It was in 1851 that the first railroad, the New York and Erie, reached Dunkirk, NY. The tracks began twenty five miles upriver from Manhattan and reached its terminus in what was then a village of 800 souls. While the town never became a major hub of any kind, the railroad did bring commerce and industry and immigrants seeking work. The Germans, Italians, and Polish developed their own little communities and churches on the lake side of the tracks. By 1902, Polish arrivals began building in the less populated region on the other side of the tracks called Górki, the hills, and by the time we arrived in 1954 another rail line called the Nickle Plate was running through that neighborhood. A lot of yards ran alongside these double tracks or backed up to it and to undeveloped land that lay further on. These homes had a little bit more property and seemed more rural, tucked in as they were back away from the main streets. One such pocket of homes in the neighborhood was called Goose Shit Alley.
For the longest time I thought it was called "Goshen" alley, which is how I heard the older Polish women pronounce it. It was said that during the rough times of the Depression, when there were no jobs and money was scarce, the Polish women kept their families going by raising and selling geese. Coal for the winter was expensive, but they kept their families warm by making feather pillows and feather covers, what we call a pierzyna. People said there were so many geese in this neighborhood in those days you could hardly walk by without getting a shoe full.
My mother connected with these older women of Poland. They looked like the photos of my grandmother - sturdy, aproned women with wrinkled faces framed by colorful kerchiefs tied beneath their chins. Their feet were firmly planted on American soil but many were still rooted in the way of life they had known in Poland. A small town girl herself, my mother understood geese; fattening and killing them; using the blood and gizzards to make soup; rendering the fat to make goose grease to rub on chests for bad coughs; stripping feathers to make your own pillows; making your own homemade baster from the feathers to brush an egg wash on top of baked goods; using it all up, every bit, every time.
I suspect it was when she was homesick that my mother went to the alley, when she longed to talk to someone whose ears, like hers, still heard the wind rustling through the grains of rye, who knew what it was to cut wheat at harvest time with scythes and sickles, and to gather mushrooms in the forest after a rainy spell. We'd arrive unannounced, like they did in the old country, mostly because we didn't have a phone for a long time but also because it wasn't necessary. They were always home, always working- gardening, hanging out the wash, ironing, stirring a pot of soup. We'd sit at the kitchen table and they would talk about Poland, about pickle recipes, illness, birth and death and once, rolled down their thick flesh colored stockings to examine one another's varicose veins. No one cared that I was bored to tears but something of those talks, of those visits, must have stuck, must have silently crept in and rooted within me, too, when I wasn't looking.
When someone in our parish died, the funeral director hung out a basket of gladiolas at the front of the funeral parlor. In those days, before everyone had phones, it was a way of announcing that someone had died, that the deceased was ready for viewing and friends and family were welcome to visit. The first to see it were the guys having a beer at the bar across the street. It had these huge windows that gave them a great view of the neighborhood. Then it was word of mouth over fences or at the corner store that generally spread the news. Sometimes when we kids were pedaling through the neighborhood on our bikes and saw the basket of flowers hanging outside the parlor we'd holler out to each other "Hey, who die?" Hey, who die?" and someone would scream, "Hey, I dunno!" and we'd laugh hilariously, high on the sound of our own voices. Sometimes, from the safe distance of the street, we'd pedal by really fast and scream it out while looking at the men at the bar but they never reacted to our crazy antics. If my mother had gotten wind of this behavior she would've pulled out the strap, for sure. The deceased deserve our respect, she'd say, as we walked to the funeral parlor to say our final goodbyes.
Well, who died was one of the women from Goshen alley and I remember feeling badly about the who die business. She was a nice lady who had given me tea and always asked me how I was doing in school. When it was my turn at the kneeler in front of the coffin to pray for the deceased it wasn't the pink gown and ballet slippers that caught me off guard. I'm sure she had left instructions or even picked out which outfit she wanted to be buried in. It's what practical Polish people do, so I understood the wanting to look your very best and she did look lovely. What surprised me was the little satin pillow behind her head: so small, so smooth, so stuffed her head didn't even make a dent in it.
Instead of saying my Eternal Rests like I should have been doing, I mentally removed the satin pillow and replaced it with one of her own making, of the softest down, covered in a white cotton pillowcase, something you could gratefully sink your head into at end of day. And then I'd turn her head into the pillow so she could smell the sun and the wind that came off Lake Erie as the pillowcase dried on her clothes line and so she could hear the honking of the geese still trapped within the fluffy feathers to help keep her company on her next big journey.
Photo taken in Poland by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
The Amphitheater and Gershwin practice cabin at Chautauqua. Postcards by Jane E. Nelson
It's the summer of 1962. With an inflated inner tube across the handle bars I pedal my bike to the lake and spend afternoons paddling around in the water. After supper, along with other kids in the neighborhood we play kick ball in an empty lot next to a railroad line that leads into the locomotive plant, or roller skate or whatever it is we think up to amuse ourselves. There chores as well: weed the garden, help hang out the wash, weekly ironing and that summer I remember an endless round of helping my mother can green beans: wash the beans, trim the beans, pack the beans . Jars and jars of beans waiting their turn for the canner. What a snooze! On those days, I waited anxiously for the mailman. It was the bright spot in a ho-hum day if he delivered a letter from my friend Shirley.
I had met Shirley the previous fall, in eighth grade, my first year at public school and at graduation we promised each other to be pen pals. She was leaving town to help her mother run their guest house called The Cooper at some place called the Chautauqua Institute. She promised to write and I swore I'd write back.
I didn't know a thing about the Chautauqua Institute. I didn't know the full scope of what it meant to spend summers at a world class cultural center. I'd never heard of it, nor been there. I first learned of it through her letters and fell under a spell.
"Dear Sophie," she'd write, "Today as I was walking past the practice cabins, someone was playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2." I had no idea who Rachmaninoff was. I knew Chopin because his Polonaise (in A Major, Op.40 No.1 Military, I was to learn later) was the opening number for the radio program we listened to every Sunday but I'd never heard of Rachmaninoff. Just to say the name was something exotic.
Another day, another letter : "Dear Sophie, the amphitheater was packed tonight. Mischa Mischkoff
performed Brahms. Wish you were here." Then, as a way of bridging the miles between us, she copied out the entire program for my perusal and edification. I didn't even know what an amphitheater was and, truly, I wished I was there, too, but I had about as much chance of getting to Chautauqua as Chekhov's Three Sisters, stuck in the country, had of seeing the bright lights of Moscow. We didn't even own a car and even if we had I doubt my mother would have spent the money on gas to satisfy my longing for a glimpse of an amphitheater. As the saying goes: she had other fish to fry.
Writing back was hard work for me. It's difficult to dress up canning green beans. What do you say? They're a lovely shade of green? Can't wait to taste them in the winter? It certainly lacked glamour but write back I did because I wanted her to write back, to hear more magical names.
At dusk , our family sits around on the front porch, waiting for the house to cool down. My parents are happy to just sit. We kids play Monopoly or I listen to my brothers trying to outdo each other in naming the make and year of the car coming down the road. Sometimes I'm enchanted by the golden, pin-point flashes of the fireflies and try to capture their glow in one of the (amazingly) empty canning jars from the kitchen. Soon, another day of that summer is gone.
You can go to the Chautauqua Institute and work on your novel like Kurt Vonnegut( I wouldn't know where to begin), or write a new musical score like George Gershwin( I know a treble clef when I see one), or scribble in your journal which is something I could and did do years later.
"Dear Shirley, Chautauqua is as wonderful as you described it all those years ago. Why did you never mention that cars aren't allowed on the grounds?"
"Dear Shirley, tonight the amphitheater was packed. The symphony played Mahler's 9th."
"Dear Shirley, I can't remember. Did you ever mentioned that the police here ride bicycles? Verdi's La Traviatta was wonderful last night. Wish you were here...miss you. "
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.