Read Mother and Me Online

Authors: Julian Padowicz

Mother and Me

BOOK: Mother and Me

Academy Chicago Publishers

363 West Erie Street

Chicago, Illinois 60610

First published in 2006

Paperback edition 2008

© 2006 by Julian Padowicz

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.

Printed and bound in the U.S.A.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data on file with the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-0-89733-570-6

To my beautiful daughters, Karen, JoAnne, and Nadine, who knew Barbara as an exciting, glittering woman, who would not let them call her grandmother.


Over the years, many relatives and friends have urged me to put this story on paper, even if only for my children's sake. Without their urging, I probably would not have made the effort.

I am most grateful to my wonderful wife, Donna, who was not only foremost among the “urgers,” but who also made it possible for me to give this exercise the time that it needed. I am also grateful to Donna, the first person to read my manuscript, for pronouncing the words every author longs to hear, “You have written a beautiful book.”

Memoir manuscripts by non-celebrities are not very popular among publishers. This, I suppose, is because there are so many of them, and because the author of a memoir is not likely ever to write anything else, making him or her a poor publishing investment. Fashioning and then sending compelling query letters to publishers, the vast majority of whom wish you well but don't want to see your manuscript, is a tedious and ego-bruising experience. It was mostly the encouragement of friends who read this manuscript that made it possible for me to continue until Academy Chicago Publishers decided to take a chance with me.

Prof. Jonathan Kistler, my teacher at Colgate University and his wife, Patricia, both dear lifelong friends, were no longer here to cheer me on, but the encouragement and critique they had given me over the years had a strong residual effect. Other friends, whose encouragement made so much difference, include my daughter Nadine Padowicz; my son, Tom Carter; Tom's grandfather, George Carter; my father-in-law, Alvin Lass; friends Jim Larkin, Marilyn Allen, Gerry and Carol Weiss, John and Jeanine Giddings, Rob Vecchiola, Toby Lester, Donna and Ralph Loglisci, Stella Kiwala, and Arlene and Gerry Donowitz.

Above all, I am grateful to Barbara, without whose vision and courage I would have written a very different story… in Polish.

Author's Note

The major events and, above all, the narrator's feelings portrayed in this account are true. Because the memory of feelings and impressions is stronger than the memory of facts, I have had to take liberties to fill in certain facts to make the feelings and the impressions more understandable. Some people, whom I remember as being present, and who were an essential element of the story, cannot be eliminated from the narrative, though I have no memory of their personalities. These have had to be fictionalized. Since this may well do injustice to these individuals, I have changed the names of many characters and some places, and ask that the reader accept this as the somewhat fictionalized account of a true happening.

In addition, in order to give the reader a better flavor of the Polish culture, I have used a phonetic spelling for many proper names. My own name, Julian, for example, though it happens to be spelled the same way in Polish, I have spelled Yulian to approximate the Polish pronunciation. Its commonly used diminutive, as Joe is used for Joseph, would be Yulek. A further diminution, as Joe might change to Joey, is Yulechek or Yul. My last name, Padowicz, becomes Padovich. Where the Polish spelling is
I have changed it to
to, again, approximate the pronunciation, and so on.

Chapter One

My earliest memories are of my governess—Kiki, I called her. I remember her sitting on a chair by my bed reading to me, her first day on the job. I was, I've been told, four at the time, and it's the earliest memory that I can call up.

I was sick. I was sick, as I remember, on most significant occasions at that period of my life—birthdays, the day I was supposed to have a ride on the carousel, the day we were to go to the circus …

Miss Yanka, soon to become Kiki, wears a blue dress with a white Peter Pan collar and buttons up the front. How accurate this memory is, I don't know, but it's as vivid as if it had taken place yesterday. She had a long blond braid which she would wind around her head, and never wore makeup. Kiki never smoked or drank either, except once that I remember her having an earache and Marta, our cook, telling her that smoking a cigarette would help. I don't remember that it did.

There was a photograph of my father on the wall over my bed. He, I had been informed, was in Heaven.

Mother, on the other hand, was usually in Paris or Vienna or Rome or Budapest. Occasionally, I would be told to walk on tiptoe around the apartment and had to wash in the kitchen sink and use the cook's toilet. Then I knew that Mother and my stepfather, Lolek, were back in town and asleep.

Mother, I was told, was very beautiful. Unlike me, she had blond hair, like Kiki's. Sometimes I thought it was even lighter
than Kiki's and sometimes darker. She was taller than Kiki and thinner. She had very large, round eyes and full, round cheeks, which reminded me of jelly donuts. I was to learn later that she had had a screen test once to see if she had it to be a movie actress. Apparently, she didn't. It was Kiki, however, with her light blue eyes and thin pink lips, her blond eyebrows and eyelashes under the crown of braids wound around her head, who was my standard of beauty.

Mother, I decided, didn't wear ordinary clothes. Whenever I saw her, she was either in her bathrobe or what I later learned to call cocktail and evening dresses. Her shoes all had very high heels, even her slippers. I didn't like the way she smelled. It was cigarettes and a lot of perfume. Kiki just smelled of soap. Mother's perfume smelled like I-don't-know-what. My stepfather Lolek was very tall and bald, with a lot of black hair on his chest. People said they made a handsome couple, but I thought Lolek was ugly.

I remember asking once why my father never came back from his trip to Heaven the way Mother and Lolek returned from Paris. We were in the kitchen where Kiki was preparing our supper, which we would eat in the room she and I shared. The cook, Marta and Kiki exchanged looks. Marta had very black hair and a big rear end. Her hands were large too, with rough, dry skin, but when Kiki had a day off and she had to wash me, Marta's hands were very gentle. She came from the country. Her father raised potatoes and sugar beets, and they had a cow. Marta told me she had grown up in a house with a thatched roof.

Some time later, probably that same evening or the next day, Kiki sat me down and explained the whole situation. Technically, it seemed, my father was not really in Heaven. My father was dead, like Marshal Pilsudski who, I knew, had recently died, but while Marshal Pilsudski, a Catholic, had gone to Heaven, Kiki did not really know where a Jew would have gone. Having been a very good man in his lifetime, my
father had certainly not been consigned to Hell, but she knew that Heaven really wasn't where he was.

Over the next two years or so, I learned from Kiki about God and Mary, their little boy Jesus, and the Holy Ghost. This last, I saw from pictures, was like a white pigeon that they had. This, I supposed, was like the canary that I was going to get some day when I was old enough. The four of them, I learned, as well as the angels and saints, all loved Catholics like Kiki.

How they felt about Jews was another thing that Kiki could not speak authoritatively about. Quite likely, I suspected, they weren't even aware of their existence. Certainly, it was quite obvious that the Jews I sometimes had to sit near, though never next to, on a hot and crowded trolley, in their long black coats and huge hats, with their beards and earlocks, had no place among the white-robed and sandaled Catholic residents of Heaven.

Once I was old enough to do such things on my own, Kiki informed me, I could get christened by a priest and become a Catholic like herself. Then, I too would be loved by God, Mary, their boy Jesus, the pigeon, and all the saints and angels. Then I too could aspire to ending my days in Heaven rather than among the Jews whom I had come to picture as riding sweaty trolleys through eternity.

And if terminal illness should befall me before the age of self-determination, Kiki assured me she was authorized to christen me herself. Against this eventuality, I learned the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Act of Contrition, all of which I recited fervently at bedtime.

I would attend mass with Kiki, say the rosary she lent me, and feel the benevolence of God as He looked down on us from his special perch over the altar. He had his head inclined to one side, which I saw as an expression of kindly concern for our well-being. That he had no clothes on, I took as some sign of purity that, with maturity, I would come to understand.

What I did come to understand was that this was just a statue of God that somebody had made out of stone, like the one of Frederick Chopin in the park. But at the same time that it was only a carved statue, it was also God because God was everywhere. The fact that it was a carved statue and, at the same time, God, who could hear our prayers and our praise of him, was a mystery, which I was very proud that I appreciated. I wondered how many other children my age understood such deep things—certainly not my Jewish cousins.

Then Kiki introduced me to the real world. That was not even God up there, she said, but his other son Big Jesus. And that wasn't a special perch, but a cross he had been nailed to. And it was we, Jews, who had nailed him there.

Now I understood everything. I understood why God didn't allow Jews into Heaven. And I despaired that I happened to have been born one of them. Because questioning God's actions was arrogance of immense proportions, I willed myself into not wondering why God had consigned my soul to a Jewish existence when he could have so easily had me born into a Catholic family. But it was fortunate that I had as my governess someone like Kiki who could eventually bring me into the circle of God's love.

Sin, or rather the lack of it, I understood to be another ingredient in the scheme of things. Catholics, I learned, could get their sins absolved through confession followed by communion. But since this therapy was not available to me, sinning was something I simply had to avoid if I didn't want to end up riding sweaty trolleys.

There were two occasions on which I came close to damning my immortal soul. One was when, for what reason I don't know, I insisted on putting on my blue woolen sailor suit for our daily trip to the park instead of the one Kiki had selected. After an exchange in which Kiki told me the day was much too hot for such a costume, she totally surprised me by not overruling me, but letting me have my way. Walking to the
park and sweating from the heat, I felt as though I had broken all Ten Commandments at one blow. If deep contrition could eventually neutralize sin, I must have stored up credit for ten years of debauchery in that one walk.

The other occasion involved the proper replacement of my toys in the space beside the cupboard in our room. Apparently I had not conformed to code and, after reprimanding me, Kiki got down on all fours to make order out of my chaos between the cupboard and the exterior wall.

On sudden impulse, I laid both hands against her bathrobed backside and pushed. Kiki's head banged against the wall in front of her. I was immediately wracked with guilt, though for some reason this act did not have as heavy an impact on my conscience as the issue of the wool sailor suit.

Then there was the terrible secret. This was not a moral issue, but a medical one. It appeared that the smooth, reddish skin on the tip of the organ through which I urinated and which we called my birdie, had the property of causing insanity if touched beyond what was necessary for elimination and hygiene.

“Touching your birdie will make you crazy,” I was told. Since this had not been presented in a morals context, but simply as a medical fact, I did not associate the act in any way with Heaven and trolley cars. But lying in bed at night, I simply could not resist slipping my hand below the covers for momentary contact of one fingertip with that dangerous organ. Some day, I knew, as no one else did, I would be as crazy as my Uncle Benek who, must have done the same thing in his youth.

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