Usually, we could hear a nun approaching behind us. Those clacking rosaries and heavy footsteps gave children advance warning before the wrath of heaven descended upon their misdeeds. I must have been extra tired that day because I heard nothing, not even the rustling of the voluminous black habit Sister Wilhelmina wore. I was in the last seat near the back door of the classroom. Sister must have slipped into the hall and attacked from behind.
Sister Wilhelmena was the oldest nun at St. John School, and the most petite. She was not my regular second grade teacher, but was the room monitor for First Friday breakfast period. Every first Friday of the month, the students attended Mass before classes began and were allowed a small breakfast afterwards at their desks. I brought my usual breakfast that morning, coffee and a Tastycake treat.
Yes, I was a seven-year-old sugar and caffeine addict.
I remember drinking coffee as a toddler. By elementary school, I had a two cup a day habit. I drank the strong stuff, percolated, with a splash of milk. I’ve often wondered if I was self-medicating with the caffeine because coffee often averted my cluster migraine attacks when I was young. I’ve also wondered why my mother allowed me to drink coffee at such a young age, but times were different then, I suppose.
I had to admit it to Sister. She was looming behind me and staring at the open thermos. Our corner of the classroom was beginning to smell like a coffee shop.
“Coffee, sister,” I whispered with my head down.
No ruler descended. No ear was grabbed.
“My mother allows me to drink it,” I said, daring a glance at the nun.
Sister Wilhelmena instructed me to wait a minute before I took another sip, then she slipped away. I sat frozen for an eternity. I didn’t look up, just sat staring at my cursed thermos. As if summoned by magic, a tiny porcelain teacup with pink roses appeared on my desk.
“Would you share just a cup, child?” Sister Wilhelmena whispered.
My shaky hand poured the coffee into her teacup. Sister Wilhelmina savored each sip with her eyes closed, surely sending a prayer of gratitude to heaven.
“Are you a praying man?” Detective Phil Large said as he hoisted the suspect by the collar and belt, then hung him, head-first, out of the third story window.
“If you are, you better start praying now.”
According to the story told to me by a veteran detective in the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, the suspect confessed immediately. I was surprised, not that Phil might have dangled a man out the window, but that the suspect didn’t confess as soon as he entered the same room with my uncle. Philip Large, at six foot four, towered over everyone. His thick dark hair and “five o’clock” shadow added to his law and order mien.
I was scared of him! One of my earliest memories is my trying to crawl from one chair to another at my grandmother’s house without drawing the giant’s attention. (Yes, I said crawl, so I must have been a baby or a toddler at the time). The giant saw me and scooped me up into his arms with a great roar and a belly-tickle! I don’t have many memories of Uncle Phil because he died in 1964 after the degenerative disease ALS slowly and methodically paralyzed him. Seeing such a huge, tough legend-of-a-man rendered immobile in a wheelchair was more terrifying to me than were those belly-tickles.
The doctors thought that Phil’s years in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II might have triggered his disease. Phil was captured in Tunisia early in the war and was not released until his camp was liberated. His beloved father William died of appendicitis during Phil’s captivity, and the news devastated Phil. When Phil arrived back in Camden, his own sister Irma walked past him on the street. She did not recognize her own brother because Phil had lost so much weight and looked so haggard. Irma told me that Phil, so gregarious and outgoing before the war, stayed inside the house with the shades drawn for weeks.
About ten years ago, I received a telephone call from an unknown woman. She found me through a newspaper interview I had given to a Courier Post reporter about World War II prisoners of war. The woman claimed that her late husband was captured in Tunisia with Uncle Phil. The husband had been seriously wounded, and Phil saved his life by carrying him across Tunisia, then Italy, then through German lines to POW Camp 3B near Stuttgart, Germany.
A few months later, I received a packet from a newspaper reporter filled with articles about Phil’s career. As a Camden City police officer and a Camden County detective, Phil cracked many cases and made notable arrests. My favorite story is an interview Uncle Phil gave to a reporter when he was sixteen. Phil had been selling newspapers on the corner of 3rdand Federal Streets in Camden since he was eight years old. According to the article, young Phil considered himself an entrepreneur and intended to carve out a career in the newspaper business.
The reporter noted that teenaged Phil was a keen observer of human nature. His mind was a mental notebook of hundreds of incidents and experiences. Phil had sage advice for the reporter and for us all:
“If you keep your eyes open, you’ll see that something is going on every minute, and there’s nothing that goes on but what you can learn a thing from it.”
A finger poked through the metal grate separating us. I reached out my hand and was immediately hooked into a finger embrace.
“Me, too! Me, too! Me, too!”
Fingers wiggled through the metal barrier that separated me from the nuns. The small room echoed with giggles as I went down the line, grasping each finger in turn.
My family had a relationship with the sisters that began in the 1930’s when my dziadek (grandfather) would donate food from his produce store to the convent. As a child, I loved visiting the old medieval-styled stone church on Haddon Avenue in Camden. The convent’s grounds were next to Lourdes Hospital, but were separated from the hospital, and the world, by thick stone walls and iron gates. The nuns did not serve the hospital. They belonged to a cloistered, contemplative Dominican order, dedicated to praying for the world while remaining totally removed from it. Stepping into their sanctum was like time-traveling back to the 1600’s. Only one nun was permitted to step outside the cloister to interact with the outside world. The others interacted with lay persons only by letters and by receiving the occasional visitor on the other side of the barrier in the small visiting room.
The women spent their days reading and answering letters full of prayer requests, reciting the rosary, and maintaining the convent. Except for the prayer recitations and a short game time each evening, their days were spent in total silence. I sometimes wonder if they passed around my letters, which I tried to make chatty and gossipy for their entertainment. In return, they would send me holy cards and hand-made rosaries with letters assuring me that they were praying for my illnesses and final exams and safe driving.
They prayed in my stead when I found it hard to pray. Their chapel served as a spiritual refuge when I stopped attending Mass. Although their cloistered lives seemed anachronistic, I saw the sisters as an independent community of women in a church that was, and still is, a man’s world.
My last visit occurred a few years ago, although I did not know it at the time. I opened the ancient wooden door at the visitors’ entrance and walked into the foyer that smelled of incense-permeated old wood and stone. I rang the bell next to the tiny grated spy hole. I could hear its ringing echo through the building, then a few seconds later, the sound of footsteps. A panel slid open behind the tiny window. I could discern a pair of eyes.
“Sister, I would like to pray in the chapel,” I said as I slid a letter with a donation into the barrel next to the spy hole.
“How are you dressed? Do you have shorts on? You can’t come in her with shorts,” she barked.
I had gotten the tough gatekeeper-nun that day. I moved back a few feet so that she could see my clothes. I told her that my figure was well past my wearing shorts, and I wished I could disobey her and wear them, but I wouldn’t do that to my worst enemy. I told her this joke every time, and she never laughed, not once. Instead she pressed the buzzer that controlled the chapel door, and I had to run quickly to open it before she ceased buzzing. I’m sure that was my penance for the bad joke.
The chapel was a big church with multiple side altars, each placed in a cave-like alcove in the thick stone walls. Icons, candles, more candles, and statutes filled the church. When I was young, one of the altars contained shoes and crutches of those who were miraculously cured by the Lourdes relic ensconced in the stone wall to the right. On each side of the main altar were steps leading to a loft containing statues. The loft usually had a small kneeling station with pencils and papers where supplicants could scribble their prayer requests.
I was usually the only visitor, although sometimes one or two others sat quietly in the pews. I would walk around the church, then sit quietly in meditation. If I were lucky and arrived at rosary time, the sound of chanting would filter through the church from the unseen sisters, who were hidden from view in an enclosure behind the altar. Even in times when my faith had lapsed and my belief was weak, sitting alone in the cavernous space, while unseen angels chanted and incense permeated the air, was an emotional spiritual experience.
My last visit was more mundane, bittersweet to recall now, since neither the sisters nor I had any idea the convent was to close soon after. I was sitting in the church when I heard a voice call my name and ask me to go to the visitors’ room because Mother Immaculate Heart wanted to see me. Immaculate Heart was the Mother Superior of the convent. She was a tiny woman with a big heart and a hearty sense of humor. She was over ninety years old and had spent almost her entire life in the cloister, having entered as a teen. She had recently been hospitalized and told me about the grand time she had joking with the doctors and nurses. The hospital had given her a special room overlooking the convent grounds so that she could see her lifelong home from above.
After a few minutes, the other nuns filtered in behind the metal grate. Fingers poked through the grate and each had to be touched in turn. I showed the nuns the box of McMillan’s doughnuts that I had brought for them. They adored sugar doughnuts. I had the impression that the cakes would be their dinner, not their dessert. Donations had been dropping for years. The roof leaked, and the kitchen was as archaic as their cloistered lifestyle. The women were surviving on food and funds provided by a dwindling number of donors.
Mother Immaculate Heart died soon after that visit. The few remaining nuns were dispersed to nursing homes or a sister convent in New York. The next time I visited, the church was stripped and silent, for all the angels were gone.
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.
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 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.