’s Discount made Christmas shopping easy and affordable for growing families in 1960, and the boxes seemed to follow a somewhat predictable pattern. For example, the boys under age ten all had a big gift wrapped in a snowman motif at the bottom of their piles. I knew those gifts held plastic World War II style rifles, because I was with my parents when they bought them on sale at the toy store. 

     The cousins were allowed to open only one gift at the party. I had to choose carefully. I was such an Oh So Very Clever Girl because I had a gift-opening plan: if I waited until a few of the female cousins in my age range opened their gifts, I would have an educated guess as to each package’s contents. One year, almost all the girls received stuffed Lassie dogs from Uncle Phil; another, Mr. Potato Head from Aunt Marie. 

     Aunt Dot’s gifts were often unusual. Aunt Dot was different from the other married aunts. She did not have children. Aunt Dot was a businesswoman who owned a bar, the Grill in Camden, with my Uncle Rich. They lived above the bar, where Aunt Dot had her own office in which she “kept the books,” which were full, not of words, but of columns and columns of numbers. Her apartment had a roof deck, which she allowed my brother Jimmy and me to visit from time to time, if we were well-behaved. From the roof, we could see the Camden City Hall, probably the tallest building in the world after the Empire State Building. Aunt Dot had a Hummel figurine collection, which I was not allowed to touch, no way, no how, and I never did. Her kitchen had what she called a “dumb waiter,” which was a contraption that sent food and plates down to the bar and up again. She also employed a housekeeper who kept the apartment spotless.

     These unusual Aunt Dot-isms meant that the gift on the pinnacle of the pile was either a gem or a dud. I was fixated on that small package. Was it worth the risk? If a dud, I would be stuck with it while the other cousins played with their new toys.

     I stood on tippy-toes and picked the small rectangle. It had a solid heft in my hand, which was unusual. I hesitated for a moment, then tore off the wrapping paper.

     A book. The gift was a book. More specifically, the gift was the novel Heidi by Johanna Spyri. 

     I didn’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed. I was in first grade and had just begun to learn to read that fall. I had only read school books and primers about John and Mary (the parochial school version of the Dick and Jane series). I had certainly not read any book so thick and with no pictures. I thought awhile, then decided that the book was special. I felt grown up just owning it. I would read it and become just as smart as all my older cousins plus all the adults in the room. I would know the secrets known only by those who could read. 

     One day that January, after the excitement of the holidays wore off, I sat down with Heidi. I was not prepared for the effect that reading a novel would have on my mind. My small world expanded to include foreign lands and new emotions. My brain swelled with new ideas and possibilities, and my heart burst with love and hope and miracles. While I was reading Heidi, I was not in South Jersey, but in the Swiss alps with Grandfather and Peter, and the blind grandmother. I wanted goat’s milk and cheese for lunch, even though I hated milk and didn’t like cheese without bologna. 

     I held my breath as Clara took her first steps without her wheelchair. The nuns had taught us about God, but Heidi introduced me to Mother Nature. In a world of plastics and disposables, I learned that the environment could cure ills both physical and emotional. 

     The book from Aunt Dot was just one gift that expanded my thinking. My aunt showed me that that women could run businesses and have offices. A woman could live in an apartment in the city and collect delicate figurines. A woman could stand on her own roof at night and gaze upon a world that I could only see through books. Eventually, those books would lead me to explore that world on my own. 

My first house? Yes, in the city with a roof deck and a library.

…And, that’s what Deb said.

The Off-Season

     When I was five years old, I was entrusted with a huge secret, one that no other child in the world could know: I knew what Santa Claus did in the off-season. 

     That’s right, I knew Santa’s summer disguise. I could spot him on the street, in a store, or at the race track. I never told another soul for almost 60 years. Santa’s secret has been safe with me until now.

     My wise and worldly Dzia Dzia, my Polish grandfather Watson Burdalski, introduced me to Santa in the off-season.  Dzia Dzia owned a produce store on Mt. Ephraim Avenue in Camden. Dzia Dzia loved to do something he called “playing the numbers.”  He included me in this game because I had learned my numbers, and he said I was very, very good at picking the correct ones.  Dzia Dzia also liked a game called “playing the horses,” but I did not learn to play that game until a year later, when I was six and could read something called a “racing sheet.” 

     One summer day, Dzia Dzia told me that Santa Claus was on his way.  If I were well behaved and did not speak out of turn, I could meet him. Santa would be in his disguise, not dressed in red.  

     And, Dzia Dzia cautioned, I must not tell anyone that I met Santa, especially my Daddy, because Daddy was a cop, and cops were not allowed to know the secret.

     I could barely contain my fear as a man in a gray suit and fedora strode into the store, carrying a worn brown leather briefcase. He smiled and tipped his hat to me. I nodded and muttered “hello, Pan”  (a Polish greeting for an older man).  I was scared, not only because I now knew the biggest secret in the world, but because this man, this tall, skinny man with the shiniest of shoes, he knew all. As the holiday carol goes, he knew when I slept, he knew when I awoke. He even knew if I were bad or good! I stared at those shiny, shiny shoes and didn’t dare look up.

     Santa and my grandfather spoke for a few minutes, laughed, then asked me for my favorite numbers. I don’t remember what I answered, but they seemed to like my picks. They went into the back of the store and told me to alert them if a customer arrived. A few minutes later, Santa left with a smile and another tip of his fedora. Dzia Dzia was very happy and said, “Santa brought Christmas.”

     However, Santa soon stopped bringing Christmas in the off-season. Santa started taking so much money from Dzia Dzia for these numbers games that the store shelves became empty. I would still help Dzia Dzia pick his numbers, and later his horses, but I was not good enough at the games to make Christmas happen in the springtime again. In time, Dzia Dzia grew ill from his diabetes, and the store eventually closed. So, my memory of Santa Claus is much different than yours. While most people remember his red outfit and white beard, I remember those shoes. Those shiny, shiny shoes.

A POLISH CAMDEN KITCHEN

by Deborah Large Fox

My dziadek, Watson (Wencel) Burdalski,
in his kitchen at 1545 Mt. Ephraim Avenue, Camden NJ
about 1950

            “Children should be seen and not heard.”

            To use another saying common to my parents’ generation, if I had a nickel for every time I heard that admonishment as a child, I’d be a rich woman. But I have since learned to be thankful for those mute occasions. I sat quietly in the background– an odd, quiet child registering sights and sounds and smells other people missed.

            Being out of sight, out of mind had its advantages. I was allowed to keep my Polish “Dzia Dzia” company while he worked in his produce store.  I sat quietly, watching, listening, smelling, sometimes tasting if permitted. And while I cannot recall dates or names without error, I do remember the shiny black patent leather shoes the local bookie wore, the feel of sawdust scrunching under my white Keds sneakers, and the smell of fresh fish on ice. If today I see a blank fish eye staring back at me at the supermarket, I freeze. I am five years old again, surreptitiously poking at the shiny fins and gills.

            What a time machine our senses are–memory keepers ready to transport us over years in an instant! I catch a whiff of cigar smoke outdoors, and I am sitting on Dzia Dzia’s lap.  I taste dill in a noveau cuisine restaurant dish, and I am at his dinner table, almost a half century ago, savoring every drop of his wild mushroom soup, forbidden to me when my parents were present, for no one knew what sidewalk crack spawned the possibly poisonous fungi. The smell of onions baking in butter produces a tear in my eye, but not from the vapors. My throat catches because I am suddenly in a Camden kitchen again, feeling the heat of the oven, smelling the sizzling chicken fat, rolling the bitter sauerkraut on my tongue. 

            Every fall, I buy a pomegranate.  The sight of its leathery skin evokes the feel of the red juice running down my fingers, the crunch of the seeds on my stained teeth, and the face of Dzia Dzia, smiling as he watched me devour every last juicy seed.  I place it on my windowsill and glance at it while I am cooking, and Dzia Dzia is with me still.