I believe that we are moved by larger forces,that there is a plan for us and for the world. But history? History is details; history is coincidence. And how far back should one go in telling the story of one's life? What detail--what moment of chance--is the starting point? It was 1917, a Friday night in a Chicago saloon, and a stockyard worker named Big John was getting drunk. I had been born eight months before, but this is when my life began.
The saloon was my father's. A Polish immigrant, he was still a young man, just thirty-four, though already a widower and a father to five. He stood behind the long wooden counter watching the Friday night crowd of men, their pockets fat with cash, for Friday was payday at the stockyards. They were Irish, Polish, Italian, Slav. Some barely spoke English, or if they did, they spoke it haltingly, their accents thick as buttermilk. America, to many of them, was still a new place.
It was summer, and though I do not know it for certain, I imagine it was hot, sweltering. Big John sat at the stool at the end of the bar. He was loud and liked to tell jokes, and he bought drinks for all his friends: a good customer. But he often drank his pockets dry, and the night before, as my father had closed up the bar, Big John's young wife had come in, pulling three young children behind her.
"Look at them," she had said to my father. There were two boys and a girl; they were tiny and wearing pajamas. "He's taking food out of their mouths. He drinks until there's nothing left." She looked at my father pleadingly, tears swimming in her eyes. All traces of youth were nearly gone from her face, erased like chalk from a blackboard by the hardness of her life. "All our money is yours," she said softly.
My father had five children: three stepdaughters, acquired when he had married my mother two years before; another young daughter; and me, his only son. He went behind the counter to the register and took out two dollars, about the same amount that John spent on an average night. He folded the cash into her hand.
"Here," he said. "Go put your children to bed. It'll be all right. I'll talk to him."
The next night, Friday, when John came in, my father watched him closely. He seemed as usual to be in happy spirits, a mood as large as he was, for his nickname was no lie. Broad as a barrel, he stood at least six foot three, with hands like bear paws, thickened and callused from heavy work. My father let him drink a whiskey, then another. When he ordered a third, my father asked him if he wouldn't mind having a word.
John followed him to the back room, which my father used for storage.
"What gives, Piszek?" he demanded.
"Listen," my father said. "I'm sorry, but I have to cut you off. Your wife came in to complain. She said you're letting your kids go hungry, and that's not right." My father shook his head. "I don't want any trouble, but that's how it is. You can drink in my bar, but go easy, will you?"
John poked a meaty finger into my father's chest. "How 'bout I go easy on you, Piszek? This ain't none of your business."
My father stood his ground. "When your wife comes in, that makes it my business."
"Is that right?"
"You bet it's right."
The fight was quick, explosive. My father wasn't a small man--he stood five feet eleven inches tall and weighed in at a little under two hundred pounds--but he was no match for Big John. A black eye, a badly wounded pride, some broken barstools: the damage wasn't bad by bar brawl standards, but for my father, it was enough. After it was all over, he closed up for the night, abandoning most of the mess to clean up later. His customers, who had fled when Big John tore through the main room, would be back the next night, and Big John's tirade would become another story to tell over beer and whiskey after work. No real harm had been done, but in his heart, my father knew he was through. A woman had accused him of being a thief; he had tried to do the right thing, and her husband had beaten him up and wrecked his place of business. Someday it would happen again--not Big John but somebody else, another drunk with hungry kids and a brokenhearted wife and my father had no spirit for it. I see him walking home that night through the dark streets, past row houses and tenements, their windows staring darkly out; behind them children slept, or a woman lay awake, waiting for the sounds of a man's heavy workboots in the hall, stumbling with drunkenness. My father was a peasant, born to the soil. How strange the streets of Chicago must have seemed to him that night. He arrived home, checked in on his sleeping daughters; in the tiny bedroom he shared with his wife, an infant fussed in its cradle. My father had a black eye that was beginning to swell, a cut across his cheek, bruises. His right hand, still clenched, hummed with the force of the one good blow he had landed. He sat on the edge of the bed and imagined his future, and what he saw was not a saloon, the row of men nursing beer and ancient grudges. What he saw was a farm, and horses, and a stream flowing past fields into woods. He entered this vision as if walking into a room, and he knew that what he was seeing was his life. It was a future he understood, the one he believed in. He would find it, and take his family there.
* * *
What I do not know about my parents--the gaps in my knowledge of their history--tells me as much about the people they were as what I do know. The most basic, controlling fact of their lives was that they were born peasants. To many, the word is an unflattering one. A peasant, it is believed, is a kind of mule--a person without education, certainly unsophisticated, probably not very smart. His life is one of backbreaking toil that enriches others but not himself; his vision of the world is narrow and superstitious, composed of dull fact swaddled by a cloud of airy religion, and he carries into his days no hope for something better, no vision for a life other than the one he sees before him, like the plain dinner of hard bread, bitter vegetables, and chewy meat on his plate. When a peasant is asked to sign his name on a legal document--no doubt one he has not read and one that cheats him somehow--he holds the pen as stiffly as a fork as he draws his illiterate X. He lives and works and dies--dumbly, like an animal--on the same square of unforgiving ground, never knowing quite why, and his final thoughts are only of exhaustion.
None of this was true of my parents. Yes, their lives were bound up in work, and they were never rich, and the world was not always fair or kind to them. But they could read and write and think, and they saw more of the world than most of us. Born in Poland in the early 1880s, they traveled halfway around the world to make their home in the United States, and they did so at a time when such journeys were dangerous and complicated and took years of planning to accomplish. They were careful, smart, and capable people, and they owned their own lives.
What I mean when I say that my parents were peasants is that they were serious people who did not dwell upon themselves. It has become accepted today to speak openly about one's deepest feelings, to confess in the most painstaking detail one's private emotional history--even to tell these things to one's children--but my parents would no more have done this than believe that someday men would walk on the moon. To my parents, the past was the past, and the heart a private domain. Disappointments were nothing to dwell on, hopes not something to discuss. Their ambitions were modest: to keep food on the table, a roof above their heads and their children's heads; to live with quiet usefulness and dignity in a world that owed them nothing. In a word, to survive.
So what I know of my parents' early lives is limited to a string of barebones facts, and a few stories they liked to tell. But there is much between the lines.
My father, Peter Piszek, was born in 1883, my mother, Anna, just two years later, both in the tiny town of Tarnow, about sixty miles east of Krakow. My mother, whose family name was Sikora, was one of five children, my father one of ten. Both were born on subsistence farms, though my father's family's was significantly larger--thirty acres, compared to my mother's ten. In these numbers lay their fates; because their parents' modest holdings gave them no legacy, from the start, they were destined to emigrate. Much of the spectacular migration to American shores at the close of the nineteenth century can be accounted for by such simple geometry. Such farms as my grandparents' could pass only to one son; my mother, if she wished to be a farmer's wife, would have to find an oldest son to marry. Thus, of fifteen children--my parents and thirteen aunts and uncles--all but two immigrated to the United States, a story repeated in countless villages across eastern and western Europe.
They did not leave until their early twenties, and the precise year of their passage I do not know. (1904? 1905? Either could be true.) They had been friends in Poland, even dated for a time, but in the mad dash to America, they lost track of one another. To earn their passages, each had worked many years--my father as a farmhand, my mother as a housekeeper to her parish priest. No doubt there are records, somewhere, of my parents' separate entries at Ellis Island, the greatest of all doorways to American shores. They traveled with friends, unaware of one another, arriving months apart. But once arrived, their experience was, at least for the moment, the same: two more young Poles stepping from the floating nationlessness of a passenger ship into the spectacular chaos of Ellis Island's Great Hall. Some twelve million would eventually make the journey through that one cavernous room--even today, nearly half of all Americans can claim an ancestor who passed through the Great Hall--and at the time my parents arrived, the Immigration Station, just a decade old, was processing a million newcomers annually, nearly three thousand every day. For most, the anxieties of a treacherous journey across the sea were not soothed by what they found. No bands played, no flags flew, no trace of welcome was offered to acknowledge the great, hopeful gesture of beginning new lives as Americans; in the Great Hall thousands milled, clutching children and knotted bedsheets to hold their possessions, while a dozen languages and a hundred dialects ricocheted through the air like the sound of a terrible orchestra tuning up. A fellow Pole might have clutched at my father's sleeve, murmuring rumors of deportation; my mother, moving into the turbulence within and taking her place in line, might have heard whispers that some had waited for weeks, sleeping on the floor, only to be turned away. Idle rumors: for the vast majority, my parents included, the process was swift and successful. Forms were filled out, papers passed around; in a ledger book, their names were etched in ink by a grumpy, overtired clerk. They might have eyed him curiously, thinking: That's all? And it was. A door swung open, and they stepped into the bright light of America.
For Poles coming to the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century, there was really only one destination, one Mecca: Chicago. Again, my parents found their ways there separately. My father's route was more circuitous. His first stop was the anthracite region of Pennsylvania, near Scranton, where a strong man could find work in the mines. For four years he dug the ground for coal, and in that time he put aside enough money to buy the tavern in Chicago that Big John would later tear to shreds. He also married, though I know little about this, not even his wife's name. His first life in America as a Pennsylvania miner was one of those private matters he never discussed, though I am tempted to guess that, like so many women at that time, his wife may have died in childbirth. By age thirty my father was a widower and had had enough of mining. He was still strong and sturdy, but in some ways, he was already an old man: he had lost a country and a wife.
Chicago was his next destination--a sensible choice, for there, his loneliness might be cured among the legions of Poles who worked the stockyards and factories. And in Chicago, the story goes, he found my mother--or rather, found her again. I would like to think they simply bumped into one another on the street, as if their reunion were stitched in the stars, but the truth is probably less romantic. More than likely they reconnected through mutual friends, for in Chicago, my father would have sought out people he knew from the Old Country.
My mother, too, had already lived a full life in America. Indeed, her circumstances had become truly dire. In Chicago, she had met and married a Swede named Arthur Peterson, an engineer, and they had three daughters, my sisters Irene, Alice, and May. Together they had settled into a prosperous middle-class life. But then she, too, lost her spouse. How Peterson died I do not know; as with my father's first wife, Peterson passed unremarked into history. Still a young woman, my mother was left virtually penniless, with three daughters all below the age of five. When my father found her in Chicago, she had returned to work as a housekeeper, a trade that barely sustained her.
It must have seemed an act of fate that they were reunited and that such a stroke of luck was a reason to fall in love and marry. So desperate were my mother's straits that she even offered to give up her three girls for adoption if my father would marry her--an extravagant and desperate bluff, of course, and a test of his character that he passed. My father's refusal was swift. Thenceforth, he said, they would be his daughters, his flesh and blood, and from this principle he never once veered.
So, in 1914, my parents--a widow and a widower, ill-used but still hopeful that life in America would turn out as they wished--were married. A simple ceremony: just her daughters were in attendance and a few friends from their South Chicago neighborhood. Like so many immigrants, they had left their families behind and could only write to them of the news. En route to the church, they stopped at a photographer's studio to mark the occasion, and that image, which I still possess, seems to me the most eloquent document of who they were and of their lives before I was born.
It is a striking photograph, and if I were describing the image to someone who had never seen it, I would first say that it is an affectionate picture--that the two people in it seem to love one another, and that the formality of their pose amplifies this fact and dignifies it. Though many photos of that era reveal all too poignantly the hardness of life, bodies and faces worn quickly down by time, this is not the case with my parents. They are attractive people, even beautiful, and still young. Certainly my mother is beautiful. She has a soft, heart-shaped face--a Polish face--and her dark hair, thick and gleaming, is drawn up and away from her brow and cheeks and secured in place with a flowered garland anchoring the extravagant lace veil that cascades down her back. Only the flesh of her face is showing, and an inch or two on her upper arms, for her hands are gloved to the elbows, and her wedding gown, consistent with the era, is high-necked, riding almost to her chin. Perfectly tailored, its flowing skirt surrenders at a nipped waist to a bodice embroidered with lace and small white stones. She is every inch the bride.
The groom, my father, is likewise a handsome specimen. Looking at the picture, one might just as easily imagine him a banker, a railroadman, an heir to some great fortune, as the coal miner turned taverner that he was. He sits beside my mother on a low stool--the effect, again, is formal, although one can also discern that the photographer has posed him in this manner, because he is a good deal taller than his bride. He wears a tuxedo of early twentieth-century vintage, rather like a morning coat, and from his lapel bursts forth a plump corsage that complements the flowers wreathing my mother's hair. His face is what some might call an interesting face, with somewhat large and out-turned ears, a pronounced widow's peak, smooth cheeks, and jet-black hair oiled close to the scalp. Most remarkable of all is his mustache. It is the kind a child might draw, thick and bushy and waxed into delicate points at the tips. Hands folded, he sits stiffly, though not uncomfortably, and my mother stands beside him, both of her gloved hands perched on his right shoulder, forming a kind of loop. Behind them the eye discovers an ersatz wall of books--probably one of several painted canvases that newlyweds could choose as a backdrop. My parents, educated through the sixth grade, have chosen a library, no doubt the grandest thing they could imagine. They gaze into the camera with tight-lipped seriousness, almost without expression, but I imagine that the moment after the photo was taken, they blinked away the brightness of the flash and smiled; for it was their wedding day.
A year later, they had a daughter, my sister Cecilia. Two years after, I came along, my father's first and only son. Then, Big John, breathing 100-proof hellfire and dumb animal rage, tore up my father's bar.
* * *
The conductor said I was in a class by myself, the only child he had ever heard cry the entire distance between Chicago and Philadelphia. I was just a year old, and though I did not know it, I had nothing to cry about. We were headed to what, I still believe, is the very best place on earth.
These days, it might seem foolish to sell off a business and relocate a thousand miles because of one bad customer. But Poles--or rather, the kind of Pole that my father was--can be the most impulsive of people. And I believe, too, that it was a kind of homesickness, a yearning for the peasant life, that prompted our journey. Big John was merely the match that lit the fuse. With the help of his brother William, who had settled near Philadelphia, my father had purchased a sixty-acre farm in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, about forty miles northwest of the city in rural Bucks County. I would spend the first seven years of my life there among the woods and fields, living an existence that was in many ways a meticulous re-creation of nineteenth-century European agrarian life.
Today, the house and its fields look hauntingly untouched, though a closer look reveals that the enterprise has changed: the simple frame structure where we lived, with neither indoor plumbing nor electric light and the simplest homespun furnishings, has been refashioned as a gracious country home. Some of the fields have been returned to woods, and a marshy plot bordering the house to the south has been excavated for a duck pond. Like much of Bucks County, the age of the automobile and the suburban corporate corridor (several major drug companies are headquartered just a few miles from Quakertown) has recast my boyhood arcadia in upscale terms. But in 1916, the idea that someday my parents' sixty acres would be prime Bucks County real estate would have seemed absurd, and indeed, the land was not all that expensive. Beautiful as it was, it was not particularly good for farming, and my father got it cheap. Bordering a creek, perhaps a third of our plot was too low and wet for planting, while another twenty acres were thickly wooded with a tangle of trees and vines. The higher fields, though dry enough, were littered with rocks, some the size of steamer trunks. It was difficult land to farm, and my parents worked it for subsistence, following traditional European practices; we kept a dozen dairy cows, some chickens, a few pigs for winter meat, and with a pair of big Belgian horses, my father turned the fields to plant potatoes, rye, and wheat. Perhaps a few acres were given over to truck farming, and near the house, to a vegetable plot that my mother tended with the girls. It was a simple existence, in most ways more Polish than American, more nineteenth century than twentieth. Quakertown was the farm my parents could never have had in the old country.
I have no doubt that it was a hard life, for my father especially, but I do not remember it this way. What I do remember is this: picking potato bugs in the garden and chasing the butterflies that swarmed in summer; the aroma, dizzyingly sweet, of the apple and cherry trees in the old orchard that someone had planted long ago; the mad dash to the outhouse on cold winter mornings; the sour smell of the chickens and their insane clucking; watching my father push a fistful of mud into a horse's face, a trick he learned in Poland to make a stubborn animal behave; launching a kite high over our meadow, so high I believed it hung over the very world itself; walking with my sisters in winter dusk to the general store to buy kerosene for our lamps, each tree twisted into ghoulish shapes by the winter dusk; being whisked skyward by my father and plopped on the back of one of his draft horses, so thrilled and terrified all at once that I burst, predictably, into tears.
Excerpted from Some Good in the World by Edward J. Piszek as told to Jake Morgan. Copyright © 2001 by University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.