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. 

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.