The DP's in the neighborhood call the radiator factory where my father works the "czerwona" (red) for the rust color of the buildings and the fine coppery dust particles that float unrestrained throughout its cavernous interior. When the men gather round the table drinking whiskey and beers, they affectionately refer to her womanly qualities. "After a week off I start to miss her," they complain, or "She can kill you if you're not careful." All conversation centers around the shop, the union, grievances and seniority. They talk about her night and day and go to her even when sick and hung over. Some, like my Tata, can't even stay away from her while on paid vacation.
I wake early sometimes and listen to the normal, reassuring sounds of my father going off to work. Mama moves around the kitchen, stoking up the Kalamazoo, heating thick vegetable soup and slicing bread and sausage for his lunch pail while Tata has his smoke and warms his heavy boots. They say little to each other. They sit together in silence at the oilcloth covered kitchen table, teaspoons tinkling against their morning coffees. Both are lost in their own morning reveries.
I lie in bed and picture my Tata in the layers of beige-turned brown thermal underwear and his murky black work clothes which have been mended and re-mended. I contrast this tattered image of him with the younger man I've seen in the photo's that are kept in the Schrafft's Luxuro chocolate box. Sporting baggy pants and suit jacket, he smiles into a camera while casually strolling down a French street, an arm around the petite, dark haired woman that is my mother. Another snapshot reveals him astride a motorcycle in high black leather boots, goggles resting on his forehead, obviously cursing the machine.
As he walks through snowdrifts without benefit of morning light, a respectable person on his way to a respectable job, he doesn't resemble the man who sold his wedding ring on the black market for a pound of butter. As he spades the garden in a baseball cap, he doesn't resemble the man who defied German gendarmes by making moonshine out of apple mash. When he looks at the beets in the garden is he reminded how, wrapping two in a cloth, he threw them over the barbed wire fence in Germany to feed his wife and child?
I wonder what he thinks about, my Tata, as he lifts and carries, lifts and carries hundred pound weights of iron against his wiry hundred twenty pound frame? I wonder whether he hears the noise of the factory or feels the fine steel chips settling quietly, irrevocably on his lungs? Does he give himself up to the very real moment or does he retreat to thoughts of himself as a young man in Poland atop a horse drawn wagon decorated with white carnations and colorful ribbons as the best man in his friend's wedding? Is it iron he feels in his hands or is it the harness that he flicks over the backs of a pair of horses? In place of smoke and dust does he smell pine and resin while roaming an autumn forest in Poland looking for mushrooms? Does doubling over in front of his grinding machine remind him of days gone by when a man bowed waist deep to a woman and kissed her hand? Does he long for the feel and smell of newly tilled earth beneath his feet, the sight of ripening fields of wheat instead of concrete and I-beams? Or is the reality the preferred because in some strange magical combination, steel and sweat makes bread to eat. The scorching heat, salt from his pores, dust as fine as flour and muscle fibers continually expanding and contracting blend together to make costly loaves of Polish American bread.
When it comes time for Tata to come home from the woman who teaches him how to make bread, mama sends me down the block to meet him saying that he's tired and needs someone to help him carry his lunch pail home. I run down the street, crossing railroad tracks and passing men on their way to second shift, keeping my eye on that distant point where he always first appears. And we meet at the corner, my hand reaching out to grab the lunch pail.
"Zoska," he'll always say, "you'll get your hands dirty."
It's a small game we play together. I know he's saved me a piece of chocolate as a reward for coming to meet him. I laugh and, tired as he is, he'll smile too, the corners of his eyes creasing up with dirt. And after holding the lunch pail behind his back to tease me, he relents and hands it to me. I take his hand then, not caring about the dirt at all, and we walk home together, hand in hand, the lunch pail swinging.
I wrote this many years ago but I stlll think of and cherish how hard my Tata worked to give us a decent life in America. January 10th marks his birthday.
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.