Once, when I was about 11 or 12, I came home from mass one summer morning to find a hobo sitting on our back steps having a sandwich and a cup of coffee. I was so surprised I stopped a few feet in front of him, not knowing what to do or say. This was in the 60's, long after the depression was over, but my neighborhood was riddled with train tracks heading east and west and with spurs leading to the locomotive, radiator, lingerie and canning factories that gave jobs to the men and women in the entire town. But in spite of the changed economy there were those who still rode the rails, homeless and jobless, and they became a real point of interest among us kids. We played at being hobo all the time: marching along the railroad tracks, a long stick with a knotted bundle at the end slung over our shoulders; making chalk marks on the sidewalk and on trees pointing to houses. We didn't know exactly what kind of marks to make to indicate that this house was friendly but someone told us this was what the hoboes did, so that's what we did. We took cans of pork and beans from the cupboard and made "camp" by cooking them over an open fire in the woods and ate the beans sitting around the fire. Nobody told us that we couldn't do any of this stuff and truly, nobody seemed to care what we did during those long summer days as long as we came home for supper and before dark.
There were supposed to be certain locales along the tracks where the hoboes set up their camps. My brothers, who got a lot more freedom than I did, say they saw them there all the time. One of them even asked my brother for an aspirin because he had a toothache but the one time I saw a gang sitting under a tree along the tracks, I ran away in fright. And here was one sitting on our back steps - thick set, gray haired, unkempt, wearing a baggy suit coat and pants. He had on what I later came to know as a pork pie hat. I stared, rooted to the sidewalk, but he was pretty much unflapped by my appearance and kept munching on what looked like a ham sandwich, a few crumbs caught up in his black and gray mustache.
I was so tongue-tied, to this day I don't know whether I even said hello to the man and walked past him up the steps that led into our kitchen. As I came in my mother was going out with the yellow enamel coffeepot in her hand to refill his cup. I watched from the safety of the kitchen window as she poured him another cup and he accepted. There was no dialogue between them. Only after he was gone, the empty cup left on the steps, did my mother tell me that he had knocked on the door. She had understood the words "food" and "give." She had pointed to the steps and he understood that he was to sit.
"Mama, weren't you afraid?" I asked, a result of all the ghoulish hobo stories we kids told each other.
"Nie (no), I wasn't. During the war, everybody was hungry, every day, all day," she tells me, "with people begging for food, doing what they had to do to stay alive, to live through the war." I knew she was talking about herself and the years she spent in Germany as a forced laborer during World War II.
That's the way it was at our house. A person, an incident, a word, sometimes even silence, would ignite memories of growing up in Poland or her memories of the war. It's how I learned history. It's how I learned of what happened to my mother before she was my mother and that she understood people who traveled in cattle cars and had nothing to eat. At one time, she had been one of them.
When we broke up my mother's home, I took that yellow enamel coffee pot. I kept it because at one time she had her hand on that handle and I can put my hand where hers had once been, to connect, to remember that lesson, on that summer day.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.